Reaching back 37 years, the Super Sentai shows (only called "sentai" at first) were offshoots of the popular Kamen Rider shows (in point of fact, the same guy created them)--it was decided that more colourful people kicking the shit out of montsers would do well with kida, and they were more or less right, as Goranger (the first sentai) was well-received and had a rather long run. The follow-up series, JAKQ fared less well, and seemed to be the end of the Sentai cycle.
Then,, who should show up but Marvel Comics? No, really. Marvel inks a deal with Toei, longtime producer to develop TV shows for Japan. This, then, was the result:
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For all that Spider-Man can be taken on its own merits (if you have any familiarity with the character, this is like some crazy-ass acid trip) this show, though it didn't last long, set the paradigm for the Super Sentai to come: Colourful characters, slick vehicles, and a giant robot to haul out three minutes before the end of the episode were the last critical bit of DNA that was needed to make the sentai show into the "super sentai" paradigm.
So Marvel and Toei collaborated on another show, Battle Fever J, this one based on Captain America. Oh, and Saturday Night Fever. I know, I know--look, it's better if you see for yourself:
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It's OK--my head exploded the first time I saw it, too.
Early on, they're pretty basic kid's shows--there's a few heavier things going on, but it's awhile yet before things get heavier and they get a bit more ambitious in terms of the stories they're telling. The good thing about changing up series every year is that it prevents one approach from getting dull. So one year you have a wacky series that has a light touch, one that's a little darker, next time, etc. I'm not gonna go through all of them (there's 37 of them, we'd be here all day) but I will tell you about a couple I was rather struck by:
Liveman is, for a kid's show, mightily fucking depressing and surprisingly violent. Three students of a colony of academics find that three of their good friends have joined an army/cult/whatever in the name of personal glory and kill two of their other friends, only to vanish for two years. Upon returning, in command of the aptly named Volt, they then proceed to kill . . .oh, conservatively, nearly a thousand more people, and this is just the first two episodes. The Livemen, initially understaffed, try their damnedest to save their rivals no matter what, especially when it comes to pass that the commander of Volt, the very David Bowie esque Doctor Bias, may have his own agenda.
I've recently started watching this show and. . .wow, it's some heavy stuff. Themes of betrayal and redemption and hanging on to hope and faith in other people even when they've turned their backs on you. Oh yeah, and a dude gets pregnant. That's not a vote in the show's favour (it's really kinda weird, but then, y'know, Japan) it's just. . .not . . .typical.
For a kid's show that's supposedly about "loving the planet" or whatever the hell, it's really quite bleak, which is rather surprising, but its very worthwhile and takes real care to establish everyone as wholly-rounded characters.
Jetman, if you've ever seen Battle of the Planets, may look a bit familiar. In a sense, it begins as a live-action version of it, but quickly goes its own way. For one things, there's a lot going on--a number of X-Men-esque relationships begin and are broken over the course of the show. For another, the team barely gets along under the best of circumstances (take a drink every time Black Condor punches the leader, and you will be polluted in short order) and the villains are an interesting bunch--less a vast organisation devoted to an evil goal than four aliens trying to one-up the other and having their own agendas. Also, it has a robot who smokes cigarettes and drinks wine, because of awesomeness.
It also has one of the ballisest endings I've ever seen for a show like this, and I will not spoil it under any circumstances. It's too awesome.
Timeranger is an interesting beast--for one thing, because the pink Ranger is the leader in this series, and for another because pretty much everyone in this show has a story arc. Some of them multiple story arcs in different versions. It keeps from being too confusing because all of these sub-conflicts tie into a larger, over-aching theme: can you change your destiny?
It's a pretty bleak series (I mean, it's obsessed with the notion of fatalism, so that kinda follows) One of the Rangers is dying of a terminal illness, one of their allies is willful and unwilling to join in with the others, and one of the villains is getting more and more insane over the course of the season to the point where he's a danger to friend and foe alike.
It's not as good as the American version (even though they share a lot of story beats. I'm . . .not the biggest fan of that, really. Direct adaptations never really work that well, as the most recent Power Rangers Samurai proves: sometimes there are way too indigenous to fully translate) but only just.
As I've mentioned before over the course of the week, barring the occasional team-up, Super Sentai don't cross over that much. Even when they do, they specifically eschew the concept that there's any kind of shared universe--they just kinda show up, like that Superman/Spider-Man book where Peter Parker takes a trip to Metropolis just like that. So when Gokaiger came along, it was kind of a big deal, for two reasons. One, because the whole shebang begins with something called the Legend War, which features EVERY SUPER SENTAI EVER (They call it the 199 Hero Great Battle for a reason) uniting to fight the baddies of the season, which you can see in the first six minutes of the clip below:
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Fun fact: they're hyping the 2013 Power Rangers series with a 10-second shot from this film of the Rangers en masse. The room collectively lost their damn minds at the promise of that much awesomeness.
What's more, the series consists of the Gokaigers (space pirates hunting for the greatest treasure in the universe) meeting past Rangers from all series. Now, if they did this sort of grand-scale crossover thing all the time (as superhero comics do) it'd get a bit old. Thankfully, they've only done it twice--Gokaiger and a crossover with Kamen Rider (which had actually crossed over as early as the 70's) which keeps it potent. It's a great nostalgia trip for everyone who's been along for the ride, and it's novel because this kinda thing isn't really supposed to happen under the rules. Kinda like a multiple-Doctors episode of Doctor Who, only it delivers on the promise.
So there you have it: a thumbnail guide to the history of Super Sentai and a few tidbits to give you an idea of what it's about. So for our final day, we're going to blow it all up. Join us Saturday for the final installment of Power Rangers Week, where we end on a