By Jerry Hrechka / March 6th, 2015
If you’re a visitor on this site you’re probably a fan or at least are aware of anime. What you might be less aware of is tokusatsu. You may think the only live-action things Japan creates are bizarre game shows and freakish horror movies. No, there’s also tokusatsu often called ‘toku’ by fans. Toku technically refers to any live action production with special effects like Gojira or Ringu but more often it’s used to refer specifically to live-action superhero shows. Some have even made their way to the west, such as Ultraman or Super Sentai (heavily edited and rechristened Power Rangers here). For our first article on the subject, we’re going to ease you into it with something familiar: Spider-man.
It’s safe to say that Spider-man is a popular character. You could even make the argument he’s one of the most important characters of the twentieth century. Co-creator Stan Lee saw the potential of the character and was doing his best to see his creation on screen productions. It may be easy to forget what a daunting task this was before the days of superhero-saturated Hollywood films. Despite a short-lived series on CBS it wouldn’t be until the Sam Raimi Spider-man film that everyone’s favorite webhead would become a screen success.
In America anyways.
In Japan, Marvel tried to push their brands onto foreign markets by working with Japanese media company Toei to create a tokusatsu series — live action special effects-heavy shows — surrounding their property. A series featured around Captain America ended up being retooled in the multinational series Battle Fever J with five representatives of different nations forming the team. Captain America became Miss America and the show was made to be a part of the decades-spanning Super Sentai franchise which later became the basis for the Power Rangers franchise. Spider-man himself received a fifty episode series loosely — and I really do need to emphasize ‘loosely’ — based on the original comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
The hero of this story isn’t puny Parker who wouldn’t know a waltz from a cha-cha but brash motorcycle racer Takuya Yamashiro. The show begins with Takuya’s father investigating a crash-landing UFO and is killed. The UFO also brings the interest of Professor Monster and his Iron Cross Army.
Takuya decides to investigate the site of his father’s death and discovers the crashed starship Marveller — I guess the ship was christened by Stan the Man himself. On the ship he finds the warrior Garia who is the last of his kind from the planet Spider. No, that’s not a joke. Garia explains that he was hunting down Professor Monster, who is the one who wiped out Spider’s inhabitants. Now that he’s mortally wounded though, he needs a successor. He injects Takuya with his spider-blood as well as giving him a bracelet that creates his costume, gives him his web powers, and controls the spaceship Marveller.
Oh, and did I mention that Marveller turns into a giant robot?
Yes, Supaidaman made history in the toku genre by having the first giant robot. The move clearly worked as giant robots soon became a necessary aspect of the Super Sentai series. Spider-man had the ability to call the Marveller and change it into a giant robot called the Leopardon. Why a leopard you ask? To which I say “Pish tosh, giant robots are fun and don’t need to explain themselves to you.” Unfortunately for the Leopardon, the suit was destroyed and Toei did not have the money to replace it. As a result, Toei ended up constantly reusing the footage they had of Leopardon hurling his massive sword, which would always fell the monster. To this day, Leopardon still remains canonically the most powerful giant robot Toei has created.
It’s that kind of power that Takuya took upon himself in his battle against Professor Monster to become…
I tell ya, that dialogue right there puts American comic books right in their place.
From then on, the show is episodic — as pre-DVD television tends to be — with Professor Monster cooking up new monsters and ways to defeat Spider-man, who ends up defeating them. If you’re wondering how it stacks up against the original comics coming out at the time… well, it really doesn’t. Those comics are classics for very good reasons, consisting of some of the best stories sequential art has given us. And while it is ambitious, the show is formulaic and runs on so low a budget it couldn’t even replace the previously-mentioned robot suit. Even so, it’s a lot of fun and worth watching for the impressive stunts alone. Spider-man’s suit actor Hirofumi Koga manages to imbue Spider-man with a spider-like motion that invokes images of artists like Ditko or Todd McFarlane at their best. And compared to the recent Marc Webb movies that have just been rebooted again, it might as well be Seven Samurai.
Perhaps the best part is anyone curious can watch it completely legally on Marvel’s website. If you have a few nights to put aside and Breaking Bad is getting too depressing, it’s a fun time.
Unfortunately for Toei, Takuya will probably never see the screen again as Marvel owns the rights. With the multinational success that recent movies have given Spider-man, it’s unlikely that Marvel will relent, for fear of having a competing Spider-man. While Toei owns the rights to Leopardon and the villains that appeared in the show, Takuya Yamashiro is the property of Marvel.
Fortunately that isn’t exactly the end for Japan’s Spider-man. In 2014, The Amazing Spider-man comic series featured a sprawling story entitled Spider-verse by Dan Slott and Oliver Copiel. In it, the Inheritors — villains that feed off of the life force of superheroes associated with animals — began going across dimensions to kill every single Spider-man — or Spider totems — in existence. It’s a fun but unremarkable story noted mostly for the intense amount of fanservice with all the different versions of Spider-man that end up appearing. Observant readers will know what this means.
Spider-verse is the first and so far only story to acknowledge the existence of Takuya Yamashiro, the Japanese Spider-man. (One of numerous Spider-men, as we find out in the comics) His appearance is thrilling, but unfortunately cut short as the inheritors’ leader Solus tore the Leopardon down before it could get out its lethal single throw. It might not be enough for diehard fans of the Japanese show, but it’s still pretty cool that the character made enough of an impact for him to show up in the original source material.
While it will probably only be regarded as an oddity in America, Supaidaman had an undeniable effect on TV. Beyond that, it’s just a lot of fun. If you’re curious and don’t mind a drastically different version of the webslinger you’re used to, you should check it out.