YATSUHA in “Samurai Champloo”

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 0

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Samurai Champloo is now available as a lower-priced box set, so I’ll re-purpose an old Ninja80 post here.

I was a huge mark for Cowboy BeBop, but the creative team’s follow-up series failed to make the same impact with me… until Episode 15! In “Bogus Booty” the wandering trio of Mugen, Fuu and Jin (symbols, as were the Bebop bounty hunters, for broke and hungry animators in Tokyo) encounter a secret crime clan counterfitting gold, and two onmitsu (undercover secret police agents) trying to bring them down.

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But what’s this? The forgers are descendants of the Negoro ninja and have kept the family trade intact! Luckily, secret cop Yatsuha has shadow skills of her own, and even luckier – Mugen wants to get in her pants so bad he’s willing to beat the shit out of all the ninja on her behalf. Makes for some INCREDIBLE fight scenes!!!

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Champloo was a series based on fusion, laid on a foundation that mixed classic chambara with modern dialogue and hip-hop music. “Bogus Booty” is a tribute to anime ninja conventions (formation running attacks, tree-top fighting), with character right out of a 70’s Onmitsu Doshin episode. She wears a modern take on sort-of-Chinese period clothing, but uses Japanese weapons and martial arts. Great stuff.

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Character design from the series’ former official website, now gone as far as I can find…

FUJIMARU book-n-record (PART 2)

posted in: 4 - Collectibles | 0

The adventure continues…

Fujimaru had a rather large friend from above his whole life – a giant eagle. It was all part of a well-balanced mix of genuine historical weaponry and credible martial arts with superhero-like powers and outright magic. Blend it all with goofy animals for comic relief and a snappy theme song by a kids chorus, and that’s your formula for successful boy’s adventure anime in the 60’s.

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OK, that animal on the far left, the one with the same haircut as my mailman... what exactly is that? Monkey? Wombat? Proto-Ewok?

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Fujimaru's whirlwind could turn Japusai's fire right back on him in spectacular fashion! I love the character design of the old wizard...

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These terriffic action poses are right out of the credit sequence to the TV anime. The show was adapted from a popular Sanpei manga, and animated by the now legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

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Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru ran on Toei’s TV network from Jun. 7, 1964 – Aug. 29, 1965 – the same year as Johnny Quest here in the U.S. But while JQ was about the apex of boy’s adventure cartoons in the States, Fujimaru was just one in a long line of weapons-carrying, ninja-slaying, super-powered shinobi role models for Japanese kids.

We’ve got some imagery from the anime itself and the inspiring manga coming in the future.

SAVITAR – best ninja figure of the 80’s?

For the most part, 80’s ninja figures released in the U.S. resembled the cheesy straight-to-video movie costuming or equally lame ninja suits sold in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Re-mold a He-Man in black pajamas, paint the head black leaving only the sinister eyes visible, give him some sort of kung-fu weapon… done.

However, one figure was SPOT-ON to the sort of historically credible fare seen in the Shinobi-no-Mono films – a dead ringer for a Daiei or Toei studios costume department special – Savitar the Assassin from Mego’s Eagle Force.

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Look at that, details right down to the sandal straps on the tabi! And he’s only TWO INCHES tall. Savitar was the requisite sinister saboteur of terrorist army R.I.O.T., opposed by the metallic gold-clad would-be GI Joe squad Eagle Force. The small metal figures had real promise, and the character design was amazing. Mego, however, was on it’s heels as a company, and closed up shop in 1982.

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So Savitar here is one of the earliest American ninja figures, and easily the best designed in my opinion. Rare too in that he’s outright called an ‘Assassin’ – you don’t often see such direct references to killing on kid’s toys here.

For some insight from the creator of the line, check out the best damn Eagle Force page anyone could ask for at the Mego Museum! They’ve even got concept art…

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And here‘s a better look at the cool package illos.

FUJIMARU book-n-record (PART 1)

posted in: 4 - Collectibles | 0

Growing up in the pre-home video era often meant the only way to relive your favorite movie or TV property was the now extinct book-n-record. I positively wore out my GI Joe, Frankenstein and Planet of the Apes comic book / 45rpm sets as a wee lad.

The Japanese had it just as good – the formats being rather similar: 8-16 page booklets featured art inspired by anime, manga, live action genre films, etc. Short, simple adventures corresponded to narration and sound effects on a 45rpm flexi-disc, with a property’s signature theme song often on the b-side.

I find the real charm of these sets to be the original artwork, produced by the licensor, sometimes with great skill in replicating the look of a famous artist, but just as often displaying some totally off-model mutations.

This set, from 1964-5, is a rather faithful adaptation of Shirato Sanpei and Hayao Miyazaki‘s collaboration Ninja Kaze no Fujimaru (aka Samurai Kid).

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'Fujimaru of the Wind' was a young ninja apprentice with a mastery of swirling wind storms. He was a chip off the old Sanpei block - hanging in the treetops in a tunic and shortpants, needing only his shortsword and a few shuriken, etc/ and so forth. He was a friend to animals, and sworn enemy of fire-breathing wizard Japusai.
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LOVE these ninja heavies!!!

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I dunno about the furry one-sy he wears, but how cool was the era when kids with swords were role models! This show was rather weapons-laden...
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And he gets to KILL ninja! Sure, no gore, but c'mon - wack a guy in the head with a Wakizashi and what's the result?

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How awesome is this nut-punch technique!
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Fujimaru's mystical gimmick was the control of wind, and whipping up a tornado of leaves was a common escape. Ninja are either extremely susceptible to allergies, or terrified of yardwork...
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Most of the sets I've seen adopt the common Japanese publishing practice of running several pages in 2-color process to save printing costs. Clever use of halftone angles and dot-pitch make subtle browns and beiges out of black and orange inks. OK, printing lesson over - quiz tomorrow.
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Fujimaru's girly pal Midori gets caught up in the inevitable hunt for the hot-potato secret scroll, aided by a somewhat Deputy Dawg-esque cast of animal sidekicks.

More kid-vs-ninja mayhem coming in PART 2!

Airborne combat in LEGEND OF KAMUI

posted in: 2 - Books and Manga | 1

With the movie pending, I’m re-reading and re-loving Shirato Sanpei‘s second run of Kamui manga. The godfather of ninja comics debuted the character in 1964, then re-imagined the property as a more grown up and severe manga in the 80’s. Kamui Gaiden was a critical and financial hit, crossed-over into anime, and inspired the live action film coming this year. Eclipse Comics made history when they published a 37 issue run in the U.S. as The Legend of Kamui: A Genuine Ninja Story – the first such importation of a Japanese title to our shores.

Here are some terrific combat panels from that run. Sanpei really had a knack for movement, and loved these leaping and tumbling attacks. Despite the amount of dynamic action, you can still ‘read’ what is happening, clearly see the techniques at work and how the killing blows are delivered. Aspiring artists have plenty to learn here:

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The grocery list of things I love about this series is long indeed. Kamui is the archetypal skilled loner on the run, trying to leave behind his warrior life but needing those resented skills to survive constant pursuit. It’s a great structure, and over it Sanpei laid some emotionally challenging stories. You could never get too attached to a character, never too comfortable with a setting.

I also love characters with limited arsenals used in increasingly innovative ways. Kamui’s signature short sword and reverse grip technique dispatched 90% of his enemies. A few kunai or shuriken here or there, sometimes a grapple line, were pretty much it.

Eclipse released 37 issues total, starting in 1987. It was late in the ninja craze here, and rarely did the signature black suit appear on covers, so the title may have failed to find the audience it deserved. These gems can be found cheap on eBay, even in complete runs.

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The first translated story arc, an incredible parable of struggling fishermen and the inescapability of one’s destined trade, was later collected into two trade paperbacks by VIZ, with reduced art. I prefer the originals, which often had liner notes on the historical subject matter or the artist’s craft.

A ‘Tonbei the Mist’ primer

posted in: 1 - Film and TV | 12

Once upon a time, there was a ground-breaking Japanese TV series called Onmitsu Kenshin (or Onmitsu kenshi), starring Koichi Ose as Shintaro, wandering samurai detective protecting his half-brother the Shogun from various conspiracies and assassins. It was popular in Japan, but when the series shifted gears and integrated ninja as both friend and foe, it blew up and as The Samurai became an international sensation.

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International? Sure, it had a HUGE English-speaking fan base! How could you forget in 1965 when those early seasons were dubbed into English and aired on TV daily? Remember when Ose did that promotional tour, greeted by thousands of screaming fans at the airport ala The Beatles? Remember how each subsequent season got more and more popular, with more and more ninja action? Wasn’t it great how they were syndicated for decades after, followed by other dubbed shows like Phantom Agents! Does anyone still have their officially licensed plastic swords they got for Christmas, or the wildly popular Shintaro trading cards?

No… Drawing a blank…

Well, that’s because it all happened in fucking Australia!!!

Not here, NOOOOOO. Why would Americans want to see dozens of hours of Republic-serial like ninja warfare dubbed into perfect English? Fuck it, we’re fine with direct-to-video bullshit like Full Metal Ninja and Seven Lucky Ninja Kids. Give us turtles and leave us alone, we don’t want any of those historically credible martial arts espionage epics here. No way.

OK, bitter rant subsides for now – to the point.

TONBEI THE MIST!

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If Shintaro was Japan’s (and fucking Australia’s) Lone Ranger, then Tonbei was the Tonto. Played by career ninja legend Maki Fuyukichi – who would go on to the Watari the Ninja Boy live action film, play White Shadow in Masked Ninja Akakage, Henshin Ninja Arashi and dozens of other TV and movie shinobi roles – Tonbei was sort of half ace-in-the-hole / half comic relief.

Sure, he was Shintaro’s shadow – scout, spy, saboteur – but the character was so prone to capture and to showing up at fights just as Shintaro put the last ninja down, he became the butt of some unintentional humor.

Either way, Maki’s ‘man of Iga’ is a hugely important character in the development of the genre. Born in the mold of more serious ninja fare like Shinobi-no-mono, he was there to show off outre tools and arcane spy gadgets, give clinics on commando tactics and shadow skills, and get in all sorts of cool ass reverse-grip sword fights.

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So, we’ll be looking a lot at both The Samurai and Tonbei the Mist in coming months, and Maki was such a prolific ninja regular, he’ll be turning up constantly. Consider the below images a primer, and seek out the now out-of-print season box sets of the show on DVD. The best source of info on both the original Japanese show and it’s success in Oz can be found here.

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As of season 2, Tonbei was a regular sidekick to Shintaro, and could call in additional 'Men of Iga' as needed. Some of these actors left a bit to be desired in the skill and physicality departments...
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The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.
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Well used cramped sets - sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.
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Maki had great overtured posing and expressions. This pose, where he's flinging shuriken at the camera's POV (actually just an empty handed arm motion with whooshing foley) happened two or three times a show.
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And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow...
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"Historically accurate" gear, right out of secret scrolls and Hatsumi books, was often featured. Many episodes had Tonbei giving another character informal clinics on such gadgetry.
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Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.
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He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually...
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However wide his shadow skill set, Tonbei's real job was getting captured by the enemy. He did his job well, he did his job often.
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Tonbei in suspension bondage, damsel in distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.
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He often forgot to pack his Ninja Net-Proofing Spray, as well.

Amusing as the ‘sidekick-in-peril cliches’ become over the seasons of The Samurai, there are just as many great ninja battles, commando raids, trick weapon duels and other shinobi staples to keep things real. I absolutely love this series, and all jokes aside, if there’s one property I truly resent discovering now instead of in the 1980’s, it’s this one. And it was already in English! What’s the excuse???

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A company called Siren Visual put out seven ‘series’ (13 episode arcs) of the Australian TV broadcasts on DVD a few years back, but lost the license in 2008 and they’ve since been out of print. I’m told the series starting at 8 and 9 were totally amazing, too, so once again we’re shit out of luck… However, one of two feature-length films has made the trading rounds under the stiffly translated title “The Detective Fencer.” (I’d have called it ‘Samurai Sleuth’ LOL) The movie is one step above the show in production values, and delivers a relentless barrage of ninja combat. Highly recommended!

“Ninjas All Over the Place”

TORMENT is not having enough wall space to display all the cool art and vintage posters in your collection, and friends, I am a tormented soul. I’ve got enough ninja movie posters to wallpaper my place twice over, more than half of which are in storage. So, I can’t even let myself make eye contact with amazingness like this:

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Scott Campell‘s “Ninjas All Over the Place” (this link goes to a blog post from the artist with multiple close-ups) was done for the superb Gallery Nucleus, specifically their 2007 ninja art show.  This piece shows both a knowledge of the film genre (some Magic Serpent-y critters in there) and classic Japanese art.

The original sold for $2800, but 42×12″prints can be had for $150 here. (prices posted as a not-so-subtle hint to any potential readers out there looking for a christmas gift for someone like… ME!)

Do a search of the word “ninja” in the Nucleus home page header, and you’ll get a page with tons of available originals and prints. I like this Khang Le print, a very affordable 13×19″ version of which is for sale here.

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Campell is a great artist, and a search through his blog will prove it. Nucleus did the ninja show in 2005 and 2007, here’s hoping for another.

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