Monday, March 26, 2012

Japanese Superheroes via Taiwan and Thailand

FRANKENSTEINS KUNG-FU MONSTER is, of course, the German-dubbed version of a Taiwan-made Kamen Rider V3 movie where the Riders are renamed “Super Riders” and Riderman is a woman.

It is just as amazing as it sounds.

That was my succinct explanation of this movie here, and it is in no way an exaggeration. Japanese superheroes are already pretty amazing, and when you filter them through Taiwan, they become something even more alien and bizarre than they were in the first place.

The following Japanese/Taiwanese superhero films are documented to exist:

  • Super Riders with the Devil (Krieg der Infras in Germany; incorporates footage from Kamen Rider vs. Shocker and Kamen Rider vs. Jigoku Taishi)

  • Frankensteins Kung Fu Monster (German release title for follow-up Super Rider movie incorporating footage from Kamen Rider V3 vs. Destron Kaijin)

  • Mars Men (Gli Uomini de Marte in Italy; incorporates footage from Jumborg Ace TV series. More on this later.)

  • Mazinger-Z: El Robot del las Estrellas (Spanish title for a movie incorporating footage from the Super Robot Mach Baron series; also known as Roboter der Sterne in Germany. It has no actual connection to Mazinger Z.)

As you can see, though none of these movies ever managed a U.S. release, they all found their way into Europe and possibly South America. I tend to think an eye on the international market may have been the reason for these films existing in the first place. It certainly makes sense, since the movies didn't come into being in a vacuum.

The English language poster for Mars Men from Shochiku clarified this idea for me. Shochiku marketed the film globally, presumably on behalf of Tsuburaya Productions (with whom they had a business relationship). It's not far-fetched to believe that the Taiwan production company(companies) was(were) contracted by the Japanese companies to put together "stand alone" films of ongoing TV properties that could be marketed all over the world.

Think about it. If you're Toei (for example), you have compelling, exciting Kamen Rider movies that might do well overseas. The problem is that they are too short (under an hour) and too dependent on the audience having a knowledge of the characters from TV. Why not work with an independent company that could turn them into something that could be sold in other countries? The investment would be low, and the possible return could more than make up for it.

Certainly, the Super Rider movies alone have a healthy enough costume budget to suggest Toei was partially footing the bill. They also include adaptations of the origins of the characters to establish who they are before getting to the business of splicing in footage of the Rider 35 mm movies. I can't vouch for any new footage in the Jumborg Ace or Mach Baron movies, but they don't exactly look impoverished either. At least, not compared to a movie from Thailand that's relevant to this discussion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to point out that I have never seen the Thai Jumborg Ace movie. However, I have seen 6 Ultrabrothers vs. the Monster Army, the Japanese version of Tsuburaya/Chaiyo's 1974 co-production. Without the SPFX, the movie would be positively dire. It's very telling that it wasn't released in Japan until 1979, during an Ultra boom period.

But the 6 Ultrabrothers clearly did well enough in Thailand to warrant a direct sequel. Only this time, there would be no Ultras (except in stock footage from the previous movie). No, heroic monkey god Hanuman joined forces with a quintet of Kamen Riders in Hanuman and 5 Kamen Riders.

If you've seen the 6 Ultrabrothers movie and not this one, let me assure that the Chaiyo Rider movie is worse. Much worse! Its badness is somewhat astounding and led me to be entertained by it in a perverse way the one and only time I subjected myself to it. It liberally incorporates footage from Five Riders vs. King Dark, and this recycled footage looks remarkably BETTER than the newly-shot surrounding footage. But still, bad, and not recommended to anyone.

The prevailing wisdom on this Chaiyo Rider movie seems to be that they went to Toei, asked for permission, were refused, and then made it anyway. I realize how tempting it is to make it so cut and dried, especially given Chaiyo's subsequent actions, but I wonder. I know this sort of thing went on, as a search for the likes of "3 Dev Adam" and "Turkish Star Wars" will attest. Still, it strikes me as particularly brazen to make an unauthorized Kamen Rider movie - utilizing footage from a legitimate one! - after being denied the rights. It almost crosses over into the improbable, especially when you consider the fact that Chaiyo still had a business relationship with Tsuburaya. Why would they jeopardize it by doing something blatantly illegal?

So maybe they didn't? Up top, I listed the known Taiwanese/Japanese superhero movies. Well, there is one other that is suspected to exist, and it bears the title Karatekas Del Espacio. You can see images from lobby cards for it on this German language message board thread. It is evidently not the Thai film, but rather, a Taiwanese adaptation of Five Riders vs. King Dark!

So hey, suppose for a second Chaiyo didn't approach Toei regarding making a Rider movie? Maybe they instead made a deal with the Taiwan company, and Hanuman and 5 Kamen Riders is instead (loosely) based on Karatekas Del Espacio. That would explain how Chaiyo can still market the movie to this day without Toei suing the pants off them. If you think they wouldn't go after them after the court case involving the Ultras and Jumborg Ace, I have a feeling you are so wrong.

Well, wait, I thought I said that Mars Men was Chinese? It is. But then how did Jumborg Ace figure into the picture with their legal shenanigans against Tsubraya? That's the twist. I believe Yak Wat Jang Wu Jumbo A (the Thai version of Mars Men that really isn't) came first. This is based on Chaiyo's then-strong relationship with Tsuburaya and the fact that the idol in the movie appears in Tah Tien, which is also still available. In fact, Hanuman and Yak Wat Jang even have a team-up movie called The Noble War!

If you're like me, your head is spinning. Essentially, I believe the Hanuman/Rider movie is based on a Chinese Kamen Rider X film which was released somewhere as Karatekas Del Espacio but has not yet reappeared. Meanwhile, Mars Men was constructed in similar fashion based on Yak Wat Jang Wu Jumbo A. Whether this end of the deal was brokered by Tsurburaya or Chaiyo is unknown to me, but Tsuburaya clearly thought enough of Mars Men to attempt to market it outside of Japan.

Confusing? Absolutely! But it just points out the fact that the more we know, the less we really do know. I kind of enjoy untangling the mysteries. And to think, I didn't even mention Space Warriors 2000!

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