Sunday, August 27, 2023

Dipping my toe into Tokusatsu

Kamen Rider (superhero with a bug-like mask) flexes his bicep

Over the past couple of years, I've been getting more into mecha, both in anime form and model kit form. This has caused me to brush up against mecha's older live-action cousin, tokusatsu. For those unfamiliar, tokusatsu ("toku" for short) is a Japanese TV/film genre that tends to prominently feature superheroes, monsters, and giant robots. Power Rangers and Godzilla are two of the most popular examples in the West. 

Whenever I've been in hobby stores shopping for Gundams, inevitably see some toku kits on the shelf too. And whenever I watch mecha anime, toku shows are often something streaming services recommend I watch next. And you know what? I think it's working.

So I've had my eye out for a toku on-ramp for a little while now. When I heard about Hideki Anno's (of Evangelion fame) recent Shin tokusatsu film trilogy, I figured I finally had a way in. I've now seen all 3, so here's some thoughts on each:

Shin Ultraman poster featuring the titular alien superhero and his human allies

Shin Ultraman - While I had seen a few random episodes of Ultraman Tiga back when it was on TV in the US, I didn't really know what to expect from this movie based on the original 1960s series. To be honest, I found this film a bit hard to get into due to how much of a love letter it was to its source material. By trying to cram as many plot arcs from the TV series into one movie as possible, I found it hard to get invested as a newcomer. However, the passion that was put into Shin Ultraman was enough to have me interested in watching the next Shin movie.

Shin Godzilla poster featuring a silhouette of Godzilla against a red background.

Shin Godzilla - When I was a kid, I had a phase where giant monster movies were my jam, so Shin Godzilla is the entry in this series I came most prepared to watch. And I'll get right to the point, I loved it! The monster designs were fantastic and the human characters felt a lot more fleshed out than those in Shin Ultraman. The film also did some interesting things with symbolism and political commentary; a revitalization of concepts that have faded a bit from the franchise since the days of Gojira. Just thinking about this movie again has gotten me counting down the days until the next Godzilla movie, Godzilla Minus One.

Shin Kamen Rider poster. The hero stands with his iconic red scarf flapping in the wind

Shin Kamen Rider - For this one, I came in almost completely blind. Other than knowing that Kamen Rider is a superhero with a green mask and a motorcycle, I had no idea what I was getting into. What I found was that this was easily the most uneven of the three. For starters, the movie is quite gory, which I was not expecting. The other thing is that the tone fluctuates abruptly from corny or zany to very dark and serious. I'm not really sure how much of this is a reflection of the source material versus a bold stylistic choice on the part of the filmmakers. Despite this, unlike Shin Ultraman, Shin Kamen Rider developed its characters in such a way that helped me get to know them as a newcomer and get invested in their personal struggles. I'm not sure if I can say this was a "good film" per se, but it was definitely successful in piquing my interest in the franchise.

After having this tokusatsu sampler platter with these three films. I'm still trying to decide where to go from here; have I sated my curiosity or do I want to go deeper into the toku rabbit hole? As I wait for Godzilla Minus One to come out, I think I'll keep an eye out toku model kits that look like they'll be nice additions to my shelf. I'm also tempted to look for a shorter Kamen Rider series to try out. Let me know if you have any suggestions!


  1. Great timing! A new Kamen Rider series - Kamen Rider Gotchard - starts in Japan next week, and Ultraman Blazar is being released on YouTube in all regions both subbed and dubbed! Very cool that it's becoming more accessible so fast, and that you got to see all three in theaters to get a taste test (even through the lens of a single guest-star director)!

    1. I'll check those out! Thanks for the recommendations! And I 100% agree about the accessibility of toku (and Asian cinema in general); I try to support their theatrical releases whenever I can.

  2. Another Kamen Rider that was made for the 50th anisversary is Kamen Rider Black Sun. So it is a modern take and a short series at 10 episodes. It is quite violent tho, more than Shin Kamen Rider, so a pass if you didn't like that part.

    Personally, I quite liked a trilogy of movies made by Keita Amemiya (known for Zeiram), because I really like his aesthetic. They are 50-90 minute movies, Kamen Rider J, Shin Prologue and ZO.

    Mechanical Violator Hakaider, a different Toku-Franchise Movie from the 90s by Amemiya, was also peak aesthetics.

    1. Thanks for all these recommendations! I was okay with the violence in Shin Kamen Rider, I just wasn't expecting it. A 10-episode Kamen Rider series definitely sounds like a nice next step. Also, having watched a few trailers of the Amemiya films, I see what you mean about that early 90s aesthetic. I'm intrigued!