Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Mute Samurai episode 1




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Shintaro Katsu (Manji), Judy Ong (Okiku), Eisei Amamoto (Priest)

Directed by Shintaro Katsu

Kiichi Hogan is the son of the righteous Yanagida Toemon, a murdered magistrate in Nagasaki. Eighteen years prior, Kiichi's father was killed for refusing to abide with drug trafficking and other illegal activities. With his parents murdered, and his fiancee raped in front of him by a Spaniard named Gonzales, Kiichi survived the ordeal and grew up to become a bounty hunter. Now, Kiichi roams the crime-ridden villages and cities of Japan in search of Gonzales to exact revenge.

Rescuing an old man and his daughter, Kiichi then saves a Catholic priest from certain death. Out of gratitude, the priest asks Kiichi to stay at the convent for a time. During his stay, the bounty hunter discovers the priest is part of a syndicate of criminals secretly using the church to smuggle opium into Edo.

Opening with a decapitation in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm, we are introduced to the silent samurai, Kiichi Hogan. Narrator Mutsumi Goro then gives us a brief rundown of who our title sword-slinger is, and how he came to his sorrowful predicament.Thus begins our silent ronin on his road to revenge.

Having previously directed himself in the 24th entry of his famous Zatoichi series, ZATOICHI IN DESPERATION (1972), Shintaro Katsu now directs his brother in the inaugural episode of this often shockingly violent television series. Katsu emulates Kenji Misumi's style in depicting a barren, brutal world ruled by sadism and corruption, but on a TV budget. Shades of Misumi's BABY CART series are present, although Wakayama is essaying a different sort of character here. Famed Japanese director Hideo Gosha wrote the story; and if you're a fan of Italian westerns, you'll quickly recognize our title mute as a Japanese version of Jean-Louise Trintignant's Silence from Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).

The entire tone of THE MUTE SAMURAI (and its subsequent episodes) have the same gloom and doom atmosphere of Corbucci's movie. It's steeped in violence. If you stick with this series, you'll notice it gets even more hopeless as it goes on.

The dialog and characterization are minimal, but Wakayama is center-stage the entire time. He either uses sign language to communicate, or writes it down on paper. We do hear his voice at the end as someone reads a note he's left behind. Setting himself apart from other wandering warriors, Kiichi has a compact rearview mirror hidden inside his hat. His character is expounded upon by way of the adorable Okiku (Chinese actress Judy Ong). There's some nice moments of poignancy between Kiichi and the young girl, but an alleviation of the downbeat atmosphere never comes. A little dog is also introduced, and you're left wondering just how long it will be before the cute fellow comes to a bad end.

Katsu himself has a supporting role as the mysterious Manji (in above pic at left). Over the course of the series, you learn more about his character and why he's following Kiichi. He doesn't do much here, but shares a few scenes with his younger brother. Wakayama co-starred with Katsu in two Zatoichi movies during the Daiei years. These were THE TALE OF ZATOICHI CONTINUES (1962) and ZATOICHI AND THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964).

Fans of quirky character actor Eisei Amamoto will find him in familiar territory here as the disgraceful man of the cloth. Some of his works include the witch in SAMURAI PIRATE (THE LOST WORLD OF SINBAD), Dr. Who in KING KONG ESCAPES (1968) and the kindly toymaker in GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969).

For Wakayama, The BABY CART series will likely remain the most well known Chambara series on North American shores. THE MUTE SAMURAI has much of the same feeling of that groundbreaking series. It's not as splattery as those movies, but it goes places, and depicts violence on a level you could never get away with on American television. Katsu gets things off to a nice start for a series that gets better, but one that also sinks further into despair that may depress the hell out of some viewers.

To be continued in episode 2: A SILENT PRAYER FOR A LITTLE BOY!!!

You can purchase volume 1 HERE.

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