Friday 14 February 2020

Series REVIEW: Inazuman


The early 1970s saw a boom in the popularity of live-action superheroes shows on Japanese television, spurred on by the success of series such as Kikaider, The Return of Ultraman and of course Kamen Rider. In 1972 Daisuke Ban had already become tokusatsu royalty for his portrayal of Jiro in Kikaider, and the following year he not only reprised that role in Kikaider 01 but also took the lead in another Shotaro Ishinomori creation. Running from October 1973 until September 1974, the psionic-powered Inazuman is notable for having its story split across two distinct "chapters". Whereas the first 25 episodes were simply released under the name Inazuman, for the subsequent 23 it was renamed Inazuman Flash – featuring a brand new villain and a slightly darker tone. That first half also saw significant success in Hawaii alongside both Kikaider series and Kamen Rider V3 – all of which have since been officially licensed by the Honolulu-based JN Productions (aka Generation Kikaida). In subsequent years Inazuman would go on to cross over with Kikaider in both manga and animation, made a cameo alongside other Ishinomori heroes in 2011's OOO, Den-O, All Riders: Let's Go Kamen Rider and then finally a reimagined version teamed up with Kamen Rider Fourze in 2012's Kamen Rider x Kamen Rider Wizard & Fourze: Movie Wars Ultimatum.

Goro WatariEmperor Banba

After saving two youngsters from the forces of the evil Neo-Human Empire, university student Goro Watari is brought to the headquarters of the Youth League – a secret organisation of psionic-powered mutants dedicated to thwarting the evil Empire and their leader Emperor Banba. Their leader reveals to Goro that he too has mutant powers, using advanced science to awaken these abilities and allow Goro to transform into the psionic superhero Inazuman!

Facing off against Emperor Banba’s Mutant Creatures and Phantom Soldiers, Goro calls out “Goriki Shorai!” (“Summon mighty powers”) to become the pupal mutant Sanagiman. Then when he’s able to absorb enough kinetic energy from the attacks used against him, he then utters “Chouriki Shorai!” (“Summon super powers”) to burst out of his pupa form as the moth-like hero. Armed with psychic powers, a transforming scarf and the sentient flying car Raijingo, Inazuman is more than ready to stop the Neo-Human Empire’s evil plans.

SanagimanInazuman is born!

Like many of Shotaro Ishinomori’s other superhero productions, Inazuman features a lead whose powers are above that of a normal human. But while shows like Kikaider and Kamen Rider take a more introspective view of what it means to be human, Inazuman (in its onscreen form at least) seems to have a lot less to say about the quandaries of being a mutant. Though characters are often targeted for their powers and some even transformed into monsters against their will, the show never really reflects on what this means nor does Goro ever show any real development because of the fact. So although Inazuman was certainly done in the same vein as those series, it’s at its heart a much more straightforward show. The monster of the week element is prioritised over any sort of overarching story, with even the initial plot set up hastily rushed through in the opening episode. Elements like the Youth League may seem important, but as an organisation play much less of a role as the series goes on – in fact their leader Captain Sarra is barely seen again after helping to unlock Goro’s powers. Similarly the SSSP-inspired orange uniforms of its members don’t last very long, and thankfully neither does Goro’s own uniform (/makeshift Kamen Rider cosplay) either. There are some recurring characters and themes, but largely the each episode is free to do its own thing within a rather basic framework. This results in a somewhat less introspective, but often far wackier show.

Though Goro himself may not have much to show in terms of characterisation and development over the course of the show, Ban Daisuke is able to sell the character on charisma alone. Much like Hiroshi Fujioka or Hiroshi Miyauchi, Daisuke flawlessly embodies those classic “hero of justice” principles that personify Showa era tokusatsu – immediately making both Goro and Inazuman a hero that children would look up to. Serious yet loveable, Goro sticks to his ideals even when his friends seem against him (something that happens more often than you’d think) and his trust in others is repeatedly exploited by Banba’s forces. His pupa to moth evolution of Sanagiman to Inazuman doesn't just bring about an incredible transformation sequence, in which the fully evolved Inazuman literally explodes out of Sanagiman's body - it also has some interesting drawbacks as well. While Inazuman is an insanely powerful mutant that can conjure up abilities to suit any situation, the Sanagiman form doesn’t display any of these benefits. By having not only wait but also absorb damage before he can fully mature, Goro puts himself at an incredible disadvantage when fighting against the Mutant Creatures and it’s a shame that it’s never exploited to its full effect.

The Youth LeaguePaint Banbara

But then again, Inazuman’s often comical over-poweredness is where a lot of the show’s charm comes from. Despite there being plenty of brawling action when Goro is facing off against Phantom Soldiers in either civilian or Sanagiman form, when transformed into Inazuman there definitely seems to be more of an effort the suits in working conditions. Punches are thrown through slow motion shots and clever camera cuts, with the fights instead primarily revolving around acrobatic shots or visual effects trickery. Early episodes see Inazuman use his seemingly limitless powers to frequently reverse the attacks of his opponents – simply but effectively achieved by reversing the footage of the attacks and then just adding a shot of the monster blowing up at the end. His scarf is one of possibly one of the most potent weapons you’ll ever see, able to do everything from transforming into a giant chain to prevent buildings falling down to creating rain to swiftly defeat water-weak enemies. And this is all without mentioning the sentient flying car, which on top of being able to fire hidden weapons from inside its moveable jaws can also engage in mid-air dogfights with Neo-Human fighter planes. No matter how silly an idea may seem, Inazuman is ready to visualise it with the utmost sincerity.

Goro isn’t alone on his quest to fight evil though. As well as the seldom seen Captain Sarra he’s also assisted by his best friend Gosaku Marume and a number of number of recurring Youth League members. Gosaku serves as the comedy relief of the series, finding himself in a number of unfortunate situations (like swallowing top secret plans hidden inside a load of bread) while the Youth League members call upon Goro whenever there’s trouble or help him with information gathering missions. While their overall importance to the show is generally low, having these familiar faces continually appear does help to maintain the idea that Inazuman does operate as part of a unit. That said, how much help they actually provide is questionable given the amount they end up (wrongly) turning against Goro. No matter how many heroic deeds they’ve seen him perform, the second Emperor Banba thinks up an evil duplicate plan they immediately think the worst of him. As silly as it sounds it does play perfectly into those tried and tested stock plots – the kind that are still being used exactly the same way today.

Much like the Young League the Neo-Human Empire also have some semblance of an ongoing plot about Japan eventually sinking into the sea, though it’s not all that clear whether their main intention is to speed up the process or simply prepare the event by making sure humanity is wiped out and/or subjugated beforehand. Either way it’s your typical evil empire shtick, complete with their glorious leader Emperor Banba wildy cackling his own name in a dark misty cave as he promises Inazuman’s imminent demise. His mutant creatures all have their own motifs but there’s no set theme amongst them, which results in some really bizarre and imaginative costumes in amongst them. Even the more dated designs still have an air of creepiness to them, particularly the ones that leave human facial features still visible underneath the suit. In order to combat Inazuman they also come with their own weird and wonderful powers, such as the multi-coloured Paint Banbara’s ability to emit toxic paint and fire homing missiles in the shape of paint tubes. Many also have access to their own nightmarish pocket dimensions as well, allowing for a lot of surreal sequences that play into the fight scenes love for camera trickery. As time goes on the show also starts to have a lot more fun with their death sequences as well, with other practical effects used on top of the traditional explosion.

RaijingoGosaku Marume

Inazuman might play fast and loose with an overarching story, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely averse to getting serious when it wants to. The show’s more ridiculous elements are perfect for creating a false sense of complacency, which those more serious story arcs then use to their full advantage. Out of nowhere there’s suddenly a two-part story involving Goro’s thought-dead mother, or an assault on the Neo-Human Empire’s base that Inazuman very narrowly escapes from. It’s very clearly stated that Banba’s mutant creatures are captured psychics transformed against the will, but the show spends very little time pandering the abject horror of the whole situation. It’s both thrilling and frustrating in equal parts, as it frequently allows the viewer to be thrown for a loop on what’s coming next but also means the show could be so much more if it wanted to. There’s a lot of deeper ideas around that mutants that could have easily been explored here, instead of just in the manga alone.

The end of the series is particularly interesting in the way it embraces some of these more serious elements, hastily setting things up for the darker tone Inazuman Flash would go on to embrace. The sudden power struggle between the Neo-Human Empire and Despa Army is sadly underplayed but adds an unexpected dynamic to Inazuman’s final showdown with Emperor Banba – with the once powerful ruler pushed into a corner through something other than Inazuman’s constant victories over him. Elements such as Inazuman’s new arsenal and slight change of appearance (episode 24 marks his scarf become red instead of yellow) are both sudden and unexplained, which in hindsight may feel like the writers hastily moving over to a new status quo but at the time would have felt strange and exciting. Rebranding the second half into Inazuman Flash adds considerably more weight to this first part’s ending, as unlike many other similar shows there isn’t any sense of victory to be had here. Inazuman inevitably triumphs over the Neo-Human Empire, but is immediately welcomed by the arrival of far more threatening foe. Even though Inazuman Flash beginning the following week robs the ending of some of its tension, those final scenes remain particularly strong.

All of these elements wrap Inazuman into an extremely entertaining package, but it wouldn’t be complete without its fantastic music by composer Michiaki Watanabe. On top of the highly infectious opening theme (immediately incorporating Inazuman’s Kyushu-inspired “Chest!” battle cry as the perfect earworm), the series features a number of memorable insert songs and shrill, electronic instrumental versions that help create the perfect time capsule that is Showa era tokusatsu.

The Phantom SoldiersA greater threat...

As expected from one of Ishinomori’s staple tokusatsu shows, Inazuman is fantastic slice of 70s colour, imagination and action. Though the series retains the mortal code and strong sense of justice that runs across all of its contemporaries, it’s a series much less concerned with overarching plots than the others and instead lets the indivual stories do the talking. The brief moments of plot are enough to reassure that the show can be serious when it wants to, but it’s far more fun just to get lost in the psychedelic visuals and often ridiculous powers that make this era of tokusatsu so unforgettably charming. Ending on such a great sequel hook it’s just a shame that the second half of the story isn’t as readily available as this, so all we can do is hope that one day Inazuman Flash will be able to be fully appreciated by non-Japanese speaking fans too.


Anonymous said...

If you want to watch another Toku that isn't Kamen Rider/Sentai/Ultraman/Garo, I highily recommend Changerion, it is a very unique Toku that for me is a "must watch"

Luis Felipe said...

Wait, you watch only tokusatsus via official means? No piracy?