Tuesday 5 March 2024

Series REVIEW: Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger

Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger

Over the last few years the Super Sentai franchise seems to have entered a period of experimentation in the run up to its 50th anniversary - discarding some of the usual tropes it's maintained for decades in favour of fresh ideas that still don't feel too far removed from what the franchise is known for. This experimentation continued on into its 47th entry Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger, with the series not only mixing things up in terms of visuals and story-telling but also adopting an insect motif - something fans have wanted to see Super Sentai tackle for some time. The series was written by Minato Takano in his debut for the franchise (having previously written supplementary material for both Kamen Rider Ex-Aid and Kamen Rider Zero-One), with Kazuya KamihoriuchiJun Watanabe (who has worked as a suit actor on a number of Super Sentai productions) and Hiroshi Butsuda acting as director, action director and SFX director respectively.

The six kingsThe Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger

2000 years ago on the planet Chikyu, the Bugnarok attempted to wipe out humanity. Five heroes came together - uniting the powerful Shugods into the guardian spirit King-Ohger to defeat them. Following their victory, the heroes disbanded and established the kingdoms of Shugodom, N'kosopa, Ishabana, Gokkan and Toufu. However, it is prophesied that the Bugnarok will one day return...

In the present day, as the five Kings gather to renew their alliance the Bugnarok launch their attack. When the motives of Shugodom's king Rcules are called into question, a young orphan named Gira rises up to declare himself as the "Tyrant King" and become the hero that the Kingdom needs. Joining with the four other Kings - N'ksopa's Yanma Gast, Ishabana's Hymeno Ran, Gokkan's Rita Kaniska and Tofu's Kaguraghi Dybowski, the Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger fight against both the Bugnarok onslaught and Rcules' tyranny. They are eventually joined in their quest by historian and storyteller Jeramie Brasieri - a half-human, half-Bugnarok hybrid who wishes to see the two races co-exist.

However, two years later after the King-Ohger's conflict against the Bugnarok a new threat arises with the arrival of King Dagded Dujardin and Galactinsects. Not only are they a power unlike anything the Kings have faced before, but it's one whose influence spreads back farther than they could possibly imagine.

The BugnarokArrival of the Galactinsects

Through the decades the Super Sentai franchise has largely followed the same format when it comes to story – you have your plot-driven episodes, and you have your character-driven episodes. While the latter can also be the former, the occasions where they don't contribute to the main storyline (instead being a one-off adventure that highlights or develops a specific character trait or dynamic) are enough for them to incorrectly be considered by fans as "filler". While certainly not filler by its actual definition, it is at least true that only a fraction of episodes in a series may outright contribute to the main storyline. Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger bucks the trend on many things, but it's status as the most serialised entry in the franchise yet is one the biggest. While it still retains many of those trope Super Sentai stock plots, continuity is paramount and as such every episode counts. Not just the episodes themselves either, with the show's Summer movie Adventure Heaven also purposely woven into the story and having relevance by the show's end. This approach gives King-Ohger a much more epic feel, which naturally ties in beautifully with the fantasy setting.

Further shake-ups to the traditional Super Sentai format come in many different ways, but one of the first to make itself known is the dynamic of the team. Teams made up of leaders/representatives from different tribes/kingdoms may not be anything new to the franchise, but the way in which the King-Ohgers interact and conduct themselves certainly is. Although they may be working together towards a common goal, as leaders of their own nations each of the Kings need to put the needs of their people first - often leading to their alliance feeling somewhat tenuous. As a group they are far more prone to disagreements or in-fighting (though admittedly not to any significant measure) than any other Super Sentai team, and as such the show is very much about their journey to becoming the "Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger" as it is them protecting their people. Yanma is extremely intelligent, but also arrogant and somewhat volatile. Hymeno's reputation as a spoiled queen is not understated - but despite her often selfish demeanour her actions are often for others rather than herself. Rita acts the impartial Chief Justice of Gokkan - firm and ruthless in their rulings on international crimes but also striving to remain impartial at all costs. Then there's Kaguragi, whose resolve to do anything for the sake of his kingdom has led to him becoming a master of deceit constantly working for his own agenda. If anything Gira is often the glue holding them together - a pure and kind-hearted individual who acts up the guise of a 'Tyrant King' to combat others' warped sense of justice. As the newest king within the group, it's interesting to see how Gira influences the others' mindsets as well as how he realises leading a nation can sometimes involve making difficult choices. It's because these characters are so different and perhaps a little less 'heroic' in the traditional sense that the dynamics in King-Ohger are as strong as they are. The later arrival of Jeramie is also a fantastic addition to the cast, not only due to the extra dimension he brings as an outsider to the five kingdoms but also his clever positioning as a storyteller - and as such the show's narrator. Not only does the strong charisma of the character help sell the idea, but it's a great way for the show to go heavy on lore and/or exposition without completely pulling you out of the moment.

The supporting cast of King-OhgerRcules Hasty

That said, creating a world as rich as King-Ohger's also requires a strong supporting cast – particularly with the action spread across multiple kingdoms. The show certainly has this, ranging from the Kings' retainers and family to average citizens to spread things across multiple levels. While the citizens may be there to largely make the world feel properly lived in (although public support is something that naturally comes up multiple times in the series, particularly in earlier episodes), the retainers are far more fleshed out characters – most of which have their own backstories highlighting why they've pledged their lives to their respective ruler. Some are a bit more prominent than others, but across the board it's ensured that there is at least one sufficiently developed supporting cast member per lead to give them additional dynamics outside of the main team. But when it comes to fully realised supporting characters, the franchise has a whole really did strike new ground with Rcules Hasty. Initially introduced as arguably the series' main antagonist, Rcules' development over the course of the series leads him to become one of the most complex and interesting characters in Super Sentai history – his motivations and backstory fully explored to incredible effect. His status as the show's seventh King-Ohger/extra hero is more than deserved given that the calibre of both writing and acting behind him often eclipses the main team. This is as much his story as theirs, and without him King-Ohger would be a far lesser product.

Multiple plot threads weaving together in more serialised storytelling is ambitious, but it is certainly not without its drawbacks. Particularly in its first half King-Ohger sometimes feels like it's spreading itself a little too widely - with certain aspects of the storyline taking a backseat when they could do with far more development. The Bugnarok are a prime example of this, with their fight against humanity often feeling more of a backdrop to the primary conflict against Rcules. Jeramie's arrival in the story brings along a lot more intrigue and complexity to the Bugnarok storyline, but this comes a bit too late to make initial antagonist King Desnarak VIII a more rounded character despite glimmers of promise. While Shugoddam's political power struggle does prove to be the more engaging storyline (as well as having perhaps a bigger impact on King-Ohger's story as a whole), the imbalance between the two can sometimes make the episodes feel a little muddled - particularly when the show needs that focus to help emphasise that the 'monsters' are more nuanced than they usually are.

Desnarak VIIIDagded Dujardin

However that all changed when King-Ohger hit episode 27, which brought with it a two year time skip and the introduction of a brand new villains. Viewers in Japan had already been teased about what was to come in Adventure Heaven, but even with that foreshadowing they couldn't have been prepared for just how much King-Ohger was about to raise its stakes. But the arrival of the all-powerful Dagded Dujardin didn't just have massive repercussions for the story going forwards, it also served to enhance and re-contextualise the first half of the series as well. The shadow of the Galactinsects was hanging over King-Ohger the entire time, with both events and character motivations influenced in ways almost impossible to predict. It becomes all the more evident that every episode of King-Ohger counts for something story-wise, even when the series is indulging in some of its more bizarre humour or stock Super Sentai plot lines.

The Galactinsects also offered a very significant shake-up in the Super Sentai formula, arguably representing one of the greatest threats in franchise history. Despite his childlike mentality, Dujardin's power is of cosmic proportions - if not for his arrogance or the fact that he treats the destruction of planets like a game, he could completely obliterate both the King-Ohgers and the planet whenever he wanted. His five Jesters are similarly powerful, their dominance in battle completely erasing the need for additional soldiers. With the monster-of-the-week format dropped almost entirely, King-Ohger feels all the more serialised as the team are nearly always on the back foot. While the team always win the day to some extent, the victories seem considerably more hollow when the enemy continually lives to fight another day. Against the Galactinsects King-Ohger isn't just about defeating some invading evil, it's quite literally seeing the heroes attempt to defy god. 

King Kyoryu RedThe King-Ohgers meet the Kyoryugers

King-Ohger's strong focus on storyline didn't just mean big things for this series either, as its grasp on lore was even powerful enough to bring another Super Sentai series into its midst. 2023-24 also celebrates the 10th anniversary of Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, and as a highly profitable series and firm fan favourite the occasion was marked with a two-part crossover between the two teams (as well as a proper Versus movie coming later this year). Only rather than being the usual Super Sentai crossover fare in which the two teams meet despite any inconsistencies between their storylines, King-Ohger went one step further and interwove their backstories together to ultimately enrich them both without stepping on any precedent Kyoryuger had already set. In addition to seeing some great interactions between the two teams, the crossover also had satisfying follow-up from certain moments of Kyoryuger as well as some interesting implications. While it was unfortunate that both Daigo and Utchy were missing from the episodes, it served to build further intrigue for the forthcoming movie. In their absence, new Kyoryu Red Daigoro 'Prince' Kiryu was a great replacement - his King Kyoryu Red a wonderful combination of the Kyoryuger and King-Ohger costumes. The mash-up didn't end there either, with a new King-Ohger-flavoured combination for Kyoryuzin making its debut - fully utilising the CGI improvements in the last decade for some crazy fight sequences. Between these episodes, the movie and all the merchandise they've spawned there should never be any question to Kyoruger's popularity again.

Story isn't the only element which felt like a big shake-up for the franchise though, in fact if anything it's secondary to the big departure King-Ohger had in how it looks. The series is notable for being the first work in Japan to implement extensive on-set virtual production and LED walls. Inspired by works such as The Mandalorian, nearly all of King-Ohger's set design and scenery is created via CGI imagery. This allows for far more imagination and scale in the look of Chikyuu, with each of the five Kingdoms displaying their own unique aesthetic. Whereas Shugoddam is reminiscent of Medieval Europe, N'Kosopa is a sprawling metropolis of technological wonder. Ishabana is a floral paradise, Toufu a bountiful land of agriculture and Gokkan a snowy wasteland. None of these would be possible to capture with truly capture with on-location filming, and even those elements that are wouldn't have the same level of scope. Whereas Super Sentai (and tokusatsu shows in general for that matter) have reused the same filming locations over and over again for decades, King-Ohger is a wholly unique entity - making the world of Super Sentai grander than ever before.

ShugoddamThe Shugoddam throne room

However while the imagination on display here can't be faulted, the same can't always be said about the execution. The reason shows like The Mandalorian were lauded for using this technology is because at times the difference between virtual and on-location filming can be practically seamless, with the untrained eye complete unaware that the actors aren't off on a blazing desert landscape somewhere. Though it would be unfair to draw a comparison between the two (Toei certainly doesn't have the money Disney has), Toei's CGI isn't quite there to present such a seamless world. Granted the scenery King-Ohger adopts is purely fantastical, but from a technical perspective the sense that the characters aren't really 'there' never completely goes away no matter how entrancing the story gets. Particularly in close-up scenes it can become very obvious that they're in front of a screen. During the Kyoryuger crossover the King-Ohgers were transported to Earth and the show resumes its usual on-location filming, and the difference makes a huge impact on the quality of the episodes. While visuals on a technical level are less likely to be much as a criticism to its target audience (and to its credit, King-Ohger's world really is pretty enchanting), but for older fans the heavy use of CGI might make it lack that spark tokusatsu often has. That all said, it was certainly a very interesting experiment for Super Sentai - one that could easily be called a success if the balance between virtual and on-location filming is more evenly spread in future instalments.

The hit and miss nature of the visuals also applies to the action sequences and fight choreography, which again attempted to push the envelope for the franchise but sometimes suffered because of that ambition. While featuring plenty of great fight choreography from the suit actors, the show also utilised plenty of CGI touches in its battles as well. With CGI visual effects happening against CGI backdrops, combined with often frenetic camerawork larger-scale fight scenes can often be disorientating. Though they maintain a certain energy to help carry them through, there's the sense that some of the finer points of the choreography are being lost in the presentation. Again - not something that would necessarily bother the target audience, but certainly a slight knock against it from a technical perspective.

Gira vs RculesThe King-Ohgers power up

Of course it wouldn't be Super Sentai without talking about the mecha action as well, which is another thing King-Ohger had some interesting ideas about. From a design perspective the series saw the return of combinations that only seemed to get bigger and bigger - an idea the franchise seemed to have gotten away from in the past few years. With lots of individual Shugods on offer here, it's great to see them all come together into increasingly bigger robots to measure up to the scale the show's narrative was going for. This is particularly impressive when you also consider that practical suits were also produced for some of these larger combinations, with the show sticking to its roots and not wholly relying on CGI for the robot sequences. For collectors it also proved to be a great year for the toys, with the King-Ohger range displaying the similar levels of articulation that made waves the previous year with Donbrothers. But with so much going on in the series naturally some things have to take a bit more of a back seat, and despite King-Ohger seemingly having so much to offer in terms of mecha, the show continues the more recent trend of downplaying this Super Sentai staple. But with the Shugods being such a significant part of the story, it's more about strengthening the impact and less about forgetting about it outright. Multiple episodes go by without any mecha fight at all, but it means when they do they have much bigger impact - particularly as the story really begins to progress. Moments like seeing the Kings pilot the mecha along with their retainers or the final battle against Dujardin are among some of the show's very best.

God King-OhgerKing Kyoruzin

Ohsama Sentai King-Ohger is bold, ambitious and quite unlike any Super Sentai series that's come before it. It takes the template that the franchise has largely maintained for nearly 50 years and turns it in an epic fantasy series driven by narrative and with a visual style and aesthetic that's completely its own. Though it may not be flawless it its execution, its scope and ambition are to be commended. Right after Donbrothers came along and broke the mould for Super Sentai, the franchise somehow managed to it once again in a completely different way. With the ideas that King-Ohger has put in motion, the franchise couldn't be in a better place in the run-up to its 50th anniversary.


Lucas said...

This season was everything I wished Kyuranger was. But while that season was terrified at the limitless sky it set up and hid away in safe, non-threatening conformity, King-Ohger delivered on the change and innovation it promised.
A setting never attempted before on Super Sentai, rich lore and mythos, memorable characters whom all got their chance in the spotlight, no one got overshadowed, no spotlight-stealing Red, care and attention to detail on the worldbuilding with a large variety of supporting characters, making this world feel real and massive, instead of disposable one-offs, unforgettable villains whom all feel like a genuine threat, allowing for the stakes to feel high. King-Ohger is everything Kyuranger could've been but wasn't. This is a season Toei poured their heart and soul into making. No half-assing it, no feeling like they put the season on autopilot, this was all forged with love and passion. And I am forever grateful.

King-Ohger will go down as one of the best seasons of the entire franchise. A Sentai truly for the ages.

CPF said...

Great review! You took much longer than usual though, what happened?

Alex said...

A combination of real-life committments and this being a particularly detailed series to cover!

Ruben Kenny said...

this is the best Sentai series since Shinkenger to me. i do not say that lightly.

Chengkeng said...

The first arc was good. Second was decent. Third arc was incredible. The finale felt like I was watching avengers endgame battle again. 5 out of 5.