Friday, 5 March 2021

Series REVIEW: Mashin Sentai Kiramager

Mashin Sentai Kiramager

With both audience figures and toy sales seemingly dropping year after year the Super Sentai franchise is in a bit of an odd place right now, and that’s without even considering what Power Rangers forthcoming move toward a reboot universe means for the global sales of the IP. The last few years have seen the long-running franchise both try to slightly reinvent itself in fun new ways, and fall back and the tried and tested format of a dinosaur-themed show. Mashin Sentai Kiramager however felt much more like a back to basics approach. The 44th entry in the franchise kicked off with an Episode ZERO mini-movie, before airing in 2020-2021 alongside both Kamen Rider Zero-One and Kamen Rider Saber in the Super Hero Time line-up. The head writer was Naruhisa Arakawa, a tokusatsu veteran whose key works span Kamen Rider Kuuga, Abaranger, Dekaranger, Gokaiger and so much more.

CarantulaMabushina and the Kiramai Stones

After destroying the peaceful world of Crystalia, the dark empire of Yodonheim turns its attention toward the planet Earth. Managing to escape the carnage, Princess Mabushina also seeks refuge on Earth - bringing with her five Kiramai stones. With their powers, she hopes to find five candidates with strong “Kiramentality” to become the Kiramagers and fight back against Yodonheim.

With the help of Muryo Hakataminami and his private organisation CARAT, they find e-sports pro Tametomo, film actor Shiguru, prodigy athlete Sena and talented surgeon Sayo. Finally they’re joined by highschooler Juuru - whose strong Kiramentality gives him a mysterious link to Crystalia and its fallen King Oradin. Later they gain a sixth member in treasure hunter Takamichi - Muryo’s long-lost brother who was adopted in the Crystalia royal family. The Mashin Sentai Kiramager are here, and ready to shine brightly against the forces of darkness!

The KiramagersTakamichi, Kiramai Silver

There’s been a long held argument that over the years Super Sentai has become too “red-centric”, and when faced with the evidence it isn’t hard to see why. Plot lines which seem to focus in on them as the central character, power ups exclusively for them and sometimes even just a general sense that they could go it alone if need be. It’s understandable in that red is the most marketable one, but frustrating if you’re a particular fan of any of the others. Recent series (such as Ryusoulger) have done a better job at balancing this, but Kiramager really hits the sweet spot in how to handle this dilemma. Juuru is special, and the show makes no bones about that. He’s the one with the special link to Crystalia, and it’s his Kiramentality that helps bolster the team’s arsenal as time goes on. But while this may be indisputable, Kiramager never once makes it feel like the rest of the team are any less important. Each one brings their own strengths to the table which repeatedly save the day, and character focus seems relatively even across the board. For a more visual sign of this, the mid-season power-up is shared between the whole team at the same time. That alone could be taken as a sign of the strong teamwork Kiramager has to offer, but there’s so much more to it as well.

For example - we’ve already established that Juuru is the creative one on the team, and the passion he shows through his artwork and overall optimism make him an excellent leader for the team. But Kiramentality shines through in different ways, which is why the rest of the team have so much to offer through their passions as well. A pro-gamer, Tametomo is not just a brilliant sharpshooter but also a master tactician - with many of the team’s plans to win the day coming from him. Shiguru’s skills as an actor transfer to his swordsmanship, and though he may seem stoic his vulnerable side begins to show over the course of the series. Sena’s athletic experience makes her the team’s speedster, seemingly giving her a hot-headed temperament and the tendency to charge into battle without thinking. But when one episode breaks her down into a number of duplicates each representing a core component of her personality, it reveals this isn’t necessarily the case. Finally there’s the compassionate Sayo, the direct but arguably most collected member of the team. Takamichi later joins them as Kiramai Silver, whose backstory ties him in quite closely to Kiramager’s main story yet gives him scope to jump in and out of the main team in more traditional sixth ranger style. If you were to do the maths on just how many specific focus episodes each of these characters got it likely wouldn’t be completely equal, but the important thing is that even so none of them really feel short changed by the end of it.

King OradinGo Kiramagers

With so much effort spent on the whole team one might expect the supporting cast to be lacking in comparison, especially with one as big as Kiramager’s. But while it perhaps isn’t quite as evenly spread as the core team, there’s still a lot here to make them just as memorable too. After watching her parents killed by her own uncle and becoming a refugee of Crystalia there’s an element of tragedy to Mabushina’s story, and while that plays a big part in her development over the series there’s plenty of opportunity to have fun with her as well. One episode in particular, which sees her get violently drunk and then have to retrace her steps, is the best kind of tokusatsu nonsense. Meanwhile Muryo Hakataminami would have been memorable enough to a certain crowd simply for his casting (the character is played comedian Daimaou Kosaka/Pikatoro - the man responsible for the infectious PPAP (Pen-Pineapple-Apple-Pen)), but he’s a pretty great character too. Not quite as well-developed, but properly ingrained into the story and responsible for some great comedy moments. One of the most pleasant surprises though was Mizuki, one of Juuru’s classmates, becoming a semi-recurring character and having her own little arc. It’s one thing to get an extended glimpse into one of the team’s civilian lives, it’s another to have this minor character learn their secret identity and warm up to the character more over multiple episodes.

Once upon a time sentient rocks might have seemed like a wilder concept than it is today, but Kiramager is able to put a good spin on the idea to make the Kiramai Stones (or Kiramai Mashin if you prefer) work as supporting characters in their own right. Each one has their own distinct personality that plays off well with their corresponding Kiramager, and whilst they don’t get a whole lot of focus episodes the few that they do have are enough to make them count. Even so, the fact they’re a constant presence in the show - be it through the CARAT base scenes or talking over the top of the mecha fights, helps them feel like a necessary addition even when the action isn’t specifically focussing on them.

Demonic General of Betrayal GalzaYodonna

The villains are another success story in making every character count by ensuring each one is memorable in their own way. Leading the pack is of course Galza, the younger brother of Crystalia’s King Oradin who betrayed the Kingdom to join Yodonheim. Consumed by darkness and a lust for power, Galza provides a more personal connection between the hero and villain factions. The evolution of his own abilities mirrors that of Juuru’s, and his development over the course of the series is a joy - culminating in a satisfying finale. Compared to that Yodonheim’s chief monster maker Carantula seems rather basic in the early episodes, but you’d be amazed how much a great design and an excitable personality can carry you. He’s by no means left in the dust though, as his late stage development is another interesting turn the show takes - especially with how it all spins out from a seemingly episodic plot point. Rounding off the generals is Yodonna - the fiery and authoritative assistant to Emperor Yodon himself. There’s more to this character than her bossiness and funny faces, especially as Emperor Yodon joins the action personally. Saying “stick with it to the end” doesn’t really do how much fun a lot of the earlier parts are justice, but Kiramager really does save all the best villain material for the endgame.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about how Sentai’s sales seem to be dwindling, and in turn how that could have a knock-on effect to the priority (i.e. budget) of the show itself. For the most part Kiramager didn’t show any obvious signs of change, but there’s certainly one aspect that critics will immediately point toward - the monsters. Some will certainly see the fact that the Jamenshi all shared identical bodysuits (albeit in a number of colours) and that only the heads were different as “being cheap”, but even if that is the case it’s a wonderful tribute to the similarly designed monsters of Goranger. The giant monsters (Jamen Beasts) also took a similar hit, using a number of different body types again distinguished by unique heads. It gave the villains of the series a uniform look, but arguably it also made them a whole lot more memorable. The designs were so focused in on a single point that said point had to be immediately eye-catching, whilst their completely humanoid bodies allowed for more emoting. While the latter praise can’t be said for the Jamen Beasts, them being lumbering kaiju offered a nice juxtaposition. 

Anyone for rugby?The Kiramager Mecha

Of course it wouldn’t be a Super Sentai series without plenty of mecha action to go along with all of this, and that’s another area where Kiramager kept it simple in order to be most effective. There was some interesting innovation at the beginning of the series with Kiramazin able to break down into two smaller robots, but much like how it wasn’t preoccupied with gimmicks it also wasn’t bothered about trying to constantly outdo itself with bigger and bigger combos either. Instead it presented viewers with a number of colourful robots, each with their own unique looks but unified under the crystalline/vehicular motif. It was also great to see a regular full-time vehicle mecha in Super Sentai again, as Garza’s Smog Jouki stole the show almost just as much as the heroes themselves. By promoting individual robots over giant combos, it allowed these sequences to be far more varied - mixing it up between episodes instead of just moving from one toy sale to the next.

Kiramager’s story manages to cram a lot into 45 episodes, with a number of different mini-arcs running through the whole story. It still has plenty of time for episodic stories as well, including but not limited to character focus episodes, comedy hi-jinks and even some particularly poignant victim of the week stories too. There’s even some references to wider Super Sentai lore as Sena’s track and field sponsor is none other than Gekiranger’s SCRTC - with Miki and Natsumi Masaki both making surprise cameos. On top of an engaging story with both drama and comedy, it has plenty of high adrenaline action sequences as well. This didn’t just apply to the brilliant fight choreography either, as the mecha fights also did some brilliant things with perspective as well as just making episodes feel that much more cohesive. Some Super Sentai episodes can really feel like two distinct halves, but since the humanoid and giant monsters were different entities Kiramager often allowed these things to happen concurrently. As some of the Kiramagers battle the Jamenshi on the grounds, the rest face off against the Jamen Beasts. Kiramager isn’t the first series to play with such an idea, but it did it enough that it felt like a part of its identity. Much of the show’s brilliance in this regard can be credited to Kiyotaka Taguchi, whose experience on Ultraman Z clearly served him well for this. And as a side note, if you’re a fan of Super Sentai end credit dances then this is a good one!

Some familiar facesA Kiramager fight sequence

But perhaps the most amazing thing in all of this is that Kiramager was able to be what is was at the very height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much like Kamen Rider Zero-One it went on several weeks’ hiatus as Japan declared a state of emergency, with some of that time filled up by quickly cobbled-together clip episodes. Even more shocking was the news that Rio Komiya (Juuru) himself caught the disease during this time. Thankfully Komiya made a full recovery, with an outpour of support from fans across the globe when the news broke. Eventually Kiramager continued on, and shockingly you could barely tell it had been affected at all. Whereas Zero-One’s rewrites are as clear as day and Saber’s overall composition still feels affected by it, Kiramager felt like it barely changed at all. Extras begin wearing masks for certain scenes and there were the odd moments framed to make the characters seem closer together than they probably were, but there never felt like there were sudden swerves in the story or accommodations that had to be made. Just coming out of it all coherently would have been an achievement, but Kiramager continued to truck along and deliver the kind of entertainment so many people needed during this time.

Despite having the odds stacked against it, Mashin Sentai Kiramager is a triumph on every level. How exactly it managed to be consistently this good during a year where nearly everything was blighted by COVID is a mystery, but somehow it did it. At a time when Super Sentai has felt the need to experiment with significantly larger teams, pitting two teams against each other or even have one human ranger lead a team of human-sized mecha, there’s nothing quite like seeing a series shine so brightly with a “less is more” mindset and simply doing what Super Sentai does best. Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger may be promising big things as the 45th anniversary series, but it’s got some pretty big shoes to fill. Shine on Kiramager, we will miss you.

9 comments:

Unknown said...

What was your favorite part of the series?

Alex said...

It’s a bit of an odd one, but Carantula’s development right at the end. Between slightly changing his personality based on him losing 1/5 of it to him recognising Juuru as a fellow creative, I thought that was really well done.

There’s SO much good stuff in this series though it’s hard to pick just one!

Anonymous said...

This series was truly able to shine on and be one of the best Sentais in a while. It was definitely a pleasant surprise to what are the complicated times in the world right now.

Stephen Cassat said...

This was the BEST Super Sentai I've seen in a long time. This should be a wake-up call to Toei. Juru was so infectious with his optimism, and he has now become my all-time favorite Red Ranger.
Mashin Sentai Kiramager managed to defy the odds and became the best Sentai of the past decade.

KIRAMAI GO!

Jinga said...

The Series was a success, great show,characters and story arc. rating is 5 out of 5.

Neko-Nyan said...

It's not surprising given WHO its main writer is. Dude wrote Kuuga and Gokaiger among others.

Kepin_151 said...

I wasn't sure about this series at first, but your review makes me want to give it a shoot, thanks..


& About why kiramager can be consistent, my guess is due to it's episodic nature, they don't face the same problem as other franchise like kamen rider.

Neko-Nyan said...

What's really interesting in Kiramager's case is that any criticism we could make for past series have all been answered.

Ryusoulger (on top of being probably my least favourite toku series along with Wizard) had bland, uninteresting and forgettable characters, so the entire Kiramager cast was memorable.

LuPat's villains were kind of one note (and even a huge LuPat fan like me recognizes it), and the mechas were a bit... eh, so not only are the villains in Kiramager noteworthy, the mechas are all flawless.

Kyuranger had too many characters, therefore some of them didn't get much characterization. Kiramager made sure to focus on ALL its members. While this could also be tied to the Ryusoulger point, there's a difference: Kyuranger characters, even the least developed ones, had characterization. Ryusoulger had none.

Anyway, my point is, everything about Kiramager was perfect because they answered to every criticism we might have had from previous series, all the while telling an interesting story.

Lucas said...

At least this time it didn't feel like Toei as too busy planning the anniversary season and left this one on autopilot.