Baian the Assassin is an above-average example of the sort of TV fare that’s popular in Japan but not an animated production, which is what most American audiences are used to as far as such Japanese imports go. It’s something to file next to stuff like the Zatōichi movies or TV series, and it’s directly reminiscent of it in many ways: A man of a certain social status dispenses his own brand of justice in feudal Japan and makes sure the wicked come to a sticky end. In this case, the hero’s no a blind masseur, but a doctor, Baian-sensei (Ken Watanabe, whom most of us will know from The Last Samurai), whose clinic is always crowded with those in need of his aid. His other job is that of an assassin, where he uses his acupuncturist’s needles to inflict a death blow to those who have ground the innocent and helpless underfoot.
The fun thing about Baian (which, again, like Zatōichi, was adapted from a series of novels) is how it depicts its main character and relishes the little details of its setting just as much as the big ones. Baian gets all of his assignments through a go-between, the motojime, who pays him piles of money and describes his targets to him. If he doesn’t take the job, he can always give it to his friend Hikojiro, the toothpick maker—another assassin-by-night, whose killing specialty is a blowgun dart to the eye. Most of those marked for death are haughty samurai, but there are more than a few greedy merchants—both male and female—who get marked for one of Baian’s needles in the back of the neck.
The biggest pleasure of the series is watching Ken Watanabe act—or maybe over-act, since his performance is more often than not a show of cheerful if controlled excess. He squints, mugs, grits his teeth around one of his murder weapons—but he somehow manages to keep the whole thing just this side of self-parody. It’s camp without the negative implications of the word, which applies to the show as a whole; the exotic setting (exotic for most people, anyway) makes it come off a lot less silly than it might if it were, say, a Wild West oat opera. I also liked the recurring supporting cast—particularly Isao Hashizume as Hikojiro, who plays a calm and laid-back contrast to Watanabe’s slow burn, and unassumingly dons one disguise after another to get the dirtier parts of their job done.
The other fun part of the series is the atmosphere. Baian takes place not only in the drawing-rooms of samurai, but the gambling dens, hot-springs, inns of ill repute and other back alleys of the Edo era. There’s some random piece of period detail in almost every scene: when Baian and Hikojiro share a meal (which happens often, and in loving detail), it’s not just fish, but “sweetfish picked in Tama River malt”. They’re the sorts of details that bring the viewer into the story a little more ambitiously than just having everyone wear a topknot. Ditto the mechanics of the assassin’s trade, which is conducted with the cool formality of a business acquisition—at least until it comes time to actually slaughter someone in cold blood.
This isn’t the first time the Baian stories have been adapted for the screen, big or little. In 1981 there was a movie version starring the venerable good-guy/bad-guy character actor Kinnosuke Nakamura, directed by Yasuo Furuhata (of Poppoya Railroad Man and Shogun’s Shadow fame). I haven’t seen it, as it’s not available domestically, but if it ever turns up I’ll be sure to compare it to Watanabe’s steely-humored portrayal. In the meantime, look this show up for yourself; it’s a nice little surprise.