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 say...it'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!