500 Words of Nonsense
Published in

500 Words of Nonsense

6: Tokusatsu Life

Kicked off the evening by watching a few shows on the new Toei Tokusatsu Channel on YouTube. Toei is the company behind some of Japan’s biggest entertainment brands, including Dragon Ball and One Piece. Theyalso continue to produce the long-running Kamen Rider and Super Sentai live-action shows each year.

The latter two franchises are what’s know as “tokusatsu” in Japan, a term directly translated as “special filming” or “special effects”. The genre term covers pretty much any live-action show that uses extensive special effects, whether that’s physical creature effects or computer-generated VFX. That puts Kamen Rider and Super Sentai under the same banner as Ultraman and Godzilla. If you look at it a certain way, superhero films are just big-budget, American tokusatsu.

Toei Company had been producing tokusatsu shows occasionally in the 1960s, but then came the first Kamen Rider in 1971. The show was conceived by Cyborg 009 creator Shotaro Ishinomori, and originally intended to be an adaptation of his Skull Man manga. Kamen Rider’s success caused Toei to go all-in on superhero-themed shows across the 70s, with a few created by Ishinomori himself. They released 50 total series over the entire 70s and 80s, but most of them didn’t take off. Kamen Rider and Super Sentai were the nominal winners, though there were also the loosely aligned Metal Heroes shows.

The Toei Tokusatsu Channel is pretty much all of the “losers”. The one-offs and shows that didn’t survive to the modern era. That means the channel is full of quality versions of shows like Jiraiya, Jiban, Space Sheriff Gavan, Space Ironman Kyodain, Janperson, Kabutack, Henshin Ninja Arashi, Kikaider, and Kaiketsu Zubat.

Not all of them are good and the storytelling isn’t aligned with modern sensibilities. It plays fast and loose with things like characterization, motivation, and continuity. Characters and situations appears with little foreshadowing or explanation. And a lot of children get beat up. It’s quite clear after watching a few of the first episodes why Kamen Rider was so popular compared to some of the others.

But there’s something endearing and devil-may-care with many of the shows. You can tell they were just throwing ideas on a wall to see what sticks. Kaiketsu Kubat has this weird faux-Western tinge throughout. Akumaizer 3 is the one that asks, “What if the monster suits were the heroes?” The first three Metal Heroes shows are all Space Sheriff entries, which are all super-powered space cop shows.

There’s also a clear lack of caring about actor safety in the pursuit of wild action sequences. Jiraiya clearly hangs one of the supporting cast outside of a cable-car gondola, as suited actors climb around the cars themselves. Kaiketsu Kubat hangs its lead outside of a moving bus, which he tend rolls off. The second Rider in the first Kamen Rider only appeared because lead actor Hiroshi Fujioka broke both his legs in a bike stunt. People like to talk about things that can’t be done anymore in film and TV in terms of social presentation, but many of these stunts would get a straight “No way” these days.

Still, there’s a verve and life to these shows that’s markedly different from the more toyetic current Kamen Rider and Super Sentai shows. They sold toys, sure, but it wasn’t the primary focus to the degree that it is today. And throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks at least means you’re taking huge swings.

Toei is releasing the shows a few episodes at a time and fans have to subtitle them, but if you’re interested, it’s a mess of creativity and fun.