The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
Like so many other columns, this one was originally gonna be about something completely different. I'd like to do another artist spotlight, maybe on Buichi Terasawa, but I really need to see more of his work. I just worry that I can't be totally informed if I haven't watched that garbage Raven Tengu Kabuto TV series. Then I figured I'd fall back to an easy topic, and write about anime from the 1990s that we all barely remember. But faced with the prospect of an evening spent watching Soul Hunter, Metal Fighters Miku, and I'll Make a Habit of It, I balked.
Then I remembered something from the list of weird 90s shows: Red Baron. Rather than a show about World War I biplanes or frozen pizzas, this Red Baron is about a mighty crimson super robot, a competitor in the Metal Fight, a global competition of badass super robots. Its pilot, Ken Kurenai , is from the weird 90s ponytail school of anime heroes, right down to having his voice supplied by Kappei Yamaguchi. The thing is, however, that this was the second incarnation of Red Baron. The first was a live-action TV series.
Red Baron is by no means the only anime that began life on the screen as a tokusatsu production, a small-screen showcase for eye-popping special effects, overacting, and rubbery monster costumes. But I figured it'd be a good entry point, because it's actually a really cool-looking cartoon; it's got that early 90s high shine courtesy of TMS and NTV, a wide variety of silly-looking robots, and a really neat, iconic hero robot in Red Baron itself. I actually caught a whole bunch of episodes of it on Univision back in the late 90s, when anime on the tube was still a relative rarity. I don't speak much Spanish, but still found the hot-blooded pronouncements of Ulises Cuadra as Ken easy enough to follow. Interestingly, the show was only slated for 36 episodes, but surprisingly strong toy sales led to an additional 13.
This title's also a good entry point because the original Red Baron is something you can dig up on DVD without much trouble. Aside from the iconic robot, the original show is quite a bit more in line with the silly live-action SF shows of the day, with super-scientific heroes in jumpsuits using Red Baron's many, many attacks (my favorite: Screw Beam!) to fight against the evil forces of Dr. Devilar and his his Iron-Masked Party, who steal and dispatch a different bad guy robot every week. Sequel series Mach Baron never got a stateside release, but it did get kinda hacked up and released in Spain, under an eyebrow-raising title.
Hrmmm, something seems off about that… can't put my finger on it. Anyway, Red Baron was by no means the first tokusatsu series to make the jump to animation. Long before they became tokusatsu standard-bearers, bringing Super Sentai and and Kamen Rider to the masses, Toei toiled away at far more modest productions, like the 1960 boy adventure tale National Kid. We all know about Giant Robo, the 1967 tokusatsu series that would later be adapted as one of the greatest anime OVAs of all time, because I touched on it here. But before Toei created Giant Robo, they unleashed their first-ever color tokusatsu series, Masked Ninja Akakage. My scientific study of 80s ninja movies led me to believe that all ninjas wear masks, but I guess this guy's does warrant a special mention.
I dig the way the mask seems to amplify the piercing stare of actor Yuzaburo Sakaguchi. The series takes place during the Warring States Era, making use of Toei's voluminous supply of period sets and costumes, plus the awesome guns, bombs, grappling hooks and swords of Akakage and his companions. They need those bombs, you see, because half the time they end up fighting rubbery monsters that would seem more at home in Ultraman. Akakage is helped in his fight for justice by the rest of the Doritos Ninja Force, Shirokage (crazy man who flies around on a kite) and Aokage (small child who, naturally, is in charge of the bombs). I dig the way the show is structured; each episode opens with a monster wrecking shit, then it goes into the children's chorus-fueled opening song.
Twenty years later Toei would drag Akakage out of the shadows for a TV anime remake. Here's where I'll establish a theme—while Red Baron was surprisingly different from its progenitor, Akakage feels like an almost slavish redux of the TV series. It looks a little different, and director Susumu Ishizaki is able to get more spectacle out of the show's animation than the live-action series achieved, but you just get this weird “why didn't they just film these ninja and monsters in live-action?” feeling when watching it.
Our next example is from the “let's throw out the rulebook for the anime remake” camp. Warrior of Love Rainbowman is a visually striking series that Toho kicked out in 1972. Its gimmick is that the heroic Takeshi can use mystical yoga powers to transform into a number of color-coded forms, each with their own special powers. It wasn't quite a Sentai team—that would come later—but it does involve differently colored, increasingly silly-looking forms to Takeshi to assume before the going gets tough and he becomes Rainbowman!
Yeah, he's wearing a turban. Hey, big deal, he learned his special powers in India. The anime version on the right, created a good decade later by Tsuchida Productions, mixed the formula up considerably by making the special forms Takeshi assumes into robots, which then combine into one really big robot, and suddenly we're seeing why they turned Rainbowman into anime—to sell a whole new set of toys to a whole new generation of children. Irritatingly, this version of Rainbowman is a pain in the ass to track down—lingering copyright disputes between multiple parties have meant that, while Rainbowman in live-action fights on in a shiny DVD release, there's no such thing for the TV cartoon.
Hey man, did you think Rainbowman was the only tokusatsu hero to wear a turban?! Well, you're totally wrong about that, too! Check out this handsome predecessor to the Moonlight Knight from Sailor Moon.
Now, this guy might be familiar to you if you've seen Studio Ghibli's My Neighbors the Yamadas, because there's an extended homage to him where the family's put-upon dad imagines himself saving the day as the masked, motorcycle-riding hero. Moonlight Mask here is actually the very first TV tokusatsu hero, debuting in 1958 courtesy of Senkosha. Sometimes an impulsive young detective named Juro Iwai and sometimes Moonlight Mask, turban-and-sunglasses clad envoy of justice, he's always there to thwart the bad guys, be they creepy skeleton dudes or killer apes. Don't miss his trademark motto, “Don't hate, don't kill—forgive!” which is usually uttered shortly before or after he unloads on the bad guys with his bullwhip, boomerangs, and trademark matched pistols.
I'm trying to make Moonlight Mask sound like a lot of fun, because it is. The original TV series, produced by an ad agency with so few resources that their offices doubled as the set, is gloriously hacky and goofy-looking. Despite this, the show was enormously popular, only going off the air after a kid got killed trying to imitate Moonlight Mask himself. Years later, the fine folks at Knack Productions would create a TV series. Released in 1972, The One Who Loves Justice: Moonlight Mask adheres to the legendary Knack's famously high standards, which
Well, you get the idea. The same jokers behind the famously awful Charge Man Ken and other entertaining shitshows like Astroganger and Groizer X apply their deft touch here. I do like the redesign of Moonlight Mask himself, who wears a neat-o helmet rather than a turban. Just like Red Baron, I ended up devouring a good dozen or two episodes of this series under the title Capitan Centella. A lot of those old Spanish-dubbed episodes made it to Youtube, so I imagine you can head over and take a gander at them yourself. Check out a sequence featuring Moonlight Mask in that cartoon—not only does he laugh constantly, the backgrounds always shift to a crazy psychedelic colorscape when he's fighting. It's a cheap trick, but remarkably effective.
What happens when you take the best physical attributes of multiple people and combine them into one extra-powerful hero? Well, if you have five kids from around the world you might get a guy with a green mullet. On the other hand, if you have a pair of 13-year-old boys, one of them a nerd and the other a jock, you get this handsome man.
Man, I love those hair-horns. They were all the rage in the 1970s. This is Barom-1 as seen in the original manga by no less than Golgo 13 creator Takao Saito. But when Barom-1 debuted on TV, he looked more like this:
He looks curious, but definitely more heroic. He could kinda use a dance belt to hide that unsightly bulge, to be honest. Also, I can't tell if the black mark on his face is some sort of fearsome jaw, or if he just has a kinda Pringles-looking mustache.
What's the draw of Barom-1? It's kinda neat, the story of a pair of totally hapless kids trying to figure out how to be an effective superhero against the encroaching forces of darkness. The anime version is something I've never seen; Media Blasters once held the rights, but passed on releasing it because it was just. That. Bad. Media Blasters released Babel II and Genma Wars, which were kind of astonishingly bad. Could this new Barom-1 be worse?! I aim to find out.
We go next to a famous name and a famous adaptation, that of Osamu Tezuka's manga Ambassador Magma. The titular hero is pretty cool, a golden space robot who can transform into a rocket, and helps protect the earth from this sketchy-looking guy:
Whoa! The series was created by P Productions, who also created the absolutely crucial Spectreman, or as I call it, Space Ape Dr. Gori and that Ultraman Ripoff Guy No One Cares About. As you can see, it's kind of frightfully cheap-looking, but kids in the 60s and 70s just didn't care; in Japan, they flocked to watch Ambassador Magma, and here in the United States, the retitled Space Giants was a playground hit. My favorite thing about it, besides the goofy antennae on the kids, is the animated effect used to depict the swarms of missiles that Magma likes to launch from his chest at the villainous Goa. For a fun side read, check out one man's account of dealing with a crazy dude who thought he owned the rights to Space Giants.
The franchise made the leap to video shelves in 1992, as an OVA series. It's kind of a bummer, if you ask me—while Ambassador Magma has a few nifty design touches (I've always liked its version of Magma himself), it's ugly, weird, and off-putting. This was supposed to be an anniversary project for Tezuka, one released not long after his death, and it's really lousy! Magma occasionally looks quite good, but the story's an absolute goddamn mess, littered with barely recognizable Tezuka star character cameos. Amazingly, the bottom-rung SFX Space Giants is generally still more entertaining.
Now we get to the big daddy of the tokusatsu world: the silver and red hero himself, Ultraman . Eiji Tsubaraya completely redrew the boundaries of TV special effects when he debuted the original Ultraman on TV in 1966. At that point, tokusatsu was a fixture, but Ultraman and its seemingly endless supply of spinoffs and sequels made tokusatsu cool. The original series started wave after wave of giant-sized heroes with cool special attacks, and none was cooler than The Ultraman, which served to
Wait a minute, that's not cool at all. Yet The Ultraman was animated by Sunrise, steered by talented vets like Hisayuki Toriumi, with work from luminaries like Kunio Okawara and Ichiro Itano. There's definitely some cool stuff happening in this series—for one, we get to see multiple examples of Ultraman's home species, and I'm sure there's plenty of good moments in the show's 50-episode run. But here in the states, this show is only known by a couple of orphan home video releases, The Adventures of Ultraman and Ultraman II. Those are kinda dreary. As a live-action franchise, Ultraman manages to reinvent itself with ease every year or two, but it's telling that, aside from this show and a US-Japan pilot, Ultraman’s never made inroads to animation.
My last example is probably the best one; it's certainly my favorite. Incredibly popular as a live-action TV program, Kikaida netted a sequel series and lasting fame. In the English-speaking world, it's especially popular in Hawaii, where KIKU-TV aired the show during the 70s and 80s. It's about a sad kid in denim who plays the guitar—but underneath that denim, he's the mighty robot, Kikaida! On the run and forced to confront his villainous robot brethren, Kikaida wanders Japan, grappling with questions about what it means to be alive and tormented by his malfunctioning conscience chip. Kikaida boasts cool robot designs, an entertaining villain in antagonist Hakaida, and a brightly-colored motorcycle with a sidecar.
You might remember the Kikaider TV series, because it ran on Adult Swim when Adult Swim was new. It was an early digital “digipaint” production, which means we'll never get fancy blu-rays of it, but it's still a really unique study in contrasts; it apes the cartoony style of creator Shotaro Ishinomori's comics, but is deadly serious—at turns tense, gripping, and melancholy. It also sports a first-rate dubbed version by good old Animaze. Years after its time in the sun, it's gone out of print on DVD, and is perennially a title I hope will return someday. The works of Shotaro Ishinomori have enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past decade, with animated versions of Cyborg 009 and 009-1 rising to prominence, but it was Kikaider that got the ball rolling. A bonus OVA episode, Kikaider vs Inazuman, remains unreleased in the west.
One last cool thing? We've got another live action-to-anime project coming over the horizon in Garo, a new Mappa TV series based on a mid-2000s tokusatsu series for adults. I like to expose people to Garo—it's one of the first shows of its kind to mix CG and practical effects well, and while it still sports the overacting typical of Japanese TV, it's a bit more subdued than most of its peers. I'm hoping that the animated version will measure up.
There's something undeniably satisfying about the spectacle of seeing cool but clunky live-action suits and special effects rendered in animation. The wires and flaws are hidden, the repetitive set design is tossed out, and the ideas presented by the live-action version get to spread out a bit. Another detail that makes me appreciate this stuff is the fact that it's now pretty easy to enjoy Japanese tokusatsu productions, and just getting easier. Shows like Red Baron and Ultra-Seven are easy to track down, and the Shout Factory folks are preparing to influct Zyuranger, the basis for the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, on the west. My main squeeze, in terms of far-east entertainment, will always be anime, but tokusatsu makes a tasty side dish.
What famous tokusatsu/SFX show would you like to see converted to the world of anime? I like to leave this question totally open, but this is kind of a neat idea to think about, so I'll volunteer a few suggestions. Go Nagai's X Bomber (known in these parts as Star Fleet) has it all—cool heroes, spaceships, and robots—but it's made in the style of supermarionation, goofy-looking puppets and miniatures. Lion Maru is about a young ninja who can transform into a guy in a dumb-looking lion mask—I'd love to see some animation studio take a crack at that, as well. But most of all, I can't communicate my desire for a DEN ACE anime series enough. (Click the link and watch the video. You really, really need to.) How about you?
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