Andrew Osmond assembles a guide to Tokyo toughs
Superheroes turn Japanese in Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning, which screens in Edinburgh ahead of its Japanese premiere, and in London just afterwards. It’s not just a superhero spectacle. It’s a buddy drama, a reality-media satire, and a hero’s journey about a middle-aged man doing what he must do, even when he’s a corporate cog in an outfit covered with brand logos.
That man is Kotetsu Kaburagi, known to the world as “Wild Tiger,” a superhero with deeper problems than chasing crooks or getting girls. To his family, he’s a widowed single dad who constantly disappoints his resentful young daughter. To the public, he’s a fading sad-sack star overshadowed by the younger generation on Hero TV. Uncool and outmoded, Kotetsu faces being canned altogether. Then he gets unceremoniously paired with Hero TV’s newest recruit, the dashing Barnaby Brooks, who looks like a pop idol dreamboat but has something dark under the surface.
Barnaby is scornful of the klutzy, blustering Tiger; Kotetsu resents Brooks’ youthful arrogance. Can Tiger and “Bunny” – Kotetsu’s barbed nickname for his partner in a big-eared suit – become a team, conquer evil and beat the ratings?
Since its debut as a TV series last year, the Tiger and Bunny franchise has flourished in many forms. There’s been a drama CD, and a stage production in Tokyo, featuring the title duo’s voice-actors in an original story. The new film, Tiger and Bunny: The Beginning, gives a new entry point for newbies, showing the characters’ first meeting. According to producer Masayuki Ozaki, the film mixes material from the early episodes with new scenes, some set before the TV story. The TV version streams on the Anime on Demand website and hits DVD and Blu-ray early next year.
The show was deliberately made to appeal to a broad international audience, including viewers who don’t like anime or superheroes. For Western fans, it’s a fascinating genre-cultural crossover, with more than fifty years of East-West exchange behind it. It has incandescent capes and mutant genes. There are men swinging from buildings, and a hero laying flowers for his murdered parents and childhood. Tiger and Bunny’s central theme of the ageing hero is long embedded into the genre, thanks to Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and Pixar’s The Incredibles.
But Tiger and Bunny also has masked heroes in robot power suits, riding motorbikes and making obliquely stylised hand gestures. Some have powers that inconveniently run out after a few minutes’ use (sound familiar, Ultraman and Evangelion fans?). Moreover, Tiger and Bunny treats the whole superhero idea in a very unusual way. In this show, being a superhero isn’t a teenage rebellion, an unleashing of inner demons or a shining crusade for truth and justice; though some players make it those things on the side. No, being a superhero is a celebrity popularity contest; it’s an extended commercial where you wear corporate logos, perform in pop videos, and swill soft drinks in TV commercials. And as Tiger is bitterly aware, it’s a job that’s definitely not guaranteed for life.
This isn’t because the Japanese don’t understand the western genre of superheroes. On the contrary, artists such as Tiger and Bunny character designer Masakazu Katsura (the famed creator of I’’s and Video Girl Ai), are huge fans of the form. Japanese studios contributed to the anthology Batman Gotham Knight, while Studio Madhouse’s series of Iron Man, Wolverine, X-Men and Blade still await a British release. But Tiger and Bunny isn’t hidebound by genre expectations, because superheroes aren’t so “mainstream” in Japan. Let us take you on a history tour, starting with a superhero star as you’ve never seen him before.
The stories you heard were true. Yes, the Japanese Spider-Man had a giant robot. And a motorbike. And a racing car. And he was given his powers by an alien from Planet, er, Spider. And yes, the Japanese Spidey fought walking rubber sharks and other oddities that would seem very familiar to anyone who’d seen Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The arch-villain was Professor Monster, and his henchwoman was Amazoness (just think that one through). And the theme song went “Yay, Yay, Yeah, Wow!” presumably because “Does whatever a spider can!” didn’t scan in Japanese.
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But to be fair, they got the costume right.
Japan’s live-action Spider-Man series was shown on TV from 1978 to 1979, overlapping with the sane but boring US TV version, The Amazing Spider-Man. Watched today, the Japanese Spider-Man feels like the superhero equivalent of those Japanese commercials where Hollywood royalty like Harrison Ford or Dennis Hopper flog cars or beer to the Far East. Ah, the security of the pre-Youtube age, when the English audience would be oblivious.
If you thought the description of Spider-Man sounds silly, try watching one of the actual episodes – for example, part 7, called “The Ferocious Hit Song! Sing and Dance to the Killer Rock.” Professor Monster’s dastardly scheme is to destroy Spider-Man with sound. Then it gets complicated. A boy-band writes a godawful song to celebrate Spider-Man (Chorus: “Spider-Man Boogie! Spider-Man Boogie!”). Prof Monster murders the band (yay!) and replaces them with cyborg doubles (boo!). He inserts a high-frequency note into their song which only spiders can hear. The song sells in the millions, driving Spider-Man mad with agony. Luckily he finds out the singers are cyborgs, and promptly machine-guns them to pieces.
By now, most Western comic-book fans would be banging their heads against a wall, or yearning for a Batsuited Adam West to run down a pier mourning, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” Yet, bonkers as this Spider-Man was, it was made on a sensible principle. Back in 1970, artist Ryoichi Ikegami had drawn and co-wrote a strip version of Spider-Man for Shonen Magazine. Ikigami’s Spider-Man is a Tokyo high-schooler called Yu Komori. He follows the proper Peter Parker route; he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, even after a teacher has cautioned him not to play with radioactivity-harnessing equipment! Equally properly, Yu fights Marvel-style supervillains.
However, Ikegami’s version failed twice. It didn’t last long in Shonen Magazine; decades later, it came to America as Spider-Man The Manga, and was cancelled at issue 31. Also in 1970, Lone Wolf and Cub’s Kazuo Koike wrote a Hulk manga, serialised in Weekly Bokura Magazine. Its hero was a survivor of the Hiroshima A-Bomb, though he still needs a gamma bomb to Hulk him. He never even reached America.
One of the problems with both strips was localisation; by 1970, Japanese viewers were already used to different heroes. To understand why Ikegami’s respectful Spider-Man failed and the mad-as-a-box-of-frogs one succeeded, we need to go back to Japan’s postwar days.
SUPERMAN AND FRIENDS
Two Supermans reached Japan in the 1950s. One was the American cartoon series, made for cinemas in the 1940s, which became the first animated series ever shown on Japanese TV. The TV run prudently omitted “Japoteurs” (sic), in which Superman saves a giant American bomber from being hijacked from a Nipponese stereotype with big teeth and glasses. The films are classics of superhero animation, with cinematic staging and action in cartoon form, long before anime as we know it.
The animated Superman was referenced by Hayao Miyazaki in 1980, when he directed an episode of the madcap TV action series, Lupin III. In it, the titular master-thief battles a giant robot with an elongated body and arms; a friendlier version appeared in Miyazaki’s 1986 Laputa: Castle in the Sky. Both robots were based on one in an especially vivid Superman cartoon, “The Mechanical Monsters” (1941).
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The other Superman that hit Japan in the ‘50s was the live-action American TV show, starring George Reeves. By 1958, it was Japan’s top-rated series – yes, the most popular TV drama show of any kind in Japan. According to The Dorama Encyclopedia, the Reeves Superman was watched by three-quarters of Japanese TV sets in 1958. It was shown by KRT (now TBS) which sensibly decided to create a local superhero in response, Gekko Kamen or Moonlight Mask.
Its producer, Shunichi Nishimura, wanted to make a historical swashbuckler about Kurama Tengu, a Zorro-style masked hero on horseback. However, Nishimura was baulked by budgets, and settled for Moonlight Mask, with a present-day setting. Like Superman, Moonlight Mask is an alien (he comes from the moon), wearing an all-concealing white suit. He has a long cape, but – just as compulsory for Japanese superheroes in coming years – he also rides a motorbike.
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Moonlight Mask was a ratings hit, running nearly a hundred and fifty episodes, but it was finally sunk by concerns that its stunts and fights could be copied by children. The series spawned a manga and a 1972 anime, but most Western fans know it indirectly through an outrageous spoof. The enfant terrible artist Go Nagai (creator of Devilman and Mazinger Z) took the name Gekko Kamen, changed a letter and came up with the infamous Kekko Kamen. Moonlight Mask was dressed in an all-swathing costume that didn’t show an inch of skin; Kekko Kamen is a buxom girl who wears a cape, mask, boots… and nothing else. Don’t even ask about her special attack – oh, you guessed.
In 1959, a year after Moonlight Mask’s debut, there was a live-action TV version of Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka’s seminal manga, whose cute robot hero was effectively Superman meets Pinocchio. Tezuka was reportedly horrified at the live-action version. Astro Boy wore a risible plastic-looking suit; when he flew, he looked like one of the roman-candle rockets from the 1930s Flash Gordons. Tezuka went on to make the far more famous 1963 anime, a hit in America.
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The next year, manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori took the idea of a cyber-hero and created a whole team in the strip Cyborg 009, which was animated several times over the next decades, and now awaits a spectacular cinema revival by Production I.G. In the ‘60s, though, the cyborgs were overshadowed by the emergence of a live-action Japanese superstar, Ultraman. Like Superman and Moonlight Mask, Ultraman is an alien (originally from the “Land of Light”). The twist, though, is he can merge with a human. The resulting symbiote is human most of the time, but can turn into a forty-metre red-and-silver giant to take on monsters. The live-action series was a merger between Superman and Japan’s monster-movie tradition; it was conceived by Eiji Tsubaraya, Godzilla’s effects maestro. Debuting in 1966, Ultraman has continued ever since though a succession of sequels.
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Another TV mega-franchise began in 1971 with Masked Rider (Rider Kamen), a biker hero who, unlike Moonlight Mask, transforms into his masked super-state. Many of the successive Masked Riders wear insect-like costumes, much as the anime heroes of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) were costumed as birds. Gatchaman is known to British viewers through its modified Western version, Battle of the Planets. The Gatchaman team, or G-Force, were “always five, acting as one,” and they were probably influenced by a popular British export to Japan, Thunderbirds.
In turn, Gatchaman was a likely influence on a live-action series, about another team of five acting as one. That was Goranger (1975) – “five rangers,” whose descendants would be mighty, morphin’ and powered. Both Goranger and Kamen Rider were conceived by Shotaro Ishinomori, a decade after Cyborg 009.
The Ranger format was so popular that three years after Goranger, the show’s home studio Toei grafted several of its elements onto Spider-Man. Most of Goranger’s sequels, though, involved hero-teams. In 1992, Zyuranger (Goranger’s fifteenth official descendant), was spliced into the first series of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers…
SUPERTEAMS AND LONE WOLVES
It’s often claimed that the team is king in Japan. Many Japanese heroes are conceived as teams, from Gatchaman to Sailor Moon, reflecting local culture and marketing strategies (imagine all that multiple merchandise!). Not that you can just export American teams to Japan and bank on them succeeding. In the 1990s, there was a twelve-volume X-Men manga, adapted not from the US comic, but from a Fox TV animation exported to Japan. Again, it failed to click, going the way of Ikegami’s Spider-Man. One suggestion was the Japanese artists had trouble with American superhero aesthetics: six-packs for the men, hourglass shapes for the ladies. (Though for six-packs, just look at Ken in Fist of the North Star…)
Generalisations about Japanese culture are dubious. There are strong individualist character in manga and anime, though many of the most popular lone fighters in recent years are dark, Machiavellian anti-heroes, beyond good or evil. Whether they count as superheroes or not is moot. Think of Death Note’s Light Yagami (who comes over as a less human version of Watchmen’s Rorschach), or Lelouch in Code Geass. The Evangelion franchise emphasises how much the firebrand pilot Asuka wants to be a lone superheroine, jeopardising her allies. And as we’ve said before, Tetsuo in Akira could be a parody of a character like the Hulk, unchained and utterly murderous.
The creators of Tiger and Bunny considered different versions of the middle-aged Tiger. He might have been a company president, or a freelance lone-wolf agent, like the wandering ronin of yore. In the final version, he and Bunny are company employees, part of a strange quasi-team whose members must work together to catch crooks, yet outshine each other for the public’s pleasure. Producer Masayuki Ozaki said the show was about the conflict and drama between people serving time in an organization. Or you could see it as a fantasticated Big Brother, or The Office, or a distinctly Japanese twist on a Western fantasy, where rebellion and narcissism give way to the group. Only didn’t the same thing happen in Avengers Assemble…?
Or, of course, you could forget all that and just watch for the costumes, motorbikes, vendettas, supercrooks and the two best buddies in anime – Tiger and Bunny.