It’s hard to imagine a time when Japanese pop culture wasn’t a part of the mainstream. Australian children grow up with Pokémon, Dragonball, Mario, Hello Kitty and more – and what child doesn’t love ninjas? But when The Samurai premiered in Australia in 1964, it was the first Japanese program ever shown on Australian TV. It was a sensation.
Samurai, spy, detective, hero
The Samurai, originally called Onmitsu Kenshi (Spy Swordsman), was produced by Senkosha Productions. Running from 1962 to 1965, it provided 128 episodes of action. It starred Koichi Ose as roving samurai Shintaro, who travelled Japan fighting evil ninjas and dispensing justice. During its original run, it was one of Japan’s most popular television shows.
In Australia, the show wasn’t picked up until 1964, when it premiered on TCN-9 with an English dub. Although there was resistance from some adults who still held anti-Japanese sentiment from the Second World War, Aussie children had found a new hero. By 1965, The Samurai had passed The Mickey Mouse Club as the most popular show on Channel 9.
The stadium show
If something does well on TV or at the movies, it seems inevitable that it will end up on stage. It was for The Samurai.
A stadium show, A Samurai Story, had already started to tour in Japan. At the end of 1965, local promoters brought it to Australia. It was to show in Sydney at the Sydney Stadium for a week starting on Boxing Day. The production would then move to Melbourne for more shows at the Festival Hall.
Australian fans were promised ninja action, temple dancers, fire-eaters and a thrilling tale about rescuing a kidnapped princess (local actress Peta Toppano). Even better – Koichi Ose, Shintaro himself, was on his way.
We want Shintaro!
20 minutes before Koichi Ose appeared to the crowd at Mascot Airport, Sydney, the 300 children who were waiting started chanting. ‘We want Shintaro! We want Shintaro!’
When Ose finally appeared on the scene, he was mobbed. A Sydney Morning Herald article reported that ‘Six policemen and Customs officers helped him struggle clear.’ According to reporter Nan Musgrove, Ose had ‘no idea of his tremendous popularity here … ’
The show was held in Sydney stadium, which could seat 4,000 for each performance. Tickets could be bought from 5 to 19 shillings, although in the show’s last days in Sydney ads boasted a price of 5 shillings – $7.15 in today’s money – for adults and children alike.
The stadium had been completely redecorated for the show, with complex rigging to allow for the stunts and acrobatics. Photos from the National Archives’ collection capture the faces of a crowd of awestruck children.
If Ose had found the welcome in Sydney unexpected, he was totally unprepared for Melbourne. There, 7,000 fans had gathered to welcome him at Essendon airport. According to a report in The Age, some of the show's ninjas did a brief performance on the tarmac.