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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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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, while a supposed damsel in alleged 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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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!  

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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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9 Essentials of 60s B&W Shinobi Cinema

Part of Wildgrounds’ 2010 Japanese Cinema Blogathon

The first cinema-based ‘Ninja Craze’ in Japan is pretty well defined by the decade in which it took place – the 1960s. Yes, there were enormously popular manga, highly rated anime on TV, and martial arts practitioners bringing codified shadow skills to the public for the first time. But nothing has the cementing property that cinema does. Conquering the silver screen is conquering culture. It’s the big league of any media trend, and sustained cinema success is what turns a fad into a movement and hits into history.

Black and white ninja movies from the early to mid 1960′s are a niche within a niche, pretty much within a cross cultural niche altogether. But obscure? Hell no. This genre explosion was akin to Spaghetti Westerns or 80′s slasher flicks; a concise representation of a major money making movement that superbly reflected it’s time.

Here then are nine (being the essential number of ninjutsu) must-see flicks that thanks to the modern information era (and some fan-based yo-ho-ho) are now widely available and looking better than ever… with English subtitles. There’s never, NEVER, been a better time to be a ninja movie fan, and here’s some you NEED to hunt down:

1.) Shinobi-no-Mono (aka Ninja 1: A Band of Assassins) 1962

I hesitate to rest on crutches like “genre defining” or even “the Citizen Kane of shinobi cinema,” but man are both of those statements true of this franchise-launching monster. Ninja movies had been made since the silent era, black suits and throwing stars weren’t invented here or anything. But there were spy films made before Dr. No, too. Satsuo Yamamoto‘s Shinobi-no-Mono is the ninja Dr. No, and Raizo Ichikawa would be the boom’s Sean Connery.

With genuine ninjutsu masters on set serving like military advisors for a war movie, this is the film that established credible shadow skills on screen. Gone were the magical wizard antics of 50′s ninja films. Spy gadgets, commando tactics, exotic sword skills and weird weapons would hence be the norm, as would striking use of shadows and light. Shinobi chiaroscuro was here, and EIGHT sequels would follow. (See movie posters here.)

2.) Seventeen Ninja (orig. Jushichinin no Ninja) 1963

Blammo! The craze was off and running, and every kid and cubicle-caged office worker in Japan wanted to be a heroic black clad martial arts super spy. Then along comes a flick like Yatsuo Hasegawa‘s star-studded Seventeen Ninja, which is one of the best examples of the ‘ninja as disposable espionage asset’ theme explored again and again throughout the decade. Slavishly devoted to serving in the shadows, the ninja life pretty much sucked and you were dead meat at the drop of a dime.

Seventeen is a blood-soaked game of human chess between a guilt-ridden spy master (Ryutaro Otomo) and a vicious anti-ninja expert (Jushiro Konoe). It’s all about attrition as life after life is sacrificed. As the bodies pile up, it all comes down to one final emotionally conflicted ninja (Satomi Kotaro) and a simple but risky deception.

3.) Warring Clans (orig. Sengoku Yaro) 1963

A superb example of pop culture and marketability changing the course of a film. Three friendly rivals to fortune and females get caught up in a plot to smuggle guns for the government, with ruthless pirates and an aggressive ninja clan running interference all the way. Okamoto Kihachi‘s comedic actioner doesn’t necessarily need the shadow set, but somewhere along the way this samurai story picked up all sorts of steam when the black hoods were turkey-bastered into the plot. There may not be a more likable and engaging cast of three male leads in a film outside of Three Outlaw Samurai. Absolutely great!  (More on this film here.)

4.) Kagemaru of the Iga Clan (orig. Iga no Kagemaru) 1963

Damn, ’63 was a good year! I had to include at least one kid’s film in the list, and this live-action adaptation of the first multi-media mega property of the ninja boom can be enjoyed by anyone of any age. A plucky young ninja (an early role for genre legend Hiroki Matsukata) fends off a small army of weirdly mutated and super-powered villains in Noboru Ono‘s simple but charming adventure. (See merch and images here.)

5.) The Ninja Hunt (orig. Ninja Gari) 1964

A clan is doomed, ninja are the problem, and expendable mercs are hired in a desperate gamble for survival. Enter Wadakuro, a down-and-out ronin played with Deniro-like ferocity by the legendary Jushiro Konoe. Is he fighting for the clan’s protection, or his own vengeful obsession to slaughter everyone in a black hood? And will anyone survive the bloodletting that unfolds?

Jaw-droppingly brutal, Tetsuya Yamaguchi‘s film explores serious emotional depths as a man hired to fight shadows devolves into an even darker creature himself.

At the time of this and Seventeen Ninja, Konoe was also starring in a prolific series called Yagyu Bugeicho (Yagyu Chronicles or Yagyu Secret Scrolls). The eighth entry, Katame no Ninja (aka The One-Eyed Ninja) sees Konoe’s version of Jubei Yagyu lead an army of 64 shinobi swordsmen against an impenatrable fortress in one of the few battle-based ninja flicks ever made. This one is also highly recommended, and just missed this list. (More on this film here.)

6.) The Detective Fencer (orig. Onmitsu Kenshin) 1964

Had to include this for its historical value outside of Japan. Koichi Ose‘s television hero “Shintaro the Samurai” was the first international export of the ninja boom, and caused a sensation in Australia. Generations of Aussie kids grew up on this ninja-infused small-screen serial, and the cast’s live appearances on promo tours down under drew bigger crowds than The Beatles. Detective Fencer is a theatrical chapter of The Samurai, with a dizzying array of gimmicky ninja and Shintaro’s “Tonto”-like sidekick Tonbei the Mist, played by one of Japan’s most popular ninja actors Maki Fuyukichi. (More on The Samurai and Tonbei here.)

7.) The Third Ninja (orig. Daisan no Ninja) 1964

Takeda Shingen unleashes the greatest ninja assassin ever, and it’s up to three lesser-skilled but highly motivated rival shinobi to stop him. Kouno Toshikazu‘s stylish pic is just a superb and well rounded genre entry; great innovative action photography, haunting harmonica-accented score, espionage arsenals vs. anti-ninja booby traps, etc. And Satomi Kotaro‘s conflicted hero is the poster child for the often-explored ‘how do I get out of this doomed life of a ninja and bang this hot chick’ theme. (More on this film here.)

8.) Samurai Spy (orig. Ibun Sarutobi Sasuke) 1965

Masahiro Shinoda‘s masterpiece is, hands down, the artistic apex of the ninja genre. Hell, it’s above the ninja genre, and possibly jidai-geki as a whole. The tale of a beleaguered Sasuke (Koji Takahashi) trying to stay uninvolved in feudal conflicts, but always being sucked into swordplay and shadow-play alike, there’s just no other ninja film like this. From the woozy jazz-laced score to the unconventional fight scenes, Shinoda spat in the face of genre conventions with unparalleled cinematography and a very human story that is barely contained in the trappings of shinobi cinema. This is art here, to the tune of Criterion DVD special edition level. Just wow… (We did a four part breakdown of the visuals in this film starting here.)

9.) Mission Iron Castle (aka Ninja 9, orig. Shinobi no Shu) 1970

The Shinobi-no-Mono series was so successful, it spawned seven sequels in which Raizo Ichikawa played three different lead characters. After his untimely death in 1969 (at only 37, why he’s called Japan’s James Dean), Daiei Studios dipped into the well one more time, making the best 60′s B&W ninja movie ever seen in the otherwise color-dominated year of 1970.

The boom was over, the look and tone were outdated, the choice to market this flick under the beloved Shinobi-no-Mono banner questionable… But damn is this an f’n great movie!

Issei Mori directs Hiroki Matsukata as the reluctant leader of a small band of spies charged with kidnapping a noblewoman from a heavily ninja-proofed castle. Things do not go as planned in what is possibly the darkest and most fatalistic of the already noir-ish 60′s fare. Both the decade and it’s distinctive style of shinobi cinema went out on a high note with Mission Iron Castle. (See the ladies of this film here.)

So what is that, 18, 20 hours of gorgeous black-and-white shadow cinema for you to start on?

There are, of course, lush color films from the same era; The Red Shadow (Akai Kageboshi), Castle of Owls (Ninja Hicho Fukuro no Shiro) and Warrior of the Wind (Kaze no Bushi) making the short list, with Owls being arguably the best ninja movie ever made.

However it is the black and white poetry of hooded espionage like in the films above that really define the 60′s ninja boom.

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Posted in Film and TV November 4, 2010 at 11:38 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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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.

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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.

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.

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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...

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.

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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!

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

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