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Toku Review Round-up! (July 19th, 2020)

Looks like it’s that time again; I’m back once more to review recent episodes of the latest tokusatsu shows! Compared to the state of the world, the current climate of Tokusatsu could be described as ‘aggressively normal’ – there’s many quality shows airing, and everyone’s got their hot takes. As Zero-One nears its conclusion, speculation on how it will end, as well as the next show ‘Kamen Rider Saber’ looms in the air. Kiramager continues to dazzle people with its new sixth ranger, and Ultraman Z continues to have the most hype inducing opening theme song. It’s certainly ‘business as usual’ when it comes to major tokusatsu.

But how good is any of it, really? That’s the real question. And for some reason, you came here for those answers, or just to have a read of what I think. In either case, thank you for checking it out! Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Kamen Rider Zero-One – Episodes 37 & 38

I watched episodes 37 and 38 of Zero-One back to back, and I have two very distinct feelings about each episode. When recalling episode 37, I struggled to remember the key events that happened within, and with episode 38, I felt quite frustrated at the direction it was taking. Unfortunately, Kamen Rider hasn’t really lived up to my hopes for it the past few weeks.

Episode 37 itself is fine, it just doesn’t really achieve all that much. The episode is dominated by more fights against the Ark which is able to seamlessly possess different members of Metsuboujinrai.net. It’s a little bit disappointing how this is essentially further sidelining already-sidelined characters, and reducing their role a fair bit. The combat in this episode is good, but it’s getting more and more divorced from a sense of stakes or character motivation. It’s awesome seeing the full Metsuboujinrai crew together, but it doesn’t really mean a lot right now.

There are some fun elements to this episode. I still like Naki a lot, and have done since their introduction. I think it’s important to note though, that with so few episodes left, there probably aren’t many exciting directions in which they can take Naki as a character. I hope they can surprise me in that regard, because I like Naki’s cold and calculating persona, and I actually like their new suit form which is introduced in this episode. I hope we get to see more of ‘Japanese Wolf’ in later episodes.

In addition, the senior management of HIDEN launch an ambush against Gai’s tyrannical presidency by collecting data on his various crimes. This comes to a head at the end of the episode, as they prepare to force out Gai with stacks of evidence. What could possibly happen next? Surely this will have lasting consequences for Gai and HIDEN intelligence as a whole?

Unfortunately, these are rhetorical questions. Episode 37 was kind of boring with some fun action – I give it 2 out of 5 ‘Japanese Wolves’.

At the beginning of Episode 38, it seems like Gai immediately gains the upper hand, forces his way into the secret lab, and deletes all of the incriminating records of his behaviour, with relative ease. Technology is incredible.

Zero-One never ceases to remind us of how amazing technology is, especially when we keep being introduced to friendly A.I. important to changing the hearts of main characters. I’m talking of course about episode 38’s robot dog, ‘Thouser’, and its effect on bad guy Gai Amatsu, which may prove to be one of the more controversial elements of Zero-One overall. 

I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t really like what they’re doing here. In principle, I like dogs a lot, and I’m usually all for the cuteness and nostalgia of a dog changing someone’s heart. But unless this is the grand bait-and-switch that some are anticipating it will be, I don’t think they’ve really done the groundwork to justify Gai switching sides at this point. We get a backstory that’s told to us in shorthand, which is brought to the forefront through the recreation of the robot dog ‘Thouser’ in the present day. It’s a weird way to execute on this concept, which I assumed might have been coming anyway, but definitely not like this.

I’m certainly not a ‘Gai hater’ – I think he served his purpose as a villain agreeably. But therein lies the problem. They’ve done far too much to elucidate his villainous nature which now makes it a lot harder for us to buy into the idea of him having a change of heart. If any of Gai’s past had been established a bit earlier, it would have been a lot more effective to give us this sudden declaration that he ‘loves HIDEN Intelligence’ at the end of this episode. Once again, there are some cool things here, such as the return of the bike and the brief glimpses we see of Fuwa & Yua, but it’s all kind of overshadowed by the impact of this big change.

Overall though, Gai’s tragic robot dog backstory and switch, which dominates the episode, doesn’t really work for me. I try to avoid being negative about things online, so sorry for this – Episode 38 gets a 1.5 Robot Dogs out of a possible five.

Mashin Sentai Kiramager – Episodes 13 & 14

Kiramager continues to delight with another set of charming episodes. Of the three shows in this lineup of reviews, I think I’d have to say I’m enjoying Kiramager the most right now, for the simple fact that it’s hitting a lot of high notes in terms of tone, comedy and design, even if they’re quite familiar notes.

Lots of examples of these qualities can be seen in Episode 13, which gives us a further look at Kiramager Silver, Crystalia Takamichi. The bombshell of the previous episode left us wondering how he might gel with the group, but this episode gives us all the answers we might need on that front, showing us a character caught between two worlds, who must confront their past mistakes.

It was charming to see a character like Takamichi brought to life with this comedic and lighthearted performance. The episode also morphs a lot structurally for a sentai episode, twisting the existing formula a bit to focus more on Takamichi’s development as a character. It’s a fairly classic set-up; Takamichi is caught between a desire to hunt treasure and a hidden desire to save people as Kiramai Silver. What results is a lot of sequences of Silver flying in to ‘steal the thunder’ from the rest of the team, but refusing to commit to the role. It’s pretty amusing. 

We even get a bit of backstory for Takamichi in brief but zesty flashbacks, and the proper debut of his new drilling vehicle Mashin, Drilljean. Furthermore, Takamichi gets to reconcile with the CARAT leader Hakataminami – his younger brother! Yes, it seems Takamichi was recreated from crystals, meaning he hasn’t aged in quite some time, making him a ‘full fledged showa guy.’

This was a neat episode – it had some fun villain encounters, some unique character development and some good action. It was a good time. I give it 3.5 out of 5 Drills.

Episode 14 feels like a continuation of the previous episode’s themes, despite being a different story. We have more angst and aloofness from Takamichi, who is still more interested in treasure hunting than anything else, which is highlighted in the opening sequence of the episode.

Despite working with the rest of the Kiramagers in some form to defeat Yodon Marsskmen, Takamichi still maintains a (misguided?) belief in their own superiority, and this episode’s all about him having to drop that belief and rely on others. He’s forced into a spot of vulnerability once a steam engine themed enemy attacks the bathhouse that they’re hanging out in, causing Takamichi to lose his Kiramai Changer. We also via flashback that this toxic attitude of narcissism was passed onto him by the villain Garza, who encourages him that when he is alone is when Takamichi shines the brightest.

It’s a pretty simple concept for an episode, and Sentai often uses ‘learning teamwork’ as a thematic turnstile (even within earlier episodes of this series) but it provides some quirky fun regardless. This episode would actually be a lot less interesting to me without the inclusion of the steam-engine Marsskman – I really dig their design, and the way in which Kiramai Red literally has to slam-dunk some rubble into his ‘chimney’ to defeat him, while Silver holds him in place. Using basketball manoeuvres in combat is pretty fantastic in any context, and it’s done here in a way that’s both functional and flashy.

Takamichi learns that Garza’s advice about him working best on his own was a manipulative form of sabotage, and in one final act of genuine teamwork, the full group unites to defeat the Yodon forces, using a variety of new mech creations. Silver even gets to join in on the ending dance, finally! I give this episode 3 out 5 Steam Trains/Slam Dunks.

Ultraman Z – Episodes 3 & 4

I know because of the way we started this series that we’re an episode behind in this reviewing of Ultraman Z. I know there’s some incredibly exciting stuff that has gone in Episode 5 that I want to talk about, but for the sanctity (???) of this review column, we have to stick to two episodes at a time. I can’t be giving Ultraman Z any preferential treatment, as much as I would like to. You’ll have to wait until next time for the takes on episode 5 & 6.

With that being said, Episodes 3 and 4 are both fairly strong in their own right. Episode 3 takes a leaf out of the book of Zero-One and introduces a new problem for our heroes: corporate accountability and funding negotiation. This becomes an issue after Haruki accidentally destroys an observatory while piloting Sevenger in a skirmish against Guigass (it’s nice to see them again!).

As a result, funding for STORAGE’s second anti-monster robot is pulled, meaning that they must now re-negotiate. In order to prove Sevenger’s effectiveness, they opt to demonstrate this by using them to transporti a dormant monster, Gomora, away to a safer, unihabited space. This is livestreamed to a variety of western government officials, who amusingly remark (in English) about the likeness of this scenario to ‘Japanese Robot Animations’ they used to watch as a child.

Of course, things escalate when Gomora awakens. We’re treated to a brief fight against the creature with Sevenger, before Haruki decides to call in the power of Ultraman Z. The fight at this stage becomes a lot more interesting, and even the western government guys seem to recognise ‘Ultraman’! Haruki, who has been suffering from hayfever the whole episode to the point of distraction, remarks that the air is clear inside this bubble reality within Z, allowing him to focus on defeating Gomora. The fight that ensues is very tangible and dynamic.

Despite this, the battle proves to be tough until Z is able to get a power up, transforming them into their Beta Smash form and finishing the fight with Gomora. All is well that ends well, as STORAGE is able to secure funding for their second robot – the officials were so impressed with Sevenger’s ability, given that Ultraman struggled! I think this is a funny – if a little contrived – way to wrap things up.

This was another simple but effective episode for Ultraman Z. It didn’t seem to hone in on a particular message, rather trying to say multiple things about responsibility and perseverance, but that’s fine. It was more lighthearted fun. I give it 3 out of 5 Beta Smashes.

The next episode is all about introducing us to STORAGE’s second robot, Windom, which has suffered a variety of cutbacks in production. The quality overall is lower than what Hikari expected when designing it. I’m starting to think that STORAGE – ostensibly the only serious line of defence against a variety of regular threats – is severely underfunded? Maybe this show is saying something. There’s not much time to focus on this, however, as another Kaiju attacks – the underground beast Telesdon!

The team suffers another big L in this battle as the Telesdon remains undefeated. Despite this, Hikari is able to retrieve a vital sample of the monster’s skin, which they use to analyse the threat for the upcoming rematch. We also get a brief glimpse at a ‘mysterious figure’ who uses their own type of Ultra Riser and a strange machine to create their very own Kaiju medal. I like the way that this scene is lit in a cryptic green shade, and I like how this scene allows us to draw our own conclusions on how the machine functions, and to what purpose the medal will be used in the future.

Hikari comes to some sort of epiphany about the power problem of Windom, and Sevenger once again attempts to take on Telesdon. After Sevenger is toasted, Haruki summons Ultraman Z in their Beta Smash form once again to throw down some wrestling moves. Meanwhile, Hikari manages to recycle a spare kaiju part to act as an external power source for Windom, which appears at exactly the right time.

I’d like to take a moment to heap some praise on the design of this one – whilst I like Sevenger, there’s something about Windom’s overall design, from its more humanoid hands and arms, to the weird almost beak-like mouth and scalp antenna, Windom is a bizarre design that definitely fits right alongside Sevenger as a clunky, man-made machine. It’s charming. It’s also essential in this encounter, winning the battle against Telesdon easily.

That is until Telesdon gets upgraded by this mysterious figure from earlier. Z has to switch things up and change forms to focus on speed, which combined with the new power of Windom, allows them to turn the tide of the battle once more. The way in which this fight is framed and the pace at which it moves allows us to see that Ultraman works better with the company of Wisdom, forming a great team together.

Things wrap up neatly from here, and Haruki and Z discover the existence of the ‘kaiju medal’, which floats out of Telesdon upon their defeat. Ulraman remarks that this could be catastrophic if put in the wrong hands, and we get more of a glimpse at what the future might hold of Ultraman Z’s villains. Overall, I enjoyed this episode a bit more than three, for the teamwork and fight choreography on display, the glimpses at the villainous side, and the more concise and robust theming. It was as solid episode which I grant 4 out 5 Kaiju medals.

That’s all for this week’s edition of Toku Review Round-up! As always, I’m looking forward to seeing where things go from here. Zero-One’s got a lot of explaining to do, Kiramager is moving onto to a new team dynamic, and I’m keen to see more of Ultraman’s villain. It’s an exciting time to be a toku fan, that’s for sure.

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