Saturday, 17 July 2021

Series REVIEW: Zone Fighter

Zone Fighter

At the height of Japan's second monster boom, declining theatre attendance saw Toho look toward bringing their particular brand of superhero/monster tokusatsu to television - inspired by Tsuburaya Productions' revival of the Ultra Series through The Return of Ultraman and Ultraman Ace. With the popular Godzilla franchise at their disposal naturally these plans would somehow involve the King of Monsters, but although Godzilla himself was effectively a superhero by this point a different kind of hero to be the face of the series. The result was 1973's Ryusei Ningen Zone (Meteor Man Zone), copyrighted in the US as and perhaps best known as Zone Fighter. The second of Toho's superhero shows after the previous year's Rainbowman, Zone Fighter curiously combined elements of both kyodai (giant) and henshin (transforming) heroes. The series ran for a total of 26 episodes, however due a combination of low ratings and financial woes caused by the 1973 oil crisis no further episodes were produced and the series was left without a conclusive ending.

The GarogansAkira, Hikaru & Hotaru

When the planet Peaceland was annihilated by the "Planet of Evil" Garoga, the Peacelandians were forced to become "Meteor Men" and seek refuge on faraway worlds - each family travelling to a different one aboard Pandora Capsules. Meanwhile the Garoga set their sights on Earth as their next target - building a fortress to orbit the planet and bombarding it with Terror-Beast missiles, each one carrying giant monsters with terrifying abilities.

Earth's only hope are the Peacelandians that arrived here, the Sakimori (aka Zone) family! With the cry of "Zone Fight Power!" the family's three children - Hikaru, Hotaru and Akira, are able to transform into their superhero alter egos of Zone Fighter, Zone Angel and Zone Junior to battle the Garoga threat. To combat their Terror Beasts, Zone Fighter is also able to grow to giant size for a limited time. With the help of the rest of the Sakimori family and their impressive Zone arsenal, their human ally Takeru as well as Earth's own mighty protector Godzilla, the Zone Family are ready to face any evil scheme the Garogans have planned.

The Zone Fighter Family: Junior, Fighter & AngelZone Double Fight!

It would be very easy to take a look at Zone Fighter and immediately denounce it as an Ultraman rip-off. As well as being a similar looking silver-skinned giant, Zone Fighter shares the Ultras' weakness of only being able to engage in battle for a limited amount of time – his belt buckle flashing a warning light when he's close to running out of energy. Though this will likely endure as a key part of Zone Fighter's legacy, it's incredible just how much the show tries to do beyond this as well. Zone Fighter's battles against giant sized kaiju are just a fraction of what it has to offer, and more often than not an element that can feel completely detached from the main story. Instead Zone Fighter's main story is rooted in family. Part Superman in origin and part Super Sentai (even if it predates the franchise by a good few years) in execution, Zone Fighter's trio of superhero siblings – backed up by the family's older generations, immediately sets it apart from similar shows.

Sadly though this unique selling point certainly isn't used to its full potential, as the show always ensures that Hikaru remains front and center as its main hero. As much as it would like to reassure you that Zone Angel and Zone Junior are a key part of the show, ultimately it's always be Hikaru that saves the day whilst Angel and Junior are acting as support. It's a shame, because the glimpses you see of these supporting characters taking centre stage show you exactly just how remarkable Zone Fighter could have been. There aren't many places you'd see a child superhero infiltrate the enemy base and just shoot two soldiers down for example. If the rough plans for the show had come to fruition and Zone Angel was able to transform into a giant as well, then Zone Fighter could have been something REALLY special. 

But enough about what Zone Fighter could have been, and back to what it actually is. Each episode sees the Garogans hatch a new scheme to be inevitably foiled by the Zone family, which may or may not have a Terror-Beast tied up in it. Sometimes it's as simple as them kidnapping scientists and replacing them with Garoga agents, while other times they're turning children into brainwashed soldiers with medicine that apparently makes you smarter, or causing chaos with hallucinogenic gas. It's your standard range of Showa era superhero madness, with a good mix of lowkey character-of-the-week stories and sillier evil schemes. While the show doesn't especially excel in its episodic characters it does have some standout moments, such as episode 11's story of Hikaru's racing driver rival. Plots are mostly episodic with very little continuity between them, with only two two-part stories included in the show's entire run.

Hikaru SakimoriZone Angel & Zone Junior

The eponymous Zone Fighter is Hikaru Sakimori, the eldest sibling of the family. Despite being the strongest and most abled of the three heroes personality-wise Hikaru is arguably the least interesting of them, fitting the template of a headstrong henshin hero well but not really offering much outside of that. There's some brief foray into his civilian life as a test driver, but there's rarely much to learn about him outside of whatever the Garogans are up to. Precariously balancing between being heroes in their own right and acting as Hikaru's support are Hotaru/Angel and Akira/Junior, who have a lot more personality and often more tied up in getting the stories going. Of course this does often involve them getting into danger and Hikaru having to help them out of it, but there is a somewhat decent balance of having them as captive and liberator. 

Only three members of the Sakimori family may be superheroes, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the family aren't there to lend a hand. Also aiding them are father (Yoichiro) and grandfather (Raita aka "Zone Great"), and technically mother Tsukiko as well although she doesn't actually do very much. The older generations don't fight out in the field, but they provide advice and technical support. It's a really good setup and dynamic, but another thing the show doesn't really use to its full potential. There's not really any episodes that thrust any of the other family members into the spotlight even only for a moment, leaving them as a story that's just begging to be told. Having Yoichiro be the inventor of all their gadgets and give them a lot of them feel/look like toys because he makes toys is a great concept, but it's just a tiny footnote in the story. And gadgets is something they have a lot of - from Hikaru's flying car the "Mighty Liner" and the mini aircraft "Smokey" to a variety of other weapons and communication gadgets that every child watching this show would have wanted. Rounding off the supporting cast is Takeru, an amateur astronomer and model shop owner who stumbles into a Garogan scheme. Despite only being human, Takeru quickly earns his place on the team - actively taking part in missions and even being able to hold his own in combat against the Garogans.

The Sakimori eldersGold Garoga

Then finally you have the Garogans, the sinister race of space aliens from the self-proclaimed "planet of Evil". All of the Garogans appear exactly the same, other than the colour schemes that denote their ranks. At the top is the Gold Garoga, who orders everyone about from their space fortress. Red Garogans act as the generals, white Garogans are the scientists and then the silver ones are just the ordinary grunts. They can disguise themselves as humans (where they only become identifiable by their webbed fingers), and are also able to pull their own antennae out to use as whips in combat. While you might not get quite as much variety as you perhaps would with other races of space aliens, there is a nice uniformity to them all being identical save for colour - as though you're truly looking at a sizeable army. The Garogans are good balance of genuinely threatening and hilarious inept depending on the situation, so come out as quite memorable villains overall. 

The centrepiece of each episode is of course the Zone Fighter growing to giant size and facing off against the Terror-Beast, which is where the Ultraman comparisons begin to show up. The "Zone Double Fight" transformation sequence is almost identical to that of the Ultraman rise sequence, and of course there's the aforementioned time limit Zone Fighter needs to abide by. But if that wasn't enough, Zone Fighter also feels like it has a point to prove - that Zone is better than Ultraman in a fight. Ultraman's time limit may have been a way to make the fight scenes only a fraction of the episode, but it was also his one weakness - a blinking red light that immediately added urgency to the fight. The same should be said of Zone Fighter, but it makes little difference when he can be immediately recharged by his siblings via a battery launched from Smoky. Toho introduce a weakness, and then a resolution before said weakness has even settled in. The earlier episodes utilise this gimmick in a very formulaic fashion, and it's only in the later ones does it is either used more sparingly or done in a way that doesn't seem so egregious. That said, there's still a lot of fun to be had in these fights even with the obvious Ultraman parallels. Grappling with monsters is all well and good, but watching Zone Fighter despatch them with a barrage of missiles from wrist-mounted gauntlets is a particularly flashy way to get the job done.

Zone Meteor Missile Might!Smokey

The one ace up its sleeve Zone Fighter always had though was the promise of Godzilla, and arguably that's the one element that's prevented the kept the series notable among the overwhelming amount of superhero tokusatsu shows produced in the 70s and 80s. Godzilla himself makes numerous appearances throughout the show as an ally and friend to Zone Fighter, with both Gigan and King Ghidorah also appearing among Garoga's legion of Terror-Beasts. Zone Fighter is even officially considered to be part of the Showa era Godzilla timeline, taking place between Godzilla vs. Megalon and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. After managing to flee from battle twice in the main Godzilla series, this is actually where Gigan finally meets his demise - giving it a particularly notable place in the timeline. However the handling of these appearances are yet another oddity in the show's overall execution. One might think something like having Godzilla appear in the show would be feel almost like a special event, but's quickly evident that the Big G was always going to simply be treated like part of the furniture. Though naturally whenever Godzilla makes an appearance (showing up in five episodes in total) the episode title makes it all about him, for the most part the stories remain primarily concerned with the Garoga plot of the week. Sometimes Godzilla only shows up in the final few minutes, lending a hand to a fight Zone would have easily been able to handle himself in any other episode. Even the mighty Ghidorah, notable for being one of the few monsters to get a dedicated two-part story AND the only one to escape, doesn't feel that different to an average kaiju of the week. For the audience these appearances are really big moments, so it's a shame that the show doesn't treat them as such as well.

That definitely isn't to say Godzilla and company's appearances in the show aren't fun though. By this point in the Showa era timeline Godzilla had fully graduated from atomic monstrosity to Japan's beloved hero, and portrayal in this series really emphasises this. Introduced as a "monster of justice", Godzilla is a scrappy lizard who's happy to drop whatever he might be doing to come help Zone when he's in a pinch or even just do a spot of training with him. It's never suggested that the two can properly communicate, but they most definitely understand each other. Through the show we also get to learn a little more about Gigan and his apparent ninja techniques, at least before he dies a pretty humiliating death anyway. For hardcore Godzilla fans the series as a whole feels like the missing piece of a puzzle, and something that should definitely be checked out for that alone.

Godzilla vs Gigan: Round 2Godzilla: Monster of Justice

With only two of the Big G's fearsome foes making an appearance the show was left to create its own rampaging menagerie of Terror-Beasts, and visually these are quite different to more refined monster designs of the Godzilla franchise. With Zone Fighter's enemies it feels like anything goes, as each episode unveils a different brightly coloured monstrosity that has "sofubi" written all over it. That isn't to say the show stands out as especially toyetic, and more that those smooth colourful suits lend themselves to merchandising perfectly. It's a different approach that could perhaps be construed as a little less cinematic than Toho's big screen kaiju, but make no mistake there's nothing "made for TV" about Zone Fighter's production values. Both the monster suits and sets are of fantastic quality, and moments like Zone Fighter battling a Terror-Beast in the ocean (complete with boats casually sailing past) before being dragged underwater really give the fights a sense of scale. Not to mention the effort gone into the suits is commendable given just how much Zone Fighter whales on the poor monsters. Even before the bodily dissection and barrage of missiles, Zone Fighter just jumps all over his enemies in an all-out brawl. It's not the most refined fighting you'll ever see, but it is extremely entertaining. Not quite as entertaining as some of the show's sillier moments however, which stem from the kaiju showdowns of all places. If the sight of one Terror-Beast pulling pulling a pistol out of nowhere and gun-spinning wasn't enough, one episode even sees Zone Fighter take on a kaiju in a series of other challenges. Zone Fighter might have its flaws, but there's unlikely to be anywhere else you're going to see kaiju engage in ring toss and Rock Paper Scissors.

Ultimately the saddest thing about Zone Fighter though is its lack of a proper ending. One of the rare pleasures about tokusatsu shows like this is that they're usually made with an end in sight – they're given a set number of episodes, and other than maybe getting a few movies or specials later down the line the main story is kept to this episode count. While the Zone family facing off against a special task force of Garogan soldiers is a somewhat notable plot for the series to bow on given the circumstances, a more definitive ending would undoubtedly make the show feel more complete. The tragedy is though that the later episodes are really where Zone Fighter begins to find its footing, lessening the amount it's trying to ride Ultraman's coattails and focusing on stories that better utilise the unique things the show has to offer.

Super JikiroChallenging Gandarguirus to ring toss

Tokusatsu fans will always be mainly drawn to Zone Fighter due to Godzilla, but it really is a unique little oddity that has a lot more to offer. Its attempt to be both a henshin and kyodai hero show is bold, but often leaves elements muddled and/or underdeveloped. It's clear that Zone Fighter wanted to be the next Ultraman, but if it had spent more time developing the superhero family angle and less time aping Ultraman's gimmicks then perhaps it wouldn't feel so much of a pale comparison. Still, those impressive production values certainly make it an entertaining watch even if the overall story was ultimately left lacking. If you do decide to give the show a go, be sure to read up on its production history as well – that's just as fascinating (if not more so) than the show itself.

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