A Shintaro shinobi… in COLOR!

Shintaro-menko_1

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.

Shintaro-menko_2

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Posted in Collectibles May 28, 2014 at 1:34 am.

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VN REVISITED: A ‘Tonbei the Mist’ Primer

I reposted this fantastic publicity still of Maki Fuyukichi as Tonbei the Mist from Greg Newman over at the Facebook “The Samurai” Group.

tonbei-pressstill1

tonbei-pressstill2

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.

tonbei1.jpg

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!

tonbei2.jpg

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 AkakageHenshin 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.

tonbei6.jpg

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.

tonbei5.jpg

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…

tonbei4.jpg

The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.

tonbei3.jpg

Well used cramped sets – sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.

tonbei7.jpg

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.

tonbei8.jpg

And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow…

tonbei9.jpg

“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.

tonbei11.jpg

Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.

tonbei10.jpg

He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually…

tonbei12.jpg

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.

tonbei13.jpg

Tonbei in suspension bondage, while a supposed damsel in alleged distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.

tonbei14.jpg

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???

tonbei15.jpg

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!  

samurai_boxset

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!

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Posted in Film and TV May 5, 2013 at 5:01 pm.

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‘Ninja-To’ visual shorthand in American vs. Japanese films

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.

Ninja with samurai swords or samurai in ninja garb? Counter-clockwise from top NINJA HICHO FUKURO NO SHIRO (Castle of Owls), AKAI KEGEBOSHI (The Red Shadow), KAZE NO BUSHI (Warrior of the Wind)

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.

Curved swords…

Coming next: A look at Kosugi’s officially licensed swords, and some props from our own collection here.

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Posted in Film and TV and History and Martial Arts March 8, 2011 at 6:50 am.

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Own ninja pop culture history!

Siren Visual way down in Australia has re-released their previously available box sets of the landmark series The Samurai with all-new packaging, and just in time for the holidays come new releases of the latter seasons.

I love this new box art, which mimics the beloved trading cards every Australian kid HAD to have in the 60′s and 70′s.

A quick up-to-speed for the uninitiated: The Samurai (orig. Onmitsu Kenshin, also refered to as “Shintaro the Samurai”) was serialized adventure TV in Japan starring Koichi Ose as an ace swordsman on secret missions for the Shogun. Like a jidai-geki Lone Ranger, his ‘Tonto’ was a ninja named Tonbei the Mist, played with vigor by Maki Fuyukichi. Ten-plus ‘seasons’ were dubbed into English and ran in Australia for decades with absolutely massive fan fervor. The Samurai is an institution down under, and remains Japan’s most popular live-action ninja export.

Read more in our Tonbei Primer here.

FINALLY, this intercontinental shinobi mega property is available for those of us in the US who were denied such material during our woefully limited ninja boom of the 80′s.

I HIGHLY recommend…

Now is a great time to buy, as the Aussie dollar is pretty much equal to the American greenback. And hey, it’s the holidays, we’ve all been good this year, right?

The box sets collect one ‘season’  - encompassing a 13-episode self-contained story arc, so any of them are a jumping-on point. The ninja infusion started at Season 2: The Koga Ninja, and really picked up steam in the middle of the run. Eddie Mort was raised on this stuff, and recommends Season 8: The Phantom Ninja. Over the past few years, on his urging, I’ve dropped upwards of a grand on this stuff, and haven’t regretted a nickel of it.

Even coming in as late as I have, I LOVE The Samurai. The sheer volume of 60′s-style B&W ninja action is awesome, the often hysterical Oz dubbing can be a real gas, and watching the bondage-prone Tonbei get captured every episode is a real hoot. You aren’t a real shinobi-cinemaphile if you don’t own at least one season of The Samurai.

Read a superb history of the original Japanese series, the phenomenon in Australia, live events that out-drew The Beatles, the follow-up shows, and the enduring fandom here.

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Posted in Film and TV December 2, 2010 at 11:44 pm.

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A Tonbei-esque 1:6 kitbash

Fooling around with some sixth-scale stuff last weekend, put together this Tonbei the Mist-like kitbash:

I have all sorts of 1:6 shinobi cluttering my place, but I always wanted to do an elder suppa figure, a crafty old spy. And while the grey suit is common to television series and movies like Samurai Spy and Samurai Fiction, no one had really done one in the toy field, so it was off to work I went.

Maki Fuyukichi, center, as Tonbei the Mist - TVs most popular ninja (in two countries, too). I think the Ignite sixth-scale suit I used here is better made than the cheap TV suits back in the day...

And that's Kei Tani as an homage to Tonbei and ilk in SAMURAI FICTION.

The grocery list of frankensteined parts for your hobby enthusiasts:

  • Body and head: Gamitoy “Callous Soldier” Dr. J
  • Hands: Twisting Toyz Italian WWII figures (best sculpted hands ever)
  • Shinobi shizoku: Ignite white ninja outfit, RIT dyed Pearl Grey
  • Weapons: Mononofu katana, kunai adapted from a 21st Century Toys WWII British SAS ‘smatchet’
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Posted in Toys and Statues February 17, 2010 at 9:01 am.

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Kunoichi in CASTLE OF OWLS

While the overt conflict of Castle of Owls may be the wolf-vs-sheepdog of Juzo and Gohei, there is a deeper interior conflict in both men played out by their relationships to women, all of whom are deadly female ninja themselves. So let’s take at look at the mysterious manipulator Kohagi (Hizuno Takachiho) and the teen cutie Kizaru (Chiyoko Honma).

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Upon arriving in Edo, Juzo is shadowed and sized up. He doesn’t fall for his ‘guide’ Kohagi’s proper lady act for a minute, and draws down on her.

007

Her hand forced, she produces a hidden blade in her umbrella in an impressive display of martial arts savvy. She coyly laughs-off the encounter, but at the same time, Juzo just sniffed her out as kunoichi right away. BUSTED!

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‘No dear, that’s just my sword handle… but don’t get me wrong, I AM glad to see you.’

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Hizuno’s face is all angles and killer expressions. She’s absolutely gorgeous, but at the same time conveys a definite quality of lethal shrewdness.

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But lo-and-behold, is she even hotter in full mission gear?

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When picking an actress to play kunoichi, CAST FOR THE EYES! They did so here for sure. 

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A lot of ninja gals in 60′s films look better in hoods than more modern flicks because of the contemporary eye make-up.

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This hooded femme fatale is a full-on HAMMER, and at this point in the film is f’n with Juzo’s head big time. Is she fox, or foe?

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Meanwhile, Kizaru, a child survivor survivor of the Iga massacre that started this whole revenge quest, is now blossoming into womanhood, and finding young love herself. Betrothed to the traitor Gohei, she rejects that arrangement and swears to kill him. She then falls for Juzo’s apprentice Kumotaro (Kawarazaki Choichiro), a wannabe shinobi who is still innocent. 

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That innocence is central to the sub plot of the youngsters. Kizaru’s got a burgeoning shadow skill set of her own, but has yet to spill blood. She’s one step further down the trail of blood than Kumotaro, and as she is drawn by the outer currents of the revenge whirlpool herself, her redemption will come in resisting the pull of the assassin life.

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It’s probably safe to let a guy cop a feel when you have the skills to tear his arm off his torso…

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At film’s end, the equally conflicted Kohagi embodies Juzo’s triumphant character turn. He is faced with the opportunity to have his vengeance, or a future with a woman in equal need of redemption. 

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Finally kill the shogun after ten years, or run off with a smoking hot babe in a soaking wet ninja suit? Hmmm…

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Back-to-back debates, with Juzo and Gohei facing opposite directions, happen throughout the film. This time, the conflict between former clansmen over blood and honor is over, and the talk is now between man and woman over the future and their very humanity.

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But look at her, is there really a debate here?

Women in Castle of Owls represent the future, the salvation of love, domesticity, peace and the abandonment of the shadow life. One woman is saved from the trail of blood she has been down her entire life. She risks all to save herself (and her man), and in doing so is the model for the next generation’s heroine, who is ultimately spared the black suit and all it entails.

Two interesting side notes on the actresses: As part of the movie’s promotion, Chiyoko Honma hosted a series of short promo films wherein she interviewed ninjutsu grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi, who would demo a different ninja weapon in each short. A year after Castle of Owls, Hizuno Takachiho married chambara superstar Koichi “Shintaro the Samurai” Ose! Man, that’s a vintage ninja power couple if there ever was one…

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Posted in Film and TV September 25, 2009 at 12:30 pm.

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A ‘Tonbei the Mist’ primer

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.

tonbei1.jpg

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!

tonbei2.jpg

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.

tonbei6.jpg

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.

tonbei5.jpg

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...

tonbei4.jpg

The producers learned early on that getting at least one or two mission-gear costume sequences in per show guaranteed ratings.

tonbei3.jpg

Well used cramped sets - sneaking around and battling other suppa in the rafters above or the crawlspaces below houses were common sequences.

tonbei7.jpg

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.

tonbei8.jpg

And would be followed by an immediate, often grisly result. Check out that shuriken right in the mouth! Ow...

tonbei9.jpg

"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.

tonbei11.jpg

Arcane techniques abound as well. Here, Tonbei spreads dust in a hallway to give away the trails of nocturnal invaders.

tonbei10.jpg

He was a master of disguise, too, as this Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces get-up illustrates. Kinda gross, actually...

tonbei12.jpg

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.

tonbei13.jpg

Tonbei in suspension bondage, damsel in distress just fine. This is no isolated incident, it happened like every third episode.

tonbei14.jpg

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???

tonbei15.jpg

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!

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Posted in Film and TV June 30, 2009 at 2:18 am.

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