EDO'S FINE IN '89: OR, I WISH MY BROTHER, IENARI,WAS HERE: the historical background
Basically, the series concerned the adventures of Akikusa Shintarō, played by Ōse Kōichi, (throughout this piece I have written Japanese names in the Japanese order viz. surname first, for consistency even though in some cases this will be at variance with the form some readers will remember and I am using modified Hepburn romanisation- except for words existing in English- rather than the rather erratic romanisation system employed by the program's publicists, again for consistency). Shintarō was the older half-brother (same father different mother) of Ienari ,the 11th Tokugawa shogun. Shintarō's real name was Matsudaira Nobuchiyo and he was the son of a concubine, hence had no claim to power. Instead, he chose to assume the guise of a wandering spy-swordsman along with the name Shintarō to seek out and eliminate plots by dissatisfied feudal lords and in this way protect his younger brother who was still in his minority. He was actually under secret orders from the roju (chief councillor) Matsudaira Sadanobu to gather information in the various fiefs. Aiding him was an Iga ninja, Kiri no Tonbei (Tombei the Mist).
The Samurai was set between 1788 and 1792. It is possible to pinpoint quite exactly its time period because of the number of allusions to actual historical personages and events in the series, even though it was not a historical drama per se but a children's adventure series. While the Japanese-language sources on it are quite precise on the date, the English-language ones muddied the waters by claiming it was set in the 17th century, not the 18th ,though the presence of characters like Matsudaira Sadanobu should have cleared that up right away. The first story where Shintarō is sent to Ezo (Hokkaido) happened in 1792. The second story was undated, but the third story, just to confuse things, was set in May 1788 and the fourth story seems also to have been set in the same year. The final story was set in 1790.
Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841) was shogun from 1787 to 1837 when he retired. He was the son of Hitotsubashi Harunari and was chosen by the 10th shogun, Ieharu, as his successor in 1781 after Ieharu's own son, Iemoto, died suddenly aged 18. Ienari was only 14 when he succeeded Ieharu, hence the fictitious Shintarō's need to defend his interests. Moreover, there was something of a cloud around his succession with rumours of not only Iemoto but Ieharu being poisoned by the agents of the Hitotsubashi clique or the then chief councillor (rōjū), Tanuma Okitsugu, who was dismissed in disgrace by Ieharu shortly before his death. In the event of the shogun's heir dying, a successor could be chosen from one of six families - the Owari, Kii and Mito on the one hand and the Tayasu, Hitotsubashi and Shimizu on the other. One of the Tayasu sons was top of the list but Hitotsubashi Harunari manoeuvred to get him adopted out leaving the way clear for his own son. Ironically, the Tayasu who was railroaded out of the shogunate was Matsudaira Sadanobu! So it is easy to see why Ienari's position in the early years of his reign might be regarded as 'fraught'.
Ienari summoned Matsudaira Sadanobu from his Shirakawa fief to be rōjū, having dismissed all the councillors who had served Ieharu. In 1789 troubles occurred on the island of Ezo (now Hokkaido) among the Ainu natives but were repressed by the lord, Matsumae Michihiro (this formed the background for the very first story in The Samurai in that the revolt is referred to on several occasions and probably the reason for Matsumae's nervousness).. During Ienari's reign, foreign powers again renewed their efforts to persuade Japan to come out of her centuries' long isolation but were met with refusal. Feudal lords in the north were ordered to keep a close watch on the coasts and defend them. Forts were constructed and the country more rigidly secluded from the rest of the world. Ienari's reign was peaceful but the farmers were growing poorer and more hard-pressed; city life was marked by corruption and decadence; and the government seemed incapable of coping with the problems. Ienari had 51 children, 31 of whom died in their youth. Others entered by adoption or marriage into the noblest of families.
Ienari was seen only in the first episode.
On the other hand, Matsudaira Sadanobu was featured prominently as an on-screen character. Sadanobu (1758-1829) was the 7th son of Tayasu Munetaka and grandson of the 8th shogun, Yoshimune (hence his claim to power) and was adopted by Matsudaira Sadakuni and succeeded him in 1783 to the Shirakawa fief. He distinguished himself by wise administration and in 1787 he replaced the disgraced Tanuma Okitsugu as rōjū. He was the instigator of a series of reforms to encourage frugality and thrift and restore the ailing economy of the bakufu. These reforms are generally known as the Kansei Reforms, after the era (1789-1801).
Other aspects of these reforms included the strengthening of coastal defences, forcing hatamoto to pass examinations in military matters, banning of foreign books, cracking down on samurai who attended the theatre, easing the burdens of the peasant class and assigning a government official to any person who did not adhere to the officially sanctioned Chu Hsi school of Confucianism. Indeed, his regime was renowned for the wide use of spies made by the government to check on the activities of just about everyone from the feudal lords down to the lowliest servant. Tokugawa Japan was, after all, a police state with a very thorough network of spies. So it was natural that Sadanobu be shown not only as a key player in the government whose downfall was sought by a number of feudal lords, but also as hiring ninja and assigning missions to Shintaro and Tonbei.
Sadanobu was forced to resign over a dispute with the Imperial court in Kyoto in 1793. He retired to his fief at Shirakawa and devoted all his attention to running its affairs. He was distinguished as a man of letters, poet, critic with an interest in archaeological matters. He left behind a number of literary works.
In The Samurai he appeared in several stories, most notably in the first, Spy Swordsman, the third, Iga Ninjas, the fourth, Black Ninja and the eighth, Phantom Ninja. In the third and eights, he was rescued by Shintarō and Tonbei.
As for 1788, no Australian needs a rehearsal of what was significant about that year. Indeed, while the First Fleet was setting up at Botany Bay, the Imperial palace and much of Kyoto burnt down. Other events include the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Regency Crisis in England (George III's first illness); Gibbon completed The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the Linnaean Society was established in London; there were bread riots in France and famine in Hungary (just as Japan was getting over its famine) and Goethe published Egmont.
In Japan, the previous year had seen the worst riot so far in Edo, arising out of 100 other disturbances caused by another bad year in agriculture and high rice prices. There was a feeling of frustration with the government at all levels of society, even otherwise moderate, peaceable people like Sadanobu considered assassinating Tanuma, the chief councillor. This riot, however, enabled him to be appointed chief councillor in Tanuma's place and he began his monetary reforms. This unrest forms part of the background to the fourth story, Black Ninja. This story also used the system of spies the shogunate used to keep a check on the daimyo as part of its plotline.
The year 1789, further to set the series in its historical context, saw the outbreak of the French Revolution; the election of George Washington as the first President of the United States; the occurrence of the mutiny on the Bounty; the establishment of the first steam-driven cotton factory in Manchester; the bringing of chrysanthemums to Britain; the discovery by Herschel of the 7th and 8th moons of Saturn with his 40 inch telescope; the experiments by Galvani with the muscular contractions of dead frogs; the publication of William Blake's Songs of Innocence; the continuance of the war between Austria and the Ottoman Empire, begun in 1788; the deaths of Adam Smith and Benjamin Franklin.
And in Japan, it was the first year of the Kansei era, the first year of Sadanobu's reforms. The country was recovering from the terrible Tenmei famine (1782-1787). A revolt of the Ainu broke out in Ezo; the various feudal lords were ordered to construct granaries; Osaka had a big fire; certain books were banned; the Confucianist Miura Baien died; the ometsuke (censor) Kuwabara Morisada was sent by the government to investigate the family trees of lords whose fiefs were worth more than 10,000 koku; there was a crackdown on unlicensed prostitutes and on homeless people and beggars; the government published a list of martial artists and their schools; domain administrators were required to rebuild deserted villages in the north and in the Kantō region.
Despite the famine, the late 18th century was one of the high points of the Tokugawa era where what we think of now as traditional Japanese civilisation was at its most flourishing. The country, which had a population of some 30 million, had been at peace for about 160 years after a century of civil wars, and a flourishing urban culture had developed, remarkable for its sophistication, around Edo (Tokyo),the largest city in the world at the time with a population of one million (twice that of its nearest rival, London) and Osaka.
This was the era of the great woodblock print artists; Utamaro ,and his portraits of courtesans, and Sharaku, with his portraits of actors. Theatre, particularly kabuki which had been invented a century before, enjoyed wide popularity - actors had cliques and fans emulated their way of speech and dress, indeed, devoted their whole lives to following the theatre. Elegance and refinement of taste were the order of the day. Anyone lacking these qualities was a social outcast no matter how rich or well-connected.
People amused themselves with playing the samisen, koto or flute; flower arrangement; the tea ceremony; incense burning; fan-tossing; origami; a number of card and board games; kite-flying; reading novels; writing poetry (poetry competitions were held in which well known authors tossed off poems, hundreds at a time); calligraphy; painting and so forth. Most of what we think of Japanese dishes were available then sushi, tempura, soba, udon, etc. This was the era of the great gourmet, where people especially in Edo, vied with one another to eat the first catch of the season (Edo's fish markets were famous) or to guess what food they were eating.
Japan was still more or less cut off from the rest of the world as it had been since the middle of the 17th century, though the Dutch maintained their trading post on the island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour and contact with China and Korea was retained. This was not to say the Japanese government and intellectual classes were ignorant of what was happening in the rest of the world. The government regularly inquired of the Dutch merchants who were summoned to Edo at intervals the state of affairs in Europe. (They were quite aware of - and no doubt horrified by - reports of the French Revolution which may or may not have been partly to blame for the tightening up of the importing of foreign books and learning; it is also conceivable they were informed of the settlement by the British of a great continent to the south early in Ienari's reign). Intellectuals, at least until the time of the Kansei reforms, had access to European books on astronomy, medicine and science written in Dutch which Japanese students of this branch of learning (known as rangaku i.e. 'Dutch learning') translated into Japanese.
This glittering hot-house culture Japan produced at the time was not so wonderful for the samurai or the ninja. Samurai income varied quite drastically and the poor ones really suffered, often selling their swords or taking on jobs such as fan-making or umbrella-making. They had fixed incomes based on stipends paid in rice received from their lords which had to be converted to cash, often at ruinous rates. So it was not surprising a number chose to become ronin, hiring themselves out as either martial arts instructors or bodyguards to whomever would pay.
The ninja were in similar financial straits for their heyday had been the civil war period of the 16th century with its rival warlords. In a time of peace there was little need for their skills, except for those fortunate to be employed by the government or the feudal lords but on a much reduced scale than hitherto. A case is recorded in 1789 of ninja from Iga and Koga coming to Edo to try to persuade the shogunate to give them financial aid. To this end they presented the magistrate in charge of shrines and temples (shaji bugyō) with a sort of encyclopaedia of ninjutsu in the form of the famous Bansen Shūkai which had been written the previous century, to demonstrate the worth of their art, to put it on a footing with the tea ceremony and flower arrangement. In The Samurai, certain ninja particularly Momochi Genkurō, expressed dissatisfaction with this state of things and wished for the 'good old days'. Momochi tried to turn back the clock by attempting to start a civil war. And Lord Sadanobu tactlessly informed the Phantom Ninja their skills (which were of a very high order) were useless in the current age and told them to go back to Koga and farm, hunt and raise children.
As intimated, Shintarō's chief enemies in his adventures were ninja used (usually) by feudal lords to carry out their plans, though sometimes certain groups of ninja were shown to be acting on the initiative of their own ninja masters. Curiously, when I first wrote this piece in 1980 I had to explain what a ninja was as it had been so long since the series had been shown in this country. Now thanks to the American ninja boom of the 80s and onwards new generations knows exactly what ninja are and no further explanation is necessary. As far as The Samurai was concerned, the Iga ninja were the 'good guys', being employed by the shogunate to spy on feudal lords and to guard the shogun and his councillors. There was one band of Iga ninja who were a notable exception and this was the group of 10 led by Momochi Genkurō. The Kōga, Negoro and others, on the other hand, were the 'bad guys' as they worked for rebellious feudal lords against the government or stirred up trouble off their own bat. Of course, historically things were not so clear cut. All three - Iga, Kōga and Negoro - worked for the shogunate at various times from the 17th century onwards.
The ninja were what made the show for many fans. The ease and grace with which they performed seemingly impossible tasks or committed mayhem with their weapons fascinated. Indeed, it was the grace of movement, the ritualistic poses involved in traditional Japanese martial arts, the deadly ballet of them which was a strong factor in the program's appeal, certainly as much as the notion of: 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to soar up on to the roofs or take prodigious leaps over one's enemies' heads to escape difficulties like a ninja; to have so much control over one's body to be free to do what they do so easily and so readily?'.
Another point of great appeal was the ninja's incredible arsenal of weapons, all of which he or she could use with deadly efficiency. This arsenal is attested to by a number of ninja museums around Japan, most notably in Odawara Castle and the ninja museum at Iga-Ueno which is housed next to an actual 15th century ninja house complete with secret compartments, false floors, etc. The series featured shuriken ("star-knives") in all shapes and sizes as well as tetsubishi (caltrops), kusarigama (chain and sickle), kyoketsu shōge (rope with ring at one end and blade at the other), telescoping spears, explosive devices, smoke bombs, poisons, blinding powders, and so on. But it was the shuriken that are indelibly associated with the series. The way in which a ninja would be shown to hurl the deadly blades very rapidly and with great accuracy while darting, running or leaping through the air was something nearly every child viewer wanted to emulate.
No Samurai story was complete without one or more confrontations between the ponytailed Shintaro and these characters in their distinctive black garb and hoods. Often they would leap out of trees or long grass along the lonely road he would be walking and surround him in a circle, moving very rapidly around him, weapons poised so he would not know where or when the attack would come from. Then, suddenly and in a moment, he would strike with his sword flashing as he slashed at his assailants, moving so fast that they would remain standing upright, still in their positions, though stone dead, for a minute or so before keeling over.
Indeed, as an example of the universality of the appeal of the ninja in The Samurai, one can read in Japanese histories of popular heroes of the mass media articles by obvious fans commenting on just the sort of things which appealed to Australian children at the time and reminiscing on how they and their mates played 'samurai and ninja' just as kids thousands of miles away in Australia did but in another language.
By the standards of the times, it was really quite a blood-thirsty children's TV show, what with its swordfights, assassinations and suicides. Characters lost limbs with gay abandon - on one memorable occasion a ninja had a close encounter with Shintarō's sword resulting in the loss of an arm which he picked up before stumbling off to find a place to hide and recuperate. However, his attempts at covering his tracks were foiled by the trail of blood he left behind which Shintarō managed to follow to a house where the ninja's fellows had called in a doctor to attend to their wounded comrade. Apparently the doctor must have been charging above the common fee (no Medicare in those days) for after he treated the patient another ninja paid him then cut him down with his sword as he was leaving, then retrieved the bag of gold.
In the swordfights, the opponents would utter bloodcurdling, ululating yells at each other before engaging and those deadly blades would slash, shuriken would fly with a whooshing sound and embed themselves in trees or sides of buildings - or people. Ninja would leap like great black cats into trees or on to ceilings and carry on the fight from there; or spring away and aloft, laughing mockingly at the baffled hero as they made their escape. Others would hurl pieces of paper, like snow, to blind and confuse as they made off in a series of rapid back-flips or cartwheels. And woe betide anyone who was caught for he would choose death before surrender or if he failed in a mission. These scenes were also shown, depicting the ninja destroying himself with an explosive or a dagger. Life was shown to be cheap to a ninja and many died in the series, though the hero, Shintarō, was at pains to stress the importance of all life and regretted the deaths he had to cause in the line of duty and in the name of law and order. At the end of one series he was shown praying for the repose of the souls of the ninja (Genkurō and his band) he had killed and at the beginning of another series he was on the verge of giving up his sword and becoming a monk as he was so sickened by the senselessness of all the killing.
Shintarō's humanity was further emphasised by contrasting him with the ninja. This was done implicitly and by direct statement. Many times Shintarō would deplore the darkness and narrowness of a ninja's life with its stock-in-trade of deceit, trickery and illusion and its harsh code of honour and death in the service of one's master rather than defeat or surrender and its single-minded pursuit of its goals. Ninja were seen as agents of Chaos. On one occasion, a ninja who had recently defected from his group to join Shintarō because of his kindness to him, stopped to admire a breathtaking view of Mt. Fuji as they walked together towards their destination. He realised his action with some surprise, noting that as a ninja he never noticed beauty in such things; he only observed their presence. Shintarō commented that now he had left that behind, he could be free to enjoy beauty around him. However, in some later episodes, Shintarō conceded there was good in the ninja spirit.
Tonbei (played by Maki Fuyukichi), Shintaro's Iga ninja sidekick and his boy companion, Shūsaku (played by Ōmori Shunsuke) were likewise used to illustrate the basic futility and cruelty of a ninja's life and this helped balance its glamour as shown in the series At one point, Shūsaku wanted to be a ninja like Tonbei when he grew up but came to realise through practical experience that life as a ninja was, as the saying has it, 'nasty brutish and short' as he shook his head over some dead ninja slain by Shintarō on a beach. "Ninja are just like big birds," he declares, referring to the curious track they leave behind as well as to the fact that they were no more than that.
Despite the superficial appearance of violence and bloodthirstiness, there was a very strong moral thread throughout the series. Shintarō belonged to the heroic samurai type as opposed to the nihilistic type then coming into popularity in the cinema. He stood for straight dealing, justice, fairness, kindness, willingness to help, openness, consideration and honour, even when dealing with his enemies. He was also rather ahead of his time in that his loyalty was not to the shogun but in preserving the peace because of the effect war would have on the lives of ordinary people. Tonbei was also kind and honourable but more emotional and more cavalier with his enemies, having to be reprimanded by Shintarō from time to time.
Respect for one's enemy was a quality some of the enemy master-ninja also displayed, most notably Fūma Kotarō and Kongō of Kōga, about whom more later. Kotarō was perhaps the most complex and fascinating of the villains in the series - and one of the most popular.
However, the reward for a ninja's particular brand of ruthlessness was usually depicted as death at the hands of Shintarō, even though tribute might be paid to his or her skills or dedication. Here one thinks of Musai's death in "A Brave Death" in Fuma Ninja. Musai had Shintarō pinned against a tree with his body and, knowing he couldn't hold him indefinitely, instructed Kotarō to run his sword through his body so as to kill Shintarō underneath. Kotarō complied with reluctance as Musai had been his teacher.
Then there was the ninja who hid in the ceiling of the room Shintarō was in and whose boring a hole to spy on him caused small flakes of wood to fall into the hero's teacup, thus alerting him to the presence of an enemy. Swiftly, he hurled his short sword into the ceiling, piercing the body of the ninja who, without uttering a sound, drew it from his flesh, wiped the blood from the blade and let it fall back into the room so as not to betray his presence.
Though set in the 18th century, it is interesting how many of the stories hark back to the turbulent civil war period of the 16th century. Perhaps this was because the favoured period for ninja dramas is the civil war period when they were most active and the Kansei period is rather unusual for this type of adventure. But, for reasons which will become clearer later, the producers were locked into it.
For example, the second story featured, as the 'mcguffin' a treasure belonging to Takeda Shingen (1521-1573), a famous general and the Lord of Kai, one of Japan's great historical figures probably best known in this country through the Kurosawa film, Kagemusha and the series on SBS in the early 1990s. His war with Uesugi Kenshin, a rival warlord, lasted 20 years and has been the subject of many plays, novels and films. Shingen welded the Kai forces into a formidable fighting machine and won many victories, using the strategies of Sun-tzu, thus enabling him to expand his domains. He was killed by a bullet on his way to attack the capital, Kyoto, and his death, at his request, was kept secret for three years. Legend has it he left a number of buried treasures. The largest has been conservatively estimated at more than 500,000,000,000 (500 billion if you're an American) gold pieces. It was his war funds and is buried in the region of Kurokawa Valley in Keikanzan (literally Coxcomb Mountain), in Yamanashi Prefecture (the modern-name for Kai). Another one is 100,000 gold pieces, buried at the foot of Mt Minobe, also in Yamanashi Prefecture. Certainly, Shintarō spent a fair amount of time traipsing around the Yamanashi region.
Also in this story, Shintarō's boy companion, Baba Shūsaku, was introduced. He was the son of one Baba Nobukatsu, a descendant of a famous general of Kai, Baba Nobufusa, who served Takeda Nobutora (Shingen's father), Shingen himself and Shingen's son, Katsuyori. He lived from 1515 to 1576. It was for this reason that the 13 Kōga ninja kidnapped Shūsaku's father in the belief he knew where the treasure was, and harassed Shūsaku.
The third story, Iga Ninjas, featured as chief villain, Momochi Genkurō, an Iga ninja probably descended from semi-legendary Momochi Tanba-no-kami Sandayū. Sandayū was an elusive jōnin of the southern Iga ninja who lived around 1581,when he disappears from history during Oda Nobunaga's invasion of Iga Province. Legend says he fled to Wakayama and taught ninjutsu to the Negoro ninja. Various other legends connect Sandayū with bandit Ishikawa Goemon as his teacher. Others identify him with another Iga jōnin, Fujibayashi Nagato. At any road, we are back in the civil war period and this ties in with Genkurō's disgust with the present bloodless age and desire to return to a time of civil war where ninja could really use their skills.
This story also featured a 'contemporary' historical character on screen, rather than simply mentioned, apart from Matsudaira Sadanobu. This was the Lord of Owari, who was one of the shogun's cousins being from one of the families from which a shogun could be chosen. Given the time period, he is probably Tokugawa Munechika, the ninth Lord of Owari (Nagoya) (1733-1799), though he isn't down in history books as being such a trouble-maker.
In Fuma Ninja and Fuma Ninja Continued, Fūma Kotarō Kaneyoshi, the chief villain and head of the Fūma ninja, was a descendant of Fūma Kotarō Nobuyuki who served the Hōjō family of Odawara in the late 16th century. He was the fifth generation Fūma Kotarō to serve the Hōjō and he was the leader of a band of 200 Fūma ninja who were part bandit, part guerrilla, part spy, part gypsy. Kotarō had a fearsome reputation and was said to be 7 foot in height with a terrible appearance, and a deep, sinister voice. His most famous exploit was using his 200 Fūma, divided into four groups, to harass and finally drive away the forces of Takeda Katsuyori, in 1581. After the fall of the Hōjō in 1590, he and his band turned to piracy and brigandry, terrorising the fledgling city of Edo until finally Tokugawa Ieyasu set up a special task force to deal with him. He was betrayed by a rival ninja, Kōzaka Jinnai, and beheaded in 1603.
His TV descendant also led a gypsy-like life with his band, wandering around the countryside after the Hōjō buried treasure. He, too, was also very tall with a deep sepulchral voice and reference was made in the series to a vow his ancestor made before being beheaded that he would return from the dead. The 16th century Fūma were known for their use of 'dragon-ships', submersibles with dragon prows with which they attacked enemy shipping or raided seashore villages. The TV series featured one of them prominently. It also mentioned a plot by a group of malcontents to revive the Hōjō family (whose descendants occupied the small Sayama fief following the fall of Odawara Castle in 1590. Odawara, by this time, was in the hands of the Okubo family) - a plot which naturally attracted the attention of the descendant of one of their loyal retainers.
In Ninja Terror, events revolved partially around the succession to the Kii fief (Kishū), probably inspired by events in late 1789.. In October 1789,Tokugawa Harusada, ninth lord of Kii died aged 62,and was succeeded in December by his son, Harutomi (1771-1852). In Ninja Terror as we have another young man (18 years old) needing Shintarō's protection. He, too, was from one of the families from which a shogun might be chosen. Also appearing in this story was one 'Lord Yorikata'. This may have been Matsudaira Yorikata, who became Lord of Saijo (a cadet fief to Kii) in 1775 and retired in 1795. He died in 1806 aged 52. He was a cousin of Harutomi's.
The remaining stories did not seem to feature much historical references except when they included Matsudaira Sadanobu, though Kongō of Kōga, in Phantom Ninja, was said to have worked for 'Lord Mizuno'. This could be Mizuno Tadatomo (1731-1801) who was a councillor in the 1780s under Tanuma Okitsugu and was forced to resign in 1788 when Sadanobu took over. Thus he would have no love for Sadanobu. And in the final story, Contest of Death, we discover from the date on the various ‘challenges’ to the ninja clans that it is now the second year of Kansei, i.e. 1790.
However, for most viewers, it was a daily half-hour of an actionful adventure yarn set in a remote time and place of often extraordinary beauty (most scenes of mayhem took place in the most exquisite surroundings) with an equally beautiful but no less deadly way of fighting and featuring an unusual and attractive group of characters who displayed a complexity at times that was far removed from the saccharine stereotypes of children's westerns and who were capable of the most amazing feats of physical prowess, daring and stoicism. There was much to be absorbed here, which gave the series a depth more culturally accessible shows could not have for us.
This is not to say that it did not have its faults, even for the most rabid fan. Chief among these was the dubbing which was really quite bad and caused much merriment in the playgrounds across the nation. Perfect synchronisation of sound with lip movement cannot really be expected with two such different languages as Japanese and English. However, what excuse can there be for a scene where Shintaro rides furiously down a road as the soundtrack yells enthusiastically: "Yah! Giddyup! Yah!" - yet our hero's lips do not move once! The translation also left a lot to be desired. What excuse is there for having Genkurō speak of dynamite and rifles, when neither was invented until the middle of the following century? What was wrong with saying "gunpowder" and "guns" (or "muskets")? Some of the voices were unsuitable for the characters - light voices for some villains (especially when you know the actor has a deep voice), different voices being dubbed on to the same character at different times (hands up those who know how many different voices Tonbei had?)
However, it must be admitted that at other times a reasonable attempt was made to match the original voices in the choice of people to dub it (with the exception of William Ross, who did Shintarō, none were professional actors). For example, a listen to the original soundtrack on the aforementioned LP (or the Japanese soundtrack on the most recent Siren releases) reveals that whoever dubbed Amatsu Bin (Fūma Kotarō) had a very similar voice, deep and menacing, while those for Shintarō and Tonbei come close, too. Shūsaku is just as screechy in either language. But then some of Amatsu's other characters were inflicted with some really preppy sounding voices, not at all suitable for a master villain (one thinks of Genki in The New Samurai).
In addition, there was a tendency to turn the words of the English version around in an attempt to approximate Japanese sentence structure and idiom, resulting in a curious sort of pidgin where 'now' was tacked on the end of every second sentence, substituting, I suppose, for 'ne' or similar. Much of the dialogue was very stilted - deep sympathy being expressed with "That's too bad, now," for example. It was a standing joke that whenever a ninja said, "You die, now, Shintarō/Tonbei/tick one!", it was a sure sign the speaker was the one who would die instead.
Then there was the case of the drip-dry ninja. This phenomenon occurred whenever one of that merry band would leap out of a stream or pond on to dry land. Though his clothes would be soaking as he shot from beneath the surface of the water, they were always dry when he landed on the bank. This, of course, is easily explained. Such sequences were done by having the actor jump from the bank into the water, then running the film backwards. What they should have done was douse the actor with water before he made the jump so he would be wet all the way through the sequence.
Other howlers occurred as a result of external circumstances. On one occasion, when The Samurai was shifted to a Sunday noon spot, there was a break for a commercial where the picture remained but the soundtrack only of the advertisement could be heard. So, to the dulcet strains of "Wash your hair too clean for dandruff with Blue Clinic shampoo", Shinigami the Deathless Ninja, who was a front-line contender for the title 'Superscrag of Tokugawa Japan' with his scruffy appearance, puffy eyes, and shock of wild, tangled hair hanging in unruly clumps down his back, stepped into view.
And, of course, there was the famous bath scene which made us all fall off our perches in surprise at the time and had the playgrounds buzzing for weeks afterwards. Even now when two old Samurai fans meet, it's a case of "Do you remember the bath scene?" In this we were treated to what was possibly our first nude scene (back view only) - and remember this was 1965 and Australian TV was a lot more innocent then. You could not even say 'bloody' and it was still seven years before all the nudity and sex of Number 96 (the soap that used to make visiting Americans' eyes fall out - they were still many years off Dallas and Dynasty). So the sight of even a boy like Shūsaku as he stood up with his back to the camera in a Japanese-style bath, while the adult men remained seated with only their shoulders and chests visible after having a cosy chat about the state of ninja-dom, was quite a novelty.
Strange how that has stuck even after all these years as a talking point. There was far more on show later in Puppet Ninja when Shintarō climbed aboard a boat after swimming from a beach, flashing a fair bit of flesh as all he has on is his Japanese-style loin-cloth yet no one remembers that. Quite a revealing garment, the kimono, too, under certain circumstances such as running or as, worn with casual elegance but very tight and open at the throat and top of the chest by Momochi Genkurō which made him look more like a yakuza than a ninja in one sequence, as opposed to the well wrapped up Shintarō. Now the body language in that scene was rather extraordinary as Genkurō circled Shintarō in exactly the way a rabbit buck will do to assert his dominance.
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