Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hard Knock Life: Liveman 16-21

Episode 16

I like this episode -- again, when the show's dealing with Academia or their past friendships, it's at its best -- but I find it so strange that such a fucked up concept on the part of the villains' is used in what's a more lighter episode. Obular creating a monster that can summon ghosts -- and he summons all of those that Volt killed on Academia Island -- that's seriously fucked up! That should be traumatizing to the Liveman! But instead the big concern is that these literal ghosts being kicked up also kick up figurative ghosts, as in...Yuusuke's old love letters to Mazenda.

I always thought it was kind of a shame they didn't go into Yuusuke's having a crush on Mazenda more, and in a more serious manner. That would give their connection to their villains so much more juice. Because he's ashamed of it, and she just doesn't give a shit how much she hurt him. (She's a cold one!) I always thought it was a HUGE missed opportunity to not have Yuusuke be the focus of episode 18, but I'll get to that in a minute.

Episode 17

Kunio Fujii returns with...a less than stellar episode. I'll say the idea of the episode is interesting. The Japanese have the belief that ordinary objects can have life, so I see the living doll as being representative of that. So, it's another "learning to value the life" episode. But furthermore, I think this episode's an attempt to show a character that "sells their own soul," but for good rather than evil, as the Volt Trio did. The runner sells the living doll she loves (and gave life through that love) for the ability to win the race she promised the ill girl she'd win. Those are interesting ideas and themes to explore, but it just all doesn't quite come together. I feel like it needed to involve the Liveman more.

And this is another episode of the plan of the week being more about fucking with people than anything else. Kemp hates toys and wants them to come alive and kill people. I guess his parents didn't let him buy the toys he wanted when he was a kid. Nowadays Kemp's plan would be spun and said to be some kind of commentary on the nature of adult nerds collecting toys or something. Bugger off.

Episode 18

Fujii writes another one, and this one he hits out of Korakuen. An episode that hits all of the right notes, one of the show's more important, character-driven episodes. I'd say it was pitch perfect, but...

It should have been Yuusuke's episode, not Jou's. Rei, the clone of Rui, was made up of the (supposed) last pieces of Mazenda's humanity. This would have been a great opportunity for Yuusuke to have rekindled some of his feelings for Senda, initially not be trusting of Rei, but coming to love what a good person she is, that she's the person Senda could have been. I think it would have been a strong episode for Yuusuke and given it more depth than just seeming like "Oh, another Jou episode, another love interest." Nishimura gives a good performance, but I just always was frustrated like...why doesn't Yuusuke comment on the situation at all?!? Bah.

I like the shades it shows in Mazenda. She's supposedly purging her emotions, the rest of her humanity, but she's not being honest with Bias -- she cries when Rei's turned into the Brain Beast. But I especially like what this episode does with Ashura. He sees Mazenda's pain and cares. That's one of the things I like about Ashura, about his being an outsider. For all of his fancy evil edu-ma-cation and crazy outfit, the outlaw, the outsider, the man Arashi is still there. While Kemp's rah-rah Bias, and supports Mazenda shedding her humanity, Ashura recognizes the importance of it, and saves the remnants of Rei -- Senda's heart and soul -- and returns them to the grieving Mazenda. A cool moment that has more meaning than anything seen in the past 10 years of toku combined.

Episodes 19, 20, 21

The Farewell Obular Three-Parter! Also, kind of basically the end of Liveman. When Obular leaves, it's symbolic of Liveman losing a piece of its soul and guts. 'Cause things take a turn...

These are good episodes, though. Taking a cue from Senda, Obular decides to make a monster using himself, and the result is Study Brain, who attempts to indoctrinate people into Volt's cause via the Volt Bible (a prop I've always wanted to recreate). A recurring theme these past few episodes have been the past biting people in the ass, and here Obular's sad past puts to ruin his plan with Study Brain. When Study Brain is mesmerized by kids having fun playing, something changes within him, to the point where HE wants to get in on the playing. This is a result of Gou's sad past, the way he was holed up and forced to study nonstop, never allowing a moment of fun or play by his strict mother.

Obular seeing this truth through Study Brain, and just the mere fact Study Brain is created using his cells, causes him to waver and weaken, and he begins to revert back into Gou. And because Toei wants to write Obular out, this causes Volt to turn on him.

Gou returns home and tries to change back into the Beast Man Obular, which his mother witnesses. I'd like to say here that I've always loved Gou's monstrous make-up in episode 3 -- you know, when he's transitioning into the suit Obular, where he just has the nasty mouth and wrinkly faced. I've always wished Sentai could do more prosthetic make-up like that for their villains, but it's obviously not feasible with Sentai's shooting schedule and budget. But Gou looked great in episodes 1 and 3, but here...they really cheapen out on his make-up and it's a let down.

The third part of the episode is the best of this three-parter. Not only when Kemp reveals that Obular -- the timid dork -- was basically seen as a cling-on to the others, and that he really wasn't Volt material and only had an in because of his association with Kemp and Mazenda. But also in the storyline with Gou's mother, played by the great Nami Munakata (who was also excellent in Flashman's terrific 34th episode). Her performance and the writing are sharp enough to not demonize Gou's demanding mother, but cast her in a sympathetic light, especially as Yuusuke pleads with her to try and get through to Gou before it's too late. There's a really strong scene and exchange between the two in the episode, great character moments, that are entirely absent from modern tokusatsu.

The episode also does a good build-up in putting Gou's mother in jeopardy as she enters the battlefield to console a wounded Obular. You worry she'll be killed. But she reaches through to Gou, who takes a dangerous attack in her place. You worry HE'LL be killed. You're relieved that the show has the sense to have them survive, when a lesser show would think it would be "epic" to kill one -- or both. The drama of the situation was there in your care for their characters, and the uncertainty of their fate. The chance for them to meet danger was there and felt, the drama of the situation still felt even if they didn't meet their demise. It's all just handled so well by the performances and director Shouhei Toujou.

Another interesting facet of these three episodes is Liveman making the very un-Japanese case of choosing life over study. The whole point of Gou's character here is that he devoted his life to study and not ever enjoying life, and look how that worked out for him.

The stress of Gou's situation leaves him with amnesia, and he takes his leave from the series by moving back home. Liveman, the grounded, fresh take on Super Sentai, is about to go insane...

Oh, and one more thing. For a long time, the tape sellers who you used to have to buy toku from -- before the days of uploads and downloads and DVD releases -- had every episode of Liveman EXCEPT 21. 21 was a missing episode for a long time. A pretty crucial episode to miss. Why couldn't it have been 22?

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thug Life: Liveman 11-15

Episodes 11 & 12

The two-part debut of Dr. Ashura...

The last episode of Liveman I remember seeing before my family left Japan was 8, but I remember somehow at least seeing previews for 9 and 10. Nothing beyond that, but I did have a book that teased the arrival of Ashura. I thought he looked weird, and when I got around to finally seeing him in action so many years later...I thought he was weird. Or, at least, the way they bring him on.

I love the idea of Arashi/Ashura being an underworld kingpin, a guy who's street smart and not academically smart, whose quick-thinking cleverness and ability to turn things to his advantage catches the idea of Bias. He becomes an experiment for Bias -- what would this resourceful criminal with street smarts do if he had book smarts, too?

I always thought that Volt seemed like a cult, with Bias its charismatic, but dangerous leader. Kemp, Mazenda, Obular, they were sycophantic followers. But Arashi wouldn't be. He'd be a whole new beast for Volt. That, to me, makes Ashura interesting, and a very dangerous threat. But, for some reason, they tend to like making Ashura the comedic Volt member. And, sure, Ashura can be funny, there is a comedic component to the character, and actor Yoshinori Okamoto can certainly be funny, but it strips away the edge that I think the character is really meant to have. They kind of don't resist making Ashura comedic. One thing I like about Ashura being an outsider, though, is that he retains more of his humanity than the cult followers, which I'll get into in later episodes.

And I feel like this episode begins Toei's tightening of the budget. Look at that unimpressive nightclub, the cheap monkey-men, Arashi's unimpressive underground lair. Liveman is beginning a downward spiral in terms of budget. The show starts off with a bang but gets cheaper and cheaper as it goes on. I've seen people on the Japanese forums blame Kamen Rider Black for taking Toei's focus and money in 1988, but I always pretty much blamed Daisuke Shima and Megumi Mori for eating up the budget. (Which is probably why the show started off with just three heroes in the first place!)

Episode 13

Mazenda's second attempt at a plan to unleash dangerous gas utilizing her Dummymen. That's kind of strange when you think about it, but this episode's ultimately about a Dummyman rebelling and finding love with Koron. This episode's kind of a condensed Metalder, with the two robot characters taking on human characteristics -- can a robot feel, can it love, can it be sad? Mr. Tanaka the Jinmer looks human, but pieces of the Jinmer beneath start showing more and more. An attempt to say that you thought he was a human, but he's not, yet as more and more pieces of his robotic self are revealed, it doesn't matter, you still see him as human. His actions become more and more caring, to the point where he sacrifices himself to save Koron.

Cheapness is what undercuts this episode, IMO -- as the Dummyman loses more and more of his human veneer and the Jinmer parts start poking through, it's REALLY low-quality make-up, and I think that takes away from some of the episode's impact. Well, that and that the guest actor playing "Mister Tanaka" is pretty weak -- he has to be a Toei bit player, he's just so bland and blah.

Episode 14

Hirohisa Soda has either a kink or phobia about people becoming magnetized, because he also wrote an episode of Battle Fever J where Kyousuke undergoes the same situation as Yuusuke does here.

On paper, it's a kind of silly idea, but I like what's at the center of the story -- Ashura's monster causes Yuusuke to become an electrically-charged freak, and not only does this interfere with his ability to transform, but it causes him to shock any living thing he comes into contact with, which causes a moral conflict within him. Once people turn on him, it leads Yuusuke to question if he really even wants to be a hero with people like this.

He asks what's the point of putting himself in danger and making sacrifices if that's how he's treated. That's something very interesting to explore for a hero, especially for Yuusuke, who was meant to be such a different kind of Red initially. Yuusuke starts the series as being considered a dummy, and he's a smart-ass punk, but he grows into being a great and responsible Red, and the tough bastard we get to see in Gaoranger VS Super Sentai.

Episode 15

Inoue's second script. I like how he's basically like "You know that Guardnoid Gash character? He's pretty cool. Let's give him the spotlight." I've always liked Gash and the way suit-actor Naoki Oofuji plays him. He's practically a background character, but his presence is felt. The bastard just seems intimidating. And he's the guy who makes the monsters bigger on top of it! You know how Weisenheimers like to joke about why doesn't the Changeman shoot Gyodai or why won't the Maskman kill Okerampa, don't ask that about Gash. Gash can and will kick your ass, so if you have any fragment of a thought about attacking him to spare yourself shilling some Bandai toys, you best change your thinking. He will fuck you up.

Gash, in this episode, is basically Michael Myers. He's got a target and he will not stop until it's dead. The entire episode is pretty much a chase, with Gash pursuing Jou and his robot target. Gash even loses an arm and keeps goin'! (Toshiki Inoue loves characters losing arms, man.)

The problem with the episode, for me, is the robot, Hanako's, design. It's too cutesy for something that was meant to be a deadly military weapon that Bias feared. I mean, don't make it creepy like the surgical droid from Empire Strikes Back, but don't make it some cute, fat offspring of the Jetsons' Rosie and Short Circuit's Johnny.

Jou's bonding with the robot is something that I think makes a lot of the younger viewers of the fandom criticize Liveman. Liveman wears its heart on its sleeve. Sometimes there's other factors like a bad design or low budget that dampen the writing, so Liveman's intentions don't quite soar or come through, but sometimes just being heartfelt is bad enough for viewers in this day and age.

A cynical snot who pumps their fist every time someone is killed on Game of Thrones is going to roll their eyes at some sincere episode like this one. And then you get an actor like Kazuhiko Nishimura, who's good and really sells it, and people find that funny. (I talked about something similar with Tetsuo Kurata in my Black posts; the guy always gave a 100%, even in episodes that didn't deserve it, so that ends up giving him the reputation of being a ham, when he's just a pro.)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Life Goes On: Liveman 6-10

Episodes 6 & 7

People hate these episodes, almost as much as 31. I don't understand why, though. I think they're sad, and they're the first episodes to play further into the life theme. The Liveman are confronting a situation they initially think is pretty strange, and they approach it kind of matter-of-factly -- this dinosaur that's been brought to the present either needs to go back or be killed, because it doesn't belong, it's dangerous. But by the lonely kid befriending the dinosaur, taking it as his pet, seeing the dinosaur save the kid, seeing the dinosaur manipulated against its will and killed by Volt, they appreciate the creature's existence, that its life mattered.

For me, the one real problem is the dinosaur's design. It's just generic, it looks like it's left over from another production, it's shoddily made. You can see its tennis shoes! But, suspend disbelief and the episode works, IMO. With episodes like this, I just look at them like animal episodes. I'm an animal lover, so looking at the dinosaur that way, when it starts to cry as the boy points a rifle at's sad.

Episode 8

Takuji and Mari's ghosts linger over this episode -- almost literally. Any episode that deals with them, Academia or the three former friends are good Liveman episodes, IMO. When Kemp makes a Brain Beast that feeds off of anger -- making the Liveman, still very pissed at their homicidal ex-buddy Kemp -- our three heroes need to discover sources of fighting motivation other than anger or hatred. They're each inspired by a mother defending her baby, a kid standing up to thugs bullying an elderly man and fighting on the behalf of Takuji and Mari and their unrealized dreams. Just a nice, thoughtful script by Kunio Fujii, his first for the series.

One great scene: when the Liveman are zen, having no rage to fuel the Brain Beast, that pisses off Kemp so much that HE makes good eatin' and the Brain Beast turns on him.

Episode 9

I think this is one of the episodes that cause people to trash Mazenda. Again, I don't understand why. Keeping in mind how egotistical the Volt members are, I like that there's an episode like this, one where Mazenda's plan is just for her own amusement and not some of the typical take-over-the-world plots. Like I said, I feel like a lot of Volt's goals are just as much about fucking with humanity for their own amusement, and to prove their perceived brilliance, as their plans are about wiping them out/taking over. Here, Mazenda just wants to use a serum to mind control men. That the serum requires her to steal most of Japan's gasoline is just an unfortunate side-effect. The only error in her plan was in brainwashing the boyfriend of Megumi's friend, drawing the Liveman's attention.

This is the first episode written by Toshiki Inoue. He writes Yuusuke and Jou as kinda dickish here, and then employs one of his favorite scenarios: heroes gone bad! Mazenda manages to brainwash Yuusuke and Jou, and it's kind of shocking how they rough up Megumi. But they still seem dickier before the brainwash in this ep -- and after the brainwash, too. Because it's also shocking how rough they are beating up Mazenda.

Episode 10

I think this episode kind of exists because someone was like "Hey! The Yellow one is seen skateboarding in the credits. Where's the skateboarding? Write that in!" Because it's just weird. OK, we have Kemp causing mayhem by turning a section of the city into a maze, but the main story is about Jou deciding to be a pizza delivery boy because he likes a girl. And not just any pizza delivery boy, but the world's first pizza delivery by skateboard boy, which he thinks will be an asset to the girl's pizza place. (Jou wasn't in the bottom of the class at Academia for nothin'.) Good luck having a hot pizza in under thirty minutes with that delivery method, suckers. Yeah, so Jou caused his crush's business to close and she probably ended up committing Hare Krishna while her punk kid brother turned to the yakuza. Yooooooooooooooooooo, Jou!

The episode is the first in many Jou-falls-for-a-character-of-the-week episodes, which people like to poke fun at. I figure it's just meant to be light and fun, it's not terrible. Jet Skateboard's fun, but barely ever gets used. The guy who plays the pizza shop owner's young punk brother is Yoshifumi Egawa, who's actually a big name skateboarder in Japan, so that's kind of a cool detail. Liveman doesn't have the money to get many guest stars, so don't get used to it.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Heroes of Life: Liveman 1-5

I'm going to try to go through each Liveman episode and give some thoughts, like I did Kamen Rider Black. I hope I don't go off the rails like I did with my Kamen Rider Black thoughts, but it's a similar journey in that I'm trying to track where I think the show went wrong. When I recently rewatched Liveman, I was really into it, for the first time in a while. But, like Black, there's still that disappointment in how far the show strays and loses sight of what made it great initially.

Liveman's a show that I think gets unfairly treated by a lot of the fandom. Kind of like Black, it's a show that had a good reputation, especially by the Japanese fans, but it's become popular by punk kids to take it down, punk kids who feel cool for trashing it. For me -- like Black -- Liveman is a show that had an amazing premise that it was too afraid to fully explore. Like Black, it ends as a former shell of itself. But when it's good, it's good, and there's so much about the show that I like, and it does remain one of my top favorites. Here goes!

Episodes 1 & 2

I've written about these two episodes before. And, yeah, like Black, I consider the premiere to be one episode. The first episode packs so much into it, it's unbelievable. Keep in mind that, without the theme songs, the episodes are left with about 17 minutes of content. And yet neither episode is rushed nor does it feel padded. There's just a certain kind of writerly wizardry going into it.

My previous post talks a lot about what I like about the episode in terms of character bits or scenes, so I just want to highlight how the show sets up its theme right here: Liveman's philosophical theme about life. If I had to take a snapshot of the one shot that sums up the show, it's that dark and stormy night of Yuusuke standing in the rain as Jou and Megumi hold Takuji and Mari's lifeless bodies. Takuji and Mari's deaths are the catalyst for the show, our heroes' motivation and our heroes' first steps at growing up.

I don't think a lot of people understand that this is the show's main goal.  It's trying to say something, it's trying to be philosophical and poetic, and it's trying to say this through the superhero medium. I think people, the ones who criticize Liveman, just kind of look at it on the surface and see the episodes as being small scale or repetitive. But Liveman really goes through just about every type of life-form to make its message -- some scripts are good, some not so good. It's not unlike Metalder, and it always puzzled me that a lot of Liveman's critics will worship Metalder, when they're both coming from the same place.

I'll argue that Liveman's stronger in that it's the loss of human life, that its three protagonists are youths who are confronted and changed by death when they should be at the start of their lives, and that it's the impetus that gets them moving to be better people and heroes. Kenji took Takuji and Mari's lives, and it changed Liveman's lives; Takuji and Mari's deaths in turn gave the Liveman their appreciation of life, making them the heroes who defend all life. Liveman doesn't stick its landing, but Metalder stumbles a bit, too, be honest. (It quickly loses its artsy, leisurely poetic pace in favor of becoming Henshin Hero Business As Always.)

Episode 3

Liveman's other main themes are the betrayal of friends and the use of knowledge, whether one uses their intellect for good or harm. The members of Volt are all selfish, they see themselves as being better than humans, they're egotistical. They're all about harming humanity to prove their superiority. Even if they don't always have plans of destruction or taking over the world, their plans are usually still rooted in ways to disrupt society or shove what they perceive to be human weakness in people's faces.

This episode encapsulates all of that the best by focusing on Doctor Obular as he becomes the Beast Man Obular. Obular's one of my favorite toku characters, and Toru Sakai is great casting. Gou's meant to be a small, timid pipsqueak, and a bit weaselly and snobby, and Sakai conveys all of that so you can see it just by looking at him. Not content to be the small fry anymore, he transforms himself into the Beast Man Obular, and I love how he rubs it in Kemp and Mazenda's faces that, for all of their talk of hating humanity, that their super-powered upgrades still conveniently left them human. Obular walked the walked, and he has a huge, great design. It's kind of a shame to lose Sakai -- Obular's a suit actor voiced by seiyuu Atsushi Mori. I still don't know why they didn't have Sakai voice the transformed Obular, but Obular goes on to play an important role in the series, embodying a lot of its themes, and when Sakai does return, at least they make it feel like it carries dramatic weight.

I always wanted an Obular toy when I was a kid, but my family left Japan before the Volt soft vinyls were out. (I also really wanted a Live Robo, but apparently decided to buy a second, discount Change Robo instead.)

Episode 4

Honestly, after the first three, strong, cohesive -- practically perfect -- episodes, this one's a little off balance. It leans a little too hard into comedy, and I get why they'd want to do that after the first three intense episodes, goes a little too far, IMO. (See: Yuusuke and Jou as the most unconvincing Jinmers ever...and they manage to fool Mazenda on top of it!)

The most important part of this episode is the introduction of the Dummyman, Mazenda's idea of giving the Jinmer human forms that Volt can use for their various evil plans. (And use them, they do. Mazenda's Dummyman project is probably the most successful invention made by any of Bias' students, but she never gets the credit she deserves!)

Episode 5

I've seen this episode get flak for introducing Takuji's brother, Takeshi, who is not the brother who goes on to become Black Bison. Well, how's about this -- at least when Takuji is introduced, writer Hirohisa Soda is on the ball enough to address this, by having Yuusuke tell Takuji he's met Takeshi, and that Takeshi had helped them build the Live Cougar. So many other toku shows wouldn't have even bothered to point that out. "Hey! I met your sibling early on before we decided to add you as the new hero!" See: Zyuranger, showing no indication that Burai existed, and never mentioning Geki's sister after episode 2.

I thought this was a fun episode when I was a kid. At the very least, we get some cool stunts. I love when Falcon jumps over the Engine Brain-possessed car, and the car chase with Live Cougar and Kemp.