AKA: Kage No Gundan, Shadow Warriors: The Complete First Season
Sonny Chiba is well-known for his work as Terry Tsurugi in the Street Fighter films. But his most famous role is that of Japanese folk hero Hattori Hanzo. If the name sounds familiar, it's the same character Chiba played in Kill Bill, which was originated on a TV series called Shadow Warriors, or Kage No Gundan in Japanese. Unseen by many Westerners outside of a few airings on Asian TV stations in large cities like Los Angeles, Ronin Entertainment has recently brought out the entire first season -- all twenty-seven episodes of it -- to these shores, and it's a treat for martial arts fans.
The series takes place in the 1500's, where the rise of a samurai too young to fully take control of Japan has various factions scrambling for supremacy. Hattori's Iga clan of ninjas, once the protectors of the nobility, have been scattered across the land, with the upstart Kouga clan now occupying the most prestigous work in the land. Hattori sees the coming chaos as a chance to bring the Iga clan back to prominence, and so starts making deals with various politicians. However, Hattori realizes that unlimited power means corruption, and so he (along with a small group of his most trusted followers) also try to keep peace in the land by ridding it of injustices.
Shadow Warriors's dense structure could make for some confusing proceedings, but the creators create near-perfect pacing here. There are some episodes which tend to lean too much towards blatant plot exposition and some others which don't really fit inside the story at all, but overall, the season creates a well-told narrative that presents enough plot twists to keep the viewer interested without bombarding them with superflouous characters or developments. A lot of producers of modern shows would be well-served to follow Shadow Warriors's template, instead of creating the extremely bloated mess too many series have become as of late (most notably 24's latest season).
Of course, all the great plot development in the world wouldn't matter too much to many of you out there. Don't worry -- Shadow Warriors has you covered. Japanese TV censorship was extremely liberal at this time, and so not only is there spurting blood, severed limbs and the like, there is also a copious amount of nudity as well, thanks to the fact that Hattori's "day job" is running a bathhouse. The action scenes -- most of them co-ordinated by Chiba himself -- rival (and sometimes exceed) the output of many films of the time, and make each episode exciting to watch.
Even with the copious amount of T&A, my favorite element of the series are the small parts. All of the main characters are really well developed, and it's the quick interactions between them which really set this series apart from many others. It shows that behind the sex and violence, Shadow Warriors has a heart without being cheesy. It's a feeling that's actually quite refreshing, especially since most modern US TV shows are either filled with total buffoonery or over-the-top dramatics.
If you've never seen an Asian TV series before, you could do much worse than to start out with Shadow Warriors. Though it has aged a little and is a bit over-long -- at over twenty hours, it's not exactly light viewing. But Shadow Warriors is still one of the most solid entries in the genre and is well worth checking out for any Sonny Chiba or martial arts fan out there.