I reposted this fantastic publicity still of Maki Fuyukichi as Tonbei the Mist from Greg Newman over at the Facebook “The Samurai” Group.
Got a lot of attention, so I thought this would be a good time to revisit a 2009 article we did, exposing Australia’s #1 ninja folk hero to North American audiences unfamiliar.
(originally published June 2009)
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.
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!
If Shintaro was Japan’s (and fucking Australia’s) Lone Ranger, thenTonbei 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.
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.
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…
The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.
Well used cramped sets – sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.
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.
And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow…
“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.
Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.
He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually…
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.
Tonbei in suspension bondage, while a supposed damsel in alleged distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.
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???
REVISED: A company in Australia called Siren Visual has released an immense 30-disc box set of the dubbed series, complete with retro trading cards!
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 movies are a step above the show in production values, and deliver a relentless barrage of ninja combat. Highly recommended!