Wednesday, January 27, 2016

SUPER HERO TIME! Shinkenger!


Here's my first Super Sentai review, in which I write at length about Samurai Sentai Shinkenger. 

I went from being mostly-indifferent towards Super Sentai to a born-again fan in a matter of days, starting at the end of 2015.  You can read about my early Sentai experiences in my last blog post here:

HENSHIN!

The first Super Sentai show I knocked out was Samurai Sentai Shinkenger, and goddamn it I loved it.  I finished watching it in about two and a half weeks and since starting it I've watched one other Super Sentai in its entirety, started two others, and downloaded about ten others.  I should be set for awhile, and even then I'm considering following the upcoming new series as it airs, to be part of a current viewing experience.  Whew.  I might have a problem.  But instead of checking myself into rehab, I'm going to feed this addiction by writing a Shinkenger review.  Gonna try to keep this shorter than most of my game reviews, but no guarantees.

NOTES
- I usually refer to main characters by title or color because it's easier
- I will mention spoilers through episode 20, after the introduction of Shinken Gold

The Basics

Full Title: Samurai Sentai Shinkenger
Air Date: February 2009 to February 2010
Series Number: 33rd
Video Content: 49 episodes, 4 movies, 2 specials

Shinkenger draws from Japan's grand tradition of samurai fiction, samurai nonfiction, and Japanese folklore.  All six characters wield katanas as their primary weapon and activate their powers using kanji calligraphy.  Most of the mechs are origami animals.  Their base of operations is an ornate traditional Japanese manor house.  The team leader is an 18th-generation lord of a samurai clan, and four of his teammates are the young scions to vassal clans.  Multiple episodes are based on sushi and kabuki theatre.  This show is Japanese as FUCK.  If any of that sounds distasteful to you, then this probably won't be your favorite Super Sentai. 

The Story

For the past three hundred years, the Shiba clan of demon-hunting samurai has defended Japan (and the world at large) from the Gedoushuu, a group of demons living in the underworld's Sanzu river.  The Shiba clan has four vassal families that have traditionally served it, and over the centuries each of those five families (Shiba, Ikenami, Shiraishi, Tani, and Hanaori) has its heir serve as a Shinkenger, a samurai trained to defeat Gedoushuu using swordsmanship and mojikara (lit. "character magic," or casting spells via calligraphy).

Samurai fiction, feudal Japanese history, and Japanese folklore inform Shinkenger's story, aesthetic, and gimmicks heavily.  I mean, come on.  Samurai is right there in the title.  Nearly every monster is based on a particular yokai (a Japanese mythological monster).  Several key fights in Shinkenger are tokusatsu interpretations of samurai movie duels, with staredowns, camera movement, and dramatic sword slashes that feel like homages to Kurosawa.  One of Kurosawa's movies is DIRECTLY referenced in the final arc of Shinkenger, and it's probably the biggest surprise in the entire show (avoiding spoilers).

And speaking of arcs, Shinkenger does a mostly-okay job of raising the stakes of the plot throughout.  The first 20 episodes introduce and develop the cast adequately (Shinken Gold joins in episode 17) and incrementally add more tricks and robots to the team's arsenal.  The middle third of Shinkenger is probably its weakest point - the team keeps getting more toys to play with, but they rarely move the plot along in a meaningful way.  Sure, there are plenty of good episodes focusing on individuals in the main team, but a lot of it feels like filler and 49 episodes is a demanding runtime.  Consulting a skip list might not be a bad idea if you want to avoid filler.  The final ten episodes of Shinkenger are barn-burners, with plenty of melodrama as the show hurtles towards its conclusion.  I was invested throughout, and LOVED the last few episodes. 

The Shinkengers

The Heroes

Shinken Red: Takeru Shiba, 18th lord of the Shiba clan
Shinken Blue:Ryuunosuke Ikenami, a kabuki actor
Shinken Pink: Mako Shiraishi, a child care worker
Shinken Green: Chiaki Tani, an unemployed recent high school graduate
Shinken Yellow: Konoha Hanaori, a teenage bamboo shop worker
Shinken Gold: Genta Umemori, owner of a sushi cart

All six of the Shinkengers are in their late teens or early twenties and the main five (excepting Gold) have been trained as samurai since childhood.  The character dynamic between the Shinkengers is interesting, because all four vassals immediately report to the Shiba residence when Red sends out the call, but none of them have met before.  Red is a stoic lord who rarely shows a sense of humor.  Blue enthusiastically embraces his destiny as a samurai serving his lord (to the point where it's kinda weird), while Green resents having his carefree life interrupted to be a samurai (to the point where he's a jerk about it sometimes).  Yellow is clumsy and lacks confidence (but is still a very good fighter) while Pink checks every box in a list of tropes for an older sister figure.  All five of them are crazy-attractive; I think you need to have model-good-looks to be a Sentai actor nowadays, if you aren't a comedy character.

That brings us to Shinken Gold, who seems to exist to add levity to the group.  Gold joins at episode 17 as a Sixth Ranger (yes, I capitalized that on purpose); he is Red's childhood friend, who wanted to be a samurai when he grew up and promised to help Red when Red became a full-fledged lord.  Gold isn't an official vassal of the Shiba clan, so he doesn't live in the house or train with the other Shinkengers, but is eventually accepted by the rest of the team.  Gold is also a goofball, which is welcome, but he also has too many goddamn robots and gadgets (more on this later). 

Most of the major story moments focus on Red's relationships with the other major characters: the five other Shinkengers, his house steward / father figure Kusakabe, and a few key villains.  Almost every major plot-intensive episode addresses Red's role as lord, and the show maybe could have used less of it.  When other characters get opportunities to star it's usually pretty entertaining, but never key to the main story.  I wish the show had given more screen time to Yellow (who's adorable and likable) and Green (whose episodes usually rely on his offbeat tactics).  Still, the final story payoff is great and the actor playing Red does a good job; the cast is solid overall.  I won't hate. 

The Villains

The Gedoushuu clan is a tribe of demons living in the underworld's Sanzu River, which seems more like part of a separate dimension than something actually underground.  Gedoushuu can enter the human world through cracks (crack in a sidewalk, crack in a door, crack between two crates, basically anywhere), but can't survive for long without contact with the river.  The stronger the Gedoushuu, the faster they dry up and need to visit the river again.  So naturally Doukoku, the powerful Gedoushuu commander, can't survive in the human world for more than a few minutes.  Often, when the Shinkengers first encounter a monster, the monster must retreat partway through the fight to replenish itself.

The Gedoushuu's primary goal is to have the Sanzu River overflow into the human world, so Doukoku can invade and conquer.  The more pain and despair the human world suffers, the higher the river level rises, thus the Gedoushuu's recurring attempts to attack innocent humans.  The Gedoushuu resemble yokai from Japanese folklore (I didn't get most of their references), but their armor and skin resemble that of crustaceans, which makes sense as they're river dwellers. In most episodes, one of the Gedoushuu leaders calls up a strong comrade from the river and sends it to the human world (along with a bunch of foot soldiers) to sow chaos.

Every generation of the Shiba clan has banished Doukoku back into the Sanzu, so after 17 failed attempts he has more than a small grudge.  Doukoku is a very angry demon indeed; his only comforts are sake and shamisen music.  In addition to Doukoku, the Gedoushuu VIPs include the squidlike strategist Shitari, the shamisen-playing courtesan Dayu, and the bloodthirsty demon samurai Juzo.  Dayu clashes with Shinken Pink often, and Juzo develops a rivalry with Shinken Red that's straight out of a samurai flick.  This crew is a fairly entertaining bunch, and each of their stories wraps in a satisfying way.  Overall I'd call the Gedoushuu a well-constructed group of villains. 

The Gedoushuu

The Action

Shinken Red: zanbato giant sword, fire and lightning spells, Lion and Tiger robots
Shinken Blue: longbow, water spells, Dragon and Swordfish robots
Shinken Pink: war fan, wind spells, Turtle robot
Shinken Green: cross spear, wood spells, Bear and Beetle robots
Shinken Yellow: giant shuriken, earth spells, Monkey robot
Shinken Gold: tachi short sword, Squid and Lobster robots

The combat on foot in Shinkenger is quite impressive.  Each character has a katana that can affix discs onto its hilt.  Throwing on a disc and spinning it allows the katana to transform into each character's signature weapon (listed above).  Gold is the exception, as his sword can't transform and he only uses discs for special moves.  Combat on foot typically starts out as a swordfight, then some or all of the team switches weapons for special attacks (maybe casting a mojikara spell now and then).  Red's sword can transform into a cannon, which the whole team loads and holds for a special finishing move (many, many Super Sentai shows have a cannon finisher like this).  It's nothing revolutionary for a Super Sentai series, but the weapons look good and the swordfight choreography is great.

The robots are a different story.  Each hero has a paperweight-sized block called an origami that can unfold into their signature mecha.  Using a mojikara spell of the kanji for "Big" on the origami has them grow to giant size.  The small robots look a little blocky, but when they combine into the basic robot, the result is a pretty dope samurai mecha. Beyond that, things get insane.  Eventually the number of robots reaches 13 or 14 (more than I've listed above), and they can all combine in a variety of configurations.  I understand how this is necessary to sell toys to kids, but it's too much.  The robot fights themselves are usually more transformation than action, without much variety in finishing moves and being on the sluggish side.  During the last third of Shinkenger, I was fast-forwarding through giant robot battles and that's tragic.

Shinken Gold represents the best and worst of Shinkenger's action.  He has more gadgets than the rest of the team, with his lobster and squid robots transforming at least six different ways, and his chatterbox mini-robot lantern (!?) wielded along with a special jitte (a kind of police club).  The lantern can also grow to giant size, because of course it can.  On foot, Gold uses a different sword than the others (in a quick-draw style that's pretty damn cool), but can't use spells due to his lack of formal training.  Great swordplay, overabundance of robot nonsense.  Gold's arsenal is emblematic of Shinkenger's action in general. 

The Style

I love the look of the Shinkenger suits, and they're part of the reason why I chose Shinkenger to be my first Super Sentai show.  Their helmet faces are adapted from Japanese kanji characters, their stylized suits (resembling the front of a traditional robe) look sharp, and the weapons and robots look great (until the mecha combine into a 12-piece nightmare).  The smart look and samurai style works, and I think the whole ensemble looks pretty dope.

The calligraphy gimmick is, well, gimmicky, but overall a net positive.  Each character has a phone that can turn into a pen, and dramatically drawing characters (again, "mojikara") is used for transforming, casting spells, and summoning robots.  For transformations, the team (wearing formal kimonos) is escorted by kuroko servants holding curtains and playing drums, and state their full names and titles after transforming.  It's over-the-top and great.  And I'd be remiss not to mention the show's opening and ending theme songs, which are fun and energetic.  Not always an automatic skipped scene for me, which is definitely a compliment. 

I hate to talk about Gold even more, but dammit, he's my favorite character and his kit is pretty interesting.  Gold never learned traditional swordplay or samurai calligraphy, but is talented in mojikara and using it with modern technology.  He TEXTS kanji characters to transform and summon robots, and can build and modify origami mecha and mojikara gadgets himself.  His phone adds a custom disc before he does this, because Shinkenger is rotten with plastic discs that I'm sure are sold as collectibles.  Gold's sushi-influenced gear is clever and cool (sword resembling a tuna, chopstick projectile weapons, lobster and squid robots), and his robe for transforming scenes is a dressy version of his sushi chef uniform.  Fantasic.  His lantern robot is pretty annoying though, even for a mascot character. 

The Final Word

Favorite Hero: Shinken Gold
Favorite Villain: Juzo Fuwa
Favorite Mecha: Shinken Gold's lobster mecha
Favorite Storyline: Shinken Red's secret, episodes 45 to 47

I did all right in choosing Shinkenger for my first Super Sentai show.  It feels very traditional for a Super Sentai of the modern era: a five-person team with a sixth joining 1/3 of the way in, a bunch of transforming and combining robots, lengthy and dramatic transformation scenes, and a strong Red Ranger character taking center stage.  The cast of characters was appealing, and the final story payoff was satisfying.  The movies, which I didn't mention elsewhere in the review, are a nice injection of variety that are entertaining watches - the Shinkenger Returns movie is the most bonkers story in the whole Shinkenger canon.  Shinkenger was good enough that I watched almost fifty episodes plus six movies and shorts.  That's no small investment, and it only made me thirsty for more. 

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This is my first Super Sentai review, but at the time of this posting I've seen FOUR full shows.  Hopefully I can continue writing game reviews and also post Super Hero Time articles for Gekiranger, Dairanger, and Gokaiger in the next few months.  Until next time! 

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