❉ The cult classic martial arts series following the adventures of 103 outlaws during the Song Dynasty arrives on Blu-Ray.
‘The ancient sages said, ‘Do not despise the snake for having no horns, for who is to say it may not become a dragon?’ Thus may one just man become an army.’
The story of the Water Margin, and of the 103 heroes whose adventures first made them a powerful symbol of revolt against tyranny and then a mighty army against the enemies of China during the Song Dynasty, is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. As befits such an epic tale, it has been retold many times – but with a certain irony, the introduction to it which most people in the West received was a creation of Japanese television.
Nippon Television’s adaptation of ‘The Water Margin’ was filmed in 1973, and at least had the decency to be filmed in mainland China. It was another three years before the series made its way to Britain, where the scriptwriter David Weir – later to adapt another of the four novels, ‘Journey To The West’, for Nippon Television as the fondly-remembered ‘Monkey’ – laboured on providing a suitable translation for the dubbing of the series into English, this being in the darker days when it was generally thought that people would never master reading subtitles. Weir, though, proved an intelligent and sympathetic translator, and his small company of voice artists included such notables as David Collings, Miriam Margoyles – who voiced pretty much every female character – and, as the narrator, Burt Kwouk, whose crisp Oriental tones gave the series a true touch of class. When combined with the powerfully physical performances of such fine Japanese actors as Atsuo Nakamura, Sanae Tsuchida, and Kei Sato, these voices formed a sublime synthesis with much more resonance than the usual dubbing job.
But what made ‘The Water Margin’ so special in Britain back in 1976 was that we’d never seen anything quite like it. What little Oriental fare made it onto our television screens tended to be either early animes such as Marine Boy and Gigantor, or else lots of cheesily-marvellous Godzilla films. Suddenly, right there after ‘The Goodies’ on BBC2, we were confronted with an adult, sweeping tale of reincarnation, corruption and heroism from the days of old, played out by a huge cast of actors who – to our eyes – were all ethnic. British television back then was very white. Other races tended to be very much token players, and here was a story that featured not a single Caucasian face. It was for many viewers, including my teenage self, initially something of a shock – but a good and even necessary one.
The plot in many ways, was nothing that new – surely almost every culture has its Robin Hood and his attendant Merry Men, even if there were rather more of them on display here. However, the basic idea of good, downtrodden people finding the ability to fight back against evil when they work together is one that has never ceased to be relevant, and still has a strength and resonance that makes for a gripping and involving tale, and ‘The Water Margin’ is a particularly distinguished example.
It captured the attention of the jaded British viewer in other ways. Our own heroic costume dramas, usually relegated to children’s television or Sunday teatime serials, were often violent but also entirely bloodless. Suddenly, in The Water Margin, blood flowed and heads rolled in a way that the genre didn’t usually embrace over here, to the degree that there was something of a minor furore from the usual crowd of concerned citizens about the possible corrupting effects on the more susceptible or juvenile viewer. Of course, this outcry just had the effect of making a lot of people – young ones, in particular – want to watch more.
While small beer by today’s standards of blood and guts, such scenes were viscerally exciting to myself as a viewer, and evidence of a welcome refusal to coddle the audience.
But perhaps its biggest novelty to grab our attention was something that – again ironically – its original audience wouldn’t have batted an eyelid over in Japan or China. Because, although the souls of 108 heroes had been reincarnated to provide Our Side, souls don’t discriminate. A good many of those heroes were, in fact, heroines.
Outside of the likes of Steed’s sidekicks in ‘The Avengers’ and the occasional Bond girl – usually one played by one of Steed’s sidekicks in ‘The Avengers’ – women in adventure stories of all kinds in the West tended to be sexy, submissive, and highly ineffectual. Damsels in distress who needed a big strong man to come along and save the day. For a good few years by 1976, the Oriental chop-socky films had started to break down that tiresome trope like a plank smashed by a karate blow. Female characters in such films were frequently as physically capable as the men, and fought with their fists, feet, blades, clubs and whatever else they could get their hands on as well as with their big brown eyes, and the heroines of Liang Shan Po were no exceptions.
Something must have been in the water (margin) around that time, because inside a year British television broke out both Purdey as the latest sidekick to Steed and savage, Amazonian space huntress Leela in ‘Doctor Who’, and maybe – just maybe – it was at least partly down to ‘The Water Margin’ and other Oriental productions showing the ladies kicking arse and taking names as well as the menfolk. The Action Girl may have become another trope that can be tiresome if not handled well, but there was definitely a need for her and still is, and ‘The Water Margin’ gave us a bevy of them.
— BBC Archive (@BBCArchive) September 21, 2016
Fremantle Media Fabulous’s release of the entire series on DVD is welcome indeed, although if you’re looking for digital pin-sharp crikeyvision then forget it. What we have here is what looks very like a decent VCR transfer, although this is still preferable to the truly fuzzy and murky versions that have circulated online, and in fact even feels somehow right for a folk tale of the ancient days. There is a sad lack of additional features – all the more so when you see the link, above, of David Weir overseeing a dubbing session – but the bottom line is that this remains a grand tale of epic adventure, with its own pleasingly distinctive identity. And, incredible as it sounds, it even has a better theme song than ‘Monkey’. So, what are you waiting for? Saddle up your steed, sharpen your katana, ride into battle and enjoy!
❉ ‘The Water Margin: The Complete Series’ on Blu-Ray, fully restored and remastered, is out now from Fabulous Films.