Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Toku Legends: Masashi Ishibashi

The awesome Ishibashi. He's regularly terrorized JAKQ, Battle Fever, Dynaman and Turboranger... He's faced off against Kamen Riders and Space Sheriffs... He's gone as far back in toku as the original Kamen Rider series... He's crossed paths with Sonny Chiba many, many times. In the English speaking toku and/or Japanese action film fandom, I feel like Ishibashi's never gotten the respect he should.

Trained on the stage and a martial artist since childhood, Ishibashi's big break came when cast opposite Chiba in a sequel to his "Bodyguard Kiba" series -- Ishibashi made such an impression that Chiba suggested him for the role of Junjo Shikenbaru, the opponent of Chiba's Takuma Tsurugi in the wildly popular (and wildly controversial) "Street Fighter" movies. I know Ishibashi's character is a murderer, but with what Chiba's character does to his family, combined with the solemn and defeated demeanor Ishibashi gives Junjo, it actually makes me root for Junjo over Takuma. (But, we know whose name is over the title, so we know who ends up winning that match, huh?) This led to numerous appearances in other Chiba action films.

All of these movies being Toei, it wasn't long before Ishibashi started getting toku gigs. His first regular role was as JAKQ's only villain, Iron Claw, a character I talked about previously as having been improved by Ishibashi even while Ishibashi is let down by the writing and the terrible way the show wrote him off. At first a guest in Battle Fever J, he eventually takes over the role as Hedder, a warped sort of monk that commands the Egos cult's troops, a part which Ishibashi has fun with. He then moves on to Dynaman, as General Car, in which Ishibashi gets his best design by Yutaka Izubuchi. As a way to celebrate 10 years of Super Sentai, Toei brought Ishibashi back to play the demon scientist Reida in Turboranger, but never really knew what to do with his character, so he was sadly written out of the show fairly early. He made his big return to the franchise with the Gekiranger movie, playing the shady media figure Yang, who sets up an "Enter the Dragon"-style fighting tournament -- Ishibashi coming full circle in a way, returning to not only Sentai, but action films, as that movie pays homage to '70s style martial arts movies. Ishibashi has said that his goal in playing toku villains is to showcase the dedication and pride the characters had, and that he looks at tokusatsu as the fairy tales of today.

Ishibashi's made a couple of toku guest appearances sprinkled throughout the years, and I wanted to focus on two of my favorites:

In Kamen Rider Black #40, he plays a kindly old man who has taken in a disciple, a young boy who's under the impression that the man is a karate expert. The only thing is, Ishibashi's character is a broken man; retired after a dull life working a desk job he never advanced in, but what really broke him was when his fear made him unable to save his grandson in a near-death accident. He doesn't want to let the boy down, so keeps up the impression that he's an expert. When a Golgom plot brings Koutarou to the mountains where the man lives, it's not long before they're confronted by a monster. Once again trembling and frozen in fear to save the boy from the monster's clutches, the boy dismisses the man for the fraud he is...that is, until the monster again catches up to the boy, and Ishibashi finds the courage to save the boy -- ready to sacrifice himself in order for the boy to make his escape. The boy finds a new respect in Ishibashi's character, and Ishibashi starts finding more confidence in himself, and he soon takes on more disciples. Ishibashi plays the character as good natured and frail, and makes him really sympathetic. He also makes the episode stand out more than it should, because it's a pretty nothing episode to come so late in the series.

Episode 27 of Jetman is pretty bonkers, and in it Ishibashi plays what I like to call Super Priest -- a bad-ass that Commander Odagiri enlists to help when Radeige uses supernatural powers to trap the Jetman's souls in a hellish realm. Ishibashi's character not only pulls our hero out of death's hand, but guides Ryu's spirit to the afterlife in order to save those who Radeige was successful in "killing." Two rare good roles for Ishibashi after a long career of playing bad guys, and he's really good in them. There's just something likable about the guy that you can't help but enjoy when you see him pop up in something.

This year marked Ishibashi's 80th birthday. It would be nice of Toei to give him a voice role or something, but he's at least (sort of) being paid tribute in the upcoming season of Akibaranger, in which the villain bases his look off of his favorite Sentai villain, which is Ishibashi's General Car. To be truthful, I don't feel like he's ever been given that one super-iconic toku role that made most use of his talents, but Ishibashi lifted his characters to greater heights with his abilities and presence, and has made a mark on the genre, and for that, he is a Toku Legend.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Qi! Qi! Heroines in Uniform

When Boukenger was airing, Bandai decided to release small figurines in honor of the heroines of the franchise, called the Girls in Uniform series. These figurines are "anime-ish" renditions of the characters, but thankfully aren't as obnoxiously cute as figurines of this sort can be. (I'll again say "thankfully," because I felt these figurines could have easily been crossing a threshold of nerdiness that even I feared.) Needless to say, I was excited to see older characters be recognized -- Changeman's Sayaka was in the very first release! Pretty much each installment had a character I liked and was interested in buying. But, of course, Bandai made some glaring omissions. (I'm still surprised they skipped doing anyone from Jetman. Jetman! Toei's "golden, historic, legendary" series!)

A couple of gripes before I proceed. One: some of the choices baffled me. Of course, obnoxious new characters like Natsuki/Bouken Yellow would get released. But did they need 10 different versions of Jasmine and Umeko? Did they really think Magel from Magiranger would fly off the shelf? I like Liveman's Koron, but she's not a girl or in a uniform -- she's a machine! And for crying out loud, they released Go-onger's Kegareshia! And, wouldn't you know it, Kamen Rider had to weasel its way in, despite being a boys club that barely has notable female characters, let alone "heroines." And -- coincidence? -- that's right around when the Girls in Uniform series ended. (At least they released Sumiko Ozawa, though.)

Nevertheless, they released a lot of characters I liked. But I wanted Maskman, dammit! Namely...Momoko.

Momoko's one of my favorite Sentai heroines, and a lot of people have been copying me have come around to appreciate her more. I really like the actress who plays her, Kanako Maeda -- I think she's a pretty good actress and a great match for the Momoko character. A lot of people write off some of the older Pinks as being too cutesy, with their heart motif visors or earring helmets or ribbon weapons, but if they took the time to watch the shows, they'd realize that most of them kick ass. The first two Pinks, Risa Komaki's Peggy/Momo Ranger and Michi Love's Karen/Heart Queen were JAC ass-kickers! How cool is that? There wasn't a male JAC hero until Kenji Ohba in Battle Fever. Peggy and Karen were saving Japan the world at the same time Kenji was just an extra in Sonny Chiba movies!

Momoko's certainly an ass-kicker, but I think she also stands out because she has attitude and a sense of humor -- she's supposed to be sassy (which comes off most in the episodes written by Toshiki Inoue), and some Japanese materials refer to her as being "mischievous." Maeda just nails both extremes. And she's not afraid to let loose and unleash fists of fury on a monster or put herself out there and look silly for a joke. (The expression on her face when she leans into frame to nib over Akira's shoulder at the letter he's reading is one of my favorite bits of hers. What a wise-ass!) And if you've watched my Onna Senshi R Tuff Enuff video, you'll recognize one of my favorite scenes of heroine ass kicking -- when Momoko goes Berserker Rage on a bunch of Angler soldiers and the Skeleton Dogler, punching a hole right through it!

A few moments of Momoko awesomeness:

Pink Mask takes an episode-long beating as the others try to recover from a monster attack. When they're healed, and finally come to Pink's aid, is she all "Minna! I knew your justice wouldn't let me down!" No, this is Momoko we're talking about. She's all "It's about time! Lazy-asses!" and smacks Yellow in the head.

Akira's being annoying and Momoko lets him know it.

Blue Flash leans in for a kiss -- denied!

So I wanted my Momoko Girls in Uniform! I had seen Japanese fans post pics of some customs they did, which usually just involved swapping the heads from different figures. (For example, one fan bought a Momo Maruo and gave her Saki/Go-on Yellow's head to make her a Juri/Oh Yellow figure.) But there was one fan on LiveJournal who went to the trouble of repainting figures to make the characters they wanted, so I tried to do the same in order to have my Momoko figure. And here's the result...

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.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kyoryuger makes dinosaurs glad they're dead

If you're one of those people who are like "Ugh, Shougo's whining about the new show again," then just save yourself trouble and skip this post, OK? Here's your warning.

Kyoryuger was farted onto the air a few weeks ago, and I...I hate to be so dismissive of a show right off the bat, but...I don't want to be too quick to judge, but...I think I hate it? Like, it's offensive on SO many levels, a visual assault, an aural assault, an assault to the intelligence of viewers of all ages.

Maybe the show will calm down, but right now, it's trying soooooooooooo hard to prove that it's "fun" and, therefore, not Go-to-sleepsters that it's just a kid on a sugar high who just did a line of nose whiskey and is zipping and bopping all over the place and is non-stop noise. It's bright! It's loud! They dance in the show, they dance in the credits! Even the mecha dances! There's music! Boomboom bangbang wire-fu! Look here at this bright thing, now over here at this shiny thing! Whoa-ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh, whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa! What does samba have to do with dinosaurs? Who cares -- isn't this fun!?!!?!?!

Someone needs to tell Daigo to dial it way down. He's trying so hard to be energetic, and it just comes across as bogus and obnoxious -- he's a good representation of Kyoryuger as a whole. Dude can't even read the Bandai/sponsor lines without just yelling it all and spazzin' out. You ain't fun, man. You ain't cool. Pipe down, before you make me stick up for Akaza Banban. And comb your hair!

It's sad that Ian is what passes off for "cool" these days. Could you imagine that sparkly Sailor Moon wink sound-effect when Hayate or Gai was trying to impress a girl? Geez...

I wanted to like Blue, but a) he looks like one of the lesser known Sweathogs, and b) what could have been an interesting storyline takes the backseat -- no, takes the car being towed -- to all of the cartoon dinosaurs and noisy lipstick-powered weapons they have.

Green and Pink look like a-holes.

And the villains! Holy shit, the villains! How stupid are those designs? They make the Gaiark look like they were designed by Yutaka Izubuchi! Did Toei accept design submissions from kids? Don't they look like the drawings some kids will do to seem like they're creative, and the parent has to be polite and be like "Good job! Very interesting to give the Statue of Liberty a robot face!" But deep down, the parent is thinking "My God, what is wrong with this kid? Do I have to worry? Did we drop them on their head?" I'd like to fake optimism that the show will improve, but I don't care how good the storylines could end up being, because you can't do anything good with these villains. They're even dumber looking than the Baranoia. They make H.R. Pufnstuf look like H. R. Giger. Who OK'd these designs? Demote 'em.

What's most annoying, though? How badly Kyoryuger wants to be an anime -- even moreso than a lot of modern tokusatsu. It's easy to watch it and picture it as an animated series, like, Dinosaur Captor Yugi-ball. Noids should not act like doodles. Your country is littered with anime, Japan -- tokusatsu is unique in that it's, you know, LIVE-ACTION. That creative writers, directors, actors, designers, prop makers put their skills to the test in trying to make the fantastical come to life, all on a very small budget. And the abuse of CGI just makes things worse, because all CGI is capable of is to make things look cartoonish. (It's a complaint I have about new comic book-based movies, too. Like, what's the point of making a live-action Hulk movie when he's just a giant green cartoon? Why make Watchmen when it's all going to be done on a green soundstage, awash in CGI? It defeats the purpose of making it live-action, you know? Just go make an animated movie instead.)

The show just really smacks of out-of-touch bean-counters who just mashed together everything they think kids will like, rather than just put on a good show that people will like on their own. And I have to scratch my head at all of the reviews that say Kyoryuger is "such a throwback" and "like a classic '90s Sentai." Say WHAT!?!?

Are we having fun yet? No. Make that HELL, NO!