There's a lot going on here. Jetman is heavily influenced by Gatchaman, an early 70s animated show that was a major inspiration for the first Super Sentai shows. Jetman owes its bird gimmick and a few character concepts to Gatchaman. I've only seen a few episodes of the original Gatchaman, as a poorly-translated dub version called Battle of the Planets. Jetman was quite successful in Japan - it was a ratings hit and often tops lists of Super Sentai popularity polls. I took note of Jetman early in my Super Sentai obsession, but was also slightly leery of pre-Power Rangers Super Sentai shows for dumb reasons. I finally got around to it last month, and I'm glad I did. Jetman's awesome.
- I usually refer to main characters by title or color because it's easier
- I will mention spoilers through episode 32, when Red Hawk discovers Maria's true identity
Full Title: Choujin Sentai Jetman
Air Date: February 1991 to February 1992
Series Number: 15th
Video Content: 51 episodes, 1 special
Jetman has several really interesting concepts at work. It's the only Super Sentai that uses birds as its visual gimmick ("Choujin" is usually translated as "birdman" or "winged"), and I think it's the first Super Sentai to showcase a love triangle within its team AND the first Super Sentai with a major-implications rivalry between two teammates. I've only done limited research on this, but if that's true then it's a big deal - those are major Super Sentai firsts, and are pulled off remarkably well in Jetman. As such, Jetman feels less like a show for kids than most other Super Sentai I've seen - the romance and rivalry are major subplots that produce serious drama and it references a show from twenty years earlier that little kids in 1991 probably hadn't seen. Jetman is also the direct inspiration for the Phoenix Ranger Featherman show in the Persona video games. Since I adore Persona, I enjoyed seeing that connection.
Jetman's story sets a bleak outlook right from the first episode. The Japanese military selects five candidates for the "Jetman project" in which five soldiers will be treated with "birdonic waves" to give them superhuman strength and agility, as well as making them compatible with super suits and specialized tech. Ryu Tendo and his fiancée Rie are two of the five candidates. However, tragedy strikes during the birdonic wave treatment process when the Vyram, inter-dimensional alien invaders, attack the base, dragging Rie into a portal and destroying the birdonic wave machine. In the end, Ryu gains birdonic wave powers (becoming Red Hawk of the Jetmen) and the rest of the super-radiation is scattered across Japan, striking four random citizens. Eventually, these five become the Jetman squadron, humanity's hope against the terrorism and tyranny of the Vyram.
The pace of Jetman's story is slower than that of modern Sentai, especially for the first few episodes; this is appreciated, and I wish modern Sentai would do similar (but they won't). We don't even meet any of the main cast other than Red and the team mentor in the first episode. There are several training scenes in early episodes, since the four Jetmen other than Red aren't military and two of them aren't interested in being soldiers at first. We don't see the series combination mecha until episode six. This would be unthinkable today, since there are full transformation scenes and a giant robot battle in the first episode of every recent Super Sentai, but seeing the pace stretched out a bit longer than I'm used to is great. Jetman takes its time with plot development and I really like that.
The tone of Jetman feels darker than just about every Super Sentai I've seen. Ordinary citizens die in a ton of Jetman episodes, usually killed by the monster of the week. There's an episode where people turn into ant monsters and end up devouring pets and livestock. And of course, like all Super Sentai shows, skyscrapers and large buildings are destroyed with startling regularity. The Vyram are cruel and twisted, making Sentai villains from the past 15 years seem toothless and cartoonish by comparison. Maybe I haven't seen enough tokusatsu shows or I'm looking too deeply into it, but Jetman seems to do things to bystanders that a modern Sentai would never consider. And it's pretty cool! Scarier situations make for a more dramatic, intense show! I wouldn't mind seeing a new Sentai show get as fucked-up as Jetman's murder bus and giant robot powered by enslaved human batteries!
Red Hawk: Ryu Tendo, a special forces soldier and pilot
Black Condor: Gai Yuki, a jazz musician and ladies' man
Yellow Owl: Raita Oishi, a vegetable farmer
White Swan: Kaori Rokumeikan, a wealthy heiress
Blue Swallow: Ako Hayasaka, a high school girl
The Jetmen are a pretty diverse team, as they come from very different backgrounds and are total strangers prior to the birdonic waves accident. Red is a career military officer and more straight-laced and boy-scoutlike than Clark Kent; when he goes to the pub with Black he orders milk. Milk! Black is in some ways Red's opposite, a rake with multiple girlfriends who loves drinking whiskey and challenging authority. Black is the most reluctant teammate in the group and threatens to leave the Jetmen a few times. White is a rich, pretty young woman who lives in a manor house with a butler. She is the least confident of the group and quickly becomes involved in a love triangle with Red and Black. Yellow is a farmer from the country who is a bit of a bumpkin; Blue is a spunky high school student who is the youngest and least serious of the group. Yellow and Blue get far less screen time than the other three. The Jetmen are mentored by Commander Odagiri, a somewhat severe woman who is a capable military leader who certainly cares for her charges.
The rivalry between Red and Black and the "love polygon" between Red, Black, White, and Red's ex-fiancée are key subplots in Jetman that are interesting to see, can be occasionally frustrating, and ultimately end up defining the show. White falls in love with Red shortly after meeting him. Black falls in love with White with similar quickness. Red rejects White because he still has feelings for his lost fiancée. As a result, Black clashes with Red early and often, furious that White would choose Red over him and also upset that Red is hurting White's feelings by not accepting her. Seriously, Red and Black get into fistfights at least six or seven times. These relationships are complicated when Red's fiancée resurfaces and White's feelings waver around the series' midpoint.
Jetman's core cast is quite strong. All five are capable actors, and Red and Black are handsome dudes and believable in their roles. Black Condor is one of the most compelling Sentai characters I've ever seen - he's a badass both in and out of his super suit, and has a rough edge to him. Black's hitting on White is borderline sexual harassment and his rivalry with Red feels like team sabotage at times, but his eventual character turn is pretty great. My biggest complaint about the Jetman cast is that Blue Swallow didn't get enough screen time, as her spotlight episodes were few and far between, but her character is quite entertaining. Avoiding spoilers, I also have a few issues with Jetman's ending, but it's certainly memorable and it's even addressed in the Jetman episode of Gokaiger. Jetman's characters are definitely written with a more adult audience in mind than recent Sentai teams, but it's mostly for the better. Great stuff overall.
The Vyram are an inter-dimensional crew of villains who honestly aren't great at working together. They were ruled by an Empress prior to the start of Jetman, but her departure left a leadership void and the Vyram are constantly infighting as a result. Radiguet is probably the central Vyram villain, a blue swordsman with monstrous power. Tranza resembles a human boy, and has a variety of psychic powers and technological mastery at his disposal. Grey is a sentient robot (possibly a cyborg? Not sure) armed to the teeth. Maria resembles a young human woman who is the object of affection for both Radiguet and Grey (somehow). All four are evil motherfuckers, and decide early on that whichever of them vanquishes the Jetman squadron gets to rule the Vyram.
Vyram foot soldiers are called Grinam (they're black and orange, but not terribly unique as far as Sentai foot soldiers go) and Monsters of the week in Jetman are called Dimensional Beasts. In the first half of Jetman, Dimensional Beasts are created by a Vyram placing a Dimension Bug on any object, and the object turns into a monster. Two particularly memorable ones are Noodle Dimension (created from a cup of instant noodles) and Dryer Dimension (created from a hair dryer). These can get pretty silly-looking. In the second half of Jetman, Dimensional Beasts also take on animal characteristics, resulting in monsters that resemble rejected Mega Man X bosses: Sniper Cat and Adhesive Cockroach were among the monsters of the week later on in Jetman.
Most of the more memorable encounters in Jetman are when the show bucks the Dimension Bug trend, with one of the Vyram fighting the Jetmen directly or a giant robot or alien creature getting involved. The Vyram are among the better villains in Super Sentai history. Radiguet is notably malicious and cruel, and also has several one-on-one duels with Red Hawk. Tranza is more capricious and childish than the other Vyram, but just as dangerous as Radiguet and has a memorable story arc in the second half of Jetman. Grey is more honorable and taciturn than the others, but is just as ruthless and often clashes with Black Condor. Maria, who from her introduction is clearly Red Hawk's fiancee with her memory altered, is at odds with her past life as a human, but is involved as just as many evil plots as her new allies. The Vyram are a cool group of bad guys and I loved seeing them in action. But seriously, if it wasn't for the Vyram's team turmoil and constant sabotage of each other, the Jetmen would've been wiped out by episode 25.
This time I'm forgoing my usual descriptions of each character's weapons and mechs in this section, because in Jetman they aren't different enough to bring up. Each Jetman has an identical arsenal for combat on foot: a sword, a blaster, a heavy blaster introduced later, and retractable wings on their suit that allow them to fly and glide in limited amounts. Some of the fight gimmicks are pretty cool, but it's too bad that the heroes don't have unique individual weapons - I like seeing a unique arsenal between different Sentai teammates. The Jetmen use coordinated shots with their heavy blasters and a team-wielded cannon as finishing moves; at least 80% of Super Sentai shows have team cannon finishers. I would've liked to see the wing suits used more often, but the special effects technology of the time may have limited what they could do in the air.
But that's not to say that the suit combat in Jetman is bad or lacks personality. Blue and Yellow differentiate themselves from the rest in fighting styles - Blue performs more acrobatic flips than anyone else and Yellow has a penchant for throwing rocks and heavy objects at foes. Red and Black are the two best fighters and are involved in most of the 1v1 showdowns against important villains. Jetman also has a significant number of fights out of suit (definitely an early 90s thing, but I love it) and plenty of combat in confined spaces like corridors and small rooms, including inside a bus in one early episode. The suit action in Jetman isn't as flashy as most of the fighting in modern Sentai, but it's at least adequate.
The individual mechs for the Jetmen are quite similar (five bird-themed planes called Jet Machines) but have a few differentiating features. Yellow Owl's plane has a crane for dropping boulders on enemies, for example. Anyhow, most of the time the five planes form the starting mecha Jet Icarus before giant-size combat begins. Around episode 20, the team obtains a second mecha called Jet Garuda, which has a griffin-like birdman design. Jet Icarus and Jet Garuda can combine to form the large humanoid mecha Great Icarus. All three of those mecha look sharp, with a predominantly red-black-yellow motif. There's a smaller, blue, third mecha, Tetra Boy, who occasionally shows up in the latter half of the series for special attacks.
I really enjoyed the practical effects used for mecha combat in Jetman, which are similar for most Super Sentai 90s series at least through Kakuranger. Jetman's mecha fights are also lengthy and interesting - fights are rarely just a finishing move like they often are in Dairanger (which is only two years later). Plenty of bulky movement in cardboard suits. There are also some surprisingly grim moments in Jetman's suit combat that would have traumatized me if I saw this show as a little kid: at one point Jet Icarus has its arms ripped off by a monster and is under maintenance for a full episode. Yikes. Anyway, the mecha in Jetman aren't terribly complex or numerous, but look great. Overall I preferred the mecha combat in Jetman to its suit combat, which might be a personal Super Sentai first.
The Jetman suits are terrific - I really like the suits for every Super Sentai series from '91 to '94. The bird designs and helmets look pretty good, I love the white and yellow highlights in each suit, and I super-love the variations between suits (Yellow has black highlights instead of yellow ones, and White has pink tights instead of white ones). The wings are a really nice visual element as well when they're out. Great-looking super suits. When at their base or in training, the Jetman team wears flight suits and commander Odagiri wears a smart blue military uniform. Looking sharp all around.
The gadgets employed by Jetman are pretty much only their "cross changer" wrist transform devices and their vehicles (two motorcycles, a small race car thing, and a truck). Nothing special there. I like how often they used those vehicles in general, especially Black and Red's driving shenanigans and a few early episodes where they underwent pilot training. The regular clothes worn by the main cast are surprisingly not-bad for 1991. Red wears preppy shirts and jackets, Yellow dresses in overalls or suspenders, Blue dresses in girls' uniforms and sportswear, White mostly wears dresses and blouses, and Black wears dark trousers and brown or gray suit jackets. Pretty inoffensive for the 90s, unlike some truly awful fashion choices in later seasons. Black's probably the best-dressed of the bunch.
The Jetman headquarters is a military base with a command center, a lab, and a large engineering bay for their Jet Machines. It's a pretty nice setup, appropriate for a Super Sentai HQ without being too boring. You see a lot of a the same rock quarry, public park, and junkyard for fight scenes, which I should be used to by now since Toei had the same sets for the entire 1990s it seems. The Jetman music is delightfully retro: the opener is a breezy pop tune with a catchy "JET-O JET-O JET-O-MAN" hook and the closing song is a cute number about eggs and togetherness (?) whose accompanying scrapbook video is sort of bizarre. The music in Jetman isn't bad, but I usually skipped both songs anyway.
The Final Word
Favorite Hero: Black Condor
Favorite Villain: Grey
Favorite Mecha: Jet Garuda
Favorite Episodes: Blue Swallow's teddy bear (21), Black Condor's gambling duel (39)
Jetman is a little dated as a Super Sentai show, but its story and characters are absolutely top notch. The rivalry and romance subplots are famous within Super Sentai (and are mostly great), and even most of the individual filler episodes are excellent. Sure, the action is a mixed bag, some characters could use more screen time, and some visual elements seem generic to a 2016 viewer. Regardless, Jetman is one of the best Super Sentai seasons. Full stop.
I'm neck-deep in my pop culture interests right now. I've finished Carranger and that will be the next Sentai review for this site. I'm in the mid-30s range for Gingaman and late-40s for Zyuranger, so those should be the next two (with Zyuranger first). I also tried watching a few Kamen Rider shows, and was impressed. You'll see Super Hero Time reviews of a few Kamen Riders later this year, starting with 2011's Kamen Rider OOO (which I finished a few nights ago). I'm also playing like five video games. It's amazing I have time to write anything.