Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sayoko Hagiwara Confirms Marriage to Dynaman Co-star

Finally confirming what fans have long suspected in an interview with Sankei, Sayoko Hagiwara has revealed that she's married to former Dynaman co-star Yuu Tokita (Nangou/Dyna Yellow). Fans started to suspect they were involved when they began to attend just about every fan event possible together, with Hagiwara frequently talking about him on her blog. It's unclear just how long they've been together, since this is her second marriage.

The Sankei interview was a joint interview with Hagiwara and Bioman's Michiko Makino (Hikaru/Pink Five), who have recently become friends after attending fan events and often do special fan events together as Double Pinks. Makino reveals in the interview that she was forced to quit show business because her parents didn't approve of the gravure model work she started doing.

Check it out:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Sir Kaura, OBE (One Bad Enemy)

Flashman's Sir Kaura is my favorite Sentai villain. (I know, it should be a Yutaka Hirose character, right?) From the moment Kaura debuts to his final, crazy kamikaze exit, the character is just perfect. While credit should of course go to writer Hirohisa Soda, it's the excellent Jouji Nakata that brings him to life, and brings a new kind of villain to Sentai. Nakata restrains from making Kaura too hammy; it's an understated performance, so those moments when Kaura gets pissed and unleashes his wrath, doing that out! Hirose has said in interviews that he was really impressed by Nakata, and I think you can see how it changes him as a performer -- Kempu is a lot more subdued than the way he plays Wanda, and his subsequent villains are similar, and not as crazy-wild as Wanda could be.

From the creepy-awesome introduction of Kaura, you know the Flashman's in a world of trouble. That scene was etched into my head when I was a kid -- that chanting music that would go on to accompany a lot of Kaura's entrances, that red sky, the electric shocks of each step he made down his ship's stairs -- even the Mess officers on the scene are terrified. And right away he lets the Flashman know he knows 'em and gets off an insult.

He's a smart villain -- not just physically formidable, but mentally, and an all-around threat to the Flashman. Being the one responsible for kidnapping them, he has the answers to all of their questions. That makes him even more dangerous, having an even further advantage over the heroes -- and the villains, for he's even knowledgeable about all of their secrets and pasts. Being just a hired runner for Mess, he's a colleague of theirs, but still on the outside, so it creates great tension between him and the villains -- both sides get fed up with each other, ultimately leading to him turning on his employers.

As the series goes on, and the heroes become more and more desperate to find their families as they race against the clock against the Anti-Flash, how screwy is it that one of their most brutal of opponents could help them? And here's the thing -- he actually does help one of them. The trend in cynical Hollywood, and in stories in pop-culture nowadays are all about "being realistic" and having characters be "flawed" and "gray," but that often just means that the people who are supposed to be the "good" characters in a show or movie are downright despicable or amoral. But in their quest to have "gray" and "flawed" characters, it seems that they never really apply that to the actual villains. Depending on how it's done, I think it makes a villain more interesting and dimensional when the writers show glimpses of decency or even honor in them -- when villains stick to their word. Isn't it more predictable to have a villain say they'll do one thing, but renege and go "Ha-ha!"?

And Kaura has dimension like that. When he's worried about his right-hand man, Gardan, being turned into a monster, and he's seriously wounded, he kidnaps Sara for help, with the promise he'll tell her who her birth parents are. Most shows would have Kaura be bullshitting and cackling when revealing he had no intention of helping her, but, no, despite being mortally wounded, he still drops her off at her old home where she finally discovers who her parents are, delivering on his promise. That doesn't make him any less threatening of a villain, because he in turn used his knowledge against the heroes, as seen when Dai was reverted into a child, desperate to find his mother, finding comfort in believing Setsuko Tokimura was his mother, only to have Kaura appear and brutally crush his hope. Another thing: How many times have you seen a villain turn on their closest allies? But Kaura is shown to really care for Gardan and his Alien Hunter accomplices, their mistreatment by Mess being the catalyst for his rebelling against them. Nakata plays Kaura with a samurai-esque authority and is almost as honorable as one, but Kaura's no chump.

Certain episodes highlighting Kaura I'd like to focus on:

Episode 15: Kaura's debut. Not only the great entrance he makes that I talked about above, but he and his Alien Hunter allies just brutally beat the Flashman team down, and the episode ends with Kaura's causing the destruction of Flash King which, believe it or not, was a HUGE deal, a completely new idea at the time. What are they going to do without their mecha?!?

Episode 40: Jin gets captured and teleported to a mysterious city that Mess is developing. He's aided by a woman named Shibelle, who was also once captured by Kaura, only she didn't have the luxury of being saved by Flash aliens (or anyone else) -- raised as Kaura's daughter, she ends up being turned into a cyborg, and is a major component of Mess' "City XX" plan. When she was growing up, her one comfort was a children's book that belonged to Jin, which was amongst Kaura's possessions (since Jin was reading it when he was abducted), so she finds Jin and decides to aid him. At one point, the Mess decide to eliminate a mutual thorn in their sides -- they bind Jin and Kaura together and banish them to a location where they hope they'll kill each other. (It's a cool duel in the rain between the two.)

Episode 43: Shit hits the fan! Disgusted by the Mess trying to capture his Alien Hunter allies and experiment on them, Kaura unleashes his fury against everyone in his path, officially breaking away from Mess and beating the bejesus out of their lieutenants. And if that isn't enough, his right-hand man Gardan arrives, and since he's played by the awesome Yoshinori Okamoto, you know what's in store for the Flashman AND the Mess: pain.

Episode 48: Gardan and Kaura storm the Lab ship, cutting their way through a ton of Zoro and brutally murdering La Deus. High on his triumph, he takes on Red Flash, who's panicked over the kidnapped Sara, in one last duel. Kaura puts up a good fight, and basks in what a gloriously bloody sunset battle it is, but he's ultimately given a mortal wound by Red Flash's Prism Seiken. He keeps his word to Sara before going off on a suicidal kamikaze run against the Lab ship in the following episode.

Nakata's so good in the role, he ends up playing the main villain in Liveman two years later, and is so good there, I didn't know for the longest time that they were the same actor! I think he just puts so much into the role, and gives Kaura such additional shading. (I remember reading an interview with Nakata where he talked about coming up with his own backstory for the character, which if I remember correctly, involved Kaura being a military leader turned mercenary, where he went around the universe rounding up those who would be in his crew.) I just have to laugh whenever I see people say someone like Juuzo or Basco are such great villains -- are you kidding? They'd piss their britches if they saw Kaura approaching!

And what's sad is...Kaura never had an action figure at the time. Not a soft-vinyl, not an eraser figure. And while there's companies like Medicom and S.H. Figuarts that have released a lot of villains, Sentai villains -- and especially old characters like Kaura -- are always overlooked. So, a friend made me a custom Kaura!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Science, Dreams and Big Bangs

I always thought Dynaman was a cool, entertaining little show, so I've always been a little baffled that it seems to get such a mixed reaction. The English speaking fans mostly ridicule it (thanks largely to the jokey Canadian dub), while it seems to get lost in the mix by the Japanese fans. And unlike shows like Bioman, Changeman and Maskman, which were fan favorites when they aired in countries like France, Brazil, and the Philippines respectively, Dynaman didn't air in a country outside of Japan in its entire, original format to gain a one of a kind love of its own.

Maybe Dynaman seems odd to people because it's really when the Sentai franchise is in transition -- Dynaman has one foot in the '70s and another in the '80s. The seventh Super Sentai entry, and the second one in which Hirohisa Soda is main writer, Dynaman at first seems like an average entry, but indications of the places where Soda would take the franchise are easy to spot, most especially with the show's villains -- the arrangement of their group and their interactions. This isn't to discredit the Sentai shows that came before, because I like quite a few of those, too, but Dynaman feels to me like the first Sentai that is more like what we're used to thinking of when we think of Sentai. I think Dynaman is when the franchise starts chiseling out more of its identity, what would become -- and still is -- the template, the norm for the franchise.

Beginning life as "Baseball Sentai V-Leaguer," someone at Toei wisely decided to abandon that theme in favor of the science theme. Following what was, at the time, crazy-popular-with-kids Goggle V, Toei was initially wanting something equally lighthearted and kid friendly in hopes of having further success, and they thought a sports theme would prove irresistable to kids. A certain amount of these lighthearted and humorous elements remain with the series even after it becomes Dynaman, what with the Dyna Station's cover being a kids' play center and having the heroes be familiar with the kids who hang out there (a group of which are regulars, but some are one-shots). This element of a toku show bothers some fans, but I don't think it's as bothersome here as in some other shows -- to me, the Yumeno Invention Center being meant to be Yumeno's place for dreams to flourish and the Dynaman members being scientists basically made them seem like teachers to me, so the earlier portion of the show being kid-heavy didn't seem too out of place. (And unlike some shows from the time, not EVERY episode was devoted to a kid. Sometimes the guest would be an adult friend of a team member or Yumeno's. Dynaman's successors would stray further and further away from an overpopulation of kid guest stars.)

A 1983 calendar which was based off of the early V-Leaguer idea, with the team name written across the chest like a baseball team's uniform. (An idea that made it to even the Dynaman stages, as there are publicity photos with "Dynaman" written across their chest.)
I've often wondered why this show wasn't as liked as Bioman, when I feel like they have a lot of similarities. However, as I thought about it, I realized it's because the show never really gives the heroes personal conflict. (So many Sentai shows, but as I think of each Sentai leading up to Bioman, I don't seem to recall a show ever giving the heroes baggage as Bioman tried to, such as Gou's ordeal with his dad, or have inner-team strife, as was the case with Mika early on. Succeeding shows would eventually go deeper with its heroes, more willing to show flaws or get angsty, but at the time Bioman was treading some new ground.) I like the heroes of Dynaman, but it helps that they're played by such a likable, stand-out bunch. The five inventors are marked by the individual dream they each have, scientific breakthroughs they hope to accomplish. Being respectable scientists and teachers-of-sorts, they're mostly depicted as being stand-up role-models, so the dedicated and diverse cast members go a long way in making these characters work. (I'll talk more about them in a minute.) The characters in which Soda and the other writers aren't afraid to let loose are...

The villains, the Jashinka Empire. They're the first Sentai villains I feel have a little explanation of their background -- they're the evolved lifeform that fell to Earth along with a meteor, the meteor sinking underground, where over a long period of time these evolved creatures set up their own society beneath the Earth, making scientific advancements faster than the humans above ground. (Soda definitely takes some of these ideas and puts them to even better use with Maskman's villains, the Underground Empire Tube. For one thing, Maskman worked to try and make you really believe a society was at work underground for all of this time, while Dynaman focuses exclusively on the Jashinka.) Like the heroes, the members of the Jashinka Empire have their own dream, tying the theme together a bit nicely -- it is believed in their society that the individual who has ten tails will be immortal and rule all.

The Jashinka Clan; General Zenobia, General Car, Emperor Aton, Prince Megiddo, Princess Chimera, Dark Knight.
Heading the Jashinka is Emperor Aton. He's voiced by one of my favorite villain voice actors, the late Takeshi Watabe, who does his usual menacing job here. Aton spends most of the series seated, which makes the times he randomly chooses to walk around later on seem a little bizarre. While the Jashinka's designs are done by the super-talented Yutaka Izubuchi, and most of his work in this show is awesome, Aton's design puzzles me a little. His samurai-esque outfit, the way his tails are arranged, that's all good, but why does he have such a silly face? His right eye is supposed to be missing, but he really just looks like he sucked on a Sour Patch Kid. Well, I read that Izubuchi designed the character thinking a face actor would be visible, and when you picture some gnarly character actor wearing that armor, the design improves immensely. I'm assuming they planned to get an actor, but opted for a masked suit for convenience.

Speaking of gnarly character actors, Toei veteran Masashi Ishibashi plays the scientist/general Car, and I think it's probably the best design he's had in a Sentai. Looking like a ghoulish kabuki player, Car doesn't get much to do besides create monsters and bark out plans until later in the series.

I find Zenobia interesting because she's also a general and Car's rival. Feared by Aton, who banished her after attempting to rebel against him, she escapes her prison, lying her way back into Aton's good graces with her own agenda, sneakily trying to find a way to obtain a tenth tail on her own and get rid of all of her enemies. Toku vet Ritsuko Fujiyama brings an icy menace to the character who hides her treasonous ambition behind an authororative exterior. (Zenobia's arrival also marks when Dynaman's stories start to become a bit more interconnected than they previously were.)

I really like Chimera -- she gave the show quite a boost, starting out as the most active of the Jashinka. Mari Kanou's great in the role, making Chimera pretty intimidating and scary at times, which she manages to keep believable even though the character has a bit of a cutesy side. I like that there's a few episodes where she takes on Ryu/Dyna Black, and the show isn't afraid to show him being bested by her. She's a good villainess! And for some reason, background music composer Kensuke Kyou decides to recycle a lot of his Zubat BGM for her. And she really brings out good in...

Her cousin, Megiddo. Megiddo, Megiddo. He's such an AWESOME character, but I just feel like actor Kenju Hayashi doesn't take it seriously and holds him back. He's OK with the spoiled whiner part of the role, but that's just a small part of the character. He often just goes cartoony, and is especially never good with playing pissed off or kick-ass, which makes the character's incredible transformation into Dark Knight hard to buy. When Chimera joins the show, they start this dynamnic with Megiddo where she just really busts his balls for being daddy's boy and being publicly shamed by Dyna Red, who cut off one of his precious tails in the premiere episode. Chimera seems closer to Aton than his own son is, especially after Megiddo is banished by Aton and plots his revenge as Dark Knight.

Dark Knight (whose coolness would seriously have lessened if they kept his original name of Dark Boy) is often credited as being the first "dark hero" (a villain with transforming capabilities or a suit similar to a hero's who fights for no side) of Sentai. And while characters like Denjiman's Banriki Ma-ou and Sunvulcan's Inazuma Ginga paved the path, Dark Knight feels like a fresh breeze, and is an important character in terms of the way Soda will then begin to write villains and villain dynamics. Dark Knight shows up as an opponent of both Dynaman's and the Jashinka's, but remains mysterious, at one point seemingly teaming up with Zenobia, only to end up *really* screwing her over in what ends up being a well-planned out revenge. They even try to keep his identity secret, having Dark Knight disguise himself as an old man in one episode, played by an uncredited Hayashi. Voice actor Michiro Iida -- who I'll always think of as Changeman's Shiima -- provides the voice of Dark Knight, bringing his usual cold creepiness.

A huge star of the show, though? Action director Junji Yamaoka. Dynaman being the first Sentai to be rid of constrictive cloth suits, Yamaoka recognizes the freedom it gives his performers and goes to town. Man, oh, man, the action in this show. In some of the earlier, less involving episodes, the action would be the saving grace. Yamaoka experiments with a style he'd end up perfecting in Bioman and (especially) Changeman, with wild, hand-held, war-film-like camera shots that throw you into the middle of the action and in staging scenes in which the camera views all -- we'll be centered on Dyna Red battling some goons, but can see other members waging their own fight in the background.

I feel like this would be a good spot to mention that, when Dynaman premiered, it aired for the full 25 minutes that Sentai had run to up until that point. But, beginning with episode 10, due to a time-slot change, 5 minutes was trimmed from the running time. Sentai remained a 20 minute show up until the seventh episode of Megaranger. It's always been of my opinion that the five minute trim ended up benefiting Sentai -- fat like unnecessary lengthy scenes of mecha combining was cut, story took precedence -- it just really tightened the shows up. There was no time for messing around, they had to get down to business. Dynaman's scripts stumble with the time cut at first, but would make up for it in awesome action scenes. (Of course.) In-suit, the Dynaman have nifty weapons -- Red with his dual swords, Black with his blade boomerangs, the crazy dual mace Yellow wielded -- that also provide some cool action scenes.

A photo requirement when talking about Dynaman.
And while Yamaoka always liked pushing his actors into doing as many of their own stunts as they could, Dynaman benefited from having two Japan Action Club members playing the heroes -- the mega-talented Jun'ichi Haruta as Ryu/Dyna Black and Kouji Unoki as Yousuke/Dyna Blue. (These two were rare in that they also did their own in-suit stunts.) Haruta often steals the show, which he regularly did in Goggle V, too. Ryu being a ninja freed up Haruta to do, oh, just about any crazy thing that he could. Jump off a cliff, jump off a waterfall? No problem. Fight Chimera and some goons on-top of a moving cable car? Hang onto moving vehicles? Climb up some buildings, jump over and through some trees, into a flying kick? Haruta and Yamaoka can make the show feel like a vintage action movie every week. Two episodes I'd like to highlight, that I think represent the total entertainment Dynaman can bring with its action...

The episode in which the Jashinka place a bomb on Dan's motorcycle as he's in a race. Like "Speed," Dan can't stop the bike, or else it will explode. And while a couple of Ryu's scenes play for laughs as he frantically tries to help Dan (with not much help from Yousuke), that doesn't mean Haruta won't do some crazy stuff for ya. Here, he hangs off the back of a moving motorcycle, being pulled through some nasty looking mud puddles.

Another episode plays like what Toei usually does for the Sentai movies -- just nonstop, fun action. Episode 20, reminiscent of an old James Bond movie, it's an episode that's all about the Dynaman racing against Jashinka troops who are looking for a microfilm that has plans for a device that can weaponize the sun or some nutty stuff like that. It's just the Dynaman and Jashinka kicking each other's asses the entire time! The aforementioned scene of Haruta hanging off of moving cable cars is in this episode, and Unoki gets in some water stunts, and there's a duel between Rei and Chimera much!!!!! (The bad news is, the show settles in for some stupifyingly bad filler for several episodes after this one.)

But speaking of Rei, I feel like Sayoko Hagiwara is one of the more underappreciated tokusatsu actresses. While Rei can be a little cutesy at times, I never thought of her as being weak or as bad as SMILE-SMILE, and a lot of that is Hagiwara -- she looks like she's perfectly capable of smacking you upside your head and causing serious damage. She also goes nuts with her voiceovers. It's no wonder she was chosen to play the wicked Neferu three years later in Flashman. How unique that she played one of the only female Ultramen/Ultrawomen, a Sentai Pink and then a villainess? Nao Nagasawa receives 85% of the worship that should go to Hagiwara.

Yuu Tokita does a nice job as Nangou/Dyna Yellow, the clown of the team. He's funny in an old-fashioned kind of way and never obnoxious, and I find he brings a lot to a role that's a bit more underwritten than the others. Dan/Red's actor, Satoshi Okita, is a perfectly fine actor, and a likable guy, but he lacks a little something that the others have and they kind of overshadow him. Okita's good, he just makes Dan seem more like an equal to everybody else. Unsurprisingly, it's suit actor Kazuo Niibori who makes Dyna Red really stand out. (I also find it a bit weird that Okita makes his voice higher as Dyna Red -- it's like the opposite of a Christian Bale Batman voice.) Although a dramatic actor, Okita gets a chance to shine in later episodes, doing a lot of his own action. (Two episodes curiously have a similar plot in which Dan's Dyna Brace is destroyed, so he's left to rely on his natural abilities, and Okita really gives it his all.)

Let's hear it for the cast: Hagiwara, Unoki, Okita, Haruta, Tokita.
To wrap it up, I think there's a lot of good in Dynaman. There's fun, likable hero characters, fascinating villain dynamics, nicely tied together themes (scientists VS scientists, dreams VS dreams) great Yutaka Izubuchi designs and super cool action courtesy of Junji Yamaoka and the Japan Action Club. I just think it's a fun, fun show that deserves a chance by fans. The show's a blast and, with as many napalm-induced explosions as it has, it should be.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Tokyo

I'm a huge horror fan, and one of my favorite areas of horror is the '80s slashers. There were two giants of '80s slashers -- Freddy Krueger and his A Nightmare on Elm Street series and Jason Voorhees and his Friday the 13th series. I always preferred the Nightmare franchise, but I also like the Friday the 13th movies and enjoy them on certain summer days (for that summer camp feeling), or as Halloween approaches, or -- obviously -- on a Friday the 13th. (I remember when TV stations would have Jason marathons whenever a Friday the 13th rolled around on the calendar -- what happened to that?)

So, it gives me a bit of a kick to see that Jason Voorhees kind of made an appearance in a Super Sentai. Movie monsters appearing in these shows is nothing new, but they're usually the old standbys -- the Dracula-esque vampire (often played by Kazuo Niibori), a werewolf, a Frankenstein Monster type. But in the 16th episode of Jetman, it's Jason who briefly terrorizes some citizens.

The plot involves the villain Toran creating a monster called Paper Jigen whose ability is to cause objects in images -- whether photographed or illustrated -- to come alive. At one point, a series of posters for a Friday the 13th knock-off (looks to me like it's called Kaijin of the 13th) is shown, and the machete-wielding, hockey-mask wearin' psycho jumps out of it. And not one, but five Jasons -- it's like a Sentai team of Jasons! Friday Sentai Jasonger! Too bad they never fight the Jetman team.

Gonin sorotte -- Jasonger!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nineteeneightyseven: Toku's Champion Year

Since Rider returned in 2000, airing back to back with Sentai in an hour-long block Toei began referring to as "Superhero Time" in 2003, fans have debated which year's Superhero Time is the best. And I's Toei's line-up of 1987: Maskman, Metalder and Kamen Rider Black. These shows might not have aired in the same block -- heck, they didn't even air on the same day -- but I don't think Toei could ever match their '87 roster...

In my opinion, Hikari Sentai Maskman is one of the more underrated entries in the Super Sentai franchise. A more grounded series coming off of the grand, universe-spanning Changeman and Flashman, I had trouble adjusting to Maskman when I was a kid. However, when I got older, I grew to like it more and more, to where it's one of my top favorites.

I think it treads a lot of new ground for Sentai. Its heroes are more casual, really reflective of their time -- you get the feeling they were really going for hip characters. A majority of the teams prior to Maskman were meant to be professionals, but Maskman really gets across that they're ordinary people. Takeru/Red Mask is more driven by trying to find his lost love than just it being his job or an impressive sense of SEIGI! It's true that he gets heavy focus of the series, but it's his story driving it all -- the star-crossed love with the villainess spy, who he searches for after she's been captured by her comrades for her treason in falling for Takeru. Say what you will, but I think those brief scenes with him and Mio are really well done and do a great job of conveying the sort of storybook romance they were supposed to have. Those beach scenes are so wonderfully shot, and if Goro Oumi's soundtrack doesn't get to you, you might be a robot. Takeru is played by the super talented Ryousuke Kaizu, who always delivers, and is swift at playing the dramatic and comedic moments. A really underrated Red actor. Mina Asami also doesn't get the credit she deserves for her work as Mio/Ial (and Igam), swiftly carving two uniquely distinguishable characters. Kaizu and Asami's talents and likability make it all the easier to care for the couple. (Side fact: I like to listen to the first Hokuto no Ken theme, Crystal King's "Ai o Torimodose!!," and pretend it's about Takeru and Mio.)

The rest of the heroes are all decently likable, as well. While Kouichi Kusakari doesn't have the presence of Changeman's or Flashman's subleader actors, Kazuoki and Kihachiro Uemura, he does give it all. (Listen to his voiceovers, the dude goes nuts with them.) As Akira, Issei Hirota proves that not all young heroes have to suck or be obnoxious -- Akira became popular with teenyboppers and was given a major amount of focus in the series, but was given great stories and always pulled off some cool martial arts moves. And, in my opinion, the two Maskman heroines are some of the more underappreciated heroines. It's true that they could have been given more episodes, but Haruka and Momoko are always competent and, as played by Yuki Nagata and Kanako Maeda, given enough uniqueness to have them stand out. While Hirohisa Soda wrote a lot of strong, competent heroines...Haruka and Momoko have really kick-ass moments.

The Underground Empire Tube are basically upgraded versions of Dynaman's Jashinka, but I think further realized. I think the show provides just enough of the functioning of their underground society and the Tube empire to give you food for thought -- I feel like you can easily spin novels out of Tube's story, all the different factions, the different interactions, the history and lore the show gives them. Ichigo House's designs are excellent, and really fitting, and they make you forget that Yutaka Izubuchi left after Flashman. I love the almost gothicness of the Tube, the darkness that works with the Maskman's Aura theme -- light VS darkness.

I've always been surprised that the American fans don't seem to take to Maskman more, when I think it's a predecessor of fan favorites like Jetman, Dairanger, and Timeranger. Maskman has heavy doses of drama, takes itself seriously, and is well acted...there's not a weak link in the cast, and there's not a requisite off-the-wall episode like the Flashman cooking episode or the Ramen Jigen Jetman episode. There's a strong, overall story of the Takeru-Mio story (which becomes a triangle when the villain Kiros joins), dark twists involving the villains, the franchise's first taste of a sixth hero, strong fight scenes about the drama as much as the wow factor... It's my favorite of the 1987 shows.

Just as Maskman was taking Sentai in a new direction, Metalder was taking the Metal Heroes on a different road. A very different road. After sequelitis killed the Space Sheriffs and the similar-but-not-Space-Sheriff follow-ups Juspion and Spielban underperformed, Toei practically rebooted the franchise with Metalder, a semi-remake/homage of Shotaro Ishinomori's Kikaida, but with much more introspection. With less of an emphasis on fanciful action and more interpersonal drama, Metalder was a major switch in tone that is said to have alienated the younger viewers, but became a cult hit with the older fans. Personally, I think it's so much of a departure that it created the identity crisis the franchise developed that ultimately led to its demise.

Funnily enough, I was REALLY into Spielban when I was a kid, so I also had trouble adjusting to Metalder. I thought it was a pretty weird show -- heck, part of me still thinks it's a weird show, it's one that I really got into when I was older. It was overbudget and underperformed, but has since gone on to Classic Status with the Japanese fans. Sadly, being butchered up into the heinous VR Troopers might taint this show to American fans trying to get into it. (I guess VR Troopers wasn't as bad as Cybertron looked like it would have been, though. Yikes.)

It might be old hat by now, but the quasi-Kikaida remake's central plot of Ryuusei/Metalder learning the ways of humanity was explored in much more detail as it was in Kikaida; the Daisuke Ban-starring series kept its focus mainly on the superhero action, while Metalder tries to be more philosophical and spiritual. (Big surprise that it alienated kids, eh?) The central mystery of the series is who is Metalder, why was he created, and who is the mysterious Kirihara, and where does he fit in? Ryuusei/Metalder gets by with a little help from his friends, Mai Ougi and later Hakkou Kita, both of who take a bulk of the lighter/comedic material, which I think makes their characters suffer a bit.

Metalder was a very ambitious series that perhaps bit off more than it could chew -- while one of the show's unique qualities is the massive armies of the Neros Empire, I felt some of the designs and characterizations weren't completely realized from having to all be created at the start of the show -- that's a whole lot of characters to have to work on at once. Also, the amount of characters is supposedly one of the things that led to the show going overbudget.

Metalder is one of the few tokusatsu shows to actually be canceled -- sub-writer Kunio Fujii took the task of writing the finale and doesn't lose the show's tone, bringing his usually personal and dramatic stylings to a low-key, tragic finale. Metalder surprisingly stuck to its guns, and didn't sell out the way the similarly too-depressing-for-kids Blue Swat did by lightening the tone and forcing unnecessary toys and cutesy extra characters into the show.

Although Kamen Rider Black debuted in October of '87 (making it more of an '88 series, right?), it's considered an '87 series. So much was riding on the show's success -- Rider had been absent from the airwaves for a while and Toei was so confident in the series that they aired a behind-the-scenes special co-hosted by Shotaro Ishinomori's son, Jou Onodera, prior to the show's debut. The special explained the background of the series, Black's abilities, and even showed off audition footage. (You can spot Yutaka Hirose auditioning!) This was Kamen Rider updated for the '80s, and it was meant to be a BIG frickin' deal.

And man, oh, man, does the show start with a bang. Slick, dark, modernized -- it kept the kaizo ningen roots of the character, but ditched the ex-Nazi villains in favor of the spooky, mysterious doom cult Golgom. And while most of the Kamen Riders up until that point were on a personal mission against their villains, Black dials it up even more, by not only having the Golgom responsible for the death of his parents and adoptive father, but by subjecting his adoptive brother to the same ritual -- no escaping at the last minute, the long teased completion of a Rider surgery finally happens in this show, as the brother is fully turned into the villain's own Rider. First time actor Tetsuo Kurata NAILS the Kotaro character, which is why he's still so beloved today even after a disappointing sequel series.

There's just so much greatness in the premise that it's sad the show stumbles around a bit. You have the classic Rider element of the lead trying to hang onto his humanity, look out for his loved ones (sadly, Kyoko and Katsumi get the short end due to Kamen Rider's being a boys' club) and save others from enduring what he did, but also a cloud hanging over his head that he'll eventually have to face his brother in a showdown. In what should have been an excellent build-up, the show suffered from having too many cooks in the kitchen -- there's no head writer of the series, but a random assembly of writers, and you can sense times where the show holds back, Toei most likely being afraid to rock the boat of what was a successful Rider series back on the air and just wanting to play it safe. (The show made a mistake in not hanging onto tokusatsu writing royalty Shozo Uehara, who wrote the first three excellent episodes, but only one episode after that.) The sad thing is, the lesser episodes lose that sense of the show being a contemporarized Rider, and slide into a dated style that Toei's shows had outgrown by that point. Not all of these episodes are bad, just disappointing that they didn't make a grab for the potential the series could offer.

The shows of 1987 all share something in common -- an emphasis on drama, more interpersonal storylines, darker tones, main characters who make sacrifices, and downbeat endings to their series -- and yet are so different, and all so good. They influenced a lot of their successors and are still echoed in the shows of today. Fight, Maskman! Shunten, Choujinki Metalder! Henshin, Kamen Rider Black! Happy 25th anniversary, shows of '87!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wishful Casting: Another Agito Edition

When I first watched all of Kamen Rider Agito, a highlight of one of the later episodes was Yutaka Hirose's return to tokusatsu after a five year absence. But...I was disappointed to find that he was playing such a small role, that of a corrupt G3-Unit chief who's only in a handful of scenes. And then it dawned on me...

Why didn't they get Hirose to play Kaoru Kino/Another Agito? Can you think of a more perfect Kamen Rider for him to play? He was written to be older, an anti-hero. Another Agito's Yutaka Izubuchi design was a throwback to Showa Riders, with his bike Dark Hopper's name possibly being a nod to the Battle Hopper of Kamen Rider Black, the Kamen Rider role Hirose auditioned for in '87. Also, Agito main writer Toshiki Inoue always likes to write parts for Hirose, and director Takao Nagaishi always likes using him, so I just couldn't understand why they'd give Hirose a small part instead of a role so perfect for him...

I had a theory that maybe he was intended to play Kino, but took the small role in gratitude -- maybe he was still upset about losing the Black part, maybe it's because he was getting ready to put acting aside to focus on being a talent manager. However, I recently discovered that he wasn't considered for the part, that they thought of him from the start for the Naoyuki Shirakawa role. Pretty disappointing, if you ask me. And while I really like what Takanori Kikuchi ended up doing as I said, I think Kino would have been a perfect fit for Hirose, and a great note for him to end his tokusatsu run on.