Friday, November 19, 2010

Choujin Sentai Jetman

In 1975 Himitsu Sentai Goranger (Secret Task Force Fiveranger) debuted on Japanese TV. It detailed the exploits of five martial artists who used colorful power suits to fight off the monsters sent by the Black Cross Army in their neverending bid to take over the world. It ran for eighty-four episodes before concluding and was followed up by JAKQ Dengeki Tai (or “the playing card Sentai” as it’s known to some). The franchise was changed forever in 1978, when the Japanese version of Spider-Man debuted and pitched the idea of the monster of the episode growing into a giant, requiring the hero(es) to climb into his giant robot to save the day. The following year Battle Fever J debuted using a similar gimmick and it’s been a part of the Sentai series ever since.

You’ve probably heard that in 1993 the Sentai series was adapted into Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, so there’s no need to go into that, but it’s worth mentioning what was probably one of the major influences on the concept that gave rise to Goranger: Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman). The show of bird-themed superheroes is probably better known stateside as Battle of the Planets, its cleaned-up, space-heavier counterpart. It didn’t have huge robots duking it out with huge monsters but it did establish a fair number of tenets that became standard for “actual” Sentai: the themed martial artist team, the standard character dynamic for a five-member group, using fantastic vehicles to battle villains who frequently used animal-like battle machines…

This is all relevant as the 1991 Sentai was basically a huge valentine to Gatchaman, not to mention considered by some to be the best Sentai ever made.

Tendo Ryu and his partner/fiancee Aoi Rie are members of Skyforce, an organization that deals with extraordinary dangers all over the world. But mostly Japan. They’ve both been selected to go to Skyforce’s orbital base, the Earthship, to be the recipients of Birdonic Energy, which will give them superhuman powers so that Skyforce can use them to stamp out even more dangerous threats.

But wouldn’t you know it, just as Ryu is the first to receive his Birdonic powers the interdimensional army Vyram appears intent on destroying Earth. And to prove how serious they are, they start by destroying Earthship.

Ryu and Commander Aya Odagiri are the only ones to escape; Rie is pulled into space when the hull ruptures and the energy meant for the other agents is fired from the exploding station, zapping four civilians instead. If Earth isn’t going to be just another notch in Vyram’s gun, Ryu and Commander Odagiri had better make these misfits into a proper warrior team before it’s too late.

Jetman’s often thought of as having some of the most complex characterizations in Sentai history. You really do get a sense that these people probably wouldn’t be working together if the fate of the world didn’t depend on them, and that several of them never dreamt of getting into a fight over anything. They have to learn how to actually defend themselves and have trouble learning to fly their super-jets, let alone combine them into a big giant robot, in the early episodes. Which is pretty impressive with how simple the characters really seem when you step back and take a look at them.

Ryu/Red Hawk is your bog standard noble, (generally) level-headed leader. He pines for his lost love but keeps his discomfort to himself because he has to be strong for his teammates. Which doesn’t stop him from getting into the occasional scuffle with Gai for putting girls above the fate of the world.

Super Gas is proud to sponsor pointless macho fistfights.
Ah, Yuki Gai/Black Condor. Gambler. Biker. Sax player. Dirty fighter. Raging jerk who’s actually a big teddy bear on the inside. Can have any girl he wants, but yearns for the love of Kaori.

But who can blame him, every guy on the team’s a little in love with Kaori/White Swan, the daughter of a rich family who agreed to be a Jetman to have an excuse to get out of the house. She’s got it bad for her dashing leader, but he rebuffs her because he’s still on the rebound from Rie.

Next up we have Oishi Raita/Yellow Owl, a farmer who joined up because Vyram stamped all over his vegetable patch and showed him they’d do the same to nature everywhere (look, overall this show is a good example of its kind, but that’s what happened). He’s kind of goofy, but also strong, hard-working and dedicated to doing what’s right. Part of the reason he joined was admiration of Kaori and wanting to protect her, but tempered with the realization that she was completely out of his league.

And finally there’s Hayasaka Ako/Blue Swallow, a materialistic teenager with a hidden heart of gold. Hard to say more than that because despite the show having unusually good character development she gets the least of it.

There’s also Commander Odagiri, or Chokan (“Chief”), the exacting but sympathetic CO. Not much else to say, but handles her subordinates’ training personally. That’s someone you feel good about having in charge of saving the world.

As for our despicable villains, there’s Count Radiguet, the psychotic blue guy who turns into a monster when he gets mad. Tran, an evil genius in the body of a ten-year-old boy. Gray, a silent robotic powerhouse who enjoys fine wine, classical music and a good smoke. And Maria, a whip-swinging heartless witch…but doesn’t she look kind of like Rie?

Vyram’s an interesting bunch of bad guys because they have no chain of command. When they find out they have opposition that can actually stand up to them this time, they decide to have a contest: whoever beats Jetman becomes the leader.

The interplay between the characters is the show’s greatest strength, and endears them to the viewer plenty if you’re the kind of person who can see beyond the cheesy monster suits. These are not larger than life people in colorful tights, they’re disparate individuals who work together out of a sometimes grudging understanding that there’s no one better equipped to stop Vyram than them. Not even when the top brass tries to pretend there is.

There are a bunch of episodes worthy of special mention, but while Jetman is a good show overall, it also rides a rollercoaster of seriousness and silliness. Consider if you will…

Episodes 10-11: “Cupmen” and “Dangerous Play”

In episode 10 we meet one of Ako’s old classmates, an instant ramen otaku  who wants to use her as the mascot for his own line of cup noodles. The spirit of cup noodles appears to the otaku and promises his help, but it’s actually a Vyram monster who plots to make anyone who eats their noodles go crazy by playing a special flute. And the monster has to constantly pour hot water on himself or he’ll lose his power.

At the beginning of episode 11 the team buys drinks after a workout, but Gray’s turned the vending machine they use into a monster. Whenever the Jetmen hiccup their personalities become reversed; Ryu’s a slacker, Kaori’s vain and selfish, Gai’s a nice guy who cares about doing good, etc. Whenever they try to fight the horrific soda machine monster, Gai’s the only one who isn’t rendered useless at the first attack of their chronic hiccups.

Jetman is indeed one of the classics of Sentai, but it takes longer than most to hit its stride. The first portion of the show's plagued with the kinds of goofy monsters and moronic plots of which these episodes are the worst examples. It can be an endurance test for viewers who are wondering what merits all the praise when they’re watching Jetman get owned by a Maruchan Instant Lunch.

Contrast with…

Episode 26:
“I’m a Primitive”

Raita’s putting hard work into growing a new batch of vegetables when Vyram’s new monster, Dimensional Mammoth, which is part wooly mammoth and part clock, goes on the attack. During the fight they all get sent back to prehistoric times where Raita’s separated from the others and meets Kaori’s great-great (x43,000) grandma, Rika. He shows her tribe how to farm and start fires, and gradually falls in love with Rika and the idea of spending his life with these people. Eventually he realizes he needs to go back to his own time to ensure a peaceful future.

Raita never wanted to be a soldier, and here he gets the chance to be somebody important, marry a reasonable facsimile of the woman he’d admired from afar, and never have to raise a weapon again. But there are more important things at stake, and Jetman would be incomplete without him.

Episode 27: “Escape the Demon World”

Ako's walking through a park when suddenly she’s pulled into the back of a strange hearse. Her teammates show up to help, only to find her dead body. Soon the same thing happens to Gai and Raita. When Ryu is knocked into the back of the hearse by Radiguet he discovers it’s a portal to Hell and his teammates’ souls are being tormented by monsters they’ve killed. With the help of a priest Ryu projects himself into the underworld to save the others before it’s too late.

How’s that for a shift in tone? Fortunately this is more what the show’s like in its second half. This episode’s got spirits of the damned, monsters drinking from rivers of blood, and a grouchy priest telling rich girls the pits of Hell are no place for the likes of them.

This is a solid spotlight episode for Ryu because his powers don’t work in hell until he has the courage to make them work, and he has to look for his buddies while facing numerous dangers without the benefits of being Red Hawk. It’s easily one of the better Sentai episodes involving a trip to Hell seeing as they have to brave its dangers, instead of just sending the team someplace dark with a bunch of dead monsters around.

Episode 30-32: “The Three Demon Gods Rise,” “The Sentai Disbands,” and “Spread Your Wings Again!”

Two hikers enter a cave and tip over a jar that releases the demon Mu. He vows to bring his masters Ramon and Gorg back to life and goes around killing fighters looking for someone worthy of being a blood sacrifice.

Meanwhile Jetman’s building another robot and Gai and Kaori are being suspiciously nice, even having a lavish lunch date. Radiguet attacks them, but Mu comes in and grabs Kaori, since if anyone’s a model warrior it’s a Sentai member.

Mu sticks Kaori into the wall back in his cave and his masters try to drink her blood, but Gai slits his palms open so they’ll drink from him instead. Kaori remembers all the times he’s helped her out and starts to think maybe they’re more than friends after all. While Jetman takes out Mu, Radiguet gives of his blood to finish reviving Ramon and Gorg.

This is children's entertainment. Yeah, I know.

In the second episode Radiguet tries to make the demons swear loyalty to him for reviving them, but they refuse and travel to Earth.

There they save the lives of various people. After a little while the people they saved turn into fruit for the demons to eat.

Jetman tries to fight the demons but because Gai and Kaori were having some alone time when they got the call, the team gets owned. Gai and Ryu’s little internal feud comes to a head when Ryu gets on their backs for letting their personal wants interfere with being Jetmen. Gai decides he’s tired of being all selfless and walks out, taking Kaori with him.

Maria, Vyram’s female member, comes to make life even more difficult for the remaining Jetmen, but the demons show up and attack all of them. When they’re hit by the demons’ blast Maria suddenly transforms…into Aoi Rie! The demons press the attack, separating her and Ryu from Ako and Raita.

Their reunion doesn’t last long as Gorg attacks giant-sized. Jetman fights back but is no match until they finally activate their new robot and use it as a giant gun to blow Gorg away.

While this is going on Radiguet turns Rie back into Maria. When Ryu comes looking for her, his evil-once-again girlfriend attacks him as the third installment begins.

Ryu is traumatized by his encounter and thinks he and Rie are still reunited. Gai feels guilty and comes back, trying to slap Ryu back to reality, but with no luck.

Ramon tries to combine with Gorg to increase his power, only to find out that Radiguet booby-trapped Gorg’s body so the combined demon is under his control. Even with Gai and Kaori helping out again Jetman’s no match for the monster without their leader.

Maria comes back to finish off Ryu, which gets him to admit the truth to himself. He promises to bring her back to normal, but for the moment he has some friends who need help. Complete again, Jetman destroys the combined demon once and for all.

There was no way to convey any sense of the drama of this three-parter without going into this kind of detail, and it’s no exaggeration to say this was the show’s finest hour. No matter how much they might argue or how different they might’ve been when the war with Vyram started, this is where you can really see Jetman’s not just a team, it’s a family.

Nowhere in the series is this clearer than when Gai, this arc marking the second time he quit the team after a fight with his leader, is almost reduced to tears when he fails to bring Ryu to his senses in the third part. By the time of this arc the show’s come about as far as you can get from the idiotic filler that made up much of its early portion. About.

Eventually Jetman defeated Vyram once and for all, restoring peace to their troubled world, but even in victory their story would be marked by tragedy.

But this review’s done enough to dissuade people from seeing this show.

Screencaps taken from the fansubs made available by

If this sounds interesting please check out Christopher Elam's excellent sequelfic Return of Jetman.

(After clearing the chunk of embarasing episodes)

No comments:

Post a Comment