January 12th, 1998. Toonami had barely been on Cartoon Network for a year, and I was already bitterly disappointed in it. Why? It had cancelled Voltron: Defender of the Universe and replaced it with Robotech. Why couldn’t they have taken one of the other cartoons off? I wondered in despair. ThunderCats was tedious, Cartoon Roulette was bland; and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was actually pretty good, but . . . (sigh) . . . it just wasn’t the same. I do exaggerate, of course, but at the time, in my tender little twelve-year-old opinion, Robotech was to Voltron what a lump of tofu was to a Double Quarter Pounder. Though later anime like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon would satisfy my craving for the fantasy Robotech lacked, they themselves lacked that distinct classic feel that only the 80’s could provide. Unlike Voltron, the other shows had either only one or the other. But then, fast forward to September 27th, 1999, when this little shōnen surprise joined the roster. It was no Voltron, but it sure wasn’t Robotech, either.
After centuries of exile in the Nether Realm, Tulpa, demonic emperor of the evil Dynasty, has returned to the mortal world to exact his revenge. Almost instantly he brings humanity to its knees, his Nether spirits leaving misery and darkness in their wake, and his four Dark Warlords—Anubis, Warlord of Cruelty; Cale, Warlord of Corruption; Sekhmet, Warlord of Venom; and Dais, Warlord of Illusion—destroying any and all who would oppose him. There is only one hope: the Ronin Warriors, five young men gifted with the power to summon ancient magical suits of samurai armor, each equipped with powerful weapons and abilities according to the natural elements and their symbols of goodness. Aiding the heroes are friends both mortal and mystical: the kindly scholar Mia; Yulie, a sincere and fearless boy who idolizes the Ronins; White Blaze, their fiercely loyal white tiger; and a wise and mysterious monk known as the Ancient One. And so the Ronin Warriors must wield their armors to defeat the evil emperor and the might of the Dynasty in order to save mankind and the world from eternal destruction.
Known in its native country as Samurai Troopers before its U.S. premiere in 1995, this series holds the distinction of being one of the few anime shows whose English adaptation remains virtually identical to its Japanese counterpart, with next to no cuts or censorings. Though originally created to cash in on the popularity of Saint Seiya, another anime featuring young male heroes with mystical armor, Ronin Warriors quickly became a hit in its own right. Part of its success in North America stemmed from its broadcast during the still-fresh wake of the Power Rangers craze. In fact, listen to the first few seconds of the intro and tell me you don’t feel that old “Saturday Morning” toy commercial nostalgia just wash over you.
And like any good old-fashioned superhero team of the age, each Ronin has his own color scheme with a personality to match. Ryo of the Wildfire is the unofficial leader—in red, of course—guided by his symbol of virtue; at times brash and impulsive, but bravely committed to defeating Tulpa, always putting his friends’ safety above his own.
RYO: - (To a Dynasty soldier.) Hello there, Bucket Head! Finally decided to face me, huh?
- (To Yulie, about his lost parents.) You’ll see them soon, trust me. (Vowing with determination.) I’ve sworn to crush the Dynasty’s master.
Kento of Hardrock, guided by justice, is the strong man and the quintet’s equivalent to Michelangelo of the Ninja Turtles: he wears orange, is a laid-back, fun-loving, short-tempered goofball, and loves a hot meal as much as a good battle:
KENTO: - (Annoyed) Man, I am sick of talking about how great Talpa is. He won’t even come out and fight!
- (Moaning loudly) Rrrrraaaah, I’m starving! What’s taking Mia so long? I’ll probably be dead and buried by the time she gets here and fixes us something to eat!
Cye of the Torrent, guided by trust, is the gentle, compassionate one, artistically exemplified by his light blue attire and soft, British-accented voice. He is empathetic toward both his human friends and the marine life who inhabit the aquatic world from which his armor draws its power.
CYE: - Yes, Yulie. Every creature on this earth will suffer. That is, if Tulpa ever gets his way.
- Armor of Torrent! Please purify the water polluted by Dynasty evil!
Sage of the Halo, guided by wisdom, is formal, aloof, and easily annoyed by childish antics and cocky attitudes. But this outward coldness belies a deep devotion to protect like the dignified guardian he is, not unlike the forest which shares the green of his armor.
SAGE: - (Irritated by Yulie running off.) We don’t have time for that kid’s games. We’re on the Dynasty’s turf, Cye, and we have to stay sharp.
- (To Yulie, after being saved by him.) I always thought you were a pain, to have to take care of you, Yulie. (Hangs his head, humbled.) I’m sorry. If it weren’t for you, I don’t know what would have happened.
And Rowen of Strata, guided by life, is the most rational and intelligent of the five, his demeanor as cool and calm as his indigo armor. When tempers flare and egos fly, his is the voice of reason that keeps his teammates’ compulsive urges in check and their lives intact.
ROWEN: (To Kento, who wants to use his armor to break through a dark subway.) Look, we’re not supposed to destroying this place. We were given the power to restore civilization, not rip it apart. And we’re in the middle of Dynasty territory. We should wait for their move before we make ours.
Of course, it’s only fitting that armored heroes would face an armored villain. Whether Tulpa is a malevolent spirit or a flesh-and-blood beast is unknown, as we see only a grotesque, metal mask with hollow eyes and demonic jaws. This, combined with a monstrous voice that booms like a splitting mountain and echoes like thunder, makes this being a force to be feared.
TULPA: (Appears as a giant apparition before the Ronin Warriors and their friends.) I, Ronin, am Tulpa! I am the ruler of the Nether Realms! Now is the time that my empire shall ascend!
What makes this show stand out among its contemporaries, anime or otherwise, is its Sengoku touch. Take the armor transformation sequence: the visuals of sakura (cherry blossoms) and furoshiki (traditional wrapping cloth) set to the sound of light Taiko drums add a layer of gentle beauty to an otherwise forceful scene. But if the cultural appeal is for the academics, then the music is an 80’s rocker’s dream come true. Series composer Osamu Totsuka makes extensive use of synth, electric guitar, and drums to complement high-octane battles, moments of tranquility, and anything in between: quiet and meditative, eerie and intense, or poignantly epic.
Now, normally the good guys can rest easy knowing that, even if they lose a battle, it won’t be because their secret weapon betrayed them. The Ronin Warriors don’t have that luxury. In an interesting twist, it’s established within the first third of the series that the Ronins’ armors were created from that of Tulpa himself, meaning it always runs the risk of being corrupted by his evil. Rather than just a single isolated episode in which the heroes’ power source is tainted and they are forced to re-purify it and make it theirs once more, the heroes have to constantly fight to keep it—and by extension, themselves—pure. Not only does this raise the stakes of each episodic battle, it gives each victory and defeat more impact and meaning because it continually forces the protagonists to look in the proverbial soul-searching mirror and face whatever ugliness or weakness they see in themselves.
- KENTO: (With a tremor of confusion and despair in his voice.) A human wore the armor of the evil Dynasty. What does that mean for us?
- TULPA: When will you fools learn that there are no battles fought by heroes?
- ANCIENT ONE: Your armor originally comes from the body of Tulpa. Look for the peace in this battle, and ignore the turmoil and strength of your foe.
- RYO: (Sadly.) Fighting our own armor might only produce regrets. Sadness and regrets. But we have to hope for something that lies beyond regret. Something that lies beyond sadness!
As the series progresses (and particularly in the early 90’s OVA’s), the theme of the inner struggle between the good and evil within man becomes increasingly prominent. This struggle wears on each of the heroes because, no matter how much evil they defeat, as human beings by nature they will never be free of it, nor can they be sure whether their normal lives won’t be affected in turn. All they can hope is to do what they feel is right if ever and whenever the time comes.
As I said, Ronin Warriors didn’t completely fill the void that Voltron left, but it did keep me invested for reasons besides that particular old-fashioned look that I absolutely adore in pre-90’s anime. Its teen heroes have that retro charm and attitude we Sailor Moon/Ninja Turtles/Power Rangers fans all know and love, but with its own unique and exciting samurai action and splendor. Yet through those characters and their story we also get a healthy dose of philosophical thought regarding humanity, both individual and as a whole: are humans truly destined to be defined by the sins of the past, or can they make the choice to learn from those sins and change themselves and the world for the better? Just as we can head-bang with rhythmic delight to that killer soundtrack one minute and listen with quiet rapture and anticipation the next, we can choose when and how we fight for our beliefs in this world, because the human heart, like armor, is ever resilient.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Eighties Action” by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
“10 Sleepless Nights” by Olivaw https://soundcloud.com/olivaw Creative Commons — Attribution 3.0 Unported— CC BY 3.0 Free Download / Stream: https://bit.ly/10-sleepless-nights Music promoted by Audio Library https://youtu.be/E6pjsL7w-RA
All other sound clips are from English dub of Ronin Warriors (Samurai Troopers) (produced by Sunrise Inc.; licensed by Discotek Media).
1 – “Shadowland”
2 – “Glory for Anubis”
6 – “The Counter Attack”
11 – “Assault on the Dynasty”
12 – “Shallow Darkness”
13 – “Fate of the Ronin Armor”
14 – “Armor of Life”
24 – “Sun Devil, Ambassador of Evil”
25 – “Torrent's Evil Twin”
OVA: “Legend of the Inferno Armor, Ep. 4 - Searching Beyond the Sadness”
OST Songs (composed by Osamu Totsuka):
“Ronin Warriors Theme” (English Intro)
“Quiet – Noble Warriors”
“Theme of Arago”
“Burn – Armor’s Power”
“Gathering Heart of the Armor”
Listen to the episode here!
Ronin Warriors on Wikipedia
Ronin Warriors on IMDb
Ronin Warriors on Toonami Wiki
Ronin Warriors on Anime New Network
Ronin Warriors on tvtropes
Buy and watch Ronin Warriors on Amazon
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