Two of my last three entries were devoted to classic American TV shows, which means I’ve been neglecting one of my main interests—classic Japanese TV shows! There has been so much good stuff coming out on DVD in the last few years, both animated and live-action, that I’ve been building up an impossible backlog of shows. The big difference between my interests in classic American TV and Japanese TV is that the Japanese continue to turn out shows that engage me, so that the backlog includes shows from the 1960s to the 2010s! (My most recent American TV box set is probably “Police Story” Season One, from 1973!) The earliest Japanese TV show I have is the animated “Astro Boy,” which began its run in 1963, and the earliest live-action Japanese TV show I have is “Ultra Q,” which began its run in 1966. The latest in my collection is Volume 1 of “Ressha Sentai ToQger,” the latest sentai show in Japan, which began its run on Feb. 16 of this year, a month ago today! (More on sentai in a moment.) In between, I have dozens of shows, some complete and some in only a single volume of episodes, some on VHS, many on DVD, mostly animated, but many live-action as well. Most of the live-action shows in my collection fall into the tokusatsu category, a term for live-action special effects shows in the vein of “Ultraman” and “Kamen Rider.”
Sentai is a subcategory of tokusatsu and it refers to a specific franchise of “super team” shows featuring five team members in color-coded costumes that give their users super powers and enable them to fight assorted giant monsters and intergalactic villains who’ve come to Earth to wreak havoc. This franchise began with “Goranger” in 1975 and continued with a new team every year right up to the aforementioned “ToQger.” The sentai series were all produced by the Toei Company.
The 1992 sentai entry, “Zyuranger,” was taken by producer Haim Saban and reedited with a new cast of actors to become “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” which premiered as a syndicated series in the U.S. in August 1993. Its success meant the eventual adoption of the Japanese model and developing a new cast and new team every year to match the Japanese series. So, for instance, “Power Rangers Lightspeed Rescue” (2000) was modeled after “Kyukyu Sentai Go Go Five” (1999) and “Power Rangers Time Force” (2001) was modeled after “Mirai Sentai Timeranger” (2000). In every season, the American version uses the action sequences and effects footage from the Japanese original while intercutting new scenes with the American actors.
There are also many Japanese TV series with historical period settings. The first Japanese period show done in color was “Kamen no Ninja Akakage” (1967), which was more of a period fantasy than a historical drama, with tons of giant insects and lizards to aggravate our super-powered ninja heroes. Later series included “Lone Wolf and Cub” and “Zatoichi Monogatari,” both based on long-running movie franchises and both notable for having been released on DVD in the U.S. in Japanese with subtitles. Also released in the U.S. was the first season of an excellent ninja series, “Shadow Warriors,” starring Sonny Chiba as the legendary Iga Clan ninja leader Hattori Hanzo. (Chiba played a modern incarnation of this character in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL, VOL. 1.) Each episode of these three historical series plays like a mini-samurai or ninja movie, wrapping things up in 45 minutes instead of 90 minutes. All were shot on film amid standing sets and all used actors who also had notable film careers.
There have been dozens more historical series that are very highly regarded among fans but have not had any release in the U.S. The one I’m most eager to see is the 1984 edition of “Musashi Miyamoto,” based on Eiji Yoshikawa’s five-part series of novels recounting the life of the famous 17th century swordsman. The novels also served as the basis for two series of films about Musashi which have been released in the U.S. I’ve read the books and seen those movies, but I’d love to see this series, which was shot on film, unlike a later series based on the same material, which was shot on video and came out in 2001 and which I’ve since acquired as a box set but with no English translation.
The original “Ultraman,” which premiered in 1966 and ran for 39 episodes, has come out in a box set that includes both the Japanese-language track with English subtitles and the English dub track that was done for the series when it played on American TV, starting in 1966.
“Ultraman” was followed in Japan by numerous other seasons of Ultraman variations, including “Ultra Seven,” “The Return of Ultraman,” “Ultraman Ace,” “Ultraman Taro,” and “Ultraman Leo,” right up to “Ultraman Ginga,” an eleven-episode series that ran in Japan last year. Most of the Ultraman franchise is unavailable in English. I’ve picked up individual VHS tapes from Japanese video stores over the years, all in Japanese without subtitles. The Ultraman franchise was produced by Tsuburaya Productions, the company founded by GODZILLA special effects genius Eiji Tsuburaya.
“Ultra Seven” has finally come out in a box set in Japanese with English subtitles and it’s proven, to me at least, to be one of the very best in the “Ultra” franchise, with a level of science fiction seriousness that far surpasses the original “Ultraman,” which alienated me too often with its level of goofy humor derived from the comical antics of the Science Patrol members who often behaved incompetently or in a most cowardly fashion.
In “Ultra Seven,” they tend to be thorough no-nonsense professionals. When “Ultra Seven” ran on cable station TNT in the early 1990s, it had an English dub that aimed to be comical, filling the dialogue with double entendres and bad jokes (sometimes involving the planet Uranus) and nearly ruining the series. Fortunately, that dub is not included in the box set.
“Ultra Q,” the predecessor to “Ultraman,” is now out in a box set with English subtitles. It’s a monster-of-the-week show in black-and-white designed more along the lines of “Outer Limits” with a foreshadowing of “The X-Files” as its main cast of investigative reporters scout out monsters and supernatural mysteries every week. I’d previously seen a DVD volume with the first four episodes, all in Japanese with no translation, and reviewed that here in one of my earliest blog entries, on Feb. 15, 2012:
Now I need to watch the entire series and do a new entry on it.
“Kamen Rider” is another long-running superhero franchise. It’s about a cyborg hero who rides a motorcycle and fights assorted criminal masterminds and monsters. The first series was called “Kamen Rider” and it premiered in 1971 and ran for two years, yielding a total of 98 episodes. It’s never come out in English in the U.S., as far as I can tell, but it is available in subtitled form on YouTube. The series was created by Shotaro Ishinomori, a manga artist whose manga series, “Cyborg 009,” was the basis for an animated series in 1968 and various animated movies. Ishinomori also created “Goranger,” the first sentai series.
Later Kamen Rider series came out throughout the 1970s and ’80s and included various movie spin-offs, including three in the 1990s, which I own as fan-subbed VHS tapes (i.e. subtitled by fans) that I purchased at a comics show in the mid-1990s. A whole new wave of Kamen Rider series began again in 1999 and continues to this day. The only official Kamen Rider release that I have is a DVD of the movie, KAMEN RIDER THE FIRST (2005), which was released as MASKED RIDER – THE FIRST with a bilingual track by Tokyo Shock in 2007. According to Amazon, “Kamen Rider V3” has come out on DVD with English subtitles but is now out of print.
One Kamen Rider series, “Kamen Rider Black RX” (1988-89), was taken by Haim Saban and given the Power Rangers treatment to create a new series, “Masked Rider,” which aired from 1995-96 but didn’t take off like the Power Rangers did.
“Sukeban Deka” is another franchise worth mentioning here. It was a live-action series based on a manga (comic book) series about high school girls going undercover to investigate juvenile delinquency and other crimes and the protagonist used a yo-yo with razor-sharp blades as a weapon. I have three VHS tapes containing eleven episodes of the third season, “Sukeban Deka III,” from 1986-87, and I consider them among the most compelling of the live-action Japanese TV series I’ve encountered. Granted, they’re all in Japanese with no subtitles and there’s a lot of drama I can’t decipher, but it’s so beautifully shot and staged on locations in and out of Tokyo and at shrines, temples, cemeteries and industrial docks. The series seems to have one foot set in the modern, urban environment of Japan and one foot in its picturesque and storied past. And the three pop stars playing the Kazama sisters, heroines unique to the third season, are so cute and so earnest and engage in such intense dramatics with each other that I can’t help but feel the emotions of it all, even if I can’t follow the plot. Look at their expressions here–and this is just on the video case:
Here’s a link to my IMDB review of the series:
Years later, the franchise was revived for a feature film called SUKEBAN DEKA: CODE NAME SAKI ASAMIYA (2006), which was released in English as YO YO GIRL COP. This film caught my attention because it starred two of my own favorite Japanese pop stars, Aya Matsuura and Rika Ishikawa, in the leading roles. In 2010 I got to interview Ms. Ishikawa when she came to Comic Con in New York to promote a new act and a new clothing line. The interview appeared in the magazine, Otaku USA and on the magazine’s website:
Rika Ishikawa and Aya Matsuura at a press conference for their SUKEBAN DEKA film:
And a short promo for the film found on YouTube:
“Space Sheriff Gavan” (1982-83) ran for 44 episodes and details the adventures of a space hero who comes to Earth and has a secret identity running a stable and horse-riding academy for children but turns into the metal-suited title hero (and precursor to Robocop) when confronted with alien invaders. It’s got lots of martial arts, including many scenes in which Gavan fights intruders out of costume. The actor playing Gavan, Kenji Ohba, was an accomplished martial artist and does all of his own stunts. He was a protégé of Sonny Chiba and even plays Chiba’s sidekick in KILL BILL VOL. 1. “Gavan” is a great series but has never come out officially in the U.S. I have a complete set of it with English subtitles that came from somewhere in Hong Kong and was sold at a store in Chinatown.
A few other series are worth noting because they have come out in English versions.
“Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot” is the English-dubbed version of “Giant Robo” (1967), based on the same source material that gave us the early b&w anime series, “Tetsujin 28” (1964), better known as “Gigantor” when it played in an English-dubbed version in the U.S. “Johnny Sokko” played in English on American TV in the late 1960s and even spawned a theatrical feature, VOYAGE INTO SPACE, which played theatrically in the U.S. and on TV thereafter. “Johnny Sokko” is now out in a box set from Shout Factory, but it only has the English dub and not the Japanese track.
“Juzo Ningen Kikaida” (1972), also created by Shotari Ishinomori, came out on DVD briefly, but is now out of print. I have Volume 2 with episodes 6-10, picked up at a sale when Tower Records was closing up.
“Iron King” (1972) and “Super Robot Red Baron” (1973) are two giant robot series that are still available as complete series in box sets.
“Fight! Dragon” (1974) is a martial arts series that is also available as a complete series at relatively low cost. It stars Yasuaki Kurata, a Japanese actor with martial arts skills who made his name in Hong Kong kung fu films, usually playing a Japanese villain. For this series, he imported a lot of Hong Kong talent, including Bolo Yeung and Bruce Leung.
Over the years, I’ve picked up unsubtitled Japanese-language VHS tapes and DVDs from Japanese video stores in Manhattan, sometimes not even knowing what I was getting, just assuming from the box art that I was getting something truly special. One of my greatest finds was a one-hour TV special offering action clips from the aforementioned “Kamen no Ninja Akakage,” aka “Red Shadow.” It was a great introduction to a show I have little chance of seeing in any other form, although I’ve since picked up a gray-market DVD with English-dubbed “movie” compilations from the show. But that one-hour unsubtitled VHS tape is a far better viewing experience.
By all accounts, the first live-action Japanese show to air in the U.S. was “Ultraman,” which was syndicated to local stations and began airing in New York, at least, in 1966, the same year it premiered in Japan. I have found ads for it in New York papers from that year. I never saw it on TV myself. We did not have a working TV in my home by the time it started airing and I never came across reruns of it in later years. There was an even earlier show that played in the U.S. called “Phantom Agents,” a b&w secret agent-type show featuring ninja-style heroes who made impossible leaps. I remember seeing a segment of it on the old “Chuck McCann Show” but I don’t know if it got regular showings aside from that. If my memory is correct, then it would have predated “Ultraman.” “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot” also played on TV in the 1960s but I’m not sure where or when. I don’t recall it ever playing in New York and I don’t recall anyone ever talking about it. (I don’t recall anyone talking about “Ultraman” either, and that’s a show my circle of friends would have raved over.) “Space Giants” was another live-action giant robot show from that era that was dubbed in English for syndication in the U.S. It played in the U.S., but I don’t know if it ever played New York. I didn’t hear of it until I became a fan of anime over 20 years ago and began delving into all these Japanese shows that I’d never heard of before. I finally watched some episodes of “Space Giants” for the first time when I discovered them in their English-dubbed versions on YouTube recently. It’s a great show and I’d love to get it on DVD.
There hasn’t been much of a history of live-action Japanese shows airing widely on U.S. television beyond what I’ve cited here. Unless you grew up in Hawaii, of course, where subtitled editions of many of the shows I described above ran on local television. On a similar note, PBS stations that ran on UHF channels used to run subtitled Japanese historical dramas as part of a sponsored programming deal. When cable exploded in the U.S., Japanese broadcasters, most notably NHK, offered channels devoted to Japanese programming. For some reason, my cable package never seemed to offer these channels.
In trying to figure out the first live-action Japanese TV shows I was exposed to, I can only come up with that one viewing of “Phantom Agents” on the Chuck McCann Show and possibly a viewing of “Voyage into Space,” the Johnny Sokko movie, when it aired on a local channel back in the 1970s or ’80s. I may have tuned into a Japanese historical drama on UHF sometime in those years as well. I attended many Japanese film festivals in the 1970s and ’80s, but I don’t recall any TV programs being shown in any of them. After wracking my brains over this, I can only conclude that the first Japanese live-action TV episodes I ever saw in their entirety and knew what I was watching as I watched them were the very first ones in my collection, a VHS tape containing the first four episodes of “Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger” (1992), the sentai series that formed the basis of the original “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.” I had bought the tape from a dealer at a comics show in the fall of 1993 after “Power Rangers” had begun airing on TV in New York. I had either watched an episode of “Power Rangers” or read about the show and immediately assumed it had some kind of Japanese origin, so when I attended the next comics show I questioned the dealer to see if he knew what the basis of “Power Rangers” was and he immediately pulled out Volume 1 of “Zyuranger.” And thus began my entry into the world of sentai.
After watching the tape, I showed it to my daughter and two neighbor kids she was close to. The neighbor boy, nine-year-old Marcos, was stunned and kept saying, “My friends aren’t going to believe me when I tell them I saw this.” So I later asked him for a follow-up and he replied that, yeah, they didn’t believe him. Except, he said, for one girl who noticed that the Pink Ranger had a little skirt on her costume but that the Yellow Ranger didn’t, thus backing up his story that the Yellow Ranger was male in the original. In the American version both the Pink and Yellow Rangers were female, but in “Zyuranger” only the Pink Ranger was female. What a great eye that classmate of Marcos had.
Right now, Nickelodeon is running “Power Rangers Super Megaforce,” the newest Power Rangers season. It’s based on “Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger,” the 2011 entry in the Japanese sentai franchise, which has a pirate theme and features two of the best female ranger characters in quite some time. Similarly, the cast of “Super Megaforce,” which, in a rare move, carries over the cast from “Megaforce,” the previous PR season, has one of the best casts in a PR season in a long time. What distinguishes “Gokaiger” and “Super Megaforce” from previous seasons in both countries is that the team now has the power to transform into any past sentai/Power Ranger team, so we get to see them all in a host of different sentai/PR uniforms. And actors from the previous seasons pop up in both versions. More on all of this in a future entry.
The two casts react to the same thing, three years apart:
Look at those faces! Where else do you see such cheerful expressions on TV these days? “Breaking Bad”? “The Walking Dead”? “Boardwalk Empire”? I don’t think so.
What drives me to these shows, aside from the perennial perkiness on display, is the high level of imagination employed, the constant waves of action and the overall production values. These shows look good. If I’m entertained by so many of them in Japanese-language versions without subtitles, there must be something that draws me in. I’ve been a long-time advocate of the “man-in-the-rubber-suit” or “suitmation” mode of special effects and all the CGI in the world couldn’t pull me away from this preference. Granted, there’ve been great advances in CGI over the years and there’ve been instances in films here and there (e.g. Peter Jackson’s KING KONG) where I’ve been most impressed with the creation of a particular character or creature with CGI. But overall, I tend to be more comfortable with the movements of a living being, which is what we get in Japanese special effects shows when an actor puts on a rubber suit.
I’ll be writing more about all this when the newest Hollywood version of GODZILLA comes out in May.
I’ve been terribly remiss in leaving anime out of this mix, especially since there are so many great classic anime series that have come out in box sets in the last couple of years: “Princess Knight” (1967), “Cutie Honey” (1973), “Galaxy Express 999” (1978), “Captain Harlock” (1978), “Rose of Versailles” (1979), and “Space Adventure Cobra” (1982), to name the standouts among them. I guess I’ll have to save them for another entry.