Tuesday 16 February 2016

First Impressions: Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger

Another year gone by, another Super Sentai series over and done with. However the wonderful thing about this franchise is that Toei never leave fans with too long to mourn (or celebrate, depending on how things have gone) the loss of the previous team as the next one is ready to immediately make their debut the following week. For its 40th anniversary celebrations the franchise has opted to put a new spin on the ever-prevalent animal theme with Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, combining it with Rubik's cube puzzles and a pixellated video game-esque motif (perhaps inspired by retro gaming titles or the likes of the ever-popular Minecraft). 2016 is going to be the year of cubes - lots and lots of cubes.

After zoologist Yamato Kazakiri is swallowed by a strange floating cube, he finds himself in Zyuland – a world similar to ours populated by humanoid animals known as Zyumans. As Yamato meets the cube’s four guardians Sela, Leo, Tusk and Amu, the Earth is attacked by aliens known as the Deathgalians – who have chosen the planet as the field for their 100th Blood Game. After becoming trapped on Earth, the four Zyuman use the power of the "Champion's Symbol" to become the Zyuohgers, with Yamato surprising them all by tapping into the same power to become the team’s fifth member.

In recent years I’ve become a lot more wary of both Super Sentai and Kamen Rider premieres. General consensus is rarely anything other than positive, as Toei throw every bit of flash in to ensure the new series is able to bring back viewers the following week. To put it bluntly, the first episode in no way reflects how the quality of a series will pan out over the course of a year. So with that in mind Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger’s first episode was about as strong as you’d expect – a fast-paced introduction that was heavy on the flash and gimmicks, providing enough eye candy to not only entice kids to tune in the following week but to also pick up a few of the toys as well. 

And what the episode did well, it did extremely well. In a mere 20 minutes it created interest and intrigue with Zyuland, together with four slightly unconventional lead characters (it's fairly amusing how well done their animal costumes were done in comparison to all the background characters though). Anthropomorphic animals is not a new concept for Super Sentai and there have been plenty of precursors to the Zyuohgers over the years, but to get them in a main character capacity is a nice little twist. They may have taken human forms by the end of the episode, but the various previews released over the last month or so have shown there still might be a healthy balance struck. Yamato is also already showing the potential to be a pretty great red - inheriting the capableness of his more recent predecessors but with the over-enthusiasm toned down to a more bearable level. Despite some of his backstory only very briefly being covered in the form of a flashback, it is enough for fans to start drawing up their own theories about him and the mysterious bird Zyuman he comes into contact with.

While it's clear as day that the show fully intends to run with the overarching cube gimmick and cram it as much as possible, elements where it really counts (such as the changer, mecha cockpit and the mecha themselves) work rather well. Despite perhaps not looking like much in toy form, the cube animals definitely have a unique charm about them and fully embrace the old-school pixel style aesthetic they seem to be striving for. Which brings things nicely onto the subject of the Deathgalians, whose use of the gaming theme through design cues and "continue" coins work on different levels for both Eastern and Western fans - relevancy for the Japanese, and a keen sense of nostalgia for Westerners who might not see as many arcades around anymore.

That isn’t to say the episode wasn’t without its faults. One could perhaps argue against the breakneck pacing of the episode throwing characters, gimmicks and mecha at the viewer so fast you barely have time to process each one, but that tends to be the norm these days. Young children like loud and flashy, so loud and flashy is what they get. However looking at the show from a production standpoint one thing that immediately stuck out here was the overreliance on CGI and stock footage attacks for the action sequences. The cube animal battle sequences offered a nice diversion with live-action suits and miniatures (albeit with a lot of CGI enemies swarming around), but the actual ground-level fighting didn’t offer much in the way of choreography at all. This might come off as a lot worse since Ninninger did exactly the opposite and placed a lot of stock in its choreography (and was in turn was one of the show’s most appealing attributes), but it will be interesting to see how well the show is able to handle fights when the CGI budget per episode isn’t quite as high as it is here.

My second gripe is a bit more of a pet peeve, but it’s disappointing to see the mecha combinations return to the format of a three-piece robot for a five-member team. Previous shows that also used this format (such as Kyoryuger and Go-Onger) did try to even things out a bit more as they went along, but at the very beginning it just makes the mecha feel under-designed. Simplicity was definitely a buzzword when it came to designing the cube animals and Zyuoh King, but adding a further two components wouldn’t have exactly taken things overboard. Intentionally leaving two parts out is something that I’ll never understand, even if the episode two preview shows that the Zyuohgers aren’t going to rely on a single formation for very long.

Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger has debuted with an episode that shows a lot of promise. Seeing both the suits and mecha in action has shown there’s far more charm to the visual simplicity than many initially perceived, propped up by an interesting plot and a more unique team than we are usually accustomed too. The big question now is how well it can utilise these things over the course of a year, making Super Sentai’s big 4-0 something that is really worth celebrating.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So how's the series so far?