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Q&A: Tokusatsu 101 for Anime Fans

Animation fans looking for something new should take a look at the colorful world of tokusatsu, Japanese live-action special effects shows.

Tokusatsu has been around forever but most anime fans, like me, aren't familiar with it. Resident tokusatsu fan Joseph Luster (aka, "Violence_Jack") is on hand to answer my feckless questions and introduce us to this world of color-coodinated spandex, explosions, and rubber-suited monsters.
Booty: What is tokusatsu?

Joseph Luster: Tokusatsu means "special effects," and it generally describes a pretty large quantity of Japanese films and television programming, spanning from Godzilla films to shows like Kikaida and Ultraman. Take it as a fairly broad definition if you like, but when people mention tokusatsu, they're typically talking about Kaiju (monster), Henshin (transforming *heroes*), and Sentai shows (which will probably be your next question). There're also other subgenres like "Metal Heroes" (Space Sheriff Gavan, Galaxy Wolf Juspion, etc.). The list goes on and on, hence the conveniently broad terminology/quick definition.

Booty: Why is everything titled "____ Sentai ____ Ranger?" What does "Sentai" mean?

Joseph Luster: It probably does seem like every show in Japan is "something sentai something ranger," and that's because the sentai genre has such an overwhelming presence in tokusatsu on television. Sentai means "Task Force," and to this day these shows continue a tradition started by Shotaro Ishinomori with 1975's Himitsu Sentai Goranger (Secret Task Force Goranger). Obviously Ishinomori was on to something, as Goranger is still the longest a sentai series has lasted, running for 84 episodes until it ended and JAKQ Dengekitai (JAKQ Blitzkrieg Squad, the letters standing for Jack, Ace, King and Queen) took over. A few early shows like JAKQ strayed from the sentai naming formula, but each series added more and more mainstays to the genre that would become inseparable with the whole concept of the 5 ranger team fighting monsters.

For brevity's sake, and the aid of an easy mental image, sentai series are the original Japanese template from which companies like Saban and Disney have taken footage and mixed in American actors and locales to form the Power Rangers (which has been adapting pretty much every sentai series since 1992's Kyouryu Sentai Zyuranger).

Booty: How popular is tokusatsu in Japan?

Joseph Luster: This is a bit more difficult to accurately gauge now without "checking out the scene" as it were. The thing is, tokusatsu has changed so much over the years and there are many attempts now to target different demographics that these shows may not have had any success with previously. For example, newer incarnations of Kamen Rider (which can almost be called a genre unto itself at this point, with its roots in Shotaro Ishinomori's original 1971 Kamen Rider), such as Agito and Ryuki, have found a big following with the 30-something housewife that enjoys wowing over the angsty "hunks" that dominate the current shows. So these series have changed thematically a great deal, something that can't really be said for the sentai genre (though that's definitely not a strike against it).

Of course, the popularity of any individual series has a solid expiration date on it. Regardless of how well the toys sell when one show comes out, it's all about "what's next." The newest incarnations of stuff like Sentai, Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Toho's new shows (like Chou Seishin Gransazer, which recently followed up by their Justiriser series) will all be something else next year.

"Get 'em while they're hot," as it's said.

Booty: Would it appeal to anime/manga fans?

Joseph Luster: Most definitely. Heck, some of the most influential staples of tokusatsu have their origins pouring out of the manga world. For example, Kikaida and Kamen Rider both existed as manga by Shotaro Ishinomori (you're going to hear his name a lot strolling down Japanese superhero memory lane) that were created and serialized alongside the shows once they landed (Kamen Rider came as transformation of sorts from Ishinomori's Skull Man comic). Anime like Gatchaman are everything you could imagine a sentai show to be. While the shows of old had a less-blurred definition of "hero," you'll find the same level of angst-ridden, dark plots in current Kamen Rider shows as you would in any similarly bleak manga.

I think that somewhere, all of these mediums click at a certain level. There are so many different shows for different people. Though it's not quite as all-consuming as anime or manga, since you're still going to need some part within you that longs to see guys in spandex beating the crap out of rubber monsters. It's the whimsical and ludicrous nature of the shows that might be the most attractive thing about it. The straight-faced way in which superheroes can be squared off against giant, evil boxes of Ramen, or nefarious cellphone demons; that's the draw. That's the hook from my perspective.

Booty: Where can I find this in the U.S., or elsewhere outside of Japan? What's the legality of downloading tokusatsu? Does it ever get licensed for distribution?

Joseph Luster: Therein lies the rub. Tokusatsu isn't exactly the most raging craze in America. Power Rangers notwithstanding, it's not often that you see an iteration of a Japanese superhero series being shown on television or released on DVD. Aside from the Rangers shows (most recently the SPD series, taken from Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger), a few years back Fox aired a (badly) dubbed version of Ultraman Tiga. Also, in the past we've seen other chopped up versions of Japanese tokusatsu shows. Stuff like Masked Rider and Big Bad Beetleborgs (a mish-mash of shows like B-Fighter and B-Fighter Kabuto) never lasted as long as the Power Rangers shows, but deserve some mention. Hawaii gets a better end of the deal, since they aired Jinzo Ningen Kikaida back in the '70s. So that show, along with the also-popular-in-Hawaii Kamen Rider V3 are both seeing a resurgence on television and DVD.

Thankfully, everyone in the U.S. benefits from this, because Generation Kikaida and JNProductions have released all 43 episodes (and the 3D featurette) of Kikaida in a batch of nine amazing DVD volumes (no, I'm not a spokesperson, the DVDs are just fantastic), with a 2005 release of Kamen Rider V3 looming closely overhead. "Word on the street" is that Media Blasters was really interested in dipping into the pool themselves, with some talk of sentai acquisitions. For now, though, the closest they're coming to the Japanese live-action TV field is a release of the GTO Movie, from the television series. Still, a movie based on a J-drama is one step closer I guess.

As for the rest of the lot, it's really "slim pickins." Kaiju films are seeing a lot more light in their original language via Columbia Tristar's many Godzilla releases, but television shows are few and far between. Hopefully, if enough demand is generated, we'll eventually see more shows being domesticated, but it's going to take more than a few angry and impatient nerds to really see some action.

So we come to the question of legality. Obviously, to see everything you want to, you're going to have to either download some shows or go down the eBay River Styx. Downloading shows is the easy part, and while I would never say that it was entirely legal, I will say that there's a 1,000,000 x less likely chance of some of these shows ever being licensed than whatever scrappy doo anime you may be torrenting. Going to eBay will land you some truly mixed results. You can either buy HK boot DVD sets (which are also available at online shops, and feature oft-questionable subtitles) or you may end up with a zip-lock bag of 17 VCDs in a crumpled brown envelope straight out of Singapore (which I have bought many times). Ideally, people would prefer that you buy the Region 2 DVDs straight from the source, but show me a man with a pocket that large, and I'll show you a man whose wallet I'm stealing.

Booty: What are some classic examples of the genre?

Joseph Luster: A show that would be most familiar to budding fans over here would be Ultraman, but as far as the "classic" shows of Japan, it really depends on who you ask. Of course, Kikaida, Kamen Rider, Goranger, Spectreman, Kamen no Ninja Akakage; they've all had their own influence on what's followed, and the list of shows like this could go on for longer than this already-long Q&A could handle. Luckily, a lot more information than I could ever dish out is available with the gentle brush of a fat man/woman's hand on the internet. Writers like August Ragone have been covering this stuff since way before I could even think about it, so I'll lay out some links that you should follow for a more in-depth history lesson: (cool new site!)

Booty: What are some hot series airing in Japan recently?

Joseph Luster: The answer to that is as easy as listing what the newest incarnations of the long-runners are. There's Mahou Sentai Magiranger, Kamen Rider Hibiki, Genseishin Justirisers and Ultraman Nexus are the shows in the forefront right now. I can't really vouch for the popularity of these in Japan, and most of these are very new. By the time you hear any feedback about them outside of the U.S. tokusatsu nerd circles, it'll probably be time for a new series!

Okay, so that's everything in a nutshell that ended up being slightly larger than I was aiming for. Don't take this as any kind of "authoritative" answer, because I've only been into this for a couple of years myself . I do, however, have the authority to urge everyone to give tokusatsu a whirl, whether it be via downloading or DVD buying. I don't want this to sound like some lame Reading Rainbow book review ending, but whatever gets the job done.
Tokusatsu - Mahou Sentai MagiRanger -
Mahou Sentai MagiRanger
Tokusatsu - Himitsu Sentai Goranger - aka,
Himitsu Sentai Goranger
aka, "Secret Task Force Goranger"
Tokusatsu - Himitsu Sentai Goranger - aka,
Himitsu Sentai Goranger
aka, "Secret Task Force Goranger"
Tokusatsu - Kamen Rider Black - Not a racial thing
Kamen Rider Black
Not a racial thing
Tokusatsu - Kikaida -
Tokusatsu - Kikaida Brothers -
Kikaida Brothers
Tokusatsu - Mahou Sentai MagiRanger - MagiMom!
Mahou Sentai MagiRanger
Tokusatsu - Mahou Sentai MagiRanger -
Mahou Sentai MagiRanger
Tokusatsu - Mahou Sentai MagiRanger -
Mahou Sentai MagiRanger
Tokusatsu - Mahou Sentai MagiRanger - Night and Mare.  I have a crush on them now, I think.
Mahou Sentai MagiRanger
Night and Mare. I have a crush on them now, I think.
Tokusatsu - Gosei_Sentai_Dairanger -
Tokusatsu - Gosei_Sentai_Dairanger -
Tokusatsu - Gosei_Sentai_Dairanger -
Tokusatsu - Ultraman - We all know Ultraman, right?
We all know Ultraman, right?
Tokusatsu - Ultraman Tiga -
Ultraman Tiga

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