Friday, 9 February 2018

Series REVIEW: Uchu Sentai Kyuranger

Uchu Sentai Kyuranger

After Zyuohger marked the 40th anniversary of Super Sentai with a celebration of the format and tropes it had built up over the years, it only felt right that the franchise try something new with its 41st series. So when it was announced that Sentai would be heading out into the stars with the space-faring Uchu Sentai Kyuranger, things felt a little different. For the first time ever the series would be kicking off would an incredible nine different rangers (taking that number all the way up to 12 by its end), with each suit showing off more unique attributes outside of their designated colours. The production side of things also saw some change as TV-Asahi took on greater involved in the form of a chief producer role, Bandai of America participated in the early design stages and midway through Super Hero Time moved to a brand new timeslot. After 41 years change may be long overdue, but was it enough to usher in a new era of Super Sentai?

The 12 KyurangersA Kyutama

When the galaxy has been subjugated by the evil Jark Matter syndicate, nine legendary heroes must rise up to save it. They are humanoids, aliens and robots alike – utilising the power of the constellations through globe-shaped artefacts known as Kyutama. They include the self-proclaimed luckiest man in the universe (Lucky/Shishi Red), a ninja girl from the Chameleon system (Hammie/Chameleon Green), a bull-themed robot wrestling champion (Champ/Ouishi Black), a wolf alien (Garu/Ookami Blue), a mysterious man with a scorpion tail (Stinger/Sasaori Orange), a man who aims to become the universe’s greatest cook (Spada/Kajiki Yellow), a smooth talking mechanical thief (Balance/Tenbin Gold), his emotionless partner in crime (Naga/Hebitsukai Silver) and an android (Raptor 283/Washi Pink). They are the Kyurangers, and they’re here to take the universe back.

In their battles against Jark Matter and its leader Don Armage they are eventually joined by three more heroes – Earthling boy Kotaro (Koguma Skyblue), Kyuranger commander Shou Ronpo (Ryu Commander) as well as Tsurugi Ōtori, a legendary hero who fought against Don Amage centuries ago. Together the 12 heroes travel the galaxy as they unlock the powers of the Kyutama and turn the tide in the fight against Jark Matter.

Don ArmageA Space Squad Team Up

When a franchise has been running consistently for as long as Super Sentai has a shakeup every now and again is essential. But change can be a scary thing, and you only have to look back as far as the overall reception to Go-Busters to see that it doesn’t always work out the way the creators might have hoped. Which is perhaps why even though Kyuranger mixed things up a little bit, it still retains a key element that helped some of its predecessors become so successful. The one thing Go-Busters so desperately lacked – a collectible gimmick. Through the use of them as transformation trinkets, power up items and plot-driving macguffins, the Kyutama were both widespread enough to appeal to the collector mindset and implemented well enough for non-collectors to feel like they actually had a place in the story.

Nevertheless it’s the changes that Kyuranger made that fans will talk about, and given the various things it did over the course of the year it isn’t all that surprising. Big shakeups like having a regular team of 12 rangers or villains that had already taken over are a given, but even little things like a wider mix of humanoids, aliens and robots or the franchise’s first core female green ranger are equally notable. What really made Kyuranger work though was a clear sense of what it wanted to be and where it wanted to go. Its individual arcs all feel crafted with the sense that they were interlocking and heading towards the same thing, all while carefully the bleakness of its conquered universe with episodes that can only be described as pure silliness. The plotting isn’t perfect throughout and the finale arc stretches out far longer than needed, but that clear sense of identity does wonders in helping hold the story together. And for when it falters Kyuranger always has plenty of flare to make up for it. The series is awash with bright colours, flashy visuals and slick action to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Of course old habits die hard, and it would be foolish to deny that Kyuranger isn’t another particularly red-centric series. Truthfully all Super Sentai series are to some extent, but Lucky’s significant character arcs combined with repeated power ups and a loud personality that constantly brings him to the forefront is pretty damning evidence. Between these and an overplayed catchphrase Lucky will undoubtedly struggle to win some people over, but he’s a fantastic red ranger in the areas in all the areas that matter. He inspires both his teammates and the universe alike, rarely backs down from a fight and promotes a great message about making luck your own terms. As far as “annoying” reds go, you could do a lot worse.

The Kyurangers inside the OrionThe series' various power ups

It isn’t all about Lucky though, as many of the other Kyurangers also get some significant character. The bar is immediately set high as a conflicted Stinger faces off against his brother Scorpio, a villain who the rest of Jark Matter (including Don Armage himself) struggle to live up to. Stinger’s arc also ties in Champ’s story, which is then revisited in the show at a later date. Following that Naga receives his own spin on the ever-popular evil ranger arc which works to equal success, during which the Kyurangers split off into two groups and the second travels into the past to explore Tsurugi’s prior battle against Armage. Other team members like Balance, Shou Ronpo and Kotaro just sell themselves by being highly likable characters – Kotaro in particular making a strong case for the why the franchise should use more child rangers going forwards.

But with twice the amount of characters than usual appearing, it means one of the show’s biggest problems is effectively doubled – even character development. Super Sentai is a franchise that can struggle with this at the best of times (Zyuohger being a good example of an even spread but leaving Amu without specific focus episodes), but with twelve characters to juggle Kyuranger’s cast is woefully uneven. For every great Naga or Tsurugi arc there are cast members that get one or two focus episodes, or even worse next to nothing that ever truly puts them in the spotlight. Garu’s entire character arc takes place in half of the first episode, Balance’s story is entirely tied into Naga’s and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you anything noteworthy about Hammie and Spada outside of their basic character traits.

This unevenness doesn’t just relate to their personalities and back stories either, as the suit action also suffers from similar problems. Having the whole team assembled is wisely saved for the show’s big event moments, so most episodes see a smaller subset of Kyurangers taking centre stage with the rest off doing other things or supporting from the sidelines. It’s a good way to mix things up whilst keeping the general Super Sentai format, but isn’t laid out very well and Raptor suffers from it significantly. She’s a fantastic character with plenty of great moments that show just how integral to the team she is, but seldom appears as Washi Pink outside those big team moments. The movie best summed this up with her being out of suit for the stylish helmetless sequence, but the series itself is littered with moments like these as well.

ScorpioDark Naga

The bigger cast also throws the villains somewhat off balance, who make a huge impression on the shape of the series overall but on an individual level don’t leave much of an impression. As previously mentioned Kyuranger seems to blow its load early with Scorpio, who gives way to the largely forgettable Fuku Shoguns before Don Armage takes matters into his own hands. The Fuku Shoguns feel like they’re supposed to usher in some big turning point for the show and in prompting the Naga arc they do, but in turn Naga makes a far more engaging villain than the one who turned him in the first place. They simply don’t have the staying power of other villain generals, and with how quickly Armage is ushered into action there’s the overwhelming sense that the show intended to focus in on him anyway. Where the villains don’t falter however is in the design department. From Scorpio’s truly horrifying grin to Don Armage’s “nightmare fuel Hakaider” aesthetic, the Jark Matter legions sport some truly exquisite designs in many (but certainly not all) help sell them as menacing enough to have believably conquered the universe.

The mecha design is another area that suffers from both significant strengths and weaknesses. The fact that each robot/robot component needed to implement giant globe is easily something that could have hindered the overall aesthetic, but in general Kyuranger seems to handle the gimmick pretty well. The mecha are striking and cleverly designed, factoring in not only a nifty limb-swapping gimmick but also unique cockpits that come into play brilliantly during the fight sequences. Gigant Houou also heralds what is undoubtedly the best introductory sequence Super Sentai has had in years, utilising physical props in a way that would make the likes of Ultraman and Thunderbirds proud. However it's sad to see the series completely forgo an impressive final combination using every component, instead opting for a rather underwhelming cannon mode for a robot that isn't anywhere near as striking as the ones that came before it. That said it is curious to see Kyuranger take a similar route to Zyuohger in introducing a late in the game upgrade for the core mecha, which makes you wonder if this is a new tactic Bandai will continue to try going forwards.

KyurenOhGigant Houou & Ryuteioh

Despite some unevenness here and there Uchu Sentai Kyuranger remains a solid entry into the Super Sentai series, maintaining a clear sense of pacing and story direction whilst aiming to be bigger and bolder than what came before it. Though the series hardly feels it’s single-handedly ushering in a new generation of Super Sentai, the differences it does bring about lay excellent groundwork for the franchise to continue experimenting on as it goes forwards. And judging by the set up for Kaitou Sentai Lupinranger vs Keisatsu Sentai Patranger, there are still plenty of ideas to be tried yet. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be one of your favourite series, these 12 legendary heroes have done more than enough to leave their mark.

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