Thursday 3 March 2022

Series REVIEW: Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger

Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger

In 2011 the Super Sentai franchise celebrated its 35th anniversary with Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger - a high profile series that not only heavily paid tribute to all 34 of its previous entries, but also featured numerous guest appearances from its alumni. Now ten years later and the franchise is celebrating an even bigger milestone, but how do you even attempt to follow on from something like that? The answer is with Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger - the 45th entry in the long-running superhero franchise. Written by Junko Kōmura (Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, Kaitou Sentai Lupinranger VS Keisatsu Sentai Patranger) and directed by Shojiro Nakazawa (Juken Sentai Gekiranger, Samurai Sentai Shinkenger), Zenkaiger is another series that once again brings together the whole Super Sentai universe - but does so in a fresh way and with a look that on face value seems quite unlike anything the franchise has done before.

Kaito GoshikidaThe Tozitend Dynasty

There are a seemingly infinite number of parallel universes in the multiverse, many of which have their own Super Sentai teams. However the Tozitend Dynasty of Kikaitopia seek to conquer all these parallel worlds - trapping them in gear-like devices. However a strange phenomenon leads to the human world becoming fused with Kikaitopia, with humans and the machine-like Kikainoids learning to co-exist peacefully.

One month later, the Tozitend Dynasty ramp up their efforts to conquer this final world. Using the power of Sentai Gears left behind by his missing parents, Kaito Goshikida transforms into Zenkaizer and fights back against their advances. Teaming up with four Kikainoids - the bold Zyuran, human-loving Gaon, magical Magine and knowledge-obsessed Vroon, the five become the Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger! Through their battles they face up against Tozitend soldiers powered by the worlds they've conquered, the Tozitend's own Sentai warrior Staceasar and the arrival of parallel world-travelling pirates!

Zenkaigers Assemble!The 45th Super Sentai

Whereas Gokaiger brought all of the Super Sentai series together into one shared universe, Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger goes a very different route by immediately separating them all into their own parallel universes. The inevitable debates about how this affects the canonicity of both Gokaiger and various Versus Series movies aside, this was a wise decision on the writers' part to make Zenkaiger stand out from previous anniversary series. Not only does it play into Zenkaiger's overall setting far better, but it allows the logic and consistency differences between each series to be played on as well. Super Sentai canon is fluid at the best of times, and anniversary series taking completely different approaches on how they want to handle it is the perfect way of telling the audience that they shouldn't care about the logic either. As long as it works for the series in question, how it affects any of the other ones doesn't matter in the slightest.

The series also takes a very different approach to how it pays tribute to the past 44 years of Super Sentai, making them a key part of the story though arguably not quite as vital in the same way they were to Gokaiger's. Though the Tozitend's subjugation of the parallel universes is the crux of Zenkaiger's story, how it's conveyed wouldn't be any different whether the previous Super Sentai were present or not. Instead Zenkaiger shows its love for the franchise primarily through its look – with each of the team taking design cues from different entries. For Zenkaizer, Staceasar and sixth ranger Twokaizer these are very obviously Gorenger, Battle Fever J and Gokaiger respectively, but the Kikainoid members of the team are a different beast entirely. Rather than giving the team the same uniform look we've been seeing for the past four and half decades, Zenkaiger completely bucks the trend by giving each member their own unique design – with each of the Kikainoid's based off a different series mecha rather than the rangers themselves. With the franchise having seemingly skirted the line of stagnancy for years now this is a huge shake-up as far as looks go, even if it doesn't change much as far as the fundamentals go. The variance in design allows for considerably more creativity, both in how the characters themselves look and how they're able to reference all of these past Sentai teams.

Scene recreation at its finestIf you know, you know

That certainly isn't to say Zenkaiger doesn't know how to do a more direct tribute though, and if anything many of the show's references are far in more in-depth than if it were simply bring back characters and plot points in the same way Gokaiger did. While there are less subtle aspects such the Sentai Gear collectible gimmick or Staceasar's ability to summon clone versions of past Sentai, just how each of the Sentai Gears work when their powers are called upon is a complete wildcard. Effects can range from the Zenkaigers simply gaining a temporary power-up based on a specific series' motif to recreating entire scenes from the show in question. With just how much these can vary between straightforward references and deep dives into Super Sentai history, there's absolutely no doubt that the team behind Zenkaiger have a special affinity with this franchise. The most important thing is though that they aren't afraid to have fun with it. Despite tackling some heavy topics at times Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger is a show that definitely falls on the sillier side of the Super Sentai spectrum and it embraces that in as many ways as possible. What could potentially be construed as making fun of past shows should never be taken as such, since it's very clear that all of Zenkaiger's homages come from a place of love.

So rather than the tributes to past Super Sentai series being at the heart of Zenkaiger, it's instead its notion of family and whatever form that may take. When we're introduced to Kaito his parents have mysteriously gone missing, and he's living together with his grandmother Yatsude at their Candy Café Colourful. Though his search for parents is a running plot point throughout the series, in the meantime he also finds a new family in his Kikainoid friends. Living in a world where the tiniest difference can easily spark prejudice, there's something especially pure in the way Zenkaiger shows humans and Kikainoids quickly learning to live in harmony. There's no focus on the differences between them, and instead following the merging of their worlds the story jumps forward a month just to properly embed this new dynamic. The familial ties don't just relate to the core cast either, with Zox Goldtsuiker/Twokaizer arriving on the scene with his own family – younger sister Flint and youngest brothers Cutanner and Ricky. With the younger brothers transformed into SD mecha through a curse, Zox (behind his arrogant exterior) is weighed down by his mission to cure them and take care of the Goldtsuiker family. Even on the villain side of things we have Stacy/Staceasar,  a human/Kikainoid hybrid whose mother was an enslaved wife of Tozitend general Barashitara. Not only does Stacy battle against the Zenkaigers as a means of proving himself better than his father, but his growing attachment to Yatsude leads to another found family story.


While the themes themselves may be particularly strong, they only work so well because of the strength of the characters themselves. As (initially) the only human character in the core cast there was arguably more weight placed on Kaito than there has been any past Super Sentai protagonist, but actor Kiita Komagine certainly doesn't show any sort of pressure. Optimistic and always able to see the best in everyone, Kaito is an immediately loveable leader whose infectious personality rubs off on everyone he's around. But while Kaito may be its linchpin, Zyuran is definitely the "dad" of the team - the older guy who's down with the kids but not so much that he can't impart some of that aged wisdom from time to time. Meanwhile the other three Kikainoids have personalities that develop a bit more of the course of the series. When we first meet Gaon his distain for Kikainoids is nothing short of abrasive, but over time he comes to value both them and the rest of his teammates just as much as his beloved humans. Meanwhile Magine's confidence grows as the episodes go by, taking her from the timid Kikainoid she's introduced as into a competent fighter and magician. Finally there's Vroon, whose thirst for knowledge gets him into all sorts of trouble.

The Goldtsukiers are a whole lot of fun too, fully embracing the pirate theme in some of the silliest ways possible. Zox storms onto the scene with his trademark song and catchphrase of "Yo ho hoy", never skipping a chance to do his wonderfully stupid dance before every transformation. Though the Twokaizer costume might not stray that far away from the base Gokaiger design it somehow still manages to compliment the rest of the Zenkaigers nicely, and the additional Ohranger and Shinkenger power ups it has add a dash more variety into the mix as well. Then we also have Flint, arguably the unsung genius of the entire series. The mastermind behind all of Twokaiser's arsenal as well as much of the additional tech that shows up in the series, Flint is a masterclass in making supporting characters matter without having to make them a ranger. Even Cutanner and Ricky add to the family dynamic nicely despite really only being there as power ups, as Toei clearly experiment with predominantly CGI characters in the lead-up to the next series. 

TwokaizerThe Goldtsuiker Family

Also supporting the team are Yatsude and Secchan - a mechanical bird created by Kaito's parents to become the team's guide on the various Super Sentai. It's easy to see a lot of Kaito's personality in Yatsude, who raised him on her own following his parents' disappearance. Much like him she's always willing to forgive and see the very best in people, offering a home to the Kikainoids without question. While Secchan's role is much less emotional, he too is still a valued member of the team and a lot of fun to have around. Whether it's from his hyperactive recaps at the beginning of each episode or the fun bits of Super Sentai trivia he drops, Secchan is further proof that you can't go wrong with a mechanical bird companion in this franchise. And thankfully the show itself recognises this too, with him getting in on the action a lot more as the show progresses. It's just a shame that the show didn't decide to do more with Kaito's mother, as while finding his father Isao had a whole arc dedicated to it the search for Mitsuko never came to the forefront in quite the same way.

With so many strong characters it may be something of a suprise to hear that the villains at large are somewhat lacking, though this may be simply because the writers put all their efforts into Stacy. A rival ranger that runs consistently throughout a whole series is a rare and very different dynamic to what Super Sentai usually offer, and Stacy's cold personality is the perfect contrast to Kaito's warmer outlook. Though his trajectory over the course of the series is fairly predictable, it doesn't make watching the outcome any less satisfying. By comparison, the rest of the Tozitend feel fairly basic. While it's a little unreasonable to expect every cast member to get an equal amount of focus, there just isn't a whole lot to any of them outside of the general bad guy archetypes. Even Irijude, easily the most engaging of them, is still just ultimately the scientist. King Boccowaus has an interesting design at least, but doesn't really do much in the way of leading or evil scheming. That instead comes from his pet robo-bird Gege, a character who the show appears to do some interesting things with but then veers off in a totally different direction right at the very end.

StaceasarBoccowaus & Gege

And that's one of the other interesting things about Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger - just how that story develops. As previously mentioned the show definitely falls on the more comedic side of things, which the Zenkaigers battling monsters powered by more and more bizarre parallel worlds each week. It's another aspect where literally anything can go, with worlds ranging from radishes and recycling to more common Super Sentai tropes like obligatory holiday celebrations. Everything Zenkaiger does it does with a suitably silly sense of humour (just check out the themed roll calls to see how much fun the show can have), although it's not afraid to tackle some more serious story beats or arcs along the way. Stacy's journey remains a highlight, but the Hakaizer (a nod to both Ninja Captor and Kikaider's arch enemy Hakaider) arc is another standout. However there is definitely a much bigger focus on episodic storytelling here, with things only really coming together right at the end game. This might put off a lot of people who prefer a bit more of an ongoing story in their Super Sentai (though let's be honest, serialisation is never particularly heavy in this franchise), but Zenkaiger is very good at sticking to its guns and knowing what it does best. The late game developments are a bit left field and change the course for certain characters, but do lead to a very different kind of finale.

Mecha is another area where Zenkaiger boldly decided to step away from the same conventions the franchise has run with for most of its lifespan. Here the Kikainoids are the mecha themselves, growing to giant size and being able to battle in both in new animal/vehicle modes and their standard transformed states. Combinations are done in teams of two (with Zenkaizer as pilot), with them coming altogether being a big moment nearer the end of the show rather than the series-standard. It's a similar-yet-different approach that breathed new life into both the show and the toys, and even though the late-stage Zenryoku ZenkaiOh is brought to life entirely through (Toei-grade) CGI its arrival still feels like a big moment for the series. The show also does some wonderful things when it came to power-ups, with Zenkaizer effectively getting a Dragon Caesar costume as a super mode and Twokaizer a (somewhat less visually impressive) V-Rex equivalent. It's when they come together though that Zenkaiger really steps up a level in terms of fanservice though, bringing these two fan-favourite mecha together in the wonderful ZenkaijuOh. 

ZenkaijuOhZenryoku ZenkaiOh

If there's one thing that Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger proved, it's that you don't necessarily have to go big to make an anniversary celebration something special. While the tributes to past Super Sentai series may be a big part of what the show is, they aren't what makes it memorable. All the credit there goes to the wonderfully weird yet utterly heartwarming characters that inhabit these parallel worlds – each with their own engaging personalities as well as coming together as one of the best "families" Super Sentai has had in some time. What the show may lack for some in overall story, it makes up for in an earnest attempt to shake up that familiar formula. Based on the little we've seen of Avataro Sentai Donbrothers we may be entering a different era of Super Sentai, and if Zenkaiger is the beginning of that then it's a very strong foundation to build upon.


TheBeastAR said...

I can definitely give it credit for shaking up the formula, but I really wish I liked it as much as others have, and wish I saw what others saw. Zenkaiger was ambitious but I didn't come out liking it all that much personally.

Oar said...

Excellent choice for image for the top! I really really enjoyed Zenkaiger. It's a really funny, zany and heartwarming show that has engaging characters and also a hundred little goofy references and in-jokes about other sentai.

I feel like overal the Kikanoids get kinda shoved to the side in favour of the face actors, which is a bit of a bummer, but it's made up for how much I really like Kaito, Zox and Stacey! Kaito's actor playing both himself and the antagonist at the end in particular is super impressive.

Anonymous said...

The review didn't make mention of Zenkaiger's music, so I'll just mention that it's absolutely excellent all around. The return of Chumei Watanabe and his collaboration with Kenichiro Oishi leads to a very classic sounding OST with a modern edge.

Chengkeng said...

The series is okay. Story was good. Sentai team was good. Villains were bad, my reason is only 2 generals who hardly fight. The monsters themselves were too weak. Steaceaser wasn't even strong to face the zenkaigers. Hakaizer was a good addition until they remove him. Kami the last villain wasn't a real threat, he gave to easily. Every zenkaiger victory was also too easy. The series was average. Gokaiger did a better job. Let's hope donbrothers can top this series. My rate of this series 3-5.

Anonymous said...

Sorry but i couldn't agree with you. This season is at max 2-star.
There is no developing on any of characters besides Stacy. There is lot of dumb and stupid humor and comedy on almost every episode. And use of excessive and band CGI on mecha parts.
For sure and until now worst anniversary season on Super Sentai series

Anonymous said...

Zenkaiger had great final core episodes(39,40,44 and 47) but everything in between felt lackluster. It's pretty inconsistent, it's a better anniversary series than Zyuohger. 3 stars.