Today, we look at a staple of Japanese live-action TV. Super Sentai and other tokusatsu shows are not my own cup of tea; I was born a little too late to enjoy Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on TV, and I just find the whole thing goofy. Regardless, this is an aspect of otakuism in the US, where fans embrace the quirky wonders of Japanese TV, and Super Sentai has affected anime and American cartoons.
So what is Super Sentai? For the American viewer, it’s Power Rangers, except technically speaking, Power Rangers is an “original” US show, with English-speaking actors spliced into Japanese sentai shows, dubbed over costumed scenes, and with the original storyline altered with new English terminology, such as the mecha being called Zords.
Strictly speaking, Super Sentai shows are superhero team TV shows produced by Toei and Bandai, and aired on TV Asahi. “Super” refers to the mecha element, whereas “sentai” translates as “fighting force.” The shows have tons of special effects, live action characters, a “monster of the week,” and a Big Bad of the Season. Unlike the American Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Super Sentai shows are aimed at the whole family, not just the children. The three top long-running series are the Ultra series, the Kamen Rider series, and the Metal Hero series, all of which have been running for decades.
Super sentai is a subset of tokusatsu, a genre of live-action Japanese TV that usually has themes of fantasy, sci-fi and horror, but always has special effects, the original meaning of tokusatsu. The most popular tokusatsu are the kaiju movies (think Godzilla and Gamera), sentai and mecha dramas. Along with manga and anime, tokusatsu forms the triumvirate of Japanese popular media that is representative of the culture. It finds its origins in the special effects of early Japanese theater, in particular kabuki and bunraku. However, the genre didn’t really find its legs until 1954 with the original Godzilla movie, which introduced what would become the staples of many sci-fi B-movies: a rubber suit monster, miniatures and scaled-down city sets, what we would call now as special effects on a budget, but was back then as simply special effects.
Yes. The Japanese indirectly created Ed Wood and his ilk.
Anyway, back to the original topic.
There’s a simple formula to the genre, where good triumphs over evil--most of the time. The good guys are a team of (usually) five members who acquire super powers through magic or technology. They wear bright unicolor outfits/secret identity costumes and fight evil by using martial arts and/or special weapons. Usually, the evil organization comes from another planet or another dimension, and seeks to take over Earth. (You know, the standard motivation for comic book villains.) After fighting victoriously over the monster-of-the-week and some mooks (generic evil grunt characters), the team usually has to called upon their mecha in the form of gigantic mechanical animals or vehicles, which combines to create a huge robot, which fights a larger version of the monster-of-the-week.
This popular concept has grown to encompass anime and other genres. Fans of classic Voltron should have caught the feeling of familiarity when reading the sentai formula. It’s no coincidence that GoLion and Dairugger XV, the two anime that were the basis for the 80s Voltron, were produced by Toei and Bandai. Sailor Moon is sentai combined with the magical girl genre, which could explain much of its popularity among both male and female fans, with the boys enjoying the action and sentai elements, while the girls dig the romantic magical girl storyline.
Several anime and video games have paid tribute to sentai, from Excel Saga’s Municipal Force Daitenzin and the Prism Rangers from Disgaea, to the Karakura Superheroes in Bleach.
Super Sentai, among sentai fans, refers to the series that use robotic mecha. The first Super Sentai and third sentai show was Battle Fever J in 1979, where the heroes rode on their giant robots. As Toei had a close relationship with Marvel at the time (they were working on the tokusatsu Spider-Man), the female character Miss America was based on Marvel’s Miss America, and her male counterpart on Captain America. (Just a neat geek factoid.)
In the 80s, Super Sentai shows were popular in France, Spain, Hawaii and the Philippines, as well as broadcasted briefly in parts of California. In 1987, USA Network dubbed and aired Kagaku Sentai Dynaman as the parody show Night Flight. In 1993, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted, starting a yearly trend of recycling sentai shows shown in Japan during the previous year. Super Sentai also has a following in South Korea, where the shows are redubbed in Korean, and in recent years, released under the Power Rangers franchise. In many ways, the older Power Rangers shows in the US worked as a gateway to watching Japanese Super Sentai TV shows. As the original Power Ranger fanbase has aged, they have pushed for the fansubbing of older and recent sentai shows, leading to greater availability and plain visibility among strictly anime viewers.