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Monday, December 9, 2013

The Mute Samurai Series Overview Part 2

Wakayama wears the role of Kiichi Hogan like a glove. It fits him beautifully, and gives him a unique opportunity to display his acting range. Despite lacking the power of speech, the actor handles the part brilliantly -- effectively harnessing an array of emotions with subtle facial expressions and body language. He shows a great deal of versatility here that goes a long way in making the viewer curious about what the next episode will bring.

The actor doesn't excel in the acting department alone -- he wholeheartedly convinces in the action department as well. This should come as no surprise considering Wakayama's extensive theater and martial arts background; and he puts his sword skills, as well as some powerful hand-to-hand combat to good use here. The series went through a few different choreographers, but Kusumoto Eiichi stayed on board the longest. Well known stuntman Shishido Daizen also worked on the show.

With this being a Japanese version of THE GREAT SILENCE (1968), the Italian western accouterments wouldn't be complete without guns. Kiichi Hogan first uses a gun in episode six, 'A Whirlwind of Blood'. At the beginning of the show, a group of samurai approach him as he stands atop a sand dune. Once they get within sword reach, Hogan pokes the barrel of a pistol through his poncho and kills them all. By episode 17, a gun becomes a regular addition to the bounty hunter's arsenal.

Demon Hogan had a couple other add-ons that made his character distinctive, and different from the Silence character essayed by John-Louis Trintignant in the '68 Italian movie. Inside his straw hat there was hidden a rearview mirror. Occasionally he'd flip down this mirror to see who was following, or approaching his direction. It's a neat little gadget, but isn't really needed because he senses those nearby, anyways. The other is a small Akita puppy that acts as his trusted companion. The little fellow mainly just looks cute and adds an extra dimension to Kiichi's emotional side. Once in a while the pup helps out in a small way. He's never given a name.

The show isn't perfect, of course. The low budget is apparent at times, and the series seems to run out of steam towards the finish line. The last episode for instance will likely divide the fans. It's both refreshing and frustrating in how the show wraps up. But there's a bigger problem the series encounters. As often is the case in Asian movies, little care is put into the casting of Anglo actors. Some of them deliver their lines convincingly, but when the script calls for them to participate in the action, these episodes are woefully crippled. The camera is always as tight on the foreign actors as possible to cover up their sword slinging deficiencies; and this even makes Hogan and others seem weak at times. It makes one wonder why they didn't just use a stuntman in wide shots and use the actor for close ups. But then, this would go back to Katsu's insistence in keeping the budgets low and getting the required shots as quickly as possible.

There are also some anachronisms to be found. Kiichi's fascination with guns begins with episode 17; and his choice of firearm is a colt .45. The setting of THE MUTE SAMURAI takes place towards the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the Bakumatsu Era), so this model of revolver Kiichi uses hadn't surfaced yet. Still, it mirrors Silence's exotic handgun -- a Mauser -- from Corbucci's movie this series bases its storyline on. Silence had a unique gun as does Kiichi Hogan -- a few years too early.

Aside from our lead bounty hunter, there's a bounty of recurring characters who crop up occasionally. These include Hogan's fiance from his younger years, Kikuno (Matsuo Kayo). Her character is one of the more dynamic arcs of the series. The character of Tokaiya Shinbei (Oki Minoru) figures into the plot on a few occasions mainly to set up Kiichi's attempts to sail for Spain. The character of O-Kiku (Judy Ongg) is a key proponent in one episode, but her appearance later in the series adds nothing. The character of O-Ran (Hama Yuko) is better served appearing first as a villainess, before turning up in a later episode having change her lifestyle. Manji (Katsu Shintaro) is the best, most oft seen recurring character. He's introduced as this mysterious, Zorro-like character who leaves his mark wherever he goes. We soon find out Manji serves an even bigger purpose, on multiple levels, as the series progresses.

Tomita Isao's score for THE MUTE SAMURAI is mesmerizing. His apocalyptic, sonic assaults are reminiscent of his work on Toho's PROPHECIES OF NOSTRADAMUS from 1974. His musical stylings suit this powerfully downbeat show. The composer also added an incredibly catchy theme song that debuted at the end of episode five, 'The Fateful Encounter'. With lyrics by Yasui Kazumi, 'Chased By Loneliness' was sang by Katsu Shintaro. Beginning with episode six, this song replaced the music-only number that played over the credits of episodes one through five. Katsu also sang an additional interlude heard only in episode thirteen, 'A Dark-Haired Human Sacrifice'. By episode fifteen, 'The Bounty Hunters Who Vanished', Tomita Isao introduced an Italian western influenced whistling theme. It, too, is very catchy. This whistling cue dominates the remainder of the series.

For a show with a mood like THE MUTE SAMURAI, it's a no-brainer that veteran doom and gloom director Kenji Misumi would be around to helm some episodes. Having worked with virtually every big name in Japanese cinema, Misumi's resume is judiciously filled out with one classic after another. From his unique B/W version of GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959); to THE TALE OF ZATOICHI (1962); to the bulk of the LONE WOLF & CUB films; and his last movie before his death, THE LAST SAMURAI (1974), Misumi's signature is found on five MUTE SAMURAI episodes that are as varied as they are engaging.

Wakayama himself goes behind the camera for two exemplar episodes -- numbers 5 and 19. Watching his only efforts as a director in his long career makes one wonder why he didn't do more of it. He's better than some of his contemporaries. The late actor/martial artist had an eye for camera placement and building suspense and drama that likely stemmed from his Kabuki background. Both of his episodes do this, and both are diametrically opposite from one another. The former is about as brutal as you can get with its child killings and political subtext. The latter is more story oriented and touching, but contains some depressing, if dramatic moments of poignancy. The actor was obviously quite taken with his star vehicle. He operated in other capacities behind the scenes on this series.


Katsu, having previously directed the violent ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972), proved to be an efficient director in his own right. However, comparing his work to his brother, Wakayama was not only the better martial artist, but also the better filmmaker in this writers opinion. Katsu stepped behind the camera for the first (and his only) episode of THE MUTE SAMURAI to get things started. He continued to direct in television sporadically throughout the decade, most notably in his own Zatoichi TV series.

By the late 1970s, he seemed to prefer drinking, gambling, and scandals to the film and television medium. This is around the time his antics (getting fired by Kurosawa on KAGEMUSHA) and scandals (opium possession arrest) became widely reported. This led to mountains of debt that forced the closing of Katsu Productions in 1991. Prior to this, Shochiku helped Katsu get out one last Zato adventure with the single titled ZATOICHI in 1989. This picture wasn't free of scandal, though, as a stuntman was killed during a swordfighting sequence involving Katsu's son, Ryutaro Gan. Once Katsu Prod. closed, the actor re-christened it Katsu Promotions and signed over the back catalog to one of his mistresses, a bar owner; but the monetary value of the series alone wasn't enough to cover his debts. Reportedly, he owed her a lot of money as well. The actor had multiple arrests throughout his career, and, like his older brother, was a heavy drinker and drug user. Having refused operations for the cancer he had, the much beloved actor, Katsu Shintaro passed away in July of 1997.

In America, Wakayama was, and will likely remain best known for Ogami Itto while his brother was, and remains firmly established as Zatoichi. Neither man headlined a foreign film, but Wakayama did appear in two American movies -- THE BAD NEWS BEARS GO TO JAPAN (1978) and BLACK RAIN (1989). He played a Baseball coach in the former and a Yakuza boss in the latter.

Katsu, too, had an opportunity in the North American market (albeit a missed one) in the late 70s when Dennis Hopper enticed David Geffen with the idea of a western shot Zatoichi movie. But after Katsu was flown to the States, both he and Hopper went on an alcohol and drug binge that soured Geffen on the deal; and kept Zatoichi from making the cinematic trek to America.

Katsu Productions began in 1967 co-producing ZATOICHI THE OUTLAW with Daiei -- the company that had been the birthplace of the wildly popular blind masseur. Daiei filed for bankruptcy in 1971 prompting Toho to step in and co-produce a few Zat pictures with Katsu's company. This led to a collaboration on the BABY CART and HANZO series'. This was around the time that audiences in Japan were staying home to watch for free what they would be paying to see in theaters. Changes had to be made, and Japanese cinema got crazy (not that it wasn't already skirting the edges of insanity and depravity). At the time, Japanese TV shows could get away with a level of violence and nudity that would never fly on American television.

Katsu's company went solo for THE MUTE SAMURAI and the Zatoichi TV series -- which proved to be a ratings success spanning 100 episodes between 1974 and 1979. The closure of the company (discussed above) was a black spot on Katsu's legacy, but it did lead to the Kitano ZATOICHI (2002) movie after he and Warner Brothers Japan bought the property from his mistress.


6. Episode 11: Two Brothers in a Raging Sea

Hogan is framed for murder while attempting to charter a ship to Spain to pursue Gonzales. A very busy episode with lots of cliffhangers including a major revelation surrounding Kiichi Hogan (Yanagida Kennosuke) and Manji. Hogan is put in mortal danger. The best episode of the few to feature evil Spaniards.

7. Episode 13: A Dark-Haired Human Sacrifice

This episode is notable for revisiting Hogan's prior relationship with Kikuno who was last seen in episode 5. It expands on Wakayama's character, and is another highly dramatic program. It's integral to the series in that it's a turning point for Hogan's emotional aperture as he drifts further away from merely collecting money to see his vendetta through.

8. Episode 16: Manji, Once Again

Our man Hogan is in dark Zatoichi mode teaming up with Manji to protect both a young girl carrying vital information, and a prostitute with a heart of gold who can expose an illegal drug smuggling ring between corrupt Japanese officials and Spanish traders. Effects artist and DAIMAJIN (1966) director Yasuda Kimiyoshi is at the helm.

9. Episode 17: The Peak of Darkness

The Demon Magistrate is tasked with corralling a Templar style religious cult. The episode is unique in that Kiichi Hogan never uses his sword; instead using a colt .45 revolver the entire time! For several episodes onward, the Italian western influence is unmistakable. Hogan's use of a gun becomes more prevalent from here on out.

10. Episode 22: A Lad and a Vendetta

Masao Kobayashi's best of his three directed episodes finds Hogan taking on a much younger acolyte eager to learn sword fighting. A familiar tale told with a great deal of panache. Another powerful finale closes out this sorrowful episode.

While they may have butted heads at regular intervals, this combination of artistic vision paired with a businessman approach seemed to bring out both the best, and the beast in both men. Their fans have dozens of enormously entertaining films to see for the first time, or revisit multiple times over; and many more left to discover. As for THE MUTE SAMURAI, it's a superlative 26 episode run of Chambara excellence featuring two of Japanese cinemas biggest, and most beloved actors in top form. Both men deliver in front of, and behind the camera. It's Wakayama's show all the way, and those who enjoy his work are in for a treat.

Chased by Loneliness lyrics

At a branch of the willow tree
Knowing that even in Spring
The heart of the journey
Shall forever proceed
Down aimless 100 'ri' roads
More vast than this world
One man goes in sympathy
Even toward the battle
For at the back of a lonely man
The harsh wind blows


***A huge thanks to Michael Reid for providing additional information on Wakayama and Katsu.***

THE MUTE SAMURAI episode guide begins HERE.

1 comment:

venoms5 said... is offering the complete MUTE SAMURAI series for $100 shipping for the month of December. That's a 62% savings. The single disc releases are on sale too for 37% off.

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