Samurai and Samba!

I inherited a lot of stubbornness from my grandmother. When I was a kid, I’d do the exact opposite of what she told me to do, just to assert my individuality. In Japanese there is a proverb, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Well, I was that nail and my grandmother was the hammer. But no matter how many times she tried to hammer, I’d keep popping my head out again. I look back on it fondly now. I mean, a cold-as-ice staredown across a shopping cart between a 10 year old boy and a 70 year old woman in the cereal aisle of a supermarket is funny no matter how you look at it.

But there was one thing we could be completely civil over: samurai dramas on the local Japanese TV station. For one hour, I’d sit at the foot of her recliner, quietly attentive and respectful. And by far my favorite show was Abarenbo Shogun. This long running series follows the adventures of the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, played by the actor Matsudaira Ken, who roams freely about the city of Edo under the name Tokuda Shinnosuke. Pretending to be an ordinary mid-ranking samurai, the shogun always manages to help avenge a wronged townsperson, punish a corrupt official, or uncover a greedy merchants despicable plot.

It’s all very formulaic. I know exactly how the ending is going to unfold. I even know exactly what he’s going to say: “You fool! Don’t you recognize me? Surely, you remember my face!” The villain inevitably recognizes the profile of the shogun and summarily begins to grovel and beg for mercy. But its too late! Shinnosuke has seen the truth and revels to the villain all the sordid details of his evil plot uncovered. At this point there are two options for the villain: 1. Accuse Shinnosuke of being an imposter or 2. Haughtily attempt to take on the shogun. In the following clip, the impudent dog takes option one. Needless to say, neither option is going to work out well for the villain. A swordfight ensues. And although Shinnosuke is an invincible swordsman, he never kills anyone. In his trademark move, before he begins the fight he turns the sword in his grip so that the cutting edge is to the rear. It’s always his loyal agents and spies dressed in black that actually deal the killing blow (except this one time in the two hour New Year’s special when he was REALLY mad and did it himself!)

Tokuda Shinnosuke was one of my childhood heroes. And by extension so was the actor that portrayed him, Matsudaira Ken. Now imagine my mortification when Matsudaira Ken reinvented himself as Matsu-Ken and jump-started a music career with the improbable hit “Matsu-Ken Samba”. What was he thinking wearing that golden kimono? He’s the SHOGUN for chrissakes! And the samba!? That makes no sense at all! Just say it ain’t so… say it aint so!

Despite my indignation the Matsu-Ken Samba became a cultural craze that swept through Japan. It spawned numerous emulations, parodies by comedians, went on to be a live musical, and was remixed and re-released several times. Well, eventually I got over it, and it’s actually so over-the-top ridiculous, amazingly silly, and irreverantly funny you can’t help but laugh and smile. Check it out. You won’t be displeased and maybe you’ll even find yourself singing along. “Ole! Ole! Matsu-Ken samba!!”

9 Responses to “Samurai and Samba!”

  1. xensen  on May 21st, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    That samurai samba is exquisitely wild and crazy!

  2. bittermelon  on May 21st, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Kenji, great stuff. I love imagining a small stubborn boy version of you, growing up with your grandma. I’m a sucker for grandparent-grandchild relationships. And also, what is this crazy Vegas revue / Pat Boone / Wayne Newton business? I can see why it became so popular. Thanks for sharing.

  3. nico  on May 21st, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    jidaigeki! I watched these when I was a kid, too–and will likely be referencing these veddy soon…

  4. sfmike  on May 28th, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Are there any plans for a Samurai Film Festival in San Francisco during the exhibition? If not, you should try to throw one together. I’d love to see people’s childhood favorites that we wouldn’t ordinarily see in the United States.

  5. otomeki5  on May 29th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Hey there SFMike. The museum is going to have a bunch of films on loop in the Daimyo for a Day resource and activity room throughout the exhibition. Did you see the list I pulled together on the Samurai section of the museum’s webpage? There is also a film series at the museum on Target Sundays with other excellent choices under Programs.
    So what’s your favorite childhood samurai movie?

  6. sfmike  on May 29th, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    My local theater in Central California didn’t show samurai movies when I was a kid. The occasional Japanese monster movies were all we got.

  7. otomeki5  on June 1st, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Japanese live action heroes in giant rubber suits is potentially a-whole-nother blog! My favorite from back in the day was Ultraman. Though there was a time in the 90’s when that genre made a comeback with the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. What ever happened to them?

  8. kaffeeneko  on June 3rd, 2009 at 6:42 am

    I recall channel 26 in the Bay Area showing a lot of these, as well as Japanese dramas and Chinese historical fantasy action films in the ’70s and ’80s. I was unhappy that many were not subtitled, or I would remember their names better.

  9. Delay  on June 9th, 2009 at 9:20 pm


    I had always wondered about the origin of the quirky dance sequences in Takeshi Kitano’s film “The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi” – now I know. Thanks!

Leave a Reply