Over the past 20 years, anime and Japanese culture have thoroughly invaded the West. Our generation learned to love them by watching Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Dragon Ball Z as kids. And by now, we’ve integrated Japan into our own culture with anime-influenced Western cartoons like Teen Titans and Avatar, as well as adding ramen shops and cat cafes to our cities.
But by far, one of the most bizarre shows to cross over into American culture was Power Rangers – or Super Sentai, as it’s known in its home country. It seems normal enough now, but a gang of rainbow-spangled superheroes fighting rubber-suit monsters by posing dramatically and smashing their vehicles together into a giant robot? That’s pretty weird. Where did the idea even come from? Today, we’ll answer that question by diving headfirst into the historied and hysterical tokusatsu genre!
What is Tokusatsu?
The word “tokusatsu” literally means “special filming”, referring to special effects. It’s a genre of film and television that began with Toho Company’s 1954 smash hit Godzilla and only evolved from there. The technique of representing kaiju mayhem with monster suits and city miniatures was revolutionary, and inspired television company Toei to create their own interpretation of this flashy style.
Toei’s live-action shows often starred masked heroes who would transform (or “henshin”) in a spectacular way to fight crime. The tone tended to be over-the-top, with larger than life characters and plenty of spectacle. Toho’s influence can be seen in the rubber costumes and miniature sets that they used, and giant robots also tended to pop up a lot – did you know Toei’s version of Spiderman had a mecha named Leopardon? It’s rad.
The studio went on to create the Metal Heroes series (starting with Space Sheriff Gavan), a Devilman adaptation, and Giant Robo; but by far, their most lasting legacy comes from the twin lords of tokusatsu that still reign to this day – Super Sentai and Kamen Rider.
What is Super Sentai?
Even though the different iterations of Power Rangers have been consistently in production since 1992, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to Super Sentai. Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, the series that the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers used footage from, is actually the 16th installment of a franchise that began way back in 1975. As of 2018, Super Sentai now has 42 official installments! But don’t worry – just like its American counterpart, the series are separate from each other and can essentially be watched or skipped in any order.
Super Sentai stood out by replacing the traditional solo superhero with an entire team that all had to work together to save the world. This gave the franchise a stronger sense of Japanese identity, since their culture focuses more on groups than individuals. And surprisingly, female heroes have been integral members of each team since the very beginning in 1975! Well, except for one group called Sun Vulcan, but forgive them – they only had three members.
The individual series vary in tone, from the somber drama of Liveman (where the heroes’ friends betray them in the first episode to join the villains) to the upbeat bubblegum of Carranger (essentially a car-themed parody of the entire franchise). The characters and storylines of Super Sentai generally tend to be more complex than their Power Rangers equivalents, especially since Japanese television standards give them the freedom to incorporate death and other mature themes. Even though it’s definitely a franchise for children, the intriguing writing will keep adult audiences coming back for more.
As for how Super Sentai transformed into Power Rangers for Western audiences, we have to look to the American-Israeli TV producer Saban Entertainment. If it weren’t for Saban, we wouldn’t have Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, Samurai Pizza Cats, or any of the live-action superhero shows we grew up with in the ‘80s and ‘90s. When adapting tokusatsu shows, they used action scenes with masked characters and robots as stock footage to complement new scenes that they would shoot with Western actors.
Often, the original plot and characters were disregarded or only loosely acknowledged, and multiple tokusatsu shows were smashed together to get enough action footage. VR Troopers used footage from three different Metal Heroes installments, Big Bad Beetleborgs drew from Juukou B-Fighter, and the original Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers used scenes from not just Zyuranger, but Gosei Sentai Dairanger (for the White Ranger) and Ninja Sentai Kakuranger (for the Aquitar Rangers, Ninjor, and the later zords) as well.
This bizarre collage approach to filmmaking led to a lot of continuity errors and jarring transitions between the Japanese and American sections, but as kids, we didn’t really care. The exciting battles and fantastical settings were so different from everything else on TV, and we were able to relate to the human characters who resembled us. And with the endless comic and film adaptations of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers stretching all the way up to the present day, we’ve truly made it our own. Zyuranger wasn’t a particularly important or influential Sentai series, but the diamond suits and dinosaur helmets have become a permanent part of American pop culture.
What is Kamen Rider?
Unlike its sister show Super Sentai, Kamen Rider never really left Japan in any meaningful way. There were isolated attempts to make a Power Rangers-style adaptation, but nothing really stuck. But despite that, this franchise has a rich history and just as much excitement to offer as its more internationally famous counterpart.
The first Kamen (meaning “masked”) Rider series aired in 1971, four years before Super Sentai. It focused on a motorcycle-riding college student who used a special belt to transform into an insect-themed hero and fight crime. He had friends and allies, but was ultimately a solo act who represented the last hope against the evil Shocker organization. These elements became signatures of the franchise, as well as his heroic red scarf that blew dramatically in the wind.
After one direct sequel series and a handful of new installments starring different Riders, the franchise took a long hiatus in 1989. But ever since it started back up in 2000, Kamen Rider has been in continuous production, with a new series every year that airs alongside Super Sentai in a television block called Super Hero Time. Again, each series is separate and can be viewed without any knowledge of the others.
If you love Western-style superheroes who fight evil on their own, Kamen Rider is a great fit. Allies and even other Riders play important roles in many series, but ultimately it’s up to our insectoid hero to save the day. The franchise has the same variety of colorful characters, flashy action scenes, and silly moments that you would expect from a tokusatsu series, but it tends to lean more towards mature with its plotlines than Super Sentai. Shocker is a terrorist organization made up of former Nazis, after all. Pretty hardcore stuff hiding in a kids show!
Where should you start watching?
So Super Sentai has 42 installments, Kamen Rider has 28, and the multitude of other tokusatsu shows stretches to the far reaches of the horizon. And if you include the American adaptations, that adds dozens more shows to the list. If you want to start your journey into the toku world, where are you even supposed to start?
Luckily, it’s easy to jump in at pretty much any point. Unless the series is explicitly a direct sequel to a previous one, each show follows its own continuity and only crosses over with other installments during teamup movies. It’s simple to choose a show that looks interesting to you and just start watching without any other context needed. But if you’re looking for recommendations, we’ve got some great suggestions for you.
Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger (2011) – If you’re interested in the whole Super Sentai universe, look no further than Gokaiger. Its team of pirates has the power to transform into any previous Sentai character and use their powers! As if that wasn’t awesome enough, classic Sentai characters often make guest appearances and let you learn more about the series they come from. And the plot itself is filled with memorable characters and surprisingly deep storylines. Start here and go anywhere!
Samurai Sentai Shinkenger (2009) – Filled with allusions to samurai culture and Japanese mythology, this series is fantastic for people who love the classical era of Japanese history. It also features the first female red ranger!
Kaitou Sentai Lupinranger VS Keisatsu Sentai Patranger (2018) – The most recent installment of the franchise features two opposing Sentai teams who try to outfox each other at every turn. Will you root for the thieves who fight for what they’ve lost, or the police who chase justice?
Kamen Rider Ex-Aid (2016) – Starring a medical intern who’s also a genius gamer, Ex-Aid keeps a light tone while also leaving room for well-rounded characters and an intriguing storyline. And the Rider suit is possibly the cutest one ever!
Kamen Rider Fourze (2011) – This interstellar adventure commemorates not only the 40th anniversary of the Kamen Rider franchise, but also the 50th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight. With high school protagonists, a lunar base, and an extra Rider called Meteor, there’s plenty to enjoy for kids and adults alike.
Kamen Rider Decade (2009) – As a celebration of the 10-year stretch of series in the 2000s, this installment features a hero who must defeat his previous counterparts to prevent all of their dimensions from collapsing into each other. If you’re looking for a Kamen Rider version of Gokaiger, check out the very series that inspired it.
The tokusatsu genre is something so foreign to us, and yet so familiar at the same time. We recognize the tropes from the collaged depictions we saw as kids, but the original versions push the envelope even further. Many Western tokusatsu fans will say that they love Power Rangers and the other Americanized Saban productions just as much as Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, and that’s because they all evoke the same emotion in us. It’s that childlike glee that comes from watching masked superheroes in colorful spandex kick ass and make grass explode with their crazy poses. What more could we ever ask for?