September 16, 2023

Classic Toei samurai shows

Abarenbo Shogun ("The Unfettered Shogun") ran for 831 episodes between 1978 and 2008, placing it third behind Zenigata Heiji and Mito Komon. Over a four-decade long run, Mito Komon reached a staggering 1,227 episodes, the record for a Japanese period drama.

Abarenbo Shogun and Mito Komon share the same premise: a high Tokugawa official dons a disguise and mingles among the commoners to deliver rough justice to the bad guys. As the title makes clear, in Abarenbo Shogun, the official is the shogun himself.

Ken Matsudaira played Tokugawa Yoshimune for the entire series while five actors took on the lead role as Tokugawa Mitsukuni on Mito Komon.

As governor of Mito, the maverick Mitsukuni laid the groundwork that eventually led to the domain playing a key role in the Meiji Restoration a hundred and fifty years later. The equally impressive Yoshimune is ranked among the best of the Tokugawa shoguns.

The first episode of Abarenbo Shogun introduces another historical character, the respected Ooka Tadasuke, who was appointed by Yoshimune. As an Edo period magistrate, he functioned as both the chief of police and the presiding judge.

The series has Yoshimune using the residence of an old firefighter friend as his base of operations. It's a perfect setup for an action-oriented police procedural. With decent scripts, acting, and directing, it's easy to see why it lasted so long.

The Toei Jidaigeki channel has the first two subtitled episodes of Abarenbo Shogun. The channel includes sample shows from other classic samurai series, including Sonny Chiba's Yagyu Abaretabi and Shadow Warriors.

In Shadow Warriors, Chiba is the laid-back owner of a bathhouse in Edo. But that's a cover for his real job as a secret agent for the shogunate. In each of the five seasons, he returns as a different descendent of the Iga ninja Hattori Hanzo, a role he reprised for Kill Bill.

Yagyu Abaretabi, by contrast, is a road movie. Chiba again plays a historical figure, Yagyu Jubei. His brother is an inspector on the famed Tokai Highway. Chiba and his band of ninjas tag along as his bodyguards. It's another great premise for an ongoing series.

The Toei Jidaigeki channel includes the 1972 remake of the acclaimed Kutsukake Tokijiro, an Edo period yakuza redemption drama. But also in the mix are several martial arts and tokusatsu series that put the low in low budget. Production quality is all over the place.

The first season of Shadow Warriors is on Tubi. The movie Uzumasa Limelight looks at the genre from the perspective of a sword stuntman who has difficulty finding work after spending his entire career on a period drama like Mito Komon.

Samurai dramas were once as dominate on Japanese television as Westerns were on American television. Incidentally, Rawhide (1959–1965), the series that made Clint Eastwood a star, was a big hit in Japan at the time.

Especially with Shadow Warriors, be forewarned that broadcast standards during the 1970s and 1980s in Japan were not as stringent as those in North America. On the other hand, "golden time" shows like Abarenbo Shogun and Mito Komon remained more family friendly.

Related links

Toei Jidaigeki channel
Uzumasa Limelight
Shadow Warriors

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