Toku-talk: Jetman: The Power Rangers That Almost Was

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

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Choujin Sentai Jetman

Once you hear the theme song, it will never get out of your head.

While many associate the beginning of Power Rangers with Zyuranger for obvious reasons, the show didn’t just sprout out of that one show alone. Haim Saban was trying to make the project work for years. When he was finally getting it off the ground, he was considering the Super Sentai show that preceded Zyuranger before finally deciding to wait on that one. The show he turned down was Choujin Sentai Jetman.

It’s easy to see why Saban ended up choosing Zyuranger over Jetman. The presence of dinosaurs alone provides a universal level of assured toy sales. Everybody loves dinosaurs. Beyond that Jetman is bizarre even for toku shows. Not necessarily bizarre because of weird monsters or plot twists, though it never lacks for those. No, the things that make Jetman such a weird show come from its odd blend in tones. This show gets oddly dark for a children’s show while at other times it engages in a disarming level of wackiness. Not only does that make it odd but even rarer is that it is one of the most openly romantic shows in the history of Super Sentai.

As the things sometimes happen, Earth is invaded not simply extraterrestial aliens, but extra-dimensional ones. The War Party Vyram, led by Count Radguet, has come to take over Earth. Fortunately, the international military force know as Sky Force has been forming a new defense force called Jetman, thanks to the discovery of Birdonic waves. Commander Aya goes out to find a team of five people who resonate right with the Birdonic waves to create a team of superheroes to repel the invasion. The team consists of the straight-laced war hero Ryu who becomes Red Hawk, the goofy farmer Raita who becomes Yellow Owl, the sweet and sheltered Kaori who becomes White Swan, the cheerful and rebellious high school student Ako who becomes Blue Swallow, and Black Condor Gai who is JUST THE GODDAMN WORST!

Choujin Sentai Jetman

Oh Gai, I hate you. I hate you so so much.

As I said, this show gets pretty dark. And it doesn’t wait to do it either. The first episode features Ryu’s fiancee Rie dying thanks to the invasion of the Vyram. It’s a surprising move which also sets up a good deal of the overarching ideas of Jetman which are a mix of war drama, soap opera, and high-concept science fiction. The show is surprisingly heavy on the military aspect with Ryu often playing the role of a commander who has to get a bunch of civilians in line with mixed results. That’s not even getting into the long-running romantic triangle between Gai, Ryu, and Kaori which just brings the entire show down.

I have no problem with romance in my superhero stories. To the contrary, removing romance from superhero stories would strip them of a very important aspect of life that resonates with all of us. So, I welcome the idea of teammates finding love and companionship together. I just ask the characters be likable and for god’s sake at least give us some reason to see why characters would be attracted to each other.

Choujin Sentai Jetman

I love these uniforms though

Ryu himself tries to have nothing to do with this so he’s automatically my favorite character in this dramafest. He seems to be trying to move on and process the fact that his fiancee is dead and focus on saving the world. Kaori fares a little less better, holding a torch for Ryu which, while not in the best taste, is understandable. This is a bit iffy, but I suppose we could garnish some good drama out of that.

Then there’s Gai.

Gai is nominally the ‘bad boy’ of this group of Sentai. Hey, that’s fine. Everyone likes Vegeta and Wolverine, right? The trouble is when done wrong, a gruff loner character can stop being someone who is brusque but still someone you respect and even want to be, but rather be all the worst aspects of ideas of masculinity. Gai is most definitely that. There are plenty of elements on their own that wouldn’t be a problem. Gai is a hard-drinking, smoking, saxophone-playing, leather jacket wearing tough guy. Those are pretty cool things, even if we want to make arguments about whether or not children’s shows are a good place to extol the virtues of alcohol and tobacco. Other things could be fine, such as his crush on Kaori or his rivalry with Ryu. Part of the problem is that there’s never any reason for us to see why Gai hates Ryu. Ryu isn’t even that much of a hardass as team leader, so Gai’s opposition to anything Ryu said just comes out feeling as passive-aggressive. There’s also how he treats Kaori who he supposedly has a crush on. He constantly berates her for her feelings for Ryu, sexually assaults her, and on occasion even commits physical violence on Ryu for being Kaori’s object of affection. Seriously, Gai is just the worst. However, he still remains a fan favorite among many Super Sentai fans, so if passive aggressive whining and sexual assault sound like your kind of hero, you’ll love Gai. Enjoy your shit taste.

It may seem like I’m really hard on this show, which is because I am. Despite the awful and ever-present romance, there’s a lot to like about this show. Raita and Ako, despite not getting enough time — and Raita also briefly getting sucked into that damnable love triangle — are really fun characters. Ryu is an admirable character, Kaori gets some moments, and Gai even gets a few moments where I didn’t absolutely loathe him. If you can work past the awful romance, there’s some good appeal in the character drama.

Jetman’s also remarkable in how dark it gets in places, not simply on the concepts of violence and gore which are merely shocking for the fact of being in a show for tiny babies, but also on the level of personal drama. Characters in this show experience PTSD, anxiety, and even complete mental breakdowns. These issues aren’t handled in the best way possible, but they are dealt in humanizing and sympathetic ways. The effects often go for more creepy and surprisingly work due to — rather than in spite of — them being cheap as hell. Despite a good deal of goofy monsters, the show really does manage to create tension of the world being in danger.

If I were to be asked the prime reason, that would be the villains. Jetman’s villains are tons of fun. They manage to toe the line of being genuinely menacing while still being villains in a kids show and even evolve over time, adding to the soap opera elements of Jetman in a positive way. They even serve as foils for the main three Jetman crew without simply feeling like evil versions of the team. There is of course the leader Radiguet, who maintains a tenuous command of his team of generals, the mysterious and beautiful Maria, and the evil robot Grey. Grey in particular is my favorite, bringing a level of personality to an evil robot you usually don’t see. Most evil robots tend to be focused on cold logic and disregarding emotion as inefficient, but Grey is a bit different. He actually actively enjoys human art and culture, even fine cuisine and wine. He acknowledges the value of humans even as he works to dominate them, which makes his arc as well as his rivalry with Gai all the more fascinating.

How much you enjoy Jetman ultimately comes down to how much crap you’re willing to sift through to get to some gold. When this show’s good, it’s quality kids TV. When it’s bad, it’s absolute rubbish. Still, if you enjoy your Sentai a little less sentai and a little more soap opera than usual, then this might be the show for you.

Still though, Gai is the fucking worst.

About Jerry Hrechka

Jerry Hrechka is a writer and journalist. He was born in the Catskill mountains and now resides in Georgia, still trying to work out how exactly that happened. His work can also be found on nerdstock.com as well as on his horror podcast 1001 Frights.