Tuesday, May 31, 2016

SUPER HERO TIME! ToQger!


Do you like trains and imagination? Then do I have a Japanese children's show for you! Here's a review for ToQger.  Full speed ahead!  

That capital Q is not a typo.  "Tokyu" is a Japanese word (I think it's a contraction?) that refers to special express trains, and, well, the showrunners decided to stylize "express train ranger" as ToQger.  It's weird.  Anyhow, ToQger rides its gimmicks of imagination and trains HARD.  Japan is extremely proud of its modern rail system and being a train enthusiast is a popular hobby and subculture.  ToQger takes those Japanese trains and makes them into candy-colored imagination-powered flying locomotives called the Rainbow Line.  Enter the ToQgers, a Super Sentai team that protects the Rainbow Line (and Japan in general) from an evil empire of darkness called the Shadow Line. 

NOTES
- I usually refer to main characters by title or color because it's easier
- I will mention spoilers through episode 31, the introduction of the Hyper Ressha

The Basics

Full Title: Ressha Sentai ToQger (pronounced "tokyujer")
Air Date: February 2014 to February 2015
Series Number: 38th
Video Content: 47 episodes, 4 movies

The ToQgers (who have been friends since elementary school) gained their powers via dire circumstances, being picked up by the Rainbow Line's trains just as their hometown was subsumed by the Shadow Line's darkness.  The ToQgers' powers stem from their own imaginations, and their end goal is both to defeat the Shadow Line and to find their home.  ToQger is generally a bright and cheery Sentai series (sometimes to its detriment), but it's contrasted against villains that are literally manifestations of darkness, and there are some truly tragic moments and situations in the story.  It's fascinating to me that the show's outward bright colors and innocence mask a dark, interesting conflict.  ToQger isn't one of the most beloved series by the English-language Super Sentai fanbase, but I couldn't stop watching it after a certain point.  It isn't one of my four or five favorite Sentai, but I certainly enjoyed it.


The ToQgers

The Story

The story begins with a Shadow Line train full of children being shaken awake by an agent of the Shadow Line.  The Shadow Line grows stronger when people feel depression or despair, and kidnapping children is a decent place to start.  Also on the train, however, is a sleeping dude in his late teens.  That young man is the red ranger of the ToQgers, and soon after waking Red reunites with his friends and begins the fight against the Shadow Line.  Shortly after the ToQgers fight using their new powers for the first time, they discover that their hometown has been swallowed up by the Shadow Line and their end goals become to defeat the Shadow Line and find their home once more. 

The battle between the Rainbow Line and the Shadow Line is basically one of light vs. darkness.  The Shadow Line endeavors to cover all of the world in darkness, and does so by having one of its trains arrive in a city, enacting some scheme to sow despair, and then shrouding the entire town in darkness with despair-powered mists.  The Rainbow Line employs the ToQgers to foil the plans of the Shadow Line to restore happiness and light to each town, one train station at a time.  The Rainbow Line is powered by the imagination of children, so only children can see the trains of the Rainbow Line and the ToQgers themselves are (mysteriously) adults with childlike attitudes and imaginations.  I'm avoiding some spoilers here.  Later in the series the ToQgers confront some unnerving situations directly concerning their imaginations and inner darkness (really), which lends surprising gravitas and tragedy to ToQger's story. I loved it when ToQger got weird and dark near the end.  I was 100% compelled to finish it by the time I reached the show's midpoint.

ToQger mostly does a good job giving each of its main characters attention in the larger story, but with particularly heavy arcs focusing on Red and Orange.  Red has a strange connection to the Shadow Line's Emperor Z that is key to the last several episodes of ToQger; this is part of the story's darker tone towards the end, but I didn't find the Emperor Z stuff as interesting as the circumstances surrounding the rest of the team (avoiding spoilers).  Orange, as a former member of the Shadow Line, has his past catch up to him in the middle third of ToQger's run; I liked Orange's story arc in general.  I would have liked to see Green get more moments to shine in ToQger's story, but ToQger generally does well by its main cast and doesn't have as much Red focus as Gekiranger or Shinkenger. 


The ToQgers as children

The Heroes

ToQ 1 (Red): Right, an enthusiastic young man with tremendous imagination
ToQ 2 (Blue): Tokacchi, a fussy, nervous guy who wears glasses
ToQ 3 (Yellow): Mio, a sensitive young woman who looks after the others
ToQ 4 (Green): Hikari, a serious, logical dude who often plays with a kendama toy
ToQ 5 (Pink): Kagura, an easily frightened girl whose imagination rivals that of Right
ToQ 6 (Orange): Akira Nijino, a Rainbow Line employee and former Shadow Line warrior

All five main ToQgers suffer from amnesia, but they remember playing together as children; there are episodes where they learn things about each other and piece together memories of their hometown, but in general they're already a team of friends.  Red is hyperactive, determined, hungry almost all the time, and sort of an idiot; just like a lot of male protagonists in shounen manga and anime.  Green is the smartest person on the team and often guides the others when there is a mystery to be solved or an unusual insight required.  Yellow is one of those big sister character types who makes sure her teammates are eating their veggies.  Blue and Pink are both clumsy, and Blue is mostly a comedy character while Pink is a token silly / cute girl.  Blue adjusts his glasses in almost every line of dialog and Pink has a lot of costume changes. 

The Orange ranger of the ToQgers walks the line between serious and parody.  Orange is a former villain (called Zalam) with rain powers who departed the Shadow Line after being inspired by a vision of a rainbow, subsequently finding work on the Rainbow Line as a rail inspector.  Orange joins the ToQgers basically on Red's whim, and serves as a solemn contrast to the (mostly) lighthearted dynamic of the main team... at least until he tries to act human.  Being formerly of the Shadow Line, Orange doesn't fully understand human emotions or social norms, and there are multiple comedic episodes about Orange doing silly things like going on a date with Yellow or engaging in a joke-telling contest (really).  He's also a loner who accompanies his own entrances into battle with harmonica music and dour quotes ("is this my place to die?").  Orange's borderline-emo nature is poked fun at quite often, and in general I enjoyed what the ToQgers' 6th ranger brought to the table. There is also a purple ToQ 7, but he only shows up in the 2015 ToQger Returns movie.  Purple doesn't count as a "main" teammate. 

The ToQgers are mentored by The Conductor, a middle-aged man who manages their train's destinations, and Ticket, a foul-mouthed hand puppet held by The Conductor who seems to be a separate being entirely, not controlled by The Conductor      (or is he?).  There's also Wagon, an android (I think?) whose extremely flirty personality is mostly ignored by the ToQgers.  Ticket is the train announcer and Wagon wheels around a food cart, providing our heroes with lunchboxes.  In general, the ToQgers maintain a very friendly, positive atmosphere in the train cars where they live (Orange lives on a separate train and comes and goes as he pleases).  As I mentioned earlier, ToQger frequently shows flashbacks to the ToQgers' childhoods, and through these we meet the families of all five main characters.  Most of the time these flashbacks are sweet, and sort of sad.  Those scenes contribute to the show's themes of childhood and imagination very well. 


The Shadow Line

The Villains

The above image is the cover of a music CD where the Shadow Line actors sing songs, but it's the best image of five Shadow Line characters I could find (and I went through a BUNCH of episodes searching for a good image).  Sorry for the inconsistency.  Anyhow, the Shadow Line is an evil organization with the vaguely-justified goal of shrouding the entire world in darkness.  The Shadow Line's power source IS darkness, generated by human suffering (yikes).  Also, the Shadow Line's leader, Emperor Z, is a being of pure darkness who can't survive in daylight for more than a few hours.  The "Z" in the Emperor's name is pronounced "Zett" or "Zetto," which I think is a transliteration of the British pronunciation "Zed."

The aesthetic for the Shadow Line is lots of ornate features and metallic edges surrounding blacks and purples.  General Schwarz resembles a German army officer, Baron Nero looks like a plague doctor in a top hat, Madame Noire is something of a society lady with undead-bird features, and Marchioness Morc is a very severe governess figure clad in black and green.  Those four lieutenants are led by the flighty Emperor Z, who is far more powerful than any of his lackeys, but is fascinated by light and sparkly things and couldn't care less about covering the world in darkness.  Nero and Morc are both extremely loyal to Z (but are frustrated by his lack of interest in taking over the world), but Schwarz plots to overthrow Z and Noire is determined to marry Z to her daughter Glitter, a sweet young woman who is basically a huge purple ogre (!?).

The foot soldiers for the Shadow Line are called Kuros (bringing the number of translations for "black" used in ToQger up to six).  Kuros wield axes, wear black suits and wide-brimmed fedoras, and are capable of only saying the word "kuro."  Monsters of the week in ToQger are everyday objects given humanoid forms, similar to the monsters in Jetman or Dairanger.  Their names are "____ Shadow," i.e. Hammer Shadow or Coffin Shadow.  Shadows are sentient and sapient, and their powers are as varied and as bizarre as I've seen in Super Sentai; in one episode a jack-in-the-box Shadow turns laughter into physical damage.  The Shadow Line has constant infighting, but all of them have distinct personalities and I really dig the Gothic-steampunk look they go for.  Sometimes they're so dysfunctional that they don't seem like a credible threat and their specific motivations for world domination barely exists at all, but I thought they were at least adequate as a Super Sentai evil organization.  Maybe not a favorite.



ToQ-Oh

The Action

ToQ 1 (Red): main weapon is a broadsword, pilots a red train
ToQ 2 (Blue): main weapon is a handgun, pilots a blue train
ToQ 3 (Yellow): main weapon is a hammer, pilots a yellow train
ToQ 4 (Green): main weapon is a battleax, pilots a green train
ToQ 5 (Pink): main weapon is a claw, pilots a pink train
ToQ 6 (Orange): main weapon is a guide stick, pilots an orange construction train

The five main ToQgers all have a sword and a blaster (of course) plus a unique weapon.  Red, Blue, and Yellow are effective fighters with their heavy weapons; Blue and Pink aren't as skilled, but Blue is a good shot with a blaster and Pink uses her imagination to give herself boosts of power and confidence.  Seriously, when Pink plays pretend ("I'm super strong... I'm super strong!") and then Hulks out it's hilarious.  The team cannon finisher  is also imagination-powered, sometimes to spectacular effect.  Another highlight is when the ToQgers use the special abilities of their unique weapons (which each have a train station theme).  It only happens once or twice, but I definitely enjoy watching Pink shrink enemy minions to ant size.  The action in ToQger isn't among my favorite in Super Sentai, but when it gets weird it's downright inspired. 

The defining combat gimmick of the ToQgers (other than trains or imagination) is their Line Transfer ability, when they trade miniature morphing trains and switch colors.  The number on the front of the suit stays the same, but the ToQger's color and weapon changes after a Transfer (i.e. Right is always ToQ 1, but his color changes after a Line Transfer).  This gimmick is... maybe a little unnecessary.  I can only remember Line Transfers being specifically useful three or four times in the whole series, but it's fun seeing the ToQgers figuring out how to use their friends' weapons.  Orange can't Line Transfer, but his fighting style is... unique.  He discards his weapon most of the time and recklessly fights hand-to-hand, only to pick up his club when he realizes he dropped it.  Orange is an odd dude.  Eventually, the ToQgers obtain a special mini-train called the Hyper Ressha, which upon use equips them with a golden breastplate and increases their strength considerably.  Hyper Mode is... not terribly interesting compared to upgrades in other Super Sentai shows.   

The mecha in ToQger keep up the trend of Super Sentai mecha post-2000: there are a fuckton of mecha obtained over the course of the show.  Sometimes it's cool and sometimes it's too much.  Each of the six ToQgers pilots a different train, which are similar in size other than Orange's Builder Ressha ("ressha" = "express train"), which is enormous, resembling four trains stacked together.  Builder Ressha can transform on its own into a mecha called Build Daioh.  The five main trains combine to form the bipedal ToQ-Oh by linking up sideways, and WOW, ToQ-Oh looks awkward.  Its legs look fine, but its arms being made of elongated mecha the same size as its legs makes its shoulders jut out awkwardly.  When you add five "Support Ressha" mecha to the equation as well as a late-coming train station mecha, you get twelve-train monstrosities that are difficult to explain.  Like most support mecha in recent Super Sentai, the Support Resshas can replace arm attachments in ToQ-Oh or Build Daioh when they aren't combining into a smaller companion mecha or joining a 12-train abomination.  Like the mecha in Boukenger or Shinkenger, I think the individual pieces are neat, but there are a few too many of them.  It looks awkward when all of them are combined at once. 



The ToQgers after a Line Transfer

The Style

I don't love the ToQgers' suits for a few specific reasons: their helmets look too similar, there is an overabundance of the main color, and I prefer darker greens to sour apple greens.  I like the train tracks motif over the face, but it takes over the design of the helmet and makes them all look the same (even though there are different shapes to the helmet tops and visors).  The monochromatic look of the suits is also a little overwhelming - the belts, boots, and gloves are fine, but the train track design needs more white and/or black.  Orange has the best-looking suit, and it's totally because of the extra yellow and black. 

The main gadgets used by the ToQgers are a wrist-mounted ToQ Changer (where they mount miniature trains to transform and perform Line Transfers) and a belt-mounted ToQ Pass.  The ToQ Changer isn't anything special, but I love the ToQ Passes.  Having an electronic train card as a key gadget is a brilliant design decision.  The ToQgers use their Passes to enter and exit the train, spend unlimited funds on train station goods, and communicate between one another.  Orange and Violet use phones with a transformation app to transform which is... on the generic side I guess.  When they transform, a white line appears and there's an announcement to remain behind the white line until the sequence is complete.  This show's dedication to train station safety rules is remarkable.
 
The fashion choices of the main ToQgers are among the more palatable in series history.  Each ranger has several outfits, usually with random English and in their signature color, not unlike normal Japanese teenagers (I love Red's "PORTLAND" sweatshirt).  Blue usually wears vests and ties, making him look like a foppish IT specialist, and Orange usually wears a tank top, a safety helmet, and cargos.  Those two are the worst-dressed of the lot, but nothing compared to 90s disasters like Kakuranger or Abaranger's ugly sweaters.  The ToQgers base is the Rainbow Line train itself, brightly-colored out the outside and a very sterile, shiny white on the inside.  Could do a lot worse for Super Sentai bases.

I'd be remiss not to mention ToQger's opening and ending theme songs, both of which I enjoyed.  The opening is a very basic, upbeat rock tune, but it has some Aaron Copland-esque violin and syncopation that fit in remarkably well with ToQger's trains theme.  The end song is decent - around the same tempo and tone as the opening, with some added ska flavor.  Each end credits video in ToQger showcases unique or unusual trains from all over Japan, which are cool shout-outs for train enthusiasts.  And ToQger as a show is definitely enthusiastic about trains. 



Wagon, Ticket, and The Conductor

The Final Word

Favorite Hero: ToQ 4 (Green)
Favorite Villain: General Schwarz
Favorite Mecha: Diesel Ressha
Favorite Episodes: Billiards Shadow (34), Dollhouse Shadow (43)

ToQger looks outwardly silly, but I think it's just a little unusual and certainly unique.  ToQger's central themes are imagination, trains, and childhood, and it displays those themes in earnest.  The story takes on a dark tone in the second half of the show, but the usual Super Sentai motifs of teamwork, love, and justice are certainly present.  ToQger isn't one of my favorite Super Sentai shows, but I don't regret giving it a shot.  It exceeded my expectations and had me experiencing real feelings during its end credits.  Don't immediately overlook ToQger because of imagination and rainbows. 

---

I've finally knocked out some 2016 target games (two of them, in fact), but I'm so far behind on games writing that I'm not sure I'll ever write about them.  Whatever.  Just gotta keep writing.  In Super Sentai, I've finished Jetman and I'm almost done with Carranger - those two reviews will be next, but after that I'm less certain, because Zyuranger is a little boring.  Abaranger or Gingaman may catch up to Zyuranger in views, but it's not a certainty.  I'm also watching episodes of Zyuohger as they air, and it continues to be a delight.  Zyuohger's good, y'all. 

Also: I'm in the early stages of watching Magiranger and I plan on starting Kakuranger very soon.  Both of those seem promising.  Shout! Factory recently announced the release of Ohranger DVDs in the United States, and I'm a little torn.  I didn't like what I saw of Ohranger earlier this year and the show doesn't have a great reputation, but I want to support these DVD releases so I might get it anyway.  Probably would wait for a price drop in 2017.  Whatever.  Thanks for reading! 

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