Tuesday, October 31, 2017

One Good Scare: Flashman's The Zobaruda

Two scares for the price of one. The Miran episode of Flashman always spooked me when I was a kid, and I still think it's a creepy, off-putting episode. The sole episode of Flashman -- or any tokusatsu -- written by well-known anime scribe Michiru Shimada is a tragic, quiet (not a lot of dialogue, only those spooky and non-heroic BGM tracks), eerie episode that lets you know from the top that it's not your ordinary episode. The whole thing has such a different tone to it, almost kind of like it's off-rhythm... (The episode is directed by Takao Nagaishi, who certainly liked experimenting with atmospheric episodes like this throughout the series -- from the strangely-lensed ghost episode, number 24, and episode 40, which is really reminiscent of this episode in terms of style. Credit also goes to designer Yutaka Izubuchi for coming up with this strange, unique monster design.)

It begins with Mess's two-headed monster The Zobaruda attacking the city at night; Sara, alone on patrol, investigates and is attacked, leaving only a puddle of blood behind. The way this scene is filmed, with a wounded and sweaty Sara pinned by a building's debris, is really uncomfortable and tense. She awakens to find herself bandaged and being brought back to health by...Change Griffin! (Or at least the dude who played him, Hiroshi Kawai aka Kazuoki.) He's a mysterious guy, but friendly, bringing Sara supplies. Suddenly, he doubles over and flees the room, locking himself out, while an understandably freaked out Sara bangs on the other side, wanting to know what his deal is. Well, if you've seen any werewolf movie, Sara, you'd recognized his symptoms as "about to turn into a werewolf/monster thing," because that what it is. (Kawai/Kazuoki makes some awful sounding screams here.) He tells Sara that he knows she was kidnapped as a kid and he thinks she's his kid sister. He disappears, leaving behind a childhood photograph of him and his kid sister.

Let's cut to the spoiler -- Miran ends up being The Zobaruda, who gets captured and tortured by Kaura and the Mess regulars for insubordination. This scene's filmed a little disturbingly, there's a real mean-spiritedness coming through it and the performances of Jouji Nakata (Kaura), Yutaka Hirose (Wanda) and Sayoko Hagiwara (Neferu). The villains just love to taunt the chained and bloodied Miran -- first by Kaura just casually tossing off that his sister's dead and by Wanda liking to point out how Miran is no longer human, despite his desperate declaration otherwise. Miran and his real sister were also kidnapped by Kaura twenty years ago, with Miran successfully being spliced with a Beast Warrior creating the two-headed freak The Zobaruda.

The villains also take glee in letting Sara witness Miran's freaky transformation -- Miran can only take human shape for an hour a day, so they just passed the time torturing him until Sara could find him, see what he's become. It might not look like much now, but I thought this transformation sequence was real freaky when I was a kid. Beware and dread the times that Toei hauls out that purple backdrop. I think Kawai does a good job selling the pain of the transformation, there's that creepy gothic background music going and Miran's grunts are electronically altered, sounding like a golddurn Deadite from an Evil Dead movie.

And to spook you out even more, behind the photograph Miran dropped was a sketch he made, telling anyone to target the right head of The Zobaruda. So, Flash King basically decapitates it, Miran is at death's door, and they freeze him and ship him off to be healed at the Flash planet. It's supposed to be a sort of hopeful ending, but the way it's all filmed...yeah, it's weird. (Also: does Miran survive and develop the Anti-Flash on his time at the Flash planets? So does Sara still get him killed in the end?) When I was a kid and didn't know the language, I totally thought Miran was dead and they were burying him in space, Spock-style.

Another thing that's atypical about this episode is that, once Miran becomes The Zobaburda and tries to attack Sara, the Flashman show up in suit ready to fight, but Sara doesn't transform or fight. The hero who's hesitant to fight a friend turned enemy has become a common trope, but this was a pretty different episode at the time. There's no big henshin scene, no big pose down or introducing the team -- Sara doesn't transform, and the four others defeat the monster without her or Rolling Vulcan. She initially doesn't even take part in the mecha battle, leaving the other four to pilot Flash King themselves, until she thinks of the best choice of attack.

Yutaka Izubuchi's design for this unique, terrifying monster.

This is just a damn weird, off-kilter, unsettling episode, and I imagine the reason that this was the writer's only episode was that she turned in the script and the producers were like "Great, thanks, we'll get back to you. Please leave now...OK, guys, what is this freaky shit!?!" (With how messed up and weird this episode is, I have to wonder if the original plan called for Zobaruda's second head to be Miran's dead sister.) This is the kind of episode I expected Toshiki Inoue to turn in, but he instead did random stuff like Bun falling in love with a sukeban. This episode is probably too intense for even Inoue!

If you saw this episode when it aired, chances are it still gives you the willies. Along with Spielban's Youki, it's an episode that scarred me.

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Viva Chiba

Sonny Chiba. The man. The legend. The fuckin' man. I'm a huge fan of his movies and admire the heck out of him -- he's a consummate entertainer. He can act, he can fight, he can sing -- he's at home in chop-socky exploitation movies, war dramas, yakuza melodramas, serious samurai epics or sweeping genre movies. He can do it all, and has. He always brings his best, expects others to bring their best, but also is loose enough to know when to not take things seriously -- in Street Fighter, I find his character Takuma Tsurugi to be extremely despicable for most of the movie. But then Chiba can turn around and be lighthearted and goof around in something like Yakuza Deka or The Executioner. He's just good at what he does, is dedicated, and a total pro.

Chiba was contracted with Toei, so when he started the Japan Action Club in the early '70s, Toei's productions benefited from it. With a hell of a knack for scouting talent, Chiba wanted to create action stars like him -- people who were physically talented and could do action, yes, but people who could ACT and ENTERTAIN, as well. It's Chiba's ethos that made the Japan Action Club what it is; even before I got into Chiba's movies, I was a big fan of the Japan Action Club through what I saw of their work in tokusatsu alone. You not only had talented performers like Kenji Ohba, Jun'ichi Haruta, Risa Komaki, Mitchi Love, Hiroshi Watari, Sumiko Tanaka, Mai Ooishi, Naomi Morinaga, Hikaru Kurosaki, Akito Oosuga, Yuki Yajima, Koji Unoki, Toshimichi Takahashi, Satoshi Kurihara, Yoshinori Okamoto, Makoto Sumikawa and so on wowing you with their acrobatic action each week, but a whole list of performers who would wow you with their costumed acting each week. (Chiba should also get credit for recognizing women can kick ass and be action stars, too -- shout out to action star Etsuko Shihomi here. Well before Michelle Yeoh won acclaim for doing so, Shihomi was headlining her own ass-kicking adventures.) Not to mention, discovering and putting Hiroyuki Sanada onto the path of superstardom.

The Japan Action Club's always been the best tokusatsu stunt group to me because of the way they're actually performers. They're not just stunt guys who have the suit thrown on; as per Chiba's goal, they're trained to be all around entertainers, actors, performers. When so many people mock the suit-actors in tokusatsu -- dismissing them as "dudes in spandex or rubber" or whatever -- I've always appreciated the talented ones. (I've always been a Suit-Actor-head. There was a time when I'd talk about them and get a "Who cares who's behind the mask" reply. I'd get called names for trying to guess who was behind the new heroes' mask each year. The same thing once happened when it came to toku writers, directors and singers.) What they do is not unlike traditional mask acting. The Japan Action Club raised suit-acting to an art form. Take a look at a lot of the pre-JAC suit acting, or a lot of non-JAC suit actors: you have martial-artists who are barely able to move in costume or, at best, are more interested in looking cool in their pose. Martial-artists who don't know how to act, so they'll just point and nod their head to every word they say. The JAC's giving you a full performance, a realized character grasped by an actor of equal importance to the one portraying the character out of suit. You ever see a crazy action scene in a tokusatsu and wonder about it -- hey, why can these characters, without their powers, just jump from location to location, or flip-around, or jump into trees? That's the dynamic action the JAC brought to toku, a bit of a ninja element.

The JAC changed Toei's tokusatsu shows, made them better, made them something more. And it can all be traced back to Shinichi "Sonny" Chiba. Besides being an impressive talent in his own right and putting out entertaining movies and shows, he changed the landscape of this little corner of TV, the niche of henshin heroes with his inspiration and dedication. He's not only a hero of the screen, an action hero, but a hero of entertainment.

So, I've long wanted an action figure to honor Chiba. In the early '00s, some company came out with a couple of 1/6 figures of two of his characters -- the ninja Hattori Hanzo and the samurai Yagyu Jubei -- but not only are they super expensive, but they look like nutsack. After seeing this dude create a custom figure of Chiba's Street Fighter character out of G.I. Joes, I was inspired to make my own 3.75 inch figure. I prefer that size of figure because of the retro flavor -- if they had made figures of any of Chiba's movies in his heyday, chances are they would be like these classic Kenner style of toy.

I thought it would be cool to make a figure of Sonny Chiba, but not have it tied down to any particular movie or show. I basically just wanted it to evoke Chiba, the action star. Two of my favorite movies of his are The Executioner and The Killing Machine, so I had those in mind, but they're not meant to be either character from that movie. Just...Sonny Chiba, Japan Action Hero. Funko's ReAction line of retro figures offered two of the perfect body types, but the perfect head was a little tricky. Funko didn't have a whole big selection of Asian heads to use -- pretty much only Sulu from Star Trek could have been usable, but he's got a real dopey expression and stupid haircut. Taking inspiration from that Street Fighter custom, I went with a non-Asian head, but one I thought fit, and had an appropriately pissed off expression.

While Chiba had to leave the JAC behind in the early '90s, the spirit and dedication (mostly) still live on. While I fear the state of tokusatsu will eventually snuff out all of the talents the suit-actors can bring (toku heroes now play with toys instead of fight with them, so action scenes have lessened), the Osamu Kaneda-led Japan Action Enterprise, for now, maintains a high quality in suit-acting and stunts. While other action groups have caught on to what makes the JAC/JAE so special and caused them to up their game, the JAC/JAE are often imitated, but never matched. I still think the JAC/JAE are the best of the action groups used in toku. And it's all thanks to Chiba.

Viva Chiba!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Ridin' Through the Rider OPs

I once did this for Sentai's openings and thought it would be fun to go over the openings of Riders. Again, I'm not just talking about the songs themselves, but the credits sequences themselves. Go! Go! Let's go!

1. "Let's Go Rider Kick" by Hiroshi Fujioka (and later Kyoichi Fuji/Masato Shimon)

The classic song, synonymous with the first series. Is it simplistic? Yeah. Does the show overuse it? Ohhhhhhhh, yeah. But it's iconic -- as soon as you hear that intro, you immediately conjure up and image of Rider 1 (or 2) doing his pose, surrounded by an army of Shocker troops. The almost military-like drumming really suits the show, specifically the threat of Shocker.

Fujioka's version is the real version. Shimon does his usual squawking over it. (Takeshi Sasaki did a cover in the '90s that I think is really cool.)

Honestly, there's not much to say about the Showa Rider credit sequences. The Riders on a bike -- pretty simple, and now quaint since the franchise has lost its identity, soul and mind. The best part of the original credits is the part where Rider spins around, turns into Hongou, and we get shots of some of those creepy early Shocker monsters while the narrator gives us the scoop on Hongou's story.

2. "Rider Action" by Kyoichi Fuji/Masato Shimon

I never really liked this song. The horns are abrasive, and Shimon's braying is especially annoying over music like this. Musically, it's dull, too, sounding like someone just trying to imitate a Shunsuke Kikuchi song.

3. "Tatakae! Kamen Rider V3" by Hiroshi Miyauchi and The Swingers

I don't mind this song. It reflects its age, and you can't help but chuckle a little bit when Miyauchi chimes in with his...less than stellar singing voice. (I don't know why Miyauchi always puts on this high pitch when he sings. He sounds almost like a kid! He even does this on his cover of the Zubat OP.) But that intro is cool, I like the lyrics to Miyauchi's portion.

The credits kind of combine the differing credits that the original series had -- some bike riding on a dirt road, a jump with a big explosion, Hurricane needing stopped with a Bat-Parachute, old chum. The clip during the narration shows Kazami being operated on by Riders 1 and 2, a scene which always bugged me because they STAY IN SUIT while operating. Look at those gloves -- filthy, stained with the blood and guts of 98 episodes worth of Shocker and Gelshocker monsters. That ain't sanitary, that ain't up to code. It's amazing Kazami survived the procedure. (It must have been one of the most secret of V3's 26 secrets.)

4. "Setup! Kamen Rider X" by Ichirou Mizuki

I used to be a real Aniki-head. And I really like this song, even though it's pretty simplistic. It has a strong intro, which is good for action, and Mizuki's kicking ass with it. (I love his performance of this at Masked Rider Live 2000 -- he's full of energy, and the Rider Chips give a souped up version of the song.) That line about his father's scream still echoing is sung by Mizuki with such an awesome anger.

Credits are X cruising around on the Cruiser. Not much to say.

5. "Amazon Rider Koko ni Ari" by Masato Shimon

I like the song, but hate Shimon's nasally, Rider-Kicked-in-testicles vocals here. I once had mastered a mocking impression of Shimon after this song. (I recommend listening to the Metal Brothers cover.) Some cool lyrics, the eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth, he'll become an oni if it's for justice stuff. (Shigenori Takatera was obviously listening to this song when cooking up the concept of Hibiki.)

Some variation in the credits, at least! We get shots of Amazon (or Daisuke, depending on the point of the series) running through the jungle like a nut. Not amazing, but a start.

6. "Kamen Rider Stronger no Uta" by Ichirou Mizuki

I like it, but it's not really a great opening. Mizuki's giving it a lot of energy and anger, but the song's just a little too slow for an opening, but not exactly mellow enough for an ending. It's a weird one -- not bad, but weird. And I really like the show, and Shigeru is such a crazy, larger-than-life guy that he really needed a song to match his personality.

Credits are 90% Stronger riding around on a beach, with some cool bike stunts as he takes on goons on motorcycles, with the final 10% being him beating up those goons and showing off his powers in a bit of an underwhelming-to-modern-eyes way.

7. "Moero! Kamen Rider" by Ichirou Mizuki, Koorogi '73

The song's OK, but I find it dull and generic. The show was initially meant to be a reboot of the whole franchise...is this the song that puts you in mind of classic Riderness? But it beats the heck out of its replacement.

Credits AREN'T entirely the Rider on his bike, but about just as unnoteworthy -- hang-gliding for most of the credits.

8. "Otoko no Na wa Kamen Rider" by Ichirou Mizuki

HATE this thing. It's a complete and total wussy, kiddy, cotton-candy, let's-do-our-homework and plant-some-trees Ultraman sounding theme song. (Lyrics aren't exactly Ultraman material; you'd never catch an Ultraman theme talking about rage. But it still doesn't fit in with the sound of this song.)

Credits are basically the Stronger credits again -- Rider riding around on a beach. What's the deal with those kids screeching "Kamen Rider!" over and over at the end? What a misfire.

9. "Kamen Rider Super 1" by Shunsuke Takasugi, Koorogi '73

The most boring, lifeless, unenergetic music plus the most boring, lifeless, flat unenergetic singing = the most boring song in the franchise's history. And Kamen Rider Super 1 was such a goofy show! It needed something crazy, like the Goggle V's Comboy song. The ending theme and credits are way better.

10. "Dragon Road" by Akira Kushida

When I first heard this song, I was like "Yuck, what the fuck is that?!?!" But it slowly grew on me, and now I think the thing's awesome. Try to hear this song and not involuntarily dance somehow, I dare you. I double-dare you, motherfucker!

It doesn't suit ZX at all, it's a pretty outdated sound for even when that special aired, but it rocks. It has some great, nutty lyrics and Kushida's just kicking ass with it.

ZX being a TV special, it didn't really have its own credits, it's just clips of the special, focusing on the previous Riders fighting goons. Meh.

11. "Kamen Rider Black" by Tetsuo Kurata

Yeah, Kurata's not the best singer in the world, and yeah, he's so off they have to give him the echo effect. (The version without the effect isn't that bad, IMO.) But Kurata has the range of, like, Freddie Mercury compared to Super 1's Takasugi. Kurata's not any worse than Fujioka or Miyauchi, so I don't know why he's always singled out.

The song's cool and '80s. With a mainstream lyricist like Yoko Aki penning the lyrics, we're finally moving into lyrics that are more than descriptions of the color of Rider's bike or mask or scarf or protecting the justice of the world's justice. (I have no idea how these lyrics apply to Black as a show or character, but they're still better than mostly all of their predecessors' lyrics. Even with those puzzling mentions of magicians and ESPers in the second verse.)

The best version of this song, by the way, is ROLLY's (karaoke) cover of it in Masked Rider Live 2000. If you listen to that and still say you hate this song, or think it's something to be mocked, then you're a dick!

Credits sequence still hasn't broken out from the old ways, though. Although it begins with really cool shots of a garage opening and revealing Black, as he slowly and coolly makes his way to Battle Hopper, the rest of the thing is Black just riding around. It ends on a neat shot of Black riding into a tunnel, though, the only thing visible being Battle Hopper's lit eyes.

12. "Kamen Rider Black RX" by Takayuki Miyauchi

An awesome, awesome song. The awesomeness of this song is equally matched by the crappiness of the actual show, it's tragic. Great Chinfa Kan lyrics, and Miyauchi doing an excellent job, as usual. I've always wondered how Miyauchi can take some of these weird songs and make them sound so personal and emotional. (Listen to themes for mecha like Bio Robo and Flash King -- he sounds like he's in love with those robots!)

I hate to say it, but this is probably my favorite Rider OP theme -- it's painful that it's associated with a show I hate so much. I listen to the lyrics -- about light versus darkness -- and have to pretty much pretend this song is for Agito, or even just Black.

Credits are a total snooze -- it's RX on his bike, and the camera's like a mile away from him! You're watching the lines on the road for most of the sequence! Once he gets his new forms, they throw in some closer shots of those, but those forms are ugly suckers, so you don't want the close-ups of them.

13. "Kamen Rider Kuuga!" by Masayuki Tanaka

I like this song, and it made me aware of Tanaka (the songs his band Crystal King did for Hokuto no Ken are FUCKING AWESOME), but I think I've just heard it too many times. It's the Jetman or Gavan opening of Kamen Rider -- it's the one at all of the concerts, the song that Masayuki Tanaka shows up anywhere to sing if he has the opportunity. The lyrics are also a little generic to me, nothing really that suits the show or matches its uniqueness. (I see the song being more about Rider's return after so much time than it is about the show's actual subject matter.)

And then there's the English version! What a way to pull this song down a few rungs on the ladder of coolness. "The wacky-ass planet, lazer aides fuzzy low," "Meta-morphine, Musket Rider Cougaaaaaaaaa!" I know I should be grateful for it not being Mickey busting my eardrums on this English version, I know.

Credits change a couple of times throughout the series. The first ones, the cast shots are kind of ill-suited to me. The action scenes are amazing and the highlight of the credits. But the sequence evolves as the show does, and incorporates more artistic shots and symbolism. (I love the shot of Godai standing, with the rings of light binding his arms, like being Kuuga's holding him prisoner. But what the fuck is up with that Charlie's Angels shot of Kazumi Murata? Laughable AND it doesn't fit.) Another favorite part of mine is when the drums kick in and there's quick flashes of the key supporting characters, mixed with disturbing images of Grongi monsters or the bloody Daguba symbol and Sakurako's hands in prayer.

14. "Kamen Rider Agito" by Shinichi Ishihara

I remember first hearing this song. I was already into Ishihara and thought the B-Fighter OP and the GoGoFive OP were some of the best tokusatsu openings in the history of tokusatsu. Way before seeing Agito, I listened to the MP3 of this, and...was...absolutely...puzzled. What the hell was this song?! What kind of opening theme is this?!!

But, it needed to be heard and seen within context. It's a fresh, special song for a fresh, special series. We're now entering the era of no ED theme and an emphasis on IN themes for the action, so the OP doesn't need to be action-oriented. Agito took advantage of that and just did a really good, strong theme song that captures the soul of the show.

Toei thought it was cool to have the first credits filmed at that blasted race track they used to love so much, but it kind of limits what they can do. I like the shots, though, of Mana trying to reach Shouichi, only to then have Agito whiz past her; the shot of Hikawa frantically running past his G3 Unit pals, it then becoming G3 riding past them; and the clips of the in-story stuff, like Shouichi washed up on the shore and Hikawa's Akatsuki heroics. The drum intro leading into the shot of the tapestry, leading down into Agito's riding through what Toei's site called "the curtain of rain" is cool. And the slo-mo shot of the three Riders coming into frame on their bikes, as the chorus kicks in? Fuckin' awesome.

In place of a hideous English version, we get the 24.7 remix instead, which sucks about just as bad as an English version would have. The new credits try a little too hard to be "artsy," and don't quite reach it, IMO. I think the part with footage of Hikawa slamming down his badge and holding his gun at Ozawa, being projected onto a wall that G3-X blasts through on his bike, is really cool LOOKING, but that footage just makes no sense to me.

15. "Alive a Life" by Rika Matsumoto

Rider makes the switch to Avex! And look at what tricky, deceptive bastards they are -- "Hey, sure we're doing Rider music now, but rest assured -- nothing will change. Look, with Rika Matsumoto and Hiroshi Kitadani, we have two popular anisong singers on Ryuki's soundtrack! Don't worry." Cut to, Rider being a place for Avex to try to dump all of their dying, failing B-tier pop acts, killing off the Rider Chips by forcing them to take Reeky Ricky as a full-time vocalist, and then forcing the squealing, wretched, pinhead puppets the Kamen Rider Girls on us.

But Alive a Life is cool, and one of my favorite openings. And I think the credits kick ass all over the place. The breaking mirror leading you into the credits, the star trio walking in slow motion, Shinji/Ryuki holding up the card, all of the cool shots of Ryuki and Knight surrounded by mirrors and sparks and the shots of them in the city, all culminating with the two preparing to face off. Cool, cool stuff.

16. "Justiphi's" by ISSA

I like this song more than I should. It's close to the top for me. I like the lyrics, and it just has a cool sound to it. ISSA's not the greatest singer, but this is a song that's so strong, that it will do the work for you and make you sound better. Case in point? A guy with a singing voice like m.c.A.T's is able to make it work in live covers. Yoffy -- freaking YOFFY! -- covered it, and it's listenable. *shrugs, throws hands in air* If only the show itself had some of that magic.

The credits don't have the all around strength of Agito's or Ryuki's, but there are bits I really like. Mainly anything to do with the villains, and I love that shot in the end of Horse -- with a very pissed off Yuuji projection behind him -- charging towards a calm and prepared Faiz. Foreshadowing a big showdown between the two that the show was too sloppy to actually pay off on.

17. "Round ZERO ~ BLADE BRAVE" by Nanase Aikawa

I like this song and its energy, its lyrics, but I don't think the bratty and remote vocal style Nanase Aikawa used throughout that point of her career works for it. (The song of hers they used for Ryukendo, though? I love that thing.)

The opening credits that accompany this song, though...whoo-whee, is it bad. Really, really, "I have no idea what they could have been thinking when releasing this to the public" bad. It looked bad in '04 and looks even worse now. I've said before that I think Blade's production quality is...pretty crap, and I assume the only way producer Jun Hikasa got the show over then-golden boy Shinichiro Shirakura is by promising Toei that he'd slash Rider's budget by 75%. With yen stretching as far as it could, you get a half-assed and home-made opening credits like this, which looks like something they just filmed on the spot after the premiere event for the press took place.

The cast standing on a black soundstage, doing stupid stuff (sourpuss Hajime playing soccer! Shiori punching a handkerchief!) and waving their arms...A LOT. The suit actors trying to look cool and move, but they can't, because they're stuck on a black soundstage, so they're just randomly slashing and punching at air. Bandai commercials have put more effort forward than these credits. They're a laughable shame. You know what they remind me of? The (intentionally) stupid and humiliating ads Shibaura made the ORE Journal staff do when he took over the company in Ryuki.

Look at this! Look at this stupidity! What were they thinking?! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaa-haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

18. "Elements" by Rider Chips feat. Ricky

Ugh, Ricky. Blow your nose. Learn how to sing stuff differently. Ricky should be singing Ultraman songs, not Kamen Rider stuff. Thanks, Avex. People go ape for this song, but it's never done much for me. Ricky's not the only problem, the song's just meh to me.

The show gets new credits, but they still look cheap, and try real, real, real, real, real hard to pretend like they have the thought and visuals of the past few Heisei Rider credits. They couldn't be more wrong. The dead-eyed cast stare at you, we get that silly cartoon shot of Blade Jack Form flying, more clumsy and awkwardly staged action. Blade was a mess of a show that couldn't get casting, writing, action, direction, or entertainment right, so why would they get credits right, even with a second shot at fixing them?

19. "Kagayaki"

I liked the first version of the song, the first verse, but I don't like some of the alternate versions, like the guitar one. It's big, bold, epic music that suits the grand, larger than life world of sound-oriented Hibiki.

The credits are pretty dang cool (directed by Koichi Oto, a Takatera pick who did Kuuga's credits sequences). I like those shots of most of the cast members when they're given an assigned kanji written on them. Hibiki has this very "Japanese" feel to it, and these credits are a really stylized way of driving that home. The only part I don't like is when Asumu is running in place for Hibiki, that just looks dopey and takes me out of the mood the sequence was going for.

20. "Hajimari no Kimi e" by Akira Fuse

There's no question that Fuse has a nice voice, but my problem with this song is that Fuse's trying a little too hard to sell it. He's one of those singers who goes for sounding good, technically -- making the priority hitting the notes rather than feeling the song emotionally. So he sometimes sounds to me like he tries to compensate, making up for his lack of emotion by exaggeration and also just trying that much harder to sound perfect. So, while I find Fuse's vocals are a little overkill on this song, I don't mind the song -- it's a breath of fresh air. It's not as strong as Fuse's Shonen yo. I think people basically hate this song because they associate it with Hibiki's insane, proto-Kabuto, drop-in-quality second half.

The credit sequence is a huge stepdown from the first one, too -- it looks really hokey and commercial-like to me. The only bit I like is at the end, in the sunset, when Hibiki nods to Asumu and goes on his way -- and even that's just a lazy repeat of the Shonen yo credits, really.

21. "Next Level" by YU-KI

Yu-ki's sleepy vocals set to some generic electronic farting. Yay! This song's just generic, but that's about the norm for Kabuto. Show has nothing going for it beneath the surface, which is reflected in the credits, which try VERY hard to be stylish, but that's it. Kabuto doesn't have memorable characters or a soul or any strong thematic links to work with; the show tried to get by on all style.

22. "Climax Jump" by AAA Den-O Form

You know those scenes in Star Trek, when Captain Kirk gets injured and Shatner really overdoes it and hams it up and just throws his hands up, and collapses into himself in pain? That's what happens to me when I hear this song. It's just an ugly pummel of noise, and the sign post of Toei toku starting to really suck.

There are parts I like about the credits -- the burning calendars, Hana walking with a tear reversing up her cheek -- things indicating that the show is about time travel, something the show itself rarely remembered in favor of quickly tiresome "comedic" antics.

23. "Break the Chain" by Tourbillon

Underwhelming. Song's a scattered mess, and the credits match it. I like the intro (music AND the shot of Kiva walking the halls of the castle, as the torches light), but as soon as the "Bag-bag, Billy Bob" kicks in, I hate it and want the song to stop. And I still don't understand what's up with all of the Wataru-stars-in-American-Beauty rose shots.

24. "Journey Through the Decade" by Gackt

I'm one of the only people on the planet who doesn't like Gackt. I don't think he's cool, and there's something really artificial to me about his singing. It's like...he doesn't have a good voice, he's doing an impression of someone who might have a good voice. It's not him, it's mimicry. He's kind of like some American Idol kid to me.

This song just really doesn't do anything for me. I don't like it, I don't hate it. It's just there. But it doesn't help that it's attached to that unholy abomination of a television show.

I hate to say it, but I like the credits sequence. The ominous shot of Decade standing there as the song starts, with that narration, is pretty cool. Natsumi removing her hand from Tsukasa's eye and the camera lens parallels, with the eye becoming the camera lens and the lens of Decade's belt; that shot of the Heisei Riders standing; that shot of Tsukasa flashing into all of the Riders; the shot of Natsumi wrapping her arms around Tsukasa, like a henshin belt...I like it. I even like that they try to subtly recreate what I call that "swirling sky shot" from the Kuuga credits for that loser Onodera, even though he doesn't deserve to be associated with anything of the real, good Kuuga.

25. "WBX ~Double Boiled Extreme" by Aya Kamiki w/ Takuya

I'd like this thing more without Takuya's flat, rambling nonsense. I get that they wanted two people for this song to match W's theme, but...get someone better. "He gotta do a hard drive, Campbell does not go crack match!" Whatever the hell he's yelling back there. Shut up and leave Aya alone!

Credits are mostly cool, though. There's that shot at the beginning everybody loves, of W watching over his city with his scarf floating in the air. I like the animated bits of Shotaro investigating a case. It's just a fun credits sequence.

26. "Anything Goes!" by Maki Ooguro

This song drives me up the wall. It's overkill, with the tsunami of noise they mistake for music and the forced enthusiasm of the shrill vocals. If you want me to start attacking people like Curly Howard when he hears Pop Goes the Weasel, play either this song or Katrina and the Waves' Walking on Sunshine. I was just out shopping and the store was playing Walking on Sunshine -- I don't remember what happened, but I woke to find myself in a ditch as The Lonely Man Theme played.

Here we kind of begin an era where there's no real thought put into the credit sequences. The shows get more and more diluted and fluffy and there's not that kind of self-importance to the franchise anymore, where they attempted to have credit sequences that hit on a show's particular theme, or featured a strong thematic link, or a credit sequence with real style, making them play like vignettes. From here on, the opening credits turn to basically the Kamen Rider gummy commercials for the most part. Show a dopey shot of the cast, show off all 200 Rider forms, some indecipherable CGI action, rinse, repeat.

27. "Switch On!" by Anna Tsuchiya

I found this song irritating when I first heard it, but it grew on me. I came to like it, really, when I saw the live performance of it from the 40 x 35 concert -- it's a goofy, energetic song and Tsuchiya has a blast when singing it and makes it big and fun. It sweeps you up in fun. Too bad the actual show's so repulsive in its stupidity and terrible acting and not anywhere near as fun as it thinks it is. (Or as fun as the song.) "Oops!" Indeed.

Credit sequence does a good job in getting you to immediately hate all of the stupid motherfuckers that are regulars on this show. Saves you time from actually watching them or hearing them.

28. "Life is SHOW TIME" by Shou Kiryuin from Golden Bomber

I don't know anything about Golden Bomber, but I read that they're a "band" that "plays" air instruments. Only in Japan would that be a thing. Too bad Kiryuin doesn't "air" sing, meaning NOT sing, because his "singing" is atrocious. Flatter and deader than last month's roadkill. And the song's not any better...

I actually like the song until it hits the chorus, and then it turns into obnoxiously, painful noise that you just want to shut up. It's like two separate songs stitched together. One is a song, the other is a crappy commercial jingle. And the credits are mostly good until that point, too, even if they're on the generic side. (It's the umpteenth time a Heisei Rider credit sequence includes a shot of the main hero standing in the middle of the street, looking forlorn.) As much as I don't like Nitou, I really like that shot of him being stalked by the shadow of Chimera, and I like when Koyomi and Wizard reach out for one another.

29. "Just Live More" by Gaim no Kaze

I like this song! The first Rider OP since, like, Justifaiz I like all around!

I like the credit sequence, too! There's interesting moments, like the Kouta who's barricaded, shouting a warning to the casual, Lockseed-clutching Kouta; shots of Kouta and Kaito having a standoff mirrored by reflections of Gaim and Baron; Team Gaim dancing all carefree, before an ominous alternate Mai appears; Kouta shouting as he's consumed by the weeds of Helheim. There's also some cool action shots for a change. All in all, nice redemption for Rider credits.

30. "Surprise Drive" by Mitsuru Matsuoka

Can't stand Matsuoka's vocal "stylings" here. He does this weird crooning-twang-yodeling combination that he -- and a lot of '90s alternative rockers -- thinks makes him sound cool. It's like Mike Patton, Shakira and Kermit the Frog slammed together and then filtered through a program that speeds up the sound. The music is generic, at first sounding like a forgotten Avril Lavigne song, before just becoming a clash of random noise typical of 2000s anime themes. (I'm surprised this isn't a JAM Project song.)

Credit sequence is a mess, really highlighting just what a dumb-ass looking gimmick and aesthetic Drive has.

Sad thing is? Writing this post made me go back and watch all of the Rider credits. When I hit Drive, I was like "I don't feel like I gave Drive a fair chance," and ended up watching a few episodes...and had fun with what I watched. Pisses me off, man. The things I do for this blog.

31. "Warera Omou Yue ni Warera Ari" by Kishidan

I'll start this song and be like "Eh, it's not too bad," but then it quickly gets unbearably unlistenable to me. I think it's because the song just never really goes anywhere, and is pretty plain. And I can't take this band seriously -- a bunch of young twerps wishing they were Yokohama Ginbae.

I like the idea of the credits, with Ghost floating around as a spirit, observing the cast of characters and pranking them and stuff. The problem is that it's all depicted in a cheesy way, the effects looking like "Lie down on a chair in front of a blue-screen, Greatest American Hero-style." Man, the supporting cast in this show all look like they're cosplaying some shitty, forgotten anime. I couldn't really get into this show because it felt like a really bad anime that's all about collecting a shitty gimmick. And it's sad, because I kinda like the concept and the cast.

32. "EXCITE" by Daichi Miura

I haven't bothered watching Ex-Aid yet. I have a feeling I'm not missing anything good and that I'm happier for not watching it. But I'm guessing the show's really goofy, so it's funny that these credits want to try to look cool and serious, recalling some bits from the Decade credits. Sorry, Ex-Aid -- you can't make Level 1 look cool. It's worse than the fruit samurai armor. And, again, the cast here look like they're cosplayers for some bad veterinarian anime.

The song made me laugh. A zombie vocalist and a tune that sounds like it should be on the soundtrack of one of the lesser '80s teen comedies, like Fraternity Vacation or Private School or something.

33. "Be the One" by Pandora featuring Beverly

A great Hailee Steinfeld song, a terrible superhero theme.

Show looks as stupid as Ex-Aid. I can't believe that kid who looks like Mitsuzane's weaker younger brother is the lead Rider. I can't believe some people are saying that this show is a return to Ishinomori-styled Riders. I don't recognize this franchise anymore.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Live for Tomorrow: Liveman 45-49

Episodes 45 & 46

And so Ashura gets written off. In the first part, he connects his brain with his Brain Beast, Hacker Brain, and causes electronic mayhem all over Japan. After Falcon kicks his ass -- and kills the Shura Three -- Ashura accidentally hacks into some secret computer on the Brain Base, finding out a bit about Bias' secret. The one that Gou knows about. The one that Bias just let Gou run off knowing. Gou had more details, Ashura picks up a few vague words, but Bias flat out attempts to kill Ashura, blowing up the truck he and his computers are in. Why let Gou off, but kill Ashura?

Anyway, Ashura survives, and reverts back to dumb-dumb criminal Arashi. Arashi's a guy who seems to just go with the flow. Bias tried to kill him? Well, fuck him, he's his enemy now. The Liveman are trying to help him? Well, shit, I guess they're his pals now. In the second episode, Kemp's causing A LOT of mass destruction with his Brain Beast, but I really like how they bring Gou back in the episode. He rescues Jou and Arashi and takes them back to a church; Gou, in the aftermath of all that's happened, has found religion. Sakai's good as this new and improved Gou, genuinely worried once Jou goes back out into battle, and when Arashi chooses to do the same.

I like Arashi's last line to Gou. "It's a strange life we led, huh?" Arashi does things big, and he knows there's only one way to take down Kemp's seemingly indestructible monster, which absorbs whatever weapons attack it. Arashi knows it will be a fight to the death, so he takes the Brain Beast down in a suicide attack. Kemp's furious, but Arashi is victorious. His death is in keeping with the big, rebellious, independent man he was.

Episode 47

Mazenda's send-off. While I like most of this episode, her plan in this one's a bit strange. It's an excuse to bring back old monster suits, but since Liveman already resurrected monsters back in episode 25, Mazenda's plan here is to create a dream realm where just the IMAGES of past monsters can wreak havoc. Eh, it's a weird plan, and it's almost funny that Bias is so desperate to award anyone the 1,000 points that he's handing out points over nothing. "Mazenda went with the fish filet at McDonald's instead of the Big Mac! 100 points!" "Mazenda saved Toei a couple hundred bucks by bringing back old suits. 500 points!" "The show is almost over. 1,000 points!"

What really matters in this episode is Mazenda obtaining the score and Bias sending Gash after her to remove her brain. Throughout the episode, Gou has warned her, but she wouldn't listen...until it was too late. Gash, as always, is an unstoppable mutha, who easily takes down the Liveman, Koron, Gou -- anyone in his way -- to get to Mazenda. When she's finally cornered -- her option is decapitation by Gash's blade or plummet to her death from a cliff -- she ensures that Bias won't get her brain by completing her cybernetic transformation, completely turning her body machine and becoming Robo Mazenda. It's a bold move, a last desperate act but an awesome middle finger to Bias. Gash just walks right away once she does it. She says a few regrets to Gou before she jumps to her death, exploding.

Mazenda always seemed to me like she was cold, but had a strong sense of pride. She wasn't quite as soulless as Kemp, but I think she was close to him in cruelty and villainy. I like characters with shades of gray, but her last minute death speech didn't seem honest to the character. It's one of the many things in keeping with my whole "Liveman was softened by execs" theory. Could have been worse, though -- she could have survived and started hanging out at the Grand Tortoise, dancing with the Liveman in the ending credits.

The final scene of this episode is a highlight, another great Kemp moment. Once he witnesses Mazenda's death from aboard the Brain Base, he seems teary-eyed. He's hunched over, seeming to be crying. Does Kemp feel for anyone other than himself? Is there more to Kenji than meets the eye? Who knows, because the sobs slowly become laughs and he stands and just laughs his ass off, realizing he's going to win it all, after all. It's such a scary display that it freaks out even Bias, and Gash jumps before Bias, gun drawn towards Kemp.

It's this moment where I realized that Kemp should have become the main villain of the series. He's so much more evil than Bias, so much more confident and gleeful in his evildoings. I can easily picture a scenario where he reached a point where he saw himself superior to Bias and killed him and took over. Kemp is the one that set the series in motion, he's the ex-friend and big foe of our Red, so he should have been treated as a HUGE deal, and how huger can you make it than him ending up as the final villain? Yeah, well, Liveman goes the small, cheap, lousy route.

Episode 48

The title of this one should be "How to Chicken Out and Ruin One of Your Villains and Write Them Off in a Stupidly Unremarkable Way." Hey, that title isn't too long. Ever see some of the episode titles for Japanese cop shows?

This is the one where Kemp bites it. And it starts out promisingly enough, with that vicious bastard staging his own defection from Volt, complete with a phony attack, to lure in the Liveman, who are so inexplicably gullible lately. Kemp succeeds and gets the best of them, and it's at that moment that Bias decides he won this week's Hey! Spring of Trivia and grants him the 1,000 point Melon Brain Bread.

Bias learned from the Mazenda mess, though. No sending Gash with a rusty blade to collect the brain, now. Gash appears with a giant orb that he places over Kemp's noggin, cleanly sucking his brain out. It's not clear, but I assume that Kemp's own brain is replaced by Gash with one of the artificial brains that are regularly used to create Brain Beasts, as Kemp soon after becomes a Brain Beast, the Fear Brain Beast. An incredible letdown to have such an important character, a character who I think should have been the show's final villain, to become just a plain, old ordinary monster of the week. Such a mistake, such a frustrating letdown.

Worst of all? Is Yuusuke involved? Is Yuusuke there for a final fight with his former friend, the one he vowed to kill in episode 35? Is Yuusuke there so we at least get the chance for a classic Kazuo Niibori VS Red's big rival duel? NO! Yuusuke decides to follow Gash and board the spaceship he arrived in, so he can be taken to the Brainbase, while leaving the other four to handle Fear Beast Brain. What...the...fuuuuuuuuuu...WHAT, NO, ARGH!?!? God, what a blunder. I literally just got a headache in frustration just thinking about it. (It's especially sucky to deny us a classic Niibori battle after episodes 32 and 35 teased us with Falcon VS Kemp showdowns that abruptly ended.)

Once Bias obtains Kemp's brain from Gash, he hooks up to his big Edward Nygma devices and unveils his big plan -- to brainwash Earth to worship him. Literally. I don't know if he had any plans beyond that, but his biggest kick is to make everyone drop what they're doing, bow and pray in his name. Thankfully Yuusuke made the decision to deny us a cool showdown with Kemp, otherwise Earth would be screwed, because the four Liveman even fall under Bias' spell. (Koron does her best to snap them out of it, but is on the verge of being tossed over a cliff by the four Liveman before Yuusuke interferes with Bias' attack aboard the Brainbase. So, really, everyone on Earth owes Yuusuke a thanks for being saved.)

Once the Liveman team have snapped out of it, they join Koron in Super Live Robo and kill Fear Beast Brain. Koron is in Falcon's seat. So, not only are we denied a final confrontation between Red and Kemp, but it's almost like the show's giving us the finger by having Koron in Red's position, while Red's off pissing around the Brainbase.

Once Falcon's made his way to Bias' secret Nygmatech room, he pretty much immediately stabs Bias with the Falcon Saber. While it would be out of character for Bias to throw down with any action moves, it's hard not to think of the great fight Jouji Nakata had with Niibori in Flashman, so for Falcon to literally walk into a room, introduce himself and deal Bias a fatal blow, all quick and casually, seems underwhelming.  

However, luckily for Bias, all of the brains he's collected from past followers serves one crucial purpose -- he somehow, through his evil science, uses these brains to heal himself and remain youthful. Here he goes full out and uses the brain to revert himself to the age of a child. This is Bias' big secret -- he's really a man of advanced years, who manipulates his followers/students until he can make use of them. Namely, until they reach a point -- the 1,000 points, actually -- where their brains are cooked enough so that he can drink 'em up and stay young. Bias, Volt -- it's all pretty much a sham. He uses his students for his own end. This all picks up in...

Episode 49

The final episode. Bias is now a kid, Yuusuke is now a prisoner at the Brainbase. Let me go off on a tangent here. Bias is a kid, standing in his secret room, surrounded by a bunch of brains he's collected and stored in plastic hamster balls. Let's dumb this down like this: Bias steals brains to stay young. This is all out of some bad B-Movie from the 1950s. And it definitely doesn't help that Liveman's just out of money at this point. Toei's not putting anything into the finale, it's set at the Brainbase and the rocky terrain. The brains are rubber little pieces of chicken. And throughout these final two episodes, Bias shrinks Kemp's brain, carrying it around in a small ball and uses it as a catch-all weapon. Yeah!

Now, when Liveman started, it obviously kept the vibe Maskman had, of evoking more of a drama. Liveman started out wanting to be similarly grounded, serious. (The Maskman through Turboranger run has been listed as the "youth drama" Sentai series in some of the modern Sentai books.) And certainly the casting of Daisuke Shima and Megumi Mori was meant to draw in average viewers, the non-toku fans. Look at those first few Liveman episodes and see just how different they are; in terms of content and drama and just how high it was aiming.

It was the first Sentai show -- one of the rare toku shows, period -- where the villains were actually HUMAN. Not only humans, but former friends and classmates of the heroes. Things felt so real, intimate, personal in those episodes. Our three heroes lost their friends, colleagues, mentors -- the odds were against them, but they used their knowledge to fight against Volt's knowledge. As I said, Bias and Volt were played more like a cult. Bias was mysterious, quiet, but intimidating. He was charismatic, but dark. You didn't know his story, what his agenda was, but...you know damn well it wasn't stealing brains to stay young.

I can see where writer Hirohisa Soda was going with this decision, though. He wants to tie the show's life theme into the main villain's ultimate goal. If our heroes of life are teaching you how wonderful it is to be alive, it's something Bias already knows -- he's afraid to die, he wants immortality, even if it's at the cost of other people's lives. I think that's a good motive for our villain, and I even like the idea.

But if you're meant to sympathize with Bias, because all he wants to do is live, then his B-Movie brain-stealing plot wasn't the way to convey that storyline. Because you can understand that motive, but the show goes about it in such an over-the-top, intangible way. And we needed more background on Bias, who he was prior to the mad scientist/cult leader, to try and truly understand where he was coming from. In this case, the show was just too mysterious with Bias.

But I like that it's Megumi, the brains of our team, who's given the episode's important speech, in which she tries to convince child Bias to make a clean start, and live out one last regular life and atone for his actions. But that's cutting Bias A LOT of slack. Everything we've seen him -- and his officers, under his orders -- do throughout the series, he's obviously done a dozen times over. He has A LOT of blood on his hands, and the Liveman are too damn easygoing to offer him this shot at freedom. There's a fine line between our heroes being compassionate and understanding and them just being chumps.

You can see that Bias actually considers it, but he fights it. But it's too late, because Megumi's words have been heard by...Kemp's brain, the one Bias has been carrying around. Now, double-bullshit on this development, since we know Kemp's a bastard, I'd argue a bigger bastard than Bias. But, no, Kemp's all like "Yeah! I regret how I lived! I want to live again!" And not only does Kemp's brain have this reaction, but all of the other brains in Bias' collection -- made up of presumably people as vile as Kemp -- rebel, too, wanting to live again. This ends up robbing Bias of the power he obtained from his brain collection, and he rapidly ages -- to his true age. And the show's so low on money at this point that the make-up just looks like someone pushed Nakata's face in a bowl of oatmeal.

The episode *tries* to give us an EPIC FINALE SHOWDOWN between Falcon and Gash. I emphasized tries, because it's just kind of generic, some quick swordplay. Besides, Falcon just chops an arm off and lets Gash escape with Bias back to the Brainbase, because Falcon decides to go and help the others fight the latest Brain Beast, who doesn't even have a theme or anything to set him apart. It's such an afterthought, and makes for an underwhelming finale for the Liveman to be dealing with this non-descript, forgettable Brain Beast while the last two regular villains are limping to their escape. Since the Brainbase was damaged in an earlier battle, Bias and Gash die aboard the ship once they try to take off in it, completely separate and unrelated from what the heroes are up to!

When the Brainbase explodes, it sends Gash's severed head to where our heroes are standing, and it begins playing clips from the series. (I'm sure Tetsuya and Jun'ichi liked watching their siblings get killed.) It's the norm in Sentai finales to play lighthearted or fun clips in the credits of the finale, but Liveman plays clips entirely of the villains. It's so damn strange. We then see Gash's head sink into the earth, while the heroes rejoice that the world has been saved from Volt. Sidebar: when Boukenger was airing, I had a dream scenario of them finding Gash's head, and it being a Precious. (Hey, if Gash recorded everything Volt did, his head holds a lot of dangerous material that the Negatives would like!)

It's a very weird, very cheap, very unfulfilling finale, to a show that had such an amazing, unique, grand start to it. Liveman went from having one of the best premieres in toku history to one of the weakest finales. It started with a roar and went out with a whimper.

Despite how frustrating it becomes, there's still a lot of good in Liveman, and you can see where it wanted to go, what it wanted to be. A big, big problem is the show not getting the money it needed, it really limits things -- locations, talent, plotlines. And I don't know if it's in relation to the possibility that execs wanted to soften the show, but Hirohisa Soda really seemed to start pulling punches with the storyline. The strongest episodes in the second half of the series are the ones written by Kunio Fujii -- he had a stronger grasp on the heroes' relationships with the villains. Did Soda sugarcoat his initial intentions? How did Fujii slips these strong, no-holds-barred episodes past Toei, if they indeed wanted to lighten the show? The production mysteries of a 30-year-old show.

Even if it stumbled, Liveman is an important show to the franchise, one that set the bar higher, one that works on different levels and one that I think has been misunderstood and mistreated by modern fans. It's still one of my favorites, and I actually enjoyed it a lot on this latest rewatch. I was so glad to feel some of my old love for Liveman again. (Would you believe that I once considered Liveman my top favorite Sentai? And this was after Flashman was my top favorite as a kid. Shhhhhh.)

Choose Life: Liveman 41-44

Episode 41

The return of Gou! I always wondered how Soda chose to bring him back in this fashion. Jou bumps into Gou outside of a hospital. Gou still has amnesia, and in this episode, he's hit by a beam of the Brain Beast's and turns invisible. Whether it's accidental or if Gou was targeted to become invisible, it's not really clear, so it's weird to me.

But the attack ends up causing Gou's memory to return, which pisses Bias off and leads him to order all of his subordinates to kill Gou at any cost. So it becomes a chase to kill Gou, and once the Liveman have him in a safe spot, Gou reveals that, in his early days in Volt, he once saw Bias up to some strange experiment in a secluded room. He doesn't quite know what Bias was up to, but Bias was pissed to see him spying, so it's obviously the reason he wants him dead now.

I suppose Bias was fine with Gou seeing this, since Gou needed him and he was a devoted member of Volt and Bias. And I suppose Bias let him off the hook once he lost his memories. I think that's interesting and unpredictable for a villain to do, but...I'm not sure if I buy it from Bias. Bias, in the earlier episodes, is a character of such mystery, creepiness and viciousness, that I think he would have totally killed Gou to keep his secret. This latter day Bias is different, and he ends up becoming a B-Movie villain, but more on that as it develops.

Episode 42

This is actually a pretty cool idea for an episode -- Bias uses mind control to manipulate Tetsuya in order to have him and a Brain Beast plant bombs at the Grand Tortoise. The problem, of course, is Seirou Yamaguchi's weak performance. He makes some seriously goofy faces as Tetsuya's supposed to struggle, pulling himself away from Bias' mind control. But that's such a great moment, IMO, when he's cornered Yuusuke with a gun, ready to shoot him. The others get through to him by bringing up Takuji -- asking if he's ready to take a life like Takuji's was taken, by the same method Takuji's was taken. That was a great touch.

And I think it's funny that the Brain Beast of the week WASN'T killed by BiMotion Buster in this episode, but by being ejected at mach speeds from the Grand Tortoise.

Episode 43

While Gildos is the less offensive of the two ass-clowns who don't fit with Volt -- I'd say Gildos and Butchy are the Black Bison and Green Sai of Volt, but I think they might be even worse and more detrimental to the show than Tetsuya and Jun'ichi -- he's not interesting enough to get his own send-off episode. Just have him and Butchy die unceremoniously off-screen like Okerampa or something.

Speaking of Jun'ichi, this is a great one-two punch of stink -- a Gildos episode AND a Jun'ichi episode. When Gildos creates a monster that can't be defeated and constantly revives, Jun'ichi looks like a chump in the eyes of the injured kid he's trying to help back to health. The kid is a real asshole -- seriously, where do the Liveman find these assholes? You almost feel bad for Jun'ichi for trying so hard to prove himself to this kid, taking a lot of beatings, but then you remember it's Jun'ichi.

Episode 44

HATE this episode. I hate it SO much. It's definitely my least favorite Liveman episode -- yes, lower than Pig School -- and it's stupid and it unfortunately makes Megumi look stupid. After learning his buddy Gildos was just a robot created by Bias, Butchy gets depressed and goes on a rampage with his latest forgettable monster. Megumi feels bad for him and makes friends with him, getting nostalgic for her -- and our -- first encounter with Butchy, the lousy episode 22. WHY!?!? Butchy was a jerk, Butchy continued to be a jerk. Why does she feel bad for him? Why does she bond with him over her own song? Why does she miss him when he dies and fantasize about how she could have played and danced with him on the beach?

This episode's obviously meant to be the cool-down/lighthearted romp before all the shit goes down in the final stretch, but this episode is just moronic, doesn't work, and doesn't remember its characters. It's a waste.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

C'est La Vie: Liveman 36-40

Episode 36

Inoue returns, attempting to make Jun'ichi interesting. (Spoiler alert: he doesn't succeed.) I think this an episode 10 situation, where some higher-up was like "Jun'ichi plays rugby in the credits. Where's that in the show?" And, in typical Inoue fashion, the episode mainly focuses on an asshole guest of the week, a pal of Jun'ichi's who's bitter that he sucks at rugby, so he fakes an injury and makes life hell for everyone else on the team. (He breaks glass bottles and grinds it into the field. What an asshole! And why didn't Volt recruit him?)

Not really much to recommend this episode. Jun'ichi isn't interesting, and you don't care about the guest character because he's such an immense tool. I expect more from an Inoue script. This is along the lines of that waste of a Maskman episode he wrote about the bullied kid eating evil mushrooms and getting strong.

Episode 37

This episode is bonkers. So crazy and weird. I think a lot of that has to do with -- you've guessed it -- how out of money the show is, so it's set entirely in a weird field and beach side.

OK, it's also a weird concept. Kemp's finally powering up from his Beauty Beast form, and the process is interrupted by Megumi. As the transformation process was causing Kemp to be reborn, he emerges from his seashell cocoon with this condition -- he thinks he's 16 years old. He has no memory of anything past that, of anything to do with Volt. Megumi takes this as an opportunity to try to set Kenji/Kemp on the right path, feeding into his delusion by posing as a high-school classmate. I see that as just how desperate the Liveman are at this point, and how deadly Kemp is. It's not the greatest plan for our heroes to take, and it's something a psychiatrist would advise against -- unless he's insane like Twin Peaks' Dr. Jacoby -- but Megumi feels they have to try SOMETHING.

A big misstep with this episode is having it focus on just Megumi. All of the other Liveman are silent, watching from the sidelines, when I think Yuusuke should have had SOME involvement. Sure, he reached that point of absolutely hating Kemp in 35, but...he has no feelings seeing the possibility of setting Kenji on the path of good and decency? The earlier Liveman episodes were so good at involving all three heroes, but a lot of these later episodes -- especially once Black and Green arrive -- choose to focus exclusively on one of the heroes, and that's a shame.

Anyway, the Fear Beast form is a cool upgrade. It's yet another crazy look for Yutaka Hirose, although not as memorable or unique as the Beauty Beast form. There's just too much going on in the Fear Beast design. The worst part of it, to me, is the giant shoulder with the three red orbs, it just throws the whole thing off, IMO. But it's freaky, and Hirose makes his voice deeper -- Kemp knows he had to shed the image of the Beauty Beast and step up his game, especially since we're heading into the last act of the series.

But we find out in this episode that even as a teenager, Kemp had a helluva ego. Despite how nicely Megumi treats him, there's always this undercurrent of snobbishness and superiority to him. Even without Bias' influence, I think Kenji would have ended up being a pretty nasty person.

Episode 38

Now it's time for Mazenda's upgrade. This episode reminds me of 15, with Gash as Michael Myers, only this one goes even nuttier. The majority of the episode is Mazenda stalking Yuusuke and shooting the shit out of him and anything that surrounds him. That's it! There's a lot of cool night shooting, though, since Mazenda stalks him day and night.

There's a weird subplot about Yuusuke feigning fear and fleeing, which gets him criticized by Black Loser and Green Loserer -- like they should talk -- but it's really Yuusuke buying time while the others utilize his plans to come up with some Super Bulletproof Vests (not sold by Bandai), and hoping Mazenda runs out of ammo in the meantime.

While Kemp left behind his vanity for his latest upgrade, Mazenda discards what remains of her body -- she is shown to be mostly robotic parts and implants now, with the moniker Machine Mazenda. (I always thought it was funny how Palm Gun, which was already pretty deadly, gets upgraded into Palm Bazooka.) She's a one-woman army now!

Episode 39

Kunio Fujii's last script for the series. One more that kind of hearkens back to the themes of earlier episodes -- to quote the theme song, "teaching you the wonder of life." Here Jou befriends a kindly alien who ends up losing his life in order to protect a flower seed he possesses -- the only thing remaining from his destroyed planet. It's a nice thought, it's an earnest episode, and the show has made the case for so many forms of life, and here it's a twofer with an alien life and a plant life. The main problem is that while Jou plants the alien's seed and the episode ends with the flower beginning to bloom...Jou decided to plant it in the Rocky Terrain. That poor planet's last flower is going to be destroyed in one of the many, many tokusatsu battles that occur in the location. Bonehead move, Jou.

Episode 40

Inoue's last script for the series, and it's...Inoue just doing whatever the hell he wants. It's supposed to be a Megumi-focused episode, but he'd rather once again spotlight an asshole guest character. In this case, it's a dickish jewel thief, who paints a target on his back once he steals a jewel that Volt's after. The guy's meant to be roguish and funny and cool, but he's just irritating, and the actor REALLY thinks he's a lock for the next Sentai starring role or something, he's a cocky shit. So, you don't feel bad for him when he's targeted, you don't understand why Megumi supposedly likes him, and you don't give a shit when he turns around and helps the heroes, or reveals that he steals for the sake of unfortunate kids. He just sucks, man. The show definitely could have used some stunt casting here to make something about him bearable.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Live and Let Die: Liveman 32-35

Episode 32

Yeah, now this is the Liveman I know and love! Thank you, Kunio Fujii, you have redeemed yourself from the Pig School. We get some background on Yuusuke and Kemp and happier days at Academia, and we're shown that Kemp wasn't always such an evil bastard. While we're never told why Kemp's so fond of flowers, it's a rose he's bred that helps soothe a girl's ill mother. When Kemp is seriously injured in a lab experiment gone wrong, his kindness is repaid by the girl who donates the rare, pulled-from-a-comic-book blood type they share.

We get a great showdown between Yuusuke and Kemp, as Yuusuke tries to get through to Kemp, trying to find the person he used to be. It raises a lot of questions about Kemp. He's clearly the most egotistical of Bias' followers, the most evil, the biggest bastard. But he once showed kindness. And when Mazenda has shown some remaining humanity, and Obular has basically reformed, is there hope for Kemp? He continues to be an evil bastard in this episode, as he completely destroys Mai's image of him, and the rose she kept as a memento, but it does makes you wonder. Was there ever good in Kenji/Kemp? It gives the character a shade and you can debate it. I don't think he was ever really kind, I think helping Mai's mother by providing the roses just fed into his vanity, like HE was the ONLY one that could have helped. And the brief glimpses we get at a pre-Volt Kemp in a couple of later episodes make me think that even more.

BTW, I always remember this episode as being interrupted by an urgent news broadcast. While I've read that some stations reran the episode a week later, the only available copy for a long time was the one missing its final act. (It got cut off when Gash showed up to enlarge the monster, so the mecha fight and final scene were cut.) So...a fun story about the days of a pre-download fandom!

Episode 33

People like to make fun of Jun'ichi's first episode being the one where he's pregnant, but...at least that episode TRIED to have some dramatic value, and was a personal journey for Jun'ichi. This episode, Tetsuya's first focus episode, is just...forgettable. It could be the script for any other show. It certainly feels like a script for a different character, because the Tetsuya in this episode is not the Tetsuya we've seen these past few episodes. This is a kind Tetsuya who devotes a large part of his time to making a boy's insane fantasy of having a robot buddy come to life. Tetsuya cares so much that he designs a robot suit -- after the dummy is told that it's too complex to make an actual robot like Koron just so some kid he's never met and will never see after this episode has a buddy.

This always seemed to me like it was originally going to be a Jou episode, as it would fit his kind and caring nature. Also: Mazenda's plan to replace the Tetsuya-dressed-as-a-robot with a similar looking Brain Beast makes her look bad. She actually thinks Black Bison matters, and that targeting him and eliminating him would be a devastating blow for the Liveman! Isn't that cute?

Episode 34

One of Kunio Fujii's tragic star-crossed lovers stories. I like this one, and yet it just doesn't make much sense to me.

Miku, a woman from the future, has a fuzzy yet fond memory of being consoled while being lost as a kid in 1988. When Ashura butterfingers Bias' time-machine and creates a portal to the future, he meets Miku, who uses the portal as a chance to go back to 1988. Volt targets her, since it's their fault she's in the past, and Jou saves her, helping her return to the future, but not before having a fun date montage set to an Eikichi Yazawa song, because it's a Takao Nagaishi joint. Once the woman returns to the future, she realizes the guy who helped her as a kid -- all those years ago -- was actually Jou. Eh, the story could work, but there's just too many coincidences and something about the reveal and realization on Miku's part is oddly staged.

Episode 35

I consider this to be the last real kind of Liveman episode, the last one that's truly in spirit with the earlier, superior part of the show. It's another Kunio Fujii script, and he's shown he has such a great grasp on the hero-villain relations that he should have been given more power. And it's also the only episode where Tetsuya and Jun'ichi behave like they should, even if they're a little too reckless.

Yuusuke's depressed because a day he's dreaded has come around -- when they were both newwwbs at Academia, he and Kenji made a promise to one another that, no matter what, they would meet in five years to catch up on all of the great scientific discoveries they'd both make. Kenji is all smiles, joyous, enthusiastic. This is a different Kenji than the one we know as Kemp, but if you pay attention to his words, the egomaniac is there. Kenji doesn't doubt that he'll be a success, that his scientific discoveries will change the world.

The surprising thing isn't that Yuusuke honors their promise and shows up to their meeting destination, but that Kemp does. And Kemp, of course, is a complete bastard, belittling Yuusuke and their stupid promise, while proclaiming the great genius he's become at Volt. Meanwhile, Tetsuya and Jun'ichi have stalked Yuusuke, knowing he's meeting Kemp -- and they're rightfully pissed at the idea. Yuusuke wants to, in earnest, meet Kemp and try to reach his former friend. Tetsuya and Jun'ichi can't fathom why he'd want to meet up for a friendly chat with the murderer. They're mad, and they're ready to sneak an attack on Kemp. But Kemp attacks Yuusuke first, things go to shit, and it's actually a good thing Tetsuya and Jun'ichi are sneaky bastards, because they end up helping Yuusuke. See? These two don't need to be useless.

The great part about this episode, though, is that Yuusuke comes to the conclusion that Kemp is an evil piece of shit who's beyond saving and needs to die. This is why Kemp is such a great villain, such a nasty sumbitch. The hero who was his friend, who had some doubts, the one who preaches about saving every life...Kemp's so evil that it makes our hero reach his limit, to the point where he finds Kemp unconscious and actually tries to strangle him to death. Yuusuke can't bring himself to finish the job, but that's a pretty morally gray thing to have our star hero even think, let alone attempt. And think of how Liveman would be if it were made now -- Kemp would be a rubber suit and the episode would end with him dancing in the credits with the heroes.

Great lines here. (I might not get these exact.)

Kemp: "Yuusuke, you'll look down from heaven at Volt's victory."
Shortly after, when the fight turns in Yuusuke's favor...

Yuusuke: "Kemp! You'll be looking up at humanity's bright future from hell!"

The episode ends solemnly, with Yuusuke vowing to kill Kemp. And it's sad that the show chickens out of Yuusuke ever having a big, classic Red VS Hirose fight.

Also: Falcon manages to kick Kemp's ass so bad that Bias has to bail him out of the fight. This is obviously the drive for Kemp to upgrade in a couple of episodes.