Tuesday 9 September 2014

Series REVIEW: Android Kikaider

Android Kikaider

Having dived through a fairly extensive array of both Kamen Rider and Super Sentai shows but still having plenty left to watch, I decided it would be good to take a little break from the "big two" franchises and take a look at some of the lesser known tokusatsu heroes Japan has to offer. And having just received a reboot movie and guest appearance on Kamen Rider Gaim the Kikaider franchise seemed like the perfect place to start. Despite probably not being quite the household name Rider and Sentai are, Kikaider (again created by the the late great Shotaro Ishinomori) is still an incredibly popular hero and actually one of the more successful non-adapted heroes outside of his home country. Due to his huge popularity in Hawaii both live-action series have received an official DVD release, while the anime adaptations were also aired on Adult Swim.

Anyway there's no better place to start than the beginning, so my journey through the Kikaider franchise starts with the 43-episode series Android Kikaider (Jinzō Ningen Kikaidā), which aired between 1972 and 1973 (making it the oldest Toei series I've watched so far).

Jiro, Kikaider's alter ego
Jiro - the man with the red guitar

Kept prisoner by the evil organisation DARK, robotics expert Dr. Kohmyoji is forced to help build an army of evil robots that serve the organisations leader, Professor Gill. However unbeknownst to Gill Kohmyoji has created his own android in secret to protect his children from DARK - Jiro, a near perfect mechanical man. When Gill discovers this, he sends his androids to destroy them. Jiro is able to save Kohmyoji's daughter Mitsuko in the commotion, but the two are separated from her father.

Learning that Kohmyoji is wandering Japan with amnesia, Jiro, Mitsuko and her younger brother Masaru begin a frantic search to find him ("aided" by ninja descendant and private eye Hatori Hanpei). Along the way Jiro must battle against DARK and Gill's army of Destructoids, transforming himself into the two-tone superhero Kikaider. But Gill is also on the hunt for Kohmyoji, and after numerous defeats at the hands of Kikaider plans to use him to finish DARK's ultimate weapon - the ultimate robot Hakaider!

Kikaider as a hero has always been appealing to me because his backstory is a little different to the usual costumed hero. Rather than be a human with the ability to transform into a masked hero, this is a humanoid robot with the ability to transform into a more robot-looking robot. Jiro isn't human, so there's also an element of him trying to fit in with humanity ala Superman/Clark Kent. The manga gives this more of a Pinnochio/Frankenstein vibe, but here its played pretty safely. Jiro is a pretty standard Showa era tokusatsu hero in terms of personality, but his robotic origin provides a reasonably excuse for his lack of visible emotion. Thanks to an incomplete conscience circuit his one weakness is the sound of Professor Gill's flute, which has the hypnotic power to turn DARK-built robots under his control. Jiro's insistence to not get it fixed so he's more like a "flawed human" makes for a nice character trait, but gets incredibly irritating when he's weakened by the flute every single episode and each one has to come up with a new and inventive (i.e. often ridiculous) way to drown the sound out.

Mitsuko, Masaru & Hanpei - Kikaider's human friends
Mitsuko, Masaru and Japan's own ninja Sherlock -Hattori Hanpei

On the side characters side of things we have Doctor Kohmyoji, who spends the majority of the series wandering about without his memory. So there isn't a whole lot to say about him as character, other than those few episodes you get at the beginning and end where his memory is intact. Jiro himself is backed up by his children Mitsuko and Masaru - both of whom are surprisingly proactive throughout the course of the show. Masaru also scores points for being one of the best child characters I've seen in Toei superhero show. Rounding off the side characters is ninja detective Hatori Hanpei, who serves as the comic relief for the show. But for all his bumbling, Hanpei actually is surprisingly useful to have around. So despite Kikaider's side cast pretty much ticking every box for generic stereotypes, they aren't quite what you'd expect and prove very likeable all around.

Old man plays flute. And does very little else for 43 episodes

DARK are where things aren't quite as strong. Professor Gill is about as boring as an evil organisation leader as you can get, mostly sitting around making evil faces, shouting and playing his flute. Being an old man he doesn't come across as particularly clever (especially since he seems to need Kohmyoji to build the best things) or threatening, so is probably where he is simply because he's the only human in the organisation. The Destructoids themselves fair considerably better, even if the costumes are dated and they progressively look less like animals as the series goes along (look up 'Green Sponge' sometime). There's even quite a few interesting monster of the week arcs that you don't usually see in these type of shows either, including ones that appear for multiple episodes and even one Destructoid who has a daughter!

The real gem of the villains though is Hakaider, who appears in the final few episodes of the series swearing to destroy his older brother. Not only does Hakaider have a brilliant design (rumour is that he was inspiration for Star Wars' Darth Vader), but is an exceptionally cool character and honourable villain. Despite only being around for a short time, he certainly leaves an impression as the standout character and, if you know about him before entering the show, is the one thing your constantly waiting for while watching.

The fearsome Hakaider
It doesn't get much more awesome than Hakaider

As a 42 year old show Kikaider naturally is rather dated when it comes to special effects, but that doesn't stop the show from being pretty exhilarating when it comes to fight scenes. That is for the first ten or so episodes, before everything just becomes painfully repetitive. Having a limited power set is one thing, but Kikaider's fighting repertoire consists of a handful of poses and about three attacks, so how the fights go down are rather predictable. Its unfortunate that this coincides with the middle portion of the series, where it falls into a bit of an episodic slump that has moved on from the intriguing opening but still a fair way off the engaging finale. Still, you can't argue with the insanity of Kikaider's flying bike or the sheer brutality he shows in destroying DARK's Destructoids. They may only be robots, but seeing him throw them off cliffs to their deaths episode after episode is a lot more brutal than you'd expect.

Comparatively Kikaider has quite a lot in common with Kamen Rider Black, which aired around 15 years later and is arguably much more renowned in the tokusatsu fandom. Both stories heavily focus on a missing family member thanks to an evil organisation and a desperate attempt to find them, and both also include a key villain that only appears for the show's last handful of episodes but still manages to make a huge impression (Hakaider in Kikaider's case, and Shadow Moon for Black). But while being made much later means Black has better technology and costume and design on its side, I would argue that Kikaider manages to handle the core theme far better. While Kotaro spent a lot of the time simply standing around and cursing Golgom rather than actively looking for them (based on what happened onscreen of course), every episode of Kikaider had Jiro and friends looking for Doctor Kohmyoji. The extent of his amnesia was stretched to the point of extremity (especially when he regained his memory, only to lose it again and start taking a different job each episode), but the fact the plot was never dropped even for a second works exceptionally well. Hakaider sadly doesn't quite go down in the blaze of glory Shadow Moon did, which is a bit of a blow to his great character even if he came back two weeks later for the sequel series...

One of DARK's many Destructoids
Destructoid Red Condor, Jetman Black Condor's second cousin twice removed

Despite really beginning to show it's age, Android Kikaider is still a highly enjoyable series featuring another of Shotaro Ishinomori's brilliant superheroes. The episodic storytelling may begin to drag toward the middle, but the strands of continuity are always there. This eventually culminates into a fantastic final set of episodes, introducing one of the coolest rival characters you'll find in the genre. If you like a classic dose of superhero action every now and again and can stand some dated effects/costumes, Android Kikaider is more than worth your time.

1 comment:

Prema said...

interesting blog. It would be great if you can provide more details about it. Thanks you

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