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.
A neat little menko card, likely from the 60s, featuring characters from Onmitsu Kenshin, the ground-breaking TV series beloved in Australia as The Samurai.
It’s pretty rare to see a color image from this seminal B&W series, and what few exist are mostly colorized monochrome shots like this. Too bad the halftone screens and registrations on photo menkos are always so wretched.
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, completewith 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!
One thing you hear over and over from the anti-‘Ninja-To’-sword-haters-club is the blade is “pure Hollywood.” Before this recent spat of research and over-scrutinizing swords in old movies, I used to argue against that notion; the Japanese studios got ninja ‘wrong’ decades before we did, right? And the blade was sold mail order well before our ninja boom, so Hollywood sure didn’t invent the sword. It wasn’t even used in The Octagon (1980) or Enter the Ninja (1981).
BUT, what can be said is “pure Hollywood” is the narrow strictness of the visual shorthand for ninja. From 1982’s Revenge of the Ninja onward, the regulation ‘Ninja-To’ was absolutely chiseled into the vocabulary of ninja in American film and TV. The sword was so well branded here, Kosugi or Dudikoff using a curved blade would have been seen as a blasphemous prop master’s error.
The Japanese were, as with manga, much less narrow in their use of screen props, however their use of a sword for a shinobi character carried additional editorial significance. Whereas American films were typically ninja vs. mobsters, drug lords, night shift security guards and sometimes other ninja, Japanese movies typically featured ninja vs. samurai.
Samurai use long, ornate blades that make statements of their social rank and wealth. A ninja’s cruder, less decorated blade is an indication of lower social rank. It says his sword is not his soul, but a tool to get a job done. At the same time, the shorter blade when used against full-length katana in the hands of an armored warrior says volumes about the ninja’s skill and courage.
So let’s take a look at some different swords in the hands of shinobi. We’ll start with the most historically credible ninja films ever made – the Shinobi-no-mono series.
But hey! Is that a straight blade???
I’ve had a few people refer me to this photo in opposition to statements I’ve made about the lack of short, straight blades in Japanese ninja films. And yeah, that is Raizo Ichikawa holding an apparently straight blade made by a studio prop master under the guidance of tech advisors like Takamatsu Toshitsugu and Masaaki Hatsumi.
But look again:
Hmmm. Why was the poster image altered to reflect a more traditional sword? Or was the publicity photo above retouched? And was it altered by Daiei back in the 60s or by Animeigo for their recent DVD packaging?
[UPDATE: Or as VN reader Kent Wood points out, is the above image just a scan from a book that is bending at the spine, thus distorting the page? I think he’s right! I think I’m missing the forest for the trees…]
Point I’m making here is even with the Bujinkan tech advisors on board, the blades are inconsistent between the Shinobi-no-Mono films, and they sometimes change from shot to shot. So don’t go putting too much importance behind any single still.
Above, two publicity shots with two different props. Rather than an editorial statement, this is more likely just the difference between what is called a “hero prop” – in this case a character’s signature sword, which they only might have produced a few copies of – and a more disposable prop used as a ‘stunt double’ if you will, for quick-cut fight scenes where the piece is more likely to be damaged.
Raizo’s “hero props” changed from film to film as well – note the different tsuba below. Sheath length also varied, but the blade was always short (signature Hatsumi!).
And not all Daiei ninja used such swords. Battle scenes involving multiple extras and stuntmen as Iga clansmen revert to plain katana and wakizashi. Budget saving measure, or where they embracing the notion that blades would differ from man to man, mission to mission?
Now, I’ll pose a question to everyone who’s seen these films.
I think there’s actually an ever so slight CURVE to this blade. What do you all think?
Hard to tell. I’d kill to see this prop, if it still exists. If there is a curve, it is so minor, changing perspective straightens it right out.
And here’s another question – why the hell hasn’t someone replicated this awesome baby and sold me ten of them? WHY?!?!?
Meanwhile on the small screen, Onmitsu Kenshin (aka The Samurai in Australia) was absolutely bursting with ninja during its 60s-long run. Prop swords varied from season to season, with a limited TV budgets always the deciding factor in style.
Note Tonbei the Mist‘s wakizashi with oversized round tsuba, in comparison to the standard swords of the hero Shintaro. The good Iga ninja always used these, while the evil ninja clan-of-the-season would have various plain swords. There was, however, a recurring sword used for the several seasons’ boss villains – an absolutely monstrous ‘horse cutter’ (I think?) with a handle as long as its blade. I love this freaky thing!
The 60s weren’t all gritty, B&W, espionage-based, hard ninjutsu, though. There were as many swashbuckling adventurers and colorful plucky heroes as tormented shadow dwellers. Plenty of heroes who were of otherwise samurai status as well, so they used their same trusty blades when on night missions.
However, the 70’s was a decade where ninja on the big screen were less likely to be the hero, and more likely to be fodder butchered by a surly sword-swinging ronin. The financial and scheduling realities of movie and TV production usually trumped any desired fealty to martial tradition or obscure history, so these disposable ninja carried off-the-rack, bulk produced props that didn’t require exclusive tooling or smithing. There were a lot of wakizashi blades with katana handles, and shorter curved swords with square guards, like this:
That’s one of dozens of ninja mowed down in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, and the above style sword was standard issue in 70s and 80s films.
Here’s a better look at what Japanese filmmakers considered the ‘Ninja-To’ pretty much at the same time as we were buying the straight versions made famous by Hayes and Kosugi:
Shogun’s Ninja (Ninja Bugeicho: Momochi Sandayu – 1981) features two competing forces of ninja, both using the same medium length curved blades with plain handles and square guards.
*As a side note, is there a film with a wider pendulum swing of great costuming (above) and laughable bullshit (below)? These hunter cammo suits give me douche chills.*
The same year, Enter the Ninja began Sho Kosugi‘s assault on America. Mike Stone‘s weaponry was custom, not mail order, and the swords were closer to the Japanese studio model.
But in 1983, the smoking chest was opened, and there it was!
From Revenge of the Ninja on, Kosugi was in charge of choreography and props, and never strayed from the short, straight blade with long handle and square guard – used by ALL ninja – heroes, villains, rival clans, students, masters… everyone.
He even made his own in Pray for Death (1985), a scene that drove Tim and I nuts because the sword he supposedly forged real quick during his power-up montage ends up a fully decorated blade with ornate hammon line, right out of the prop bin.
*And that dumb-ass helmet ranks with the cammo gear above!*
When the Cannon Films ninja mantle was passed to Michael Dudikoff, so too was the now requisite ‘Ninja-To,’ seen throughout the five American Ninja films that closed out the 80s craze.
And at the same time in Japan? Masaaki Hatsumi was a big part of the kids’ show World Ninja War Jiraiya(Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya – 1988), which featured a variety of outre ninja-based characters with just as wide a variety of swords.
Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.