Gavan is a hard show to watch in 2020. This piece of Showa-era Tokusatsu, the first of the original Metal Heroes, did not age well when compared to even the more modern incarnations of its lead hero. The Gavan of 1982, at least in its first episode, employs a lot of jarring edits, cuts, and shakycam to achieve effects such as a spaceship being hit by laser fire, or reactions from characters to actions done by others. Steady shots rarely last for more than a second outside of the initial fight scene midway through episode 1, and for me, at least, had a dizzying effect that meant I was pausing the episode or looking away from the screen often.
For all its flaws in cinematography, though, the plot setup of Gavan is easy enough to follow, even for newcomers. Gavan is a space sheriff (Toei’s Youtube channel refers to him as a space cop, though the Japanese word keiji can be translated either way) from the planet Bird, at the far edge of the Milky Way, who is assigned to track down an organisation on Earth called Makuu. Makuu are loosely described as a “space crime organisation” early on, but are framed as your standard tokusatsu villain organization, complete with villain names like “Hunter Killer” among others to really drive the point home. To give it a Western allegory, the Space Sheriffs in this context are most akin to the Green Lantern corps, of DC Entertainment fame. The key difference is in the tools though. In just the first episode, Gavan is shown to use power armour with bionic enhancements for vision, strength, and even Ultraman-esque laser attacks. In the midst of the battle, Gavan also displays his signature weapon, a lightsaber, and his mecha, a dragon that reveals itself out of the contents of his ship.
On Earth, Gavan uses the name Retsu Ichijoji and spends his civilian time working at a stable, meeting with children and working closely with horses he is frequently seen riding in the end credits sequence of each episode. Gavan’s partner, Mimi, is a shapeshifter with a skill set of her own, largely based on illusions that allow her to turn into a bird among other things. Gavan’s battles, though shot with Toei’s trademark shoestring budget and focus on pyrotechnics, are meant to be cosmic in scale even as early as the first episode. Dimensional barriers are crossing, the rings of planets are used as staging grounds, and more.
It’s been 38 years since Gavan debuted in 1982, and in a lot of ways, it shows. Gavan oozes Showa-era toku cheese, sometimes to its detriment but only in certain fast-paced sequences to the point where new viewers would actively be turned away. The second episode is a vast improvement over the first, as the creators clearly attempt to find a voice and identity to set them apart from their contemporaries at Toei, with two Super Sentai series the same year (Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan ending and Dai Sentai Goggle-V beginning). Kamen Rider and Ultraman were not running at this time, and on the anime side of things, Mobile Suit Gundam was re-releasing its original 43-episode series as a trilogy of films, so Gavan only had its brothers at Toei to compare to. Both Super Sentai and Metal Heroes evolved with time into what we know now, though Metal Heroes are now relegated to cameos in Super Sentai shows or standalone films.
Overall, Gavan is worth a watch to see the history of the genre, if you can get past the jarring cuts and edits.
The first two episodes of Gavan are currently available to watch via Toei’s official tokusatsu YouTube channel.