Sunday, January 15, 2012

An Explanation Of Japanese Tokusatsu (AKA That Foreign Power Ranger Stuff)

(NOTE: I originally wrote this post back in 2006 to educate others on the importance of Toku in Japanese culture, as well as American culture. This post is mostly unchanged since then, but with a few touch-ups in order to keep everything in check. I hope everyone learns something from this, even if it's not their cup of tea per se.)

I'd like to educate the people of this blog and introduce them to an interesting and unique type of television viewing in Japan. This is known as Tokusatsu. Now, I warn you, this is a long read that may turn some away, but in the end, I feel it explains everything I've been trying to get out about the genre.

From Wikipedia:

"Tokusatsu (Japanese: 特撮) is the Japanese term for special effects. Live action productions that primarily feature the use of special effects are also called tokusatsu."

Simple, no? Let's go further.

"Eiji Tsuburaya (1901-1970) is perhaps the most famous tokusatsu kantoku in Japan, and is responsible for bringing the famous characters Godzilla and Ultraman to life. While he wasn't the first FX artist, he fought to make special effects in Japanese cinema truly special. When doing movies and TV shows involving giants (be it monsters, superheroes, aliens, etc.), Eiji's techniques usually involve expert miniature work, and the monster is usually either a stuntman in a full monster costume (a process later dubbed "Suitmation") or a marionette-like prop (Mothra, Dogora, etc.). Even with the support of digital effects since the 1990s, Eiji's tokusatsu method has been lovingly carried over to this very day, and has become a tradition like kabuki theater."

"Some of Eiji's proteges include Teruyoshi Nakano, Sadamasa Arikawa, Nobuo Yajima (who also directed the FX for the majority of superhero shows by Toei), Koichi Takano, Koichi Kawakita and others. They have worked at Toho, Eiji's company Tsuburaya Productions, P Productions and other companies. Yonesaburō Tsukiji, Kazufumi Fujii (who directed the FX for the classic Gamera movies) and Yoshiyuki Kuroda (who directed the FX for the Daimajin trilogy) used the same techniques over at the Daiei Motion Picture Company (now owned by Kadokawa Shoten)."

As you can see from this paragraph, Toei (you may know that name from anime) was the production company for a huge amount of shows of this genre.

Next, I'll go into the whole Power Rangers thing. Now, Power Rangers originated from a series known as Super Sentai, which was started in 1975. This is a picture from the first Sentai series, known as Himitsu Sentai Goranger.

Weird as hell? Well, yeah. That's how it started.

Eventually, the popularity of this style of series led to the creation of others. One was Kamen (Masked) Rider. Here is a picture of the first Kamen Riders; V1, V2, and V3.

Another series, which I think everyone here will get a kick out of in this case, was an actual Live-Action Spider-Man series. It was crappy, but that was what made it so fun to watch.

Spider-Man was also the first Japanese Tokusatsu to use a "giant robot" with which to fight the monsters. Sentai decided to use that idea with their next series and that tradition carried on over the years.

That's not to say this was the only style of show the Japanese followed, as Ultraman and Godzilla were huge inspirations, as well as certain anime titles. You can now see live-action versions of shows such as Cutey Honey and Sailor Moon, as well as some movies for titles like Death Note and Lupin III.

I'm now to going to get into the confusion that America has developed over time. This is again taken from Wikipedia:

"There is currently a misconception in countries outside Japan (including the United States, to an extent) that the term tokusatsu refers mainly to Japanese superhero TV shows (including - but not limited to - the Ultra Series, Kamen Rider series and Super Sentai Series). Of course, this is not true, as the term has always been used in its native country to describe all live action productions, Japanese or otherwise, that feature special effects.

However, in the case of the US (and some other parts of the world), the confusion dates back to the early 1990s, when Ben Dunn, editor of the San Antonio-based comic-book publishing company Antarctic Press, did a short-lived fanzine called Sentai: The Journal of Asian S/F & Fantasy, which was one of the few American fanzines in the wake of the Power Rangers craze that covered live-action Japanese fantasies, which previously had a sizable cult following. However, this magazine got so much exposure that all Japanese live-action superhero shows were mistakenly labelled "sentai" by many fans and non-fans alike. Inadvertently reinforcing this was the formation of the usenet newsgroup On that newsgroup, and eventually other tokusatsu-related forums, more experienced fans had set people straight on the many tokusatsu-related terms. The same went for daikaiju-related forums like the newsgroup and others."

The United States has seen almost every Godzilla and Gamera film, as well as many Japanese kaiju films up to the early 1970s, but mainstream America does not look at these films very favorably.

Even only a handful of Japanese superhero shows such as Ultraman (the most recognized Japanese superhero in America, of course), The Space Giants and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot made it there, as well as Spectreman, which was the last major superhero production to be seen in the States, whereas ironically, it was just the beginning (in that exact same period, Kamen Rider, a low-budget TV series, began the "Henshin Craze" in Japan).

Of the American populace, Hawaii (and, to a lesser degree, San Francisco) was more familiar with the superhero shows made since the "Henshin Craze", and these shows were very successful there. Shows like Emergency Command 10-4-10-10 (the first tokusatsu series to be subtitled in English), Rainbowman, Android Kikaider/Jinzo Ningen Kikaida (perhaps the most popular show in Hawaii), Kamen Rider V3 and Secret Task Force Goranger, as well as 1967's Ultra Seven (which, in 1975, became the first Japanese program to be dubbed in English there). The last tokusatsu series to be subtitled in English was 1979's Battle Fever J (the first "Super Sentai" series). But sadly, the rest of America has missed out on this milestone period of tokusatsu history (shows like 1983's Science Task Force Dynaman, which was comically dubbed, are a very rare exception).

This perception of tokusatsu in America can be chalked down to a few things:


One of the things that Japanese live-action fantasy is usually criticized for by non-fans in America is that these productions don't look "realistic." Back in the 1950s, some people criticized the special effects in Godzilla movies, comparing them to Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion techniques (Ray was hurt by this, and instead started making fantasy films). When Star Wars was released in 1977 and made science fiction mainstream, the American public began to forget the past and focus on the future. Even when some Japanese companies use their tried and true techniques for sentimental reasons (combined with Hollywood-style effects), Americans continued to label these films as "cheap," "cheesy," and/or "campy." In fact, many old Japanese special effects fantasies, no matter what regard they were held in Japan, were pretty much considered B-movie material by many Americans who raise themselves on big-budget Hollywood films, nowadays strictly using CGI effects. That perception is also based on watching faded, worn-out fullscreen prints of these classic films.

However, American fans like August Ragone and reporter Steve Ryfle have enlightened a skeptical media on this subject countless times, and people were pro-founded. According to Ryfle, even classic Japanese special effects fantasies were not necessarily trying to look "realistic," they were trying to make something that's colorful and spectacular. These were fantasies. Godzilla is not a "realistic" monster, because he's not a real animal. He is a fantasy creature, basically a god (not unlike the beasts from Chinese and Japanese mythology, like the Chinese dragon). This goes for many of the Japanese kaiju of the type. Rodan, Varan, Mothra, Gamera, etc. These hand-crafted fantasy monsters looked "real" to some fans. Some even say that, unlike stop-motion, these monsters looked very real, because they were filmed real.

Eiji Tsuburaya himself thought that absolute realism was "boring," so he experimented with the many films he did, and his surreal visuals dazzled many audiences, including children and fans. And even if certain techniques didn't work, it still amused him. Some audiences may laugh at these effects shots, or even criticize certain aspects of them, but this was something Eiji never took too seriously. A notable example was one scene in the 1965 film Frankenstein Conquers the World, where the giant monster Baragon attacks an animal farm, and smashes a stable with an obvious puppet of a horse galloping wildly inside. When asked by a Japanese journalist about why he used a horse puppet instead of a real one against a bluescreen, Eiji replied, "Because it's more interesting!" Eiji's "unreal" effects techniques were copied to this day by other Japanese effects artists, who have even added their own touch of realism to suit today's audiences.

Meanwhile, even the equally criticized Japanese live-action superhero shows (aimed mainly at children) achieved what American productions usually could not when making adaptations of comic books: a colorful, fantastic sense of wonder. After the original "campy" 1966 Batman TV series, superhero fans, even the American public, started to take their fantasies for granted, because color and fantasy became "silly," "stupid," and thus equated with "camp." Thus, superheroes became dark, grim and "realistic." These were no longer the comic-books kids grew up with, they were more "adult" and "cynical." Japanese superheroes, on the other hand, retain that colorful "comic-book" feel. Yes, some of these superheroes are altruistic, like Super Giant, Moonlight Mask, and Ultraman, yet others (of the Henshin variety, for example, like Kamen Rider) take their powers for granted, but the hero still must make do with their powers to help the innocent, even getting along with children, who usually idolize these heroes. They have even long before experimented with "grim" and "ironic" concepts that would finally be utilized in American superhero comics by the late 1980s. The villains in these shows included the kind of threats depicted in American comics that American movie & TV adaptations usually exclude; an evil empire, an alien race, a mad scientist and a weekly monster. Some would argue that Japanese superhero movies & shows, despite their "limited" special effects, are much better at emulating the style of American comic-books than the TV shows and Hollywood movies that are based on them.

Furthermore, it also has to do with conservative budget reasons. Japanese studios, unlike those of Hollywood, are not union-based. Some Japanese studios still allow a notoriously tight budget and schedule, while others are liberally taking a chance on things. Actors/staff are paid a smaller salary, yet they work together like a family.


As is evident since the 70s, Japanese superhero movies & TV shows became increasingly violent. Even as kid shows in Japan, American audiences were overly concerned over violence in America, and by the 70s, censorship against violence on American children's television had grown more and more strict. This mainly includes Japanese superhero TV productions, many of which were very dark and violent, and had grim and ironic stories. This goes for anime shows as well. Superheroes like Kamen Rider were created surgically by the villains, and turn against them. Superheroes like the title team of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (an anime series) ruthlessly beat villains to a pulp. Superheroes like Mirrorman chop the monsters' heads off. Shows like Android Kikaider and Robotto Keiji had the monster of the week demonstrating their powers by slaying an innocent victim (an expendable character) at the beginning of each episode (not unlike the victims of the weekly monsters and alien threats featured in Star Trek). Needless to say, even Godzilla movies had followed suit in the same period.

In the 1990s, Power Rangers, which was Americanized from the Super Sentai series, made the shows more palatable to American TV standards by removing the excessive violence, and it differed dramatically from its original version. This is still a highly debated topic even among fans. One particular reason is that some evil kaijin in various tokusatsu are psychotic vicious and unforgiving. Those same monsters that are "adapted" are now depicted as stupid, unintelligent goof-offs to the point that the suit monsters are, to some, "Barney-esque." One victim of this was the warrior Grifforzer (renamed Goldar in Power Rangers). Originally a powerful, threatening figure in his original Japanese incarnation from Kyoryuu Sentai Zyuranger, Goldar became more and more pitiful as the series went on.

Lack of Cultural Identification

Because American audiences did not readily identify with the appearance and culture of east Asian characters, elements were introduced to increase a sense of familiarity. For example, to make the original 1954 Godzilla more palatable to American audiences, actor Raymond Burr was added to help the audience accept the Japanese characters from the original version. In the mid-1960s, Hollywood actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn actually appeared in some of these films alongside the Japanese actors (thanks to the collaboration between Toho and UPA, best known for their animated movies & TV shows like Mr. Magoo). The Gamera films, aimed at children, started to include Caucasian children alongside the Japanese children to appeal to the American market, upon the success of the first Gamera film there. In order to reach the Australian market and particularly the North American market, Tsuburaya Productions co-produced two Ultraman shows starring a multiracial cast. Tsuburaya has been trying to penetrate the North American market for a long time. Later shows such as Power Rangers were completely Westernized to fit mainstream tastes.

A Growing/Divided Fandom

Thanks to the Internet, tokusatsu fandom and acceptance in the United States is growing, slowly but surely. Originally, the only forms of tokusatsu presented the past few decades were either Daikaiju Eiga (specifically Godzilla and Gamera) or Ultraman, it wasn't until the debut of Power Rangers in the 90s where audiences were introduced to other categories of the genre. Despite the intervention of US "adapting" such as the replacement of Japanese actors with American actors or the use of dubbing, many recognized Power Rangers was Japanese due to the obvious use of a different camera. At the time, the camera types and techniques used by America and Japan contrasted a great deal. Japanese footage still had that grainy texture to the footage that was used in the past. Furthermore, the quality of the hero's suits was much higher in Sentai footage , with the spandex costumes being much more vibrant, shining and reflective, unlike the dull and solid color of the American-made costumes. For years, tokusatsu has had fan clubs all across the world, as well as countless dealers and collectors selling merchandise directly from Japan. Imports and illegal bootlegs of Japanese movies & TV shows have become commonplace for fans of the genre. Because of this steadfast phenomenon, the American mainstream has finally started to take notice, especially companies like Sony, Media Blasters and ADV. Although it may not yet have the same level as anime or manga, tokusatsu is just as important and influential to Japanese culture, as well as all of pop culture. Fansubs have also played a significant role in the genres popularity; and like anime, fans began to compare and contrast "adapted" tokusatsu shows, like Power Rangers, to its original Japanese counterpart.

The backlash to this is that many tokusatsu superhero shows are seen as all Power Rangers; even Ultraman is mistaken as a Power Ranger. This is because in Japanese shows the main motif are mufflers/scarves, helmets, and elastane/spandex; however, the same can be said in the US considering heroes over here had capes, masks, and tights. Both sides didn't drop their respective trademarks until later on. Another situation is those who grew up with Power Ranger assume that any superhero tokusatsu can be a Power Ranger spin-off or adapt without the knowledge of content the genre has. This usually results in a mockery of the original product rather than a homage. Many of these disputes resulted in extreme cases of bashing; and because of it, a new rivalry brewed over the years among fans of "adapt" shows (like Power Rangers) and the tokusatsu purists.

Purists claim that shows (like Power Rangers) give tokusatsu a bad reputation and further degrade the Original series they were adapted from. While "adapt" fans argue that the shows are new and innovative and breathes new life into live action TV shows. It came to the breaking point that terms like "Sentai Snob" (now evolved to "Toku Snob"), a term use to describe a hardcore tokusatsu purist believing that "adapts" are nothing but poor imitations and racist; and "PR Snob" (now evolved to "Anti-Sentites"), a term use to describe hardcore "adapt" fans who believe the American products are more creative and innovative than their Japanese counterparts, and many hold the idea that the Japanese material is inferior to its American counterparts. This brand of fandom argument parallels the conflict between "Subbies" and "Dubbies," where two factions argue in anime fandoms about which is better, "English Subtitles" or "English Dubbing." This takes that idea even further. In some cases, other "unrelated" fandoms were dragged into the arguements for no apparent reason.

And with the US adapting even more Japanese franchises (such as Godzilla and The Ring), the argument between the two groups becomes more significant, and emotional. Recently, the announcement of the Magiranger vs. Dekaranger movie using a Power Rangers prop (in this case, Jack Landors' SPD Battlizer from Power Rangers SPD) caused a new, heated debate between the two groups. Furthermore, since Magiranger, there is indication that Toei and Disney are now working side by side and co-producing both Super Sentai and Power Rangers. This gives some alarm to both sides whether or not other tokusatsu genres will be either "adapted" or subbed in the future. Toho has become kind of borderline since the Zilla situation in 1998; however, the company still remains in good terms with Sony, as they released the entire Millennium Godzilla series. Whether or not Toho will allow their Choseishin series (which currently rivals Super Sentai) to come to the states is still unknown. 4Kids's reintroduction to Ultraman angered many older audiences, as many strongly felt they bastardized Ultraman Tiga to the greatest degree (ironically, Tiga was the deemed the most popular of the Heisei Ultra Series during the 90s) and, in addition, many younger audiences continuously mistook the Ultraman in question for a Power Ranger. Meanwhile, with the growing popularity of the New Generation Kamen Rider which now has a growing female demographic along with the young boys demographic; many wonder if Disney will give Maskèd Rider another chance. There was a rumor about Kamen Rider Ryuki being adapted by Disney in 2003, but turned out to be untrue. Ever since Disney's acquisition of Power Rangers from Fox; Ryuki, as well as Hurricanger, served as an introduction to original source material of tokusatsu shows; which intrigued many "adapt" fans. Some of the story writing in toksuatsu could best be described by some viewers as dark-toned which are seen in many animated series like Justice League Unlimited, or as outlandish and cartoon-y like Looney Toons, or even in-between, as was the case in The Incredibles. It's a trademark in tokusatsu to range from too grim to too outlandish; pretty much how anime is looked upon. This further excites some viewers while it disgusts others.

Some new terms have also been developed over the years to separate each type. Feel free to use them.

" * Original Toku(satsu) - This term refers to the original movies & shows that came from Japan.
o Examples: Godzilla, Gamera, Ultraman, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Metal Heroes, Chouseishin Series

* Toku(satsu) Adapts - This term refers to movies & shows that "Americanize" the original Japanese concept.
o Examples: Power Rangers, Saban's Masked Rider, VR Troopers, Big Bad Beetleborgs, Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, etc.
o American-made remakes of Japanese FX movies may fall into this category. Examples: Godzilla (1998), The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004)

And there you have it. I hope you have come out of this article (assuming you're still here!) with a new found knowledge of this genre, and the impact it has on the many countries of the world, even outside of Japan itself. Take care everyone!


  1. Very nice. I felt like I learned more about the franchise than I already know. I might just branch out beyond just watching Super Sentai now. Perhaps Kamen Rider now that Super Hero Taisen is coming out.

  2. Kamen Rider is excellent. I'd get behind that 100%. The earlier showa-era was more "monster of the week" while the more recent heisei-era shows have much deeper plots and entertaining characters.