To date, the Marvel Anime project has been met mostly with indifference. As the west has yet to work out a winning way of selling superhero cartoons to Japan (although they’re trying again soon with a new Avengers kids series), maybe Japan can sell superhero anime to the west instead? This week, I’m picking a handful of Nippon’s most super homegrown heroes, in the hope that all you Big Two fans might be up for a walk on the wild side.
Ask someone in the street what a superhero looks like and they’ll probably describe a classic caped crime fighter like Superman or Batman. In Japanese pop-culture, however, the image of a superhero is a little different from what we’re used to. Surprisingly, many of the most iconic heroes (such as Kamen Rider and the ‘Super Sentai’ teams, basis for the Power Rangers) don’t even come from comic books. Rather, they are kitsch creations of the colour-tv age, boasting outlandish costumes and fighting styles influenced by special-effects films from the ’50s and ’60s.
Although such shows are massively popular, there isn’t as much of a crossover into anime as you might expect (based on what filters through into English, at least). Plenty of series do have super-powered heroes, but their setting tends to be more overtly fantastical or sci-fi oriented. Finding shows to recommend that star recognisable superheroes was hard, but they are out there, if you squint a bit.
Tiger & Bunny:
Despite the ridiculous title, this show, about corporate-sponsored superheroes vying for attention on reality TV, was a big hit when it premiered in 2011. Always looking to improve their ratings, the producers of Hero TV decide to manufacture a gimmicky team-up between kind-hearted never-was, Wild Tiger, and wealthy new golden-boy Bruce Wayne, er, Barnaby Brooks Jr, little knowing that the latter is hell-bent on revenge against the shadowy figure who murdered his parents. While I found the awkward bromance of its central twosome difficult to bear, this is a witty and well-made series with a great idea behind it.
Birdy the Mighty:
What’s up with these titles? While pursuing an intergalactic perp on earth, lady alien cop Birdy Cephon Altera accidentally kills Tsutomu Senkawa, an innocent teenage boy. In order to preserve his mind while her superiors try to rebuild him, Birdy merges his consciousness into hers, leaving the two stuck in an awkward bodily timeshare where Birdy attempts to continue her investigation and Tsutomu tries not to die of embarrassment. A classier affair than you might imagine, Birdy is an amusing take on the secret identity story, boasting crisp animation and fluid, well-choreographed action. I feel the original run from the 1990s has more bite, but a later reboot, “Decode”, is still fun and much easier to come by at the moment.
You might just remember this one. Possessed by an alien artifact that grants him a suit of biomechanical armour, high-school everyman Sho Fukamachi is relentlessly pursued by the evil Cronos corporation, determined to make the alien being part of their bid take over the world. Adapted three times into anime and always soundly thrashed by the critics, the second version was still hugely popular over here on video in the 1990s. Time has not been kind to its basic storytelling and laughable English dub, but with its brutal, slice-em-up action and memorably hideous monster design, it’s not hard to see why this was the show that your mate nicked the tapes of and wouldn’t give them back until you got your dad to complain to his mum.
So there you are, three very different responses to the superhero genre. Tiger & Bunny can be officially streamed via the Animax UK website, if you’re willing to sign up for a two-week free trial, while both seasons of Birdy the Mighty: Decode are available on youtube thanks to Manga Entertainment (link below). Sadly, the ’90s Guyver never made it to DVD in the UK, but VHS tapes sold by the bucket-load and are not hard to come by.
Original poster- Alan Graham