Judge Joel Pearce once tried to develop a secret alter ego, but found he gets cranky if he stays up past 10:00 p.m.
The assassin lives in two different worlds. He has a "daytime face" as well as a "nighttime face."
With the recent North American success of Batman Begins, Memories of a Geisha, and The Last Samurai, Ken Watanabe has become a household name on this side of the world. Hoping to latch on to that success, Media Blasters has climbed deep into the archives, and come up with Baian the Assassin, a television series that ran from 1990 to 1993 in Japan.
The series tells the story of Baian (Ken Watanabe), a doctor who runs a thriving acupuncture clinic. He is also a deadly assassin who wipes evildoers from the face of the earth. He accepts challenging missions, then often gets help from his trusted friend Hikojiro to carry them out.
Baian the Assassin: Volume One contains two episodes of the series.
Baian the Assassin has a strange mix of influences, which results in a series that doesn't work quite as well as it should. On one hand, it certainly has echoes of Zatoichi, which also has a hero who both heals and kills. At the other hand, Baian spends far less time fighting and a lot more time investigating and planning. He is never content to simply murder his target, he must always ensure their unquestionable guilt first. This makes the tone of the series different than most Japanese samurai-era dramas, as these mysteries are pieced together for us as well.
I had never heard of Baian the Assassin before it landed on my doorstep for review. I suspect that I still wouldn't have if it weren't for the sudden popularity of Ken Watanabe. It certainly doesn't cover any new ground, though it does cover some of the same ground over and over again. Dr. Baian is, of course, a character with a paradoxical nature. We observe him as he heals his patients, but we also watch as he kills people in cold blood. Of course, every film and series ever made about assassins has dealt with the exact same issues. Time and time again, we are reminded that Baian is both a doctor and a killer. Slightly more interesting is the series' focus on corruption in Feudal Japan. In such a corrupt society, assassins can be a force for good, protecting the rest of society from a warrior class out of control.
Unfortunately, the murders themselves are somewhat lackluster. We watch samurai films for their great fights and the cinematography that has made them famous. While it makes sense that Baian's trademark kill would be through the use of a sharp needle in the spine, he is definitely not a warrior. After two or three such assassinations, they lose much of their excitement and drama. The climax of these episodes are quite similar. The series is also marred by a tacky narration, which sounds strangely like a nature documentary, which explains the assassin code and describes what Baian is doing next. This narration is consistently distracting, drawing out the already slow pace.
The value of the series comes from the nature of these characters and the flashes that we see into their own pasts. While Baian himself isn't that exciting a character, his life does make more sense as we learn how he became the assassin that he is. The histories of his targets are also explored, revealing that most of the people in the series have more than one side. These stories are usually thought provoking and sometimes touching, which makes up for the slow pacing of the series. All of the main performances are excellent and understated, with many solid supporting roles as well. The top-notch acting helps cover up the low budget nature of the series, creating enough tension that it's easy to ignore the fact that the action sequences are pathetically fake.
Some of the problems found in the first volume of the series may be solved in later installations, as the running times of the episodes stabilize. The first episode runs a full 100 minutes, and contains painstaking explanations about Baian's life and the code of the assassins that he follows. The second episode runs a somewhat tighter 70 minutes, and proves to be far more interesting. Future episodes will run 45 minutes each, which I suspect will be a better fit for the subject matter.
The disc from Media Blasters is surprisingly strong for the age of the series. It is presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and is generally clear of dirt and print damage. It looks a bit faded, but this is a Japanese television series from 1990. All things considered, it's a very impressive transfer. The sound is equally strong. The cheesy music and dialogue are mixed together perfectly. There are no extras on the disc.
The biggest problem with Baian the Assassin is the extraordinary company in which it finds itself. There have been many better film and television series set in the samurai era (think Lone Wolf and Cub or Zatoichi). This addition to the genre has some very interesting characters, but a shaky start keeps me from giving this first volume a strong recommendation. My opinion may change after the second volume, but at this point I would advise a rental for serious Japanophiles only.
I wouldn't hire Baian to take care of this disc, but it could use some serious medical attention.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
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