Monday, June 30, 2014

Ninja Sentai Kakuranger and Journey to the West : a comparative analysis

Ninja Sentai Kakuranger, as a ninja themed sentai with Yokai themed villains, has obviously a Japanese theme. However, it's very striking to notice how Kakuranger has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Indeed, Kakuranger takes a lot of its elements of one of the most important novels of all Chinese literature : Journey to the West.
I must admit that I've not read that major novel and most of my knowledge about the it comes from what I've read on various sites, mostly Wikipedia. However, with that information, I was able to find very striking similarities between Kakuranger and Journey to the West, which i'm gonna detail in that following post :

1) Protagonists

Journey to the West's has four main characters, with very different personalities, who are traveling together on a quest, and must work together to face various obstacles, in order to stay alive for succeeding in their mission. In a sense, Journey to the West can eb seen as an acestor of the "sentai" concept. Those characters are one Buddist monk, who is the wise one, and three disgraced creatures from heaven, who protect him from danger and are his disciples.  Kakuranger's rangers show some similarities, since the leader is a wise princess- like young lady (Tsuruhime) who is helped by a bunch of slacker boys who have to help her in her mission (Sasuke, Seikai, Saizou and Jiraiya).
Except Jiraiya, all the main heroes have a Journey to the West counterpart :

a) Sasuke/Ninja Red and Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) : both are the major characters, arguably the main characters of their respective stories : they are strong, hot blooded, but also wise, and they both are the most important member of the group. Both are arguably the smartest of the group, even if at the start, they are involved in the quest for atoning for a sin ( Sasuke's involvement in the release of the Yokai, and Sun Wukong's various misdeeds in the Heavens). Sasuke is a monkey themed warrior : his mechas are all monkey (or more precisely ape) themed : which indeed fits his Journey to the West counterpart. Sasuke and Sun Wukong also share the ability to clone themselves (even if Sasuke's is just ninjitsu illusion). Sun Wukong and Sasuke both are, among their team, those who are the most able to see through the demonic enemies's deceptions. Sasuke and Sun Wukong  also share character development : they start as pretty medicore character to end up better at the end of the quest.

b) Tsuruhime/Ninja White and Xuanzang : both are the nominal main protagonist of their stories : Tsuruhime is the leader of the Kakurangers, and Xuanzang is the one who receives the mission to go the Dahila Kingdom to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. Since the other heroes of Journey to the West are his disciples, one can argue he is the nominal leader of the group. Both Tsuruhime and Xuanzang are the most virtuous of their group, neither in need for redemption for past sins, or showing sinful tendencies. It's true that they are also very different : Xuanzang is weak, naive and unable to defend himslef while Tsuruhime is skilled in combat and much less naive. However, both need the strength of their companions to face the obstacles in their quest, and defeat the demonic enemies.

c) Seikai/Ninja Yellow and Zhu Bajie : both have pretty much the same flaws: they are lazy, gluttonous and lustful. Indeed, most of the arcs involving both characters in their respective stories involve either their big appetite or their lust towards female characters. Both are also shown to be very strong and able to work a lot if they're motivated enough.

d) Saizou/Ninja Blue and Sha Wujing : both are involved in their mission to atone for a past sin (Saizou releases the Yokai, Sha Wujing for breaking  a vase from heaven). Both are also water themed warriors. However, the similarities pretty stop there, since Sha Wujing is pretty a low profile and polite character, while Saizou is the comic relief butt monkey of the group.

While Jiraiya doesn't have any counterpart, it's interesting to see that the characters both use a vehicle which is actually a supernatural creature : Xuanzang's horse is actually Yulong, a dragon deity while Nekomaru is a sentient  Yokai like cat bus.

2) Supporting characters and antagonists

It's interesting to notice how important deities are in both Journey to the West and Kakuranger : Journey to the West involves the Buddha and gods from the Buddhist and Taoist pantheon, while Kakuranger has its own pantheon, the Sanshinshou, three gods. In both cases, they are important guides for the main character's quest, and they are involved in helping the characters in their quest.

The antagonists of both Kakurangers and Journey to the West are "demons" supernatural beings who want to destroy the main characters for their purposes. In fact, Journey to the West, with its use of plenty of different demons that are eventually defeated by the protagonists, are pretty much an early instance of the "Monster of the week" theme seen in toku, and notably Super Sentai (including Kakuranger). Kakuranger's Yokai and Journey to the West's demons are both based on natural creatures or elements, often animals (most of Journey to the West 's demons are animal themed, while a lot of Kakuranger's Yokai are as well) and both usually disguise themselves as humans to deceive the protagonists. When the heroes face the demons, they are often involved in helping other people from the demons's misdeeds. Some of them show either appetite or lust towards either Xuanzang or Tsuruhime.

3) Storyline and themes

Journey to the West's main quest has two main aims : by retrieving the Buddhist scrolls, Xuanzang hopes to bring back some spirituality in a sinful and materialistic world and his three companions hope to find redemption by helping him. Kakuranger also has as a theme the way the world became too materialistic and mediocre, with today's youth more interested in slacking and messing around than being brave and virtuous. Indeed, Sasuke and Saizou are pretty much flawed characters at the beginning, and they are easily tricked by the Yokai into opening the cave where they were sealed. As such like Su Wukong and his companions, Sasuke and Saozou are forced to fight with a virtuous figure (Tsuruhime) to find their redemption and fix their mistakes. While Kakuranger is more about defeating Yokai, one key arc of Kakuranger also involved retrieving sacred scrolls, the Shinobi scrolls, which are very important to their quest. Journey to the West has the characters travelling trhough Asia, confronting demons as trials in order to fulfill their quest and find the scrolls. Likewise, the Kakuranger are also travelling through Japan, fighting Yokai.
At the end of the Journey, all characters find some enlightenment and have improved comapred to the beginning of the story. And both Journey to the West and Kakuranger have anothe rbig theme in common: the importance of being together to accomplish stuff that couldn't be done if all protagonists were by themselves.
Another important element is the prominence of comedy : both Kakuranger and Journey to the West have a lot of comedic elements, usually related to the main character's flawed behaviour.

I know that this analysis is flawed, because of my limited knowledge of Journey to the West, but even with the few elements I know, the similarities between both works of fiction were enough to be worthwhile of a blog post.
Your thoughts (especially from those who have read Journey to the West)?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Himitsu Sentai Gorenger : the one which started it all : a review after 24 episodes

1975 April the 5th : the first episode of Himitsu Sentai Gorenger airs in NET (which would become TV Asahi), and it's the start of the one of the most successful (if not the most successful) tokusatsu franchises ever : the Super Sentai franchise (while, until Ohranger aired, Battle Fever J was officially  the first Super Sentai franchise, Gorenger and JAKQ would be retroactively added, and anyway, Gorenger was the series which introduced almost all the core elements of the sentai franchise), which involved a team of heroes (usually five) who transform into colored suits which enhance their fighting abilities,  to protect the world against evil doers.

Since Gorenger is currently being subbed, I'm currently watching it, and so far I've watched 24 episodes and a movie. Here is my review of what I've watched so far.

1) Plot

The Black Cross army plan to destroy humanity and conquer the world. The International Secret Defense Organization EAGLE is created to counter them, but after a surprise attack from the Black Cross Army, five of their branches are attacked and every member of each them is killed except one. Those five survivors gather together, under the command of Commander Gonpachy Edogawa, and become the Secret Task Force Gorenger, in order to stop the evil plots of the Black Cross Army.
And... that's pretty all you need to know about the plot. Gorenger is an episodic show, and each episode is about the Gorenger stopping the evil plans of the Black Cross Army.
While there have been a few arcs here and there, notably the Atlantis arc (a three episode arc involving the Black Cross Army finding an ancient blimp and using it for their attacks) and , in a lesser way, the five first episodes, which involved each of the operatives who destroyed each ranger's former branch, most episodes are self contained stories.

2) Heroes and their allies 

2-1) Heroes

The Gorengers are part of a huge defense organization, EAGLE. Their headquarters are hidden underground, underneath a curry bar, the Snack Gon, which serves as a front. They are secret spies within the military.
They are able to transform into the Goranger by jumping and shouting "GO". Each suit has a specific color (Red, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Green), with a specific number of red (except for Aka, who has a yellow one) stripes. Their helmets have a black visor (except Aka's blue one and Momo's red one) and a number matching the number of stripes in the suit. The visor is themed after each hero's weapon. They wear either black (Ao, Mido and Ki) or white boots (Aka, Momo). The heroes are named after their color (the color name being in Japanese (an unique case in the sentai franchise, which usually uses English for the colors)) and each one is basically "colorrenger). The Gorenger have a roll call, each one using their name, and, at the end, all come together and Akarenger says "Gonin sorote" (the five united) and, with the others, "Gorenger"

a) Tsuyoshi Kaijo/ Akarenger : the leader of the Gorenger, he worked at the Kanto Eagle branch before its destruction by the Black Cross Army attack, during which he lost his brother. He has a red suit with one yellow stripe and his helmet has the n°1. He is a very professional leader, who can be harsh when he sees his subordonates not behaving in a profesional way. He's a skilled  fighter, and his signature weapon is the Red Byute, a whip (his visor is themed after it), which he uses to attack the Black Cross Army fighters and commanders. He's also the one who finishes the Gorenger Storm Attack, which destroys the Black Cross operative.  While he's usually a very serious leader, he is also able to relax and tease his teammates. 

b) Akira Shinmei/ Aoranger (played by the legendary Hiroshi Miyauchi) : the second in command, he worked at the Touhoku EAGLE branch before its destruction by the Black Cross Army. he has a blue suit with two red stripes, and his helmet has the n°2. He's the main one involved in piloting the EAGLE airship, the Variblune, and he cares a lot about it (for example, when the Variblune was stolen by the Black Cross army, he did everything to take it back). He's also a very skilled archer, and his signature weapon is the Blue Archery, a bow : his arrows almost  always hit their target. As expected, his visor is themed after a bow/arrow. While he's as professional as Red, he has a more relaxed attitude, and loves teasing his comrades, especially Daita/Kirenger. 

c) Daito Oiwa/Kirenger : a strong young man from the Kyushu EAGLE branch, he's pretty much the comic relief of the group. He wears a yellow suit with three red stripes, and his helmet has the n°3.  He's a big eater, and especially loves the curry rice from the Snack Gon, eating several large servings of it, often to the dismay of the Commander (who's also the Snack GOn cook). His huge appetite often amazes his comrades. He's not very smart, and has trouble finding the answers of the many riddles young Taro (see below) asks him. However, he's skilled in mechanics. He's also very hot blooded, often rushing into combat before thinking ahead. He's also very strong, using his body and his wrestling skills as a weapon  (his visor has a straight line shape , without any obvious theme).

d) Peggy Matsuyama/Momorenger: the lone woman of the group, she was from the Hokkaido EAGLE Branch before its destruction. She wears a pink suit with four red stripes and her helmet has the n°4. She's a skilled chemist, and she's specialized in explosives, as seen when she modifies the Gorenger Storm to increase its explosive power, or when she desactivates time bombs. Explosives are her signature weapon, as her earrings are bombs which she sends to her enemies. Her visor has a red hear theme, the same as her earrings. She also uses a mirror as a weapon when necessary. Peggy is as skilled in combat as her male counterparts, and is as professional and level headed as Aka and Ao.  She's also the one who starts the Gorenger Storm attack, sending the ball to her teammates.

e) Kenji Asuka/Midorenger : he's the youngest of the team, and comes from the Kansai EAGLE branch. He wears a green suit with five red stripes, and his helmet has the n°5. While he's dedicated to the fight, he's also able to make mistakes because of his hot-blooded attitude, which makes it being vulnerable to the enemy. His signature weapon is the Midomerang, a boomerang that is also his visor's shape.

2-2) Allies and arsenal

The Gorengers's commander is Gonpachy Edogawa. He's a no-nonsense general, who knows how to command his men and guide them. He's the heroes's mentor and he's very appreciated by his men. He's also the cook at the Snack Gon, and his signature dish is the curry rice. He's often forced to cook a lot of it, because of Kiranger's big appetite.
The heroes are also helped by a group of female spies, Yoko Kato  (Agent 007), Tomoko Hayashi (Agent 008), and Haruko Nakamura  (Agent 009), who assist the heroes whenever they can, notably by seeking info about the Black Cross Army's plans. Yoko has a  little brother Taro, who loves making riddles to Kirenger. Yoko deeply loves her brother, and the Black Cross army once used her brother as an hostage to force her to spy for them. The Gorenger are also helped by the different Eagle Branches in Japan, and by spies who try to get info from the Black Cross Army, often at the price of their lives.
The heroes also have vehicles, like the Gorenger machines, three motorbikes : the Red Machine, driven by Akaranger, and two motorbikes with sidecars : the Blue Machine,  driven by Aorenger, with Kirenger in the sidecar and the Green Machine, driven by Midorenger, with Momorenger in the sidecar.
Of course, their most important machine is the Variblune, a big aircraft propelled by helicopter blades, and which is equipped by different devices, like the Crane to seize big objects, a big aspiring tube to get people into it, and of course, explosive weapons to fight the enemies.
The heroes are also able to fly using the Birdie, rockets which are at the sides of the Gorenger's belts.
Their finishing attack is the Gorenger Storm, a explosive soccer-like ball, which Momorenger sends to her teammates, which pass it to each other. At the end, Akarenger recives the ball, who becomes spiked and sends it to the Black Cross operative which explodes after being hit by it.

3) Villains

The Black Cross Army is a secret evil organization which aims to conquer the wolrd and destroy humanity. Its leader is the Black Cross Fuhrer, a mysterious figure in a Ku Klux Klan-like  white robe and hood (starting with episode 20, his hood let see part of his head, which looks black with yellow glowing eyes. He's a cruel leader, who only wants to see destruction and death in order to take over the world. He hates the Gorenger for foiling his plans, and is very harsh towards his generals for their failures, notably when he threatened with death Sun Halo Mask after his failures, forcing him into making a final life-or death plan to destroy the Gorenger.
The main operatives of the Black Cross Army are called "Masks", and are pretty much robotic like monsters, which have a mask which has  a specific theme (like an object, for example a Iron ring, a sword, a gear, a skull, a razor a gas mask, hair, or sometimes, stuff like snake (Poison fang mask) a witch theme,  a rainbow, or a crescent moon.) Each of those operative usually only lasts one episode, and is destroyed by the Gorenger Storm.
The Black Cross Army also have commanders in chief, who have also a similar design. Two of them have been shown so far, Sun Halo Mask, a general with a red sun themed mask, who was involved in the African branch of the Black Cross army. He often uses backhanded tactics, like his final arc involving pretending to be betrayed by the Black Cross Army to lead the Gorenger into a trap, taking advantage of their honorable feelings, even toward an enemy. Sun Halo Mask stayed during 6 episodes (15-20) before being killed by the Gorenger storm after an epic fight against Akarenger.
The second commander is Iron Man Mask General Temujin, a general who was involved in the Gobi desert branch of the Black Cross Army. A dangerous general, who is careful not to underestimate the Gorenger, his intro arc was the big Atlantis plan, which lasted three episodes, and showed him as a skilled enemy.
Lastly, the Zolders are the Black Cross Army faceless black clad footsoldiers, who are the main workers and combattants against the Gorenger and their allies, and as assistants to the different operatives.
The Black Cross Army uses very cruel and vicious plans for world domination : those plans often involve :
- Building or stealing weapons of mass destruction in order to kill all humans, or at least EAGLE operatives or the Gorengers
- Discovering EAGLE headquarters, especially the Gorenger's base in order to destroy it
- In order to obtain weapons, their plans often involved kidnapping scientists who are able to build those weapons.
- the Black Cross Army often uses hostages for their goals, notably children ( like Yoko's brother or the scientists's kids) and they can even brainwash people into becoming fighter for them (notably, with Cyclops brainwashing children into becoming Black Cross fighters).
While their plans are eventually foiled by the Gorenger, the Black Cross Army's plans has however often some success,  successfully stealing dangerous weapons and destroying many EAGLE branches with killing many people ( the first episode being a good example). In a lot of cases, the Gorenger are only barely able to stop the Black Cross Army's evil plans.

4) Final Thoughts

Gorenger was the first sentai show, and, with the exception of the big robot part of the franchise (which was introduced in Battle Fever), was pretty much the series which brought together most of the core elements of the sentai franchise : the colored suits, with each ranger having a personal weapon, the roll call, the heroes's headquarters, the enemy group with the  mooks and Kaijin of the week  (which concepts mostly came from the previous Ishinomori toku shows, notably Kamen Rider : the Black Cross Army is very similar to groups like Shocker or Destron). While Gorenger didn't have any big robot, it however had the big machine, the Variblune.

Gorenger is a very episodic show, with each plot involving the Gorenger stopping a Black cross Army evil plot. The show has a Spy/Military theme, and most of the episodes focus on stories involving the Gorenger at work, escorting and protecting scientists or weapons, or trying to stop the Back Cross army from using powerful weapons and destroy Japan.   The show has a lot of emphasis on action, with a lot of fight scenes, which are usually very well done. The episode as such are often very fast paced, and as such, the show avoids being boring. One very interesting element is that the Gorenger often struggle in their missions and the Black Cross Army is able to have at least temporary victories. For example, they are often able to steal dangerous weapons from the EAGLE, or successfully kidnap scientists involved in making weapons, or get some info about EAGLE. A striking example is how Iron man Mask Tenmujin managed to get the Atlantis warship despite the Gorenger's best efforts. Sometimes, the heroes themsleves commit mistakes, like when Aka is deceived by Sun Halo Mask in episode 20, or Mido losing the very item he was supposed to protect because of his hotbloodedness, or Kiranger eating curry rice left for him by the enemy, and thus falling into a trap.  As such, a lot of episodes show the Gorenger trying to stop the Black Cross Army and when they fail, try again, learn from their mistakes and finally defeat the operative of the day. The episodes usually ends with the operative being surrounded by the Gorenger, who make their roll call, and, after a fight involving the mooks, the Gorenger kill the operative using the Gorenger storm. As such, the Gorenger are shown as strong, badass, and eventually saving the day, but often not without trouble, and the Black Cross Army is often shown to be a very dangerous enemy who is able to inflict a lot of damage before being at last defeated. That gives a real sense of danger, and the Gorenger avoid being boring invincible heroes.

The heroes and their helpers are pretty well done, with each hero having a distinctive personality, and all of them are very likable. The supporting cast is pretty good too. An interesting element of Gorenger is how the shows makes the heroes interact with each other, taking advantage of their different personalities : the interactions with Aoranger and Kiranger are very fun to see because of Ao's "cool" attitude is the perfect foil to Ki's comedic personality. Gorenger has a lot of scenes showing two rangers working together at the same time, which allows not only to focus on the characters, but also on their interactions. Several episodes allows most of the rangers to have at least one or two scenes focusing on them, which shows that all characters are seen as equally  important, even when they don't have the most focus. A nice touch in Gorenger is having a female heroine (Peggy) treated as a complete equal to her male counterparts. Peggy was one of the first toku heroines, and she's very well done, a badass character who is to be taken very seriously. Having her being an explosive expert makes her a very valuable asset to the team, especially given how much bombs and explosive are used both by heroes (most notably the Gorenger storm) and villains. It was pretty remarkable at that time.

The villains, while effective, are pretty one dimensional, and aren't very interesting. They are pretty typical 70's toku villains, very similar to those seen in previous shows, like Kamen Rider's Shocker. However, a distinctive element is the fac they're usually themed after objects, and their design is often pretty over the top.
Gorenger has a military/spy theme, and it uses it pretty well, but also doesn't forget it's a show targeted for kids. As such, while the show doesn't hesitate to show death and destruction, it has mostly a light hearted tone, with plenty of comic relief ( involving notably Kirenger and Taro), and fun interactions between the heroes. Having a regular kid character (Taro, Agent OO7's little brother) allows young children to have a character to relate with. That light hearted tone can also be seen with the villains, who despite being often very dangerous, have a pretty silly and over the top design, with the classic evil laugh and over the top speech.

All in all Gorenger is a good show, especially since it pretty much built a lot of the basic Super Sentai concepts, but remains a very formulaic show.However, it was a great start to a franchise that would find its peak in quality in the following years.