|Excuse me for a moment while I laugh my Cosmo off to beyond its limit...|
While this is the only made-for-TV live-action production based on a Masami Kurumada work, it's neither the first one nor the only one. First, in August of 1991, Bandai sponsored a musical adaptation of Saint Seiya's Sanctuary & Poseidon Chapters, with the Bronze Saints & Poseidon being played by the members of iconic boy band SMAP, while members of the band Tokio played Aries Mu, Leo Aiolia, & Scorpio Milo. From what I've been able to find out, no one dares to ever talk about it & is apparently an infamously bad musical. The third production, done in late-2011 & called the Saint Seiya Super Musical, was an adaptation of the first Seiya movie, Evil Goddess Eris (the original anime of which you can now buy on DVD from Discotek!). From what I can tell, this was a better-received production & even saw a home video release in Japan. Now, on the off chance anyone thinks this, I will NEVER review those musicals, but I can certainly review this second live-action production, which ran in late-07 on Tokyo Metropolitan Television, or Tokyo MX for short. In fact, I should have reviewed this series back when I finished up reviewing the Fuma no Kojirou OVAs back in March of 2012, because this is the perfect example of how to improve on "Masami Kurumada's Fourth-Most-Well-Known-Title".
Seishikan High School has been "stealing" the best & brightest students from all of the other schools in the Kanto area, resulting in many of them closing down. The only remaining school is small little Hakuo Academy, and to keep from closing Himeko Hojo, a schoolgirl who has inherited the position of Principal from her deceased grandfather, has asked her friend Ranko Yagyu to find someone who can help them. Ranko's solution is to climb the Japanese Alps in search of the Fuma, a ninja clan who has helped the Hojo Family since before the Sengoku Era. Feeling that there's some bigger force behind Seishikan's dominance, the Fuma agree to help & give Hakuo a young ninja named Kojirou, who immediately falls in love with Himeko. Soon Kojirou finds out that Seishikan is being helped by the Yasha Clan, the eternal rival of the Fuma Clan. When Seishikan's Musashi Asuka, himself a "for hire" warrior, is given the Eight Yasha Generals to fend off Kojirou, the Fuma send their young ninja assistance, turning a simple fight for school survival into an all-out battle to the death between ninja clans.
So, the get the biggest point out of the way, why is this live-action adaptation an improvement on Fuma no Kojirou, specifically the Yasha Chapter? That is simply because this take on the story actually has time to pace itself & even give some more character development. The biggest problem of Animate-Film & J.C. Staff's Yasha-hen OVA was that there was simply a lot to be told in just six episodes, resulting in it being hard to actually care about much more than the most important characters, i.e. Kojirou, Musashi, & Fuma Clan member Ryoma. By having slightly more than twice as many episodes, this story finally gets breathing room & is allowed to feel developed. It even improves on the OVA by having the Yasha Generals & other Fuma Clan ninja be introduced at the end of episode two, while still giving focus to the idea of helping Hakuo Academy by making sure that their sports clubs have fair matches & win. The OVA essentially excises the school focus quickly, while the original manga had it be the focus for the first few chapters. In this version, the two story elements are blended together in a way that generally makes sense. Yes, as the story continues the school stuff becomes less focused on, but it's a gradual removal instead of the equivalent of pulling the rug from underneath the audience while they're still focused on what's being shown to them. Even the introduction of the sacred swords Fuurin Kazan & Ougonken are introduced in a much more natural way than the rather sudden debut they originally had.
The other great improvement that comes from this adaptation is that more characters are actually given attention to & showcase some nice development. In the original manga & OVA the only characters to be given any sort of real development were Kojirou, Musashi, & twin Fuma ninja Kouu & Shoryu, with Ryoma being given some minor development. Other characters, like Kirikaze or Ryuho from the Fuma, were given barely anything to work with from a development perspective, while the Yasha Generals were nothing more than random villains who were given names; the same can be said of Fuma's Reira & Kabutomaru, who were literally shown for only a few pages/minutes. In this take nearly everyone is showcased right from the start & given multiple interactions between each other. Reira becomes a sort of best friend equivalent for Kojirou, for example, while Yasha General Kagerou becomes an instigator who manipulates & creates dissension among the Yasha ranks due to their worries that Musashi is purposefully trying to kill them off.
Hell, even characters like Fuma's Rinpyo & Yasha's Shiranui, who are killed off almost instantly in the original story (Shiranui's face isn't even shown!), are given actual fights; they still die without doing much, but at least they get some (extremely short) moments to shine. Probably my favorite example of this, though, is when Ryuho & Kurojishi, who never really interacted in the original story, get an entire episode that has the two of them thrust into their respective school's judo clubs, giving the two a sense of "normality" & even a small hint of rivalry. In fact, this series humanizes the Yasha Generals by giving them actual personalities & even unique fighting styles if they didn't originally have one. For example, Yosui now has metal yo-yos that he swings around & Kagerou uses a metal fan alongside his wooden sword. For a personality example, Byakko reminisces shortly about how he & Shien were essentially kidnapped by the Yasha as children & forced to become deadly ninja, showcasing an actual sense of camaraderie between the two. Sure, some of it is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things but compared to the original manga & OVA these additions are extremely welcome & definitely give Fuma no Kojirou's first story arc a real sense of personality & reasons to care about the characters shown; this was strongly lacking originally.
Of course, this is partially described as a "J-Drama", so there are some alterations made to the story to push that aspect as well; luckily, they don't detract. Probably the best change was introducing early the character of Erina Asuka, Musashi's little sister who is bedridden at the local hospital & provides the reason for Musashi joining the Yasha (he needs the money to care for her). In the original manga & anime Erina was introduced in the latter half of the story solely for giving Musashi some extra development & backstory, but in the live-action version she befriends Kojirou right away, giving him a nice pick-up for the moments when he starts realizing that this is a war that results in the death of his Fuma brethren. It also helps give Erina more importance to the story in the endgame, as she now affects both Kojirou & Musashi instead of being nothing more than an extra bit of reader relation for her brother. The other main "dramatic" changes come in the form of giving Himeko & Ranko more screentime & (potential) relationships to Kojirou & Ryoma, respectively. Between Himeko/Kojirou there is some neat change in chemistry, first starting off as a young girl who finds the silly but reliable ninja amusing before advancing into caring for his well being, while Ranko/Ryoma is a much more subdued advancement. Ranko initially feels sad for Ryoma, who prefers to stick to "Shinobi Law", & tries to show kindness & caring towards him; Ryoma, in turn, has to realize that he's still human himself & not just a strict machine. Finally, the show greatly expands on the character of Kosuske Mibu, one of the Yasha Clan's ninja. Originally a character who dies extremely early on, Mibu is turned into a disgraced warrior who wants nothing but vengeance on Kojirou, who defeats him in the first episode. Mibu here becomes an interesting addition in the second half, especially when Kagerou messes with him mentally & the sacred swords are brought in. All in all, It definitely comes off as a strong "J-Drama" influence, but these changes either improve even more on the story or, at least, don't feel useless.
Then there's the second half of the descriptor, which is "tokusatsu/toku". While not quite on the level of something like a Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, or even Garo, Fuma no Kojirou definitely earns its categorization as a toku show, showcasing really nice digital effects for the various ninja abilities (Ryoma's Fuma Shikyoken especially looks great), and the actual fighting looks really good, too. The choreography for the sword fighting is really tight & showcases a lot of "showing off", and even the less-traditional fighting styles, like Shiranui's blade/boxing mix or Yosui's yo-yos, look impressive. In the second half the special effects are given even more focus due to the introduction of the sacred swords, which are meant to have godlike strength, & other moments of not holding back, like Reira's Shureien or the "Psychic Soldier" powers of Ryoma & Musashi. On the other side of the coin there is a fair bit of "cheesiness" to be found in the show, but quite frankly that's something to be expected when watching toku. The cheesiness is part of the entire production, but when mixed with the serious & dramatic moments does help give the show a strong identity of its own.
The production itself was handled by the blandly-named (and now-defunct) General Entertainment, who had previously done the Chouseijin Series of toku shows & before that was a game company that created infamous titles like Godzilla Generations & PenPen TriIcelon on Dreamcast and ØSTORY on PlayStation 2. Interestingly enough, while the production was (obviously) filled with live-action staff, like Ryuichi Ishino (Director) & Toshihiko Ooka (Co-Director & Series Composition), who deliver a very solid production, a couple of people experienced in anime were also brought in. Alongside Ooka & co-composer Takashi Ito for the script was Megumi Sasano (Hitohira, various episodes of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo), and combined the three adapt the story both in the improved ways I talked about before while also sticking very close to the original material; when it directly adapts from the manga this show does stick very close to it. The music by Koichiro Kameyama (Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo, both Buzzer Beater anime series, & both Dekaranger and Timeranger) is actually fairly sparse & only used in specific moments. Most of the scenes in every episode feature nothing more than the natural ambiance of the environment, but the music that was created was nicely done; the song that played whenever characters ready themselves for battle is especially cool & subdued. There are also a ton of character songs sung by the cast that are used in various episodes, which sound cool, but they usually don't last for longer than a minute or so, at most. The opening theme, "Ryusei Rocket" by An Café, is a really rocking tune that fits this take on the story very well & maintains a fast beat at all times. It's completely different from the NIGHT HAWKS songs that the OVAs use, but still great. The ending theme is "Eien no Setsuna" by ON/OFF (their debut song), which is a nice slow song that works well as a winding down for each episode, but otherwise is semi-disposable.
As much as the show works so well from a story & production perspective, though, what makes the show work best is without a doubt the cast, which is filled with a ton of great performances. Leading the cast & putting out the best performance, bar none, is Ryota Murai, who plays Kojirou. At just the age of 19 at the time, Murai completely captures the character of Kojirou perfectly, both in the crazed & comical scenes as well as the absolute serious moments, and his young age makes him a really good physical match for how the character is in the manga. Murai would later make his mark as the "new" Yuusuke Onodera/Kamen Rider Kuuga in Kamen Rider Decade, but Kojirou could very well be an iconic role for him. Matching Murai with a great performance is Takuji Kawakubo (Murakumi in the upcoming Aoi Honou J-Drama adaptation), whose Musashi not only comes off as extremely dangerous in battle but also as very caring & passionate when it comes to Erina. Mibu is played by Rei Fujita, who quickly became a hot commodity after playing Rei Suzumura/Zero in the Garo franchise, and I almost want to say with absolute surety that the only reason Mibu was turned into a semi-major character was because Fujita got the role; to be fair, Fujita does a nice job. Also of note are twins Kazuya & Naoya Sakamoto, ON/OFF themselves, who fittingly play twin ninja Kouu & Shoryu. There are plenty of other great performances to give credit to, but overall these actors really are what make this show so damn good.
Fuma no Kojirou is a title that I've always wanted to like more than I actually do. The general concept is sound & very "Japanese", the story arcs all have cool ideas, & there's lots of potential that Masami Kurumada could have gone with. Unfortunately, the execution was generally an issue, mainly in terms of pacing, and this especially was the problem with the Yasha Chapter, both in the original manga & the Yasha-hen OVA series. The people behind the 2007 J-Drama/tokusatsu series seemed to realize this, because the show they created, though changing the story around in numerous ways, still stayed true to Kurumada's original vision while fixing a lot of the problems it originally had. This is, without a doubt, the best take on the Yasha Chapter out there, surpassing both the anime adaptation & the original manga. I originally watched this show back when it was airing via fansub and I enjoyed it like all hell, so much so that the Yasha-hen OVA felt like a big disappointment in comparison. I immediately wanted to see a second season that adapted the Sacred Sword War Chapter, which unfortunately never happened, but luckily this show finishes in a way where one could continue the story via the rest of the OVA productions (which were markedly better than the first) without losing a beat; the ending here does contradict the manga's beginning of the next story arc in one way, though. Really, if you're a fan of either J-Drama or toku you should definitely check this show out, and if you're curious about trying either of these two types of productions out then this works well as a starting point.
Oh, and I must add that there was a live musical production of this show in 2008 that featured the entire Fuma & Yasha cast from the TV series. It's a little less than 1.5 hours long & sticks a little more true to the original manga, but how is it? Well, the entire production starts off with both clans engaging in battle while Ryoma sings his character song on a raised stage... Yeah, it's infinitely cheesier than the TV series, but it's actually pretty good & well worth watching after seeing the TV series in full (it's also fansubbed). The cast retains their energetic fervor & overall it's a fun watch. I'll give this live-action series this, too: It makes me want to re-watch the Seiken Sensou-hen OVA series, simply because that's the best part of Fuma no Kojirou, without a doubt.