SHINTARO : THE SAMURAI SENSATION THAT SWEPT A NATION
The Making of a Documentary, or Edo Wasn't Built in a Day I was first contacted about this some time in 2007 by the producer, Marco Sinigaglia who was planning to do a documentary on The Samurai entitled, Shintaro, Our Aussie Samurai, and was researching it. I assumed he wanted my help in some way. No more was heard until December of that year when he again emailed me to say the project had much market interest and some funding. He said he had people sourcing archival footage and listed some names he intended to contact, people like Nigel Rennard and Garry Renshaw who eventually did appear on the documentary, plus others who were interviewed but did not appear. He also asked me if anyone else had approached me about making a documentary about the show. (No).
February 2008 saw a flurry of emails trying to tee up a time when he could phone me. Mission impossible as I had too many rabbit or cavy shows. By 19 February, the documentary had a revised title, Shintaro! The Cult of the Children's Samurai and was described as taking the angle from Australian children's perspective of that generation and he wanted me to sign an exclusivity agreement to safeguard his concept in the market place He also wanted to know what I had in the way of memorabilia, photos etc. and could I put something on my website requesting footage, photos or personal stories. By the end of March he planned to pitch to networks both in Australia and overseas. As it happened he never did send me any agreements to sign and I did query whether such a thing would impinge on my intellectual property in my website (it wouldn't have).
In April 2008 he pitched to SBS, the ABC, Ten, Foxtel, etc. and had a Japanese researcher working on Ōse. He also made contact with Rex Morgan, former headmaster of Pittwater House who had come down so hard on the show in the 1960s. Mr Morgan wanted to be interviewed. At this stage he still planned to come to Canberra to interview me. His own research was almost done and for the next phase, once he got funding, he planned to do extensive archive searches in Australia and Japan and finalise the script. He hoped production would start in January 2009.
In July he announced the documentary had been picked up by Screenworld (formerly Becker Entertainment), one of Australia's oldest independent television production companies. He hoped development would begin in a few months time.
I heard nothing further and assumed things had fallen through but then in March 2009 I received a call at work, in the National Library, from a Melissa Hines of Screenworld which was followed up by an email in which she introduced herself as the production manager on Shintaro! The Samurai Sensation That Swept a Nation and announced that SBS was backing the documentary. This meant they had officially started pre-production and were planning to shoot in April. Around this time Marco finally sent me a PDF for the website calling for anyone with archival footage, photos etc. They wanted to interview me in April. I suggested Friday 24 April as I had to be in Sydney on 22 for the Sydney Royal Easter Show cavy show (ironically, I was also interviewed at the Sydney Royal, though not about The Samurai. Show Radio interviewed me about cavies - guinea pigs - and I took a Sheba Mini Yak into the studio). I chose an morning appointment as I wanted to get back to Canberra before dark as I had animals to feed.
At 9.30am I was duly picked up from Annandale where I was staying by the Associate Producer, James Findlay and driven to the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington where they had hired a small studio to film the interviews. On the way over, James and I had a chat about the documentary as I had some misgivings that it might turn out to be just be a nostalgia fest or a fanboy thing. I had already pointed out that I didn't think I could contribute much as I wasn't able to see Ōse when he was out here nor attend the stage show. My knowledge related more to the show itself, its production history, storylines, actors etc. They still wanted to interview me. James assured me that the documentary was taking a sociological approach, what effect the series had on Australians of that generation and on the country at the time, the context the phenomenon happened in and so forth. I was reminded somewhat of the surf culture documentary Bombora which had screened recently and covered many of these topics, how something from overseas arrived and shook up Australia. James agreed - he had worked on Bombora - and wanted Marco to see it.
The studio had three people in it - Marco, James and the sound engineer. There was one camera, a chair in front of a green screen and another next to the camera. Melissa had told me about the green screen and advised not wearing green, bright colours, spots or checks. I had a black hand-loomed wool blend Vivian Chan Shaw top with white piping, black hand-loomed Vivian Chan Shaw slacks, a silver necklace with a coral pendant and cinnabar earrings. In other words, what I would normally wear to work. There was no make-up - in fact Marco himself adjusted my hair. I had to sit facing the camera and not move my head much though I could gesture with my arms or hands. I was encouraged to add colour by mimicking sounds or whatever. Marco sat by the camera with a sheet of questions. Before he began he outlined what they would be about - they were in blocks covering different aspects - and told me to think about what message I would give to Shintarō if he were there. I asked, "Shintarō as in the character, or Ōse Kōichi the actor?" "Shintarō the character". Not easy without being too smart or sarcastic (Shintarō's sense of humour really sucked at times and his moral outrage especially when telling young ladies they ought to give up the sword and be good wives was even more pompous that Jon Pertwee's Doctor at his worst,) I had a microphone in front of me. The green screen was so they could do different designs as back projection and very attractive they turned out.
Marco was excited that he'd been able to get some footage of rehearsals for the stage show because the wife of one of the local martial artists used as ninja filmed it. He was rather horrified that some of the TV networks had junked their old newsreel footage. He and the team were flying out to Japan that weekend to interview Ōse and one of the producers. They were in direct contact with Senkōsha who had been very cooperative (unlike their obtuse American agent who had made things so difficult for Siren). He had six people to interview that day and had already interviewed quite a number already, about 30 I think. As I was finishing up, Ian Rogerson arrived for his interview, the only other person I saw. We had a brief chat and Marco said this was great, it would be wonderful to get the fans together to spark off each other. However, that wasn't really logistically possible but it was a nice idea. I would envisage a dinner in a nice restaurant, everyone relaxed and firing on all cylinders but, hey, this was SBS.
In June Marco made arrangements so come to Canberra (by hire car, I think) with a scanner and a camera to photograph or scan some things in my collection. He arrived fairly early and worked away with no break, not even to eat until late afternoon. I offered him a meal but he was regretting something he ate in one of the highway service stations. He photographed the Mike McGann T-shirts (Garry Renshaw wore one for his interview), the gum cards, DVDs, videos, etc. and scanned some articles from my scrapbooks. I think the one on Phantom Agents from Woman's Day and Ōse in full cannonicals when he came out here from the Australian Women's Weekly were used. I asked him about the title and he said that "everyone" remembered it as 'Shintaro' rather than The Samurai (not at Wiley Park Girls High, they didn't.) He said that now he was going through the process of pulling everything into shape from all the material he had. As will be apparent, he had far more material than he used in the documentary. I rather think he decided to focus sharply on the Australian story rather than anything about the production of the series which is why we didn't hear from the Japanese producer. Those bloggers (a tiny minority) who complained they wanted to see more about how it as made rather missed the point.
Melissa sent out an email in October telling us when the documentary was to be broadcast and after it was shown, she sent us each a DVD of it. So it took over two years from conception to broadcast.
SBS released the documentary on DVD in April 2010.
The Documentary: the View From the Cavy Shed I thought the whole thing came together well, focusing on the series' social impact (which is why I imagine some of the material from Japan was not used as the documentary was not about the production side). It fitted in very nicely with the documentary on the ABC the night before on the Ballets Russes in Australia, another foreign group who arrived and shook up the place and were described as "bigger than the Beatles" though not at the time as this was a generation before both the Liverpool moptops and The Samurai. It also followed on in its way from Bombora, the ABC's documentary from earlier in the year on how surfing impacted on Australian society particularly in the postwar period.
The use of young actors to portray kids of the time watching The Samurai, playing with toy star-knives and swords, pinching wicker laundry baskets for headgear and generally tumbling about and having their gumcards confiscated by a teacher was clever though does make one realise how little opportunity today's kids get for such creativity and activity as everything is handed to them, ready made and over-protective parents would be horrified to have their little darlings jumping off sheds and practising handsprings and cartwheels in the playground. The reminiscences of some of the interviewees on screen and of others on the various websites and blogs connected with the documentary underline this with tales of eating Wagon Wheels into the shape of a star-knife or throwing slices of bread at each other or cutting up jam tin or paint tin lids and chucking them about.. Some of my favourite bits are hearing about those kids' ingenuity and lateral thinking in coming up with home-made samurai or ninja gear. After all, this was long before mass marketing of toys connected with a TV series or film. Even Star Trek in the 1960s only had a handful of items connected with it. The exception that proved the rule was Doctor Who or rather Dalekmania where you had Daleks in every way shape or form from moving models to wallpaper to slippers. I also wonder what the youngsters thought about portraying the weird things their parents or grandparents got up to in the 1960s. Did they think they had fun or did they think they were terminally uncool?
Some real finds were Hilary Lindsay of Lindsay Toys, the footage of the rehearsals for the stage show, Ōse's arrival and visit to the Scanlen's Chewing Gum Factory and Rex Morgan, former headmaster of Pittwater House.
I have always been fascinated by how much was made in this country which is not made here now, instead is imported or outsourced to China. My mother talks of the beautiful leather shoes that used to be made here mid-20th century (probably from the influx of Italian migrants who arrived from the 1920s onwards). I know that we used to make a type of envelope which could be opened by Customs for the Japanese market because we used to receive the weekly edition of the Japanese National Bibliography in them from which we would select books for the National Library collection. These had printed on them in Japanese that they maybe opened for customs inspection but in English it said they were made in Australia. When I was cataloguing the old Australian periodicals onto the national bibliographic database, I noticed how many were annual reports of such a range of successful companies no longer with us. Then on Collectors I discovered that those little plastic thingies which turned up in cornflake packets when I was growing up in London were actually made in Melbourne. No wonder when I started work in the 1970s the Industries Assistance Commission was known as the Industries Assassination Commission.
So I was fascinated by Hilary Lindsay's story and to hear how they were right on the ball with marketing costumes based on popular TV series putting them well ahead of the times as well as seeing once again the ninja and samurai outfits and swords. This was doubly interesting as I'd always assumed these were made in Japan and imported.
I thought Rex Morgan was very sporting wanting to be interviewed and tell his side of the story, which I thought he did in a very open, non defensive sort of way. Looking back on it, the whole criticism of The Samurai he made seems to have been distorted by the media in a way that is all too familiar today. He explained he didn't intend his remarks to be racist but he didn't want the children becoming obsessed by a television series. Certainly, his stance was not unusual. I remember when I was in primary school in London in the early 1960s, there was a craze for small, black inflatable dolls with big eyes which hooked on to your arm called 'Hugger-Bugs' ( many years later I discovered these, too, were Japanese in origin, known as 'Dakko-chan' there). The headmistress put her foot down and banned them from the school and the playground. If you had one on you, it would be confiscated for the day and returned to you before you went home. In short, schools tend to be a bit killjoy about what kids think cool.
One of the questions I was asked was what was I watching at the time. This was to establish what was on Australian TV in the first part of the Sixties and how dreary and monotonous it was until The Samurai came along. However, I had to say that I had only just come out from England and what I watched there were some Westerns (Rin Tin Tin, Annie Oakley and Rawhide), some drama series (77 Sunset Strip, Sea Hunt, No Hiding Place, Dickson of Dock Green, Sergeant Cork, Boyd QC and Perry Mason), some science fiction (Pathfinders to..., Fireball XL5, Space Patrol and Doctor Who) and lots of children's historicals like Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Sword of Freedom, William Tell, Ivanhoe, Sir Francis Drake, The Buccaneers and serials about the French Revolution (which, until I catalogued the Revolutionary pamphlets always seemed to be a somewhat black and white event with people going around addressing each other as "Citizen") or the French Resistance or something about smugglers in Elizabethan times. My brother and I used to play Robin Hood and Sea Hunt (strapping my father's cases of 78s to our backs to represent aqualungs and jumping off the bed). We also used to play French Revolution and French Resistance. So I think that The Samurai for us slotted in somewhere with Sir Francis Drake, Ivanhoe, William Tell and Edmund Purdom's sword wielding character in Sword of Freedom (only that was a rapier not a katana). It was exotic, to be sure, because it was set in Japan a country we had barely heard of other than as a source of transistor radios and the venue for the Olympic Games the year before, but it was more along the lines of "Oh, so they had sword fights and people shooting arrows and such like over there, too".
However, one of the things that did come up in showing what was on were clips from Annie Oakley. I had completely forgotten about this series. What an eye-opener. Never mind The Samurai, let's hear it for Annie Oakley! This must surely be TV's first kick-arse heroine. There's a problem in the saloon, no worries, she'll sort it, marching in and shooting or otherwise demolishing the opposition. And don't forget the trick riding. Definitely one I hope comes out on DVD soon just like Richard Greene's Robin Hood.
I was also asked whether I knew about the stage play and where I heard about it. As I recall a girl at school had seen an announcement in the paper so I rushed up the street and bought the evening paper. Thereafter there were ads in the papers and after each episode of The Samurai which was then in repeats a voice-over would come on in a cod-Japanese accent saying something like "I am Shintaro. I will be coming to Sydney, Australia..." and named the dates of the show. I think this also played on the radio. I didn't see it as we had no way to get to Rushcutters Bay from Belmore as no one had a car and we were living with my grandparents who didn't really approve of the show more or less for Rex Morgan's reasons. My grandmother didn't like our fascination with the show, she didn't like enthusiasms. The lack of car was also why we weren't at Mascot Airport when Ōse arrived, though by chance we were with my uncle, who did have a car, out there the following week and it was blistering hot. I looked at the tarmac (no airbridges in those days) and thought "Yeeuch! Fancy walking across in that costume. He must have fried."
Another question was about racism and anti-Japanese feeling as a result of World War II. Again I was not much help as we had been brought up not to dislike people for their nationality, skin colour, religion, etc. which was just as well given the multi-cultural nature of not only the primary school I attended in Hampstead but also the London grammar school later. My grandparents were also similarly non-racist. In fact the only "racism" I experienced was directed at me in the form of "anti-Pom" sentiments in the first term of high school out here until I must have passed some sort of test. There was the mother of a family friend who lost her son to the Japanese who had no time for them but that was fair enough and I simply didn't mention The Samurai around her. On the other hand the mother of another family friend, an eccentric old woman who wore velvet and lace and army boots and used to be a cook at Blenheim Palace, used to say, whenever I mentioned a character from The Samurai "How would you like to wake up and find that on your pillow in the morning?" To which I'd think, "Erm, no, ta, unless it's Kongō of Kōga." Don't think that's racism so much as a sort of sexism.
In my replies, I did reference Doctor Who
a few times (doubtless dropped because that is on the ABC and this was SBS)
because it was a similar television phenomenon, though probably more so in
Britain at that time. Instead of kids jumping around throwing star-knives, real
or imagined, we had kids on the tube station or in the playground with
arms outstretched going "Ex-term-i-nate!" For one lot rulers doubled as samurai
swords for the other lot, they were Dalek energy weapons. Either way it was
about weapons of mass destruction (ninja and Skaro's finest). Doubtless some
people found the idea of an old man and his companions travelling in space and
time in a police box a true story compared with a lone swordsman able to cut
down a whole army of assailants single-handedly except for a companion who turns
up too late and exclaims, "Ah, Kōga ninja!" Parents on both sides of the
oceans couldn't fathom them and found both deeply strange. On the other hand,
the mass media took both up rapidly with newspaper cartoons referencing them
(e.g. a Samurai-inspired one showed a little boy pointing at a nun
and saying, "Look, Mummy, a ninja") and running stories on the programs so that
both programs seemed to be everywhere.
It was good to see Ōse as he is now and hear that he still remembers his trip out here. He seemed very charming and modest, saying that he was now a rather old Shintarō but please to keep on remembering him. That should quash those tiresome pests who think they know more than they do (which is often very little) who would have it he was no longer alive. Talk about "The report of my death was an exaggeration". Ōmori Shunsuke (Shūsaku) suffered the same fate. He is very much alive, or was in 2004. Unfortunately a lot of the others are indeed dead: director Funatoko Sadao died in 1972, Amatsu Bin (Fūma Kotarō/Kongo of Kōga) died in 1979, Maki Fuyukichi (Tonbei) in 1998.
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