Thursday 23 June 2016

5 Tokusatsu Shows Worth Watching (That Aren't Kamen Rider or Super Sentai)

Right now we're living in a pretty good time for English-subtitled tokusatsu. The internet and the hard work of fansubbers across the world have made the latest shows available mere days/hours after their release, Crunchyroll is adding various Ultraman series to its wide back catalogue of shows and Shout! Factory are even licensing Super Sentai series in America. That said, there's a wide history of tokusatsu out there and many fans might find venturing outside the confines of Toei's big two - Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, a bit out of their comfort zone.

So without further ado here are five accessible tokusatsu shows that are not only definitely worth your time, but aren't part of either Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, the Ultra Series or even Garo. No real favouritism was shown during the creation of this list, and there are plenty of other ones also available for fans looking to try something a bit different.

Kikaider (1972-74, 1995, 2014)
Length: Kikaider – 43 episodes, Kikaider 01 – 46 episodes, 2 movies (Mechanical Violator Hakaider & Kikaider REBOOT)

What it’s all about: When scientist and robotics expert Dr Kohmyoji is held prisoner by the evil organisation DARK, he creates the robot Kikaider to protect his children from both DARK and their leader Professor Gill. Built with a conscience circuit that sets him apart from DARK's own robot forces, Kikaider (who adopts the human identity of Jiro) defends both the Kohmyoji children and the planet from the organisation's evil plans. However Kikaider eventually meets his match in Hakaider - a robot whose sole purpose is to defeat the hero.

Why it’s worth watching: This is the one entry on this list that does have some bias behind it, as its no secret that the Kikaider franchise is hands down my favourite among all the toku that I've seen thus far. While neither series is perfect, its shortcomings are more than made up for in its great premise and extremely memorable characters. On top of the original show you also have a great spin-off movie in the form of Mechanical Violator Hakaider (directed by the great Keita Amemiya) and a modern retelling in Kikaider REBOOT. The latter version will be especially known to Kamen Rider fans, with the character having made a guest appearance in Kamen Rider Gaim as part of the movie's promotion. And that's not all either, as there is also an animated adaptation of Kikaider based off Shotaro Ishinomori's original manga. While the live-action series offers a more traditional superhero story, the manga and anime go down a somewhat darker route with more in-depth characterisation and a more philosophical approach to robotics and Jiro's situation.

Availability: Thanks to Kikaider’s popularity in Hawaii the original series, Kikaider 01 and the REBOOT movie are completely subbed and available on DVD through Generation Kikaida. While the series sets themselves cost a pretty penny, the REBOOT movie is thankfully more affordable. The Director’s Cut of the Hakaider movie was also released on DVD through Tokyo Shock, and the Kikaider anime through Bandai Entertainment (including both the dub and Japanese audio w/ subtitles). Both are now unfortunately out of print, and while Hakaider can still be grabbed for a fair price the anime goes for a lot on the aftermarket. Hopefully it’ll be relicensed and re-released one day.

Special Rescue Police Winspector (1990-91)
Special Police Rescue Winspector
Length: 49 episodes

What it’s all about: In the (now not-so) future year of 1999, Japan is developing new methods to defend its citizens from criminal threats. Among these are the Winspector team, comprised of police superintendent Ryoma Kagawa (who dons Tector armour to become the hero 'Fire') and robotic brothers Bikel and Walter. Using hi-tech vehicles and equipment, the team battle against all manner of super-powered threats.

Why it’s worth watching: Despite the Metal Hero series' prominence through the 80s and 90s (sitting comfortably alongside Super Sentai while Kamen Rider was absent during this time), finding a complete translation of any of its various shows is a difficult task. Currently Special Rescue Police Winspector is one of the most readily accessible, which is pretty good timing given Bandai recently shining the spotlight on them in their S.H. Figuarts toy line. Winspector is notable for taking Metal Heroes off in a slightly new direction - placing the action in the (then) near-future and shifting the attention away from alien threats with a greater focus on the police investigation aspect. The lack of a villainous organisation or overarching bad guy is another of it's more interesting aspects, and would have definitely inspired later shows like Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger to take a similar approach.

Availability: The whole series has been fansubbed thanks to Weeaboo Shogun.

Kaiketsu Zubat (1977)
Kaikaetsu Zubat
Length: 32 episodes

What it’s all about: When private detective Ken Hayakawa sees his best friend murdered right in front of him, he begins a long quest for revenge and justice. To aid him on this journey he uses the Zubasuit - his friend's research project which grants Ken super strength, becoming the masked hero Zubat!

Why it’s worth watching: While Kaiketsu Zubat is hardly a show that should be considered obscure, it is one that is mostly overlooked by Western fans - and this is something that definitely needs to change. Created once again by Shotaro Ishinomori and starring Hiroshi Miyauchi (who previously played both Kamen Rider V3, Akira/AoRanger in Goranger AND Soukichi/Big One in JAKQ) in the title role, Zubat is an especially interesting slice of toku action because here the hero isn't actually fighting monsters - he's fighting people. The enemies he faces are gang members, usually led by someone who some sort of unique skill that sets them apart from the rest. Kaiketsu Zubat is a wonderful blend of dark storytelling and lighthearted wackiness that shouldn't be missed.

Availability: The whole show has been fansubbed thanks to Millionfold Curiosity.

Iron King (1972-73)
Iron King
Length: 26 episodes

What it’s all about: When the Shiranui clan resurface after 2000 years to take revenge their enemies the Yamato Clan (i.e. Japan), the country's National Security Organisation send secret agent Gentaro Shizuka to stop their plans. Assisting him is the clumsy hiker Goro Kirishima, who in reality is actually another agent sent to protect Gentaro. However that isn't Goro's only secret - he also has the ability to turn into the giant, hydro-powered robot Iron King!

Why it’s worth watching: Despite looking like a rather obvious ripoff of Ultraman, this series from Ultraman screenwriter Mamoru Sasaki and Gamera series director Noriaki Yuasa is a great example of how just ridiculous sounding Japanese superhero shows can be a times. Here you have both terrorist and alien threats being defended against by a secret agent whose also happens to be a singing cowboy (when your actor is a pop star you've got to get singing in there somewhere I guess) and his bumbling sidekick. But of course the most interesting thing about Iron King is that it isn't Gentaro himself that becomes the titular hero, and is instead Goro. This makes a nice change of pace from the usual toku hero conventions, with the two making a pretty interesting dynamic to watch.

Availability: The whole series is available on DVD from Mill Creek Entertainment (Region 1), and costs next to nothing (the cheapest I’ve seen it online for is around $5). Like a lot of Mill Creek’s other releases the quality isn’t spectacular, but ultimately you get what you pay for and it’s hard to scoff at an obscure show available for such a low price.

Kyodai Ken Byclosser (1985)
Kyodai Ken Byclosser
Length: 34 episodes

What it’s all about: Brothers Ken and Ginjiro Mizuna follow a mysterious light into the mountains, they find themselves attacked the black-clad henchmen of Destar. After falling from a mountain, the pair are saved by an alien entity who tells them the Earth is in great danger. Fulfilling a prophecy that they will become the most powerful warriors in the universe, the pair are granted the powers to become the Kyodai Ken (Brothers' Fist) Byclosser!

Why it’s worth watching: As yet another series from the late great Shotaro Ishinomori, Byclosser (which is also known as 'Bycrosser') is one of the many examples of just how many shows the man created during for Toei during his time. Many of these will go by completely unknown to Western toku fans, but thanks to the dedicated work of fansubbers this doesn't have to be the case. The show came about just as the Space Sheriff trilogy (part of the aforementioned Metal Hero series) was ending, which may have influenced the similar look and feel that Byclosser has. Plus the show has a sequence where Byclosser Ken uses his brother's motorbike as a giant gun while his brother is still riding it. You can't argue with facts like that!

Availability: Big Nova Subs are currently working their way through the show. At the time of writing they have subbed 18 of the 34 episodes.