My fourth Super Sentai review is Dairanger, a Super Sentai Chinese martial arts fantasy story as interpreted in 1993. Hoo boy.
Dairanger is the second martial arts-themed Super Sentai (after 1987's Maskman) but the first one to specifically focus on Chinese kenpo ("kenpo" is the catch-all Japanese term for Chinese martial arts). The five main Dairangers are each an expert in a particular kenpo style, and increase their martial arts prowess with Ki, energy manifested from one's body and soul. Ki is very similar to "chi" (sometimes spelled qi) from other martial arts tales. Anyhow, Dairanger's story starts with an ancient Chinese civilization and eventually sees flying castles and giant space dragons. Here we go.
- I usually refer to main characters by title or color because it's easier
- I will mention spoilers through episode 29, when Kameo debuts
Full Title: Gosei Sentai Dairanger
Air Date: February 1993 to February 1994
Series Number: 17th
Video Content: 50 episodes, 1 movie, 1 special
Dairanger's gimmick is Chinese martial arts, because, well, China has the grandest martial arts tradition of any nation and China's martial arts films and wuxia stories are hugely popular worldwide. The 1987 Super Sentai show, Maskman, was martial-arts themed as well, but the gimmick wasn't as important to or present in the show. Dairanger was never fully adapted into a season of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers - it's the season immediately after Zyuranger, the first Super Sentai made into a season of Power Rangers. However, Power Rangers did borrow footage of Dairanger's mecha (the "Thunder Zords"), monsters, and White Ranger for the second season of MMPR. It's too bad, too, because those Dairanger costumes are pretty fly for a sentai.
Eight thousand years ago (so, way before recorded history), the Daos civilization of ancient humans lived in southern China. Daos comprised of three tribes: the Dai, the Gorma, and the Shura. Eventually, the Gorma attempted a hostile takeover of Daos that led to a war between the Dai and Gorma. After thousands of years of war (!?), the decimated Dai and Gorma went into hiding while the Shura became the dominant Daos tribe, as well as the ancestors to modern humans. Fast forward to the present, and the Gorma tribe mounts an offensive to take over the world again. Battling the Gorma are the Dairangers, a team of young martial artists that inherited the power to use Ki from some partial Dai ancestry. The Dairangers are trained and advised by Master Kaku, a skilled practitioner of Ki power.
It's eventually made clear that the Dai and Gorma represent a balance of yin and yang, a concept also explored a bit in Gekiranger. The Dai fight for good and use Ki power; the Gorma fight for evil and use You power (which is... basically evil Ki). Dairanger does a very good job of establishing its heroes and villains, with a remarkable balance of starring roles - Red is definitely the team leader, but the entire team gets a bunch of focused episodes, moreso than maybe any other Super Sentai. This equal-characterization approach leads to a narrative that has a decent balance of story and filler episodes (filler = episodes that don't progress the main plot). I would have liked that the show have more episodes starring the Green or Blue rangers and fewer episodes focusing on the White ranger, but that's totally my own tastes and preferences.
My biggest issue with Dairanger's story might be due to its age - the show makes far too many leaps of logic. In the story arc where the Dairangers obtain the Mythic Chi Beasts (their mecha), Pink is teleported to China (from Japan) for unclear reasons, and somehow both the Gorma and the Dairangers are able to locate Pink within hours, or maybe minutes, even when she doesn't have any communication devices. It happens often; either an episode's plot moves too quickly to make sense or someone makes a realization of some absurd truth without a hint of foreshadowing. Again, that's probably a product of early 90s tokusatsu writing. Dairanger's story is pretty entertaining throughout, and shit gets SERIOUS AND CRAZY during the final 10-12 episodes. Lots of plot twists and drama at the end.
Ryuu Ranger (Red): Ryo, a cook at a dim sum restaurant
Shishi Ranger (Green): Daigo, an animal shelter worker
Tenma Ranger (Blue): Shoji, a boxer and motorcyclist
Qilin Ranger (Yellow): Kazu, a barber and hairdresser
Houou Ranger (Pink): Rin, a university exchange student from China
Kiba Ranger (White): Kou, a young orphan boy who moves in with Rin
The heroes of Dairanger meet, uh, quite suddenly, with the Red ranger being almost literally dragged into the team shortly after his younger sister is captured by a Gorma monster (worry not: she's rescued in the next episode). Also in the first episode: Pink, just arrived from China, is attacked by the Gorma minutes after leaving the airport. The Dairanger crew seems to go from "we're strangers" to "we're a tight-knit superhero team" in a shockingly brief time frame, but that's probably a 1993 tokusatsu thing like I mentioned earlier. I do like how all five starting Dairangers have normal jobs (Red is extremely dedicated to making gyoza), and already were skilled martial artists prior to Master Kaku giving them the ability to transform.
The group dynamic is almost always friendly and supportive between the five main Dairangers, with occasional saltiness arising from reasonable disagreements (i.e. Blue overslept and made Red late for work, which is a thing that actually happens). Red is the party's leader and seems prone to martial arts showdowns between him and Gorma super-soldiers. Green is a sensitive dude with a crush on a woman named Kujaku (more on her later) and a tendency for rescuing children in trouble. Blue is the group's goofball, often getting punked by wacky Gorma monsters or falling for uninterested women. Yellow is well-dressed and sophisticated, but keeps it a secret that he's from a rural farming town. Pink is a good-natured young woman that the other four Dairangers treat like a little sister. I liked everyone in the main five.
...but not the sixth. Kou, the White Ranger, is a 9-year-old boy who stumbles across the Byakko Shinken ("White Tiger True Blade"), the sword that grants him Dairanger power. He's a bit of an asshole, at first keeping his identity a secret from the others, acting like a total brat to Pink (who's letting him live in her apartment), and going out on his own separately from the team when he's, you know, 9 years old. White also plays a key role in multiple story arcs, which I didn't always enjoy.
Unlike the White Ranger, the other allies of the Dairangers are an appealing group. The solemn Master Kaku is one of the best mentor characters in Super Sentai history. Kujaku, a beautiful Dai warrior woman trapped in a mirror for thousands of years, is a recurring ally with a really solid subplot (co-starring Green). Pink's uncle Guhon occasionally helps the Dairangers by building new weapons, and he's a hilarious, crazy old dude. Kameo, a friend of Yellow's, is a clumsy comic relief character who eventually contributes to the battle against the Gorma in an unexpected manner. White's mother plays a major role in the episodes about White, and the actress does an excellent job. Dairanger has a good cast and solid acting in general; the White ranger being a shitty little kid is the only major downside.
The primary antagonists of Dairanger are the Gorma Tribe, the remnants of a powerful ancient kingdom and users of evil You power. The three Gorma officers that are tasked with eliminating the Dairangers are Shadam, Gara, and Zydos. Shadam isn't the supreme leader of the Gorma - that would be the Gorma Emperor, a high-pitched-voice weirdo who avoids battle and prefers to spend his days lounging and playing games. The trio of commanding officers do almost all the dirty work and at least one shows up in every episode. Shadam is manipulative and evil; Gara is sadistic and shares a history with Kujaku; and Zydos is the most hot-headed and aggressive of the three.
The foot soldiers of the Gorma are Copotros, some truly weird-looking masked men in cartoonish suits and ties. Copotros remind me a little of the Axe Gang foot soldiers in Drunken Master II and Kung Fu Hustle (and they probably feature in other martial arts stories that I don't know). Most of the Gorma monsters of the week are similar to the enemies in Jetman in that they're twisted monsters based on everyday objects. The Gorma monster nomenclature is usually [object] [title], including Purse Monk, Telephone Sensei, Cactus General, and (my favorite) Birdcage Vagrant. They're a strange bunch with a lot of personality - they do plenty of talking and aren't mute monsters like most of the enemies in Jetman. A few of the Gorma are even quite sympathetic by the end of their episodes. The Gorma monsters are a wacky bunch, but they don't detract from the show.
Dairanger has quite a few recurring enemies other than the triumvirate of Shadam, Gara, and Zydos. Akomaru is a 9-year-old Gorma boy that wants to destroy his age-appropriate target, White; Akomaru's remarkably creative schemes and open hatred of his father Shadam make him more interesting than Shadam himself, heh. There's another Gorma trio of enemies that the Dairangers encounter called the Gorma Three Stooges (sometimes translated as "Gorma Idiot Trio" or similar). They challenge Blue to sporting events or races in comedy episodes three or four times. The last important recurring Dairanger villain is Jin Matoba, a human hitman that obsessively defeats and kills other martial arts masters; Matoba clashes with Red multiple times and eventually works with the Gorma. If you can look beyond their sometimes-ridiculous appearances, the Gorma Tribe is a pretty cool group of villains.
Ryuu Ranger (Red): Dragon Fist, fire spells, uses twin swords, Dragon mecha
Tenma Ranger (Blue): Long Fist, gravity spells, uses nunchucks, Pegasus mecha
Shishi Ranger (Green): Huang Gar, illusion spells, uses a bludgeon, Lion mecha
Qilin Ranger (Yellow): Drunken Fist, time spells, uses a whip, Qilin mecha
Houou Ranger (Pink): Eagle Claw, wind spells, uses a spear, Phoenix mecha
Kiba Ranger (White): broadsword techniques, sound spells, Tiger mecha
Last month I said that Gekiranger has the best action in Super Sentai I've seen on average. I stand by that statement, but holy crap Dairanger comes close. The Dairangers out-of-suit combat is oustanding, the fighting in suits is awesome, and the mecha fights are... a bit insubstantial, ultimately giving Gekiranger the overall advantage. Dairanger still has probably my favorite combat on foot of any Super Sentai, in no small part to their stylish martial arts and dope arsenal of weapons. The main characters fight out of suits remarkably often, which is impressive as hell; these actors are convincing martial artists and stunt workers, even compared to Super Sentai actors of any decade.
Each Dairanger has a specific fighting style rooted in real kenpo. Most of the time it's the same old flashy Super Sentai action - it's easiest to see the differences in fighting styles with the poses the heroes take during roll call. In addition, each Dairanger has a unique Ki spell they employ in combat as a special move (using visual effects that are often quite hilarious), plus a pistol, a short sword, a staff, a chakram, and a unique weapon (listed above), plus a team cannon finisher introduced about 25 or 30 episodes in. The White Ranger fights with his Byakko Shinken sword and no other weapons. The combat always looks great, but it's at its best when the team uses their staves ("Dairen Rods"). The Dairen Rods have a unique spearhead for each Dairanger, and the staff techniques are big, fast, and awesome. I'd rather that the team use fewer weapons in general and employ the staves more, but all of the combat in suits is great (man I love parentheses).
The mecha combat in Dairanger leaves a bit to be desired. There are seven mechs ("Mythical Chi Beasts") in the entire series: one for each ranger plus a carrier mech introduced much later. Two of the Chi Beasts, Red's Ryuuseioh and White's Won Tiger, have humanoid transformations that can combine with the mecha of the other four rangers. The combined mecha look cool as hell, especially the "standard" Dairenoh, but that isn't the problem here. In most fights, Dairenoh will dodge or parry one attack, use its lightning sword finishing move, then dramatically sheathe its sword. Mecha fights run that way (with little else) so often that it seems like an excessive use of pre-recorded footage in scenes that are already quite brief. The Won Tiger moveset is a little more interesting than the Ryuuseioh-Dairenoh stuff, but it's employed less often. I like how much of Dairanger's mecha scenes are practical effects and I love the look of the combined mechs, but... the mecha action feels lacking.
I really like the Dairangers' uniforms. The white vests and rainbow five-stars logo look good, and the helmets and gold highlights look AWESOME. Maybe my favorite helmet designs in any Super Sentai. The White Ranger's uniform includes more white (naturally) and balances it with a little more gold in the helmet and a fresh-as-hell breastplate. The Dairanger uniforms look great both in poses and in combat. Out of combat, Yellow wears sharp suits and Red has nice jackets and shirts most of the time, but the rest of the team doesn't dress well at all. The 90s wasn't the best decade for Japanese casual wear. The Gorma are fashion disasters - Shadam, Gara, and Zydos all wear truly unfortunate outfits resembling S&M gear. Yikes.
The Dairangers' have a pretty lengthy transform sequence that involves all five (later six) members performing complicated martial arts poses and title recitations. The Dairangers declare their real names during roll call most of the time, which is cool and a little uncommon in Super Sentai. Their transformer gadgets are wrist-mounted "Aura Changers" and their mecha-summoning items are spherical jewels called "Lai Lai Balls." Lai Lai Balls is a hella-fun term to say, but the Dairangers' gadgets aren't terribly special or unique for Super Sentai. The opening song for Dairanger is goofy ("TENSHIN DAAA"), but has pretty cool brass and synth in the opening hook. The first ten seconds of that theme are quite good, and you hear it in fight scenes quite often. Ending theme is forgettable. I don't like Dairanger's music as much as most other Super Sentai I've watched, but it isn't a deal-breaker.
I need to talk about something that I only mention very rarely in these reviews: the sets. Each season of Super Sentai typically uses the same spaces and sets within each season - the Shinkengers are always fighting in the same downtown area, but it's a different-looking city than the where the Gekirangers are always fighting, etc. That's not a problem. The Dairangers, however, are almost always fighting in the same quarry and junkyard, to the point where it's more distracting than any other Super Sentai. They meet and strategize with Master Kaku in a dark, empty warehouse. Definitely the most boring sets of any Super Sentai I've seen any part of other than Zyuranger, which has almost the exact same problem. I was pleasantly surprised whenever the Dairangers battled Copotros in a public park or at a nearby beach instead (two other favorite locations of the show). Dairanger loses a few points for fighting in the same damn quarry so often and for Master Kaku's boring warehouse headquarters.
The Final Word
Favorite Hero: Shishi Ranger (Green)
Favorite Villain: Demon Fist Jin Matoba
Favorite Mecha: Won Tiger
Favorite Storyline: Master Kaku's past, episodes 45 to 48
Dairanger is an excellent Super Sentai viewing experience. I'm not sure I like it as much as Shinkenger or Gekiranger, but the major factor is the difference in storytelling from the 90s to the 2000s and not because of action, characters, or Super Sentai traditionalism. Dairanger has great characters, excellent combat, good comedy, and several standout episodes. Dairanger is a little dated, but was entertaining start to finish.
OK, so that's four Super Sentai reviews done! I've finished Boukenger, so hopefully you'll see a review of that one up in the next week or two. I'm 40 episodes into Dekaranger, so that's coming soon as well. Jetman is a little further behind with 25-30 episodes watched, and Zyuohger is only 5 episodes into its run thus far (but I really like it). After I finish Dekaranger I'm not sure what series I'll start next, but I'm leaning towards Abaranger. Once I've watched ten different series to completion, I guarantee a blog post ranking them. Damn. That's a lot of Super Sentai.