Judy Ongg's Kagero might be a hard act to follow, but when it comes to swordfighting skills, good looks, great legs and plain old action TV elbow grease, it might be impossible to follow the total package that was Akiko Kujo as SAORI on the adored 'henshin' ninja series Kaiketsu Lion Maru
This 1972 (as if you couldn't tell from that suede folk/hippy get-up) series followed the adventures of an orphan ninja wandering the land, battling the monster of the week. He possessed a mystical sword that in times of extreme danger transformed him into a lion-headed pegasus-riding super ninja. The requisite ensemble cast was filled-out by standard formula fare — the hot chick and the precocious little brat.
Saori wasn't the glamorous type — her looks were more down to earth and organic, with little if any make-up or hair style. And for good reason too, as Kujo — a capable acrobat, possibly a trained stunt woman — guaranteed once per episode was rolling around in the dirt with a short sword fighting off hordes of skeletal ninja "shockers." She was the apex of the cute tomboy warrior, way more physical than any of her competition on other shows.
Saori regularly engaged the enemy with reverse-gripped wakizashi in full force. These are pretty much first-class fights, too, with little or no of the camera dodging and hiding other shows do to mask actresses' lack of real martial arts skills. Typical were chain-choreographed sequences where she'd barrel through a squad of goons with two or three acrobatic rolls then reverse slash stomachs in between parrying the weapons of others. CREDIBLE is the word, especially for a TV actress performing under the lower TV budgets with limited retakes. This sort of action TV was a demanding artform and Kujo was a real trooper more than up tot he task.
When not cutting some poor slob right across his lunch, Saori's second favorite weapon was the weighted capture line.
Frustratingly, I just cannot find a thing on Akiko Kujo. I'm guessing she was either a dancer, martial artist or stunt woman. She's built for physical activity, and I've never seen her doubled. Here she is doing her own trampoline work.
The Saori costume was a modestly designed "hanten" working garment, hemmed WAY short. Great for you leg men! I'm somewhat smitten with those killer quads myself. Take a gander:
I'm thinking a generation of Japanese kids were profoundly affected by Kujo's well-defined legs.
And yes, as previously stated, that 'historically accurate' costume is hemmed way past any level of modesty, especially for a female warrior with a penchant for jumping and tumbling. Kujo wore an array of pink, yellow and white leotards under the gear. I guess because it wasn't technically "underwear", they could get away with all sorts of completely gratuitous up-skirt and panty shots on a regular basis. THE SHAME!
Yeah, there must have been a lot of dads and older brothers watching Lion Maru
over the shoulders of the kids...
This was a GOOD day on set, especially for those stunt "kids" during long sequences of cliff climbing. SHAMELESS!
And another good day to be a TV action star. Sigh...
As fierce as Saori could be in lethal combat with mystically-powered enemies...
...at any given time she also did double duty as the standard vulnerable female, the nursemaid to the wounded, and other damsel-in-distress stock-in-trade.
Often after racking up a healthy body count for herself, Saori had to punch-in for a second shift as the inevitable rope-bound-sidekick-awaiting-rescue.
Check this out, that's Akiko Kujo herself, not a double, bound and suspended a good 20 feet off the ground from a rocky cliff! And like all helpless girls, she's afraid of spiders.
I really don't go for that female-sidekick-in-peril bullshit - you can't have a hot and cold running ass kicker. If she's going to have these cool fight scenes, take things all the way - make her the ace of the squad, whose skills are technically beyond even the hero lead when he's not hopped up on catnip.
This woman could have easily carried a show of her own, or been more of a lead in an ensemble series. But no, every time they let her start to kick some tail, she has to slow down, get captured or put in some type of peril, and wait for the hero to power-up and drop the hammer on the sponge-suit menace of the week. With that formula so ingrained in the Japanese TV industry, will we ever see the all-girl ninja minx fighting team series or undercover geisha detective squad show we so desperately need???
Kujo's Saori character is probably the height of the sword girl idiom as far as formulaic action TV series go — a balanced combination of looks and credible screen fighting physicality, peppered with some "good girl" style panty shots for the pervs. What's not to love?
Read all about Kaiketsu Lion Maru
at the Henshin Hall of Fame here
. The series got a superb DVD reissue in Japan a few years back, so it's readily available. The series was dubbed and aired in Italy in the 70's, and the pilot was dubbed into English and released on VHS here in 1984 as "Magic of the Ninja" by Remco. It never saw video shelves on it's own, but was rather included in a playset from the "Secret of the Ninja" action figure line.
Last year, the series saw new life in a visually impressive but under-performing adult comedy show called Lion Maru G
, the "G" for 'giggolo.' It's set in the near future, centered around gang violence and prostitution, with racy comedy and black humor largely taking the place of epic battles. Although the namesake character costumes are probably the best anthropomorphic creations ever put on screen, the new show just didn't gel right. You can catch fan subs all over YouTube.
The new take on Saori was a non-warrior role played by the gorgeous Emi Kobayashi
That's her on the left, and I believe that's actually Kujo on the right in a cameo role. The rest of the original cast pop up in quirky little roles, too. I'm told she and Maru himself Tetsuya Ushio actually married as a result of their time together on Kaiketsu Lion Maru
. That's just adorable shinobi love at it's finest...