Friday, July 24, 2015
My Friend Spielban
I loved Spielban when I was a kid. Of the few non-Sentai other toku shows I saw, it was the only one I really liked, and liked as much as a Sentai. I thought it was just a really cool show. It looked cool, the cast was cool, it had music that excited me. And it had a lot of cool toys, which helped. Like a Twin Blade that was meant to look like it was glowing, that was neat. The headset of Spielban's that came with Diana's walky-talky looked like it would have been a blast to play with as a kid, pretending to patrol the streets of Japan in your make believe Mitsubishi Pajero.
I think Spielban gets a bum rap from fans. I don't know why this show is considered the forgotten failure of the '80s Metal Heroes, but the Space Sheriffs are put on such a pedestal, when Spielban pretty much takes the best things about those shows and wraps them into one package. And I don't think it's a case of Metal Heroes just being repetitive as they can be -- I always got the impression that main writer Shozo Uehara might have known that Spielban was the farewell of the space-themed Metal Heroes, and the last one he'd work on as main writer, so he deliberately made it a big amalgamation of all of his previous Metal Hero shows.
Spielban takes ideas that weren't utilized well in the previous Metal Heroes and makes them work, or takes them further. Spielban also came at a time when shows tried to dig a little deeper, have a meatier storyline, and I think it has a better ongoing storyline and pace than any of the Metal Heroes before it. (Especially the beyond formulaic Space Sheriff shows. Not that Spielban completely avoids some of the same traps as the Space Sheriff shows -- the final fights in the rock quarry which use hefty amounts of stock footage, especially once the show's nearing its end and its budget dwindles.) In addition to being The Ultimate Metal Hero show, I see it as a farewell to the space-themed tokusatsu shows of the time. Both 1986 shows, Flashman and Spielban, were the final heavily space-oriented shows of Toei's for a time. The Star Wars wave was subsiding, so Toei knew to move on, but not before having a blowout; Spielban put to use as many of the trends as it could. From Lucas to Spielberg and Zemeckis and even Donner's Superman, directors and movies who really changed pop culture, and captivated audiences worldwide, it owes a lot to those filmmakers and their record-destroying blockbusters of the time. (A LOT of tokusatsu and pop-culture owe a lot to those movies and their makers.)
Upon a recent rewatching of Spielban, I also realized that you can sort of catch glimpses of how Kamen Rider Black might have turned out had Uehara stayed with that show. Helen, Spielban's sister, is turned into the Metal Villain Hellvira, and Spielban's search for her is the biggest storyline of the show's first half. Pretty similar to the way Koutarou was in search of adoptive brother Nobuhiko, who became Kamen Villain Shadow Moon. (Maybe Nobuhiko would have become a good Rider in the show's second half, under Uehara's charge?) Also: the Youki arc is reminiscent of the way Uehara had set up Golgom, with the supernatural figures enticing citizens in powerful positions into following their cult. Just how shattered Kamen Rider Black's production was can be felt throughout that show, so I actually think Spielban pulls off these storylines in a more satisfying way than Black ultimately did. (Spielban even has an awkward hero-sings-his-own-character-song-on-the-side-of-the-road scene that Kamen Rider Black's movie had. Both songs are atrocious. But, yeah, I'm just going to put out the theory that Spielban is totally Uehara's Black prototype.)
Another way the show acknowledges it being the ultimate Metal Hero? Casting Hiroshi Watari as his second main hero after just three years and bringing back fan favorite Naomi Morinaga in a regular role, first as an unwilling villain and then as the third teammate. Morinaga stole the show in Shaider -- many thinking SHE should have been the main character -- so it's great that she's given two henshin roles here. And rounding out the hero side is the so-damn-awesome-she-should-have-been-in-every-show Makoto Sumikawa. Diana is an all around kick-ass and fun character who I feel you can always rely on, and can really be the heart of the show. Watari and Sumikawa having that JAC connection gives them such a sense of history and friendship that really comes across on screen, convincing you that these two are life-long friends. I love that all three heroes are Japan Action Club members, so we get some damn cool fight scenes out of suit in every episode. Spielban really spoils you in that regard.
I also like how it kind of feels like the odds are against Spielban and Diana. It's just the two of them up against the crazy Wahler Empire, with no means of back-up or replacements of any of their equipment. There's not a large organization of fellow Space Sheriffs to help bail them out, they can't easily fix or replace vehicles or weapons of theirs that are damaged. (They'd be REALLY screwed if something happened to the Grand Nazca ship.) As far as they know, they're far away from their homeworld, and even then a lot of the people and planet have been destroyed by Wahler. So, they're stuck on primitive old Earth with stupid Daigoro and his bad inventions that never work and have to do their best. Good thing they're able to kick so much ass on their own.
The villains also have more going for them than most of the Metal Hero villains had at that point. Pandora is one of the most memorable main villain of the Metal Hero franchise, and my favorite of Machiko Soga's main roles. She's wicked, she's funny, she's sadistic. Soga brings a confidence and strength to Pandora that I don't think she has with her other roles. You completely buy her as the sort of cult leader perpetuating the idea of this Wahler deity through intense devotion and total showboating that the deity can only speak through her. The Metal Hero villain groups up until that point had that set-up that was popular in the early '80s -- a main villain, maybe a lieutenant, a squad of anonymous women.
Well, once again, Spielban makes the most of all of Uehara's worlds to build its villains. Besides Soga, once again, there's still the squad of anonymous women, but also the robotic Deathzero, the plucked-from-the-future urchin Guillotine, the evil spirit Youki, Metal Villainess Hellvira and mad scientist Dr. Bio, who is Spielban and Helen's completely brainwashed dad, Ben. (It could have been gimmicky, casting theme-song singer Ichirou Mizuki as Ben, but I think he does a decent job in the show.) Metalder gets credit for having the different factions in the villain organization, but Spielban had a precursor to that by having Deathzero leading a robotic army and Bio representing mutant life-forms. (Guillotine comes along and basically splices the two, while Youki uses supernatural abilities, and Riki's Spy Army -- when they DO get a chance to head their own plan -- use tactics and weapons similar to Metalder's Armed Armament faction.)
I like that, while Bio is brainwashed, he still looks out for Helen, and since he's spent all of this time with Helen, he cares about her the most. (Sometimes, it sounds like she's the ONLY one he cares about.) Helen has this tragic arc where she's used against her will as Hellvira, never having memories of what she did as Hellvira, trying her best to flee civilization and hide once she reverts to Helen. It reminds me of the '70s Incredible Hulk show -- slap "Lonely Man" over one of the scenes with Helen wandering or hitchhiking and there you go. But Bio always tries to look out for her, and ends up being the one who frees her from the Wahler Empire. BTW, Keita Amemiya designs for the villains sure don't hurt, either. You think they'd be more popular for that reason alone.
While the out of suit action always rocks thanks to the three devoted leads, the in-suit action -- which is typically good in itself -- can be repetitive due to limited locations and/or reliance of stock footage, but I think action director Osamu Kaneda films Spielban's fights in such a furious blaze of speed and that he's striving for more than what he did with the Space Sheriffs. Like, it's pretty much always similar, but as a kid, I thought Spielban finishing a monster was the coolest. I still think it's cool, it's still hard for me to not get excited when he gets out the Twin Blade, the opening theme kicks in, and he performs the Arc Impulse, turning his back on the dying monster. I still think Spielban pulls the "turning his back on a dying opponent as they explode" off the best and coolest. When I was rewatching Spielban this time, I tried to think -- it's something that's so regular that it's a cliche now, but what was the first show to have that turning their back on the exploding opponent thing? Did Osamu Kaneda popularize that move? Was Spielban the first show to make it a regular thing, a trademark move? Do I just associate it the most with Spielban? Eh, doesn't matter -- Spielban does it the coolest, dammit!
I think the main reason the Japanese fans don't respect Spielban, sadly, is because of the controversial finale. While I liked that the finale tried to go for something different, tried to have a twist rather than "the main villain is treated no differently than the head villain, and the hero rides off into the sunset/space", I do have to admit that the ending...doesn't entirely make sense. I appreciate the effort, I think it IS a cool twist in theory, but it just doesn't hold up. But, then again, it doesn't make any less sense than The Terminator movies, and people worship those and act like they're logically sound. Maybe Diana needed an obvious line like "Gosh, a person could go crazy thinking about this!" to try and cloak the nonsense and sneak it by the viewers and they'd be OK with it.
While I was into MMPR when I was a kid, and I recognized that it was derived from a show like the kind I saw in Japan as a kid, I didn't know what Sentai shows they came from, so that didn't really matter to me. (I did recognize "Rita" as being from Spielban, though.) But when I first saw an ad for VR Troopers, using two shows I knew very well -- I loved Spielban, didn't care for Metalder at the time -- I was shocked. Disappointed. Heartbroken. Angry. I loved Spielban. It was cool and fast paced. I didn't want to see it treated with the same, tame, lame Danny Tanner kid gloves like PR was treated with. And sure enough, the show stunk, and the guy who played J.B. was the worst actor on it (and when you're competing with a guy like Brad Hawkins, that's saying something). And it took Spielban's awesome kill scene and made it typically Saban-level lame. Gone is a guy like Hiroshi Watari growling lines like "Arc Impulse" before delivering the death blow. Instead? "Laser Lance Command, now! See ya!" After that, the actor attempted the typically lame sounding, flat "HIYAAAAAAAs" that Power Rangers is so fond of, but they sounded more like dry-heaves. Just terrible. Just ruining Spielban, making it lame, and lumping it together with a show it had nothing in common with...and then trying to give it a lame-ass virtual-reality dressing on top of it. Screw VR Troopers.
VR Troopers couldn't even give us any decent toys. They all looked like crap. Spielban's own figures from '86 were disappointing. The soft vinyls didn't resemble him much. He had a giant light-up toy that came close, but I always thought was too top heavy and bulky looking. That's why Spielban is more deserving of having his Figuarts released than mostly any of the figures that line has come out with since teasing his release. Will they release him? Probably not, since it's a figure I actually want of theirs. Even if he is released, I can't enjoy it. I'll know some demented bastards are buying it because they like J.B. and VR Troopers. (I know that's petty bullshit, but try to understand this Spielban fan's complete hatred for VR Troopers.)
One day, maybe the fans and Toei will realize how awesome Spielban is. Until then, that's just more Spielban for me, MWA-HA-HA!