Japanese, 1978, Superhero/Science-Fiction/Tokusatsu/Drama, created by Saburo Yatsude and produced by Susumu Yoshikawa, Toei. Starring Shinji Todo, Rika Miura, Izumi Oyama, Yoshiharu Yabuki, Mitsuo Ando, and Yukie Kagawa.
Konichiwa, everybody! It’s time to get a little bit politically-incorrect on the CINEMATIC CALAMITY as this week, for my long-awaited return to movie/TV reviews after a month-long hiatus, I will sink my teeth into a Japanese take on an American superhero… You see, in the 1970s, Spider-Man was so popular that Japanese audiences were desperate for their own take on the wallcrawling webslinger clad in the red, white and blue of the American flag. Now, at the time, Spidey had his own (horrible) live-action series on ABC, The Amazing Spider-Man starring Nicholas Hammond, but Japan’s own tradition of tokusatsu (live-action) superhero dramas with dark themes and big-budget special effects would’ve contrasted terribly with the ridiculous, slow-paced and often saccharine USA series. So instead, Toei Entertainment took advantage of a 3-year licensing agreement with Marvel Comics and produced its own show, which was more, well, Japanese, replete with the little idiosyncrasies and special gimmicks that make anime, manga and tokusatsu seem so bizarre and obtuse to Western eyes.
“Supaidaman”, as this series is often nicknamed, borrows heavily from Super Sentai (adapted as Power Rangers in Western markets), and from Kamen Rider (a show about a superhero motorcyclist who fights criminal organisations): it has all the VFX pizzazz of the former, and all the darkness, drama, violence and motorbikes of the latter. However, it has nothing of the Spider-Man monomyth conceived by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko: no radioactive spider bite, Uncle Ben, Mary Jane, or Dr Octopus in sight! Instead, the series follows stunt motorcyclist Takuya Yamashiro (Shinji Todo) whose father is killed by the Iron Cross Army, and who uses the powers gained from a blood transfusion performed by Garia the alien from Planet Spider (who died in the process) to fight the Army and avenge his dad’s death. That’s right, this Spiderman who ISN’T Peter Parker, and lives in Japan, got his powers from alien blood! He lives with his sister Shinko (Izumi Oyama) and kid brother Takuji (Yoshiharu Yabuki), but when terror strikes, he dons his costume and spoils the evil plans of Professor Monster (Mitsuo Ando), a mad scientist similar to Marvel’s own Dr Doom, and the saucy-but-sinister femme-fatale Amazoness (Yukie Kagawa). Typically, the show follows a well-established formula: Professor Monster and Amazoness hatch an evil scheme or try to kill someone, Spider-Man saves the day, and they send a Machine BEM to defeat him (more on that later). The stories are surprisingly dark and dramatic: each episode, a child nearly dies, and even elderly granddads or fathers die in their offspring’s arms. It it is often that sense of tragedy, loss and burden that defines Takuya / Spiderman, just like Peter Parker in the comics is constantly subjected to heartbreak and despair. Even The Incredible Hulk (L’Incredibile Hulk) TV series, the darkest USA superhero show of the 70s, is lighter than this sombre and often macabre series, which seems a precursor for the darker direction the comics would take in the following decades.
Done right, this kind of grim ‘n’ gritty, often melodramatic story really works (one story has a boy give his own blood to save a dying Takuya), but in some episodes, the melodrama and presence of whiny children brings the story’s quality down (one example is the ridiculous Lassie spoof with a boy and his intelligent trained dog). The acting often helps “sell” the story, especially thanks to Shinji Todo whose Takuya is warm-hearted, kind and vulnerable, in stark contrast to his menacing and aggressive portrayal of Spiderman. Other actors all fare well, especially Mitsuo Ando as Professor Monster, and there is an omnipresent sense of campy, theatrical overacting that makes the show seem almost like an opera, highlighting the tension and pathos of the storylines. Of course, sometimes it gets a little ridiculous, like Spiderman’s need to constantly call out his attacks with “Spider Strings!” and “Spider Net!”, or his extravagant postures.
Another element which makes this series so compelling is the over-the-top, beautiful choreography of the action scenes, with Spiderman often fighting at least ten, if not more, of the Iron Cross Army’s “Ninders” (foot soldiers in green leotards with cute little noses on their masks, like the Pokémon called Nosepass), with spectacular stunts and mixed-martial-arts techniques that give Naruto a run for his money. The wall-climbing and web-swinging are the most advanced and comics-accurate live-action depictions of such stunts before the 2001 movie. Truly, this is a feast for the eyes – and for the ears, too, with an ass-kicking soundtrack and the ONE best theme song in all of TV Spider-Man history. Why settle for “spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies” when you can have “Eyes burning with rage, he sacrifices everything”?
So we have a mature drama with eye-catching special effects, great acting and music, what’s not to like? Well, here’s the kicker: this show INVENTED the Megazord. Sure, Super Sentai predates it by years, but there were no giant robots in it just yet. Here, Prof Monster would sic one of his Machine BEMs (monsters, robots or kaiju) out on Spiderman, usually something that looked like either a hunk of rotting meat and plastic, or a mess of different animal pieces à-la The Island of Dr Moreau. Each time, the beast would grow to a huge size, and Spider-Man would summon his spaceship, the Marveller, which changed into the massive robotic Leopardon. Super Sentai, also produced by Toei, adopted this idea as well – though in all fairness, a giant robot fighting kaiju was already seen in the 60s Ultraman. That’s why the Power Rangers fight giant monsters in their Megazords. But “Supaidaman” is no Power Rangers. Indeed, such a juvenile and ridiculous concept doesn’t mesh with the series’ tone, and when coupled with the hopelessly-dated rubber-suit special effects that make the monsters’ grand entrances more hilarious than terrifying, there is no doubt that the series would be far better without the Leopardon segments: even though they last all of two minutes (the mecha uses only two or three attacks at a time), they detract from the engrossing plots and make for little more than an undesired laugh break. Still, I suppose there had to be a gimmick in this show to make Spiderman more appealing to the Land of the Rising Sun, and I say, at least it’s not capturable combat monsters, or bizarre sexual fetishes involving schoolgirls and tentacles… Damn, that joke was racist.
Overall, I highly recommend this series to anyone looking for a refreshing and exciting take on the legend of Spiderman, with gripping storylines and spectacular martial arts. Sure, not everything is perfect – there’s a tendency towards cheap melodrama, and a lack of the humour and wisecracks typical of the American versions, other than the unintentional hilarity brought on by all that Machine BEM and Leopardon nonsense – but this series really goes to great lengths to encapsulate the pathos and responsibility that defines our friendly neighbourhood Uomo Ragno, and captures all the high-stakes heroics, spectacular acrobatics and animalistic postures of Steve Ditko’s illustrations. None of those things were present in any American film, TV series or cartoon produced before Sam Raimi’s 2001 film, and the ABC Nick Hammond series was particularly bad in that respect, giving us a Spiderman without the pizzazz, peril or panache; it isn’t often that a quasi-bootleg foreign adaptation supersedes the original series in quality, but I’d definitely say that this was the better live-action Spiderman, and one of the better pre-movie Spider-Man shows as a whole. It’s well worth a watch if you worship the wonders of the wacky, wisecracking, wallcrawling webslinger! (…) Phooey.
Grade: 8 out of 10.
Recommended for: fans of Japanese tokusatsu and kaiju eiga; Spider-Man fans who aren’t afraid of seeing the comics being tampered with; people looking for a weird and original superhero show quite unlike anything currently on TV.
Next week, the Master of Movie Disasters talks about some shows that really left a bad taste in his mouth as a child, and others that he remembers more fondly, as he counts down the TOP 10 BEST AND WORST KIDS’ TV SHOWS OF ALL TIME!