Henshin Hero USA: The Endearing Superhero
by Dyvontrae Johnson
At the age of 3, Saturday August 28,1993 I sat eyes affixed on the TV for one show in particular on Fox Kids that morning. I was at my Aunt’s house, and my speech was pretty mangled but I know the console TV in her living room had nobs with numbers on it. After some trial and error I dialed in Fox Kids from the announced new Saturday line up. There it was. The first episode of the MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS. ‘Day of the Dumpster’ was one of the most profound TV watching experiences I had ever had. Never in my life had dinosaurs been turned into mechanized vehicles to be piloted by someone my cousin’s age. There was no way! Yet these people were real, they fought actual golem-looking clay minions, they used actual kicks and flips, with a spectrum of sparks (before you realize that should probably be blood). It was all real. Although this was definitely not everyone’s first time with tokusatsu, or more specifically the henshin hero, but I’m sure the feeling must have been the same. You were in awe that it wasn’t something that could be written off because someone layered some onion skins together and through the power of film were given life. No, you saw Ultraman and could literally see him before your eyes grow. He grew to the size of a city block, you could see the buildings, you could see cars, roads, PEOPLE! How did they make these heroes so approachable, so ascertainable as though we could be one of those teenagers wist away by some future machination of science teleporting you across space and time to wear spandex and pilot a mech? It COULD be you.
We’ve passed the threshold of 21 years with the MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS and it’s subsequent Power Rangers series. Along with this being the 43rd year of the KAMEN RIDER, the 39th year of SUPER SENTAI and over 48 years of the ULTRA series, these heroes the world over have encouraged kids to be a person of high resolve, these stories rendered tales of horror, suspense, amazement, and empowerment. We’re now in another growth period in the genre. Power Rangers has a special place in our generation’s heart. Some people remember it the way many people have pangs of nostalgia for Troma films, there was loads of camp and other levels of entertainment to be had, some remember it for ushering us through the canal to science fiction and martial arts cinema, while others saw a deeper meaning by applying the lessons of being involved in your communities, staying disciplined and working as a team that they showcased each and every Saturday morning (then at some points on the weekdays, I believe it was in 1996… Wow, I’m getting distracted). Whatever your sentiments for the franchise maybe, those are the same sentiments making it down through the generations, further affecting an era of fans always connected through the internet about the latest and greatest in the genre. It’s as though we don’t have to isolate ourselves anymore to just one flavor in this genre. On top of that, with the advent of live action hero films such as IRON MAN or mech fighter films like PACIFIC RIM, the henshin hero is back on the rise here in the US.
Saban, owners and producers of the Power Rangers franchise, landed a huge distribution deal with Lionsgate Films and have since planned to distribute a feature film through the Cannes Film Festival. That’s huge! That’s big industry talk. They’re going to screen the film in probably a few select theaters during the festival, they’ll probably use the industry to draw more attention to the brand of Power Rangers as whole, the henshin hero will be right next to the cape and mask comic book hero adaptations. The new generation of henshin hero here in the United States may want a bit more variety. Let’s face it, there is really only one name in the game right now, when at one point we could find SUPERHUMAN SAMURAI SYBERSQUAD, VR TROOPERS, or MASKED RIDER; MYSTIC KNIGHTS OR TIR NA NOG or BIG BAD BEETLEBORGS. At one point KAMEN RYDER RYUKI got an adaptation with KAMEN RIDER DRAGON KNIGHT (it took home a daytime Emmy for “Outstanding Stunt Coordination”) which was a great departure from the still ongoing POWER RANGERS series. The playing field has been narrowed, not offering enough diversity between the shows. The best part about tokusatsu is not every henshin hero is the same. We have the dark tragic hero in armor GARO whose stories are incredibly pulpy, ethereal, and visceral in delivery: definitely not for kids. While in that same vein we have the “Space Sheriff” procedural of GAVAN (2012) and SHARIVAN: NEXT GENERATION. We’re stymied in the states, and that may lead to another boom/bust situation for our genre.
Now before I make this statement, I’m attempting to write impartially but I must disclose: I’m organizer of a film festival showcasing independent tokusatsu, but I express these sentiments not as an effort to promote the festival. No, I’m actually attempting to do exactly what I planned to do with this film festival: give this community, both new and old, the opportunity to stand up and announce what it is they’d want out of the genre. There is so much we have yet to explore with our morphinominal heroes, or fantastic grown ups in spandex. We don’t need just another adaptation, we should be finding a way to push the envelope with the genre to get a better diversity of series and heroes out there. The “Endearing Hero” is a nod to this one truth: what was campy before, is enlightening upon every visit. Even on the worse day with Power Rangers, it still has had some sort of presence with American children. Although the Rangers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, we have brave re-entries in the US tokusatsu market with anime streaming service Crunchyroll streaming ULTRAMAN MEIBUS and ULTRAMAN LEO. Not only is it a call for a whole swath of new titles, but also an incorporation of the craft of adaptation OR even just direct translation for the series we all know and love. Tokusatsu has a rich, intricate and ever expanding myriad of entries, much like difference between snowflakes unique with their own tones, characters, suits, vehicles, mechs and humor. I encourage you to support your providers like Crunchyroll, local fansub communities and tokusatsu events in the meantime. Until such a time, those will be the closest communities that organize to make your opinions heard.