Thursday, June 7, 2012

Have You Ever Felt Your Super Sentai Spirit?

It's obviously obvious, but Super Sentai is my favorite tokusatsu franchise. Even as a kid, I liked Changeman, Flashman, Liveman and so on more than Spielban or Metalder or Black. (I did really like Spielban, though, I feel I should say that.) I feel like Sentai offers so much, it's really flexible with its theme and can be anything. Changeman and Flashman share some similarities, but feel really different to me. Maskman was nothing like Flashman. Carranger is nothing like Turboranger, and Gingaman is nothing like Megaranger. Sentai's always reinventing itself, but tries to stick to what makes it Sentai.

(Before I continue, I know I have a reputation for trashing the new shows, but...Sentai, like any long running show, movie series or band, is going to release a clunker or disappointment. So, while there's something like Boukenger, which I just really do not like and am hard pressed to try to find something to like about it, there's also something like Gekiranger or Shinkenger, which I ranted about, but because the potential was there for it to be so much more than it was. I still liked Gekiranger and came to like Shinkenger more, so...)

However, despite its accomplishments, its longevity, the contributions its made to the genre as a whole, the talent it's launched, the genre fixtures it's responsible for -- I've been in plenty of nerd wars defending Super Sentai and feel like it doesn't get the respect it should. "Kamen Rider's more mature!" "Ultraman is artistically pure!" "Metal Heroes had more depth if you could stay awake while watching 'em!" There was a dark period there in the early '00s, when Sentai was being animefied and Kamen Rider was taking itself too seriously, that was brutal for Sentai fans, but Kamen Rider's gradually become animefied with the popularity and success of Den-O... "Animefying" is a style that's become trendy for the shows in Japan, something that Sentai -- for better or worse -- adopted first with shows like Gaoranger. Ahead of the trend?

What irks me is when people disregard older shows for being "episodic," when you can look at any show from a similar period -- even American shows -- and realize that, hey, it was just the way TV was made then. That didn't mean there wasn't anything of value there, that there weren't payoffs or revisited storylines. Viewers just had to have patience, because they were trying to also be accommodating to new viewers. Super Sentai gets trashed for being "formulaic," when...everything has a formula. Here's something I recently read actor Hugh Laurie say in Entertainment Weekly (issue #1207, 5/18/12), in regards to his series House:

"Of course, critics and Internet wags liked to say that the show, in its middle years, became formulaic. They had fun reducing an episode to its basic elements: Patient gets sick, team tries variety of madcap diagnoses eventually settling on the most improbable, hey presto, patient cured.
Well, yes, one can apply that technique to pretty much any human endeavor: All blues songs are the same, all operas are the same, all games of basketball are definitely the same (to an English eye anyway); in fact everything is the same, including critics, if you don't pay attention to their differences."

My idea of a truly formulaic, made-just-for-the-toys series is Masters of the Universe. Low on plot, there's no overall story advancement or character development in that series, and the show is plagued with dozens of characters created just to sell new toys. I think there's only a small amount of toku that's comparable to Masters of the Universe.

Also, filler? A term I think is always misused. Filler is when there's an episode that doesn't advance overall plot or character -- if nothing is added to an ongoing story, a storyline or dynamic isn't developed, or if you don't learn anything new about a character or show, then *that* sounds like a case of The Fillers.

And the two phrases I find most aggravating: dismissing it as either a junk "kids show" or "a giant toy commerical." First off, Toei recognized early on that these shows were appealing to not only kids, but other members of their family, so they started to be written to appeal to a wide-range, and the Japanese take more pride in crafting these shows than any "kids show." Secondly...every single television show and movie is a commercial. It's not uncommon for executives to refer to shows and movies as a "product." Do you think AMC puts Mad Men or HBO puts Game of Thrones on out of the goodness of their hearts? No, they want to make money. It's a product. They like to often remind you that it's show *business*. What makes the show good is getting writers, producers, directors, actors who care about what they make, which -- although it is something that's become increasingly hard with the bean-counting executives and sponsors interfering more and more -- is something Super Sentai (and, yes, plenty of the shows in the other toku franchises) has accomplished time and again.

I've often been accused of taking these shows too seriously. And, yeah, I guess I do. But I grew up with Super Sentai, I know what it can be like when it's at the top of its game, I know how creative its content can be as well as the creators can be in terms of filmmaking -- I've learned things about storytelling and filmmaking and acting (especially from great veteran actors and gifted suit-actors) from these shows. Super Sentai and toku have also spoiled me in terms of how I feel about American superheroes. Sure, I like Superman and the X-Men, and I love Batman, but...with tokusatsu, you have imaginative shows, stories with a promised resolution. You know the story will be wrapped up, and that most of the time it won't become a twisted, messy soap-opera like the long-running American comic heroes can get, especially when greed led the companies to spin one ho-hum storyline over the span of five different books. Also: villains. When you grow up with people like Guiluke, Buuba, Neferu, Kaura, Kiros, Dr. Kempu -- slaphead businessman Lex Luthor and guys like Doc Ock don't cut it. (In my opinion, Batman is the only one that has memorable and interesting villains. And maybe X-Men.) The Avengers is supposed to impress me when I just saw over 150 Sentai heroes team up for a big war of their own?!

So, I guess what I'm saying is...



  1. Well said Shougo. Good job on the whole formulaic and toy commercial thing! And your comparisons to American superheroes was also very interesting.

    Super Sentai FTW!

    1. Thanks, I've also seen MattComix talk about those comparisons before. :)

    2. I felt I should clarify that MattComix specifically goes into the way Japanese heroes benefit from having a set amount of episodes compared to American comics and their continuous run.

    3. Well, that's definitely something that I love about Japanese heroes.

  2. I'll admit, over the years you've gotten me to give Sentai more of a look, and while I still swear by the bugman with the motorcycle, I totally get why you love it so much.

    Glad you started a blog, by the way! Looking forward to more!

  3. While you definitely have a point that all shows are made to push a product, it's pretty hard to compare tokusatsu to American prime time shows. Those are programs meant to push themselves as the product while tokusatsu tend to push their gear as the product. Often times tokusatsu falls victim to episode after episode or random one off scenes involving toys just for the sake of selling toys and at the cost of a good story. You can definitely get the best shows working these toys into their stories seamlessly, but there's more room for executive meddling here. Which I don't think would be the case in something like Mad Men or Game of Thrones...not to say it can't happen, but the changes in a show like that would feel a bit more fluid than in tokusatsu I think. (unless we're talking worst case scenario here)

    Also, it's easy to feel more excited for The Avengers than Super Hero War or 199 Heroes when only one of them seems to be getting pretty rave reviews. It's cool seeing so many heroes on screen, but if they're just there to be set pieces and not really interact with the main cast, it's pretty pointless. I've always felt that future Super Hero Wars movies could learn from The Avengers. Rather than bringing in every hero ever, bring a smaller amount in and focus on them in greater detail. You can spend movies focuses on heroes of a certain theme or airing year, the possibilities are endless there.

    1. Take a look at HBO's web-store sometime -- they're definitely as greedy as Bandai in terms of the merchandise they hope to sell. (And weep if anyone ends up buying the $32,000 Iron Throne replica.) My point was -- in this day and age, it's silly to write off tokusatsu as being "one big toy commerical," when that's the view of most network execs. There ARE producers and writers who care about quality in addition to entertainment, but they're being outnumbered by greedy bean counters.

      I know I'm in the minority, but I don't really care about The Avengers. I was definitely more excited about Sentai 199 over it. I'm not a fan of most of the heroes in The Avengers (I'm a DC) and I didn't like their individual movies. (Well, I somewhat liked Captain America, but it just made me want to go watch the much superior Raiders of the Lost Ark.) But it's not just Sentai 199, I'd make a case for something like the Ultra Brothers movie over The Avengers. It's all my opinion -- the point being that growing up with the Japanese heroes made them supersede a lot of the American heroes.

    2. I don't disagree with that point, it's an argument I hate seeing people fall back on - and it's one people tend to use as a means to justify themselves liking tokusatsu. (it seems like nearly every time a discussion about it comes up, people are on two ends of the extreme, toku has to be grimdark or it's just kiddy stuff that we shouldn't think about) But like I said, it just feels as if tokusatsu, by virtue of what it tries to do, lends itself easier to screw ups when you don't have a staff really working to go above and beyond. Like, you'll never see someone on GoT plug a hoodie when they aren't selling well enough, but tokusatsu can fall victim to numerous toy episodes that disrupt the flow of things. (like that painful stretch of four or five Shinkenger episodes in a row that each introduced a new toy, though I was a fan of the Bull Origami stuff just for the world building)

      I wasn't a fan of any of the Avengers before the movie, beyond Iron Man. (and really wanting to like the Hulk thanks to Mark Ruffalo) To me it's sort a prime example of good writing being able to make you like certain characters. I'm generally a DC person myself as well, despite being new to comics, I realized quickly that Marvel stuff had the tendency to make reading a chore. But yeah, I love the idea of seeing multiple tokusatsu heroes, it's just that when it happens, the end result isn't all that great. I think Super 8 Ultra Brothers and Ultra Galaxy Legends were so good because they managed to focus on a smaller number of older heroes rather than just focus on the new guys and leave the older guys to a random cameo scene. (or voicing grunts)