Saturday, November 24, 2012

Confessions of a Sentai Snob

My family left Japan in mid '88, only a dozen of episodes into Liveman. I was really into Liveman, so I was really bummed to leave the show like that. I loved the Live Robo and didn't get a chance to buy the toy! So, Liveman and the toku I watched was briefly on my mind when my family got back to the States, but I didn't really pay much attention to it. I had a lot of the episodes on tape, I had a lot of the battered toys lying around in boxes, but I had no idea that Sentai and toku would come back into play for me. Who at the time knew the crazy internet would come along, and not only could I find out about the shows that aired after we left Japan, but the shows that aired before the ones I watched, and actually get to WATCH them? Buy their toys and music? Actually get to finish Liveman?!? Sometimes I just sit back and think of how crazy that all is.

But, before that, before getting on the internet, there was an ad my family saw. Five heroes in colored suits. A giant robot. That crazy woman from Spielban. Hey, this looks like that stuff we watched in Japan! Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers debuted, and my family knew they obviously took footage from another one of those shows we used to watch -- it was weird to see them do it. I remember the MMPR toys lining the shelves before the show premiered, and I remember watching that first episode. It had the stink of bad American kids' shows on it -- bad acting, bad jokes, crammed with corniness and lessons -- but I was into it. I resembled the shows I loved in Japan, and it was new, and I had no idea that Sentai shows would become available on the internet, and I never thought I'd be able to watch any of the shows that I didn't have on tape, so I watched MMPR, I taped it, I bought the toys. (I also had a crush on Amy Jo Johnson, which I advertised by doing stuff like putting stickers of her and the Pink Ranger on things, or getting a picture taken with the Pink Ranger at local shows, making it look like I was a little girl. Embarrassing, man.)

Before I go further, I've made my feelings towards Power Rangers pretty well known, and have been labeled a "Sentai snob." I mean...even at the time, I realized that MMPR was severely diluted from the Japanese shows I was used to. Sure, for the kiddy or goofy elements something like Flashman could have, I never felt like those were out and out kids shows, talking down to the audience, existing solely to move product. They weren't about forcing some hackneyed lesson, they were trying to tell entertaining stories. (Obviously, there's lesson-centered episodes of Sentai, but rarely did they feel like a square, Ward Cleaver-talking-down-to-the-Beav sort of scene.) Actors, producers, writers, directors of Power Rangers always seemed to me like they were embarrassed and just didn't care and turned out whatever. (I give the actors of at least MMPR some slack since they were mostly cast based on martial arts or gymnastic ability. But I think Austin St. John actually did a good job as Jason -- he's one of the only PR heroes I actually like, and I think comes close to a Sentai Red.) People might label Sentai and toku as a kids show, but you know that the Japanese, by their nature, take a pride in what they're doing. (Is that racist?) Someone trying to make it in Hollywood? They ain't gonna give a shit about something "low-tier" like a kids show, they all want to be the next champagne-sippin' Scorseses or Coppolas, which is why so many American kids shows are such unwatchable pee-puddles.

So, I watched MMPR pretty obsessively -- was a member of the fan club, spent an obscene amount of my mum's money on merchandise. You name it -- those mini little figurines that did nothing, the Micro Machines, the Spin Fighters. (I had asshole neighbor "friends" who broke a lot of my toys because they had to be budding sociopaths or something. "Hey, let's decapitate the White Ranger!" I also remember paying their way to go see Power Rangers The Movie. YOU ASSHOLES!) But, once Zeo came along, I stopped giving a crap. I didn't like the change in roster, I thought the suits were ugly. I pretty much stopped watching PR regularly then, only checking in and out. I was about 12 at the time Zeo came on, so some would say I was too old for it -- c'mon -- but I think it just hit when Saban got greedy and complacent and just churned stuff out. It was also when he started whizzing out stuff like Masked Rider and VR Troopers -- he should have focused on the one thing that was still popular, but greed gets in the way, as Dick Wolf can tell you. (Law & Order started blowing when he did all of those spin-offs, IMO.)

It didn't matter much, because in '97 or so, I was shocked to discover my school offering Japanese classes. I signed up for that class and -- BING! -- remembered all of those shows I grew up with, tearing apart boxes in storage to find my old VHS tapes, deciding to look that stuff up on the internet. My school revived a toku-lovin' monster.

It was interesting to see the shows I missed, and especially interesting to see the shows that had been used as Power Rangers. I noticed that a lot of those shows actually did seem softer than the ones I grew up with, which led to me to my theory that Toei was keeping Power Rangers in mind when they made their shows. (What's with all of the cutesy, fat rubber villains -- where are the actor villains!?! What happened to the fighting!?!) But I enjoyed shows like Carranger, Megaranger -- I was baffled by the just debuting Gingaman, but have come to really like it. The only thing Power Rangers was good for at that point was to get the toys, and for cheap.

I became a full-on Sentai snob -- the longer Power Rangers went on, the more detrimental I thought it was to Sentai, and toku in general. Unless they were Xeroxing a Sentai script, which Power Rangers became very bad about doing from about Lost Galaxy on, Power Rangers rarely ever hit any of the dramatic beats or layers Sentai often did. Sentai would have gray characters who were misguided or fueled by revenge -- the Power Rangers counterpart would be brainwashed! Sentai would have these big, fateful battles with their villains -- Power Rangers would never have tense or dramatic fights, because the dialogue would always have the villain be an idiot and the Rangers throwing around wonderful lines like "Let's fight, sock breath! HIYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Dammit, man, people are going to think anything resembling a henshin hero is going to be about characters calling each other sock breaths! What's a Sentai snob to do?

Well, the longer Power Rangers went on, it was like...what can you do? The damage is done, man. And then Sentai started to do itself no favors by making very lightweight and fluffy stuff like Hurricanger and Magiranger. And, it's like...without Power Rangers, would Sentai and toku have been as easy to find on the internet -- would the same level of interest have been there? Without Power Rangers, how many of the nice or cool people in the fandom wouldn't be there? Is it worth it to hate Power Rangers, when god-awful goofball Godzilla flicks probably already damaged toku's chances in the U.S. well before Power Rangers?

There is one Power Rangers series I actually did enjoy. It might have been a clone of its source material, but I do remember enjoying Time Force. It was the first and last PR show since MMPR I watched any significant amount of. I felt like the crew actually took that one a little more seriously, probably out of deference for Timeranger (there was a notion at the time that Timeranger was some sort of Jetman-like insta-classic -- HA!). I give a huge amount of credit to Erin Cahill (Jen), though. She could overdo it sometimes, be a little too forceful, but she's probably one of the first Power Ranger actors who actually seemed to try and, you know, ACT, and seemed to be into it. The others were well cast, but I feel like she might have been the glue there. (I think she also works better than Mika Katsumura, who was too young and too green of a performer to pull off the Yuuri character in Timeranger. Jen seems like she could mess Yuuri up.) Time Force did (shockingly) make a couple of changes from Timeranger, which I thought were (shockingly) actually good -- I liked that they made the future Red doppelganger Jen's fiance, and I think the premiere episode makes a heck of a lot more sense than Timeranger's sloppy, hurried premiere. I have a lot of problems with Timeranger, and Time Force kind of fixed them up, surprisingly. Time Force is all right...

So, basically, I think I'd maybe like to reclaim the title "Sentai Snob" to apply to those who, like me, think Super Sentai is awesome and the best of the toku franchises. Because, what the hey, maybe a Sentai Snob can look at Power Rangers like this -- Ultraman has tried more than once to make it in the States. He failed. Kamen Rider has tried twice now to make it in the States. He failed. Metal Heroes failed as quickly as they arrived. Power Rangers may be watered down, but it is, in a way, Sentai succeeding where all of the other franchises failed, so...