Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sollosi's Super Sentai Scrutiny

I love alliteration.  When I was a kid, I loved watching the first few seasons of Power Rangers.  The past month, I watched some Japanese Super Sentai shows and really enjoyed them.  Now I'm combining all three of those things into a single blog post! 

I have an addictive personality.  When I discover something new and start enjoying it, I dive in HARD.  This is true of new video games, book series, TV shows, media franchises, and what have you.  And I've been bitten by a Super Sentai bug.  In this post I'll go into some detail as to what Super Sentai is, and also introduce a new sub-series of review posts for this blog.

Most Americans born in the 80s or 90s probably have heard of Power Rangers.  A group of teenagers transform into a team of superheroes to fight against monsters, armed with multicolored super suits, flashy weapons, and giant robots that combine into a single, bigger robot.  The first Power Rangers show, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, debuted in 1993 and the series became a 1990s pop culture staple for children growing up in that decade.  I was definitely among those children, being seven years old when it premiered.  I remember enthusiastically following Power Rangers for a few years, dropping out of the fandom in the third or fourth season.  I remember when the show became Power Rangers Zeo, but barely remember anything from that season and nothing beyond.

Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger

I don't think I had any Power Rangers toys as a kid, as I was more into Batman and Ninja Turtles.  Later I was made aware that Power Rangers was based on a Japanese show, and used footage directly from the Japanese show for its fight scenes and giant robot scenes, but back then I never would have guessed.  Whatever.  I definitely enjoyed Power Rangers for awhile and never held disdain for the show, but also never thought about checking out the Japanese versions. So, fast forward to three or four years ago and one of my pop culture-enabler friends, Paul, tells me that he watched and loved Gokaiger.  Gokaiger is part of the Super Sentai series, the long-running franchise that was the basis for Power Rangers; Gokaiger's about a team of superhero pirates righting wrongs and searching for treasure, not unlike One Piece.  I never watched Gokaiger, but some curious Googling told me that Super Sentai had been around since 1975 (!) and that the original Power Rangers was an adaptation of Zyuranger, the 16th Super Sentai series (!!!).  SIXTEENTH.

Again, I knew that Power Rangers was originally Japanese, but I didn't know that it went that far back.  Let's get into some history.  Super Sentai is a tokusatsu show ("tokusatsu" meaning "special effects") akin to other special-effects-and-rubber-suits shows like Ultraman and Kamen Rider and films like Godzilla and Gamera.  Super Sentai and Kamen Rider are both owned by Toei and air back to back in the same TV block on Sundays.  "Sentai" means "task force" or "squadron" in Japanese, and the Super Sentai series always features a team of color-coded superheroes working in tandem.  The "team of superheroes in themed outfits" gimmick was heavily inspired by the popular 1972 Tatsunoko anime series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which I should've realized earlier.  I remember catching occasional episodes of Gatchaman (very) late at night on Cartoon Network 20+ years ago.  I figured it was a Voltron rip-off, but Gatchaman predates Voltron by over a decade.  Whoops.  Basically, my Super Sentai Googling in the early 2010s told me that Super Sentai had been a thing for almost 30 years, but that didn't get me curious enough.  At least not yet...

Kyouryuu Sentai Zyuranger

Fast forward another few years to December 2015, when Paul is visiting to attend a Washington Wizards game with me at Verizon Center.  The afternoon before the game, we watch some DVDs he brought over, including a few episodes of Zyuranger, the dinosaur-themed season of Super Sentai that eventually became the first season of Power Rangers.  I found it fascinating.  Sure, the visuals were dated and the storytelling was... iffy to say the least, but the differences from the American show I knew were mind-blowing to behold.  Instead of modern teenagers, the Zyurangers are ancient humans from 170 million years ago that lived alongside dinosaurs.  Yellow Ranger is a man and not a woman!  The Zyurangers revived to stop Bandora ("Rita Repulsa" in Power Rangers), an evil witch from their time who resurfaced to conquer Earth.  Bandora's over-the-top evil antics and love of child endangerment were HILARIOUS.  I was really into it, and decided that I needed to watch some of this on my own.

So last month my Super Sentai research began anew.  I read articles about all 39 seasons of Super Sentai in greater detail than before and was flabbergasted at the super-franchise they composed.  The 40th Super Sentai begins airing next month.  Each series is almost entirely unrelated to its predecessors, with new heroes, new costumes, new villains, new powers, and new motifs for each series.  Super Sentai runs year-round, with each annual series getting 48 to 51 episodes, at least two movies, multiple stage shows (which seem similar to pro wrestling events to me), and hundreds of items of merch each year.  A Super Sentai fan could easily spend a thousand dollars each year buying toy robots, weapons, gadgets, and trinkets of the current series.  Many do.  I'm not about to buy merch, but I definitely wanted to see a season of the show.  So my research continued....

Samurai Sentai Shinkenger

After reading a ton of Wikipedia articles, several blog posts, and a handful of top ten lists, I decided to start with Shinkenger.  Shinkenger aired in 2009, and stars a team of super-powered samurai defending the world from Gedoushuu (demons inspired by Japanese folklore and resembling crustaceans), in which all five rangers are 18th-generation descendants of demon-hunting samurai clans.  The action is heavily inspired by samurai films and fiction and Shinkenger was consistently rated by fans as one of the best of its decade.  I love samurai shit, and the reviews were positive.  Sounds good to me!  I started watching Shinkenger a few days before Christmas.

...and I was hooked almost instantly.  The weird conventions of Power Rangers were there (combat on foot, mecha combat, transformation scenes, energetic music) but the story was better and more cohesive than the Power Rangers I remember, and there was SO MUCH cool samurai shit.  Intense staredowns and swordplay, ridiculous plot points justified by bushido code, you name it.  I finished it in less than three weeks.  You can expect a review of Shinkenger on this blog later in the month.

Gosei Sentai Dairanger

After Shinkenger I was interested in both trying more modern Sentai and exploring the Sentai from around the same era as the Power Rangers of my youth.  When I was partway through Shinkenger, I used some Christmas money to buy the licensed American DVDs of Dairanger, the 1994 Super Sentai series using Chinese myths and martial arts as its main themes.  Power Rangers used Dairanger footage of monsters, mechs (the "Thunder Zords") and the white Dairanger in combat, but never used the suits of the five main rangers or other aspects of the show, instead splicing in a bunch of old Zyuranger footage.  Dairanger is also highly rated by Super Sentai fans, so I was happy to spend $30 for fifty episodes.  Right now I'm around the halfway point of Dairanger and I like it quite a bit. 

For my second modern Sentai I decided to try Gekiranger, which I started watching when I was about half-done with Shinkenger.  Using animal-themed martial arts as its major motif, Gekiranger has a reputation for great fight scenes, both on foot and in mech.  Each character and villain has a specific martial arts style, and many of its heroes, allies, and villains are inspired by specific kung fu movies and actors.  I dug those references quite a bit.  I finished Gekiranger a few days ago, making it the second Super Sentai series I completed.  I'll be reviewing it some time after I write a Shinkenger review. 

Juken Sentai Gekiranger

So, before I close, I'm going to go over some very, very basic Super Sentai concepts.  Most of these concepts are endemic to the shows, but I get into a few fan-created examinations.  Hopefully I don't go on for too long here.

Heroes & Colors - each Super Sentai show stars a team of costumed heroes, each with a specific name and color.  Most of the time there are five heroes, sometimes with new teammates added later, but it's not an absolute.  Of the five series pictured above, Gekiranger starts out as a team of three that ends up as a team of five, but the other four start out as teams of five and end up as teams of six.

Every Super Sentai show has a Red and a Blue, and Red is almost always the team leader (true for 38 or 39 out of 40 series).  The third-most common color is Yellow; 36 out of 40 seasons of Super Sentai have a Yellow.  In teams of five, the fourth color is usually Green or Black and the fifth color is usually Pink or White, but there are exceptions.  Just look at Gekiranger above.  If there's a "sixth ranger" that joins the team late, it's usually Gold or Silver.  Again, these are general color trends, not color absolutes. 

And let's talk about sex(es).  There was one three-man team in the 80s, but every other Super Sentai team has at least one woman (so, 39 out of 40).  In teams of five, it's always either four men and one woman or three men and two women.  Every Red in the history of Super Sentai is a man, with one exception that's a spoiler.  Pink is always a woman.  Green and Black are always men.  Blue is usually a man, but there have been five Blue heroines over 40 series.  Yellow and White over the years are both roughly half-men and half-women.  Late-joining rangers are way more often men than women.  Sadly, Super Sentai is male-dominated because it's a shounen show aimed at boys.  I'd prefer more equal representation, but that's just the way it is.  Bummer. 

Allies - each team of heroes is backed up by one or more "mentor" characters that helps the steam stay focused and organized by providing surveillance, support, training, research, and new technology for the team.  Zordon and Alpha were famously the mentor characters for the first several seasons of Power Rangers (they're both Power Rangers-exclusive and not part of Super Sentai).  Each season naturally has a few recurring characters that assist the main team of heroes as well, but only the "mentor" is a series archetype.

Arsenal - the rangers (or sentai, or heroes, or whatever you want to call them) have powers and equipment common to each teammate, but each one has a unique weapon, a unique mech, and at least one unique special attack.  Super Sentai teams are always strongest when they work together, so naturally there are a lot of team attacks in addition to the mechs linking up to form a super-mech.  Over the course of a show the team gets new gear and new powers.  That RPG-esque growth is part of the fun. 

Mechs - each hero has a signature giant mech (which fits the theme of that particular season) and the whole team can combine mechs to form a super-giant mech.  Most Super Sentai episodes start out fighting monsters on foot, but end up with the monster growing to giant size, forcing the team to summon their mechs and engage in a battle of giants.  A good mech fight is a fun cap-off to the episode's action.  Typically, throughout each Super Sentai season more mechs will be added to the roster, sometimes paired with the arrival of a new teammate. 

Villains & Monsters - most of the time, the central conflict in a Super Sentai show revolves around an evil organization bent on world domination or world destruction.  These evil groups send monsters to wreck havoc each episode, only to be foiled by the Sentai team.  Monsters sometimes last more than one episode, but most of the time it's a monster of the week that dies in a grand explosion within 20 minutes post-introduction.  These monsters are the "rubber-suit-actors" rampant in Super Sentai, and the costumes are often quite imaginative and elaborate.

There are also recurring villains that last through a whole series (or at least many episodes), and receive almost as much screen time as the heroes themselves - these are the masterminds and lieutenants of these evil organizations.  Lastly, there are "foot soldier" monsters that show up quite frequently in large numbers.  Typically, over the course of an episode a team will fight a bunch of foot soldiers, then a monster-of-the-week on foot, then that same monster in giant form. 

Merch - it's worth noting Super Sentai is aimed at children (mostly boys) and that almost everything on the show can be purchased as a toy.  Thus, there is usually an overabundance of costume changes, new mechs, new weapons, and even some form of collectible (cards, discs, etc.) prominently featured in each show.  It's crazy.  By the end of Shinkenger there were twenty-plus special discs used by each character (plastic collectibles the size of a CD) and at least a dozen mechs.  Sometimes the new stuff is cool, but I usually wish there was a little less of it.  I'm not a toys / merch guy.

Henshin & Roll Call - henshin ("transform") is how the heroes activate their powers and put on their super suits.  It always involves activating a gadget, calling out a catchphrase, having the suit applied to their bodies via special effects, and then shouting a "roll call" where each ranger present announces their name and/or title with a dramatic pose.  A Henshin / Roll Call happens at least once each episode (there are probably exceptions, but I can't think of any) and is as traditional as a Shakespeare comedy ending with a wedding or John Cena doing the five-knuckle shuffle. 

GoGo Sentai Boukenger

That's... probably more than enough.  Anyhow, I've watched two full Super Sentai shows now and I plan to continue.  I strongly doubt I'll watch anything made prior to 1990, as by then everything will be extra-dated visually and extra-weird in terms of stories and gimmicks.  That still gives me 25+ years of shows to move through.  Right now I'm halfway through Dairanger (mentioned several paragraphs ago) and very early on in Boukenger (image above, about a team of Indiana Jones-style adventurers).  My enthusiasm hasn't waned yet. 


So I'm behind on basically everything, but I'm going to try and make it all harder on myself by watching and reviewing Super Sentai shows in addition to playing and writing about video games.  It's not going to be an easy task.  I might not be up for it.  But I'm going to try anyway.  Expect reviews for Samurai Sentai Shinkenger and Juken Sentai Gekiranger in the near future.  Maybe some video game stuff, too, who knows? 

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