OSHI SAMURAI KIICHI HOGAN (THE MUTE SAMURAI)
Episode 5: THE FATEFUL ENCOUNTER (RUTEN NO MEGURI AI) ****
Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Kayo Matsuo (Kikuno)
Directed by Tomisaburo Wakayama
Having previously been informed Gonzales is no longer in Japan, Hogan rides to Shimoda to sail to Spain. On his way there, he's compelled to rescue a group of twelve women and children being held hostage atop a mountain by a motley crew of young, angry samurai who call themselves the Fujinto Group. Demanding a ransom of 5,000 ryo ($750,000US) within a days time, the mad swordsmen show no mercy in killing any, or all of their captives. Kiichi Hogan tries desperately to climb the steep precipice to save as many of the hostages as possible.
Star and producer of this series, Tomisaburo Wakayama steps behind the camera to direct himself in the best episode next to Misumi's entry. The actor totally knocks it out of the park, expertly conveying the grim essence of THE MUTE SAMURAI. Every emotional faculty is squeezed dry in the allotted 47 minutes. From the opening scene of a child being shot in the head (the first of many), to the final tear-filled moment, 'The Fateful Encounter' grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go.
There's so much going on in this episode, it's a miracle Wakayama was able to wring the amount of exposition and emotion out of all the principals as he does. He does a remarkable job in what seems to be his first, and last turn as a director. If true, it's a shame as he shows himself to be just as masterful guiding actors as he is guiding his sword onscreen.
Firstly, the subject matter will possibly put some viewers off. A number of children are gunned down at point blank range, or pushed off a mountain only to die on the rocks below. The disgusting architect of this savagery is the heartless, emotionless Morishita Ikuma. Leading what he calls the Fujinto Group, Ikuma and his band are essentially an angry mob of anarchists hellbent on toppling the government and eradicating what he sees as corruption. Apparently, executing women and children is his way of starting what amounts to a senseless revolution.
This sort of storyline mirrored much of the turmoil going on around the world at the time. The 1970s was a time of social unrest that had breached seemingly every corner of the globe. Bombings, kidnappings and murders were commonplace. This sort of modern day barbarism is reflective of the chaos that took place during the tumultuous Tokugawa era THE MUTE SAMURAI is set in.
The scriptwriters (there are two this time) go all out with the operatic nuances piling the dramatic moments so high and thick, it would be parody if the material weren't so vicious. Among these is the inevitable reunion between former lovers Hogan and Kukino. On top of that, it's quickly learned that the vile Morishita Ikuma is Kukino's brother! Kiichi's real name, Kennosuke, is also unveiled to us.
Wakayama's title dark hero has been portrayed as seemingly invincible. That all changes here. For the first time, Kiichi Hogan is put in some serious mortal danger. Overcome with sentiment for the endangered hostages, the bounty hunters haste gets him a bullet in the chest. As Hogan lies on the mountainside digging out the bullet, the magistrate's men are gunned down as they, too, try to climb what is ostensibly the Japanese equivalent of Hamburger Hill.
Reportedly, Wakayama put himself in very real danger while shooting this episode. It's obvious he's performing some dangerous stunts here, particularly during the climbing shots on this treacherous mountain. It's also in this entry that we really get a feel for Hogan as a human being. He loves children. His voiceover at the beginning alerts us to this; and it becomes glaringly apparent later on as he desperately tries to save just one of the kids being executed. There are no feel-good moments in this episode at all. Even the meeting between Hogan and Kikuno is not a happy occasion.
Hogan's ambivalence towards his former fiancee is striking. We've seen flashbacks of her in every episode till now, so this reunion is unexpectedly bittersweet to say the least. He makes eye contact with Kikuno, but nothing else. He doesn't even free her from her bonds! Presumably, his determination to find Gonzales at all costs has taken precedence over anything else. But then, his name means 'demon', so most likely there's no room in his heart for the love of a woman.
Isao Tomita's music matches the barren mountain regions the bulk of the show takes place on. Bordering on progressive tones, the synth cues hint at a slight rock sound that would eventually dominate later Japanese shows and movies eventually morphing into pop-rock ballad beats by the 1980s. Tomita's music is amazing, and continues to fit this series like a glove.
This is a brilliant episode. It's unusually violent, and overwhelmingly depressing. It perfectly captures the look and feel of its original source -- THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) -- and famed director Hideo Gosha's original story has flawlessly transposed that films despair to a samurai setting. Spaniards re-enter the storyline with episode six, but Gonzales continues to prove elusive. The dismal, melancholic ambiance remains out in the open.
You can purchase volume 3 HERE. It contains episodes five and six.
To be continued in episode 6: A WHIRLWIND OF BLOOD!!!