Have you heard of Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam (AKA The Man Who Saves the World)? It’s a relatively mediocre Turkish movie most notorious for having major special effects sequences lifted from Star Wars.
In reality, the film is a curiosity, an obscure footnote in the cinematic lexicon. However, for a moment imagine this hypothetical scenario:
Star Wars has never been released in your country, but Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam is hugely popular. Its characters are ubiquitous on television; its merchandise can be easily found in any toy store. The owner of the Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam license actively crushes anyone attempting to release similar content, and when you show Star Wars or other space operas such as Flash Gordon, Star Trek, or Battlestar Galactica to average people, they respond with “What is this? Some sort of American knock-off of Dünyayı Kurtaran Ada? Man, that movie was cheap!”
This may sound ludicrous, but it’s actually a fairly close analogy to what it’s like to be a Super Sentai fan in Power Rangers territory. Excluding the lucky Hawaiians who got stuff like Goranger and Battle Fever J on TV in the 1970s, there really hasn’t ever been an unaltered release of a Super Sentai show in America, or English-speaking countries in general. (This is why Shout Factory’s upcoming DVD release of Zyuranger is so exciting, fyi.)
However, since the franchise is pretty ingrained in Japanese pop culture, its influence has permeated their other media, so even without getting the shows themselves, US audiences are still exposed to Super Sentai-inspired teams of characters through mainstream anime hits like Dragonball Z, Yu Yu Hakusho, and Bleach:
This is where it gets funky, though. In addition to one-off characters like the ones above, several full-on Sentai parody series have been released here as well, despite the absence of the source material. Admittedly, some context for the tropes can be gleaned from the US Super Sentai adaptation Power Rangers, the Golion half of Voltron, and (to a lesser extent) the various Gatchaman adaptations (Battle of the Planets,G-Force, and Eagle Riders). Nevertheless, it’s still kind of strange and miraculous that all of these titles went to market based on an IP that the audience should officially be unaware of.
This article will run through a few of the noteworthy stand-out examples of Sentai parodies/knock-offs/pastiches which are, or were at some point, officially available in the US. It might be fun to revisit some of them after the Zyuranger set hits (or even beforehand, if you want to catch up on the full achronological American otaku-media-release experience. There’s still time!):
- Kicking things off, the closest instance to getting an American Super Sentai release until now has been in the form of a parody dub. This is the first item chronologically on this list as well: five episodes of Dynaman were dubbed for TNT’s Night Flight block, way back in 1987 (quite a while before the Power Rangers thing kicked off). Unlike TNT’s Ultraseven parody dub, which stuck so close to the original script that it didn’t always even register as parody, the Dynaman dub threw away plot in favor of cramming in as many dumb jokes per minute as possible, and featured bookends where the white-guy-dressed-as-Japanese “host” would introduce the program. It’s basically terrible, but if you watch on mute it’s got more of the source footage intact than your typical Power Rangers episode, including the original actors’ faces.
While on the topic of official Sentai parody dubs, I suppose I’m also obligated to mention the episode of Power Rangers: Dino Thunder (2004) where they watch a fake-dubbed episode of Abaranger on TV and ridicule how it didn’t get the story right. Much like Dynaman, I don’t think it really merits watching, and all I can think of when the topic comes up is:
- Moving right along, the next Sentai-ish thing that American audiences were exposed to was not actually Japanese, but Filipino. Building on the popular ninja fad in children’s entertainment at the time, the Bioman knock-off movie Biokids got a US VHS release from Shine Home Entertainment in 1991, just a year after it played in the Philippines. The movie has five children transformed into multi-colored heroes by a mad scientist, though they fight relatively mundane crime until the end (including an evil clown because of Batman?) instead of suitmation monsters, and they closest to giant robots they get are motorcycles. While the movie has lots of goofy slapstick humor and subpar action/effects compared to Bioman, it’s still sort of charming.
- While introduced in the pages of Ben Dunn’s Ninja High School comic starting in 1986, the thinly-veiled Sun Vulcan pastiche Zetraman got their own comic series in 1991. Like many of the Antarctic Press original publications at the time, the series borrows liberally from various sources (mostly 80’s tokusatsu) for designs, but gradually more members were added to the team and it became a little more its own thing. Since the comic does cross over with Ninja High School, getting the complete story may prove tricky, especially considering that, to my knowledge, no trade paperback collections of the series exist.
- With the successful release of Power Rangers in 1993, the gates were open with a flood similar properties getting ported to the US. While people usually recall imitators such as Beetleborgs, Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, Masked Rider, and VR Troopers, there’s one other, much more significant show from this era featuring a team of color-coded transforming protagonists battling monsters of the week.
Sailor Moon‘s idea of filtering a magical girl show through a Super Sentai lens (and thus effectively making a sentai for girls) was sort of revolutionary, which is easy to forget now that color-coded magical girl teams have become the standard. Of course, discussing the history, impact, and qualities of the various Sailor Moon installments could easily turn gargantuan, so for now I’ll just say it’s hella Sentai-ish. It even almost got a full Power Rangers treatment in 1995, when a pilot was made with American actresses (in live-action) who would transform into their animated superhero counterparts.
- With the US anime boom of the late 1990’s/early 2000’s (thanks, in some part, to Sailor Moon) more anime and manga than ever before started getting translated. During this period, some amazing sentai comedies snuck onto American store shelves. First among them was Special Duty Combat Unit Shinesman (Tokumu Sentai Shinesman, 1996), an OVA which hit American VHS courtesy of Media Blasters in 1998. The heroes in this series are all businessmen (hence their ugly costume colors like moss-green, sepia, and gray) battling alien invaders who are also their bosses, leading to a mix of superhero and corporate-based humor. The dub is a little punched-up from the Japanese version, but considering that it was a comedy to begin with, this is appropriate, and the DVD does include the original language track. Unfortunately the original manga was never released in English, so, like many OVAs made to advertise comics, the story cuts off abruptly without much resolution.
- 2003 saw the release of two three-volume manga series that deconstructed the genre by making the villain the protagonist: Heroes are Extinct!! (Tennen! Zetsumetsu Hero!!) from DMP and Imperfect Hero (Akaten Hero) from Comics One.
Ryoji Hido’s Heroes are Extinct is perhaps my all-time favorite sentai spoof: The protagonist Cassiel is a general in an aggressive space-faring empire, and his lifelong dream has always been to attack the Earth to do battle with the hero teams that he’s seen in intercepted television broadcasts. Upon reaching the planet and discovering that such programs have always been a mere fictional conceit, Cassiel snaps, abducts five earthlings, and provides them with training and advanced technology so that he’ll have someone worthy to fight. Since this is basically treason, Cassiel has to pull a balancing act, cultivating his Terra Rangers while attacking them, all in secret from the empire’s high command (including his love interest, the princess/stock sentai villainess). Apparently the series also got some audio dramas in Japan, but I don’t know much about them.
Gureko Nankin’s Imperfect Hero is also a lot of fun. Playing on the cliche that the green ranger is the boring one, he’s the lead in this story, a magical girlfriend manga… only in this case the moe chick who suddenly cohabitates with the hero is actually the bipolar leader of an alien invasion force. Needless to say, that makes for an awkward romance.
- Sex sells, evidently well enough to get international licensing. Somewhere between full pornography (which won’t be discussed here) and wholly platonic entertainment lies the “ecchi” category (a bag of semantics for another day), by which I mean stuff where the gratuitous jiggling of scantily-clad gravure models probably took precedence over all other production values.
The highest-profile of these that we’ve gotten in the US is Sexy Rangers (Bakunyuu Sentai Pairanger, not to be confused with the pornographic Bakunyuu Sentai ChichiRanger), which was released on DVD through Cinema Epoch. Directed by Godzilla/Gransazer artist Shinji Nishikawa, Sexy Rangers justifies its fan-service by explaining that the heroines are actually powered by the psychic energy of men staring at their chests… it’s like clapping for Tinkerbell, I guess. The film does put some effort into delivering an actual giant monster/robot fight, however, which is more than some would claim.
Also, it seems like its theme song has become a minor internet meme, if my searching for a clip just now is any indication.
Section 31’s subsidiary Switchblade Pictures has also released a ton of cheaply-made
panty shot compilations movies/DTV series of varying quality, mostly from the Japanese studio Zen Pictures. Three of them are particularly sentai-styled: Akiballion – Battlemaids in Akihabara, Venus Rangers, and Space Ranger. Honestly, it’s difficult to wholeheartedly endorse any of them, but if you’re curious:
–Venus Ranger (AKA Megami Sentai V-Ranger) is the best of these three. It has the best martial arts choreography, the strongest characterization, a relatively-low sleave factor, and is generally the least boring. Also, props to them for having a Russian member; real Super Sentai hasn’t done that yet (Battle Fever J doesn’t count).
–Dennoh Senshi Akiballion probably has the best costumes and music, but also has the most uncomfortable, prolonged, leering sequences of the heroines squirming in the villain’s clutches. A quick look at Zen’s website shows that they’ve actually made sequel series to Akiballion, but I guess it wasn’t a hot enough seller for Switchblade to continue releasing here.
-I have no memory of Kojin Sentai Space Ranger. I know I watched it once but cannot recall a single thing about it. It…exists.
–Edit: Oops, completely forgot about Demonic Heroine in Peril. It’s about a villainess named Outsider, one of four generals in your stock evil organization. After witnessing the brutal death of the blue Trionger, Outsider has a crisis of conscience and defects, only to be hunted/tortured by her former cohorts. Like the other Zen entries, there’s a lot of gratuitous camera work and sometimes bafflingly production decisions (e.g. a child played by an adult in creepy little-boy makeup), but it does offer a better story concept than one would expect. Plus, the final villain is named Saban, and I can dig that in a Sentai spoof.
- It’d be remiss to not at least mention two fantastic anime that have hit US shores in recent years, which, while not wholly sentai-inspired, have major storylines that are. Level E, based on a manga by Yoshihiro Togashi, is about a selfish alien prince who gets his rocks off by trolling earthlings, and has a multi-episode arc about him training five children to become Color Rangers. Samurai Flamenco (*the* henshin hero show of 2013, sorry Gaim) makes a point of hitting every single Japanese superhero genre it can, so naturally it had a good chunk with a 5-man robot team, appropriately named “Flamenger.” I still run into people who were surprised when they got to that part of the show; guess that demonstrates that even in anime fandom this stuff still isn’t exactly mainstream.
Level E got a DVD/BD release through Funimation. Samurai Flamenco is only available streaming at crunchyroll for now.
- Brazil got a lot of Japanese programming on TV during the 80’s and 90’s, and since the generation that grew up with it is now producing content in the digital age, some Brazilian sentai content has started trickling into the US as well. Fabio Yabu started a webcomic called Combo Rangers back in 1998, the 2012 graphic novel reboot of which was released in English via amazon kindle (it seems to be off the site now, though). It takes place in a world rich with superheroes (a mix of eastern and western), has some zany humor (other heroes include a dude with a mirror for a head and one with a luchador mask shaped like a peace sign), and is generally a brisk, fun read. Also, it was free, which always helps.
- Also from Brazil is the sentai-studio simulation game Chroma Squad. The game is still in early access for the time being, and most people are aware that the project was delayed by the ridiculous threat of legal action from Saban (did they sue everyone else on this list?). I’m waiting until it’s 100% done to give it a play, but it looks cool so far.
Of course, this is just the obvious, explicitly Super Sentai-inspired stuff: one could make a case for Bubblegum Crisis, Gantz, Voogie’s Angel, The Daichis, etc, but then we’d be here all day. I’m sure there are other examples; by all means leave a comment to let me know what’s been overlooked.
The apparent ironies of getting a parody before being exposed to the original can be explained away by a few factors. As mentioned before, the US has Power Rangers, and has previously had the likes of Space Giants, Spectreman, Johnny Sokko… it’s not difficult to fill in the gaps. The lack of official translations are also mitigated by prevalence of fansubs, now mainstream enough that even English-language productions like Danger 5 and The Aquabats Super Show freely admit to taking inspiration from Jetman. The last reason, and the most important, actually, is that in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter who did what first. I started with a Star Wars analogy, so I’ll close with one as well:
Imagine you live in a world where Star Wars is really popular, but few people have seen The Phantom Creeps. When the scrolling text begins at the start of a Star Wars episode, nobody in the theater recognizes it as a clever homage to The Phantom Creeps; in fact, most people actually refer to it as a “Star Wars-style” text scroll!
This is actually just the real world. Like they say, everything is a remix, and just because the masses don’t know where a trope comes from doesn’t mean they can’t get anything out of it. That said, I’m still really looking forward to Zyuranger on DVD.