A beloved series from the 70s, but how does the nostalgia hold up?…
Some things are less of a ‘surprise hit’ than you actually wonder just how they came to be in the first place. A Japanese series, based on a classic Chinese novel, and inexplicably dubbed into English. But placed on schedules after popular comedy programmes, back when there were only three TV channels in the UK, it soon became a minor phenomenon. The single of the theme tune even reached a respectable position in the top 40, considering it was in a foreign language.
“Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it will not become a dragon? So does one just man become an army…”
Originally broadcast on Japanese television over 1973 and 1974, 水滸伝 (Suikoden, lit. Water Margin) was produced by Nippon Television, and based on the 14th Century Shi Nai’an novel of the same name (though the full authorship has been questioned). Considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Japanese translations existed of this 100 chaptered story since the at least the mid 18th Century, but this version was closely based on a manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, creator of Tetsujin 28-go and Giant Robo, and published between 1967 and 1971. Filmed adaptions had been made before too, but one might argue that even though Hong Kong films were rarely being released in Japan at this point – the influence definitely running in the opposite direction – the production shows more than a fleeting familiarity with the productions of Shaw Brothers, particularly Chang Cheh films and the work of King Hu. In fact Cheh would adapt parts of the story several times, including The Water Margin and The Delightful Forest in 1972, and All Men Are Brothers in 1975.
A production itself was on a scale to match that of the original novel, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the channel, the cast was led by the Atsuo Nakamura who’d previously appeared in Nagisa Oshima’s The Ceremony and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan, and was best known for playing the wandering but honourable yakuza in jidaigeki TV series Kogarashi Monjirō the year before. Here he starred alongside other notable film and TV actors like Kei Satô, Yûnosuke Itô and Kayo Matsuo. Like most television of the time it was shot on film, benefiting from location shooting in Mainland China – though some of the settings were less of the scenic, more of the ‘quarry pit’ variety. Over 26 episodes the series charted the story of the outlaws fighting the tyranny of a corrupt government.
It’s then things truly get a little weird. In the mid 70s World Wide Sound London decided to produce an English dub of the programme. It was hardly unusual for films, or even television programmes, but the choice felt out of step with current tastes. Too late for the kung fu craze that had ushered in dubbed Hong Kong films on both sides of the Atlantic (and Australasia) to wide cinema releases; and the death of Bruce Lee had quickly wiped interest from audiences minds. And with the focus on characters, and the fights never as spectacular as what you might see in a Shaw Brothers films, the series far more reflected the same wuxia genre to which the original novel can largely be considered to create.
And yet the project was undertaken, directed by Michael Bakewell and adapted by David Weir, who famously used the briefest of episode synopsis, not translated scripts. Narration came from Burt Kwouk, best known for his role as Cato in the Pink Panther films and well on his way to becoming a national treasure in Britain, with a voice cast that included Miriam Margolyes, Peter Marinker, David Collings and Sean Lynch. Somehow the programme was sold to the BBC, at a time when there three channels (and BBC had two of them) who scheduled it on Thursday nights on BBC 2 at 9:30pm straight after popular comedy programmes like The Goodies and Ripping Yarns in Autumn 1976.
Against the odds, The Water Margin struck a chord with the British public becoming a minor but beloved hit, even when the BBC decided in all wisdom to toy with it in the schedules. Perhaps the main storyline wasn’t so alien, effectively coming across as an Asian Robin Hood. The BBC released the theme tune sung by Pete Mac Jr as a single, reaching number 37 in the UK charts. Backed with an English version by Godiego, foreshadowing the massive successor from both the same original producer, Nippon Television, and the same dubbing team. Based one of the other Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, it would become better known to us as Monkey, and Godiego’s theme music even more famous. Cannily aimed more towards a child audience, at least in the dubbing, and in a prime time slot in the early evening with only BBC’s current event programme Nationwide and regional news programmes up against it, the programme was a sure fire hit. And for those of us young enough to be impressionable, it cemented an appreciation for stories and culture from the East.
(Full disclosure: that was me, having even been allowed to catch The Water Margin in its late night slot at around five years of age.)
The Water Margin would return to screens in the same early evening timeslot between 1982 and 1983, after Monkey had run its course, and again in 1987, but edited to remove the violence and adult themes. And here is where the controversy starts for subsequent home releases on video, Laserdisc and DVD: it would be these versions that were released. Both The Water Margin and Monkey proved quite a success for Nippon Television, turning up in various territories across the world, including Germany, Italy, Spain and Iran.
Now four decades on from its original broadcast in the UK, Fabulous Films have re-released the series on Blu-ray and DVD, claiming to include deleted and shortened scenes ‘never seen before’, taking a new(ish) HD master from the Japanese producers. Now the truth of that claim is up for discussion – you could probably add ‘on home media’ to that sentence. However, what is clear is that those lost scenes of violence have been restored to the series for the first time. But the real question is, as the nostalgic mist clears from your eyes, does the series hold up?
The answer is yes… and no.
The series gets off to a strong start, as we chart the discrediting of imperial officer Lin Chung (Atsuo Nakamura) and how he comes to reside with the bandits in the marshes of Liang Shan Po. Said to be one of the souls of nine dozen rebellious knights from the past, now reborn to fight the corruption of the empire, scattered throughout the kingdom. But not it the emperor’s favourite Kao Chiu (Kei Sato, Harakiri, Kuroneko) has anything to do with it, as he plots to subdue them with a glee comparable to Alan Rickman’s Sherriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Having tantalisingly been shown the heroes banded together each week in the opening titles, these early episodes play out as an extended gathering of Lin Chung’s merry men, as we learn the backstories of each and how they came to join the bandits, whatever strand of life and standing they came from. Unsurprisingly it’s the most interesting part of the story, even in versions of Robin Hood, and also a great part of films like Seven Samurai and 13 Assassins, and their subsequent remakes.
Nakamura is perfectly cast as Lin Chung, exuding great presence and charisma with Gregory Peck-like stature and presence. (Perhaps appropriately he would later become a politician in real life.) These ideas of chivalry and honour, or right and wrong, being beyond which side of the law you fall on, come straight out of the source material, and laid the groundwork for Western audiences understanding them in so-called ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films from Hong Kong, particularly those of John Woo, a decade later.
Heroes are presented with their own particular special abilities, often shown with old school editing techniques. Fighting prowess is often displayed by the participants being shown leaping into the air, a very King Hu style move. And while they may lack the kinetics and technical skill of their Hong Kong counterparts, for audiences watching them on UK TV they were still way above what we were used to. In one scene Lin and his opponent Yang Chih, also know as ‘Blue Face’ for his birthmark, square up against each other for days, each waiting for a weakness in the other. Though again there are similarities with Hu’s work, it’s far more representative of the Japanese chanbara films that influenced both him and this production.
Yet it’s difficult to separate the failings of both the original production and the dubbing. The series gets into something of a rut, as it quickly becomes obvious that we’ve met most of the participants in the first few episodes, and it’s more a case of the circumstances that convince them to join the bandits. During the second half of the series, Lin Chung leaves the safety of Liang Shan Po to effectively ‘find himself’ for several episodes. The series also stinks of a very unreconstructed 70s misogynistic attitude to women, cast as either cunning deceivers or worse victims. Lin Chung’s own wife (played by Kayo Matsuo) faces all sorts of terrible indignities, many directly at the hand of Kao Chiu, before sacrificing herself so that Lin might escape. Talented warrior Hu San-Niang (Sanae Tsuchida), feisty even in the face of capture, appears as the welcome only but real exception – and this before many of us knew of Chen Pei-pei and the archetypal swordswoman characters of Hong Kong wuxia. (But let’s not forget that Japanese popular culture already had plenty of feisty archetypes of their own in the form of stars like Meiko Kaji and Reiko Ike.)
The dubbing script also feels like it gets rather lazy beyond initial episodes. If it wasn’t awkward enough to have a cast of Caucasian actors (Kwouk aside) adopting Asian accents, then the effort to sync dialogue with mouth movements without really knowing what the characters are talking about becomes plainly obvious. The disconnect is at points laughable, though largely unintentional. ‘I know I must go… somewhere else.’ ‘You’re a real man now.’ ‘Yes, and I’ll prove it.’ The philosophical proverbs that narrator Kwouk uses throughout often infuriate with their opaqueness, and again are so clichéd they feel a little culturally insensitive.
But that doesn’t impair on the quality of the production. It’s well shot, often silhouetting the characters in setting sun, with surprising invention shining through on some of the episodes. ‘How Easy to Die, How Hard to Live’, for instance, begins and ends centred on a musician. Amazingly the original soundtrack is allowed to play, the haunting song and melody introducing the episode; it ends after a violent confrontation, him silent. In ‘When Liang Shan Po Robbed the Poor’ we get to see some of Kao Chiu’s backstory in a flashabck, as the devious tyrant fakes robberies to discredit the bandits of Liang Shan Po. ‘The War To End All Wars’ finds interesting parallels with Japan’s then still fairly recent history, when Lin Chung decides that a new invention hat could help them turn the tide against Kao Chiu’s, a cannon, is far too destructive and horrific as a weapon, and destroys it before it can fall into enemy hands.
Ultimately the series does a decent job of bringing the novel to life, when films could hardly do more than dip into the story over such a short running time. Chang’s original film effort The Water Margin rather pointedly tells you that its contents are just from chapters 64 to 68 over the introduction. Despite being filtered through both a Japanese take on a distinctly Chinese genre, wuxia, and the English dubbing, the spirit of chivalry survives. It treads far less water than, for instance, many similarly inspired Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese TV series that came after, such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes (which was partially directed by Johnnie To). Even some of the most recent hip, streaming series now do more meandering. So perhaps it’s no surprise to find that most film academic and critics in the UK with a fondness for Asian film can chart their interest back to seeing this and Monkey in the late 1970s. In the following years, British TV would see more outlaws fighting authorities with screenwriter Richard Carpenter creating both LWT’s Dick Turpin in 1979, and later his own take on the Robin Hood mythology, Robin Of Sherwood in 1984 The latter of which interestingly kept some of the mysticism of Water Margin, though of a wholly different (pagan) variety.
Whether that’s enough to bring new fans to the series I’m unsure, and easily the RRP for the complete set will be something of a stumbling block. But for those who remember and love the original series, here finally is a version worth getting.
If nothing else, I defy you not to come away humming the theme tune.
The Water Margin TV series is available now from Fabulous Films in Blu-ray and DVD boxsets.
Home media details
Distributor: Fabulous Films (UK)
Edition: Blu-ray and DVD (2016)
Fabulous Films new release puts to rights some 20+ years of missing edited material back into the programme, with running times significantly longer than previous editions. With the source undoubtedly coming from a Japanese HD remaster released in 2007, this restores the violent beheadings and grisly bright red bloody murders, as well as content previously excised for TV schedules. This release looks better than it has ever done, which is one of the benefits from the series being shot on film rather than video.
However, that the source has been taken from the Japanese master only highlights one of the great missed opportunities of this set: including the original dialogue with new accurate subtitles of the translations. This is exactly what German distributor Turbine Medien did, beating the UK release by a couple of months with a rather splendid looking limited edition. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Blu-ray release includes just the episodes spread over 8 discs, with no extras whatsoever. Interviews with the surviving English voice cast could have been undertaken. And how about a short documentary about how the English production came about, putting the series into historical context?
(Seriously guys – next time give us a call! We’ll film it for you!)
Considering the audience, making the release far more of a collector’s item with bonus content, or even glossy packaging, may have given more of an the edge.