Japan's first color live-action ninja TV series has abundant thrills
"Kamen No Ninja Akakage" (aka "Red Shadow," 1967) is a live-action ninja series, in color, that appeared on Japanese TV in the 1967-68 season. Its main heroes are a trio of gaudy ninjas: dashing hero Red Shadow (Yuzaburo Sakaguchi); his boy sidekick, Blue Shadow (Yoshinobu Kaneko); and an older ninja, White Shadow (Fuyukichi Maki). They fight armies of swordsmen and other ninjas and all manner of super-villains, as well as frequent giant monsters. Based on a manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama ("Tetsujin 28"), it's a garish affair in the Ultraman style and looks forward to the live-action sentai shows of later decades and their superhero teams (the model for "Power Rangers"). Red Shadow has an incongruous modern hairstyle, like something an overly manicured mobster of the the 1960s would wear, complete with gallons of hairspray to keep it rock-hard. He wears a red mask over his eyes, a long red scarf and matching lipstick. He has numerous swordfights and kills a lot of his opponents. He can fly on occasion, which proves a useful skill when battling the monsters. He also shoots lightning out of his sword. Most of the (male) villains wear even more makeup than the hero, with colorful eye shadow a particular favorite.
I have a tape of this show, in Japanese with no subtitles, that offers an hour-long compilation of action scenes from the entire season, so I won't be able to provide much plot detail. But the monster battles are pretty wild, with an ordinary lizard growing in size to become a giant Gamera-style lizard monster, and an assortment of other creatures, mostly giant insects, but also a giant bird, a giant cat-like thing, and a plant monster or two. In one scene, the boy ninja, Blue Shadow, seems to have some control over a giant monster I can't quite describe that looks like nothing else I've ever seen, and he gets it to fight another one. Some of the monsters are man-sized.
There's a beautiful blind girl named Kagero who's apparently the sister of Blue Shadow and she's kidnapped by the villains at one point and later rescued. She has some kind of power connected to a jeweled eye mask that the villains seem to want badly and at a moment when things look rough for the heroes, that power comes into use. There are female ninjas around as well, including one who sits in a tree and plays an ocarina-like instrument that's used to summon monsters.
There's a nice mix of extensive outdoors work with studio sets. The matting of giant monsters with live actors is not the most polished, but if you're looking for state-of-the-art special effects in your entertainment, you're probably not reading this review. Just think of a Gamera movie set in feudal Japan, but with an even lower budget and you've got this series. Which is meant as a high recommendation. If you know enough to have even sought out this review, you're already likely to be a fan of this kind of show. I don't know if it will ever come out in English, but I'd sure like to see a subtitled DVD release. If I'm fortunate enough to find more tape copies without subtitles, I'll get those too.
The tape I viewed is listed as a 1999 release and includes a 15-minute discussion segment showing the three main actors from the series sitting at a table 30 years later and reminiscing. And no, this part isn't subtitled, either. I must say the quality of the compilation clips is quite good. One thing I've noticed about Japanese film-to-video transfers of old Japanese TV shows on VHS, live-action or anime, is that they're quite true to the film quality of the original, much more so than a digital transfer would be. "Red Shadow" is not something I want to see color-corrected; I want the original film color in all its gaudiness. In fact, this show is cited in "The Dorama Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese TV Drama Since 1953," by Jonathan Clements and Motoko Tamamuro, (Stone Bridge Press, 2003), as "the first all-color period drama on Japanese TV, luxuriating in its rainbow of hues so much that it often appears virtually psychedelic..."
There was a movie remake called RED SHADOW in 2001 that didn't seem to have much to do with the original series. (For one thing, there wasn't a single monster in it.) It replaced White Shadow with a female ninja. It aimed to be a straight historical ninja story, but it kept marring otherwise good action and a decent story with lame comedy and silly, anachronistic antics on the part of the often inept heroes. I'll stick with the original.
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