Friday, April 3, 2009

Toei Tokusatsu Hero Box - Disc 3

(It's that time again! You know you love it!)

As 1975 dawned, the bloom was coming off the rose for the Japanese live action superhero program. The tokusatsu genre didn't disappear by any means, but its popularity was not what it had been only 3 years earlier. Both the Ultraman and Kamen Rider franchises went into dormancy before the end of the year, which surely could have been taken as a signal of the changing times. And yet, it was in this climate that the longest-running tokusatsu series of the decade flourished.

It will pain diehards to realize this, but I'm talking about GANBARE! ROBOKON.

(Before nitpickers bring it up, I am aware of shows like ULTRA FIGHT and REDMAN, but I'm speaking of full-length programs here.)

As hard as it might be to believe for American fans, the 118 episodes of ROBOKON pretty handily outpace KAMEN RIDER (98 episodes), GORANGER (84 episodes), and SPECTRUMAN/SPECTREMAN (63 episodes) for the distinction of most durable tokusatsu show of the 1970s. In fact, it's entirely possible that the series only ended due to a shift at TV Asahi at the time, which led to its replacement by the similar (but much less popular) ROBOT 110BAN. So we're left with the scenario that ROBOKON could have kept going had it not been curtailed by its own network. The mind boggles!

I bring this mini-history lesson up because it's impossible to discuss the third disc of this set without it, as it is almost entirely ROBOKON. Three episodes of the series are shown in the cropped widescreen format, while there is also the original movie ROBOKON NO DAIBOKEN. The latter is definitely the best of the bunch, showing a sense of scale and adventure not usually present in the largely comedic TV series. In fact, I'd rank ROBOKON NO DAIBOKEN as one of Toei's better original tokusatsu efforts for the Manga Matsuri shows.

As far as ROBOKON itself, the program is pretty inexplicable with all of its oversized bizarro robots roaming free. Watching it is probably akin to having your eyes drop acid. I can't rate how "funny" it is, since I think I need more fluency to grasp some of the humor. But hey, there's plenty of physical comedy derived from people in weird outfits.

ROBOKON turned out to be influential in the United States, too! Rock star Beck's music video for his song "Sexx Laws" features a completely unexpected homage to ROBOKON NO DAIBOKEN! I would love to know the full story of how that came about.

Disc 3 is filled out somewhat ironically by AKUMAIZER 3, a series involving heroic demons fighting for mankind. This is the first episode, and is actually more concise and "complete" than KIKAIDER 01's debut in my previous piece on this set. As a result, it's a lot more satisfying viewing. Jiro Chiba stars, but he's not the hero - though this is nothing new for the guy. The fights place a heavier emphasis on fencing than hand-to-hand combat, which adds a unique flavor for Toei. The designs are suitably outlandish, and we get one of those flying galleon ships that are a recurring theme in Japanese sci-fi.

Next time, on Disc 4 (and man, who can guess when that will happen?), we take a look at the artifacts of Toei's late 1970s tokusatsu output.

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