A while back Anime Nation posted a great master list of anime that are only available on VHS in the US, outside of the non-commercial/unofficial avenues of fansubs, rips, bootlegs, imports, etc. This got me thinking: how does tokusatsu stack up? Just as John’s list has dwindled with the various anime license rescues (thanks, Discotek!), a handful of tokusatsu properties like Johnny Sokko, Godzilla vs. Megalon, and Cyber Ninja have made the transition from tape to DVD in recent years as well. But a few remain, so purely for fun we made a list, accompanied by some of the lousy-to-fantastic box art that typified the bygone era of the now-dead format (most photos courtesy of ebay). It might just give the obsessive collectors out there a little extra something to hunt for!
To kick things off, there were four big hit tokusatsu shows on US television in the 1970s and 1980s: Ultraman, Johnny Sokko, Space Giants, and Spectreman. The original Ultraman was released on DVD by BCI and later Mill Creek (dubious licensing issues aside), while Johnny Sokko & His Flying Robot (AKA Giant Robo) eventually got a (woefully-dub-only) DVD release via Shout Factory. That leaves Spectreman, the first 22 episodes of which were released across 11 VHS tapes by Wonderland Video.
The final major hit show was Space Giants (AKA Magma Taishi), which never got any sort of commercial release in the US (excluding a brief attempt through ebay by a company who didn’t actually have the rights), though the later anime version Ambassador Magma was released across six tapes and laserdiscs by US Renditions. As a side note, US Renditions also distributed another tokusatsu-related anime that was only released on VHS: the original OVA of Guyver: Out of Control, made early in the manga run and featuring a female Guyver 2.
While on the slightly off-topic subject of animation, bow about The Ultraman? Two compilation movies of the Ultraman anime were produced, The Adventures of Ultraman (composed of footage from the end of the show) and Ultraman II: The Further Adventures (the first four episodes)…how’s that for confusing? While Utraman II made the jump to DVD (albeit in cheap and relatively low quality), the first film didn’t escape the VHS format.
Something similar goes for English-language Ultraman properties. The awesome Hanna Barbera project Ultraman: The Adventure Begins is only available on tape, and while the Australian TV series Ultraman: Towards the Future was released on tape (through Central Park Media) and was briefly on hulu, the only discs that exist would have to be imported from Japan (with hard-coded Japanese subtitles). (And of course, the American-made Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero didn’t get any sort of US release at all, though it didn’t sound like they expected it to, based on the cast members that I’ve talked with about it.)
Moving along, I don’t really know what’s stranger: that the first episode of 1972’s Kaiketsu Lion Maru was dubbed into English as Magic of the Ninja, or that multiple VHS editions of it exist. The Remco release was bundled with unrelated ninja action figures (the same thing happened to Kamui under the title Search of the Ninja and Sasuke as Kiko, Boy Ninja), but I’m not sure about the history of the Kids Klassics version.
Lots of Japanese TV shows were edited down into compilation films in the 70s and 80s, ripe for TV and the VHS market. While a few of these have made the transition to DVD (e.g. Dinosaur War Aizenborg as Attack of the Super Monsters, Akakage as Ninjascope/Watari the Conqueror/Watari and the Fantastiks ) and some of these have arrived on disc in Mystery Science Theater form, there are several where the VHS is still the only way to watch in their (admittedly still edited-down) original English-language forms:
- Daitetsujin 17 as Brain 17
- the Message from Space TV series as Space Ninja: Sword of the Space Ark
- Star Wolf as Fugitive Alien and Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2
- Mighty Jack
- Bornfree as Return of the Dinosaurs
- Army of Apes as Time of the Apes
Of course, there’s a certain 80-meter elephant in the room when discussing Japanese monster movies not available on US DVD: Return of Godzilla is probably the most-requested live-action Japanese movie when discussions of DVD and Blu Ray releases come up. It’s the only Godzilla movie completely left in the VHS era in the US, and the only version available on VHS stateside was the butchered Godzilla 1985 Americanized edit. So, if a Godzilla fan in the US were hypothetically unwilling to find a fansub, import the subtitled Region 3 DVD, or the UK VHS release (with the uncut dub), their only option would be to stick with this unfortunate copy.
Godzilla 1985 isn’t the worst case, though: At least Return of Godzilla is available in Japan, but Snow Man isn’t available anywhere. Ishiro Honda’s 1955 monster movie was banned in Japan for racially insensitive characterization, so (again, ignoring bootlegs) even Japanese fans would have to import the various American tapes of Half Human, the US recut with John Carradine. Fortunately, it’s been released a couple times by Rhino and Englewood Entertainment.
Similarly banned in Japan is The Last Days of Planet Earth, which also has a US VHS release, and despite its Gateway VHS art making it clearly part of the same series as Godzilla, Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and several other kaiju flicks, never got picked up for DVD. Toho’s disaster flicks have been passed by in the DVD era in general, as movies like Gorath, The Last War, and Deathquake also hit back in the VHS era.
Continuing in the Toho canon, The Human Vapor’s had a couple VHS releases as well. (Both Gorath and The Human Vapor have popped up on amazon instant video recently, but needless to say have avoided disk release.) The most obscure release, though, was that of Kon Ichikawa’s Phoenix under the Japanes title Hinotori, released with English subtitles by Video Action in 1982: it’s the only official VHS release on this list that I couldn’t even find a picture of at all.
Gateway also released (in a different package style) ESPY, Lake of Dracula, and Evil of Dracula. The Dracula flicks are now available on DVD in the UK, with a little better quality than their VHS counterparts. (For more information on Toho’s various VHS releases, Toho Kingdom has a nice article, btw.)
Speaking of stuff that’s available on DVD in the UK but only VHS in the US, the entirety of the marionation show X-Bomber/Star Fleet was released on VHS by Classic Family Entertainment, though in this form each set of three episodes was edited down into a movie. Later there was also some sort of uncut VHS release under the original X-Bomber title, but distributed in such a limited quantity that nobody seems to know anything about it.
While the Kim Jong Il-produced kaiju flick Pulgasari (made with the somewhat unwitting aid of Teruyoshi Nakano, Ken Satsuma, and the Toho special effects crew) is quite notorious, having been covered everywhere from The Daily Show to NPR’s This American Life, it’s not actually available on DVD stateside: the only release was actually ADV’s 1998 VHS release. (Yes, I know that the recent book A Kim Jong Il Production claims that it got a US DVD release, but it’s wrong.) In a twist, when director Shin Sang-ok escaped to the US, he later did a US/Bulgarian remake of the film, The Adventures of Galgameth, which, despite appearing on Amazon and Netflix streaming, is likewise available on VHS but not on disc in the US (it is in Australia, though).
Also not a Japanese production, the Indonesian Biokids takes a lot of inspiration directly from Bioman, and landed a VHS release in the US at the tail end of ninja craze but before Power Rangers. While hardly a great film, it’s an interesting novelty for Sentai enthusiasts.
So, what all’s left? Well, there’s Lady Battle Cop, the Toei semi-Metal Hero movie that was the only part of ADV’s Rubbersuit imprint that never got a DVD release (in fairness, the movie didn’t get a DVD release in Japan until recently).
Also, the animation-live-action hybrid film Twilight of the Cockroaches, which was a pretty high profile movie back in the day, so seeing it left in the VHS format is somewhat perplexing.
Finally, though this isn’t at all a US VHS release, I thought I’d bring it nevertheless: The Tsuburaya/Rankin-Bass coproduction The Ivory Ape was available on VHS in the Netherlands (in English with Dutch subtitles). For whatever reason, it didn’t make the transition to DVD with The Last Dinosaur and The Bermuda Depths, and as such has become on of the minor holy grails for Japanese monster movie collectors the world over.
We may be incurring some wrath by omitting certain beloved dubs (e.g. the uncut Ultraman dub or AIP’s Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) or editions (like, I dunno, the Yog, the Monster From Space tape hosted by Grandpa Munster), but I’m not particularly concerned with the various Americanized takes on things, just the movies and shows themselves in as close to their original form as possible (I know, I’m a bad collector). That said, there may easily be glaring omissions from this list, stuff that hit in the VHS era long before any of this blog’s crew were alive, and we’d be none the wiser, so if you’re aware, please leave a comment. Likewise if we got something completely wrong, a lot of this stuff is pretty lacking in documentation. Other than that, keep circulating the tapes, be kind – rewind, and make it a Blockbuster night!