The following is a joint review by The Jez Show and Toku Toy Store.
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The Toys That Made Us made its long awaited return to Netflix this past week with four new episodes for toy collectors and enthusiasts everywhere to get their anti-static gloved paws on. For those unfamiliar, The Toys That Made Us documents the history of important and popular toy lines. Its first two seasons profiled such giants as LEGO, Star Wars, Transformers and Barbie, to name a few. This third batch of episodes, which had been in development since July of 2018, featured My Little Pony, Professional Wrestling, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. While labelled with the full title of the Power Ranger franchise’s debut offering, the episode itself covered far more of the precursors and successors to Mighty Morphin than many expected.
The Ranger Story
Following a colourful introduction to the franchise for anybody not acquainted with Power Rangers, we are taken back to mid 20th century Japan for a look at the origins of the tokusatsu, or toku, genre. Tokusatsu, best translate as special filming, is the name of the genre in which shows like Power Rangers got their start and sit within today. The popularity of Godzilla in Japan brought rise to decades of rubber monster based, kick you in the face style content, popularised by production studio, Toei, and God-tier manga artist, Shotaro Ishinomori. It was through Ishinomori’s involvement that Kamen Rider, a superhero show about a transforming hero, was born and with any good children’s programme of course comes a line of toys. Toei partnered with a company called Bandai to produce their toys, beginning a legacy of toku toy production that lives to this day. The problem with Ishinomori’s Kamen Rider, as popular as it was, was that only having one solitary hero limits the ability to sell massive chunks of toys! To that end, the people at Toei Company put their heads together and came up with the Super Sentai series: a squad of colour-clad heroes that work in a team to thwart evil.
While referencing Ishinomori as the Japanese Stan Lee, The Toys That Made Us shifts focus to the actual Stan Lee who, little do the majority of Marvel fans know, was nearly the man responsible for bringing Super Sentai to the West. Lee worked with Toei in the late 1970s to produce スパイダーマン, romanised as Supaidaman, or just… Spider-Man. It was during his time in Japan that Stan fell in love with Super Sentai and so attempted to bring the fifth Sentai, Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan to America. Stan Lee’s attempt ultimately failed but not before passing his Sentai passions on to Marvel CEO Margaret Loesch, who didn’t understand why the television networks weren’t on board with the idea.
The years go by, enter Haim Saban. Saban, as enamoured with Super Sentai as Stan Lee, had the idea to splice the original Japanese fight footage and intermix original recordings of American actors to create a new show. Sounds like a winning idea, right? And it was, or is, or would be… but it would take over 8 years for Haim Saban to convince anyone of that fact. Enter Margaret Loesch who, since attempt #1, had moved from Marvel to FOX and was able to use her superpowers as Head of Children’s Programming to greenlight the project. Bada-bing, bada-boom, Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger becomes Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and a legend is born.
The Toys They Made For Us
With the Power Rangers coming to television, there was just one other little thing to have produced… toys! It is at this stage of the documentary where we really get to know some of the major players that were responsible for bringing us monsters, Megazords and (Auto) Morphin’ figures The most notable of these were Tsuyoshi Nonaka – world renowned tokusatsu toy designer – and Trish Stewart – Director of Marketing for Bandai America – who alongside Peter Dang – VP of Marketing for Bandai America – not only took responsibility for branding, marketing and distributing the Power Rangers toyline, but also came up with the names Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Zords in the first place. Cheers, Trish & Pete!
Those toys that Bandai America
designed and produced repackaged from Japan really took off; took off the the point that there were periods in which the shelves of giant toy conglomerates like Toys R Us (R.I.P.) were completely empty! I myself remember these days well. While my parents somehow managed to find me a Megazords and Dragonzords for birthdays and Chrismasses, there were mass sectors of the toyline, like the Power Morpher and Dragon Dagger, that I simply never saw in stores. I really wanted that frickin’ Dragon Dagger.
Refresh, reinvent, resell toys
Of course, the Zyuranger footage wasn’t going to last forever and the next stage of the documentary details the way that Power Rangers reinvents itself every year – new actors, new suits, new mecha (that’s giant robots, or zords) and, most importantly, a whole new toyline. The magic of Power Rangers from a corporate point of view is that you can sell a whole mess of toys to a kid one year and the following year you can sell that same kid a whole other mess. It’s genius and torture all at the same time, depending on who you are.
It wasn’t just the show itself that underwent a refresh, the franchise itself underwent an upheaval of its own with moves from Saban to Disney, back to Saban, and now to Hasbro. The Toys That Made Us make the Disney Era of Power Rangers sound like a vacuous, entertainment void black spot on the history of the product and heap a little too much praise on Bandai America for their Zord Builder system but all in all the close of the documentary gives us a nice little seat-of-your-pants speed review of the rest of Power Rangers history.
As with any episode of The Toys That Made Us, the stellar editing work conducted by its production team carried the humour of the episode. Each episode of TTTMU utilises a repetition of a handful of words or phrases spoken by interviewees to drive forward the historical narrative or ground things when the subject matter gets a little too deep – we should be reminded that we’re talking about toys, at the end of the day. Such repeated moments in this episode include the reminder that Bandai USA’s top selling, highest quality product prior to Power Rangers was their line of sidewalk chalk, using the word henshin wherever someone might say transform, and the continual referencing of American audiences as “kids!” These are the unique and quirky things that make The Toys That Made Us the charming travel through toy history that it is. Never change.
Unless you wanted to make more episodes faster… we’d be cool with that.
When this programme first launched on Netflix in December 2017, I hoped and dreamed for the day that they would produce a Power Rangers episode. There was a fear that they would make a mess of it – as most outsiders to tokusatsu tend to when they step into that world and try to produce content sight unseen – but nothing could be further from the truth. Just as the He-Man, Barbie and Hello Kitty episodes had done for me, I fully expect the Power Rangers episode to have given the casual viewer an accurate, care-filled depiction of the franchise that millions of us love. Likewise, while I personally didn’t learn anything new from the episode, the way that the TTTMU team laid out all of the history of Power Rangers, even referencing Kamen Rider and the Godaikin toyline, is a welcome to any hardcore fan.
Stellar work, The Toys That Made Us! You looked after our fandom and we love you.
What did you think of the Power Rangers episode of The Toys That Made Us? How did you think it compared to other episodes in the series? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook pages, The Jez Show and Toku Toy Store, on Twitter @thejezshow and @tokutoystore, or in the comment section below!