This 4th story arc of the 1960’s Senkoska Film Company television series, The Fuma Ninjas, is as you would probably expect it to be. Dubbed into English but disappointingly without the option of the original language and subtitles, it is still a moderately entertaining instalment of one of the most popular chambara (Japanese period action) shows ever to air in Japan. In this arc of the series, Shintaro (Koichi Ose), the charismatic and undefeatable samurai, almost takes a back seat to the ninja war he finds himself in the middle of. Watching, it is not perhaps a case of whether he’ll come out on top, but of how many of the ‘good’ Iga Ninja sworn to protect Edo Castle are still going to be fit for active duty when it’s done.
Much of the value of The Samurai lies in its ‘afternoon serial’ style. Like the kind of popularist midday entertainment your parents or grandparents might be more used to, the story is a bit of a no brainer, told in short episodes over an extended period (13 episodes in this season). For us young-uns, the show’s traditionalist look and feel makes it inoffensive to watch. If you’re at all familiar with samurai films of any sort, you’ll have fun recognising the genre cues – the punctuated fight scenes, the neat jump-cut special effects, the crazy camera angles and the wild close-ups. It’s cheap daytime drama, but that doesn’t make it any less cool, and the more you watch the more you’ll start to notice how such supposedly tacky techniques can be glimpsed in today’s more highly evolved (usually) samurai and ninja genre entertainment.
It’s a bit of a lost art, and somewhat refreshing considering the heaviness of today’s action films. Shows like The Samurai didn’t try to be everything at once; they knew their genre limitations and they stuck to them, and as a result the complicated political manoeuvring typical to Edo period stories is thankfully easy to follow. You don’t need to know about the fact that the defeat of Odawara Castle was a key strategic point in the Tokugawa war and that its fall marked the start of the Tokugawa reign for the next two hundred years. And it certainly doesn’t matter that you understand the family loyalties tied up in the Tokugawa’s rise to power. All you need to know in The Samurai: The Fuma Ninjas, is that the Fuma Ninjas are the bad guys, and Shintaro is the good guy who’s eventually going to stop them. Sometimes simplicity is sadly underrated.
And really, despite the fact that this is No Frills viewing, that you don’t get an original language option, that the film stock is old and jerky and the action naff and weirdly bloodless, The Samurai is a classic of its genre and worth the watch. Siren’s print is good, considering the show’s age, and while they could have put 13 episodes on 2 discs, as opposed to 4, the package has a smart, classic feel to it. If you’re into samurai flicks and the chambara genre in any form, The Fuma Ninjas is an easy and fun way to while away a couple of hours and remind yourself of where the Princess Blade and the Versus of today once hailed from.