Sunday 28 November 2021

Series REVIEW: Dogengers: Nice Buddy

Dogengers: Nice Buddy

One of the most pleasant surprises in the tokusatsu world last year was a little show by the name of Dogengers, which showed off several of Japan's local heroes (and villains!) in a 12-episode love letter to both superheroes and tokusatsu as a whole. While it's popularity in its home country was perhaps to be expected, what its makers probably didn't expect was just how much of a hit it would prove with fans across the globe as well. Proof that you can't keep a good hero down, Rookie, Ohgaman, KitaQman, Yamashiron, El Brave and Fukuokalibur are all back for a second series of superhero shenanigans - this time going by the title of Dogengers: Nice Buddy. These further 12 episodes saw the return of director Fumie Arakawa (Super Sentai, Tokusatsu Gagaga), with Suzumuru Nobuhiro (who has also worked on a number of Super Sentai and Kamen Rider shows) joining her as co-director.

The Dogengers' Press ConferenceIntroducing Great-Z!

After the Dogengers came together to save Fukuoka from Yabai Kamen and his Secret Society of Darkness, they enjoyed a period of unprecedented popularity. However mistakes eventually happen, and soon the real-life heroes came under scrutiny from the media. Meanwhile others weren't particularly happy with their irreverent brand of justice, and at one of their live shows a challenger appeared - Great-Z, the latest hero from Hanagata SFX celebrating 26 years of their Great Series franchise.

Kidnapping Yabai Kamen and claiming him as his own villain, Great-Z warns the Dogengers that their time in the spotlight is up. Kicked out of their homes and at rock bottom, the Dogengers must save their enemy to bring about their golden age. But Ohgaman warns that it's too dangerous to fight alone this time, and introduces the buddy system! Pairing Yamashiron with Fukuokalibur, El Brave with KitaQman and himself with Rookie, the Dogengers are ready for a brand new adventure with a super strong buddy by their side!

Yabai Kamen Kidnapped!The Buddy System

To an outsider Nice Buddy might seem like a pretty unapproachable series. Not only is it the second Dogengers series, but it’s also based around Japanese local heroes - most of whom don’t exactly have much of an international internet presence. But rest assured - as long as you love tokusatsu, Dogengers: Nice Buddy is the series for you. Sure you’ll probably get more out of watching the first series beforehand (and you absolutely should because it’s an incredible little show), but Nice Buddy ensures that all viewers are brought up to speed within the first few minutes. There’s time to get to know the characters better as the series moves along, but above all is just the production’s utter love for superheroes in general. Dogengers has always worn its heart on its sleeve in that respect, and Nice Buddy confirms none of that’s changed in the year they’ve been gone.

From the moment the series kicks off with a parody of the instantly recognisable Marvel Cinematic Universe opening credits, you know exactly how much the creators of Dogengers love their superheroes. A second series has also likely brought along a slightly higher budget too, and you can see that in the breadth of Nice Buddy's tokusatsu parodying. When Great-Z first rolls onto the scene the audience is told exactly what kind of superhero he is. With state of the art visuals and a chorus of cheerleaders, Great-Z represents the very latest in live-action Japanese superheroes - flashy, gimmicky and highly marketable. The show lovingly pokes fun at all our favourite tropes, whether it be the dozens of steps Great-Z has to go through in order to activate his finishing move or the arrival of his giant mecha ("Of course he has a giant mecha, haven't you watched tokusatsu?") segueing into a (sadly fictional) advert for the DX toy equivalent, no stone is left unturned in this masterful sendup of this genre/medium we all hold so dearly. It's so on the ball that the villain-focused episode even sees our heroes go off to play a round of golf, lampooning the annual tradition of Super Sentai/Kamen Rider missing a week of air time due to golf broadcasts.

Dodging ExplosionsDX Great Daizenshin

But in amongst all the comedy is some real heart too, and arguably that's what makes Dogengers so special. Great-Z may be the main cause of conflict in the series, but it's his arrival on the scene that also poses the biggest question of Nice Buddy - "why are you a hero?". The first series of Dogengers showed that there's a lot more to being a hero (particularly a local hero) than just fighting off bad guys, and Nice Buddy takes this even further by pondering why each of the characters became heroes in the first place. However they aren't just re-evaluating themselves as heroes - by pairing up with their "super strong buddy" they're also looking at each other's motivations as well. This leads to some touching exchanges between each of the six Dogengers as they strengthen their resolve, but particularly in the case of Yamashiron who, as a combined entity, has to look particularly closely within himself for answers. It's a shame that Jiro/Rookie's feelings for Yuki are completely sidelined for the course of Nice Buddy, but there is a greater sense of this being an ensemble story as far as the team is concerned.

There are a lot of heartwarming moments from the Dogengers themselves, but as it turns out Great-Z is a far more nuanced character than simply wanting to oust the Dogengers out of the superhero game. The identity of Great-Z remains somewhat vague for the majority of the series, but once the cat's out of the bag Nice Buddy delivers some of its most hard-hitting episodes when it comes to emotion. Family, succession, being able to let go of something and above all sharing in a mutual love of superheroes - these are all subjects that Nice Buddy tackles perfectly in a very short space of time. With his aggressive attitude and high-tech gadgetry Great-Z may not be particularly likeable, but as it transpires his story carries just as much heart (if not more) than the titular heroes of the show. His arrival on the scene also brings along some more tokusatsu veterans to the production, with Katsuhiro Suzuki (Hiromu/Red Buster in Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters) playing Riku and "Mr Kamen Rider" himself Seiji Takaiwa as Great-Z's suit actor. Both actors are crucial to the role of Great-Z, and seeing how they both contribute to Dogengers' newest hero is one of the show's biggest pleasures.

RikuA touching moment

The show also offers some great moments for the villains of Dogengers, even if most of them don't actually see them doing anything villainous! With Yabai Kamen held hostage by Great-Z, the Secret Society of Darkness goes into chaos - with some choosing to side with their self-proclaimed "new hero". This leads to a rather hilarious turn for the cowardly Shaberryman (who both provides the intro narration for the show and is credited as its writer), who'll happily work for whoever's the most powerful at the time. While most of the Society seem to just go with the flow and continue to the oppose the Dogengers no matter who is ordering them to, the whole ordeal sheds to the spotlight on Maid Butler - who's unwavering loyalty to Yabai Kamen is so great that he gets a new powered-up form from it. The rest of the Society (including Yabai Kamen himself) all later get new look forms for the big finale, but Maid Butler's is the only one that has any real resonance in the show. Similarly Shuraomaru also gets some great moments throughout the series, proving to be a key player in both Yabai Kamen's rescue and Great-Z's eventual "defeat". Placing Yabai Kamen in a damsel in distress role for the majority of the series is an interesting take, because although it doesn't offer him a whole lot to work with it does allow the others to get their moment instead. But of course you can't keep Japan's leading local villain down forever, and by the end of the series he's back to prove why he's such a brilliantly conceived character.

Quite bizarrely the only real weak link in the show is the buddy system itself. Despite being considered important enough that it became the tagline for the entire second series, just how much it actually adds to it is questionable. Pairing them off might have providing an opportunity for them to reassess both each other and their own takes on what it means to be a hero, but it doesn't feel like anything that couldn't have been done in their initial team setting (additionally, they were never really fighting alone in the first place). The fancy new guns they all get don't really add much to the show either, both in flashiness or comedy value. Maybe the whole buddy system is just a parody of how subsequent seasons of shows need to shoehorn in some sort of gimmick in order to make them stand out, but if that's the case then it doesn't really come across that way - especially compared to all the other far more apparent tokusatsu parodies there are in the show. It doesn't spoil the show by any measure, but is definitely something that's underutilised and just "there" compared to all the more interesting character drama and comedy going on.

Maid Butler's new lookA transformed Yabai Kamen

Despite the efforts of some very dedicated English-speaking fans Dogengers is a series that probably passes by most international fans, but if that happens to be the case then it's something you should change as soon as possible. While it doesn't quite reach the same heights as the first season Dogengers: Nice Buddy is another true love letter to both superheroes and tokusatsu in general. Not only is it absolutely hilarious, but is genuine and heartfelt in its parody of all your favourite tokusatsu tropes as well. There's nothing quite like the weird and wonderful phenomenon that is Japan's local heroes, and in Dogengers international fans get to experience it in a way they wouldn't necessarily be able to otherwise. That alone would make it worth the watch, but being rather brilliant at the same time certainly helps too. Long may it continue.


M said...

While I love Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, Garo Franchises, it's nice to see some variety in Tokusatsu nowadays. That's something that I miss today since in the past there where other franchises like Metal Hero and the Gensenshin Trilogy (that sadly wad cancelled).

Anonymous said...

Who subbed it?

Alex said...

Haunted House Commune (@HouseCommune) on Twitter!

Anonymous said...

Does someone knows the name of the opening song and where I can find it?