Ed#435 When a Stranger Arrives

21 June 2013 Alan Attwood

Ed#435 When a Stranger Arrives

In the black-and-white world of 1960s TV, two shows captured my youthful imagination. One was The Samurai (1962–1965), a Japanese series featuring the noble warrior Shintaro, noted both for his remarkable swordsmanship and being able to speak while barely opening his mouth. There were also plenty of athletic fellows in black called ninjas: if Shintaro was the ringmaster, these guys were the acrobats, leaping up and down and all around. They had weapons called star-darts, which were like miniature frisbees with lethal points. The problem was, impressionable schoolboys wanted to be the characters in this show. Shintaro’s sword could be replicated with a suitable length of tea-tree from a fence; star-darts were trickier, though anyone whose dad had some tin-snips in a shed soon learned to improvise. My local state school actually banned Samurai games in the playground after kids arrived at classes nursing ‘sword’ welts and, oh yes, jagged jam-tin discs started zipping around.

The other show we talked about was Adventures of Superman (1952–1958), the US TV series starring George Reeves. Frankly, Reeves always looked more comfortable playing mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent than his alter ego, the “strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”. That was how Superman was described in the show’s opening credits, which also set out his special powers – faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound etc etc. One hell of a CV, no doubt about it. And, of course, he could fly – although the flying scenes were never totally convincing, not even to an eight-year-old. But unlike Shintaro, Superman did not become the scourge of school principals because it was more difficult to imitate his feats. You needed more than a length of tea-tree or some tin-snips to leap tall buildings. As for flying, well, forget it. The most we could hope for was a Superman cape when birthdays rolled around.

The wonders of the web have made it easy to revisit scenes from that 1950s show. But the Superman story didn’t start there. The character was created in 1933 and then became public property in 1938, when the first Superman comic appeared. By that reckoning, he is now 75, although he won’t look it in Man of Steel, the new film version of the old, old story. You don’t need a degree in psychology or media studies to see a thread linking the latest movie, Reeves’ series and The Samurai. They’re all about a mysterious stranger, someone from somewhere else, who arrives to set things right. Most Westerns are like that, too – although I doubt John Wayne would ever have felt comfortable wielding a sword or wearing undies over his tights. In our cover story, Anthony Morris – in-house expert on most things sheltering under the pop culture umbrella (he also wrote last year’s James Bond essay for Ed#416) – describes how Superman has recently come to seem a little passé. Other characters, most of whom also have comic-book origins, are cooler. Batman, for example, and more recently Iron Man – which is crazy: iron rusts; not steel. Give them time, and Superman is bound to prevail.

It’s all rather silly, of course, although the fact that Superman has been leaping tall buildings for so long is proof of his appeal to successive generations. Shintaro, meanwhile, is stuck in the 1960s. But while the Reeves story has a murky ending (he died in 1959) the actor who played The Samurai, Ose Koichi, has had a long and productive life. He moved on from TV relatively early (an appropriate step for an exalted warrior), went into business and is now 75. Just like Superman.