How many times, in a jealous fit of childish resentment, have I openly cursed all Australians on this site? Seriously, that continent probably hates me, but dammit, their head start on the ninja craze outside of Japan beat us by two decades and I just can’t get past that so BITE ME!
The Samurai, originally Onmitsu Kenshin in Japan, also referred to by Australian fans as ‘Shintaro‘, was not only the first ninja property exported from Japan to an English speaking market, it fostered the first licensed ninja merchandise produced by any company outside of Asia. Samurai “swap cards” were sold with Scanlens bubble-gum at the height of the show’s massive boom in Australia starting in 1964. They remained an institution among the show’s multi-generational fan-base for the original 10-season run, then subsequent sequels and repeats in syndication forever. The card designed even inspired the DVD sleeve art forty-odd years later.
The 72 card Scanlens set was always a highly collectible item down there, but in the early 2000s when DVDs of the old show finally became available worldwide (and my jealousy complex started as well) the potential collector base widened considerably and prices shot up. A complete set now commands anywhere between $200-600, which is a shame because, to be completely honest, at least half the set kinda… sucks.
Don’t believe me? Check out a complete set scanned and uploaded here. Seriously, I’m not being a hater here, but as a designer, art director and third generation photographer the choice of images and cropping here offends my brain and artistic sensibilities to a baffling degree. Scantness must have had jack squat to work with if these are the best shots that made the cut.
So yeah, as much as I love the show, I’m not about to shell out half a grand for this card set.
Once in a while I will buy some single gems, though, and here a few recent scores, with some up close and personal views.
“Certain Death for Tombei” [sic] could have been the title of every other episode of the show. The awesomely cool ninja ‘Tonto’ to the ‘Lone Ranger’ that was Shintaro often existed solely to pad episodes with expositional lessons on ninja gadgets and commando tactics (many comic book level sensationalistic) and then to inevitably get captured by more bloodthirsty and aggressive ninja. None of the hundreds of shinobi who ever captured Tonbei were a tenth the swordsman Shintaro was, though. You’d think at some point these shadow clans would have recruited a proper long-swordsman to specifically wait around to duel the big guy when needed…
As much ‘legit’ ninjutsu as was presented in the show, some episodes leaned on entirely silly fare like Dragon Submarines made of bamboo, and magical wizardry notions left over from previous decades’ image of ninja. This snow-storm attack, filmed using soap flakes and paper confetti way too big to be ice crystals, is a pretty goofy moment actually captured quite nicely in this pic.
Onmitsu Kenshin is, arguably, the single media property most responsible for the shuriken fetish ninja would be saddled with from the 60s boom onward. They perfected the technique of actors posing against wooden walls, then holding still as throwing stars were lodged into the surface between quick takes of 3-6 frames of film. The result, with the right sound effects, looked like a handful of blades were thrown at a target at once. As the show went on, they got more astute in filming this and did so in reverse, starting with several stars in the wall, plucking them out one by one then reversing the resulting film for a smoother action.
If you haven’t checked out any of The Samurai, do so for both the legit good ninja stuff and for its place in ninja pop culture history. The English-dubbed episodes are widely available, including legit release DVDs easily found on eBay.