By Jerry Hrechka / July 13th, 2015
If you’re like me you probably grew up in the midst of Power Rangers mania and saw a number of its knockoffs. There were a bunch, such as Masked Rider which took footage from Kamen Rider, the original Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, and VR Troopers which took footage from the Metal Heroes series, started by today’s subject: Space Sheriff Gavan. I haven’t seen VR Troopers since I was incredibly little, but I’m going to hazard a guess and say it wasn’t very good. What do you want from me? I was six. Even so, there were things that stuck with me about the series, particularly the outfits.
The Metal Hero series began in 1983 with Space Sheriff Gavan. Commercials for the program boasted having ‘the most up-to-date special effects!’, which might sound like a recipe for aging poorly, but so long as you’re able to accept that everything in the show looks like a toy meant to sell to children, it’s easy to enjoy the aesthetics of the show. The designs are modeled after Robocop, which may seem surprising until you realize that the only thing matching Robocop‘s hyperviolent dystopia is the toyetic nature of the designs. As a result, Gavan himself looks really cool.
If you bright boys and girls at home have been paying attention it won’t surprise you to know that the show is pretty formulaic with an uncomplicated setup. As the title implies, space is involved as the Makuu, who are basically the space mafia, set their sights on Earth. They’re led by the Sinister Don Horror, who may just have the greatest name in mafia history. If Scarface had just called himself Don Horror, he may have been saved a very tragic end. In response, Commander Qom of the Galactic Union Police decides to send the best man for the job. He calls for Gavan, a Space Sheriff who is half-human so he has a personal stake in saving this planet. Gavan isn’t alone, he’s also joined by the Commander’s daughter Mimi who has the ability to create illusions. She can also turn into a bird because hey why not. It’s this set-up that builds on 44 episodes of Gavan fighting against different men in rubber suits and saving the day.
The show boasts its special effects as a feature and it’s actually not as hollow as one would initially think. The series works to put both narrative and visual twists on the standard elements of a toku show. Gavan’s transformation, for example, plays with the format a bit. The idea behind his transformation is that his armor is beamed to him in nanoseconds and the transformation is slowed down for us to see it. It’s a simple gimmick but it’s effective, giving us a window into the way this world works. It makes the soft sci-fi slightly harder by giving us a look into the fictional world’s technology.
There’s also the battles which provide some verve to the show. Most toku shows are usually happy to have battles in generic locales like rock quarries and abandoned warehouses. Gavan goes a little different, as it will have battles in space. Battles in space where Gavan rides a giant robot dragon that shoots lightning out of its mouth, which is one of the most awesome things to have in Japanese television and this is something that includes Kamen Rider and Gundams. The visuals of the show could also be said to be influenced by the seventies’ heavy metal and space rock. The commercial bumpers alone look like they could be the cover of a Hawkwind album. (If you haven’t heard of Hawkwind look them up; don’t worry, I’ll wait.) Things get even more psychadelic when Gavan and the monster of the week go into what’s called the Makuu world. The entire scene is full of bright colors and cosmic imagery that make the battles far more unique and memorable. Even the giant fights have a unique element of memorability to them with Gavan’s dragon mount. Toku shows are very rarely dull but Space Sheriff Gavan provides an extra element of flair.
There are some cracks in the show though. Gavan’s costume is one for example. For the most part, the armor looks genuinely cool in close-ups, being made of light metals and plastics that make it look like genuine battle armor. However, time has not been kind to the battle sequences in some bits where it’s clearly obvious that the suit being worn during stunts is painted spandex. It’s an understandable choice since the actual costume would no doubt have been far too bulky for the stunts they were attempting, but it does reduce a good deal of the costume’s ‘cool’ factor.
Space Sheriff Gavan was successful enough in Japan to inspire the Metal Heroes TV shows which Saban would go on to cannibalize and create VR Troopers. Unlike Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, VR Troopers actually took from at least three different shows in the Metal Heroes series: Superhuman Machine Metalder, Dimensional Warrior Spielban, and Space Sheriff Shaider. While the Metal Hero series ended in 1998, it’s parent company Toei has been eager to reuse its properties. Not only did Space Sheriff Gavan get a revival movie aimed at a more adult audience, but also numerous crossovers with Toei property like Super Sentai. The Gavan movie is… well, honestly it’s pretty terrible. But if Garo doesn’t sate your need for hyperviolent adult-oriented Japanese men in spandex, it might be worth checking out.
While VR Troopers was successful enough to get a few video games, it clearly wasn’t the level of cultural phenomenon that Power Rangers reached. As a result, there’s no immediate way to watch the original series that spawned it. For the morbidly curious though, you can check it out. I’ll be honest that I’m afraid to because my self esteem is awful enough without realizing just how terrible my taste as a seven-year-old was. Space Sheriff Gavan is also frustrating in that it’s even more difficult to track down than most of the shows that I’ve covered on these articles. Finding this series translated proved to be a real chore. Godspeed to those of you who decide to try and track it down, but if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll get a unique toku experience.
Space Sheriff GavanTokusatsuVR Troopers