A lot of people know what Super Sentai is, even if they don’t. When I first saw Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which would be when it arrived in the UK in the early nineties, when I was a little too old to enjoy it and still be cool (luckily, I was never cool) I was one of a much smaller group of people who already knew what Super Sentai was, though back then, I didn’t know it was called that.
I was kind of an early adopter of the whole “liking things from Japan” craze – I’ll explain the whole deal later, probably in something about Mazinga Z. But when Power Rangers arrived on UK TV, I could say “hey, this is a more contemporary version of those Japanese TV shows which are like anime but live action – I had some toys of these guys years ago, and I always wanted to watch them for real!” – and I did say that. I remember being a little disappointed that Power Rangers wasn’t just the actual Japanese show dubbed into English, but I watched anyway, because the action sequences were exactly that and, lest we forget, they are great. They have this mad inventiveness, a unique kinetic language drawing from samurai drama, giant robot anime and monster movies, and wonderful, balletic choreography that outclassed anything on Western TV, even if that TV was made for adults and specifically about martial arts.
This is a long road to saying that many years, in fact decades later, you and I can watch Super Sentai – the whole, unexpurgated, magical TV series that provides the action, robots, and idiosyncratic monsters to Power Rangers to this day. These shows are on Japanese TV on Sunday mornings, alongside some other, similar series like Kamen Rider, in a block called Superhero Time. Super Sentai is for kids aged from about six to twelve, while Kamen Rider seems to skew a little bit older. Roughly each year there is a new Super Sentai series, and a new Kamen Rider: The way Japanese programming blocks work is that rather than having strict seasons like the US, or short runs like in the UK, Japanese TV runs and runs, receiving orders for blocks of new episodes as long as the ratings support it and the slot is available. The adventures of each Super Sentai team tend to last 50 – 80 episodes; so 25 minutes every Sunday for more than a year. When I watch a Sentai show I am constantly reminding myself “they put out this show, almost every episode of which has a fight scene better than the average Hollywood action movie, a set piece with some wobbly CG propping up a wild, expansive idea, and a thematic pivot point that ranges from He-Man outro moralising at worst to genuine pathos at (shockingly common) best, and they do it Every Week For A Year”. If there was a TV show that truly captured the energy of superhero comics it wouldn’t be Agents of Shield or the Arrowverse, it would be this.
With all this in mind, and as a taster for the fact that I shall inevitably talk about this kind of thing again on this site, here are some thoughts on Kishinryuu Sentai Ryuusouljer – which is translated in the subtitles I’m watching as “Dinosaur Dragoon Ryusouljer”, or by my more primitive Japanese as “Dragon Knight Squadron Dragon Souljer”. I like Dragoons and alliteration, so I’m happy with the pro translation.
1. Super Sentai is For The Kids
If you grew up during an era that had war comics and sugar stick cigarettes and Han shooting first, you may feel that kids’ media of today is more sanitised, and less suffused with tasty peril than in the Good Old Days. If this is you, and you want to consume kids’ media with a tangible feeling of danger in it, please allow me to introduce you to Japan, where plentiful peril can be found on children’s TV at 7am.
As an example of this tonal weirdness (and SPoiLERs) in the first episode, we are introduced to three characters who all die, or more precisely, are killed by the enemy. Two of them jump in front of a Godzilla’s atomic fire breath to shield their young students, and are incinerated. The students, our main characters – the power rangers, if you will – cry. Meanwhile the Red Ryuusouljer (the red one is always nearly always the main protagonist) and his teacher fight a Tank Bloke, and Master Red throws himself under Tank Bloke’s sword to prevent the execution of RyuuRed. Master Red dies, and his soul is transferred into a little plastic t-rex. Red cries.
…It’s for kids!
2. Pretty Guardians
If you have met me in the IRL, you know that I’m a cryer. So those three that died saving their young friends? They are the cast of 2003s live-action Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon (which is wonderful). Master Pink is Japanese Peter Parker Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon herself. Dead. Master Blue is the actor who played Tuxedo Mask. Dead. Master Red? He was the young lad who worked at the magic karaoke booth and adored his pet turtle and fell in love with my fave Sailor Scout, Jupiter. Me: CRIES EMOJI THREE TIMES.
3. Spoiling the Moment
Shouting stuff out as one transforms or summons a fiery blade of justice is basically all of Japanese media’s whole jam. In Super Sentai, they have little Greek theatre call-and-response honorifics when they transform, I love it. However.
In this one, which due to the third law of Super Sentai construction – all Sentai shows shall have one element of their theme which seems kind of random – there’s a sort of Spanish Latin samba thing going on(?), and when they henshin it says “QUE BON! RYUU SO COOL!”
So when honourable sensei our-big-brother, Turtle-Guy breathes his last breath, perishing under the sword of his ancient enemy, RyuuRed will not tolerate these evil deeds for a further second. His soul roars with righteous vengeancQUE BON! RYUU SO COOL!
4. Dancing Robots
Whatever the Ryuusouljer mecha is called, it seems considerably more nimble a costume than previous Super Sentai mecha (I don’t say Zords, fight me). Usually, when the main robot jumps or dodges, we get a very obvious transition from the costume to CG – here, the robot suit is doing wire work, and it looks really cool. Also, I’ll just pop it here since it doesn’t merit a bullet point – the suit actors are integrating some nice western fencing moves into their sword play because Super Sentai is great, and these guys work so hard every single week to make the fight scenes incredible.
So far, so Super Sentai. These shows fit into three categories for me usually – the ones I fall in love with (Magiranger, ToQger, Gokaiger) the ones that just don’t do it for me (GoOnjer, Kyuuranger) and the ones that hit all the Sentai notes, but don’t grab me full force. But they could be growers. This could be a grower.
Translators Note: Tokusatsu Tonkatsu means Special Effects Breaded Pork.