The brainchild of renowned Japanese cinema director, Gosha Hideo, THE MUTE SAMURAI is a series that debuted on October 7th, 1973 and wrapped up its 26 episode run on March 31st, 1974. Italian westerns had long been popular in Japan. The Euro variants -- once they broke away from replicating the American western template -- took much inspiration from Samurai Cinema. The feeling was mutual, of course, as the Japanese began returning the favor in their own films.
Reportedly, Katsu and Gosha were enamored with Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE (1968) and attempted to wrangle the rights to remake it. Unfortunately, they were outbid by Clint Eastwood who ultimately did nothing with the property. Undaunted, the two forged ahead with a similar, if disparate Japanese equivalent. The Italian films relentlessly unpleasant atmosphere and sadistic tone didn't endear itself to audiences in most territories it played; and Gosha tapped into this with his Nipponese treatment of Corbucci's original story.
THE MUTE SAMURAI tells the tale of Kiichi Hogan (real name Yanagida Kennosuke) and his journey to find the Spaniard that took the life of his parents, his fiance's virginity, and his power of speech 18 years prior. Throughout his trek across Japan, Hogan, now a bounty hunter, amasses his fortune by cutting down his country's most wanted. Along the way, he runs into people he once knew, and or loved; becomes conflicted with whether or not his choices are morally right; and finally meets up with his nemesis, Gonzales.
In comparison with its European source material, THE MUTE SAMURAI is a series about misery and death -- lots of it. Very few episodes have a happy ending; and some of those that do, the so-called upbeat finale generally comes at a cost. Some episodes have a gut-wrenching sense of hopelessness while others have a perceived sense of hope that is pulled out from under you like a rug by the end. An ambiance of dread dominates; and it's this gloomy, sludge-like aroma that makes THE MUTE SAMURAI such an immersive experience.
The photography further evokes this apocalyptic feel with numerous shots in and around desolate locations such as barren mountain regions, craggy rock quarry's, and desert-like terrain. And like THE GREAT SILENCE, there's also episodes drenched in rain, steeped in snow, and drowned in mud.
Gosha's original story is a spectacular, if forebodingly melancholic assimilation of Corbucci's work. Another writer by the name of Kanda Takeshi contributed to the Demon Magistrate mythology -- yet it's unknown how much input he had, or what his additions to the story actually were. Kanda again worked with Katsu's production company on his bizarre HANZO, THE RAZOR series that began in 1974.
THE SAMURAI SPIRIT OF WAKAYAMA TOMISABURO
"He is neither alive nor dead. Cutting off all tender human feelings, burning with his one desire for revenge. Keeping his personal misfortune deep within his heart, The Silent Samurai, Kiichi Hogan presses onward."
Famous actor Wakayama Tomisaburo (born Okumura Masaru) had been a popular attraction in Japan for over a decade before he donned the straw hat and poncho for THE MUTE SAMURAI. He'd appeared as a one armed swordsman in the first Zatoichi sequel -- a series made internationally famous by his younger brother, Katsu Shintaro. In that same series of films, Wakayama played one of the main villains in the fourth Zato production. The actor accrued numerous credits starring in big series' such as the SHINOBI NO MONO films and SLEEPY EYES OF DEATH pictures. He also starred in two different versions of the oft-filmed, and influential GHOST OF YOTSUYA in 1956 and 1961.
By the late 1960s, he was headlining his own string of films such as the five part WICKED PRIEST series and the trilogy of SHOKIN KASEGI (BOUNTY HUNTER) movies. The latter title became a television series itself in 1975 with Wakayama reprising his role of Ichibei Shikoro. Mind you, Wakayama headlined, or co-starred in other jidageki, yakuza and exploitation pictures throughout his career too numerous to mention.
He found his greatest international fame with his interpretation of Ogami Itto, the Shogunate Decapitator seen in the New World release, SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980); or, more accurately, the BABY CART (LONE WOLF & CUB) series that began with 1972s SWORD OF VENGEANCE and continued with five sequels that ended rather abruptly in 1974. Ironically enough, the BABY CART movies were not big moneymakers in their native Japan. The two brothers were alleged to have been frequently at odds with one another over money. Wakayama wanted to make glossy, bigger budgeted adventures, and Katsu wanted to keep the budgets as low and modest as possible. The elder was thinking of the bigger picture while the younger was thinking of the bottom line. Still, this personality, and or business clash produced some fine works that both men could be proud of on the big and small screen.
Reportedly, one of the battles the brothers fought was over whether or not to make the move into the lower budgeted arena of television. While audiences abandoned the movie theaters for free TV at home, Katsu moved towards the latter while his older brother wanted to stay on course with the former. Since it was Wakayama who had urged his brother to purchase the LW&C rights from manga writer Kazuo Koike, its subsequent theatrical failure coupled with the huge small screen success of the LONE WOLF television series must have been a serious blow to Wakayama. The sad end to the offscreen side of the BABY CART saga is, that all these years later, Yorozuya Kinnosuke (Nakamura Kinnosuke prior to the Lone Wolf TV series) is the actor most closely associated with the live-action version of Kazuo's creation in its native Japan. In America, the opposite applies; yet, even with a healthy fan base, the six film series remains a cult commodity that, unfortunately, overshadows Wakayama's numerous other cinematic contributions.
Tragically, after suffering a heart attack while having dinner with his brother Katsu and his wife, Nakamura Tamao, Wakayama Tomisaburo would die at hospital of acute heart failure on April 2nd, 1992. Having lived a rather colorful life filled with drinking, drugs, and dozens of memorable roles, the actor who played the stoic Ogami Itto, Kiichi Hogan and many others was but 62 when he died.
THE TEN BEST MUTE SAMURAI EPISODES 1-5
1. Episode 3: The Dangerous Highway
Misumi's first entry sees a ruthless gang of killers oppress an entire village during a devastating drought. It's the only episode where a female is the leader of a vicious band of marauders. A simple tale executed to perfection and filled with memorably villainous faces.
2. Episode 5: The Fateful Encounter
Wakayama steps behind the camera the first of two times in arguably the grimmest episode of the series. He attempts to scale a mountain to save a dozen women and children who are being held hostage by a gang of young, and blood-thirsty anarchists. The first appearance of Hogan's former fiance Kikuno.
3. Episode 8: The Capture at the Stream
A woman delivering a secret scroll is pursued by ruthless ninja spies. Kiichi Hogan lends his sword to ensure the woman reaches her destination. This is a classic 'chase' episode filled with action and one of the most powerfully somber final scenes of the entire run. The first of two episodes to feature nude scenes. Perennial villain, Mikio Narita is a dominating presence as Fujimaki Samon.
4. Episode 9: The Girl With the Blue Eyes
Demon Hogan follows a little red-haired Caucasian girl who has befriended the leader of a band of pirates in this unusually upbeat programmer from Kenji Misumi. There's still a downer element at the finish, but otherwise a rare "feel good" MS episode.
5. Episode 10: A Widow's Strength
A widowed woman's escort company comes under fire from a rival, less than honorable delivery company. Hogan's services are sought by both. Lots of trouble ensues. This episode is especially noteworthy in that Katsu's wife (Nakamura Tamao) plays the title widow. Pay attention to the finale because it will formulate the backstory of a later episode.
***A huge thanks to Michael Reid for providing additional information on Wakayama and Katsu.***
THE MUTE SAMURAI episode guide begins HERE
THIS SERIES OVERVIEW TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2.