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!


  1. How popular was Maskman in Japan? It doesn't seem like a show that made a huge hit among fans like some of its predecessors (Changeman or Sun Vulcan for example), but I wouldn't think it was highly unpopular among older fans. Probably not something as neglected as Fiveman, but I couldn't be sure.

    Anyway, re watching the show, I'm liking Maskman slighty more than I did the first time. I especially appreciate the world building incorporated for the Tube civilization, and its imagery (although a bit superficial)of the light vs dark motif. It also helps that I'm watching in good quality raws, too :p

  2. I know Maskman used to be pretty well-liked, but it seems to me -- at least based on the segment of the fandom represented on the internet -- that it's kind of fallen between the cracks with the Japanese fans. Maskman's a trailblazer, and I guess like what happens to most trailbrazers, flashier successors will benefit from borrowing from it (Jetman, Dairanger) and get all of the attention. In an '80s interview, writer Hirohisa Soda said Maskman was his favorite of his shows, but nowadays he's switched that to Changeman.

    I don't think it helps that most of the Maskman cast quit showbiz in the mid-90s -- it seems to me that in the early '00s, when old shows started coming out on DVD and the Japanese fandom became a bigger force on the internet and there started to be nostalgia for these shows, that tokusatsu became even bigger than it was, and maybe if the Maskman cast had been around to partake in all of that...there needed to be people to represent it!

  3. I've always been surprised that Toei kept the Metal Heroes franchise alive after the cancellation of Metalder. At this point, I wanna say it was just the first two shows that did good(since Shaider was the last Space Sheriff themed one, maybe the downfall started with Sharivan as well) and the others were just sort of there, not doing terrible, but only decent at best. Metalder having been cancelled feels like the sort of thing that would have made Toei want to cut their loses once they saw that there just wasn't that audience there for these shows. (but maybe the toys did really good, and as far as I know, Metal Heroes beat out Sentai in ratings in all but one year)

    1. Well, Amazon got cancelled, but that didn't stop the Kamen Rider franchise for making Stronger or bringing it back with Skyrider after a four year absence. Hell, Super Sentai was on the verge of ending from Fiveman to about the start of Carranger. Toei doesn't really seem give up on their franchises. I fully expect to see a Kikaida revival with all their nostalgia based projects going on.

  4. WOW Shougo Thank you!! This article inspired me to visit MAskman for my first time and HOLY CRAP amazing best television show I have ever seen PERIOD! I completely agree with everything you said I cant believe Jetman get so much praise over this show this is the ONLY sentai ive seen (so far) with such DEPTH of character development! Its everything I could have hoped for other shows its just boom the characters and into the action but here so beautifully peppered throughout the story are such sometimes small and other full episode, glimpses into each characters past and their thoughts, who they are and what makes them tick-Takeru- skilled fighter, struggled in childhood now tormented by lost love, Akira- deep sense of love and respect for his mother and love of her and his values but a powerful fighter, Kenta- such a kind romantic, so clearly wants to love and be love and find love but cannot until war with Tube is over, Momoko- had such a deep traumatic scare as a child, the impact with the CarolLove flower it made her who she is today and my personal favorite Haruka WOW what a kick ass heroine, such depth and explanation of her ninja upbringing and as she struggles with her confidence even today as a maskman. Sorry Im rambling. My question for you Shougo is can you please tell me anything about Yuki Nagata ??? She is for sure my favorite heroine EVER i cant believe i dont read about more people talking about her as a favorite. Ive spent alot of time online looking her up and all I could see as her other toku credits (which i found on a message board) is that she was in zyuranger 24 and an episode of Solbrain. I downloaded that episode of Zyu but didnt see her in that. IS it possible that you could please tell me of any of her other work you may know of?

    1. Glad to hear you enjoy the show! I think Maskman is an incredibly underrated entry in the Super Sentai franchise.

      As for Yuki Nagata, I think she's really cool, but it's not easy to find information about her. I was once told she was a member of the Japan Action Club, and even though I can't find 100% proof that she was, I think it's obvious that she was a member of SOME stunt group, judging by what she did in the show. (And one of the Maskman books I have credit her for Flashman, but unless she did some stuntwork, I have no idea where she is.) I think the only other toku she made a face appearance in was Fiveman -- in episode 6, she's wasted in a quick scene as a TV reporter.

      A few years ago Nagata teamed up with someone and created these zines with BTS info and pics about Maskman to sell at conventions, and a few copies were on Yahoo Japan auctions, but they were pretty sought after and I don't think they appear much anymore.

    2. Thank you SO much Shougo!! I had actually tried emailing you I wasnt sure if you had seen this ha. Thank you so much I guess Fiveman is my next sentai purchase as I have also heard that Yoko Nakamura makes a cameo as well. Hey with my hours of searching for info and reading different posts on message boards etc have you seen this?!!?! Its got new recent pics of Five Black, all the guest stars of gokaiger having drinks and taking pics of their ranger keys AND some maskman pics that from what ive translated the Admin saying he took from Red Masks wifes facebook!!!

  5. Honestly, out of these three, I like Metalder best. Kamen Rider Black introduced me to Kamen Rider, but I'm more of a Sentai fan. I agree Maskman deserves more attention-heck, I watched a few of the episodes, and they're really good-but Metalder appeals to me more.

  6. Metalder is my favorite show of Metal Heros. The the darkest show, the most mature and the most risky. God neros is a incredible villain with a charismatic hero.

    The final episode with Flashman was very Sad and bittersweet but teaching what it means to be a hero and the music. MY GOD!! the background music make by Seiji Yokoyama is EPIC!!