"Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" is an animated ninja series that ran on Japanese TV in 1969 and was based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It tells the story of Kamui, a young ninja in the Edo period who leaves his clan and is pursued relentlessly by ninjas sent to kill him. The animation in the series is closely modeled on the style and design of Shirato's manga and even uses different frame sizes and split screens to make it look like a manga-in-motion. It's quite beautiful and creative and makes one wonder what other anime experiments from that era are waiting to be discovered by American fans. I first learned of this series when I purchased a used 30-minute VHS tape entitled "Search of the Ninja" that had been distributed by Kidds Klassics, a now-defunct outfit that specialized in video collections of old public domain Hollywood cartoons. The single episode presented on the tape was followed by trailers for two other Kidds Klassics Japanese releases, "Magic of the Ninja," offering a single episode from a live-action ninja series called "Kaiketsu Lion Maru," and "Kiko Boy Ninja," taken from a 1968 anime series called "Sasuke."
The 22-minute episode offered on the tape I purchased was dubbed in English and doesn't feature a single credit. There are sequences evidently meant to have opening and closing credits, but they're presented entirely absent of text. I did some research and learned that what I had was an episode of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden," although I couldn't tell which one. It's certainly not the first one since it plunges right into the action as the evil ninja master Mashira pursues Kamui with murderous ferocity. When we first meet Kamui, he is resting with his pet falcon and, upon spotting a nearby pack of wolves, decides to dab himself with an ointment with an odor designed to attract the wolves who descend upon him and give chase, providing Kamui his needed morning exercise. Mashira and his band of ninja assassins soon show up and distract Kamui from the wolves, causing him to use various ninja tactics to sneak past them through the flowing grass stalks and use the wolves as bait for the ninjas. Later, Kamui and Mashira have a series of one-on-one battles in a thick forest with lots of leaping on and off tree limbs, the use of assorted ninja tricks, and the furious lobbing of metal throwing stars (shuriken). Much of the imagery in this sequence looks forward to similar action in the 1993 anime classic, NINJA SCROLL. There is a significant supporting character in Ryuta, a young boy living in a forest hut with his sister, who wants to join Kamui and learn the ways of the ninja. We see Ryuta catching fish from a nearby river but is then bullied by village boys. Ryuta fights back valiantly, but they all gang up on him and beat him, while also leaving his catch battered and inedible. He goes back to the hut and laments the absence of Kamui, who was watching from afar, curious to see how Ryuta responds to such challenges.
Throughout the episode, the creative graphic design makes dramatic use of light, shadow, and a narrow color palette, along with background art in the style of Japanese charcoal paintings. The character design is simple, but effective. The imagery sometimes freezes and turns black-and-white, a device that may have been imposed by the American distributor to edit out gore and mute the scenes of bloodshed. If I could only compare it with the Japanese original to confirm that.
A lot happens in the 22-minute episode and it certainly piqued my interest in wanting to see the entire series, preferably in Japanese. I would even watch it in Japanese without subtitles, since it tells its story in such a visual manner. How I can do that, I don't know. As far as I know, Kidds Klassics only released the one tape. (The English dubbing on this tape is awful.)
In Japan, "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" was preceded by a similarly themed ninja series, the aforementioned "Sasuke" (1968-69), that was also based on a manga by Sanpei Shirato. It was about a boy learning the ninja arts from his father while trying to avoid killers led by the notorious Hattori Hanzo, working for the Tokugawa Shogunate and seeking to eliminate the boy's clan. The plot synopsis provided on this page for "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden" actually describes "Sasuke" and the picture of the boy with the red scarf with white polka dots in the photo gallery is from "Sasuke." There is no entry for "Sasuke" on IMDb. I've seen three episodes of that series on VHS—in Japanese with no subtitles—and it's an absolute work of art, with some of the most expressive use of color I've ever seen in anime. Its animation and design are even better than that of "Ninpu Kamui Gaiden." I would love to see more.
For the record, Sanpei Shirato revived the character of Kamui in a 1990 manga series called "The Legend of Kamui" that was published in English by Viz Communications in 1998. As far as I know, no other Shirato series has been published in English.
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