Anime starring ninjas has been around as long as the medium has been around. I’ve already covered two of Toei’s efforts on the genre for this website (Fujimaru of the Wind and Pyun Pyun Maru), so it’s only fair to cover another one they did. This one if vastly different, however: it takes place in a present time-frame (or rather, was present when the show was made), and the ninja character in question is a little girl.
Shotaro Ishinomori (1938-1998) is one of the big names in Japanese comics, having created numerous successful series over the years. For fans in the West, he’s primarily known for Cyborg 009 and Kamen Rider, but he has actually made sheer volumes of comics covering numerous genres, including “Shojo”, comics made for girls (at the time, it was normal for male cartoonists to draw Shojo comics). Sarutobi Ecchan has its origins in a comic Ishinomori created called Okashina Okashina Okashina Anoko (“That Strange, Strange, Strange Little Girl”), which debuted in “Margaret” magazine in 1964. It ran on-and-off in various stages and on various magazines over the years, with the comic’s title changing numerous times until it settled on Sarutobi Ecchan.
Ecchan is a descendent of Sarutobi Sasuke, a famous fictional ninja that has appeared in numerous stories in Japan since the Meiji era, even spawning several manga and anime based around the character. One day she enrolled in a school in Tokyo. Ecchan (real name Etsuko) is very eccentric, and her unusual nature has not gone unnoticed by her peers. Not only that, she’s unusually short for her age, making her stand out amongst her taller classmates. This, of course, has made her a target against the class bully, Ooyama (think Gian from “Doraemon”). However, being a descendent of a famous ninja, Ecchan is able to use her ninja powers to subdue any troublemaker, making her bully run for his life if he crossed her. Not that Ecchan doesn’t cause her own trouble. Her eccentric and naïve personality can cause problems on her own, although she always saves the day in the end.
Ecchan made friends with two of her classmates: Miko, a girl whom Ecchan eventually moves in with since she’s orphaned, and Taihei, a son of a local barber. Joining Ecchan is her talking dog Buku, who can range from being childish or a helpful advisor to Ecchan depending on the story. One recurring thing about Buku is that, even though he can talk to people, he can’t speak to other dogs, which occurred in several episodes. However, there was one episode where he was able to speak with other canines without trouble, so evidently it wasn’t spelled out clearly with other writers. Other characters include Miko’s parents, Taihei’s bratty younger brother Kurihei, and Ecchan’s teacher Ms. Shirayuki.
The show’s tone was all over the map. It was mostly comedy, with numerous cartoon antics from Ecchan and other characters, but several episodes had more dramatic tone, whether it’s helping abused pets, Ecchan helping Buku do good deeds, or helping a fellow classmate’s single father prepare a birthday party. Even when things get dark, there are comedy scenes present to liven things up.
I sometimes wonder if the inconsistency in the show’s tone is what led to the series getting canned. It was never a ratings hit when the show aired on the NET network; they ran the show for 26 episodes from October 4, 1971 to March 27, 1972, Mondays at 7:00-7:30 PM. Toei Animation, the producer, places this show as part of their “magical girl” line-up, although this one is different from the likes of Sally the Witch and Sailor Moon. Ecchan doesn’t have a magic wand, for example and her identity is not a secret from others.
Even though it was never a big hit, in Japan it’s now one of the better known Shotaro Ishinomori series. The entire series was released on DVD and the comics have been reprinted in books. Maybe there’s life for this magical, Ninja girl after all.