Thursday, March 7, 2013

Takaaki Utsunomiya, Producer of Samurai, Pirates and Wizards

I remember how rough Go-onger was to get through when it aired, and seeing the first promos of Shinkenger. It...why, it looked interesting! It didn't look full of goofballery! And it was a samurai Sentai, do you know how long people have wanted a samurai Sentai!?!

Well, Shinkenger didn't end up being the samurai Sentai I always imagined -- it needed to go more hogwild with its premise -- but I enjoyed the show when it started. And then it happened -- the infamous lull from the early teens. Just a bunch of nothing episodes, and then...the godawful Genta joined the show. He was obnoxious and his intro episodes were brutal, but to cut a long story short, the show kept starting and stalling until about the early 30s, and I thought it was mostly solid from then to the finale. Shinkenger was frustrating to watch as it aired, but once it ended, and I could look over the series, I appreciated it more knowing what parts were stronger than others and that it made a nicer show when you whittled it down to the essentials.

It wasn't the samurai Sentai I wanted, and it wasn't consistently strong, but I felt like it was closer in tone to where Sentai should be than a lot of the newer shows have been. And I credited that to chief producer Takaaki Utsunomiya -- Shinkenger was the first series he was main producer of. I think it's a mistake how Toei likes to rotate producers each year, so Utsunomiya didn't work on Goseiger. And, honestly, even though I've softened on Goseiger, when that show was on the air, it made me appreciate Shinkenger all the more. I felt like Shinkenger was making progress, and Goseiger was a big step back.

So, I was excited to see that Utsunomiya was returning with Gokaiger. And, again, I feel like it was a step-up in what Sentai's been doing in the last several years. Gokaiger wasn't perfect, but I thought it was a fun show, and the first anniversary show to really felt like it was a big party honoring the anniversary. I thought Gokaiger was exciting, and I couldn't wait to check out the latest news and rumors when it was on the air -- what would they do next? Who would be the next guest? And, again, I credit Utsunomiya with a lot of Gokaiger's strengths. Hey, even though Jun Hikasa (producer of Gaoranger and Boukenger) always claimed that he wanted to do a show and/or movie that brought back a ton of older Sentai heroes, why didn't he? It's the producer's call, and he never bothered. Under Utsunomiya, Gokaiger managed to get at least one person from 35 years worth of shows. Even if some got shortchanged, that's still pretty impressive -- Toei could have easily told anyone who wanted to come back "Thanks, but no thanks." The Heisei Rider producers have no problem ignoring their Rider actors. (Remember poor Ryou Hayami, Kamen Rider X himself, begging on his blog to be in All Riders? Sorry, Ryou, but Momotaros was more important...)

Keep in mind how critical I've been of the Sentai shows of the last decade, and here's two shows I like. They're not perfect, but I definitely felt like Utsunomiya had the potential to grow into a great, great producer, and would eventually make AWESOME shows. But...Toei and their foolish rotating producers around. Before he had a chance to grow, Toei moved Utsunomiya to Rider -- he's the main producer of Wizard. I don't think Wizard shows the potential that I felt Shinkenger and Gokaiger did -- it's an empty show. I never thought I'd watch more than that irritating first episode, but I decided to try it again BECAUSE of Utsunomiya. It surprisingly became a little more watchable after that first episode, but it's just really pedestrian. Not as offensive as OOO or Fourze, but quite dull, and doesn't have much of a personality.

It's like...Wizard has some good ideas, and I think Utsunomiya wants it to be the type of Rider from the Kuuga through Faiz run, but...sorry, Utsunomiya, it's a post-Den-O Rider World. The only thing Den-O Rider Kicked was the Rider franchise itself, because it hasn't been the same since. Did you ever think Rider would get so cartoonish? (That's another rant for another post.) Den-O's stink is all over Wizard. It's bright, it's noisy. The priority isn't the heroism or the drama, but the colors and "funny" and the gimmicks. There are some interesting, dark and screwy concepts in Wizard, but everything is treated nonchalantly. (Which reminds me of Hibiki. Except this time, scriptwriter Kida is more of a pushover for Bandai, I guess out of fear of being fired again.) The show is yet another sitcom that has vaguely Kamen Rider stuff shoehorned into it, and it just doesn't work for me. The recurring characters are treated like the guests, and the guests -- who mostly have uninvolving storylines -- eat up all of the screentime.

It's obvious that Kamen Rider is Toei's "star" tokusatsu series, so when a Sentai staff member moves over to it, it's most likely a big deal for them. Wizard isn't doing that well in ratings or sales, so how's that going to affect Utsunomiya? Look at what happened to Jun Hikasa. (Or, my theory of what happened to him, anyway.) Hikasa moved over to Sentai after Metal Heroes died; his first show was GoGoFive, and he was enthusiastic, he wanted to do good work. He built up a lot of goodwill with longtime fans by making shows that appealed to them, too, and breaking rules like having a Pink leader in Timeranger. Hikasa was chief producer for GoGoFive through Abaranger, and while he had a couple of clunkers there (*ahem*Hurricanger*ahem*), I'd say he did well...

And then Hikasa was given Kamen Rider in 2004. Ho-ho, the big leagues! And what's he do? Blade. Blade, a sloppy show which doesn't have the greatest reputation, and which is pretty much still, to this day, mocked by the Japanese fans. So, my theory is that that really knocked a lot of steam and enthusiasm from Hikasa. He returned, tale between his legs, to Sentai in '06, and gave us the abysmal Boukenger. Boukenger, which just pisses on Sentai and barely acknowledges the anniversary. And after that, he gives us Go-onger. He realizes he's just phoning it in, and writes on Toei's website that he's retiring (as a Sentai producer) at the end of Go-onger. But he doesn't! He comes back for Goseiger! And we all know how that went down, don't we? (Most fans hate it; Hikasa quit the show halfway through.) And while Hikasa's made a bit of a comeback with Akibaranger, it's still hard to wrap your head around the fact that the guy behind GoGoFive, Timeranger, Gaoranger, and Abaranger made the freakin' atrocities known as Boukenger and Goon-ger.

So, my point? That I'm afraid that Wizard's going to do the same to Utsunomiya. Only, this time, Utsunomiya's talents will be snuffed out before he's completely reached his potential.


  1. Agree with pretty much everything. I feel like i can really relate with you, because i'm an old Sentai fan, i like it over Rider, and i rarely feel truly invested on new Sentai.
    Shinkenger and Gokaiger were my favorites in recent years, and because of that i was expecting more of Wizard due to Utsunomiya too...and while not a bad show, it really feels "empty", which is weird given its theme. I'm not feeling Tsuyoshi Kida as the head writer either. But are Wizard's sales bad? I thought it was surpassing Fourze.

    And now that you've mentioned, i wonder if some staff members feel like they're "downgrading" if moved back to Sentai from Rider.

    I think Toei needs to rethink this "guest of the week" format in Rider asap. It's gradually making the shows be more about random characters that no one cares about than the leads, who only get sparse focus when something plot-relevant happens.

    By the way, i miss the fun of the huge rumors buzz going on during Gokaiger too. Even the japanese boards were way more active! Information about future episodes used to come out so much earlier than usual.

    1. I'm not exactly sure how Wizard has been doing in toy sales, I've just read a couple of people mention that it wasn't doing too well. *shrugs*

      In addition to how they do the guest of the week episodes, Rider needs to ditch turning episodes like that into two-parters. There's been quite a few times in Wizard where I'll see a preview or watch an episode that's completely boring, and doesn't even have enough interesting material to fill out ONE episode, and I'll remember "Aw, cripes, this is part one of two..." Not EVERY storyline needs to be a two-parter.

    2. Back in December i read four Wizard toys made the Holidays top 10, which was a new record...didn't hear anything else ever since, though.

      And yeah, i think this stickiness to two-parters actually makes Rider look more formulaic and predictable than it should be. Whenever there's a new "guest" arc, you know the first episode will be just a build up for the second, most of the time, even if nothing happens.

  2. Wizard strikes me as a show that sounds amazing on paper, but its execution is terrible. It's such a dull show, I haven't been able to sit through an episode since before Christmas. I wonder if that's more the fault of a director who can't quite pull off the ideas of the producer and writer than anything else. Utsunomiya's still got the potential for great shows, as a producer his career is young, I'm hoping he's someone who can eventually make a show without the 30 episode plot brick wall that the series slams right into. And maybe the knowledge of how to do that only comes with experience. - Aoi

  3. B-but Blade was mocked by Japanese fans because of its bad acting during the earlier episodes, which resulted to a truckload of internet memes!

    Back to Utsunomiya, I like his work in Shinkenger and Gokaiger. The fact that he teamed up with Kida, made me more excited with Wizard. After ten episodes of watching the show, it feels like the villains are not making any progress, Haruto is overpowered and my personal favorite, it tries its best to be dark, only to fail at the end.

    Then Beast came and sorta saved the show from despair. Based on the show's current pace and the third quarter toy catalog, I guess the plot will start picking up after the Medusa arc.

  4. I kinda find it interesting that Gaoranger was to your liking. Is it in the range of W, Shinkenger, and Gokaiger as shows that had quite a few rough spots but still enjoyed?

    1. I don't like Gao as much as Shinken, Gokai or W, but it had its moments. I like the casting of the five heroes, I thought they were all a fun bunch. Some of my liking the show is being nostalgic for the time I got into Gaoranger, though. For me, it's an enjoyable enough show, but it just runs out of steam. I don't like Silver or Fuutaro, they really drag the show down.

      I'm usually one of those "I like when a show is serious!" guys, but I enjoyed Gaoranger when it was more comedic -- I didn't think it worked when trying to be "serious" or preaching its Captain Planet message.