Saturday, June 30, 2012

F_ck! Even in Fiction Nerds Don't Get Their Way

The aimed-for-adult-fans Sentai parody Akibaranger recently finished its run, and I have to say...I'm disappointed with where it ended up. I didn't expect to like Akibaranger as much as I did -- those early press releases sounded terrible, but barely reflected what the show really was, so I was fearing a show on the same low levels as Lion Maru G -- but I was pretty much immediately won over by its first episode.

Initially, I didn't think the whole "delusion world" gimmick was as cool as if they had just really somehow been transforming, but it was easy to overlook once it became obvious that the path the show was on was similar to the film Zebraman, and it would surely end with them being able to transform in the real world and finally become the heroes they wanted to be. (Many fans' favorite episode is when Nobuo first managed to transform in the real world.)

But the writers couldn't leave it at that, no, no. They couldn't dare have the show end up where the audience expected it to, and had to go above and beyond in proving how "clever" they could be and had the characters realize they were in a TV show. (Now, this isn't a bad premise for a similarly comedic show, but I just think it was out of place with Akibaranger, and seemed unplanned and mismatched with the rest of the series.) I know that the short-run/one cours shows tend to end their series in a disappointing, rushed manner, but Akibaranger had been going at a nice pace, and the final revelation seemed force, discarding what had been built up. I felt like Akibaranger had a good chance at getting a second season, but the whole "it's a TV show thing" blew it -- the writers, in trying to "outfox" the audience, painted themselves into a corner. In my opinion, it's as bad as having a finale that reveals the show's been all a dream; disappointing, wasteful, makes it all meaningless.

The show's charm was having ordinary fans becoming like the heroes they adored. And they did, but it's all just meaningless when they realize it's all a sham. It was already enough when the writers teased viewers by having the first episode reveal it was just delusions, but once they were supposed to break out into reality, it just went too far with them realizing they were just a TV show. That's overkill, it's someone painstakingly explaining a joke to you and trying to immediately retell it.

All in all, I did enjoy Akibaranger, and managed to get a laugh out of pretty much every episode. I thought it nicely picked up where Gokaiger left off, being a sort of continuation of it and its celebration of the anniversary and the franchise. I just didn't care for how the show ended, its final few episodes, and think it's a shame that it didn't have the guts to just stay on the path it was on -- I guess it's just too much to expect for nerds to get their way even in fiction.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sentai Sausage Is Eraser People

One of my favorite items of merchandise when I was a kid was the "eraser figures." (Or, as my mom called them, "eraser people." They were made out of eraser-like rubbery stuff, but not meant to be used as actual erasers.) Similar in size to the popular Kinnikuman/M.U.S.C.L.E. toys that littered shops in the '80s, the eraser figures would be packaged with just about every piece of merchandise for a show -- a few would come with toys, a few came with the tokusatsu-related snacks, but the best place to find 'em was in a Gashapon machine.

Not knowing what the hell those weirdo Marudai Sentai Sausage snacks were made of -- a white mystery meat that requires no refrigeration? -- my mom would buy the sausages just for the eraser people and throw away the meat, not allowing me to eat it! I'm still curious what those sausages tasted like, but I have a feeling I'd find them disgusting. (Imagine my surprise when, rediscovering these shows with the help of the internet, to find out the sausages were made out of various processed fish. So, I guess I should say thanks, mom, for forbidding me to eat those! Ugh...) Marudai still makes tokusatsu-related sausage, but now they just come with lame-o cards instead of the awesome eraser figures. In fact, I don't think they've even made eraser figures since Timeranger/Kuuga in 2000. I guess today's kids don't find 'em interesting and probably look at them the way everyone looks at tin toys. How could you have fun with these? Imagination, sucker!

A special Bioman set -- heroes, villains, Juunoids, Mecha Gigans! And a vinyl Bio Robo...
What I really liked about the eraser figures was the variety of characters they offered. Not just the five heroes, but most of the villains, mecha, and monsters of the week, even. When I was a kid, Sentai toys were pretty limited. You had mainly the soft vinyls (which I also loved) of the heroes and those die-cast figures (which I always thought looked funky) and mecha toys and that was about it. From Bioman through Turboranger, they made soft vinyls of some of the villains, too, which was AWESOME, but...

You're playing with the soft vinyls and you're like, well, where does this awesome fight scenario you're creating go to next? The mecha! As a kid, I frigging hated the DX mecha toys. They're a pain in the nards to build and then you build them and you'd be like "OK, what next?" Because there's nothing to do with them! (The only mecha toys I liked when I was a kid? The cool and easy to assemble Flash Titan and the nothing to really assemble Land Galaxy.) You spend all that time putting the toy together and...who's the mecha supposed to fight? They didn't make monster toys, so is it just supposed to fight other mecha? Is my Change Robo supposed to go beat up Golion or Optimus Prime or something? Enter the eraser figures...

The eraser figures had the same limited moveability as the soft vinyls which required similar levels of Super Kid Imagination, and there were not only the heroes and the villains (in fact, more villains than would be released as soft vinyls), but...INDIVIDUAL MECHA! MONSTERS OF THE WEEK! You can perfectly recreate the show and have the team blow away a monster, pretend it grows, and use the mecha to fight it! (Not only that, but I remember making the Change Robo eraser figure smack his fists together like in the show -- definitely can't do that with the DX one.)

Round 1: Change Dragon VS Buuba, Hidora and Space Beast Soldier Goomu

Change Dragon was victorious! Gyodai is dispatched to revive Goomu

Call out the mecha! Combine, Earth Conversion!

Uh-oh, it's on! Goomu faces Change Robo. Can't you imagine Tatsumi Yano's BGM?

One thing I remembered about the fun Kinnikuman/M.U.S.C.L.E. toys is that they came out with a ring that you could connect two figures, each on opposing sides, and have them "fight." I'd shove the Sentai eraser figures in there, so imagine my surprise when a couple of years ago, I saw listed on an auction site that they released (pretty much the exact same) ring for Turboranger! (Where were rings for the shows I was in Japan for, dammit?)

I wanted to focus on how extensive the eraser figure line could be. The soft vinyl set of the Flashman villain team Mess consists of just La Deus, Neferu, Wanda, Garus and a Zoro. With the eraser figures, you can pretty much complete the whole Mess line-up! The Kamen Rider Black line had the Golgom priests, which was awesome, because usually the Black villains were SOL unless it's Shadow Moon.

The entire Mess gang! Ulk and Kiruto! Lee Keflen! A frickin' Lee Keflen figurine!

Kamen Rider Black's Daromu

Yareyare! Maskman's Okerampa and Anagumas

The figurine of Maskman's Zeba funnily matches the early promotional shots of Zeba with his mask removed.

One thing that neither the soft vinyls or eraser figures doesn't fulfill? The heroes out of suit. I always wanted toys of the heroes out of suit when I was a kid. Who's supposed to be transforming into these heroes? I guess I was just a weird kid, because they never really made toys of the heroes out of suit. There were toys for Dyna Red, Red One and Change Dragon where you could take their helmet off, but that wasn't the same as having the whole team. (And they were also so out of scale you couldn't really do anything with 'em.) And while they eventually went on to do those head-flippers (what Power Rangers called the "Auto-Morphers") for a few shows in the '90s or something like the Souchaku Henshin figures for Kamen Rider, to me it's not quite the same as having figures to match the soft-vinyls. The person behind the mask always mattered to me, and they've really gone unrepresented in terms of merchandise. You should have gotten on that, Bandai!

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...