Wednesday 8 February 2017

Series REVIEW: Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger

Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger

There are some themes and motifs that Super Sentai will always come back to. In 2013 the long-running franchise turned to dinosaurs for a third time with Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, and more recently it also did ninjas for a third time with Shuriken Sentai Ninninger. With that in mind, it seems almost fitting that the 40th anniversary Toei would revisit yet another popular (but usually secondary) motif – animals. 2016-2017 was the year of Doubutsu Sentai Zyohger, the 40th team in the Super Sentai series and released as part of Toei’s “Super Hero Year” anniversary celebrations.

Yamato, Misao, Tusk, Sela, Amu & LeoThe Zyumen

After falling through a mysterious portal to a world of anthropomorphic animals known as Zyuland, zoologist Yamato Kazakiri encounters four of its people – Sela (a shark), Leo (a Lion), Amu (a tiger) and Tusk (an elephant), and is accused of stealing one of the six Champions Symbols that power the link between the two worlds. However their meeting coincides with the arrival of the Dethgalians – a group of aliens who have decided on the Earth as the site for their 100th Blood Game. As Yamato returns to Earth with the four Zyumen in tow, the five are able to use the Champions Symbols to become Earth’s newest guardians – the Zyuohgers. The team are able to fend off the Dethgalians first attack but upon their return to the Link Cube the Zyumen find the sixth Symbol missing, stranding them on Earth until it is found.

Blending in with humanity, the four Zyumen join Yamato as they search for the means to return home while fighting off the Dethgalian attacks. Eventually the Dethgalians raise the stakes as they create their own Zyuohger, created from three kidnapped Zyuman and the brainwashed human Mondo Misao. After freeing Misao from their clutches, he joins the team as Zyuoh The World as the Blood Games continue.

Zyuoh GorillaZyuoh Whale

Starring two humans and four anthropomorphic animals, Zyuohger immediately sets itself apart from the usual Super Sentai formula of either an entirely human team or one limited to one or two “different” members. Sure the Zyumen adopt human disguises fairly quickly, but their clothing and tails (or in Sela’s case, fin) serve as a constant reminder that Zyuohger is playing with a slightly different dynamic. Don’t be too fooled into thinking Zyuohger is any less red-centric that most other Super Sentai though – it’s still Yamato that gets the most development, the most power ups (three animals compared to the others’ one) and the big speeches/action sequences. However presentation is key, and Zyuohger still manages to make the four Zyumen feel suitably fleshed out even if they aren’t getting the same treatment as their human teammate. They all get their obligatory spotlight episodes as their time to shine, but each Zyuman has their own distinct and well-realised personality that makes their interactions a joy to watch. A particularly great standalone episode is 32, where a monster attack causes the characters’ “hidden personalities” to also come on show.

But in terms of characterisation it’s actually Misao that deserves the most praise, who has arguably emerged as one of the most realistic and relatable characters the franchise has ever put out. As if his turn as an evil ranger and unique tri-coloured suit wasn’t enough to earn him a place in the cool books, the show’s honest depiction of someone suffering from depression is quite unlike anything Sentai has tackled before. Yes his fluctuating mood is the butt of numerous (and admittedly funny) jokes, but the actual narrative is relatively sincere in the way it portrays his constantly shifting mental state, survivors’ guilt and difficulty overcoming his emotions. Combine this with Yamato’s own parental turmoil, and Zyuohger has done a pretty good job of tackling issues rarely seen in Super Sentai these days. 

Zyuoh The WorldMondo Misao

However the Dethgalians fall on the simpler side of the Super Sentai villain spectrum, setting out with very little background other than “some aliens are here to destroy things”. While their motivations don’t make for particularly deep storytelling, seeing their leader Genis’ see everything as a game for his amusement works in their favour – painting him as a chilling opponent unphased by setbacks and always thinking two steps ahead of everyone else. It isn’t until the arrival of the megabeast hunter Bunglay that things begin to take an interesting turn, as the weekly monsters are recycled and pushed to one side story-wise. Although Bunglay’s hunt for the legendary Cube Whale eventually outstays its welcome, it brings forward development for Genis own generals (or “players”) – Quval and Azald. Although his attendant Naria is still left with no personality outside of being unflinchingly loyal, those two are pushed to be more than that.

And ultimately it’s plans like these that unfortunately result in Zyuohger falling just short of greatness. While it may have all these big ideas about what to do with its characters and setting, it spends too much time hinting at them and not enough time actually developing them. Key elements like Yamato’s relationship with his father, Quval’s secrets and Azald’s background are all incredibly well signposted from the very beginning of the series, but when it comes to revealing them they come far too late in the game to have a good amount of time dedicated to them. Meanwhile Zyuland comes off as a great concept, but doesn’t factor into the overall story enough to satisfy anyone more interested in this parallel Earth. Finally Genis’ revelations are thrown in at the very last minute, occupying little more than a few throwaway lines in the finale episode despite never even being hinted at before. Zyuohger is a show that’s never short on good ideas, but needed to spend far more realising them instead of getting bogged down with the bloated Bunglay arc in its middle section.

The DethgaliansBunglay

Aesthetically Zyuohger thrives on simplicity, reflected both in the suits and the cube-themed animal mecha. The latter’s case is something that didn’t necessarily translate well when it came to the toys (minipla notwithstanding), but onscreen work rather well – with the cute brightly coloured animals giving Zyuohger a unique visual identity that sets it apart from the similarly themed Gaoranger. The simpler designs also make for far more fluid robot designs, which while boxy in nature don’t have the same unappealing pile-of-parts look many “ultimate” combos now suffer from. There’s nothing especially new to be had here and the combination of animals and retro-styled video game cubes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but as far as the show goes it definitely works.

The mecha of Zyuohger

Finally as the 40th entry in the franchise Zyuohger does have some anniversary element to it, but in the more reserved sense (akin to Gaoranger or Boukenger) rather than an all-out celebration like Gokaiger was. Gokaiger is far too fresh in everyone’s memories to try and top it yet, so instead Zyuohger’s main strength is in that it is simply a solid Super Sentai series. It never really tries to reinvent the wheel, but knows the tropes of the franchise well enough to keep them fresh and entertaining. Throwing a mecha battle in at the start of an episode might not sound like much, but for a show that’s stuck to its format so rigidly for decades it comes as a welcome surprise. Of course it wouldn’t be an anniversary without cameos, and while the Zyuohger vs Ninninger movie covers the bulk of that there’s also a wonderful two-part story here featuring the return of the Gokaigers. The two teams have a wonderful dynamic, with Gokaigers going about their heroism in their usual standoffish way. But most importantly these two episodes are integral to Zyuohger’s plot as well, making them far more than just some well-polished fanservice and the perfect opportunity to officially add the post-Gokaiger shows to the Ranger Key collection.

The return of the GokaigersGokai change!

While there are undoubtedly some areas Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger could have done better in, that doesn’t change the fact that this is arguably the strongest Super Sentai has been in the last few years. Even through its usual Red-centricity Zyuohger displays memorable characters with their own unique traits, arcs and development – presenting the feeling of a well-rounded and equal cast even when it doesn’t quite feel like that on paper. Additionally the villains for the most part all had their own stories to tell, which despite not coming into the spotlight enough were all well signposted and kept the show interesting. It also works perfectly as an anniversary series – not by attempting the same thing as Gokaiger but instead simply coming out as a well-crafted series that does all the things a good Super Sentai series should. Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger might be the one offering a much-needed shakeup to the formula, but 2016 was a definitely a year where Super Sentai shined.


Anonymous said...

Love your review and I couldn't agree more. However for me the thing that killed the show was the lack of focus on Amu. She was the ONLY Zyuman to not receive a focus episode on her background. There was even a focus episode on Tusk where it was made clear he had feelings for her and in the much later episode where a young girl fell in love with Tusk i was so excited to see this touched upon or fleshed out again and there was no mention of Tusks feelings again!! Super lazy writing in this area I was so let down

TF RyuShin said...

Once again, a really good and solid review. For most of the wasted plot that you have mentioned, I painfully agree with you since I really love Zyuohger. There're plenty of filler episodes that should have been replaced with earlier reveal of Quval's betrayal, Azald's past and of course Yamato and his father's relationship. For the most part, Zyuohger crammed all of those plot and ideas in the last minute. It's ironic that they could just erase some of useless episodes and gave more rooms for the forthcoming plots. It's also painful to see that some characters like Tusk and Sela didn't have enough development or characteristic. Let's be honest, at least, Leo and Amu have time to shine and their characters aren't as bland as those two. It's great that even thought Amu didn't have any focus episode, she gave some push and dynamic for Yamato later.

On the bright side, I like the idea that Yamato was at least more mature and less "shouting" compared to past Red Rangers. Even Leo who took the place for shouting Ranger was more likable at least. I don't really have any problem with Yamato got power ups, but I did feel that all of his upgrades barely feel super power up or upgrades. At least, for Chozetsu Ninningers, you could get the vibe of power up, but for Zyuoh Whale, I felt it's just a normal form change for Yamato. Other than that, I really love Zyuohger. I mostly don't like Misao in the first place but his character grew up so drastically that he changed my mind. The Mechas were evolving to be better too, especially WTDK. Though, I do hope that they didn't overuse WTDK and try to use lesser Mechas, like Zyuoh King or WildZyuohKing. It's a problem since Ninninger that some previous Mechas were abandoned for unknown reason.

All in all, I really agree that it gets a "Recommended" rating. Zyuohger might not be a perfect Sentai series with several plot holes, last-minute addition and so many wasted potentials here and there, but it does give a breather and fresh air to Sentai series. A solid Red and 6th Ranger with more compelling plot. I do get bored of Zyuohger later at almost the end of the series, but it still didn't change the fact that this is might be the Sentai series that we have hoped for several years.

Lucas said...

Awww, no funny descriptions beneath the pictures? Those were my favorites :,(

Alex said...

People actually liked those?! :O I decided to phase them out because I wanted to include more pics in my reviews, but also because I genuinely didn't think I was that funny haha. Not to worry though - while I have dropped them as captions I have kept them as hover text, so if you're on a computer (not sure how they work on phones/tablets) and hover over the image you can get my poor attempts at comedy that way.

Stephen Cassat said...

Zyuohger was good. Love the simple suits and helmets. Yamato has to be the best Red Ranger ever. All in all great season.