WARNING! This week my column is not about animation! However, all the super sentai (aka super-team) programs I discuss here have a “cartoony” aura about them.
When the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization began in May 1977, we did not watch only Japanese TV anime. We also sampled the Japanese TV live-action superhero programs. We found that these were hilariously campy, yet we quickly tired of them. After about a year, the C/FO was exclusively watching anime. What was exciting in anime was just silly in live-action; also, all of the live-action superhero programs were deliberately campy.
There was a predecessor of the live-action superhero TV series – what we learned were called in Japan the super sentai shows; a mixture of the English “super” and the Japanese “sentai” meaning a team or squad – that had been shown on American TV: Ultraman. Most anime fans had seen at least an episode or two of Ultraman, and those who’d liked it had watched it regularly.
Ultraman, 39 episodes, had originally appeared on Japanese TV from July 1966 to April 1967; it appeared on syndicated American TV dubbed by Peter Fernandez, Corinne Orr, and the Speed Racer crew, from approximately 1968 to 1972. It was produced by Tsuburaya Productions, founded in 1963 by Eiji Tsuburaya who had created Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidrah, and similar “men in rubber suit” live-action monster theatrical features for Toho Co., Ltd., the major Japanese theatrical film producer/distributor during the 1950s. Ultraman had a forerunner on Japanese TV, Ultra Q, which did not appear on American TV; so for Americans Ultraman pioneered the live-action “monster of the week who has to be stopped from stomping Tokyo” TV series.
Ultraman was so popular in Japan that as soon as it ended, it was replaced by the first of a series of sequels (in fact, if not in story), all produced by Tsuburaya Productions for the TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System): Ultra Seven, Ultraman Jack, Ultraman Ace, Ultraman Taro, and a seemingly unending flow of others. By the time we started the C/FO in 1977, Toei Co., Ltd. (Toei Doga, which produced animation, was a semi-independent subsidiary of the larger Toei Co. which produced and distributed live-action theatrical and TV films) was just starting its rival series of “super sentai” programs, designed by cartoonist Shotaro Ishi(no)mori’s Ishimori Production Co, Ltd., for the NET channel (now TV Asahi), starting with Go Ranger (The Five Rangers).
Go Ranger. Himitsu Sentai Go Ranger (Secret Task Force/Squad Five Rangers). 84 episodes, April 5, 1975-March 26, 1977, plus several movies. This was extremely popular, running on TV for 84 weeks and establishing the super sentai formula of a team of color-coded superheroes, working for a world police force, fighting an evil organization trying to take over Earth. The team always consists of three or four guys and one cute girl. In Go Ranger, it was Red Ranger, Blue Ranger, Yellow Ranger, Green Ranger, and Pink Ranger (guess which was the girl), members of EAGLE (Earth Guard League), fighting the supervillains of the Black Cross Army.
Go Ranger was among the first TV programs that the C/FO got in video-trade with fans in Japan, from Japanese TV; in other words, without subtitles. We had to guess what was going on, which was fairly easy because the acting was helpfully broad. Red Ranger was the leader, Blue Ranger was his loyal second-in-command, Green Ranger was the rash/loose cannon of the team, Yellow Ranger was the comedy relief, and Pink Ranger looked pretty. The supervillains were ridiculous. My favorite villain-of-the-week was the one that I called Choo-Choo-Head; he had an old-fashioned steam locomotive with an evil glare for a head. He literally ran about the streets of Tokyo chuffing away, and it was easy to tell that the crowds of pedestrians were real pedestrians who were instructed by the camera crew to pretend that they didn’t notice him or the costumed heroes pursuing him. Some of the crowd were better at keeping straight faces than others. (Today, SuperSentai.com on the internet tells me that this was episode #46, “Black Super Express! Locomotive Mask’s Big Rampage”, and that he was Locomotive Mask.) Yellow Ranger was the only team member to be killed in action, by the evil Can Opener Mask. Go Ranger was so popular that it was rumored, and believed, that the real reason that it ended and was immediately replaced by J.A.K.Q. was that the sponsors felt that the market for Go Ranger merchandise was saturated, and it was time to move on to a new TV superhero series with new costumes, vehicles, and weapons for toys, action figures, etc.
J.A.K.Q. J.A.K.Q. Dengekitai (J.A.K.Q. Blitzkreig). 35 episodes, April 2-December 24, 1977. One of the few super sentai shows that had only four members instead of five, but the Ishimori team was limited by a plot that had its superhero team looking like the Jack (diamond, blue), Ace (spade, red), King (clover, green), and Queen (heart, pink) of a card deck. They worked for ISSIS, the International Science Special Investigation Squad, and took orders from Commander Joker (rainbow). They fought Crime, a global criminal organization led by Iron Claw.
Battle Fever J. 52 episodes, February 3, 1979-January 26, 1980. This had five superheroes with face-concealing costumes inspired by leading nations of the day: Battle Japan (the leader, naturally), Battle France, Battle Cossack (Soviet Union), Battle Kenya, and – ta-dah! – Miss America. They were from the National Defense Ministry, and they opposed the Egos Secret Society led by Satan Egos. This was the first super sentai show to have a giant robot or giant vehicle, the Battle Fever Robo. Miss America is really FBI agent Diane Martin (a Japanese actress), whose father was killed by Egos.
By this time, the anime fans had had enough of the Japanese TV live-action superhero shows. Unlike the anime, they were all identical except for superficialities like the costumes. We stuck with anime, with only a few live-action samples from time to time to make sure that we weren’t missing anything good. When we were offered sample episodes of Japan’s other mega-popular live-action TV superhero franchise, Kamen Rider, we said no, thanks (despite the fact that one of the Little Tokyo shops had a life-sized plaster Kamen Rider statue in front, who we called Potato-Bug Man for his insect-head mask).
For the record, here is a YouTube compilation that some fan made of the first dozen super sentai opening credits chronologically: Go Ranger (1975), J.A.K.Q. (1977), Battle Fever J (1979), Denziman (1980), Sun Vulcan (1981), Goggle-V (1982), Dynaman (1983), Bioman (1984), Changeman (1985), Flashman (1986), Maskman (1987), and Liveman (1988). One live-action sample was of a superhero series that was not a sentai show:
Spider-Man; 41 episodes, May 17, 1978-March 14, 1979. Spider-Man was not made for TV Asahi, but it was a Toei production, at a time when Toei and Marvel Comics were working closely together. Toei Animation produced TV movie adaptations of Marvel’s Tomb of Dracula and The Monster of Frankenstein comic books. The live-action Spider-Man wore the Marvel character’s costume, but otherwise bore no relation to the Marvel story line. The Japanese Spidey is Takuya Yamashiro, a young motorcyclist who gets his powers from an alien with Spider Extract from the Spider Planet. He works with Interpol Secret Intelligence fighting Professor Monster’s Iron Cross Army. He has a Spider Bracelet that contains his costume when he is not wearing it; he drives a flying car called the Spider Machine GP-7; he has a giant robot, Leopardon, that is really the alien’s transforming Marveller spaceship … all of these and more were available as toys, of course. To establish that he is a Good Guy, Interpol helps create a teen hit dance, the “Spider-Man Boogie”. Among the merchandise was an imitation of the John Williams Star Wars symphonic suite LP record; a Spider-Man jazz symphonic suite arrangement of the series’ opening and closing and incidental music by Michiaki Watanabe. I had Melody Records, a little Japanese-community music store, order me the LP from Japan; it was surprisingly good, with a full orchestra. The major difference between this and the super sentai shows was that they were all played for laughs, while Spider-Man was done as dead-serious drama. Unfortunately, it just proved that a serious superhero action drama on a TV budget did not work, not to mention that the obvious toy tie-ins were embarrassing. We watched a couple of episodes, and went back to the American Marvel comic book.
Anime fans were vaguely aware that Japanese TV followed up Battle Fever J with many other super sentai shows, but we didn’t pay much attention until Saban Entertainment licensed the American rights and started bringing them to American TV in August 1993 as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. We watched a few episodes, and returned to the anime. However, thanks to their popularity and fan internet sites, we know that Toei Co., Ltd. has produced 37 of them, from Go Ranger in 1975 to Kyoryuger in 2013. Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger; The Strong Dragon Powered Beast Team. There are six heroes now on the Kyoryuger (Strong/Powerful Dragon) Team; Kyoryu Red, Kyoryu Black, Kyoryu Blue, Kyoryu Green, Kyoryu Pink, and Kyoryu Gold. The evil Deboss Army invades Earth, and Wise God Torin sends heroes into the past to fight dragons (dinosaurs) to take their power and become the Kyoryuger to fight the Deboss. The Kyoryu Team appeared in two earlier super sentai series; Zyuranger (1992) and Abaranger (2003). Etc., etc. The information is out there for those who want it, and apparently a lot of adolescent Americans do; but they are not anime fans.
I confess that there is one that I watched a few episodes of:
Tokosou Sentai DekaRanger; The DekaRanger Special Police Team; 50 episodes, February 15, 2004-February 6, 2005. “S.P.D… Special Police DekaRanger. Five detectives who fight cool with burning hearts. Their mission: To combat space criminals who invaded Earth. They will protect the peace and safety of all humanity!” Four young humans in the city of Megalopolis are appointed by the Earth branch of the galactic S.P.D., under the command of Doggie Kruger (a bright blue wolfman alien in a bad fursuit), to fight crime. They are assigned cadet Banban Azaka, an alien teenage hotshot (whose superior is seen in a hologram to be Cthulhu-headed), to join the DekaRangers as Deka Red; but his arrogance turns off Deka Blue, Deka Green, and Deka Yellow. Deka Pink spends most of her time taking bubble baths with her three beloved rubber duckies. They are the DekaRangers because their supersuits, vehicles, and weapons are made of the S.P.D.’s special Deka Metal. I was told about DekaRanger as a fan of anthropomorphized animals, because of Doggie Kruger and a very brief scene in episode #1, “Fireball Newcomer”, where Deka Red, rushing from planet Chanbeena on his way to Earth, crashes through a Christian wedding ceremony of cat people. I watched this first episode (embed above) and the next few, but there were no other animal aliens. I was mildly impressed, though, at how much Toei’s live-action TV special effects had improved since Go Ranger.