Friday 10 March 2023

Series REVIEW: Avataro Sentai Donbrothers

Avataro Sentai Donbrothers

The words "Toshiki Inoue" are enough to strike fear into the hearts of any tokusatsu fan. As one of the most prolific tokusatsu writers still in his business, his works include the likes of Chojin Sentai Jetman, Choukou Senshi Changerion, Kamen Rider Agito, Kamen Rider 555, Kamen Rider Kiva and more. But while his resume contains many series that are widely considered classic, many fans will also tell you that you never know quite what you're going to get with one of his shows. So the news that he would be returning to Super Sentai to pen Avataro Sentai Donbrothers (his first head writer credit for the franchise since 1992), fans were more than a little curious. The 46th Super Sentai series is rather unique in that it features semi-sequel elements from previous series Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger, and is loosely based on the Japanese folktale of Momotaro.

Taro MomoiThe Donbrothers Team

21 years ago, Jin Momoi found a baby in a peach-shaped capsule whom he names Taro and raises as his own. In the present day, humans are transformed into monsters named Hitotsuki when they are overcome by their inner desires. Now Taro leads the Donbrothers, working alongside his four companions – high school manga artist Haruka Kito, eccentric free spirit Shinichi Saruhara, wanted fugitive Tsubasa Inuzuka and married salaryman Tsuyoshi Kijino. Later they are also joined by Jiro Momotani – who was also found in a capsule as a baby and dreams of becoming a hero.

However standing against the Donbrothers are the Noto – individuals from a higher plane of existence who seem to stop the Hitotsuki by sealing their hosts away rather than saving them. As the two groups clash, the bonds between them begin to change as they are also faced with yet another threat – the mysterious Beastials.

The Noto

Super Sentai is a franchise that has thrived on its tropes for decades. Whether it be the “monster of the week” format, the obligatory mecha battles or the arrival of an additional hero some way in, these are all hallmarks of the franchise that are expected year in, year out. While Avataro Sentai Donbrothers doesn’t seek to tear these tropes down entirely, it does rebuild them in a way that makes the show a very different Super Sentai experience. Touches like a lesser focus on the weekly monsters, episodes where the whole team don’t necessarily appear together or them being partially unaware of each other’s identities for a prolonged period might not seem like much separately, but together they present a very different spin on the traditional team dynamic. Of course there’s also the fact that Donbrothers is just plain WEIRD at times. The series exudes a chaotic energy that can often seem incoherent, but never really loses its purpose. In some ways Donbrothers shouldn’t be approached like a conventional Super Sentai series because (in most cases at least) the in-suit action comes first. Donbrothers is more like a zany slice-of-life show that just happens to feature costumed superheroes. The action plays a big part, but all the important story points and development comes from the characters themselves and the bonds they share with each other.

This starts with the team themselves, who are quite possibly the most flawed bunch of heroes you’ll ever find in a Super Sentai series. These flaws manifest for both drama and comedy, just adding to the chaos the story creates. This starts with Don Momotaro himself - Taro Momoi. Taro is a particularly curious character in that on the surface is seems perfect - highly skilled at nearly everything and almost always a step ahead of his opponents. His flaws however come from his absolute lack of people skills, as well as a complete inability to lie. His arrogance is fun to watch (particularly in battle with his now-iconic laugh), but there’s also an underlying sadness. As a child he had no friends, isolated because of his amazing skill. As much as his “companions” better themselves from being in the Donbrothers, Taro betters himself by finally having the one thing he’s never been good at.

A Don Momotaro EntranceTsuyoshi and Miho

Those companions aren’t much better themselves, with their quirks ranging from bizarre to downright dangerous. An interesting turn of events right from the beginning of the series is that we see events from the point of view of Haruka, who joins the team as Oni Sister. Although Haruka is thrust into this bizarre situation after she is wrongly accused of plagiarism, her bad temperament and tendency to live up to her status as Oni Sister at times make her far from perfect. Saru Brother Shinichi is a little weirder - a free spirit often creating haiku, but completely penniless due to a literal allergy to money. Then of course you have Tsubasa (Inu Brother) and Tsuyoshi (Kiji Brother), whose intertwining stories are the source of Donbrothers’ biggest conflict. It just wouldn’t be a Toshiki Inoue series without poor communication and relationship drama, and Donbrothers has it in spades. There’s a great dichotomy between the two characters and the mystery surrounding their respective significant others, with Tsubasa introduced as a wanted fugitive despite being the most level-headed of the Donbothers, whereas Tsuyoshi comes from the most normal background out of all of them yet repeatedly proves to be the most volatile. Introducing the first male pink ranger was already a big step for Super Sentai, to also make him an emotional mess that’s repeatedly at risk of becoming a monster himself is just pure Inoue. Like all of his relationship dramas there’s no denying that the reveal here is painfully played out, but it’s so masterfully done - with the characters coming closer and closer to the truth each time only for it to be snatched away in the last second. Inoue has delivered just as many misses as hits with his writing, but when it’s a hit it really is a hit.

Last but by no means least is Jiro, who joins the team later on as both Don Doragoku and Don Torabolt. Dividing his two forms between two distinct personalities is a really interesting take, while his journey to become a hero meanders around the main Donbrothers’ story as well as becoming a part of it. It’s another element of the series that takes a while to properly reveal itself, but is also tinged with both mystery and tragedy.

As previously mentioned, the monster-of-the-week format is much less of a focus in Donbrothers. While the Hitotsuki remain a constant present throughout and each episode brings its own unique guest characters (some of whom make repeated appearances across the show), in many ways Donbrothers feels less about the fight to save them and more about their relationship with the Noto. Though introduced as an alternate force looking to eradicate the Hitotsuki as opposed to saving them, the show soon becomes more about the direct rivalry they have with the titular heroes. While there's plenty of lore about the Noto and their history with the Don Clan (from which Taro comes from) sprinkled in, again it's a far more personal tale about the characters themselves – with Sonoi, Sononi and Sonoza's development just as integral as the Donbrothers themselves. Each one has their own thing about humanity they become interested in, from Sonoi's tension-filled rivalry-turned-friendship with Taro to Sononi's romantic pursuit of Tsubasa and Sonoza's interest in Haruka's manga. It takes these relationships far beyond the constraints of simply protagonist/antagonist, as well as highlighting the Noto as just as loveably stupid as the Donbrothers themselves. As further Noto are introduced later in the series, these relationships are only strengthened. Keen-eyed tokusatsu fans will also appreciate the homages hidden in their transformed forms, with each one directly referencing a non-franchise (and in most cases lesser-known) Toei tokusatsu hero. Since purple villain rangers proved a hit in Zenkaiger, Donbrothers has its own in the form of Don Murasame - an interesting character whose interactions with Jiro bring along some interesting development.

Transformed NotoDon Murasame

But as loveable as the core cast may be, it really doesn't take much for Donbrothers' version of Kaito Goshikida to steal the show. The main character from Zenkaiger returns in a very different form – the owner of the Donbura coffee shop and "administrator" to the Donbrothers, often entering battle himself as Zenkaizer Black. His personality is entirely different too – quiet and reserved, but knowledgeable about anything and everything going on around him. Actor Kiita Kogamine REALLY shows off both his acting abilities and comic-timing in this role, perhaps more so than he did as the original Kaito. What also makes the character extra charming is the complete mystery surrounding him, as well as the outright refusal of the show to explain him any further than what you see onscreen. Is this the same Kaito as the one that appeared in Zenkaiger? Who knows, but the show will certainly attempt to give you arguments either way. If you're someone who cares about answers like these then Donbrothers might not be the show for you, but if you're not one to sweat the details then it's very easy to get swept in by the insanity.

It would be wrong to say that Donbrothers doesn’t have a lot of story, but the way it chooses to tell it certainly might not be for everyone. Between the friction between the Don Clan, the Noto and the Beastials there is a lot of meat on the bones, but big plot points are squeezed out at a relatively slow point. Much like the drama between Tsubasa and Tsuyoshi the series will drop big bombshells only to not pick them up again for several episodes later. In any other circumstance this might be frustrating, but Donbrothers is exceptionally good at never being boring. Even when it’s not advancing the overall story it’ll be doing something interesting with the characters, and all the development that comes from these episodes is proof enough that very little of the show is “filler”. It’s a wild ride with some of the strangest plots you’ll have ever seen in a Super Sentai series, but everything it does it does with an amazing sense of earnesty. When Donbrothers gives you an episode where it’s revealed Taro’s only friend as a child was his pet beetle, it’ll genuinely break your heart. Some resolutions - such as Haruka’s plagiarism plight and the mystery of Naoki Shiina - don’t even make much sense, but by that point you simply don’t care because this off the wall method of storytelling has become so infectious. Likewise it’s hard to care that two of the rangers are primarily CGI. Yes there’s no denying that Toei’s CGI isn’t anywhere near good enough to convincingly pull it off, but when the show is this good who the hell cares? If anything, it just makes Donbrothers’ all the more chaotically good. 

Kaito GoshikidaZenkaizer Black

Although Zenkaiger was the anniversary series, Donbrothers retains some of the elements fans would commonly associate with one – namely both the inclusion of a past Sentai-based gimmick and, more significantly, the team having the ability to transform into these past Sentai. Like many other aspects of Donbrothers it can often come across as a particularly strange inclusion, because while it often enhances the series from a fanservice perspective what it actually adds to the story is a lot more questionable. Little things like identifying the Super Sentai series a Hitotsuki is based on through their design or seeing what Alter Change power-ups Don Momotaro has are really fun, but there's never a sense of why these things are included. If anything it's just to continue the anniversary elements from Zenkaiger, which could potentially be a trend we see in future series as the franchise gears up to its big 50th in a few years' time. You could strip them out from Donbrothers entirely and the outcome wouldn't feel all that different. It's just another example of the show's chaotic attitude – throwing in elements without logic or reason and expecting the audience to be completely on board with it. And let's be honest, fanservice like that isn't hard to be pleasing.

And of course it wouldn't be a Super Sentai series without the obligatory mecha battles, which is another thing Donbrothers attempts to turn on its head in a rather unique way. First they appear simply as an extension of the toys/gimmicks that previously appeared in Zenkaiger, before transforming the Donbrothers into the mecha themselves. It's a far more direct transformation than previous shows that have done a similar thing, resulting in some hilarious conversations during the combination sequences and ensuing fight scenes. Though later mecha battles are almost entirely done in CGI, the fluidity of the visuals combined with the psychedelic backgrounds make it the perfect endcap to a Donbrothers episode. The fully physical suit Don Onitaijin however stands comfortably as one of the most impressive mecha that has appeared in the franchise in some time – both onscreen and in toy form.

Don OnitaijinAvatar Change

Avataro Sentai Donbrothers isn't just a show…it's an experience. Toshiki Inoue has brought us a Super Sentai series quite unlike any other, where a heartfelt story about people and the bonds they share is told through a barrage of near non-stop zaniness. Is it always coherent? Absolutely not, but never once does it ever stop being engaging and/or fun. With a loveable cast that extends far beyond the main team, this is truly a Super Sentai for the ages. A highly unorthodox one, but for the ages none the less.


CPF said...

Took you awhile. Needed time to process what you went through?

Big Boy said...

I've said it a few times in a few places, but I really hope people go back and watch Kiva with a new set of eyes after Donbrothers--I think a lot of the things people really love in Donbrothers were first planted in Kiva, especially the dramedy tone.

Lucas said...

We live in a world where Inoue is brought back to write a tokusatsu and is lauded as "one of the greatest tokusatsu writers ever" (🤮), but Yasuko Kobayashi hasn't written a tokusatsu in 6 years. Where did we go so wrong?

Oar said...

There was no show like this before it, and now that it's gone, there will never be another like it again.

Count me as one of the people who just got swept up by the insanity of Donbrothers. There were definitely a few points across the year where I wasn't quite into it what it was doing, or where I thought the charm was falling off a little. But by the end, I'm just incredibly fond of this whole series and its incredibly colourful cast.

And the upcoming VS movie with Zenkaiger has the potential to be the most zany, brain-numbing toku production ever made... So looking forward to that too!

Manpig said...

DonBrothers has genuinely been one hell of an unforgettable sentai experience. It's my new favorite sentai and its the freshest tokusatsu has felt in a LONG time IMO. Inoue really did something he wanted to do in making a wild, unforgettable stageplay of a sentai that was addictingly chaotic. It's confusing, it's crazy, it's DonBrothers, and thats why we love it.

Great review dude! You covered everything in great detail and really looked into every nook and cranny to explain what makes DonBros so good. This really is a special show, one to value when we get it.

Chengkeng said...

2 out of 5

Kepin_151 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kepin_151 said...

5 out of 2

Stephen Cassat said...

Donbrothers just ran with it. The characters were engaging, interesting, and not once was I not laughing my sides off at the sheer insanity of it all.

Not to mention that the OP is the GOAT.

Gordim77 said...

For me , this one of the worst sentai ever made

Kepin_151 said...

For me, this one is the best Sentai ever made. The story is very bizarre, in a good way. Character's quirks & interactions are the best part of this show that is pretty enjoyable to watch.

Can't say the same for the crossover though. They really do Jirou dirty.

The Cebuano Eater said...

agree. 5/5 stars