MILESAGO - Television

THE SAMURAI / THE PHANTOM AGENTS

NOTES

On 28 December 1964 at 4:30pm, a quiet revolution took place on Australian television. A new series premiered on TCN-9 in Sydney and its arrival marked a dramatic shift in the cultural landscape. The series was The Samurai -- the first Japanese series ever shown on Australian television. Within weeks, it was a cult hit and by the end of 1965 it had, incredibly, become the one of the most popular series on Australian television.

It screened on TCN-9 (Sydney) beginning on December 28 1964, daily at 3.30pm; it began in Melbourne in June 1965, screening at 4pm on GTV-9), and also in Brisbane and Adelaide. It was not shown in Tasmania. Remarkably, the extraordinary popularity of The Samurai  was confined almost exclusively to two countries -- it screened only here, in Japan and in Hong Kong, and was apparently never seen either in the U.S. or the U.K.

The Samurai was made by Senkosha Productions and was first screened in Japan in October 1962. It was Senkosha's first jideigeki (historical drama) and while tailored for TV, it came from a long tradition of similar historical action-adventure stories and novels published in both text and comic-book ("manga") form. It drew heavily on such popular literature -- indeed the series, which was in fact hastily produced on a shoestring budget, frequently appropriated plot elements from well-known samurai novels. 

The story is set in 1789 during the turbulent Tokugawa shogunate and many of the characters were loosely based on actual historical figures. When it first aired, TV Week described it as:

"A new adventure series set in medieval Japan telling the story of Shintaro, the master swordsman, and of his relentless search for his enemies, the black robed society of the Koga Ninja who have many weapons at its disposal, including the art of hypnotic illusion."

The sheer novelty of the series captivated audiences immediately. It was exotic, utterly different from anything else on local television at the time. Japanese people with very odd hairdos, strange old-fashioned clothes and weird names underwent bizarre adventures in incredible locations; both the hero and his enemies had extraordinary powers and abilities -- not to mention all the really cool Samurai swords and especially the star knives. It fitted in with the popularity of  westerns and other historical adventure/romance serials for children like Robin Hood, The King's Outlaw, Ivanhoe, Sir Francis Drake and the like. The action and acting were sometimes stilted, slow and formal like a Noh play, but sometimes as frenetic as the popular kung-fu films that it helped pave the way for. But like the Japanese samurai films that were then beginning to make a major impression on the West -- especially those by Kurosawa -- it had been modelled as much on the American western as it had on traditional Japanese historical romances.

A great deal of the show's cult appeal derived from the rather amateurish English dubbing over the Japanese soundtrack. The revoicing was done by a mostly non-professional cast, including diplomats and business people, and although the character English voices were generally well-matched to the main characters, the dialogue and synchronisation was another matter entirely. Japanese is difficult to dub successfully into English, and given the tiny budgets and time constraints faced by the producers, there was inevitably a lot of awkward mismatching, resulted in often hilarious sequences. Shintaro would moved his mouth for what were obviously long speeches, but the English audio would deliver only one or two words. Conversely, the fearsome Ninja might move their lips in an unmistakably short utterance, but the English audio would gush out interminable sentences.

The enjoyment of this form of humour is not confined to Australia -- Woody Allen's What's Up Tiger Lily was based on just this premise -- but it seems to be a form of humour especially enjoyed by Australians, and for that generation of Australians it became a kind of stock joke. Other classic examples of this were the Aunty Jack team's hilariously bad "Europa Films" segments, in which they revoiced b-grade movies -- like their unforgettable deconstruction of a bad Blackbeard movie, retitled "Gidget Goes Tasmanian". This in turn seems to have been one of the direct ancestors of the popular Double Take team, led by Des Mangan, who performed side-splitting live voiceovers to z-grade classics.

The star, Ose Koichi (Shintaro) was already a popular actor in Japan, having starred as Superman in a 1958 Japanese version and in Senkosa's popular 1958-59 action-adventure series Gekko Kamen ("Moonlight Mask"), in which he played a masked urban superhero. Koichi Ose was also a recording artist. One of the singles released in English was called "Lonely Night". At the height of his TV career he left The Samurai for a film contract. He was replaced by a new star, Shin-Ichiro Hayashi and the new series was titled "The New Samurai." This series was filmed in colour for the local market, but the dubbed export prints were black and white. After The Samurai, Koichi Ose acted in about 20 feature films and retired suddenly in 1969. In 1971 he set up a company dealing in entertainment promotion and property development, including a golf course in Tokyo. In 1980, he and his wife launched a chain of noodle restaurants called Goninbayashi ("five musical"). Koichi Ose was reported to be still alive in early 1999 and is not dead as I and others were led to believe. His sidekick Tombei The Mist was last heard of running his own carpentry business, until his death in 1998. Ben Amatsu who played Kongo of Koga is deceased. 

After a slow start The Samurai gained a immense following there, especially after the introduction, early in the series, of its trademark characters, the mysterious and deadly  ninja warriors.

The Ninja were based on a real historical class of mercenary warriors. Part-commando, part spy, part assassin, they were expert in the martial arts and masters of disguise and camouflage. Aided by trick photography, The Samurai  elevated their legendary abilities into a semi-mythical realm, making ninja able to move in the blink of an eye, leap metres into the air (backwards), cling to walls and ceilings like flies or disappear without trace in a puff of smoke.

Ten series' of the original were shown with 12-13 episodes in each. When The Samurai debuted, it started with the second series, not the first and it was only when Channel 9 ran out of episodes, and a mail campaign mounted by fans, that they bought and showed the first series. It never made it to the US (except Hawaii) or England. The Samurai had a huge following in the 60's and was screened on TV up to the late 70's. However, in the late 80's, 2 episodes were shown on channel 9's 'Golden Years of Television' presented by David Lyle.

Shintaro was assisted by 'Tombei The Mist' and together they fought against the bad Black Ninjas and their arch enemies including 'Kongo of Koga' and 'Garidoshi' with his assistant 'Onime the Bat'. Shintaro also had a boy companion named 'Shusaku'.

Shintaro's name in real life was Kazunari Ose. His stage name was Koichi Ose. He was a top movie star in Japan, standing 5' 7" tall and was regarded as a very handsome man.

He toured Australia in December 1965 and performed 12 live shows in 15 days at the Sydney Stadium and at Festival hall in Melbourne before returning to Japan. Originally he was only planned to do the Sydney shows, but pressure from Melbourne promoters were able to change his program. Each show drew more than 6000 people watching him slay dragons and fight Ninjas in an unforgettable performance.

As Shintaro jumped off the plane in Sydney and Melbourne, he was mobbed by screaming fans in Kimonos made from mum's old bed sheets, with star knives made of cardboard and jam tin lids, waving Samurai bubble gum wrappers with his picture on them. Koichi Ose was overwhelmed and had no idea of his popularity until that moment.

What made The Samurai's popularity in Australia especially remarkable was the recent historical relationship between Japan and Australia. Less than twenty years earlier Australia had been locked in a life-and-death struggle with Japan during WWII. Darwin had been heavily bombed by air, and even Sydney had been attacked by midget submarines. Thousands of Australian servicemen and women lost their lives fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and in Papua-New Guinea and thousands more POWs, notably those captured at the fall of Singapore, had suffered terrible hardship at the hands of their Japanese captors in places like the notorious Changi prison camp and on the infamous Burma Railway.

Although there were atrocities on all sides, the Japanese did take an extraordinarily harsh attitude towards prisoners of war. Japanese soldiers, especially later in the war, were heavily indoctrinated into the traditional military code of bushido. They were encouraged to regard Europeans as inferior, and prisoners as cowards of almost sub-human stature, and were taught to believe that death was preferable to capture. This indoctrination extended even to the civilian population -- as Allied forces discovered to their horror when they captured Japanese-held islands like Okinawa, where they witnessed shocking scenes of women and children hurling themselves from the cliffs rather than allow themselves to be captured by the Americans.

As John Doyle's exemplary drama series Changi has recently explored, the profound shock and trauma of the clash of these two cultures at war still reverberates through our society today. Hatred of the Japanese was only reinforced by post-war revelations of the brutal treatment of prisoners on the Burma railway, and terrible atrocities like the Bangka Island Massacre in May 1941, in which 82 unarmed Allied service people, including 22 Australian female nurses, were mercilessly bayoneted and machine-gunned on the beach after swimming ashore from the sinking of the boat on which they were travelling.

The wig he wore in The Samurai, as of 1993 is owned by Gary Renshaw who lives in Brisbane. During the 60's, Scanlen's bubble gum company produced 72 cards on the series, plus an additional colour card. Each card pack contained 4 cards and two sticks of gum for 5 cents, similar to the football cards sold during that time.

 

REFERENCES / LINKS

Tony Harrison
The Australian Film & Television Companion
(Simon and Schuster, 1995)

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