Baian: The Assassin is one of a many interpretations of a character created by novelist Shotaro Ikenami (Hunter in the Dark), one of Japan's leading action writers. The character of Baian Fujieda is a humble, Edo-era acupuncturist by day and a deadly assassin at night who uses his skill with a needle to dispose of his victims. The most famous series in the early 70's starred Ken Ogata (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters). As best I can figure (imdb was no help, go figure), this particular series was made in the early eighties. This collection of two telefilms stars Ken Watanabe, who would go on to fame in Japan for his tv roles and great stateside success in films like The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, and Memoirs of a Geisha.
It should be noted that several sites incorrectly announced that this release was going to be from the Ken Ogata era. When I read that, I got all schoolgirl giddy. Then, I saw the pre-release art and realized that was not Ken Ogata on the cover. No disrespect to Ken Watanabe, who has a wonderful presence, is a great actor, and is perhaps the sole reason this DVD release is worthwhile, but he is no Ken Ogata.
The first episode on this release (clocking in at around an hour and half) does a good job introducing Baian and describing, via narrator voice over, the particulars of the assassins trade. For instance, the person who hires an assassin is called an okuri, and the go-between from the okuri to the assassin (so the instigator is left anonymous) is called a motojime. Obviously an assassin must really trust his motojime and be assured that if his motijime accepts an assignment it must be a justified one where the target deserves death. We also meet Baian's mistress O-mon, his plucky old granny of an assistant, and his confidant, friend, and elder fellow assassin Hikojiro, a toothpick maker who's assassin skill is using a blowgun.
In the first episode, a case of mistaken identity and coincidence lead Baian into a poisoning conspiracy. Baian turns down an assignment to kill a candle maker. However, after Baian is almost attacked by a young samurai, he investigates the matter and finds out that the samurai was trying to kill a certain doctor that the samurai believes poisoned a whore to whom he swore he would seek out revenge. This doctor's buddy just so happens to be the candle maker Baian was given the chance to assassinate. With Hikojiro's help, Baian tries to uncover the duo's dirty business and aide the young samurai in fulfilling his promise while steering him away from taking on the life of an assassin.
In the second episode (this one a shorter hour and twelve minutes), Baian asks for Hikojiro's assistance with a job, but, to his surprise, his friend seems distracted and turns him down. By a matter of chance they are both traveling in the same direction and Hikojiro reveals the reason behind his behavior. In his former life, Hikojiro was a happily married man running a small eatery with his wife and newborn child. A foursome of rogue ronin called The Poisonous Vipers came into his shop, beat him, and raped his wife, which so damaged her she killed herself and their child. Hikojiro believes he has found one of them, now under an assumed name, and intends to kill him. But Baian doubts the clean upstanding man is a former killer and does some investigating of his own. Turns out Hikojiro was close, the man is the brother of one of the vipers, and bears a resemblance. The Poisonous vipers are in the area, and before they try to take out the filthy lot, Baian wants to know if the upstanding brother ordered a hit on his scoundrel sibling or if some other force is working behind the scenes.
These episodes show that this Baian series is not really that heavy on action. In terms of the plot movement, the emphasis is more on the labyrinthine conspiracy behind why his targets have a contract on their lives. Along the way, we get some Baian character moments (including some cute stuff at his medical practice, and flashbacks revealing how he was abandoned as a child), but the actual action in the series is minimal. And while there is some morally guided subterfuge on Baian's part to investigate his latest assignment, for the viewer, the writers did not really play up much mystery or tension involving his quarry. Early on, it becomes pretty obvious to us what the behind the scenes shenanigans are, so it was kind of a slog at times to watch as Baian slowly try to uncover the root of the treacherousness behind his hire. Also, Baian's not so much, lurking in shadows engaging in the art of spying as he is just sitting across the way simply listening in on a couple of people talking.
Now, I'm no Baian expert, though that isn't for a lack of trying. Hey, if anyone knows where to get subbed copies of the Ken Ogata-era flicks/episodes, drop me an email. *Shameless begging is not beyond me* I've only seen two other Baian flicks, one with Ogata, one with some other guy (called The Silent Assassin?, or The Quiet Assassin?, I forget, its been awhile). It is almost a shame that a great actor like Ken Ogata embodied the role, because, despite all of his onscreen charisma, Ken Watanabe has to live in Ogata's shadow. That said, Watanabe still does a great and is a massively enigmatic actor.
It is unfortunate that the series- well, at least these two episodes- doesn't heighten the suspense elements, which seems to be the one missing key that could make this series, and subsequently Watanabe's characterization, shine. Instead Baian just kind of sits back in the wings, waiting, pondering the morality of his actions, as he should. But, mostly the stories are too heavy on description without dilemma, plot mechanics missing tension, characters or voice over dialogue explaining the ins-and-outs of details to the point that the thrills are left to a bare minimum.
The DVD: Media Blasters
Picture: Full-screen. If I was a betting man, I'd say Medai Blasters just imported their transfer materials from the Japanese DVD release. The elements appear to be in pretty darn good shape, free from much wear and tear. Probably a little age fade present, but nothing too severe. Technically, there is a little compression which makes the grain levels more noticeable and presents some macro-blocking issues. But, overall, for an older Japanese tv show, it is a fair enough, sharp presentation not likely to disappoint viewers.
Sound: Dolby 2.0 Stereo, Japanese language with optional English subtitles. Very nice subtitle translation. I really liked the scoring for the first episode which had some heavy, effective use of some mournful flute hooks, very Spaghetti Western. Then, disappointingly, the second episode suddenly has a bunch of generic synth underscoring for much of the running time.
Extras: Nothin', some Media Blasters trailers, that's it.
Conclusion: Baian: The Assassin is interesting but not captivating. A cool character, an engaging lead actor, and a decent supporting cast. Storytelling-wise it could do with a more invigorating narrative, a bit of thrill to the proceedings, and the second episode certainly showed some improvement in those areas. So, while I wasn't wowed, my interest was piqued to see some more Baian adventures- but only piqued enough for a rental.