Sunday, November 12, 2017

Superhero Tokusatsu: The Henshin Obsession.

Time once again to look at something I love and, while maybe not explain it, look at its quirks, flaws and strengths and examine why I find it so interesting.

Today’s topic: superhero tokusatsu!

But first, some background and explanation.  The word “tokusatsu” is a general term in Japan that means “special effects”.  Any TV show that uses special effects in Japan would be considered a “tokusatsu” program.  Here in the USA though, it means a very special brand of Japanese effects programs.  I think you know the kinds of effects.  Giant rubber suit monsters and robots.  Acrobatic fight scenes.  Conveniently placed pyrotechnics.  Transformation sequences.  If the phrase “Power Rangers” is coming to mind right now, you’re close but not quite right.  I’ll explain a little further on.
Now, the programs I’m talking about are specifically certain superhero shows designed for children.  There are a great number of these including Ultraman and the various Metal Heroes shows.   

However, the ones I know best are Kamen Rider and Super Sentai.
There was even a Spider-Man tokusatsu show.
Now, while these sorts of shows have only been known here in the West since the 1990s (at least as a popular, mainstream thing), they’ve existed in their home country of Japan since 1966 with the original version of Ultraman.  The tokusatsu hero scene would expand in the early 1970s with Kamen Rider and a little later with Himitsu Sentai Goranger, both of which were created by manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori.  Both of these shows would create a long lineage.  You see, the way these shows work is that a single incarnation will exist for about 50 episodes or so before wrapping up the story.  Then, the next year, a new version with a new theme or motif will be released.  And the motifs can run the gamut.  For example, one season of Kamen Rider like Kamen Rider Fourze can be themed around things like space travel and high school while another like Kamen Rider Kiva is based around gothic horror and classical music.  The same goes for Super Sentai.  The series Gosei Sentai Dairanger is based on Chinese mythology and martial arts, while GouGou SentaiBoukenger is themed around pulp adventure and treasure hunting.  It’s not to say that the shows are all over the place.  There is a basic structure.  Kamen Rider, by and large is about a solo hero fighting for human freedom against an enemy that seeks to corrupt or transform humanity.  Kamen Rider antagonists tend to transform regular people into monsters.  Occasionally the main character will team up with other Kamen Riders who are either working at cross purposes or regard the main character as a rival.  There are also certain other things that carry over like motorcycles, large eyes on the Kamen Rider suit and the famous “Rider Kick” attack.  Super Sentai is generally about a team of multicolored heroes fighting against an inhuman foe that wants to destroy humanity and take over everything.  Some common things in Super Sentai are weapons that join together to make a bigger, more powerful weapon, monsters becoming giants at the end of every fight and giant combining robots.
The original Kamen Rider
Now, most people here in the US only know this stuff through Power Rangers.  Now, here’s the thing about Power Rangers: it’s a weird sort of hybrid thing.  What they do is take footage from Super Sentai, dub English-speaking voices over it and splice it together with new footage.  Generally speaking, all the action footage is Japanese, while the out of costume scenes are American-made.  That’s why whatever made-up city this year’s Power Rangers are in, be it Angel Grove, Mariner Bay, Blue Bay Harbor or even the space colony of Terra Venture, they all look an awful lot like Tokyo once the action starts.  Now, I’m not here to throw shade at Power Rangers.  They have had amazing success as a franchise, beyond what a lot of people thought they were going to have.  Twenty years later, the show is still going.  However, there’s something to be said for seeing the action footage in the context it was originally meant for rather than linked up with whatever story and characters the writers for Power Rangers came up with.

Now here’s the question: why do I like this stuff so much?  I mean, these are basically kids’ shows with what most people would think of as cheap special effects.

Well, most adult fans here in the U.S. would say that Super Sentai and Kamen Rider are more grown-up in comparison to Power Rangers.  This is true, but just by the barest of margins.  Due to cultural differences between the U.S. and Japan, Super Sentai seems a bit more grown-up and Kamen Rider seems more grown-up than that.  Compared to their American counterparts, these shows are more inclined to get into the more complicated aspects of subjects like love, family and sacrifice.  However, that’s mainly because the Japanese have different standards for what they think kids can handle and understand.  There are other parts of these shows that are in fact still juvenile.  They also tend to repeat a lot of motifs (dinosaurs, ninja, cars and animals, notably).  But that's something their target audience of young kids won't notice.

Well, I think it’s a lot of things.  The themes can be a bit grown-up while the shows are still unabashedly for kids.  And this is actually a nice thing.  Too often in the American superhero scene, things get too taken over by adult fans that insist the heroes grow up with them.  Kamen Rider and Super Sentai both work within formulas (as many pop culture properties do, if we’re being honest), but they own their formulas and do what they can to push boundaries, flex their muscles and explore new motifs within the formula.  As for the “bad” special effects, those become part of the charm.  After a while, it starts to feel less like a limitation and more like an aesthetic.  Superhero tokusatsu shows really wouldn’t feel quite so much like superhero tokusatsu shows if the effects were super realistic.  While the rubber suits for the various monsters and villains aren’t really believable, they are often heavily detailed and visually interesting.  The designs of the weapons and mecha are interesting in their own “designed to be a toy” way.  But perhaps the greatest thing about superhero tokusatsu’s relationship with its special effects is that the show’s creators don’t seem to feel hampered by them.  From what I’ve seen, they don’t seem to shy away from anything just because they can’t make it seem completely believable.  In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any “top” in Super Sentai or Kamen Rider.  By this I mean you can’t go “over the top” when there is no “top”.

No show is perfect, though.  I do have some criticisms of them.  It’s the same criticism that’s leveled against a lot of action shows aimed at young boys.  They avoid or downplay female characters in heroic roles.  Female Kamen Riders are usually introduced in the back half of a series as antagonists.  Super Sentai teams usually only have one or two female members at most.  Right now, there’s a Super Sentai team, Uchuu Sentai Kyuuranger, that has its biggest roster yet.  It started with nine members and then expanded to twelve.  You’d think that would allow for some room to introduce a third woman onto the team.  Nope.  There are ten male members of the team and only two female.  A lot of this comes down to not only marketing and merchandising reasons but also cultural factors within Japan.  It’s still unfortunate, though.
The current Super Sentai: Uchuu Sentai Kyuuranger
The biggest problem with being a tokusatsu fan here in the U.S. is that it’s usually pretty hard to get your hands on any to watch.  Usually, the only way to get them is to download pirated versions that have been fansubbed (note: that means fans have translated the show and added subtitles).  Fansubbers are an odd bunch.  They tend to pirate material and subtitle it purely because they love the stuff and want other people to see it.  Then once an official release becomes available they take their fansubs down and actively encourage people to buy the official release.  This seems like a topic unto itself but I’d rather not discuss whether there’s honor among content thieves right now.  One good thing is that Shout! Factory, the same company that makes DVDs of Power Rangers has been making DVDs of the seasons of Super Sentai that were turned into Power Rangers for a few years now.  Right now, they're up to Megaranger which was turned into Power Rangers in Space.  It’s not perfect.  Odds are we’ll never see DVD releases of the seasons that became Power Rangers, but it is something.
Super Sentai shows released by Shout! Factory
So, that’s pretty much it.  Why superhero tokusatsu has appeal outside its demographic.  These shows aren’t for everyone, but I like them. 

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