Thursday 20 May 2021

Series REVIEW: Toei's Spider-Man

Toei's Spider-Man

In the late 1970s the Toei Company made a three year licensing deal with Marvel Comics that allowed them to take their characters and reimagine them for a Japanese audience. This collaboration was key to the creation of the Super Sentai franchise as we know it today, with many of its tropes introduced through both Battle Fever J and subsequent instalments Denshi Sentai Denjiman and Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan. But prior to these came the most infamous result of the partnership - Toei’s Spider-Man. Released in 1978 and running for a total of 41 episodes (plus one 25-minute movie), Toei’s Spider-Man took the iconography of Marvel’s legendary hero and transformed him into in a true henshin hero. In recent years the character has gone though something of a renaissance - prominently appearing in the various Spider-Verse crossover comic series, receiving a dedicated documentary on Disney+ and slated to appear in the 2022 sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Takuya and his dying fatherGaria

When a UFO is seen falling to Earth, renowned space archeologist Dr Hiroshi Yamashiro heads out to investigate the crash site. However the event also attracts the attention of the Iron Cross Army - a ruthless alien force led by the evil Professor Monster. The Iron Cross Army murders Dr Yamashiro, who dies in the arms of his son - motorcycle racer Takuya Yamashiro.

The attack also leads Takuya to Garia - an alien from the Planet Spider whose home world was destroyed by the Iron Cross Army. Injecting Takuya with his “Spider extract” blood to save his life, Garia asks Takuya to exact revenge on the Iron Cross Army - for Garia, for the Planet Spider and for his father. Gaining strange new powers from Garia’s blood, Takuya becomes Spider-Man - fighting back against Professor Monster and legion of monstrous Machine Bems. Amongst his arsenal include the flying car Spider Machine GP-7 and the Marveller, an advanced alien spaceship that can transform into the mighty robot Leopardon. 

Professor MonsterThe Emissary of Hell - Spider-Man!

For years Toei’s Spider-Man has been known by casual Marvel fans as simply a weird moment in the web slinger’s nearing 60 year history, which isn’t all that surprising given he’s mostly known for having a giant robot. But even in the age of the internet and Western accessibility to the services, pictures and footage of him brandishing a machine gun or announcing himself as “the emissary of hell” don’t do much to dispel that image either. But in watching the series it isn’t hard to see how Spider-Man as a character lends so well to the henshin hero genre, or how much this in common this version has with the original despite the cultural differences. While it may be a very different experience, the spirit of Spider-Man is alive and well in Toei’s classic series.

Like Peter Parker, Takuya Yamashiro is thrust into a life as Spider-Man after a moment of family tragedy. Although the series doesn’t draw a huge amount of attention to it, it’s also something that could have perhaps been avoided - Takuya having blown off his father’s UFO investigation to prepare for a motorcycle race. The way in which these two heroes channel that grief though is very different - Peter using his Uncle Ben’s words to motivate him whilst Takuya takes the very Showa hero path of vengeance through justice (think Kamen Rider V3). Takuya often struggles to balance his secret identity in the same way Peter does, with his civilian life becoming intrinsically linked with that of Spider-Man and often putting his family and friends in harm’s way (whilst he’s accused of being a coward for being nowhere to be seen). He might not quip in the same way the original Spidey does, but Toei’s Spider-Man is one hell of a grandstander. A master at surprise reveals, killer poses and iconic catchphrases, this Spider-Man exudes that same cockiness nevertheless. 

Takuya YamashiroLeopardon

But above all, Toei’s Spider-Man is still the people’s hero. He may be working (often alongside Interpol) to bring down an evil alien organisation, but Spider-Man’s battles are always primarily concerned above all with the people around him. Like any good tokusatsu series this is very “victim of the week”-centric, with many of those victims either being young children or the parents of children. The stories are just as seeped in tragedy as Takuya’s, with a huge portion of them involving some sort of (surprisingly brutal) murder. As much as Takuya’s mission is to fulfil his father’s promise and bring down the Iron Cross Army, Spider-Man always puts these people first. Again this isn’t at all dissimilar from the way most henshin heroes are, but it shows just how well-placed Spider-Man is within the genre.

Sadly it’s also in being a show that’s about the little people that Spider-Man sometimes gets a little confused in what it wants to be. So many of the episodes are concerned with relatively grounded things like the Iron Cross Army trying to steal secret plans, basic kidnapping or trying some get rich quick scheme to bolster their military that the “monster of the week” element often feels perfunctory. Spider-Man features some brilliant monster designs, but as the show progresses many are relegated to simply appearing in the last five minutes to grow and be subsequently defeated by Leopardon. The moments where it really leans into the horror of Professor Monster’s experiments, showing both the Iron Cross Army’s mental manipulations and the genetic modifications they make, are brilliant but not often enough. There are plenty of the bizarrely wonderful plans that only classic tokusatsu can provide as well (the “Spider-Man Boogie” deserves far more love than it has). That said, Spider-Man’s charm really does lie in how personal some of his exploits are, so it becomes a careful balancing act of trying to include both parts. Though it doesn’t always manage it satisfactorily, at the very least Spider-Man is rarely a dull moment. 

AmazonessMachine Bem Air Bomber

Leading the Iron Cross Army is the evil Professor Monster, a cloaked cybernetic man who has achieved immortality by routinely draining the blood of other lifeforms. Like most evil organisation rules he tends to just sit around on his throne barking orders, but those rare moments where they show his vulnerability (like the aforementioned blood draining) show an interesting side to him. Who’s really leading the charge here is Amazoness, Monster’s loyal second in command. It’s not only refreshing that the Iron Cross Army’s sole commander is a woman who constantly proves to be a reasonable match for Spider-Man, if often feels like her plans would actually work if they didn’t have to somehow feature Machine Bems. She’s the one who has suspicions about Spider-Man’s secret identity throughout the series, and does a pretty good job of getting close to him as the editor of Weekly Woman magazine. There’s a good rapport between Professor Monster and Amazoness, but the Iron Cross Army does feel little thin on the ground when it comes to prominent members. Which makes it all the stranger that the show only begins to play with this dynamic right at tail end of the show - introducing episodic threats that aren’t just Machine Bems as well as two new warriors for the Army - resurrected Amazonian mummies Bella and Rita. The power struggle this begins to create within the Iron Cross Army has promise, but comes far too late to be done to its full potential. It doesn’t help that Spider-Man doesn’t really have any sort of clear end game either. Even the most episodic shows will give you a sense that they’re gearing up to a big finale, but Spider-Man just continues with its usual episodic adventures until that final episode rolls around and everything is wrapped up in a neat 22-minute long package.

Spider-Man’s battle may ultimately be a solo one (as the series narration constantly laments), but Takuya himself is far from alone. Supporting him in his every day life are his younger siblings Shinko and Takuji, as well as his girlfriend and freelance photographer Hitomi. Though the group never latch on to the fact that Takuya is Spider-Man, they certainly get tangled in the Iron Cross Army’s schemes enough that they should have at the very least suspected it. There are also a few notable guests over the course of the series, including a young child saved by Takuya’s blood the same way Garia previously saved him. Later on in the series even comes two episodes guest starring tokusatsu legend Hiroshi Miayauchi (Kamen Rider V3, Gorangers’s Aoranger, JAKQ’s Big One and Kaiketsu Zubat) as a poncho-wearing, guitar playing Interpol agent who fights the Iron Cross Army whilst attempting to cure his son’s amnesia. With such strong episodic stories it’s no surprise that Spider-Man is able to pull off a strong supporting cast to go with it.
Shinko, Takuji and HitomiHiroshi Miayauchi as Go Tachibana

But of course you can’t talk about Spider-Man without talking about the Marveller/Leopardon. Spider-Man’s transforming robot and the progenitor to Super Sentai’s own legion of giant robots, Leopardon is a staple piece of Toei Spider-Man and arguably its biggest lasting legacy. The robot is a masterclass in classic Japanese super robot design, even if it is barely spider-related at all (much to the confusion of even those who worked on the show). The truth is though, if you watch this series solely for Leopardon you will likely be disappointed. It’s a fairly well-known fact that the very expensive Leopardon suit was stolen from the set midway through production, leaving the creators to simply use what little footage they had repeatedly for the rest of the show. This means that the same two to three minutes of footage are used practically every episode, with Leopardon only ever using ranged attacks so that the monster can be hit with the robot out of shot (this actually happened prior to the suit being lost as well, due to the size difference between the Leopardon and Machine Bem suits). It has led to the amusing idea that Leopardon is one of the most powerful super robots in tokusatsu history because it’s never damaged and only needs one attack to the get the job done, but isn’t all that exciting to watch on screen. Marveller launches, shoots some guns, transforms, Leopardon throws Sword Vigor and the monster is defeated. As the beginnings of Super Sentai’s robot legacy naturally you’d expect it not to be quite as polished as future efforts, and while the Leopardon footage is fascinating to watch rarely is it the highlight of any Spider-Man episode. The transformation sequence is cool as hell and Spider-Man’s “Change Leopardon” pose never gets old, but arguably Spider-Man himself is doing just as much of the legwork there as well.

The Leopardon suit being too expensive to replace gives you a sense of just how much effort was put into this series, and visually it never does anything at half-measure. Someone coming into it without a pre-existing love for tokusatsu may look at its visual effects as dated, but the passion and creativity the show has really shines through. Even if this Spider-Man couldn’t web sling the same way as the comic version can, Takuya’s spider-like abilities are brilliantly conveyed with the amount of wall-crawling he does as well as the rest of the suit choreography in general. Spider-Man darts across the screen like a spider would, scurrying up walls and then swinging from place to place in a more Tarzan-like manner. In addition to all the stunt work sees Spider-Man suspended upside down in various places, flipping around his enemies like an acrobat, gripping for dear life from helicopters and so much more. It’s all the more impressive when you remember that this suit actor is simply wearing a spandex suit and not something a little more padded like most henshin heroes. But if that isn’t cool enough for you, this Spider-Man has a flying car as well! While this is perhaps the part that goes against the perceptions of what Spider-Man “should” be, the distinctly henshin hero gimmickry of Toei’s Spider-Man is definitely part of the charm. From the wrist mounted changer to Spider Machine GP-7, these elements give Takuya’s Spidey far more of a distinct and cultural identity than any other alternate version there’s been over the years. Koichi Takamoto’s direction, combined with the brilliant music from Michiaki Watanabe, create a flavour that’s so distinctly 70s Japan but at the same way timeless in the same way the original Kamen Rider has become. 

The Marveller launches!Wall crawling no matter the country

Toei’s Spider-Man is an integral piece of both tokusatsu and henshin hero history, but it’s also just a really great show in it’s own right. While it has moments where it’s clearly torn in just what it wants to be, it’s also a wonderful piece of storytelling that perfectly captures the legacy of Spider-Man through a Japanese lens. But perhaps most of all, it offers so much more than what it is most remembered for. You may come for Leopardon, but you stay for the brilliant characters, great stories, the copious amount of murder and some of the best roll-call posing you’ll find in all of tokusatsu.

1 comment:

Oar said...

I never heard that story about Leopardon being stolen before! Somehow though, I think Spider-Man is definitely who would get his giant robot stolen.