Sunday 24 June 2012

Series REVIEW: Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan

Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan is somewhat of an oddity among the Super Sentai franchise's extensive history. Not only is it the only show to have an all-male three piece cast (with no additions) but also the only one to be a direct sequel to its predecessor, Denzi Sentai Denjiman. While it isn't the only Super Sentai to have had a cast member change mid-series (it isn't even the first in that respect), it is the only one to have changed over its red ranger. It's also the first show to have used an animal motif in the costumes and have combining mecha. That's a lot of milestones for just one series. Sun Vulcan is the fifth Super Sentai series, running for 50 episodes (plus a movie) between 1981 and 1982.

When the machine empire Black Magma threatens the world, the United Nations create establish the Taiyo Sentai (or Solar Squadron if you'd prefer) to defend the world against them. Commander Arashiyama assembles three GWP (Guardians of World Peace) specialists - air force officer Ryusuke Ohwashi (Vul Eagle), naval officer Kinya Samejima (Vul Shark) and army officer Asao Hyau (Vul Panther) to become the protectors of humanity. Aided by the Commander, his daughter Misa and her talking dog CC, Sun Vulcan battle against Black Magma's fuhrer Hell Saturn and his army of machines.

Just as Black Magma gains reinforcements, the Sun Vulcan gain a new team mate as Ryusuke leaves with a NASA mission to explore space, replaced his colleague - kendo master Takayuki Hiba.

The Sun Vulcan team - Kinya, Ryusuke and Asao

For me the biggest problem in Sun Vulcan lied with its main cast. Outside of Vul Panther's over-eating and obvious phobia of dogs, there's next to nothing that displays the three as anything more than "by the books hero types". By the time the original Vul Eagle leaves in episode 23, you've learnt so little about the character that you're unlikely to care (or even notice) that he's leaving. Takayuki/Vul Eagle 2 displays a bit more charisma than his predecessor, but even then this wears off a few episodes later and the team are back to fighting Black Magma in their dull and generic fashion. On the subject of the changeover between Ryusuke and Takayuki - this is incredibly badly handled. There's zero build up or foreshadowing to Ryusuke's summoning by NASA, even in the episode itself.  Below is a brief summary of just how the changeover, which should have felt quite formal and/or monumental played out. Even if there were behind the scenes issues on the show, I find it hard to believe the writers couldn't have done better than;

"Ryusuke, NASA called. They want you to go into space."
"Oh okay. What about Sun Vulcan?"
"They'll be fine. This new guy who's only just appeared and conveniently a friend of yours will be taking over."
*Everybody cheers*

Enter Eagle Mk II: Takayuki Hiba

The remaining members of GWP fare a little better. Arashiyama makes for a memorable captain, with a key role in the series' finale. Misa floats between being an able member of the team on and off the field and a damsel in distress (wearing her short shorts whichever it may be) and CC is (thankfully) kept to an absolute minimum.

Hell Saturn: "Leader" of the Black Magma machine empire

Black Magma on the other hand get off to a very promising start. Hell Saturn seems like a credible threat and the all-female operatives of the machine empire are an excellent foil to the all-male Sun Vulcan team. Taking up the post of second in command is Queen Hedrian, a returning villain from Denziman played by Super Sentai legend Machiko Soga (later Zyuranger's Bandora/MMPR season one's Rita Repulsa).  The introduction of Amazon Killer (in the same episode as the Vul Eagle changeover no less) suggested a shake-up in the status quo that the show could benefit from, but unfortunately it wasn't beneficial. The plots became more and more comedic, with Queen Hedrian taking charge more often and Hell Saturn just sitting in his throne agreeing to everything. Black Magma finally regained some of its former glory in episode 45 with the introduction of space outlaw Inazuma Ginga, but by then it was little too late.

Denziman's Queen Hedrian returns from the grave

The Sun Vulcan suits, while basic, are a good display of the animal motif while at the same time keeping the simple uniform look of a military unit. Not only that, but they come two years before the use of spandex for the suits that began in Dynaman. Mostly the primary colour of the respective member (with a bit of white to break things up), and then the Sun logo badge and bronze animal helmet crests/belts for decoration. While the crests might seem a little car-hood ornament on first sight, it makes the helmet feel less cartoonish/super hero than other attempts at an animal theme, which I like. Weapons on the other hand are far more underwhelming - the Vulcan stick is a baton that is usually just thrown at the monster, and the finishing attack is an exploding volleyball (later upgraded to three american footballs that combine into a spiked ball). Vul Eagle II, also made use of a sword.

While Sun Vulcan is the first Sentai show to have vehicles combine into a robot, these are much simpler times than the Super Sentai robots of now. While Cosmo Vulcan actually looks like a jet and has a pretty interesting transformation (lots of folding panels), Bull Vulcan is a pair of legs on wheels no matter how you look at it. Sun Vulcan Robo itself is a greatly look retro-style mecha, and has plenty of attacks to keep fights interesting. However the robot always comes across as far too overpowered, with most fights simply being a short tussle with the monster of the week followed by a swift Aurora Plasma Slash (its finishing attack). Even Inazuma Ginga notes that "he who controls Sun Vulcan Robo controls the world".

Sun Vulcan Robo: A delicious slice of retro robot goodness

As a sequel to Denziman, one might think going into the series that a crossover is potentially on the cards. Sadly this isn't the case, even though the series had a pretty good opportunity to use it. From Queen Hedrian's first appearance she makes note of her defeat in Denziman, and in a later episode attempts to destroy the remaining ancestors of the Denzi people. Sadly there's no sign of, or even mention of, the Denziman cast and where they are after the end of their series. A perfect opportunity wasted, especially when there were apparently crossover images appearing as promotion for the series.

Much like my thoughts of Tensou Sentai Goseiger (which would come 29 years later), Sun Vulcan is a whole load of potential that is marred by dull characters and boring stories, only to finally really grab you narrative-wise at the very end. Couple this with the excessive use of stock footage that this era of television was known for and you have a series which isn't only dull, but can be quite grating at times. While Sun Vulcan is considered by some to be one of the best Showa era Sentai shows, I can't help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by this franchise oddity.


Unknown said...

Nice review, I pretty much agree with everything you pointed out. Still love the show, though :)

Anonymous said...

Yeah, commenting on the Mecha battles, allot of the Showa era Sentai shows have this issue where the mech fights are only about 2 minutes long. Even the best entries like Denziman and Dynaman had this issue. My theory on why this is, I think it’s because these shows had such low budgets that they didn’t want to put the costume through anything too extreme so they compensated by having the fights last as short as possible.