The History of Tokusatsu in Anime

by Christopher Farris,

You see news about Kamen Rider pop up on Anime News Network from time to time. You see that Crunchyroll has subtitled episodes of some show called Ultraman available. You see this new anime called GARO that's supposedly based on a previous live-action show called a tokusatsu (or "special-effects") series. But what are tokusatsu series, and what business do they even have with your anime?

Over several decades, tokusatsu has established itself as a well-known cousin of anime. Live-action dramas based on more down-to-earth dramatic and romantic manga/anime series are already commonplace, but these flashier, toyetic, effects-driven shows can be equally referred to as ‘live-action anime’ by viewers, even when there's no anime-based source material behind their creation.

First, it must be established what tokusatsu (toku for short) means in this context. In the Japanese lexicon, tokusatsu really just refers to any live-action show or movie driven primarily by visual effects, be they practical or digital. To Japanese viewers, the Marvel superhero movies are tokusatsu. Jurassic Park is tokusatsu. In Western fandom, however, the word is primarily used to discuss a specific kind of Japanese TV show, where characters transform into spandex-and-armor-clad forms to fight rubber-suited monsters, with lots of (often very cheesy) special effects involved.

The poster boys for these shows are Toei's Kamen Rider and Super Sentai series, as well as Tsuburaya's Ultraman franchise. Super Sentai is probably the one you're most likely to recognize, since it's the original source for the long-running Power Rangers series here in the west. Because of Power Rangers's cultural pervasiveness and its status as the only major toku-style show with success in America, it's got a solid monopoly on people's impression of the toku style. I've seen people online remark that Kamen Rider looks like "Japanese Power Rangers", which is on the one hand completely backwards, but also a handy descriptor for what to expect from these series.

Granted, the ‘Japanese’ part of that description is just as important as the ‘Power Rangers’ part. As opposed to the Saved-by-the-Bell-esque sitcom antics that Saban added around their recycled Sentai footage for Power Rangers, Kamen Rider and Super Sentai series often play out like Japanese superhero cartoons. Jokes and slapstick are over-the-top, reactions are loud and hammy, and everything from transformations to attacks are called out with awesome-sounding names and wild on-screen text effects. Depending on the particular series, the exact level of cartoonishness can vary wildly, but the feeling of watching a "live-action anime" is still very prevalent.

Comparing these toku shows to anime might also be easier because the series themselves do it all the time. Super Sentai and Kamen Rider both air as part of Toei's ‘Super Hero Time’ block in Japan, alongside a mainstay anime franchise called Pretty Cure. As the most well-known modern incarnation of the ubiquitous magical girl genre, Pretty Cure acts as a feminine variation on Super Sentai series for many children in Japan. The concepts driving both shows mean that if you enjoy one, you'll likely enjoy the other, as well as being more likely to spend money on the elaborate role-play toys by Bandai attached to each franchise. Pretty Cure, Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai (as well as other intermittent anime entries in the block, like Battle Spirits) frequently appear together in promotional materials. Cure Heart even married a bizarrely cartoonified version of Kamen Rider Wizard once!

If you've seen DokiDoki Pretty Cure, you know this is wildly out of character for Mana, for several reasons.

These toku series' anime influences can be traced from their origins all the way to their current productions. The original Kamen Rider series was created in 1971 by Shotaro Ishinomori, better known to anime fans as the creator of Cyborg 009. This show incorporated many ideas Ishinomori was fond of in 009, namely ordinary people modified to have superpowers by evil organizations, who then betray them to fight as heroes of justice instead. The success of Kamen Rider led to Ishinomori creating many similar superhero shows for Toei in the 70's, including Super Sentai, as well as names like Kikkaider, Inazuman, and Akumaizer-3. Most of these would go on to get their own manga adaptations, some drawn by Ishinomori himself!

Kikkaider might be one name that sticks out to you there. The series received an anime adaptation in 2001 by Studio OX in a distinctly Ishinomori-esque art style, which made it easily comparable to the new Cyborg 009 anime that also came out that year. That series would get its own prequel of sorts in the 2007 Skull Man TV anime series. Skull Man was based on an older manga by Ishinomori, his own personal vision of the concept that would eventually become, you guessed it, Kamen Rider.

Those intersecting Ishinomori adaptations are only part of the story, as the mediums of manga, anime, and tokusatsu have continued to cross over to this day. As the Kamen Rider franchise was just seeing a revival in the Heisei Era, the year 2001 gave us a new manga series by Kenichi Muraeda called Kamen Rider Spirits, celebrating the more classic 70's and 80's-era Riders. Similarly, Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi (the Linebarrels of Iron guys) launched ULTRAMAN in 2011, a manga sequel to the original Ultraman series, to much acclaim. The Ultramanga, like a surprising amount of the Ultra franchise, has been released in the US; you can check it out for a strikingly stylized take on the classic toku series that helped define the genre's style.

There are other notable tokusatsu/anime overlaps outside of adapting the classics. One you might recently recall is Garo: The Animation. Garo was created by Toei back in 2005 as an attempt to launch a more adult-oriented toku show, and by all accounts it worked out. The broody story of disaffected demon-hunters duking it out in shiny armor went on to receive several sequels and spin-offs, and studio MAPPA's animated historical prequel was one of them. This one even managed to secure an official release from Funimation, making it not only the first Garo entry released in the West, but likely the first entry in Toei's modern toku catalog to make it here in non-Power-Rangers form. Maybe being a ‘mature’ show specifically for anime audiences helped with that.

Even anime get adapted into toku series themselves sometimes. While live-action adaptations of anime series are a dime a dozen these days, they do tend toward grounded romance and drama series for obvious budgetary reasons. But when you're adapting something that was basically a Sentai series already, you might as well go full toku. And so Toei went this direction with their live-action adaptation of Sailor Moon, commonly referred to as ‘Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon’. This henshin-hero reimagining of the legendary Magical Girl series took quite a few liberties with its source material, but it still stands as an incredibly interesting example of translating a fantastical animated story into live-action television. PGSM did not prove successful enough for Toei to try for similar adaptations, however. Perhaps it was most telling that fans went into it expecting a slightly more serious take from a live-action version of their favorite franchise, only to be greeted with something much more Power-Ranger-ish than they were hoping for.

The crisscrossing of anime and tokusatsu isn't limited just to the series themselves. Cast and crew move between the productions so often that you sometimes wonder how much distinction there is between the industries at all. Yasuko Kobayashi, one of the hardest working screenwriters in Japanese entertainment, has been a prolific head writer of many Kamen Rider and Super Sentai series, to the point that fans of the subgenre can distinguish her style almost immediately. She also wrote the Garo anime and Sailor Moon adaptation mentioned above, along with many other anime. It's also become common in recent years for Toei to court popular anime writers to head their new superhero shows. Kamen Rider Fourze was primarily written by Kazuki Nakashima, series composer for Gurren Lagann, so Fourze wound up being a hot-blooded series full of friendship, outer space, and drills. Then 2013's Kamen Rider Gaim series was written by Gen Urobuchi. That's right, Toei tasked the writer of Saya no Uta and Madoka Magica with telling a story for a Sunday-morning children's superhero toy advertisement. It turned out pretty much exactly how you might expect.

It's common for actors to move between the two genres as well. Tokusatsu series have long employed professional voice actors to play suit-based characters in their live-action productions. Kamen Rider Den-O featured, among others, prolific voice talent Toshihiko Seki as Momotaros, the main heroic ‘IMAGIN’ monster of the series, who possessed lead boy Ryotaro to transform him into the titular Kamen Rider. Toshihiko's turn as Momotaros was so successful that he and his fellow IMAGIN actors continued to reprise their roles in later Kamen Rider movies and crossovers long after the original show had ended its run, to the point that Momotaros became the de facto ‘secret identity’ for Kamen Rider Den-O in place of Ryotaro himself! For his part, Ryotaro's actor Takeru Satoh would find fame afterwards playing Kenshin in the live-action Rurouni Kenshin films. All of these connections, as well as it's even more cartoony than usual tone, makes Kamen Rider Den-O one of the most distinctly ‘anime’ Rider shows.

Another actor example is popular modern seiyuu Mao Ichimichi, also known as M•A•O. Mao's popularity and body of work exploded around 2014-2015, as she starred in shows like School-Live!, Space Patrol Luluco, Digimon Adventure tri., and Keijo!!!!!!!!. But she actually got her big break in 2011 on Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, playing the yellow ranger of the space pirate Sentai, Luka Millfy. After all that time spent primarily doing voices in anime, Mao returned to a regular tokusatsu role in this year's Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger, providing voice work for the robotic pink ranger, Raptor-283.

Mao also had a role in 2013's toku-hero pastiche anime Samurai Flamenco, which brings us to one last area of toku/anime connections: the references and parodies of these shows that appear in anime. Many an anime has done a Super Sentai parody of some sort, from Dragon Ball Z's Ginyu Force to Negima's Baka Rangers (who actually got their own toku-style makeover when that series attempted a live-action version). Other classics like Ultraman and Kamen Rider see their share of shout-outs as well. Pretty much anyone with a passing awareness of the name knows that Mumen Rider from One-Punch Man is a Kamen Rider riff, but did you also know that Yudetamago's wrestling-action opus Kinnikuman (responsible for both the M.U.S.C.L.E. toys and Ultimate Muscle show in the west) started life as an Ultraman parody? This can go both ways, of course. Outstanding Super Sentai series Chojin Sentai Jetman is based on the legendary Science-Ninja Team Gatchaman.

So if any of these inexorable connections between tokusatsu and anime has you wanting to check a toku series out for yourself, you might be asking where you can start. Of the major franchises listed above, Ultraman is probably the easiest to check out. Crunchyroll has many of the Ultraman series, primarily from the modern era, available for legal streaming. Official English-language DVD sets for many of the older Ultra series, including the original Ultraman, can also be found surprisingly cheaply.

Super Sentai series have been localized into Power Rangers here since the 90's, but releasing the original versions was considered a losing proposition for the longest time. Luckily, Shout! Factory has recently struck a deal to release subtitled DVD sets of original Sentai series here! They started with Zyuranger, the source material for Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, and have continued with the series following that one so far. (Their Megaranger release is due out in August.) I genuinely hope these prove successful enough that they go backwards as well, if only because I'd love to see an official English release for Jetman. Until then, I strongly recommend diving into Gosei Sentai Dairanger as a classic Super Sentai series to get you started. (Kamen Rider sadly lacks any English distribution yet.) There was a release of the original-series remake movie Kamen Rider the First back in 2007 by Media Blasters, as well as a prohibitively expensive low-distribution DVD set of 70's series Kamen Rider V3, but other than those, there's been nothing for older series. Perhaps a company like Shout will pick some of these up eventually, so keep your fingers crossed.

Regardless of what toku series you choose to try out first, it's important to know what you're getting into. As outlined in the immense breakdown above, these series don't traditionally line up with what we expect from regular live-action television. They're really a genre to themselves, somewhere between live-action and anime, defining their own aesthetic. If you have an appreciation for campy acting, outlandish stunts, and fist-pumping flashy special effects, these shows can be immensely rewarding. Tokusatsu and anime will always be linked, so if you're ever feeling burned out on the animated side of things, give the world of "Japanese Power Rangers" a try!

What are your favorite tokusatsu series or toku-related anime moments? Share with us in the forums!


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