What is Toku?
Tokusatsu (特撮) is a Japanese term that applies to any live-action film or television drama that features considerable use of special effects (tokusatsu literally translates as “special filming” in Japanese).
Tokusatsu (pronounced toe-koo-sats) often deals with science fiction, fantasy or horror, but movies and television shows in other genres can sometimes count as tokusatsu as well. The most popular types of tokusatsu include kaiju monster movies like the Godzilla and Gamera film series; superhero TV serials such as the Kamen Rider and Metal Hero; and mecha series like Giant Robo. Some tokusatsu television programs combine several of these subgenres, for example the Ultraman and Super Sentai series.
How it Began
It is widely recognised that the genre originated in the 1950s with the Godzilla movies, which were credited for formulating many of the techniques that would become staples of the genre, such as ‘suitmation’ (the use of a human actor in a costume to play a giant monster) combined with the use of miniatures and scaled-down city sets. Godzilla forever changed the landscape of Japanese science fiction, fantasy, and cinema by creating a uniquely Japanese vision in a genre typically dominated by American cinema.
Over time, this style evolved to include superhero characters that fought the giant monsters and the 1960s and 70s saw the rise of programmes like Ultraman (1966) and Moonlight Mask (1958). Following their success, the Toei Company launched their own toku franchises: Kamen Rider (1971), Super Sentai (1975) and Metal Hero (1982). Toei was involved in the Spider-Man television series, which influenced their subsequent Super Sentai series. In 2003, TV Asahi began broadcasting the Super Sentai and Kamen Rider series in a one-hour block known as Super Hero Time. Toho, the creators of Godzilla, had their hands in creating the Chouseishin Series of programs from 2003 to 2006.
Tokusatsu outside Japan
Techniques used to film early toku movies and television series were quickly revered and emulated by filmmakers around the world. Godzilla – King of the Monsters! first appeared in English in 1956. Rather than a simple dub of the Japanese-language original, this work represented an entirely re-edited version that restructured the plot to incorporate a new character played by American actor Raymond Burr. Ultraman gained popularity when United Artists dubbed it for American audiences.
During the 1960s, British production company AP Films combined many of the hallmarks of the tokusatsu genre, such as the use of miniature models and pyrotechnics, with marionette puppets suspended and controlled by thin wires to create Supermarionation (a portmanteau of “super”, “marionette” and “animation”). It was used extensively in the company’s numerous Gerry Anderson-produced action-adventure series, such as Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds. This unique filming style found its way back into Japanese tokusatsu beginning with the 1980 series X-Bomber (known internationally as Star Fleet), filmed with refined Supermarionation techniques. Japanese puppeteer Kinosuke Takeda produced three Supermarionation styled television series between 1960 and 1970 including Spaceship Silica, Galaxy Boy Troop and Aerial City 008.
In 1993, Saban Entertainment launched Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, a combination of tokusatsu fighting scenes from Super Sentai and American filmed drama. This series, and subsequent Saban productions such as VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs began a boom in interest for tokusatsu in rest of the world. Power Rangers became a mainstay of children’s entertainment around the globe, producing 23 years of television programmes and three major motion pictures.
In 2002, 4Kids Entertainment bought the rights to Ultraman Tiga but simply produced a dub of the Japanese footage; in 2009, Adness Entertainment took Toei’s Kamen Rider Ryuki and turned it into Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, which began broadcast in the USA on The CW4Kids in 2009. It won the first Daytime Emmy for “Outstanding Stunt Coordination” for its original scenes.
While the genre is and will forever be primarily one of men in robot suits fighting other men in monster suits, the rise in prominence of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery), as well as the peak in popularity of comic book based movies and television, has morphed the tokusatsu genre to mean any cinematography that uses special effects as a focus of its production.
Classic tokusatsu filming techniques, such as suitmation, continue to thrive in the 21st Century despite the fluidity of CGI animals and monsters. It is extremely difficult to mimic realistic lighting, leading to most CGI creatures and characters looking obviously fake when placed alongside real environments, especially if the film has a low budget and cannot afford sophisticated 3D modeling and rendering. Films such as Jurassic Park, which made heavy use of practical effects, including creature suits, remain well-regarded for their special effects, while CGI creatures quickly become dated as technology advances. This has led to the continued use of creature suits in modern-day films and commercials to provide additional realism and as such a tokusatsu footprint is left on popular Hollywood productions, such as Hellboy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.