Sunday, 15 January 2012

Series REVIEW: Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger


Back in 2001 the Super Sentai franchise celebrated its 25th anniversary with the 51-episode series Hyakujuu (Hundred Beast) Sentai Gaoranger, following on from the previous year's Mirai Sentai Timeranger. One thousand years ago, a war raged between the human race and the demonic Org Tribe. With the help of the Power Animals, the ancient Gao Warriors were able to defeat the Orgs and seal them away. Then, in present day (or 2001) the Orgs reawaken and five individuals are chosen by the Power Animals to become Gaorangers. But to do so they must give up their names and ordinary lives, living on an island in the sky and referring to each other by colour rather than name. Midway through the series they encounter Rouki, a wolf Org sealed for a thousand years who is actually possessing the body of Tsukumaro Ohgami, an ancient Gao Warrior who used the evil dark wolf mask to gain strength to defeat the Orgs, but became cursed by it in the process. After breaking the curse, he joins the team as the sixth Gaoranger, Gao Silver.

While none of Gaoranger's protagonists are outright bad, none of them really stood out from the other or from any other Sentai hero. Red (Kakeru Shishi) is initially hot headed but gradually falls in his role of leader, while Yellow (Gaku Washio) is more aloof but becomes accepting of Red's leadership. Blue (Kai Samezu) and Black (Sotaro Ushigome) spend most of their time as some sort of comedy double act, and White (Sae Taiga) is actually one of the more competant female fighters I've seen. Silver has a lot of focus during and after the Rouki arc, but after its said and done he sort of just slots into the background without anything making him truly stand out other than that he's from the past. But my biggest problem was that while referring to them by colour helps emphasise the lives they've given up in order to become Gaorangers, I can't deny that it made me feel a little less attached to them. I've only watched the series once, and without looking them up I can't honestly remember ANY of their real names.

The suit aesthetic was great, the gold sashes complimenting the suit colours well and striking helmet designs. The retractable claws on the gloves were an excellent touch for the "wild" look, and were not only used for extra effect but also as weaponry (particularly by GaoWhite). Alone the weapons weren't much to look at (White had a baton, and Red had some glove things that could also strangely turn into a gun) but together they were a little better.

The series technically has no 'main' antagonist, instead the role of lead villain is split among different Highness Orgs in multiple story arcs. The first is the Shuta arc, which is followed by the lengthy Ura arc (although this has the Rouki arc sandwiched inside it), followed by the Rasetsu arc and finally a short final arc involving all three generals and the combination of them - Senki, the King of all Orgs. For me, this is where the series really fell short, as none of the Highness Orgs are particularly good. Shuta doesn't really achieve anything of great note, which Ura (who in fairness does probably achieve the most out the three) is overshadowed by the much more interesting Rouki. Rasetsu however is one of the worst villains I've ever seen, being primarily occupied with eating (he even captures Tetom JUST so she can cook for him). Not only that, but none of them look that good either - while they have a different aesthetic from the standard Orgs (body parts instead of technology - Shuta is eyes, Ura nose and Rasetsu mouths) they would still look little more than monsters of the week in any other series. Senki has a much better "big bad" feel about him, but his arrival (coupled with the rather anticlimactic and dull final episode) are a little too late.

Tsuetsue and Yabaiba, duke Orgs and the series lackies, are quite well rounded at the start, posing a competent threat to the Gaorangers and sharing rivalries with GaoWhite and GaoYellow respectively. Mid-way into the series they tend to delve more into comic-relief territory, but once again become more interesting as Tsuetsue is betrayed by her masters.

Gaoranger displays an excellent array of mecha, boasting one of the largest amount in Super Sentai. There are a total of four main mecha (GaoKing, GaoMuscle, GaoIcarus and Silver's GaoHunter) and then a variety of special versions (such as GaoCentaurus and GaoGod) and limb changes. These limb changes had very uninspired names, such as 'GaoKing Another Arm' but added a little bit more variety to the mecha fights, which can always potentially become a bit dry over the course of 50 odd episodes. One combination I wasn't too fond of however was the Striker formation (using GaoMadillo and GaoRhinos as the legs), because the finisher involved kicking the armadillo like a football, complete with mecha doing football tricks in a shoddy CGI stadium. In an animal-themed series, not only did it look horrible, but it also felt completely out of place.

Which neatly brings me on to my final two complaints about the Gaoranger aesthetic. The first being their mode of transformation, which was a mobile phone (a feature that would go on to recur repeatedly in Super Sentai). Not necessarily a bad thing, but a little odd given the series is so focused on natural wild animals and has a rather clear environmental message. Finally would be GaoSilver's finisher, which involved him playing pool with his animal jewels. It's certainly different, but that didn't change the fact I thought it still looked stupid.

As this was an anniversary series, Gaoranger also included the first "Vs. Super Sentai" movie (which would return for the 30th anniversary/Boukenger and under a slightly different name for the 35th/Gokaiger). While the film brings back a lot of old faces, its severely dampened by the fact about half of the footage is clips from older series. This is ESPECIALLY noticeable during the "all Red rangers" scene, which in many ways should have been one of if not the crowning points of the movie. A clip show can be okay now and again, but a 1 hour 10 minute one is stretching it a bit.

Gaoranger is enjoyable series, but in comparison to all the Super Sentai series' I've seen thus far it's pretty average. The mecha, music and aesthetic (for the most part) are excellent, but the awful villains and so-so protagonists really make the series drag after the superb Rouki arc (and even moreso once the Rasetsu arc kicks in). The good really does equal the bad, but as a 25th anniversary series it does fall a little short of the mark.

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