Anime Vice News

Peering Through the TokyoScope: A Night With Japanese Superheroes

Authors Patrick Macias and August Ragone tell the tale of live-action Japanese superheroes from cotton-crotched Super Giant to Power Rangers and beyond.

As many of you know, the word otaku isn't only a reference to anime and manga nuts on either side of the Pacific and, in fact, there are a whole galaxy of otaku types. From military vehicles to trains, medical procedures to hot springs, otaku fill every cultural niche in Japan. Among American fanciers of Japanese pop culture, however, few varieties are rarer than the tokusatsu otaku: the purveyors of all that is men and women in rubber or spandex suits beating the living snot out of each other on film. This is the realm of the Japanese superhero, and it's a lot more involved than just Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers
 
Keeping track of it all for American audiences are two experts in the field, Patrick Macias, editor of Otaku USA magazine, and August Ragone, author of Eiji Tsubaraya: Master of Monsters. This past Friday, July 9, the super-knowledgable duo presented a brief history of Japanese superheros in the modern age at the state-of-the-art VIZ Theater in San Francisco Japantown's New People Building, which I was fortunate enough to swing a last-minute attendance. 
 
 Patrick Macias, editor of Otaku USA and shameless lover of all things chopsocky
 Patrick Macias, editor of Otaku USA and shameless lover of all things chopsocky
Shocking as it may sound, if one judges simply by the abundance of media, the Japanese may be more into superheroes than Americans can ever hope to match. Since the mid-1950s that small island nation has pumped out thousands of individual television series, movies, comics and, yes, even live-action stage performances on the subject of superpowered do-gooders. 
 
Macias and Ragone's talk focused mainly on live-action television and film depictions of Japanese superheroes. The tale really begins in the mid-1950s, when Japanese studio heads witnessed the sensational reaction the public had to both Eiji Tsubaraya's original Godzilla film and George Reeves' TV serial The Adventures of Superman. Combining the two, studio Shintōhō created the hero Super Giant, a literal man of steel (and a crotch stuffed with cotton) who fought evil at what would later become the traditional stomping grounds for Japanese superhero shows, the nondescript urban or suburban industrial site. Followed a year later by Moonlight Mask, a vigilante who fought crimes wrapped in linen sheets clutching twin .38 Special revolvers, the two shows set off a wave of tokusatsu ("special effects") TV programs and movies that hasn't abated to this day even a little bit.

There are four basic eras/categories of Japanese superhero media: masked heroes, riders, henshin metal hero and super sentai. Most drawing influence from American comics were the masked heroes, such as the above two examples that took cues from Superman and Batman, respectively, but also including the venerable Ultraman, whose franchise is seen as the pinnacle of that sub-genre. Prominent shows from the riders category include Kamen Rider and Kikaider, the latter of which enjoyed huge popularity in Hawaii (youth of the '70s in that state are referred to as "Generation Kikaider"). Perhaps least known in the West among these categories is the henshin ("transforming") metal hero era of the '80s that includes Space Sherrif Gavan and Juuko B-Fighter (a.k.a. Big Bad Beetleborgs). Last, but certainly not least, was the surge in the '90s of super sentai ("military unit") team shows. One needn't look any further than Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers for a fine example of this group.
 
Tokusatsu shows continue to this day, but the high water mark for viewership came in the '70s when studios were raking in cash hand over fist. Even Marvel wanted to get into this market and ended up licensing a tokusatsu production of Spider-Man to studio giant Toei that premiered in 1978 and ran for forty-one episodes. This show had pretty much nothing to do with the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko character and saw motorcycle racer-cum-Spider-Man Takuya Yamashiro battling minions of Professor Monster's Iron Cross Army in a giant robot called the Leopardon. Regardless of how faithful it was to its source material, the show popularized the Spider-Man character in Japan and paved the way for human-piloted giant robots in future super sentai shows. 
 
Interestingly enough, many of the most successful shows in the early years whose legacies are still being felt to this day can be traced to just one man: Shotaro Ishinomori. As the protege of manga great Osamu Tezuka, Ishinomori latched onto the humanoid cyborg theme put forth in Astroboy and created the grittier Cyborg 009 manga in 1963. After the success of this and the 8 Man TV series Ishinomori later went on to create Kamen Rider, InazumanGoranger and more, almost single-handedly launching the super sentai and henshin sub-genres.

As the talk proceeded I couldn't help but feel a little sad for the progression of the tokusatsu genre as a whole. Whereas the fan demographic for American superheroes has gradually trended upwards over the past several decades, their Japanese counterparts have slid from all-ages viewerships in the '60s and '70s to mainly lowest common denominator childrens fare in recent times. The emphasis, of course, is to push as much tie-in merchandising as possible and if the story buckles under the weight of bi-weekly new characters and powers then so be it--there's always a new show just around the corner. 
 
This dispensable quality of Japanese superheroes is perhaps one of the biggest differences between their larger-than-life defenders of justice and ours and a major part of the story in each of their respective universes. This is their take on the notion that no amount of evil can ever triumph because for every hero knocked down another, probably stronger one, will just rise up in their place--and that's a concept that translates well no matter which language it's expressed in. 
 
Macias' TokyoScope talks are a monthly event at New People in San Francisco, so if you're a local or plan to be in town next time one takes place I highly encourage you to check it out.
Kelleth moderator on July 13, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.
Around here i'm pretty much the biggest fan of Japanese Super Heroes. Toku, Anime you name it and i can't get enough of it XD I even tried making a nice list but i'm quite lazy so i'm stuck in the 70's where ALLOT of super heroes introduced :). I also added allot of Super Hero wiki pages because of the list XD
 
To bad i'm European so i can't go to the convention as with any other convention highlighted here.
GodLen staff on July 14, 2010 at 1:21 a.m.
Great read, I really love toku myself and really wish i had more time to watch more of it. Toku needs a revival though, and I hope that someday it will come.
JackSukeruon July 14, 2010 at 10:16 a.m.
I've been watching Kamen Rider since 2006 and pretty much have been limiting myself to that. This years show started pretty good but now it's just sort of "eh", so I'm not super into it at the moment. 
 
I haven't watched a lot of the older stuff but I do love the cheesy poses and speeches, I think there was a video somewhere that'll be a good example, letsee... 
  
  Yup.
choujin1on July 14, 2010 at 10:21 a.m.
Where can non-locals learn more about the subject?
Kelleth moderator on July 14, 2010 at 12:04 p.m.
@choujin1:  http://www.henshinjustice.com + forums,  SuperSentai.com + all spin- off sites Wikipedia, Rangerboard,  Linkara  And here (working on it, slowly!!)

@RockmanBionics:

Hmmm it only work against the Rider if the person isn't watching it in subs, But Black RX is a big epic piece of walking GAR, he even owns the new riders in their own series XD
     
There are only a few Showa series i'm trying to watch, that is Kamen Rider Amazon for the Wiki page and Kamen Rider Black RX and Liveman  Who are being subbed by the same group. AndShaider & Ultraseven who also are being subbed by the same group :)

JackSukeruon July 14, 2010 at 2:29 p.m.
@Kelleth: I've watched like 7 episodes of Black but am sitting on 30 or so more, watched 2 or 3 Amazon episodes which were pretty neat. It's been a while since I watched them though, just haven't been in the mood I guess.
Kelleth moderator on July 14, 2010 at 2:39 p.m.
@RockmanBionics:  O yeah Black i purposely forgot about them because i promised myself to wait till Pal is finished with subbing it XD
 
Showa series and movies are where the classics are, it was when in most shows toys revolved around the story rather then what we have now, where in most series the story seems to exist just to promote the newest toy for kids to buy. case and point. Kamen Rider Kamer Rider X and Ultraman
JackSukeruon July 14, 2010 at 7:42 p.m.
@Kelleth: I'd be interested in watching X and V3 sometime as well as finishing Amazon, Black and Black RX, these are long term aspirations though since, like I mentioned, I'm not really that into it now. 
 
I think there's definetly some gold in the newer stuff too though. For example I really liked Kiva by the end of it, I started out kinda hating it but Otoya brought me over and kept me watching through the middle and by the end of it it had some good drama going on. Agito was consistenly interesting and well told, but I don't think it kept it up all the way too the end sadly. Blade I felt had the easiest story to follow with new bad guys coming in every so often yet the final boss actually feeling like something that could have been behind it all from the beginning, pretty satisfying if somewhat out-of-the-blue ending also. Garren and Leangle were jerks to their women though, that was kind of annoying.
 
Lastly, Hibiki was just great. The first few episodes made it kinda hard to get into but after that it was just fun, watching this world in which being a demon fighter was just a day job was really something...until about halfway through when that Kiriya kid shows up. I refuse to accept anything beyond that point as canon so I'm just not gonna talk about it :/

Dig Deeper into Kikaider

Another masterpiece Franchise by Shotaro Ishinomori which first started with a Tokusatsu series

Edit/View the Wiki
Hit the Forums
Add/View Images (25 Images)
Watch Some Videos
Pokemon Black and White Looks Delicious in Motion

First video of a Pokemon battle in Black and White.

Comment & Win: One Piece Vol. 52, 53

Time for a giveaway folks! Now, act civil, we don't want anyone to get hurt in the mad rush to win.

Beginner's Guide to FLCL

Gainax's madcap, surrealist anime, broken down for new viewers.

Ballz Deep

Steve gets intimately close to Dragon Ball Z, for science!

Top 3 Awful Anime Dubs

Grit your teeth and get your ear plugs ready cause this week we're taking on the three most amazingly bad dubs of all time!

NARUTO Ch. 685 Review

In some ways, NARUTO is becoming the TWILIGHT of manga.

TOKYO GHOUL #1&2 -- Special Review

Fancy a bit of the ol' ultraviolence, my droogies?

When JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE Gets Really Gross...

STARDUST CRUSADERS #15 -- Watch & Learn. Squatters, am I right?

DRAGON BALL's Embarrassing Early Days?

#12 -- Retro Review. The monkey's even scarier!

ARGEVOLLEN #1 -- Special Review

Well, I can say the suit looks cool, at least.

Community Spotlight 7/27/2014

July is nearly behind us, and these super users are looking ahead to the Summer releases.

DRAMAtical mURDER #1 -- Special Review

Must all nerds be bullied?

NARUTO Ch. 686 Review

Things start to get heavy, but they just wind up falling flat.

DRAMAtical mURDER #1 -- Special Review

Must all nerds be bullied?

TOKYO GHOUL #1&2 -- Special Review

Fancy a bit of the ol' ultraviolence, my droogies?

When JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE Gets Really Gross...

STARDUST CRUSADERS #15 -- Watch & Learn. Squatters, am I right?

NARUTO Ch. 685 Review

In some ways, NARUTO is becoming the TWILIGHT of manga.

ARGEVOLLEN #1 -- Special Review

Well, I can say the suit looks cool, at least.

NARUTO Ch. 686 Review

Things start to get heavy, but they just wind up falling flat.

TERROR IN RESONANCE #1 -- Special Review

It's slow, yet it feels... rushed?

Community Spotlight 7/27/2014

July is nearly behind us, and these super users are looking ahead to the Summer releases.

Mandatory Network

Submissions can take several hours to be approved.

Save ChangesCancel