Sunday, June 30, 2019

Flashman Episode 1 & Why Flashman and Japanese Superheroes Rock


I consider this episode to be one of the best premiere episodes of a tokusatsu series, mostly because of how efficiently it establishes everything in such a quick manner, and just the scope of it. On the surface, it might seem like an ordinary premiere episode -- the villains invade, the team forms to stop them -- but it's the first Sentai premiere with scenes taking place outside of Earth! Not only that, but the Flashman aren't government employees, they're not chosen at random -- there's a reason why they take action, why they're determined to stop this particular threat of villains.

There's just so much money and effort put into this show and these premiere episodes specifically. From the very first shot of Mess' Lab headquarters on. So many FX shots to bring the Flash planets to life, as well as the unique and incredible abilities that not only the Flashman, but Mess' reconstructed officers possess. Flashman is putting on a show, man.

The first scene of the show introduces us to our villains for the year. There are so damn many of 'em! I wonder how it had to be for fans to go from those early-'80s types of villains -- the lead, a couple of kunoichi -- to something like Flashman. People wonder why I always lament the use of rubber suits and seiyuu-only villains, but you can thank Flashman. Flashman spoiled me. Not only do we have truly formidable villains wearing awesome Yutaka Izubuchi designs, but you have genuine actores like Koji Shimizu (and later Joji Nakata) and good, game performers who relish their roles like Sayoko Hagiwara, Yutaka Hirose and Miyuki Nagato. (Sorry, Hiroko Kojima; Kiruto's good in a fight, but she doesn't stand out as much as the others.)

Mess is one of the more interesting and diabolical villain groups a Sentai has faced. Not merely content with invading and conquering, they like to use the lifeforms found on various planets for their scientific experiments. Great Professor Lee Keflen is a sickie who wants to play God and create whatever kind of lifeforms he can; Great Emperor La Deus, obviously, thinks he IS God, wanting to be the most supreme lifeform to ever have existed in the entire universe. The officers below them, the field commanders, all being experiments created by these two, give this group more of a unity than other villain groups, which are often at odds or backstabbing one another. Mess is a pretty well-oiled machine, and that just makes them even more formidable and threatening to our heroes.

We meet our heroes uniting, of their own volition, in another solar system. Word has reached the Flash planets that Mess is now targeting Earth, so leader Jin has sent word to his four human comrades to gather. This involves scenes of Dai, in the Jet Delta, picking up Sara on the Yellow Star, and Bun, in the Jet Seeker, dropping by the Pink Star to grab Ruu. The two ships meet up with Jin, in his Tank Command, at the Flash Star, where he informs them that he's found out that Mess -- whom he knows is responsible for their kidnapping -- has now set their sights on the conquering and decimation of Earth, and that they're the best chance to stop them. They all get to the Round Base, a massive ship capable of the journey through space. Despite warnings coming from of the Flash Planet natives for them not to leave, the pleas go ignored, and the five heroes launch, ready to begin their mission.

The set-up of this premise and their motivation is almost Kamen Rider-like. These five know the pain caused by the Mess, and they are determined to do whatever it takes to prevent the Mess from perpetuating any more of the pain they've caused them. They see it as their personal duty to spare Earth, their home planet, of any harm. (So, it's pretty fucked up the way the Earth ends up treating them.) They've survived a tragedy, and things get worse for them as the show goes on -- but they're all pretty upbeat and positive characters. And at the same time, as horrible as it is that they were all taken from their home when they were just babies, they were among some of the luckier ones who had been in the clutches of Mess. It was fortunate for them that the people of the Flash system interfered and raised them to be such decent people. (We'll find some Earthlings who WEREN'T lucky throughout the show.)

People see the Flashman team as being a team full of goody-goodies, but I like the way they're depicted, and how it's unique to the show's background. They're not uninteresting, flat depictions of virtue found so often in superhero entertainment. They're just decent people, good-natured. Pure. I think some of that comes from their not having a normal childhood on Earth, that they were robbed of that, so they retain a child-like wonder and innocence and are, in a way, stunted. Another is that the Flash people are said to be so kind-hearted and such believers in justice that that was surely an influence on our heroes, and they were taught those ways and beliefs.

They're basically a reverse Superman. Instead of an alien landing on Earth and growing up to be a decent person because he was raised honorably by humble Midwestern folks, here's five Earthlings who were brought up by the good citizens of an alien planet, raising them to be the best people they could be. (And I think the Flashman production is further inspired by Superman, taking Superman: The Movie's crystalline-obsessed Krypton and making crystals an important component to the Flashman's powers, especially their individual weapons. Spielban's got some Superman in it, too. I always thought the two shows were compatible, and as a kid who loved both, the idea of a Flashman-Spielban crossover is too cool to ponder. It's interesting that Toei's two toku shows of '86 had similar set-ups for our heroes in that both show's heroes were robbed of their childhoods by their villains.)

While I typically like superheroes with a bit of an edge or attitude or even some darkness to them, I never had a problem with the Flashman all being depicted as so positive and just GOOD. I don't feel like they're indistinguishable, either. They're all upstanding people, they're all serious and determined and often on the same page, but they're all clearly their own person, and they're not joyless or have a one-track mind about their mission to the point where you don't feel like they're living, breathing people. What they were taught by the Flash people, and what they each learned on their own being trained to adapt to the specific climates of Planet Flash's individual natural satellites, is a further way they're distinguished, but I'll talk a little more about that in the next episode.

The Mess make their presence known in a brutal sequence in which the officers and the Zoros are out just butchering people. Our five heroes arrive on Earth just in time, fighting with Mess' attack ships and then finally taking on their officers, the Zoros and the monster of the week, putting on such a display of power upon killing the monster, that Mess' forces retreat. (That's right, Flashman is the first Super Sentai since Battle Fever J to not cram in a combined robot fight in its already-busy first episode.) The fight, I have to admit, comes across a bit more sluggishly than you'd expect from action-director Junji Yamaoka, but it's still filmed terrifically, and is filled with great moments that you'll only see in this show; the Flashman using the powers they naturally developed on the Flash system, our Mess freaks showing their ferocity, the really cool crystalline weapons the Flashman are armed with. Flashman's trying to show you some new stuff, building this unique world and strange, wonderful displays of power. I find, if you look at the shows prior to Flashman and then at Flashman, you can see there's just this surge of liveliness, it's fresh, it's of-the-moment, it's fun, it's COOL.

Flashman is putting on a show. It's riding the last huge wave of the sci-fi craze going on at the time, and it is going to do it to the fullest of their ability. I honestly feel like there's a sense from the production -- from the writers to the directors to the actors to the crew -- that they took this thing seriously, that they wanted to put on a damn good sci-fi show that could rival anything out of Hollywood. And if the budget can't allow that, they'll compensate it with dedication and creativity.

Look, I was a weird white kid in Japan, yo. I didn't know a lick of Japanese. Something about these shows spoke to me, man, especially a good show that was competently presented like Flashman. It's like I understood them by osmosis. I watched my fair share of TV, and as young as I was, I can look back and realize I knew when a show was cheap or junk. (My mom was into soaps, and even as a kid I was like "Damn, why do the sets on these shows look like cardboard a kid made?!") While I think there was a glut of creative shows and movies in the 1980s, a lot of the superhero stuff that was offered left something to be desired. Like, who was the most popular type of hero at that time? He-Man. What's one of the most boring shows to ever be made? He-Man. Cartoons at the time were very formulaic and uninvolving, because nobody was interested in telling a story or depicting anything of consequence; they just wanted to teach lessons and sell merchandise, not necessarily in that order. And if you're talking live-action superheroes, forget about it. You'd get something procedural-like, that was barely superheroic feeling, like The Incredible Hulk, or movies that didn't want to take themselves seriously like whatever that crazy crap the Salkinds decided to do to Superman in the '80s.

I always liked superheroes, and I think what sparked my interest in tokusatsu, without really realizing it, is that is presented a wild, wonderful, imaginative world of superheroes as you expected it to be, in live action. With something like Flashman, you had a show that was unique and telling interesting stories -- it could be fun, it could be superheroic, it could be driven by action, it could be very, very tragic. It wasn't afraid to be dramatic. And one of the things I've always found frustrating about the world of superheroes -- to this day, even, in regards to trying to get back into comics -- is that the stories just go on and on. Comic book hero stories are really just soap operas, just going on and on without any kind of real plan. There will be arcs, but there will also be a lot of repetition, a lot of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, a lot of unresolved storylines. Unless it's a one-shot graphic novel, I find there's rarely a truly satisfying storyline in a comic. And most superhero comic books take such crazy turns, spiraling so far out of control that...whatever the most extreme example of jumping the shark would be, well...comics constantly find ways to jump THAT.

Something appealing about the world of toku heroes is the knowledge that there will be a full story told, there will be resolutions. Red Flash isn't going to let Sir Kaura get away the way Batman's let the Joker off for 70+ years just so he can have more comics and merchandise to sell. (This is where you get nonsense from American superheroes of not killing villains.) So, here with toku is the sense that these stories matter, there will be consequences for the characters, characters might not survive, and the story will come to a conclusion. I remember a "holy shit!" feeling when it got around to the time that villains were being killed off. And then a whole new show would start was *exciting* to see what the new one would do. It was exciting to have the variety.

Flashman blew me away when I was a kid. I don't remember looking at it as "oh, some goofy, lesser production, with people who don't look like me who are talking in a way I don't understand." I didn't distinguish it from other shows, American productions or movies. The Japanese model of live-action TV-making lends itself more to a cinematic style of storytelling. The creators know what they're allotted and what they're able to do in that time allotted. Flashman's a show of such ambition and quality that I really see it as something that can hold its own against Hollywood's sci-fi offerings, I see it as something that could be considered a Japanese Star Wars. (Back when Star Wars still meant something.) Flashman's the big, fun superhero show I was looking for, but it also ends up being a show you appreciate when you're old enough to realize the care and craft they put into it, and its storytelling.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Silver Destroyer

Ever since I was a kid, I've thought Bio Hunter Silva was cool. (I remember even trying to draw comics with him as the star. No pun intended, since he travels in the form of a star. Hey, even though what the show says is clearly close to "silver," my family didn't know his name, so we DID refer to him as "Star.") The show thinks he's cool, look at some of the ways they have him enter a scene, with that particular piece of BGM always playing. (My favorite as a kid was when he breaks into Professor Shibata's lair by calmly riding in on a handcar.) Silva's a fan favorite for good reason, and yet I've seen a lot of modern viewers criticize his role in the show, finding him unnecessary and repetitive to the story.

Silva was a shake-up the show needed. He's an outside force that the Bioman really didn't need getting mixed up with -- they have enough on their plate. And as great as that episode was when the Big Three turned on Doctor Man, once he wiped their memory and rebooted them? It showed that there would never again be conflict amongst the villains, which is one of writer Hirohisa Soda's favorite things to have in his shows. So it was great to bring in a villain who had no connections to the regular villains, so he clashed with them. And it's also great that he has a significant, symbolic connection to our heroes -- he was the one who destroyed planet Bio and its people -- and that he's just such a threat, his presence is such a felt danger to them. I like that they bring up Mika -- that Doctor Man's Anti-Bio Gun that killed Mika is nothing compared to what Silva can do. And being a technological creation from another world, he's far more advanced than anything Doctor Man can whip up, so he's a genuine threat to the villains, too, especially if he gets his hands back on his mecha, Barujion! Everybody is screwed in that scenario, which is why Gear's so set on obtaining Barujion for themselves and it becomes a three-way race to find it.

"Silva is too one-note." Yeah? Well, he's a robot programmed for one thing -- the annihilation of anything with Bio Particles. That's his sole purpose to exist. There's no reasoning with him -- heck, we saw Peebo try (and fail). Silva's kind of like another red-eyed, silver-clad robotic killer from 1984 -- the Terminator. Nobody ever calls The Terminator boring or repetitive or overrated or lame. When I was a kid, I thought T-1000 was the coolest son of a bitch. But look at him -- he had only one job to do, and that was to kill a kid. A kid! And he couldn't even manage it! Not even close. Because of T-1000 being bad at his job, we got stuck with several shitty sequels! The T-800 failed time and again to kill Sarah in the first one. Bio Hunter Silva? Destroyed an entire planet. And he gets an Anti-Bio Particle-filled shot off to everyone in his very first appearance and destroys quite a few of Bioman's weapons. So...Bio Hunter Silva is more badass than any of the Terminators, I said it. (Silva hit the TV airwaves just about two weeks before Terminator hit big screens in America, too.) Silva loves murderin', but there's one thing he loves more than murderin' -- and that's his robot, Barujion. And that's probably just because Barujion allows him to murder on a much bigger scale.

I never felt Silva's just stalling -- he appears in Episode 37! He's only in 13 episodes! He doesn't have that much time to go in circles. Is it necessary for him to appear in episodes like 41 or 42, for example? Maybe not, but you can tell they just wanted to include the new cool character and remind you of his presence. He appears only briefly in those episodes -- episodes which are written by secondary writers, so it's not like they were going to be the ones to finally have him find Barujion or kill a Bioman. They're quick appearances meant to excite and make you anticipate his next big move and appearance. I like some of these little appearances, because he pops up at really inopportune times for the Bioman, and he'll often pop up at a moment that will put a wrinkle in Gear's plan. So he's screwing with both sides of characters!

C'mon, you gotta love stuff like when Silva lets himself be kidnapped by Gear. They haul him back to the Neo Grad, all the way at the South Pole, tie him up, feeling victorious, and he just busts out his chains after busting their bubble and getting off insults. He then stands atop Gear's fancy office table in order to get off some shots -- he attacks Doctor Man! -- before making his escape in style. A pure power move, all just to show off his silver robot cojones -- Gear had nothing on him. You can imagine how Silva would be in a modern show -- he'd only be after the Bioman and would probably just go away or even shut down if it wasn't anything with Bio Particles in his eyesight or facing him as his opponent. But, no, like a Terminator, Silva lays it out immediately -- whoever gets in his way will be slaughtered. He's not afraid to throw down with anyone, and he usually has the upper hand over 'em. He isn't all talk.

I think the drama he causes to stir within Gear is something that helps break up his one-minded mission, because it forces him to have to deal with something that's out of his wheelhouse. Did they drag out his search for Barujion? Yeah, but that's because of how much they built Barujion up. They couldn't just haul it out right away, knowing it was an important factor of the end game, and have Barujion just keep losing over and over. They build it up, and it finally appears, but they keep teasing the idea since Gear quickly grabs Barujion away from Silva before he has a chance to really use it. And it had to be that way, because there's no reason why Silva just wouldn't dominate once he had his mecha. Look at what happens when Silva finally gets his ass in the cockpit -- he's wiping the ground of the South Pole with the Bio Robo.

Barujion loses quickly, but at least there's a new factor in play -- it's not just Bio Robo trying its same moves until they eventually win. Bio Robo calls for Peebo and uses Peebo as an energy source. For me that works since they're the two pieces of technology from Bio and it can be seen as vengeance after 500 years for what Silva did to Bio. It's also just a result of the 20-minute '80s shows realizing that mecha's not where it's at -- a newer show would obviously have the entire episode (maybe more) be a mecha fight between Bio Robo and Barujion, but look at what Bioman does in one episode -- the Bio Robo raids the Neo Grad, they go to save Gou's father, Shuuichi infiltrates as Prince, Gou's father sacrifices himself, Psygorn gets killed, Mason gets killed, Silva and Barujion are killed...that's a lot of stuff going down! And, like the other '80s shows, they chose to focus on the stuff that really mattered. (Gou's farewell to his father, his reaction as he hears his father die behind him beats any fight they could have had with Barujion.) Maybe Barujion didn't last long enough for you, but...I think the show made the right choices. And I still think Barujion is cool, too! (I almost bought that limited and expensive soft vinyl they released of it several years ago.) Silva at least gets to shine in this final episode, as he attempts to remake Prince AND kills Mason in a duel, proving that the spikes he emits from his elbows aren't just there to look purdy. He kills Mason! Mason, the number two guy in Gear! Mason, who had just had what looked like was supposed to be the "Classic Number Two Villain VS Niibori Final Duel," only it wasn't -- Silva snipes in!

People think Silva was killed in an underwhelming, too easy of a way. To be honest...most of Bioman's villains were. Bioman's a show that had more ideas than they had time to do with. I think that's something that led to those rushed-seeming villain deaths. Like the show was just taking its time and then was like "Oh, shit! We've gotta wrap things up!" I always felt it was lackluster that, after episodes upon episodes of the Zyunoids taking Super Electron hits that, oh, it's finally just one too many once the series is near its finish, so they finally just die from the attack. Monster and Farrah had similar demises -- oh, they safely eject from their mechas just in time for episodes upon episodes, but finally just can't make it? Silva gets the memorable scene where he's ejected from the ruined Barujion, appearing to be completely safe. He seems to be continuing his mission of finding and eradicating all things which possess Bio Particles before he just halts and falls over to his death. Even though it's artifical snow, they film the scene nicely, having snow fall as the Bio Hunter takes his last steps. Even the Bioman were like "That bastard never stopped!" The way Silva's scene is filmed, this little character quirk, differentiates it from the other villain deaths, so I'd say that Silva has a more memorable death scene than the other Gear villains that aren't Doctor Man. The show recognized Silva was special.

I tend to find the costumed villains less interesting than the face ones, but it's easier to overlook for me if they're meant to be robots. And I always say, if you insist on having a costumed villain, you better make it a good -- no, GREAT -- design. And Silva's design is just awesome. Yutaka Izubuchi's a giant for a reason. And the fact that I'm usually critical or dismissive of masked/costumed-only villains in toku, yet like Silva so much should tell you how fucking cool he is.

But a great design can only get you so far, you also need actors matching in quality. When you have a character like Silva, who's supposed to be cool, and you're depending on separate suit and voice actors to bring that character to life, it can be dicey. It often doesn't work. It can go either way, but most of the time the suit actor will get it, but the voice actor's performance is just so far away from what the character is supposed to be. (See: Megaranger's Gireil, Gaoranger's Rouki.) Silva lucked out in having the kick-ass Yoshinori Okamoto -- a rising star of a great, dependable villain actor -- play him in suit. Okamoto is responsible for 98% of why the character is cool and kicks ass. He gives the character such a tough, menacing presence, but has these cool, clean, precise movements. He makes Silva the confident professional killer he's supposed to be, but also gives him a kind of cowboy swagger. But Silva's also fortunately armed with the versatile Kazuo Hayashi giving voice to him. Hayashi had voiced mainly a lot of monsters-of-the-week prior to Silva, and you can tell he just relished having such a big, pivotal character in toku. (I actually think Hayashi's voice is similar to Okamoto's, so I didn't even know for the longest time that it *wasn't* Okamoto providing the voice.) Hayashi has a lot of fun with the role, giving the character a lot of shades of emotion when other voice actors would have played the character with a robotic monotone. You gotta love when Silva just laughs his ass off whenever one of his opponents comes up short in an attack against him.

Yutaka Izubuchi's unused design for a character called Silverman.

Like the unused design for Gou's brother, a couple of the Sentai books have unused designs by Yutaka Izubuchi pertaining to Silva. The one I want to talk about is called Silverman, and all that's said about him is just that he's of the same origins as Silva. You'd think a cohort of Silva's, but I think it's interesting to note that this character bears Gear's emblem rather than the one Silva has. When I first saw this Silverman design, I thought it was an upgrade for Silva; I was like "a Super Silva?!" So I was disappointed once I saw the text. But it made me think of how cool it would have been in the show if, once Silva was defeated, Doctor Man had some Mecha Clones go and scoop up his pieces, with Doctor Man then rebuilding Silva to suit his own purposes. It would make sense since Doctor Man was so fascinated by Silva, but it would also show just how surprisingly advanced Doctor Man is that he can take alien technology and make it do his bidding. I always thought that the reason the Bio Robo reactivates in order to stop Gear was the show saying that Doctor Man's knowledge and technology were approaching or near the same level of threat as what destroyed Bio. Doctor Man DID have the goods and was advanced well beyond what any other Earthling dared attempt.

And not to be all conspiracy theory nutty once again, but what if that Silverman design DID originate as something like I just described? Because why would a cohort of Silva's have Gear's mark? Also: Silverman was actually one of Silva's original names when the character was in working stages. Also: can't you picture an egomaniac like Doctor Man rebuilding Silva and naming it SilverMAN after him? Just sayin'. Since the Silverman drawing comes from a book covering all of the Sentai shows made in 2001, there's so many shows to cover by that point, I have to wonder if it could be a little wrong in the info. Whereas the stuff about Gou's brother and Silva's original name comes from Yutaka Izubuchi's design book from early '85 -- I tend to believe information from around the time the work was still new, and information that's coming from someone who worked directly on the show as opposed to someone who was hired to raid the archives and put together a compilation book decades later.

Imagine if the show did my Super Silva scenario -- the Bio Hunter would now be working for Gear, which is something Gou feared when Silva first showed up. Maybe he could have been the final opponent before Doctor Man in the finale instead of freakin' Farrah Cat! (You're cool in action movies, Yukari Ohshima, but Farrah Cat is just such a nonpresence in the show. She's treated with less importance than most of the Zyunoids!)

And one more thing. I like Kamen Rider. It's my second favorite of the big toku franchises. But I love Super Sentai. There's always that pitting every franchise against each other in the fandom, and it always comes down to Sentai VS Rider. I've participated in many of those battles -- some in good fun, some bloody. Superhero Taisen was a boring and sloppy movie, but I LOVE that they brought Silva back and made him Rider Hunter Silva. At the height of goofing around with GIFs of Sentais killing Riders on HJU circa '06, I would have had a lot of fun with this; I probably would have had the mods change my username to Rider Hunter Shougo, with Rider Hunter Silva as my avatar. It was great for a new movie to dust off a villain from the era of Sentai I grew up with, and it was really awesome that they got Hayashi to provide the voice again, in this age of replacement voices. Who was really missed from that movie, though? Okamoto! I like suit-actor Kazutoshi Yokoyama in his Metal Hero work and the three Sentai Reds he played, but he was a pretty pathetic Silva in Superhero Taisen. They were better off just stop-motion animating the Medicom. Sad thing? Okamoto did stunts in that movie! Why the hell didn't they let him play Silva?! No, Okamoto supposedly plays Aka Ranger. Sad thing? Kazuo Niibori did stunts for that movie! Why the hell didn't they let him play Aka Ranger?! Those movies are made up on the spot, man. Plus Silva was sadly way underused.

Those who slam Silva, I've got one word for your criticisms, and it's repeated three times...

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Kooky Theory: The Role of the Lost Gear Member

So I was flipping through one of the Sentai books that has a few pages about the designs, briefly covering each show, and in the Bioman section is a design sketch by Yutaka Izubuchi for a character who (obviously) doesn't appear in the show. A human-looking character that's identified as an officer for the Gear Empire...and Shiro Gou/Red One's older brother.

It's unknown whether he was considered to be in the show and plans changed or fell through or whether Izubuchi was just messing around and sketching out any idea he had independently. But what if Bioman's staff kicked around an idea that Gou would discover his brother worked for Gear, but that was dropped once they gave him the story of his long-lost dad who became a cyborg in order to combat Gear -- the thinking being that the dad would make for a stronger storyline, so they abandoned the brother idea. Or maybe the dad would still be involved, with one of his goals being to try to save the brother, but they thought that just made things too complicated and too Red-oriented and...who knows?

But here's what I was thinking...

Main writer Hirohisa Soda always said he had big plans for Mika/Yellow Four, and that she would be as important as Gou/Red One, the implication being that all those plans went out the window once Yuki Yajima abruptly left the show. Well, who's the only one in the show to mention having an older brother? In the first couple of episodes, when Mika's refusing to join the Bioman, she reveals it's because she wants to keep pursuing photography, and the reason she took it up was because her deceased older brother was a photographer and she wants to both honor him and realize his dreams. (It seemed he was more of a nature photographer, while Mika's more into photojournalism.)

So, my theory is...what if this sketch and idea originated not as Gou's older brother, but Mika's? What if he was either presumed dead or fully dead, but captured and brought back as a cyborg soldier of Gear's? How cruel would that be, to have to face the brother she thought she lost, the brother she idolized? Going into the endgame with Gou's dad, who's helping the fight against Gear, while also having to contend with Mika's brother, who's actually WITH Gear? That would have made for some juicy drama, AND would have put Mika on the same level of importance as Gou. And once Yajima left, maybe Soda still clung to the idea, considering making it Gou's brother, before then just scrapping it altogether.

If this could have been the plan for Mika, it would hould have been pretty dang interesting, and I think it would have been a really strong arc for a character like hers. She was reluctant to be a Bioman because she wanted to honor her brother's memory, and then she ends up finding herself on the battlefield against him. And she was so headstrong and independent that I think it would have caused major friction amongst the team, because I imagine she'd initially try to save him. I think Yajima would have given a great, explosive performance. I envision something like, Mika would try to get through to her brother and fail -- he's too far gone -- and Shuuichi from this would learn the way to try to reach through to his dad, Doctor Man. From Mika's failure would come the show's biggest victory.

I've always wondered what Soda had planned when he said what he did about Yellow Four. Maybe this just IS a kooky theory, but it's the only thing that's given me an inkling of the supposedly big and special things that could have been in store for Mika Koizumi, the Biomic Woman.

And now I'm trying to think of who they could have gotten to play Mika's brother if this was the scenario. I'm thinking someone JAC to match Yajima, but someone who was also a big deal. How awesome would Hiroyuki Sanada have been in a role like this, rather than just in the guest spot as Jun's archery coach? (He was a rising star, and I know he supposedly only took that role as the JAC's way to apologize for Yajima's abrupt exit from the series, but you never know -- maybe he could have been enticed by a good part.)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Unsung Heroes of Toku: Naoko Kamio

Naoko Kamio was born on November 16th, 1961. Her earliest known work as a stuntwoman was in Liveman, where she was on the all-purpose action crew. She remained a fixture in Super Sentai in similar small parts -- grunts, extras -- before finally landing her first heroine role as Mega Pink in 1997's Megaranger.

The role of Miku Imamura was a special and unique one amongst tokusatsu heroines, and actress Mami Higashiyama nailed the character. But it was very crucial to have a good performer in the suit, as well, and Kamio delivered, capturing the character's youth, spunky attitude and plucky determination. After Megaranger, Kamio spent most of her time on the Sentai franchise as the double for the heroine actress out of suit, and going back to playing grunts and monsters. While she continued to double actresses out of suit, she was often mainly relegated to substitute for whoever was the in-suit performer for a heroine. (This has led to some confusion as to who she plays. For example, she substituted Gokai Pink for one episode, so some profiles will have her listed as playing Gokai Pink, when that was Mizuho Nagawa's role and it shouldn't be taken away from her.)

(I'd also just like to note here that Kamio is credited as doubling for Nanami out of suit in Hurricaneger. Yuuki Ono played Hurricane Blue in suit. So...stop pretending like you did all of the stunts, Nao Nagasawa! You didn't even do everything as Nanami -- Kamio doubled you!)

By the mid-and-late '00s, Kamio was given a few unique roles that helped make her stand out amongst other talented suit actors. While the roles of Gekiranger's Sha-Fu and Robotough or Goseiger's Datass lack the cool and glory of a full-blown superhero, she still put forth the effort into playing these characters and making them unique. (Who'd think Mega Pink was in Sha-Fu's suit?) The Datass suit doesn't look like a fun one to be in, but she recalled the giddy robo helpers of yesteryear. (Which means, for this '80s fan, Magu.)

Most impressive of all, in my opinion, is Kamio's roles in Zyuohger and Lupinranger vs Patranger. In both series, she plays the main (male) villains. While Zyuohger's Genis doesn't have the intricate design of Turboranger's Ragon, for example, it's still a massive suit which requires the character to be immobile. Kamio's working the top half of the character, and she gives Genis the command his character should have, but also his laconic and detached demeanor; she completely sells the guy as a killer who's killed for sport so many times that he needs new ways to be entertained by it. She makes the character more notable than the voice actor, in my opinion.

Sharing the same main writer as Zyuohger, Lupinranger vs Patranger's main villain, Doguranio Yabun, is a bit similar to Genis. He's shown to be a bit of a frail senior, one who's meant to watch potential successors as they execute plans in the hopes of taking over his gang. Like Genis, Yabun's a bit desensitized and it's hard to impress him, but Kamio makes the character uniquely his own. (I was surprised when I found out she was in suit; I really thought it was an longtime male member of the Japan Action Enterprise -- I was certain it was Hideaki Kusaka or Riichi Seike. And, yeah, when Yabun finally stood up, you could see he was short, so it would rule out Kusaka, but that costume is so bulky, I thought it just made the wearer look short. It really does not look like a pleasant costume to wear.)

A complete 180 from those roles are her roles in Kyoryuger and Ryusoulger as cute prankster-type characters Luckyro and Kureon. While I'm not a fan of the Luckyro character, it's definitely not Kamio's fault -- she plays the part well, conveying the character's youthful joy. Kureon is similar in that it seems to be a boyish monster, but Kureon comes across as being more mean-spirited, taking delight in the torment he causes, sometimes kicking back to watch mayhem unfold, and sometimes just bouncing around with excitement at his plans. (Note the crazy, endless youthful energy she gives these characters, especially Kureon, at age 51.) Another youthful creature she's played is Kamen Rider Kiva's Bassha, who she plays as at times playful, at times deadly, but also rather dandy.

Kamio finally got a full-time hero gig once again with Kyuranger, playing Koguma Sky Blue. While I tend to find kid heroes lame, she really helped save the day by making Koguma Sky Blue actually tough and cool, and I loved the power the character had to grow semi-giant. Kamio is of short stature, so I imagine it had to be fun for her to play this role and remind some people, 20 years after her first full-time hero role, that she could kick ass.

While it's not confirmed, I think it's fairly obvious that Kamio is in-suit as Shinken Red in the second episode of Gokaiger, when the young boy takes the Shinken Red Ranger Key and transforms. If it indeed is Kamio, how funny is it that she briefly got to play Shinken Red, which was one of the last in-suit performances of her husband's, Hirofumi Fukuzawa? (Shinken Red's probably his best role, IMO, and a role that probably meant a lot to him as a swordsman.) She also plays ToQ 4 whenever it's the kid version of Hikari transforming.

Kamio's a very versatile, skilled suit actress, with an emphasis on the acting part of the job. I think, if she weren't a woman, she'd have more main roles, and would be as popular with viewers as someone like Yasuhiro Takeuchi, another talented and versatile suit-actor. Some people think it's due to her height that she doesn't have more main roles, but...Takeuchi is known for being short, and he's often cast as the double for people much taller than he is. It's all in how you film it. Tsutomu Kitagawa, a favorite suit-actor of mine, is on the short side, but he still has more regular hero gigs on his resume than Kamio. Nevertheless, with her villain roles especially, she HAS proven herself, made her mark, and has accomplished a lot, making some of those roles more memorable than they probably had any right to be. For that, she is one of Shougo's Unsung Heroes of Toku™.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Shougo VS Lupinranger VS Patranger

It took me a while, but I've finally finished Lupinranger VS Patranger. (I really need to try to stay on top of Ryusoulger so it doesn't pile up, but that show ain't making it easy. #RYUSOULBORING!) I figured I'd round up some thoughts on the show and where I'd rank it on my list of Super Sentai.

I got some blowback when I said this before, but I'll say it again -- knowing that writer Junko Komura is a big Liveman fan, I feel like this show might have originated or been pitched as "What if the villains for the new Sentai were another Sentai?" So they then thought of ways to go about that, what themes would match, and it eventually got reduced to cops and robbers. Which COULD have worked, but...

The show we got never intended for the Lupinranger to be all that bad. In fact, the show favors the Lupinranger, those characters and their stories, far more than it does the Patranger. With producer Takaaki Utsunomiya, I feel like he was just basically wanting them to be like Gokaiger -- sorta scoundrels, but actually decent. So the show gets in the way of its own premise. It's a good team versus a good team and the way they sustain the premise is to make the thieves just minor nuisances to the cops, who always let them off the hook. In the end, the show makes the cops ineffectual and unable to do their job in order to let our real heroes keep doin' what they do.

Treasure collecting is never an interesting series-long premise, in my opinion. And it's an idea that's just very anime to me, one of those things that *might* work long term in a comic or cartoon, but is just not sustainable or believable in live action. The only time a toku's done the idea in a way I've liked is Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya, and that's because there were MANY people after the treasure, but the show also had many breaks from that plot. Here, it's just kinda dumb -- the Lupin want it, the police don't, so...what's the problem? Our "bad" Sentai is not only actually good, but their goal in no way hinders the police. They could easily work this shit out -- "Hey, cops! Don't destroy the treasure." "OK, 'thieves.' We don't want it, anyway, and it will be so much easier to deal with this monster that it's our job to deal with if you're not interfering and tryin' to get to the item we have no interest in." It's just not a good premise, and not done well.

I like the Lupinranger cast. Touma/Blue is my favorite, because I like the no-nonsense characters, and I think his backstory and motivation was given more detail and treated more seriously. I like Kairi, which is surprising since his actor is so damn young (and he often just looks disgusted in scenes, a big fan of nostril acting); they reallllly needed to film more with him and his brother, though. It could have been a really strong story, but they mostly only show that one damn clip of his brother chasing him down an alley with Kairi being a dick. I really liked the idea of Kairi being so torn up that he was so cruel to his brother, especially in his last moments, and they really needed to be unafraid to go into that some more, and get more specific about what his problem was. (It's obvious they were too afraid of making him too unlikable.) They make Umika a little too ditzy, but she's comedic relief, she's likable. The actress looks like she's having fun and is enthusiastic, and she's a Sentai fan, who had long wanted to be in a Sentai show, so that's cool. They never do a whole hell of a lot with her, though.

It's sad that...toku shows are kinda like procedurals, so a cop toku show should work out very well, but there's yet to be a perfect cop Sentai, IMO. (No, it wasn't Dekaranger, which was too doofy. It's like the Police Academy of toku cops. And the Uchuu Keiji don't scratch the itch, either, because they're cops in name only. Closest is probably Kuuga, and that's because it IS just a regular cop show!) And it's certainly not the Pat side of this show, since...the show doesn't really care about them, so they're treated mostly as useless, as nincompoops. The uncool obstacles for our, like, so totally much cooler stars, Jurer Sentai Lupinranger!

Keiichiro is just...bad. I dislike him, A LOT. I really don't understand why people name this character or actor as a favorite. He's so unconvincing. He's meant to be dedicated to his job, passionate, caring. He's a guy who can't live without the rule book. But the actor just goes TOO far, WAY overboard, seeming like he has severe mental disorders. He never seems caring; whenever he gives a supposedly impassioned speech about protecting the citizens or upholding justice, it's very forced and very insincere. The way actor Kousei Yuuki tries to convey being serious about his job is to just plaster on this bogus slack-jawed "serious" face and yell everything. I think he DOES show signs that he has it in him to do a better job,'s just a bad performance. And I can't tell if his instincts are wrong, whether he doesn't give a shit, or if he's getting some bad direction. One thing that doesn't help is that, when the show was starting, I think far too much was made of him looking like that overacting doofus from Drive to where it affected the way he played Keiichiro, and the way Keiichiro was depicted. And so the show DOES try to start writing that Keiichiro's awkward and goes overboard, but it still doesn't work, because the show tries to have it both ways -- they want him to be an over-the-top cartoon, but they want him to be serious and believable as a stand-up cop and hero and neither works -- neither in the writing nor acting. He just sucks.

Keiichiro's practically the second Akaza Banban. Banban, who was meant to be the nutty loose cannon who wiped his ass with the rule book. Banban, though, is kind of an idiot, and since Ryuji Sainei can't pull the character off, he ends up making Banban a psychopath. Keiichiro is the exact opposite of Banban -- he follows the rules, he respects law and order. He's passionate and is supposed to be an intuitive, intelligent police officer. And yet the actor goes too far and makes Keiichiro seem like a psychopath. Two completely different characters when, filtered through weak performances, meet the same result. *shrugs*

Episode 30 showed what a cool character Keiichiro could have been. I don't know why, but he's really restrained in that episode. Undercover, in another city, making a trade with some shady assholes who have a VS Vehicle. Kairi's on his ass to spy on him, and while he's focused on getting the job done, he takes a side trip to help a lost girl.

When he gets her to a police box, she's still upset -- she only got separated from her parents because she was trying to find her lost barrette. Keiichiro takes extra time to go all over the city looking for the girl's barrette. (Kairi takes the easy way and just goes and buys another one, before Keiichiro returns with the girl's actual missing one.) And it's like...Keiichiro just comes across as a nice guy in this episode, just really wanting to do the right thing and make people happy. He even tries to console Kairi when he's beating himself up for how he treated his brother.

Later when he's making the trade and is betrayed by the criminals he's dealing with, he just calmly kicks all of their asses, because he knew it would happen! If Keiichiro could have always just been restrained and coolheaded like this, I'd probably like him. He'd probably be one of the better Reds of recent years. But, for as unusual as this episode was in showing a calm, yet still fiery Keiichiro, they go and undo it by having him revert to the screaming jackass once Thief!Kairi shows up. And he's good in his moment with Kairi in episode 49, so...I don't know what the hell they were trying to accomplish with this character. But it just didn't work, and so he ended up as one of my least favorite Reds.

Sakuya is useless, and a fucking dolt, and the actor acts like he was just some schmoe they yanked off the street the day of filming because the actor they DID cast just bailed at the last minute...and the first fourteen runner-ups also turned them down. He's so one-note and cringe-inducing, always just yelling everything and making that same pained face, with one eye bugging out while the other squints. He not only yells everything, but he yells it in a monotone -- whether he's happy, sad, pissed, it's all the same.

I think you're meant to feel bad for how much the character gets mistreated, and the way everyone thinks he's a clumsy idiot, but I don't, 'cuz he sucks, and he IS an idiot. He's supposed to be the heart of the team, the one who's led by his heart whereas Keiichiro's led by the rule book and Tsukasa by logic, but Sakuya's always depicted too stupidly and he hardly even matters in the show. There's that episode where a monster supposedly causes Sakuya to keep making mistakes, but it's practically forgotten about, because that's just always how Sakuya is. He also always reacts to situations by whining and seeming cowardly. He's never good at the job, how'd he get hired? I guess his daddy must be the police commissioner. And what's the deal with the #2 suit's shade of green, the Mylanta color?

I really like Tsukasa, though -- she's the only character I like on the Pat side of things, and my favorite character of the show, and probably my favorite heroine since Matsuri/Go Pink. She's the serious one, the only one with smarts, the only one who seems competent and kick ass. And Okuyama's the only one of the three who even tries to act. Why in the fuck is she #3? She should be Red! And I kind of wonder if she was meant to be -- I can picture Komura and Utsunomiya building the show, knowing the Lupinranger are the real stars and that the Patranger are basically supporting cast. Therefore, maybe they could finally slip in a full-time female Red? Except, no, they're shot down by higher-ups, probably Bandai, who probably whine that, even if the Patranger are the secondary team, they have to pretend like the cops are the "stars," and therefore don't want to lose sales in merchandise based on the "star" hero, the cop, the Red. Their mistake.

I once joked, and still think, that Tsukasa should have quit the force and joined the Lupinranger, with Umika quitting the Lupinranger and joining the cops -- then it'd all match up. I think it's a big, big mistake to make the cop side look so bad, to make them the goofballs. If their intention was to make them seem more like underdogs, they failed big time. Other than Tsukasa, they just seem so stupid and incompetent.

Tsukasa's a one-woman Sentai. I love that episode where Keiichiro and Sakuya are off on their own to defuse a bomb and Tsukasa just explodes into a fight with the Gangler AND the Lupinranger on her own. And she kicks so much ass in that episode where she and Touma are in the Gangler dimension. If I were in charge of things, I would have kept Okuyama around and spun off Tsukasa into her own show -- she joins the universal police and becomes the new Space Sheriff. (I should also mention that I really took notice of Patran #3 suit-actress Ryoko Gomi -- she showed a swift fierceness in this role that she hasn't in any other, and really kicked ass.)

Noel's so nonsensical he should be in a Heisei Kamen Rider show. OK, that's an exaggeration. He makes more sense than that Diend turd. But the whole idea of Patren/Lupin X is a wasted opportunity. Instead of trying to write a character who's doing some subterfuge or obfuscation, a character who could add conflict to both sides, who's really steps ahead and doing a balancing act, let's just be lazy and have the character admit up front that he's working for both sides and they just accept that. And I don't care how mean it sounds, but I hate this guy's voice. He sounds like a Muppet. (Noel's basically just a human version of Good Striker. Bounces back and forth between the teams, has an annoying voice. Speaking of Good Striker -- what the hell's the point of that talking carrot, man? Why's it take half the series to even try to address who he is, where he came from? He never fit in the show, either. It's too ToQ.) While I ended up actually liking Noel -- and didn't predict his backstory -- I didn't think his motivation was that great. The way the show depicted Arsene Lupin was just too goofy to try to make him a big part of the dramatic background and motivation for one of our main heroes. Really, the way they make Lupin look is exactly like one of Masao's goofy disguises in Battle Fever.

The mecha...I won't say much about, since I'm not a mecha fan, but they are ffffffffffUGLY! The show dwells on the mecha far too much, the scenes just cluttered and practically unwatchable. (And unlistenable. Just loud and busy these scenes are.) The mecha designs remind me of Boukenger's, just big, ugly, indecipherable messes of metallic junk, you can't really tell what part's being swapped for what because it's all an eyesore and the eye sees these designs and scenes overstuffed with crap CGI and just decides to give your brain the finger. And that just pisses the brain off, because they're already in a fight with your ears, which are just like "Shut this show up! Why's it so loud!? Jesus, God, why do the Japanese have to make their superhero shows so loud?! This isn't a way for anyone to start a Sunday morning."

The villains are just uninteresting, and often feel like a part of another show. Terrible designs (seriously, why do they keep getting Masato Hisa to design these ugly, overly colored blobs), the same personality Toei's been giving bad guys for about a decade now (bored boss, gruff guy who speaks in monotone, sexy voiced monster-enlarging woman) and they lack motivation. (The head bad guy's reason for killing Lupin and taking the treasure pieces? Because he could, so why not? Ugh.) Take the unimpressiveness of the Zangyaku and the boringness of the Deathgaliens, and slap them in the ugliness of the Jark Matter and you have these goons. Zamigo could have been cool -- awful Mr. Freeze-like pun not intended -- but he instead is like one of the lesser koooooooky and quirrrrrrky Grongi, with the acting chops to match. And it doesn't help that the writers choose to use him by consulting a magic eight-ball. The monsters of the week are all interchangeable goofballs. The designs for all of these guys are bad enough, but the huge safes on them are just a...bad, bad look. What are the designers thinking?

So, it's like...the show's main story, as they choose to tell it in this series, isn't enough to cover 50+ episodes, so the show's just kind of stuck in stasis -- everybody's back where they started by the episode's end, it goes around in circles, and that gets kinda old. And when the show goes for an all -out comedy episode, it's unbearably bad -- usually the show at its worst -- so you can't even count on those to break up the tediousness. And even though it's not trying to shove a new toy down your throat every episode, it still has the dreaded format of all modern tokus where it's focused on characters just collecting shit. Yawn. So they might as well just pack the thing with toys, with its focus going so much into the boring-ass Lupin Collection. (Ooh, I'm supposed to get all tingly with emotion just because each treasure is a quickly made 3D-printed homage to a past Sentai prop? I'm flipping you the bird right now, Toei. They can't even put in the effort to have the prop cutesily match up with whatever power it's supposed to give the Gangler.) Fine, some pieces are supposed to be more important, because they're a new mecha or weapon upgrade, but even if I was a mecha fan, I doubt I'd like the mecha in this show, because they're an eyesore.

It's still as set on cruise-control effort-wise, tedious and full of wasted potential as most every post-Gokai Sentai has been, but not QUITE as annoying as shows like Kyuranger or Kyoryuger. Sometimes I wouldn't mind the show, sometimes I would be bored outta my gourd because all of the same notes it would hit. It's safe. It's boring. (They could have broken up the tedium by every once in a while throwing in a case for the cops that had nothing to do with a Gangler -- give them other villains to contend with. And give the Lupinranger someone else to fight over the Lupin Collection with since the cops didn't give a shit! Not that hard, guys.) Sometimes I wouldn't mind the show, sometimes I would be bored outta my mind. Still, though, since I like a few of the characters, I thought it had potential, and it was nice after something like Kyuranger to have characters who seemed like people, it has more of an advantage over a couple of other shows. As it is, I'd probably rank it between Hurricaneger and Goseiger on my ranking list, putting it at number 37.

The show needed to either just be 25 episodes long or plan itself better. It was a little too afraid to take itself as seriously as it obviously wanted to, and too afraid to break away from the norm. I think it was a mistake to have the cops enter the thieves' domain so soon into the series -- practically being buds with the Jurer staff by episode two led to a lot of the stalling and tail-chasing. I think the show should have started out by having the Lupinranger and Patranger in their own stories, and never intersecting. After the first cours, have the Lupinranger put themselves on the cops' radar. And then they're fighting for a while. By the early 20s, THEN have the cops becomes regulars -- maybe even friends -- with them as patrons of Jurer. Milking the tension of "Ooh, are the cops ever going to find out" for just 15 or so episodes towards the end of the series would be so much more believable and less frustrating as a viewer.

I think the show could have still twiddled its thumbs with the Lupinranger's loved ones and Zamigo as it did if they had done something like I'd just described. But the show pretty much lays out all of its ideas by episode two, and so it's just stalling for the rest of the series on every one of their ongoing stories. It just gets old after a while, and strains believability. It makes everyone seem stupid. (Stupider, in Sakuya's case.) It could have been a better show! That's basically my reaction to so many Sentai of the past several years. There's ingredients for there to be a better show, but Toei's just content with doing the bare minimum and switching to auto-pilot. A shame.

I think this one's going to end up like Go-busters. Like, it's a flat and boring show, but shows are going to get so bad, the fandom will look back like "Yeah, Lupinranger VS Patranger looks pretty amazing now."