Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tokusatsu and Kaiju Films

Admittedly, both Tokusatsu and Kaiju are relatively new words to my vocabulary. What I didn't know was that I've actually been a fan of these two genres since I was a child! The Japanese term tokusatsu literally translates to "special filming" and typically consist of live-action films and television shows that use a lot of special effects. Although the term is typically associated with TV shows featuring superheroes (such as Kamen Rider and Metal Hero), it's really more of an umbrella term that includes sub-genres such as mechas that features giant robots and kaiju films that typically feature giant monsters stomping around a city. The term tokusatsu has since become associated with the Japanese super hero shows depicted above.

I guess my fascination really began with none other than the King of Kaiju himself, Godzilla. Between TNT's MonsterVision and seemingly endless marathons on the Sci-Fi Channel (now called SyFy), it was hard not to catch some Godzilla every once in awhile. For fans like myself, however, this was an absolute blessing! I knew all the monsters in the Toho catalog before I knew my multiplication tables. I was hooked and I became a die hard fan for life! The appeal of guys in rubber suits stomping around a miniature city would set the stage for the next big obsession of my childhood.

Fast forward a few years, I'm in the first (maybe second grade) now and my first introduction to the tokusatsu genre came in the form of the American series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, adapted from the Japanese Super Sentai series. A long running series that was already on it's 16th season when we finally decided to adapt it for American audiences. Growing up on Kung Fu movies like the Once Upon a Time in China series starring Jet Li, I was already a huge fan of well-choreographed fighting. When Power Rangers exploded onto the market, they had the best fight choreography of any show on TV at the time! Naturally, I was addicted and became a Power Rangers fanatic all through my elementary school years. Now, 20 years after the first episode aired, I'm writing about the series on my blog and I'm still as much of a fan as I was when I was a kid.

Funny thing, I never noticed how they used stock footage from the Sentai series when I was a kid. I always noticed that Rita Repulsa's lips never matched what she was saying but I guess you just don't care about these things when you're a kid. (Plus, I was a fan of Kung Fu movies! I was used to seeing bad dubs) Another glaring difference in the footage that I never noticed was the shield that the Green Ranger wore. The footage from the Sentai series had an awesome shield but the scenes with Tommy always had some crappy cloth version. Probably the most disturbing difference is the fact that the Yellow Ranger was some super hottie Asian girl on our show but in the original Sentai series, it was a boy! Named Boi!!!! My whole world is a lie....

Power Rangers is celebrating their 20-year anniversary this year with their latest season, Power Rangers Megaforce, along with merchandise from the original series such as the Toys "R" Us exclusive die-cast metal Legacy Power Mopher (above) and the Armored Red Ranger (below) wearing the Green Ranger's shield.

As a kid, I had the original Megazord (and probably about 6 other Megazords, leading up to Power Rangers Zeo's Super Zeozords), the Dragon Dagger, the Power Morpher and Blade Blaster, the handheld game with power cards to swipe, the entire set of trading cards, and more action figures than I can possibly remember. Yup, this show will be forever cemented in my mind for being such a HUGE part of my childhood. This entire series is being released by the guys over at Shout! Factory, which in my honest opinion, is probably the best (or at least my favorite) entertainment label at the moment. They also happen to be celebrating their 10-year anniversary this year!

Following the success of the Power Rangers show, producers quickly adapted more Japanese tokusatsu shows for American audiences. Saban Entertainment were the ones who pioneered this trend, pumping out series after series that mostly paled in the wake of Power Ranger's massive popularity. We were given shows like VR Troopers, which only had a 3 teens as opposed to the original 5 in Power Rangers. The show was apparently compiled from three different seasons of the Japanese series Metal Hero. I have to admit, I was never a big fan of this show because I was just so into Power Rangers. I tried to catch it whenever I came across it while channel surfing but I wouldn't go out of my way to set my VCR to record it. The only episode I can remember has one of the Troopers separated from the other two and had to fight the villain alone. The "monster of the day" in this episode was a magician who could use things like playing cards as a weapon. I really can't remember much more than that but I believe it's available for streaming on Netflix now. This series is also on DVD from Shout! Factory.

Although DIC Entertainment tried their hand at importing tokusatsu, resulting in the show Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, it ultimately proved to be a failed attempt at winning the hearts of Power Rangers fans. Adapted from the Japanese show Denkou Choujin Gridman, the original story was of three kids who design a video game character that gets possessed by an inter-dimensional police officer and merges with one of the kids. In a similar storyline, the American show was about three kids in a band who eventually get drawn into "Syber-space" during band practice and must fight monsters called Mega-Viruses. The show was actually pretty bad but the costumes were totally freakin' awesome!!!

Servo looked cool as hell and the rest of his band, who would eventually get powers too, could combine to make a Megazord-like battle armor. I was never a big fan of this show either but really wanted the toys because the costumes looked so cool. I found out much later that Tim Curry voiced the main villain, Kilokahn, in the American version. 

LMAO just look at this bunch of assclowns!!!

DIC also tried to emulate the success of Power Rangers by producing their own low-budget knockoff. Teenagers? Check. Magic powers that allow them to transform and fight evil? Check. The ability to combine their powers to create an even greater force to fight villains? Check. Long, ridiculous title? Double check! What was the name of this show? Well, they were none other than Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills! Now, in case you haven't figured it out yet, it's about a group of four TEENAGERS this time that reside in BEVERLY HILLS (shock) and they were given magical TATTOOS by an ALIEN... oh, forget it, I'm sure you get the point. Actually, the tattoos were really just a way for their alien leader to contact them. (Kinda like the communicators from Power Rangers) The tattoos would flash when they were needed and when they put their arms together to make a square, they would combine into a powerful knight named... Knightron. Yeah, this show was exactly as bad as it sounds. Aside from the fact that the show looked totally crappy because it was filmed on videotape rather than film stock, they screwed up the symbols that were used as tattoos. In the show, they were known as Galactic Sentinels (which is MUCH shorter than what the title calls them) and their powers were based on constellations. The only problem is, they mixed up some of the symbols for their tattoos!!! That's pretty bad considering the show is about TATTOOED teenagers. At least they attempted to break certain conventions with this show such as the group not really being close friends and even having problems getting along at times. When they were gone, people would actually notice they were missing. And if I'm not mistaken, they would be huge and fight the "monster of the day" themselves instead of calling on a giant robot of some kind.

Saban went on to adapt Masked Rider from the ninth Kamen Rider series. The story is about an alien prince that crashes on Earth and is adopted by a loving family in a story similar to that of Superman. The series it was adapted from was Kamen Rider Black RX that apparently was a continuation of the story before it. Apparently, the hero from Kamen Rider Black had settled down with a day job when he was approached to join a new organization intent on world domination. When he refused, the source of his powers (King Stone) was destroyed so he couldn't transform and he was hurled into space. (Freakin' brutal!) Luckily for him, the sun's radiation mutated his King Stone and allowed him to transform into Kamen Rider Black RX! I wonder what the RX stood for? Radiated Xtra? Never followed the Masked Rider show much myself, there was just something about it that never really grabbed my attention. Since then, I've started watching some of the Kamen Rider movies and a few episodes of the shows. I'm a much bigger fan of the Kamen Rider series now and have a deeper appreciation for the show. I'm curious to go back and watch the American show to see why I was never really interested in it. Perhaps the story for the American adaptation just wasn't interesting enough? I mean, some motorcyle riding bugman from space fights off an alien invasion... what's not to like?

 Fun fact: There was a 3-part episode of Power Rangers that featured an appearance from the Masked Rider about a week before his own series debuted. This is the closest we would come to an epic crossover episode here in the states... unless you count the Power Rangers in Space episodes where they crossed over with Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation. Although it doesn't really count because Masked Rider wasn't even established yet when he appeared on Power Rangers. The Masked Rider show never made mention of Power Rangers even though his home planet of Edenoi was supposedly where Alpha 5 was built.

One show that I did end up watching was Big Bad Beetleborgs, about three young kids who wander into a haunted mansion of sorts. The inside of which is filled with classic movie monsters the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. They're given the ability to transform into the Big Bad Beetleborgs by a clown ghost who seems to be the ring leader in the monster circus. (Also looks like a blue faced Jay Leno in a magician's outfit) Their enemies came out of comic books, if I remember correctly, as the comic book store was one of the preferred hangouts for the three kids. The kids would also gain special abilities due to their powers, as I remember the girl being super strong and one of the boys could run really fast. I forget what the last one did but I'm sure it's not really important anyway because the kids would never fight any villains without having transformed first. So all the fight scenes come from the footage they had from Japan. Note: This show was actually adapted from the Japanese Metal Hero series, which was the same show that VR Troopers was adapted from, but they used different seasons for each of the shows. That would also explain why both shows had teams of three heroes. I wasn't as big of a fan of this show as I was Power Rangers but I did watch this more than any of the other shows I've mentioned. I also remember them having insect-like vehicles that they would call on like zords, only they never combined to make a giant robot or anything. I think I was expecting that to happen after watching Power Rangers.

I liked when they eventually introduced the Shadowborg character but I'm just a sucker for evil versions of superheroes. I remember running to Toys "R" Us and buying the Shadowborg action figure shortly after I saw him on TV. Fun fact: If you watch the Power Rangers: Wild Force episode, "Forever Red" a couple of the Beetleborg costumes are recycled and used as generals of the Machine Empire. I think about 5 random Beetleborg costumes were used including Shadowborg and the original green Beetleborg. (Note: This series also has a release from Shout! Factory)

Yes, Pokemon is also celebrating their 15 Year Anniversary this year!

Right around middle school, tokusatsu was out and Pokemon was in. Pokemania was everywhere and the tokusatsu shows of yesteryear faded in our memories. For me, that's when I began to "outgrow" those shows if only for the time being. That lasted until I was old enough to start working and could afford my own Netflix account. Netflix opened a whole new world to me and here are some of my discoveries since:

I rented a few flicks from Netflix that reminded me of my Power Rangers days, the first of which is titled Zeiram. The story is about an intergalactic bounty hunter (a girl named Iria) who is trying to stop an escaped alien. Two bumbling electricians get caught up in the chaos and Iria must rescue these two idiots while trying to stop the rogue alien Zeiram. This movie is actually based on an anime series and the resemblances to the Power Rangers/Super Sentai shows were probably accidental. Either way, this gets an honorable mention from me. (There is also a live-action sequel, Zeiram 2)

Hakaider was another film that I stumbled across that was reminiscent of the Kamen Rider series. A cyborg killing machine has lost its memory and is convinced by a group of rebels to fight against a evil tyrannical ruler in a post-apocalyptic world. Based on a TV series Kikaider, this live-action adaptation was pretty entertaining. Not to mention the fact that he's known as the "Mechanical Violator", which is probably the greatest nickname I've ever heard. Ever.

Shaw Brothers, a Chinese movie studio known for their mega-violent Kung Fu films, tried their hand at the Tokusatsu genre with Super Infra-Man!!! This movie wasn't quite as violent as other Shaw Brothers films tend to be, but was definitely steeped in tokusatsu fun. This movie was made to capitalize on the success of Ultraman and Kamen Rider in Hong Kong. Funny story about Ultraman's popularity, but we'll come back to that a little later.

Next up is the ridiculous and hilarious Karate-Robo Zaborgar, which is filled with director Noboru Iguchi's signature sense of humor. What else would you expect from the director of such notable titles like Dead Sushi and Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Living Dead? This fun filled throwback to tokusatsu shows of yesteryear, is more than just a simple homage to the genre. Wasn't until the credits rolled, and the clips were shown, that I finally realized this show is adapted from a 1970's show titled Denjin Zaborger!

Judging by the clips, this movie was a pretty faithful adaptation of the show it was based on. Even though I don't have any nostalgic memories of the this show, I still find it super cool that I was introduced to yet another tokusatsu series this way. Yes, that's his dead brother in the robot and yes, he turns into a motorcycle and back.

Finally, we arrive at the whole reason I felt the need to write this entire post to begin with. I finally got around to watching Kamen Rider X Super Sentai: Super Hero Taisen awhile back and it turned out to be every fanboy's wet dream!!! I'm a total sucker for crossovers but this took it to a whole new level. The movie starts out with Kamen Riders and Super Sentai actually killing each other off! Not your typical "We must work together to ensure peace!" type of storyline for this crossover, the leader of each team is actively trying to exterminate the opposing faction. Before I get ahead of myself, here's a little background on why this movie was so epic. The most recent incarnation of Super Sentai is about a group of space pirates that travel to different galaxies in search of a great treasure. [Edit: As a reader pointed out, Go-Busters had already started by the time of this movie's release] Along the way, they're collecting these "keys" that give them the ability to transform into any of the previous Sentai series. The season began with an epic war that saw over 100+ different sentai combine their powers in order to defeat an evil invading army and protect Earth. As a Power Rangers fanboy, I was already drooling when watching this war. Add to that the most recent season of Kamen Rider follows a Rider by the name of Decade who has a similar ability, to change into previous forms of Riders for battle. [Edit: As the same reader pointed out, Decade was a series from 2009, who was then succeeded by W, OOO, and Fourze by the time of this movie's release] This resulted in one of the most epic crossovers I have ever seen, as ALL the previous Super Sentai clash with the entire line up of Kamen Riders. Like I said, a total fan-gasm for anyone who watched either series growing up. I would highly recommend this movie to anyone!!!

Yes, I realize this is from a video game but it was the best pic I could find!

Up until now, I've been focusing mostly on Tokusatsu because I feel like that had the most development for me in recent months. Equally as big of a part of my childhood were the Kaiju films that I watched growing up. As I've mentioned before, I was a MAJOR fan of Godzilla growing up and so I know all of Toho's movie monster catalog by heart. I was a big fan of all the King Kong movies and pretty much any movie where you can see a giant monster stomping around a city. Shaw Brothers, once again trying to capitalize on the popularity of a genre, they released The Mighty Peking Man following the success of the 1976 King Kong remake. I saw a lot of the Kaiju films after I got my own Netflix account back in '05.

How many of them can you name?

That's how I stumbled onto classic Kaiju films like The War of the Gargantuas, Frankenstein Conquers The World, and several of the Gamera movies including the newer movies which are simply amazing! I think Gamera got the better treatment from movie studios cause his movies are totally freakin' AWESOME!!! Nowadays, giant monster movies are making a comeback. Gone are the days of guys in suits stomping around a miniature model of the city, CGI is how the monsters are brought to life nowadays. While lacking in the charm that Kaiju films had, it's nice to see giant monsters look like they're really stomping through a city. Some of the better giant monster movies lately are Cloverfield where we get to see what an alien invasion would look like from the perspective of an individual (holding a camcorder. There was also The Mist, based on a Stephen King story, where the army accidentally opens a portal to another dimension and monsters come out of it. That movie was creepy when I saw it in theaters. Finally, while not really a giant monster, The Host was a cool little Korean flick about a mutant fish monster that comes up on land and kidnaps a little girl. The rest of the film is about her family trying to get her back and plays out more like a comedy.  

Kaiju films are becoming a hot commodity in Hollywood because who DOESN'T enjoy seeing entire cities leveled by giant... ANYTHINGS! That's exactly why I'm SUPER excited for the release of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim!!! I won't spend too much time on this because I've already been covering the film for awhile now. I do want to say that this is Del Toro's contribution to a genre that he seems to genuinely love. That's what excites me the most about this movie is that it is in the hands of someone who is passionate about the film they are making. Not to mention Del Toro's work on Pan's Labyrinth was simply amazing, I'm really looking forward to seeing what he can do with the monsters in his movie. For those of you who are new to this blog, or hearing about this movie for the first time, Pacific Rim promises to be an all out epic battle between giant mechas and kaiju! The story is about giant monsters that came from beneath the ocean and attacked our cities. With humanity on the brink of extinction, we decide to fight back by building giant robots to battle the giant monsters. Totally freakin' EPIC!!!!

Finally, the one show that I feel obligated to mention here is Ultraman. The popularity of this show is so wide-reaching that Chinese people even have their own nickname for Ultraman because it's a household name. (We call him the "Salty Egg Superman" because his eyes resemble the salty eggs found at the center of mooncakes) I've even been told this show is really popular in Thailand too. This show is a prime example of not only the tokusatsu genre but the daikaiju genre as well. In fact, this show is such a rare beast that they reserved the term Ultra-kaiju to describe the monsters found in the Ultra series. The only reason I didn't dedicate more of this post to Ultraman is because I never really watched much of the show as a kid. And by not much, I mean none at all. I always knew who Ultraman was by the way everyone talked about him and the toys were EVERYWHERE!!! (When you grow up in Chinatown like I did, you see Ultraman pop up in pretty much any store you walk-in) Wasn't until a couple years ago that I picked up the complete Ultraman series and have seen a few episodes since. Due to the "ultra" popularity of this series, I have to admit that I was a bit intimidated about writing on the subject since I have practically no knowledge of the show nor any memories to write from. The only thing that I can mention is that there was a hobby shop I went to as a kid that had a window display on both sides of the entrance. On one side would be all the Godzilla monster toys (probably with some Gamera ones thrown in) and the other side would have all Ultraman toys. I went there to look at Godzilla toys, of course, but was always fascinated by all the other toys in the display. I could spend hours just staring through the window at all the toys lined up. Unfortunately, that's about all I have to say  regarding Ultraman but anyone looking for more info can just do a quick Google search. I'm sure it would yield an obscene number of results.

For anyone who had their imaginations captured by either of these genres or any of these shows, I hope that you may never lose your love for these shows or movies. I know that I, for one, have been sharing my passion for them with my nieces and nephew. I hope everyone out there does the same to help keep shows like these alive. We need more stuff like this on TV so our kids grow up watching shows about fighting for good and having their imaginations stimulated, rather than putting on crap like iCarly and whatever else they try to pass off for kids shows nowadays. Let's all do our part to keep childhoods AWESOME!!!!!!

In conclusion, I would like to thank everyone who takes the time to read this and know that I will come back to this topic MANY times throughout the blog. So if I missed one of your personal favorites, sound off in the comments section and I'll cover it the next time I come back to this topic.