Monday 7 March 2022

First Impressions: Avataro Sentai Donbrothers

Avataro Sentai Donbrothers

With 45th anniversary series Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger able to successfully shake up that tried and tested Super Sentai formula without losing its core values, Toei have clearly latched onto the fact that a bit of change is exactly what the franchise needs. And if you want something that's a little bit different (for better or for worse), what better person to call than legendary tokusatsu writer Toshiki Inoue to head up his first Sentai series since 1991's Chōjin Sentai Jetman? Avataro Sentai Donbrothers is the 46th entry in the long-running franchise, and as the name suggests the theme of the show is based on Japanese folklore hero Momotarō (of course it's already crossed over with Kamen Rider Den-O). What makes things more interesting however is that this Super Sentai series isn't starting with a completely clean slate - not only incorporating a legacy Sentai element like Zenkaiger but also porting over certain elements from that series as well.

21 years ago...Haruka Kito

21 years ago, a baby fell to Earth in a mechanical peach and was found by a man named Jin Momoi. In the present day, manga prodigy Haruka Kito is saved from a monster by a mysterious stranger. Her life is turned upside down however when a pair of strange glasses come into her possession, allowing her to see creatures otherwise hidden in plain sight. All of a sudden her career is in ruins, and her friends shun her.

In order to get things back the way they were, Haruka is told that she must seek out Taro Momoi and swear loyalty to him! Transforming into Oni Sister, Haruka arrives on a battlefield alongside another person in a similar position to her, who in turn transforms in Kiji Brother. However it isn't long before Don Momotaro arrives on the scene, and the festival truly begins!

SonoiDon Momotaro

Super Sentai premiere episodes are renowned for cramming an awful lot into 25 minutes, but even by franchise standards the first episode of Avataro Sentai Donbrothers is a lot to take in. The arrival of mysterious baby 21 years ago, villains that seem to both create and kill other monsters, a man imprisoned in another dimension – these are just some of the things the episode raises on top of the introduction of the Donbrothers themselves. In recent years the franchise has gotten back into the habit of gradually introducing the whole team over the course of a few episodes, but what shakes things up here is that rather that beginning the story following the red/lead of the series, we instead see it from the perspective of the team's only female member. While Taro Momoi/Don Momotaro is present in the episode, he's treated as something of a mysterious figure. Thanks to this slight change in perspective we get a different kind of premiere – one where not only does the audience feel just as in the dark as the lead, but also bodes well for an even-spread when it comes to team characterisation. It's not often that you get Super Sentai series where the yellow ranger is the one you know the most about by the end of episode one.

The backstory we get on Haruka is pretty substantial for so early in the series too, as when we first meet her life couldn’t be much better. An award winning mangaka, complete with a boyfriend and tons of friends – it's the dream scenario for a high schooler. But it doesn't take all that to come crashing down around her, prompting her to take up the strange powers thrust upon her just to get her life back. Haruka's headstrong but clearly a little naïve, shown by how quickly she's ready to pledge herself to anyone would could potentially be Taro Momoi. A particularly interesting faucet of her character though was how she was previously saved by one of the show's main villains, leading her to (reasonably) assume that he's one of the good guys. Even though that notion is shattered spectacularly as he seemingly murders one of her schoolfriends, but it's still an interesting point that brings the motivation of the villains into question. Meanwhile we may not get a whole lot of information about Taro, but the little titbits we do get set him up fairly well. Him being “unable to lie” is an interesting hook, while the small speech he gave about the importance of bonds and how they can “make miracles happen” was a fairly succinct summation of what kind of red he’s going to be. Best of all though is his larger than life personality as Don Momotaro – welcoming everyone to the "festival" before saving the day with the same pomp and showmanship he displayed in his Zenkaiger cameo. Kiji Brother is also on the scene at the end too, and though we don't learn a huge amount about him in this episode it does at least give Haruka someone to bounce her confusion off of.

Haruka sees a whole new worldTaro Momoi

Through the episode we learn that the monsters of the series are secretly living among humanity, with others being demons manifested through humans' negative qualities such as jealousy and competitiveness. But what the actual endgame is here is a complete mystery, especially with one of the key villains (Sonoi to be precise, though unnamed this episode) going around and killing them himself as well. While there are throwaway comments explaining his actions somewhat ("Why would you scatter flowers?", "...becoming a blight on the world’s peace" etc.), clarification on this is going to be key once the story has had proper time to settle in. The stakes have been raised with human victims being back in the frame, and the potential of them dying if the Donbrothers aren't the ones to save them adds another level of severity as well. Another big mystery in all of this is the matter of Jin Momoi, who we first see find the baby Taro at the beginning of episode and is then inexplicably imprisoned in another dimension. It's just another aspect that the episode seems completely blasé about, laying the scene out exactly as it is but not taking a second to either explain or have anyone question it.

One of the biggest fears fans had going into Donbrothers was the news that there would be much heavier use of CGI than usual, with two of the five team members (Kiji Brother and Inu Brother) completely rendered this way. Arguably Toei have been gearing fans up for this for some time now, with Ricky and Cutanner appearing prominently as CGI characters in Zenkaiger and a much heavier use of the medium in mecha battles for even longer (Lupinranger vs Patranger immediately springs to mind, but there's probably even earlier examples). But to put it politely Toei's CGI has never looked particularly seamless, and with main characters being done this way there's definitely cause for concern that Toei can keep up both visually and budget-wise. This premiere episode definitely alleviates some of those concerns though, with Kiji Brother switching to a proper suit in certain (waist up) scenes to alleviate things a bit. The full body footage is pretty much as expected, but it does for the time being have the advantage of playing into some of the more cartoony graphics the show employs (the 2D waves in the transformation sequence for example). The debut mecha battle on the other hand really shows how far Toei is coming with these sequences though, combining mo-cap footage with traditional suitwork to provide a really exhilarating fight sequence. The almost Gridman-like backdrop of neon buildings only enhances the visuals, creating something that's quite the contrast to the traditional grey cityscape.

Oni Sister & Kiji BrotherDonZenkaiOh

Of course the biggest curiosity about Donbrothers is how it's handling continuity, with a new version of Kaito (who transforms into the mysterious Zenkaizer Black) appearing alongside Juran and Sentai Gears. This is the first time Super Sentai has tackled continuity from one series to another since 1981 when Denshi Sentai Denjiman transitioned into Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan, and to get such a shake up of the traditional Sentai formula is a very exciting prospect. While there isn't a whole lot to gauge from this episode as Kaito/Zenkaizer Black only appear briefly, there's still plenty to speculate about. We learn that the monsters (who themselves are based on past Super Sentai teams) produce Sentai Gears upon defeat, which Zenkaizer Black is collecting. But for what purpose? And is this just an alternate universe version of Kaito, or Zenkaiger's "god" as he appeared in the final episode of the series? It's largely uncharted territory to think about how one Super Sentai series blends into the other, so it's fair to say at this point anything could go. But on top of the more direct continuity references, there's also some nice little touches that help bring the two universes closer together. For example, Kaito's café is presumably in the same spot as Colorful was in Zenkaiger, with the exterior in particular being almost completely identical. While it could easily just be a convenient reuse of set resources, it plays into the whole set up Donbrothers has going on nicely.

But with all these elements of continuity being so exciting, it seems strange that the show's gimmick of "Avatar Changing" might feel like a step too far. Granted that again this episode doesn't really go into the process that much, but with everything else going on Don Momotaro briefly transforming into Zenkaizer doesn't really happen to much fanfare. With Super Sentai going through a shake-up of sorts it makes sense to incorporate a legacy element akin to what Ultraman has been doing for the last few years (and arguably done to death), but the show will have to be very careful to ensure it doesn’t take away from its unique qualities. 

KishiryukingZenkaizer Black

Avataro Sentai Donbrothers packs an awful lot into its first episode, and while much of it is done without any real explanation it certainly isn't short on building hype and creating mystery. Taking the focus away from the red ranger was a brilliant move to make this premiere stand out, allowing the audience's confusion and questions to grow alongside Haruka's. Just how much Zenkaiger's conclusion (as well as the Super Sentai multiverse in general) will play into the show is another question entirely, but even if the answer is "not much" Donbrothers has plenty of unique quirks that could carry it throughout the next year. Hopefully 2022 is going to be another great year for Super Sentai fans.


M said...

Would you mind seeing another Kamen Rider show written by Toshiki Inoue? I wouldn't.

TokufanZ said...

It's funny how Toshiki Inoue comes back after writing Jetman and this first episode features... only Red, Yellow and Pink, leaving exactly Black and Blue to appear in future episodes, just like in Jetman! (swapping pink for White, but still) I wonder if he'll replicate other story beats from Jetman.

Anonymous said...

I honestly believe that Toshiki Inoue's way of writing works better for Sentai as it focuses on a team rather than one individual and the side characters. That is why I believe Jetman was such a huge success.