Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Mute Samurai Episode 4




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Ebara Shinjiro (Odagiri Jokichi/Muira Shinjiro), Mori Kikue (Lady Boss), Eiji Go (Senpachi)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Masuda

Kiichi Hogan wanders into a new town and takes down a wanted poster for Muira Shinjiro. While having a drink, a woman named Yuki informs the bounty hunter that Shinjiro killed her brother and she wants revenge. Allegedly hiding out in the town of Sakai -- a small island community accessible via a small bridge. Populated by ruffians and fugitives lorded over by an elderly woman, Hogan searches for his quarry; but for reasons associated with finding Gonzales as opposed to collecting a bounty. Upon discovering Shinjiro's identity, Hogan learns of a conspiracy tying the man to the death of Yuki's brother and the Shimazu Clan. 

Yasuda returns for his second directorial assignment of this series, and it has a bit more going on than his first go round. So far, 'A Bridge to the Dark World' is the most intricately plotted episode up to this point. There are a few different strands bandied about in the script, and the only one of great importance is the furthering of Wakayama's character. A bit more emotion shines through; and even a great deal more erupts in the next episode. However, it starts to become apparent that Hogan cares more about getting information on Gonzales than the actual bounties for those connected to him in some way.

Another strand covered here is one that has been consistent since episode one -- the permeation of criminality among the poor and the meek. There seems to always be at least one person who is forced, or falls into crime simply out of the need to survive. Drug smuggling is the constant, as is a sense of anti-western sentiment in this series. That applies here, as does an exploration of "mistaken identity". The thin line between the good guys and the bad guys remains a noticeable trend in THE MUTE SAMURAI.

The Honor Among Thieves mantra embraced by the Yakuza is prevalent here as well; and in one surprise moment, it supersedes familial ties when one of the thugs betrays his own. 

This entry has little action till the end, but it's quite a good finale capped off with a duel between Hogan and the real villain of the piece. Wakayama is very powerful here. At the beginning, he kills a man with a single kick; later slings one poor sap clear across a room; and puts his knife throwing skills to good use. The finale against a gang of samurai who lay siege to a shed where the main protagonists are trapped is a highlight.

Eiji Go (see above) has a supporting role as one of the island thugs. He keeps the brutality toned down, though; in comparison to his works for Toei. Eiji Go played some true scumbags, and had the look for it. He features in movies like ZERO WOMAN: RED HANDCUFFS (1974), and films with Sonny Chiba such as fan favorite THE EXECUTIONER (1974) and its sequel from the same year just to name a few.

The camera placement and some photographic shots elevate moments in the show, yet again. This fourth episode begins -- as the others before it did -- with Kiichi either hunting, or being hunted by enemies. The opening for this one once more has an apocalyptic feel. Presumably this was the intention of both Katsu and (by this time, producer) Wakayama to get that sort of atmosphere across considering the gloomy nature of their series.

THE MUTE SAMURAI really picks up some serious steam in the next episode that will shock some, and possibly be a deal breaker for a few viewers for its violence alone. This stark, downbeat series is just starting to find its footing, and it only gets better from here.

You can purchase volume 2 HERE. It contains episodes three and four.

To be continued in episode 5: THE FATEFUL ENCOUNTER!!!

The Mute Samurai Episode 3




Tomisaburo Wakayama (Kiichi Hogan), Hama Yuko (O-ran), Tsuyama Toshiko (Shino), Wada Koji (Inokichi), Kato Yoshi (Village Master)

Directed by Kenji Misumi

Hogan is trans-porting a wanted criminal when he's informed that Gonzales was seen at the Missho-Ji Temple within the past year. In a nearby village, a drought has kept the wells dry and the locals nearly broke and desperate for fresh water. A group of bloodthirsty killers have over-run the nearby Missho-Ji Temple -- the only place for miles that has a liquid surplus. There they control the sacred wells, and keep the water for themselves. A swordsman is begged, and paid to travel there to retrieve the use of the wells back to the villagers. Easily defeated, the heartless swordsman joins the gang instead. The thugs, led by the ferocious female O-ran, terrorize and murder the townsfolk, and kidnap the women. Hogan is then engendered to enter the fray and help the destitute farmers.

One of samurai cinemas greatest directors displays his notable flair, and penchant for solemnity in this overly savage episode. The Italian western influence is in abundance here with the absolute ugliest looking bunch of barbarians this side of a Leone-Corbucci movie. The villains are truly despicable, and the make-up given the actors playing them truly make them look the part.

The samurai they initially hire to help them is a scumbag right from the start. First, their money offer is too small; then he insults, and forces a man from his house while demanding his wife entertain him for the night! Of course, this situation leads to a bad end. To make matters worse, this ignoble, contemptible rapist takes the money and sides with the vile thugs holding all the water. By the time Hogan enters the picture, the peasant villagers want no part of outsiders. While Hogan intends to help anyways, his true purpose is to gain more information as to the whereabouts of that wily Spaniard, Gonzales.

Covered in a wig and sweat, Riki Harada has a small role as a captured criminal being transported by Hogan during the opening sequence. We don't learn much about him, but apparently he's a gang boss as Hogan is ambushed by a band of killers that are quickly put down by his blade. Among his credits include the Shaw Brothers production, HEROES OF THE EAST (1978).

The fight choreo mix things up a bit. Swords are drawn, but Wakayama also indulges in some hand-to-hand. At one point, he gouges a man's eyes out and is seen brandishing metal forearm plates similar to those Chiba wore in his bonebreaking classic, THE STREET FIGHTER (1974).

The actors and drama aside, the photography and editing are some of the best so far. The viewer can almost feel the sweltering heat emanating from the screen. The opening sequence captures a barren, burned landscape that Kiichi crosses undaunted to his destination. The probing camera lingers on the cracked earth and crumbling architecture of languishing structures left to rot in the pounding rays of the sun. THE MUTE SAMURAI is a series notable for its sense of hopelessness, and Misumi's episode is a sterling example of this.

Isao Tomita's music has been of high quality since episode one, and it continues here. It's an unusual score, but recalls those of the BABY CART series. At times mixing experimental with traditional Japanese soundscapes, a thick element of doom is embedded within Tomita's compositions.

With nearly the entire episode reveling in the decadent brutality of the villains (led by a woman, no less!), the shows numerous grotesqueries overpower the viewer, rescuing their sensibilities with a coda that inspires a bit of Judeo-Christian mysticism. By comparison, DUNE from 1984 has a virtually identical ending. Kiichi Hogan is the messiah this oppressed village has hoped for; and once the evil is eradicated, not only do the townsfolk get their water supply back, but rain inexplicably pours down, soaking the once dry earth. It's a great capper to a show not prone to happy endings, yet the last moments do not fully escape a flicker of pessimism.

This episode can't be recommended highly enough. It totally represents the atmosphere this series strives for while promoting an apocalyptic vista in an area where water is prized over everything else. In approximately 47 minutes, Kenji Misumi creates a cruel world dominated by heathens and miscreants; and one near mythical savior who brings life back to a hamlet of benevolent farmers.

Volume 2 containing episodes three and four can be purchased HERE.

To be continued in episode 4: A BRIDGE TO THE DARK WORLD!!!

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