Tuesday, February 9, 2016

SUPER HERO TIME! Gekiranger!

It's another Super Sentai review!  This time it's the martial arts-tastic Gekiranger.  Read on for more! 

I should mention that when I sought out Super Sentai shows to watch, I deliberately went after ones I was pretty sure I'd like.  Gekiranger was my second Super Sentai because A) its reviews were mostly positive and B) I love martial arts fiction, especially Chinese martial arts films and Japanese martial arts manga.  Gekiranger is an homage to EXACTLY those latter two things, with numerous references to martial arts movies and a huge emphasis on training and self improvement.  It was a nice contrast to Shinkenger.  Now let's review this thing. 

- I usually refer to main characters by title or color because it's easier
- I will mention spoilers through episode 35, a few after Geki Chopper joins

The Basics

Full Title: Juken Sentai Gekiranger
Air Date: February 2007 to February 2008
Series Number: 31st
Video Content: 49 episodes, 3 movies, 1 special

Gekiranger is the story of two schools of martial arts: Geki Juken (Striking Beast Fist) and Rin Juken Akugata (Confrontation Beast Fist Evil-Style).  "Geki" is the term used in Gekiranger referring to manifesting the power of one's soul into energy, just like "chi" in many other martial arts stories.  "Rinki" is Rin Juken Akugata's similar source of power, stemming from chaos and turmoil rather than inner strength.  Anyhow, the Gekirangers are practitioners of Geki Juken constantly battling the evil, destructive practitioners of Rin Juken.  It's a Super Sentai martial arts epic about opposing forces of yin and yang. 

The Story

Juken is a martial arts style created by Master Bruce Ie (yup), based on the movements of wild animals.  Four thousand years prior to the start of Gekiranger, Bruce Ie died and Juken's practitioners divided into two schools, Geki Juken and Rin Juken Akugata, in a conflict called the Geki-Rin Rebellion.  The seven Fist Sages of Geki Juken were eventually victorious over their rivals, the three Fist Demons of Rin Juken, and sealed the three Fist Demons away.  Flash forward to the present: the Lion-Fist Juken practitioner Rio attempts to restore the Rin Juken temple and revive the three Fist Demons by gathering huge amounts of Rinki (which happens by sowing despair and destruction).  Rio is opposed by the Geki Juken masters and their pupils, the Gekirangers. 

If the prior two paragraphs didn't make it clear, Gekiranger is hugely influenced by wuxia martial arts stories and kung fu films.  Animal-based martial arts overcoming other animal-based martial arts, martial arts gimmicks countered by other martial arts gimmicks, and some of the best training montages this side of sports manga.  I think Rio says words to the effect of "show me the results of your training!" to Geki Red at least four times.  The series is loaded with references to martial arts films; two of the seven Geki Juken masters are named Bat Li and Gorrie Yen, which sounds a lot like the chess match fight scene in Hero. 

Gekiranger's story feels more focused than that of Shinkenger.  There are short-term goals set by both the villain and hero factions throughout the show, and as a result the introductions of new important villains and allies are smoothly plotted out.  It helps that the villains get more screen time in Gekiranger than in any other Super Sentai I've watched, but the general effect is that Gekiranger has less filler than usual and I'd hesitate to call any of its story arcs worthless or skippable.  The final run of episodes (starting around episode 44 or 45) is quite intense, once the final set of villains has their full plain revealed. Sometimes they hang on to something for too long (looking at you, Maku) or twist the plot in ridiculous ways (looking at you, Sanyo), but overall Gekiranger has great pacing.  That's quite surprising for a show that's 49 episodes long.  The three Gekiranger movies (one short film in a new setting and two Vs. films where they encounter the Boukengers and the Go-Ongers) are a bit silly and I didn't enjoy them as much as the Shinkenger movies.  It was cool seeing the team-ups those movies produced, but they're Super Sentai fanservice and not great on their own. 

 The Gekirangers

The Heroes

Geki Red: Jan Kandou, a jungle man raised by wild tigers, "Unbreakable Body"
Geki Blue: Retsu Fukami, a talented painter, "Fantastic Technique"
Geki Yellow: Ran Uzaki, a young woman from a wealthy family, "Honest Heart"
Geki Violet: Gou Fukami, Retsu's brother, missing for 15 years, "Iron Will"
Geki Chopper (White): Ken Hisatsu, a martial arts prodigy, "Amazing Ability"

Similar to Liveman or Hurricanger (two series that I've seen the first few episodes of, but nothing behond), Gekiranger starts out as a team of three, but becomes a team of five within 30 episodes.  The show opens with Jan, a wild man living alone in the jungle, encountering a woman named Miki Masaki.  Miki is an executive at SCRTC, a sporting goods company that doubles as the home of the masters of the Geki Juken.  Miki noticed Jan's athleticism and talent for using Geki instantly, and brings him to SCRTC.  Jan's command of the Japanese language is... interesting.  He uses nonsense words often (i.e. "muni-muni" or "zowa-zowa"), which I think are based on Japanese onomatopoeia. 

Jan quickly becomes a pupil of Geki Juken as Geki Red, alongside Ran (Geki Yellow) and Retsu (Geki Blue).  Blue's specialty is acrobatic, smoothly-flowing techniques while Yellow is a pure-hearted fighter who can strike with tremendous speed and precision.  Eventually they're joined by Gou (Geki Violet), Retsu's estranged brother who used to train with Miki, and Ken (Geki Chopper), a carefree, somewhat lazy young man with incredible talent for manipulating Geki.  Along with these five you have the seven legendary Juken masters, who join the team incrementally to teach the Gekirangers new fighting styles.  The seven masters are all anthropomorphic animals (yup) and their leader is Master Shafu, a cat.  The masters have taken vows of non-violence, so only the Gekirangers can fight the forces of Rin Juken Akugata. 

Gekiranger does an excellent job of showing its team become incrementally stronger.  Filler episodes are usually about self-improvement via unconventional training methods or martial arts being employed in unique ways (two kung fu movie staples), and I enjoyed most of them.  The show's weakness is probably making its cast other than Geki Red feel relevant.  EVERY plot-important duel in the series resolves through Red.  Violet and White are prominent in the story right when they join, but Violet is an afterthought once his story arc is over (he's good for saying "maa-itaze" four times an episode, though) and White becomes a comedy character after he obtains his mecha.  The cast is fun and cool for the most part, and Geki Red is a likable protagonist with good development, but if you don't like Red you won't like the show.  Gekiranger is even more Red Ranger-focused than Shinkenger, which was a problem I had with that show as well. 

The Villains

The cast of villains in Gekiranger is mostly a revolving door of new animal-themed lieutenants and monsters of the week, but with two constants: Rio, the brooding master of Lion Fist; and Mele, Rio's servant and master of Chameleon Fist.  Rio is a former Geki Juken pupil whose inner darkness led him to rejecting the principles of Geki Juken and turning to Rin Juken, quickly becoming the leader of the Rin Juken temple.  Mele is a revived RinRinShi soldier who is totally devoted to Rio. 

I should explain what a RinRinShi is.  RinShi are the foot soldiers of Rin Juken, resembling mythological Jiangshi (Chinese vampires).  If a RinShi kills a large number of its comrades in a special competition, it develops its own Rin Juken style (based on animal techniques, just like Geki Juken) and becomes a RinRinShi.  RinRinShi can transform into more elaborate animal forms, and usually the monster of the week is a RinRinShi.  Five of the RinRinShi in the first ten episodes use Centipede Fist, Gecko Fist, Toad Fist, Scorpion Fist, and Snake Fist styles, just like the five martial arts masters in the classic 1978 kung fu movie Five Deadly Venoms.  I got really excited when those five were revealed; I love Five Deadly Venoms.  Later on in the show, the final set of 13 villains (including Mele and Rio) are inspired by the Four Beasts of Chinese astrology and the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.  Really cool references all around. 

Rio and Mele get a lot more screen time than villains in other Super Sentai shows, and that's in large part because of the show's emphasis on self-improvement.  Throughout the show Rio's thirst to become stronger and Mele's thirst to be useful to Rio (plus her thirst for Rio in general) are important motivating factors.  Rio and Mele meet powerful, ancient Rin Juken masters over the course of the show that fight the Gekirangers, but more importantly also train Rio and Mele.  Rio and Mele are just as important to the plot as the Gekirangers themselves, and I definitely got attached to both of them.  Especially Mele. 

Mele and Rio

The Action

Geki Red: Tiger Fist, also uses nunchucks and twin swords
Geki Blue: Jaguar Fist, also uses tonfas and fans
Geki Yellow: Cheetah Fist, also uses a staff and a meteor hammer
Geki Violet: Wolf Fist, fighting style similar to Muay Thai
Geki Chopper (White): Rhinoceros Fist, fighting style similar to Karate

Probably the coolest part of Gekiranger is the action on foot.  Better than any other Super Sentai, Gekiranger gives its cast distinct fighting styles that seem like part of their personalities.  Even if they fought unarmed and wore identical uniforms, you would be able to tell who each character was during combat.  As the series moves along each character receives new gadgets and techniques, but it doesn't feel very forced.  The kung fu-influenced action is intense and cool, with an interesting selection of weapons and awesome wire work.  Violet and Chopper's fighting styles are also significantly different from the main three in ways that are entertaining, but don't throw off the team's balance of power or take over the show like the Sixth Rangers in Dairanger or Gokaiger.

The Gekirangers' mecha are technically manifestations of Geki, so they're in the "spirit" vein of mecha instead of being actual piloted robots.  Each of the five Gekirangers gets a mecha based on their own Geki style (tiger, jaguar, cheetah, wolf, and rhino) plus Red, Blue, and Yellow each get TWO additional mecha as they learn new techniques.  It adds up to eight animal mecha that form three combined humanoid mecha working simultaneously.  These mecha look great in motion, and move differently enough to be interesting as separate entities. Instead of a cockpit, the Gekirangers stand together in an open space, moving in unison with the mecha moving likewise.  The mecha action is pretty fast and furious (especially compared to shows with sluggish mecha like Shinkenger or Boukenger), with a fair balance of practical and digital effects.  The final attack of the starting mecha GekiTouja is basically a rapidly-spinning robot torso delivering a flurry of punches or kicks.

The fights in Gekiranger are awesome.  The action on foot is entertaining and intense and the mecha fights are fun payoffs that don't feel quite as overcomplicated as Shinkenger or Gokaiger.  The villains also look great and have interesting combat gimmicks of their own, with the result being probably the best combat on average in any Super Sentai series I've seen thus far.  Sure, most of the time the finale ends up being a unison cannon attack or one of the Gekirangers going into their "super" form (which is less-interesting than when they fight normally), but it's all quite excellent.  I rewatch certain fights on occasion and I finished the show a month ago. 

The Style

I have some issues with the Gekirangers' uniforms.  The helmets look good, and the visor shapes are pretty cool.  The first three are clear references to Bruce Lee's iconic jumpsuit in Game of Death (awesome), but the same-color boots, lack of a belt, and vertically-oriented designs on the side make them look like footy pajamas.  The best Super Sentai uniforms balance colors with blacks and whites and the first three Gekiranger suits are too monochromatic.  The suits move well and look better in action than standing still, but they really could use boots and a belt.  Geki Violet and Geki Chopper's uniforms, on the other hand, look great. Good balance of additional colors (silver and black for Violet, orange and black for Chopper) and really distinct designs with cool martial arts influences.  I wish the rest of the cast looked as sharp.  When Rio and Mele transform, though, holy shit.  Rio is the most badass motherfucker on the show.  His black lion armor kicks ass. 

The Gekirangers' gadgets are a bit cartoony, and honestly I think they take away from the show's excellent action.  The knuckle-cracking morphers on the wrist look good (including Violet's boxing-themed morpher), but the gaudy cannon finisher, Super Geki fist weapons, and Geki Chopper's gauntlet all look unwieldly and I could've done without them.  The henshin sequence for Gekiranger is lengthy and wordy: each fighter takes several seconds to transform, states their name and title (i.e. "Unbreakable Body!") and performs set of moves throughout.  I like how kinetic and dramatic the sequence is, but having each ranger say two full sentences for each transformation feels like too much. 

Another style concern for Gekiranger is... how they spend their spare time.  The Gekirangers' meeting place is an office building with a full gym, run by the businesswoman Miki (who's awesome) and a bunch of animal Geki Juken masters (?).  The Gekirangers rarely hang out in a casual setting (some of the best parts of Shinkenger and Gokaiger are outside of combat in this way), and always seem to be babysitting one of the Juken masters or doing something for Miki.  I didn't like it much compared to the Gokaigers' awesome pirate ship or even the Boukengers' museum apartment.  Weird complaint to have, but I never found the office setting very appealing.  At least Gekiranger has a fun theme song, with Chinese violin and a great narrated opening before moving into slightly-generic J-rock.  It's in my gym playlist. 

The Final Word

Favorite Hero: Geki Red
Favorite Villain: Mele
Favorite Mecha: SaiDain (Geki Chopper's rhino mecha)
Favorite Storyline: Jan's family, episodes 40 to 42

I really liked Gekiranger.  It helps (a lot) that I liked Geki Red since he's by far the most important character; it also helps that I love martial arts schtick and dug all of the martial arts movie references the show had.  Jan is a great Red Ranger, and Rio and Mele are without a doubt my favorite villains in any Super Sentai show I've seen thus far.  Sure, I wish the uniforms had belts and that Geki Violet got a few more episodes of his own, but overall I thought Gekiranger was worth the watch.  It's pretty washi-washi. 


There's another one down!  I'm going to slow down on my Super Sentai viewing and writing for a bit, since it's getting in the way of my games writing.  I've already finished a few video games on the year, but zero game reviews.  Anyhow, I liked Shinkenger and Gekiranger about equally, but they have different strengths and weaknesses for sure.  Once I have eight to ten shows under my belt I'll rank them, but now is not the time.  Bye bye! 

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