Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wishful Casting: Red Hawk Edition

Continuing from my previous entry...

Jetman's actually one of my top favorite Sentai shows -- although I don't agree that it's the BEST, most LEGENDARY Sentai that Toei paints it to be. There's always been a hole in the show for me, something that held it back from being as good as it should have been -- as good as Toei claims it is...

And I think a huge problem is Koutarou Tanaka as Ryu Tendo/Red Hawk. I think he's just an awkward guy and a pretty bland actor. Toei had just come off a great run of casting Reds -- Reds from Bioman through Fiveman were all strong, stand-out, talented dramatic actors or interesting personalities -- and you get to Jetman, which really demands a strong lead, and Tanaka is just...

I like the Ryu character as written, and he should certainly be one of the franchise's strongest and most memorable Reds, but I think Tanaka is too weak to pull this character off. Ryu is supposed to be a goody two-shoes, but there's supposed to be a lot going on with the character internally -- this guy is supposed to be hurting and masking it with a sense of professionalism. This is a Red who has to deal with the most unprofessional and half-together team in the franchise.

Tanaka's only capable of playing the Dudley Do Right part of it, and he has no presence, and he makes it so much easier for Toshihide Wakamatsu to steal the show. When, if you look at it...Ryu's a bigger bad-ass than Gai. He's always calling Gai on his shit, he's always one-upping him. He's technically the better fighter because he's a professional soldier. But you have the flashily written Gai, shoving in your face the superficial things that's shorthand for "cool," and he's played by a talented, charismatic actor. After casting Gai, they needed to look at Tanaka and realize they made a mistake. (Unless, as I said in my previous entry, they purposely cast someone so blank to stack the deck that much more in Wakamatsu's favor.) They needed someone who could match Wakamatsu, even surpass him. And I think Tanaka is a lot of the reason why the love story is so problematic in the series -- he's never strong enough to have anything going on behind his eyes when it comes to Kaori, and he never really makes you care about Ryu and Rie the way the more talented Ryousuke Kaizu did about Mio in Maskman. Tanaka's not the worst actor to play a Red in the franchise, but just too weak for this particular role.

I think Sharivan/Spielban star Hiroshi Watari would have made an awesome Ryu. He's a good actor, he's multi-talented, he's immensely likable. He wasn't doing much toku at the time, and was only a year older than Tanaka, so not too old. He would have not only brought some cooler fight scenes, that sense of being an experienced fighter, and would have been the character more likable and sincere. He has personality and is a cool guy, so he would definitely be able to match Wakamatsu in his own way. (Ryu's obviously not supposed to be "cool" in the same way as Gai, but I can easily picture him being cool in a way that...he's no nonsense, he knows his shit, and he doesn't have time for Gai being a tool. Think of the way Luke is in Return of the Jedi and compare him to Han Solo. We all loved Han Solo from the start because he's a bad-ass, but Luke ended up being pretty darn cool in his own right.) And, really -- shouldn't have Watari gotten to play a Red? (Or at least be in a Sentai back in the day?)

And while I'm at it, I think Radeige needed better casting, too. He's such a nasty character on paper, but Daisuke Tachi plays him like a cartoonish foil from an old Three Stooges short. Tachi causes the same sort of problems on the villain side that Tanaka causes for the heroes -- he punches holes in a lot of the material. I would replace him with Kenichi Endou (best known to tokusatsu fans as Kakuranger's Junior), a massively talented, critically acclaimed character actor who would have toned Radeige down and made him as menacing and sinister as he was meant to be.

Kenichi Endo (left) would have made a stronger Radeige.

Yeah, yeah, I know -- a lot of people like Tanaka, so opinions vary, and why cry over spilt hot milk?

Because I just think the show would have been so much more awesome, dammit!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

So X1 Mask and Black Condor Walk Into a Bar...

It's always seemed unfair to me that Maskman's been kind of forgotten by fans, while Jetman gets so much praise -- "The best Sentai! The most legendary Sentai!" -- when I always thought that Jetman was a Maskman wannabe. I think Maskman's an all around better show, I think Takeru's a helluva lot more interesting than Ryu, Ryousuke Kaizu a better actor than Koutarou Tanaka, the villains are interesting and, most importantly, the love story works. I know what you're saying. "But if Jetman is so much like Maskman, where is the bad-ass, boozebag antihero!?!"

Toshiki Inoue was Jetman's main writer, and while he wasn't Maskman's main writer, he did write several episodes for the series, one of which was episode 39, titled "Revive! The Mysterious X1 Mask." In it we meet Ryou Asuka, the first man to be selected by Commander Sugata as a Maskman -- not having a Masking Brace, he simply summoned Aura Power to don his green colored prototype Maskman suit, becoming X1 Mask. And what's funny is how the episode plays like a condensed version of the first few Jetman episodes, with Ryou in the Gai role. Jetman's at times shot-for-shot! Inoue likes to recycle. Breaking it down...

Nothing too major, but both Ryou and Gai are street-tough boozehounds who like to spend their off time brooding in a bar. Ryou likes the classical music his late girlfriend played, Gai likes jazz. Both things scream Inoue.

Next up, Takeru/Ryu is always stalking Ryou/Gai. Takeru wants to know more about Ryou and why he's given up being a Maskman. Ryu wants to know why Gai can't be a team-player. These scenes show the difference between Ryousuke Kaizu and Ryu actor Koutarou Tanaka's acting abilities. Kaizu plays it cool, coming off as just being really curious about Ryou and testing him. Tanaka just nags and nags and shows no personality. I never really liked Tanaka and think he's a weak actor. I don't know if Inoue and the Jetman writers were just stacking the deck that much in Gai/Wakamatsu's favor or what, but their casting choice for Ryu makes it that much easier for Wakamatsu to steal the show and makes you want to root for him to punch out Ryu. That's getting off-track, though...

The next similarity is a scene where Ryou/Gai are just trying to chill in their bar by shooting pool, and Takeru/Ryu interferes. Takeru shows up and proceeds to one-up Ryou at pool, with Ryou threatening to put his eye out with the damn cue. Ryu enters the bar and orders an old lady's drink and THAT'S IT FOR GAI! Ryu's gone too damn far this time! So, Gai takes aim and shoots a couple of billiard balls Ryu's direction, only Ryu's a step ahead of him and catches 'em.

Sick and tired of being pestered, Ryou/Gai challenge Takeru/Ryu to a motorcycle duel. (Ryou challenges Takeru to a game of chicken, while Gai and Ryu just do a simple race.) Ryou/Gai's condition is that if they win, Takeru/Ryu leave them the fook alone. If Takeru wins, he wants to know Ryou's story, and if Ryu wins, he wants Gai to join the team without any more bullshit. Ryou's surprised at Takeru's seriousness, wimps out, and loses the match. Gai wins his match, but because Ryu was distracted by some kids being attacked by Vyram.

Shortly after the match, Takeru and Ryou find themselves attacked by Tube/Vyram and their latest monster. Takeru/Ryu put up a fight, but could use a hand, but -- too bad! Ryou/Gai get on their motorcycle and flee!

Driving away, words said by Takeru/Ryu echo through the mind of Ryou/Gai as they struggle with the guilt of abandoning their pesky pal as he was knee-deep in trouble.

In an attack of conscience, they return to lend a hand, by just driving through all of their opponents with their motorcycle. Takeru/Ryu is glad to see Ryou/Gai again, and Ryou offers kind words while Gai's even all smiley, and they proceed to transform and fight together...

And, of course, Ryou and Gai end up making heroic sacrifices. Ryou ends up taking on the monster's special maneuever that would have killed the other Maskman, ending up a bloody mess and losing his transforming capabilities; Gai gets fatally stabbed stopping a purse-snatcher. I guess Ryou was smart enough to get himself to a hospital, unlike Gai.

I really like the X1 Mask episode. I think it's unique and surprising and a classic Sentai episode, and I like the way that the prickly and street-tough Ryou is meant to contrast Takeru -- Takeru could have easily ended up bitter and shut-off like Ryou. I do think Ryou/X1 and the episode might be more remembered by the general fandom if maybe someone more recognizable to tokusatsu, like Yutaka Hirose (Flashman/Liveman), Hiroshi Watari (Sharivan/Spielban), or Hiroshi Kawai/Kazuoki Takahashi (Changeman, Metalder) had played Ryou. (They had actually intended for Kawai to play Kenta/Black Mask.) Singer-turned-actor Hideki Shibaya isn't as bad as I remembered him being, I was surprised during my last rewatch of the episode, but...sorry, I just think it would have been really cool to see Hirose as a brief Sentai hero or Watari have a notable role in the franchise.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Broken Wings Mend in Time

Tensou Sentai Goseiger, the 34th Super Sentai entry, has been a polarizing one from its debut. While most of the reaction is overwhelmingly negative, Goseiger has a small group of devoted fans. Is the show as bad as everyone says? Is there enough merit to warrant it a cult following? Still controversial, I wanted to say what I thought of it.

I was befuddled by Goseiger from the start. I was pretty excited by the news that veteran director Takao Nagaishi was going to be Goseiger's main director. Nagaishi first started directing Sentai with Changeman, and has been credited by numerous Sentai staff as really helping modernize Sentai's look and giving it a more dramatic flair. After directing several episodes of GoGoFive, he left the franchise in favor of the returning Kamen Rider. During the staff shake-ups as Kamen Rider was positioning itself as a fall production, Nagaishi was in kind of a limbo, and in the meantime directed a couple of Shinkenger episodes that were a welcome return to character focus after the show had fallen into heavy mecha/toy introductions. So, I was very pleased to hear of his involvement with Goseiger.

I was less pleased to hear that the main writer was Michiko Yokote, whose previous Sentai entry was the mixed Gekiranger. While I enjoyed Gekiranger, I never thought it reached its full potential and singled out Yokote's weakness at character as one of its main problems. (Michiko Yokote is the combined pseudonym of two writers; one who is said to handle plot, and one character. "Michiko Yokote" is actually the name of the woman who manages them.) And although he had done stellar work in the past, it was also strange to see main producer Jun Hikasa was behind the show -- Hikasa had said during Go-onger that he was moving on, so what was he doing back? That couldn't have been a good sign...

Goseiger had a shockingly bland debut episode. Spending no time setting up characters, it just throws you in, a noisy whiz-bang of randomness. Could this really be the work of such veterans? For a good portion of its first arc, Goseiger remained generic. Unengaging, run of the mill plots and cardboard heroes. It felt to me, at best like a tokusatsu show from the '70s or early '80s, when things were still creaky and they still hadn't perfected things, and at worst like an imitator of the Sentai franchise, like Toho's Chouseishin series. There's no real reason for the 34th entry, handled by pros like Nagaishi and Hikasa, to feel so generic, uninspired and unpolished.

One of the standouts of the show was the action team, namely Yasuhiro Takeuchi as Gosei Red's suit actor. In the early episodes, when you couldn't depend on anything else, you could at least depend on some damn impressive acting and action from Takeuchi. I personally credit him for the evolution of the Alata character, and Alata actor Yuudai Chiba's improvement. At the start of the show, Alata was shown to be an absent-minded, child-like nincompoop. His first action of the series lose the card which grants him the ability to transform! Chiba's acting is also shaky here, clearly missing some marks. But Takeuchi, in his first in-suit role as a Red, ALWAYS presented Gosei Red as being competent on the battle field and serious in a fight.

Takeuchi, the show's biggest hero, who in my opinion is also the best Red suit actor since Naoki Oofuji.

Now, I'm one of the critics who complained about Alata early on in the show -- the shamelessness of casting Justin Bieber's Japanese lookalike as the lead superhero -- but the character does make such a massive improvement over the series, becoming the rock of the team with a Zen-like calmness, and I have to say that I think Takeuchi is responsible. I think staff caught on to what he was doing and maybe Chiba took notice and started hanging out with him (the way some past actors, such as Changeman's Kazuoki and Kamen Rider Black's Tetsuo Kurata would hang out with their suit actors), but Chiba eventually begins to match Takeuchi. The writers really shift how they handle the character, and it helps that Chiba's acting also gradually improves. Goseiger started with Biebs-kun being my least favorite cast member to ending with Alata being the hero I liked most.

As for the others? They're kind of just there. The actors aren't bad, just pretty nondescript, but the writers do them no favors. It's pretty obvious that for the four others, the writers gave up and they're just pretty much playing themselves. Initial descriptions described Eri/Gosei Pink as being the dependable older sister of the team, and she's anything but. Actress Rika Satou had a reputation for being one of the "stupid" players on TV quiz shows, and Eri not so coincidentally becomes more of an airhead. Moune starts the series as being a rough, ready-to-dive-into-a-fight warrior, but eventually becomes a cutesy, chirpy type to better suit idol Mikiho Niwa. (The ridiculed decision to have the then-tough Moune do battle by cheerleading was written in there because of Niwa's cheerleading past.) Likewise, Kento Ono never manages to pull off being the serious leader Hyde, and his character is eventually loosened up -- and no longer referred to as leader, a later episode all but officially renaming Alata the true leader -- and Hyde is never more likable than when he's thrown in a lighter situation. (And while I don't think Kyousuke Hamao is as terrible as Agri as most people say, he is just sort of blank faced and there.) Make no mistake, this is Alata's show...

...and Bladerun's. Bladerun is to the villains what Alata is to the heroes, and it goes back to my feelings about Yokote. It seems to me like characters are Team Yokote's weakness, and they can really only pay attention to just two or three at the expense of every other character. Gekiranger's been criticized for its heavy focus on just Jan and Rio, and Goseiger's focus is similarly on Alata and Bladerun. When Goseiger first started, I couldn't believe how forgettable the Warstar were. One of my first reactions was "Maybe this show will have different groups of villains to show the extent of the Gosei angels' protection." And the show thankfully went that route, but with just as mixed results. The YuumaJuu were written to be too obnoxious, and had their arc kicked off with a run of some of the show's lowest points. (I admit, I had to put Goseiger on hold around the point the YuumaJuu debuted -- I really thought the show would join the ranks of Boukenger or Go-onger, the two shows at the bottom of my list.)

And then, suddenly, producer Jun Hikasa decided to leave the series, allowing sub-producer Gou Wakamatsu to take control. Wakamatsu's previous Sentai experience was limited to working as assistant producer on a small amount of shows, such as Gingaman, and here he is at the last minute *running* a show? But, surprisingly, this is when the show makes an improvement that is pretty much consistent for the remainder of the series. The Matrintis villains arrive at this point, and although the Yuumajuu's Makuin and Kinggon grew on me (with the twist that revealed they weren't as foolish as they appeared), I think the Matrintis is really the show's only decent group of villains, and even in their short appearance, I feel they outdo Ohranger and Go-onger's attempt at robotic villains. (They're not quite the Metalder's Neros Armor, but much better than Baranoia or Gaiark.) The show also dials down the toy craze and finds more interesting scripts coming its way, such as the two-parter where Alata is thrown back in time to just before the Warstar invade. (Compare that to earlier fare, such as the episode where the Goseiger help a nerd get confidence to talk to a girl.)

Takeuchi's Gosei Red performance begins to rub off on Chiba -- Epic 16 marks a turning point for the Alata character.

Robogog's demise was disappointing to me, however, in that it committed a crime Goseiger regularly commited -- what I call "Seiya-Fighting." Now, I know Saint Seiya is a classic manga/anime, and I have a like-hate thing with it, but it always drove me bonkers how that show acts like it's going to be no-bullshit and there's going to be a cool fight, and they try like heck to build up to it, but then...the whole episode is Seiya (or one of the other regulars) just TALKING to their opponent, with a brief smack at the end deciding the fate of the fight. Often there would be an info-dump, but mostly it was empty trash talking or the hero talking to himself in disbelief. But what's worse than that...Goseiger would often Seiya-Fight FROM THEIR MECHA! They'd have conversations with their opponents in mecha fight, speaking, while seated, through their mecha! Double snooze.

Bladerun's reveal didn't come as much of a surprise -- and it's something I think would have been easier to care about with a face actor -- but it drives home Goseiger's biggest problem: the lack of world building in the show. It doesn't bother creating a landscape and background of the Gosei World, as other whimsical Sentai shows like Gingaman and Magiranger did, it didn't bother to create its own history or mythology. The Goseiger characters could have just as easily been cops or astronauts or garbage men ("Cleaning up the city is our duty, evildoers!"), they're so generic and their premise is never put to ANY use. Listen to the lyrics of the OP theme, how majestic and important it makes the Goseiger sound and you realize the show lacks the "epicness" it ironically calls its episodes. Such a shame, really, when you think of all of the cool, interesting things the show could have done. Also, I feel like the villains' gimmicks of having monsters based on sci-fi, monster/horror and robot movies -- a very cool, fun idea -- was largely wasted.

The Matrintis Empire, who in my opinion, were the best of the show's three villain groups.

Also, the Amachis? Get them out of there. I don't think a tokusatsu show has ever been as lazy and stupid in setting up the good guys' hang-out as this show is. Alata bumps into Nozomu and is his best friend, and his idiot dad is OK with housing this stranger and his four other friends? Get out of here. The show eventually, way after the fact, tries to explain that -- off-screen -- Master Head contacted Nozomu's dad and explained everything, but...yeah, I feel like that wasn't the plan. Why did the Amachi's have the Gosei-built Datas machine? Why does the kanji making their surname mean "heaven" and "knowledge?" I thought a better explanation would be that Nozomu and his dad were fellow Gosei people in disguise, guiding the newbie Gosei Angels that Alata et al were, or that they were humans with potential to evolve into Gosei Angels or something. But, nope. They're just random strangers! And not once is anyone on either end concerned.

A low point even for Goseiger? A low point even for Goseiger.

Goseiger's just a frustrating, perplexing, lackluster, bland mix. How did it get to be this way? Fans suspect behind-the-scenes turmoil. Not only Hikasa leaving, but Nagaishi, the main director? He ended up only directing FOUR episodes (the first two and episodes 21 and 22), and the throwaway V-Cinema special. Another bad sign? Goseiger had two episodes where the writer's credit was given to Saburo Yatsude, the collective pseudonym of multiple Toei staffers. While Yatsude has been credited with writing numerous song lyrics over time, this was the first time in the franchise's history actual EPISODES were credited to ol' Yatsude. I also always felt like the show was really just a placeholder as Toei prepped what was to be the big 35th anniversary series, Gokaiger. So, while the first dozen or so episodes of Goseiger are pretty hard to take -- very simplistic, very plain good guy versus very plain bad guy -- the show does improve. It doesn't become anything too special, and it's far from the best show, but it turns out better than you'd expect, and thanks to Takeuchi, will always at least have entertaining action.

Oh, yeah, and Gosei Knight and his whole green message was a total bore, so I didn't want to talk about him. It's NOT your "tarn," Gosei Knight -- ha-ha!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Was Red Falcon Supposed to Be in Sentai 199?

Not only is Liveman a fan favorite Sentai series, but Daisuke Shima's character Yuusuke Amamiya (Red Falcon) is one of the most popular Sentai Reds. After returning to the role in Gaoranger VS Super Sentai, he was expected to return for Gokaiger and was one of the actors named in early rumored lists of those who would return. Once a super popular pop star, Shima became a fixture in television shows, movies, and variety shows after Liveman, and remains one of the franchise's most well known actors. (He is also still very fond of his Liveman days, frequently doing interviews and live fan events.) However, Shima gained weight as he entered his 40s and came under harsh critiques from reporters and (typical) internet posters. (Shima did himself no favors by poking fun at his weight, by starring in movies such as the big screen adaptation of Rock 'n Roll Diet -- the story of a fallen rock star who works to shed pounds -- for example.)

Shima and Red Falcon suit actor Kazuo Niibori from a 2004 interview about Liveman.
As the theatrical film Gokaiger Goseiger Super Sentai 199 Hero Great War approached, rumors hit the internet that Shima was going to be in the movie. The rumors didn't stop there, however -- it was eventually reported that Shima agreed to be in the movie and, knowing his size, he had his reps send Toei's wardrobe his current size. However, one of his people sent Toei outdated information. So Shima allegedly arrived for wardrobe fitting and was angered to find that his clothes didn't fit, leaving the set in a fury. It's said that his role was replaced at the last minute by Turboranger's Kenta Satou.

Now, this initially sounds to me like an urban legend -- more ridicule at Shima's expense. However, watching the movie closely, I happened to notice a few things.

First of all, the characters of all of the actors who had a cameo in the movie had extra footage for the Legend War filmed. For example, there's footage of Denji Blue and Goggle Black fighting together, a quick shot of Shinken Green and Shinken Gold fighting together, and new highlights of Ryuu Ranger, Bouken Red and Dyna Pink fighting grunts. Red Turbo's only shown in the same footage from Gokaiger's first episode, where he's fighting alongside Red Racer. However, Red Falcon is shown fighting in a newly filmed sequence alongside Red One, whose actor was another of the film's cameos:

Also, later in the movie, the treasure chest containing the Ranger Keys is arranged in a way that the Keys representing the cameo characters lay on top. In one scene, Red Falcon's Key lies amongst the others. (In a later scene, most likely a pick up shot filmed later, Red Turbo's Key is clearly seen instead, when it had been obscured in the previous shot.)

So, it now seems likely to me that Shima was meant to be in the movie. It's a shame that he was willing to do it and all of this focus and pressure about his weight ruined it. Sad thing is? Shima, who "fans" have described as a "pig" and "larger than a bus," IS NOT EVEN THAT FAT! Here are some stills of him from mid-2012, what he would have looked like on Gokaiger (and note the sideview):

He just doesn't look that fat to me, and I think it's ridiculous the way people act about him. He should have been in Gokaiger. The only positive is that, had he been in Sentai 199, the show itself might not have done the Liveman episode with Kazuhiko Nishimura and Jouji Nakata returning.