Striking black-and-white imagery in animated Japanese period drama
"Sabu to Ichi no Torimono Hikae" (Sabu and Ichi's Arrest Warrant) is a black-and-white Japanese animated TV series produced from 1968 to 1969. It's a historical drama aimed at older audiences and its setting is Edo (Tokyo) during the Tokugawa Shogunate. The lead character is Sabu, a young investigator working for a local constable named Saheiji, whose daughter Midori is Sabu's girlfriend. In the course of each episode, Sabu seeks to solve murders and apprehend assorted miscreants and is armed with a "jutte," a sharp iron shaft with a hook on the side and attached to a long rope. He is frequently aided by Ichi, a blind masseur/swordsman of Edo whose sword is concealed in a wooden cane, much like the popular character Zatoichi, another blind masseur/swordsman seen in live-action films around the same time. (The two characters don't resemble each other at all.) I discovered this series when I visited a used video store in New York and picked up a Japanese VHS tape with the first four episodes. The tape is in Japanese with no subtitles.
The most notable feature of this series is the quality of the black-and-white artwork and the cinematic techniques employed throughout. Even though I couldn't always tell what was going on, I was mesmerized by the visuals. Many of the images look like they could have come straight off hanging scrolls in any museum of Japanese art. There are scenes of festival activity and landscape shots of Edo with Mount Fuji in the background that recall some of the famous woodblock prints of the late Edo period. Cinematically, the series employs lots of unusual angles, including overhead shots, as well as expressionistic compositions and occasional abstract backgrounds. At two points in the episodes I watched, the animators simulated rack focus (i.e. switching the focus within the shot from the foreground to the background or vice versa). Sabu often has flashback "visions" of how the crimes were committed, complete with sounds of the victims screaming. I was not surprised when I learned that the director of this series is Rintaro, one of Japan's great animation stylists, who's also directed DAGGER OF KAMUI, HARMAGEDDON, PHOENIX: KARMA, and the GALAXY EXPRESS 999 movies, to name a few.
Without being able to comprehend key plot details, I'll try to describe what I saw in each of the four episodes. Episode #1 is centered around an act of theft by a local pickpocket, who steals something from a visiting tough guy who then tries to retrieve what was stolen. He even attempts to kill the pickpocket before being stopped by Ichi. The stolen item is a scroll with a secret message that reveals some kind of plot that outrages the townspeople. The tough guy had a secret ally in town, someone who had befriended Ichi, and when his identity is revealed, the angry townsfolk rally to pursue the man, who is then confronted by Sabu and Ichi.
#2 focuses on three bandits with cartoonishly grotesque features who invade a home on the night of a storm and demand food and drink before raping the woman of the house and killing the entire family. Sabu and his boss investigate the murder scene and hear from a brave witness, a young woman who can identify the three bandits. The bandits get wind of this and abduct the woman and hole up in a temple after killing the monks and hold the woman hostage as Sabu, Ichi, and a team of constables surround the temple. This one was the easiest of the four to follow.
Episodes #3 and #4 were much harder to follow without subtitles and my synopses are bare-bones attempts to sum up what I saw. #3 features a killer whose face is covered by a ghost mask (animated with a photographic representation) and the investigators' pursuit of the killer. There are scenes in a kendo dojo (swordfighting school) and Sabu, in one confrontation with the killer, notices the killer's style of swordsmanship and, I'm guessing, wonders if the school can be identified and thus provide a clue to who the killer is. Episode #4 focuses on a dispute between two rival bands of firemen whose antagonism toward each other is so pronounced that they'd rather fight each other than put out a fire. When one of the leaders is later murdered, the rival leader is jailed, even though he may be innocent. A mysterious woman shows up to provide Ichi with information for the investigation. Hooded swordsmen try to kill her.
While the animation is often quite limited, the details of the character design are strong and the artistic linework is unusually intricate. The action scenes are extremely well handled, with quick cuts, broad strokes of movement, and occasional bursts of bloodshed. I felt at times like I was watching the anime equivalent of a classic samurai film. The music score, which doesn't use songs at either beginning or end, unlike most anime series of the time, relies on unusual instrumentation with a small combination of woodwinds, strings, percussion and the occasional horn, all enhancing the period feel of the piece.
This compares favorably with other period anime I've seen, including the director's own DAGGER OF KAMUI, a 1985 animated feature, and the much later Meiji-era swordfighting anime series, "Rurouni Kenshin," although it's done in a much different style. There were many other period anime shows done in the 1960s, but I've had the opportunity to see very few of them. Among the only other examples I've seen are found on random VHS tapes picked up over the years, including "Search of the Ninja," a half-hour English-dubbed episode of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" (1969), and "Sasuke," a 1968 ninja TV series that I have four episodes of. I'd love to see more, but it's unlikely that any of these shows will ever get subtitled and released to the English-language market.
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