In Search of Heroes of Justice; A Brief Investigation into Anime and Tokusatsu

bahamut faces 2

Two of my favorite shows this fall are Rage of Bahamut: Genesis and Garo, the newest projects by daring animation studio MAPPA. They’ve proven themselves to be excellent in the past week or so, but what drew my attention even before they premiered wasn’t necessarily the associated studio, or even the directors, but the writing talent involved. Garo is written by Yasuko Kobayashi, who adapted the 80s cult classic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure to the screen along with current mega-hit Attack on Titan, and who a few years ago worked on Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s revisionist epic Casshern Sins. In comparison, the writer of Bahamut, Keiichi Hasegawa, seems considerably less experienced writing anime, with only a handful of episodes of children’s shows such as Astro Boy and Zoids under his belt. Even paid writers on Anime News Network thought as much, saying that Bahamut’s quality was unexpected considering the writer’s limited experience. I would have fallen into the same trap if a fellow twitterer didn’t tell me that Hasegawa is actually an extraordinarily experienced writer, just as much so as Kobayashi. While his work on anime is limited, as a tokusatsu (or special effects live-action show in the style of Kamen Rider or 90s fad Power Rangers) writer he’s been unusually prolific, putting out successful work since at least 1996. It was that revelation that turned me onto reading into tokusatsu as a whole. Many anime fans dismiss tokusatsu as children’s entertainment, men and women in suits fighting monsters-of-the-week featuring remarkably poor special effects. This is true to an extent, but if you read between the lines (and do some of your own research) there is actually more crossover between anime and tokusatsu than one might think.

besides modern anime classic samurai flamenco, of course

As an example let’s talk about Yasuko Kobayashi, the aforementioned writer of Garo. Besides having recently penned Attack on Titan, arguably one of the most successful animated properties from Japan in recent history, Kobayashi is arguably one of the best and most prolific tokusatsu writers currently working. Her work is extensive enough that it’s hard to cover it all in detail, and my knowledge of tokusatsu shows is comparatively limited. That said, to start with: besides serving as head writer on a variety of sentai series (including the well-liked Mirai Sentai Timeranger) she also served as head writer alongside tokusatsu legend Toshiki Inoue on Kamen Rider Ryuuki, an unusually dark installment in the franchise. Featuring a war between multiple riders, the hero fights against mysterious mirror creatures who pull humans into their realm to feast on them, only to realize…that the other riders draw their powers from mirror monsters themselves, which break free and attack humans upon the rider’s defeat! Yes, this is essentially the plot of Madoka Magica except it’s a tokusatsu show from 2002, and as much as Urobuchi denies that he was influenced by it maybe it’s no coincidence that his own Kamen Rider series – Kamen Rider Gaim – is a Battle Royale-style multiple rider series like Ryuuki. Kobayashi also penned the live-action Sailor Moon series, which those of you who are die-hard Sailor Moon fans may have seen; despite its limited special effects, the story takes an unusually serious turn from both the anime and manga, where Usagi’s alter-ego Princess Serenity seeks to destroy the earth rather than save it.

Besides Ryuuki, Kobayashi also recently served as head writer on Kamen Rider Den-O and OOODen-O is a time travel story, a genre which judging from her other work Kobayashi seems unusually fond of. OOO, on the other hand, is one of the more acclaimed recent tokusatsu series of the past few years, a character-driven saga in which an amnesiac teams up with a disembodied arm to fight evil because…yeah, Kamen Rider can be pretty weird sometimes. Her other anime work is not quite as notable as the series mentioned above, ranging from better-than-it-sounds action series like Witchblade to once-popular, currently despised Shakugan no Shana to CLAYMORE, which people liked but agree could have ended much better. Tokusatsu fans criticize Kobayashi for rushing her endings at times, and pacing her work unevenly with strong starts and relatively weak middles. But it’s difficult to argue with the fact that not only is Kobayashi one of the most established tokusatsu writers currently working, but she’s a woman who’s found great success in a field that’s traditionally been heavily male-dominated. That’s pretty cool!

OH YEAH COUNTERATTACK

In contrast to Kobayashi, Hasegawa’s much less experienced when it comes to writing anime. But he has worked on practically every installment of tokusatsu franchise Ultraman in the past decade, starting with Ultraman Tiga and serving as chief writer on Ultraman Dyna and NexusTiga first aired in 1996, so consider: Hasegawa’s been in the tokusatsu business for at least 18 years! Outside of Ultraman, Hasegawa served as secondary writer on Kamen Rider W – one of the most beloved of modern Rider shows – and Kamen Rider Fourze, where he collaborated directly with playwright and anime scribe Kazuki Nakashima of Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill fame. It goes without saying that Hasegawa played an important role in complicating the tone of tokusatsu series, subjecting the heroes to adversity and forcing them to grow and change as people rather than remain as static heroes. Ultraman Nexus is particularly characteristic of Hasegawa’s approach, chucking out the monster-of-the-week format so common to tokusatsu shows and instead structuring itself into arcs focusing on different characters. Nexus was ultimately a ratings failure, cut short from 50+ episodes to 38 due to its unusually dark themes and unique construction, but its legacy alongside Hasegawa’s ambitions paved the way for later tokusatsu series that bucked trends in a similar fashion. If I don’t have as much to say about Hasegawa as I do about Kobayashi, it’s only because the Ultraman fanbase in the United States seems a lot less active than Kamen Rider’s. But make no mistake, Hasegawa’s a proven talent and it’s safe to assume that Bahamut is in good hands.

as if there was any doubt

And of course, Kobayashi and Hasegawa are hardly the only writers from tokusatsu to work in anime – and vice-versa. Chiaki Konaka, famous for his work on cerebral anime series like Serial Experiments LainDigimon Tamers and The Big O, served as head writer on Ultraman Gaia. Konaka loves writing about protagonists forced to come to terms with good and evil and fight against Lovecraftian horrors, and true to form Gaia is about…protagonists forced to come to terms with good and evil and fight against Lovecraftian horrors. Tokusatsu scribe Riku Sanjo, who worked on Kamen Riders W, Fourze and the more recent Drive, along with sentai series Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, also wrote the shounen manga Beet the Vandal Buster well as his claim to fame, MD Geist! No, really (he’s a good writer, I swear!) Similarly, when people talk about the Death Note anime they’re often quick to mention the influence of controversial director Tetsuro Araki, but that series composition was handled by aforementioned sentai writing legend Toshiki Inoue comes up much less often. Even the writer of current favorite Parasyte -the maxim-, Shoji Yonemura, has worked in tokusatsu, serving as head writer on Kamen Rider Kabuto and on Decade starting with episode 26.

When you’re a fan of a certain genre or medium, it’s easy to focus on what you like and ignore the wide range of media outside. Both anime fans and tokusatsu fans are equally guilty of this. But the truth is that the boundary between these genres is quite fluid; writers often find success in one such genre before dabbling in another. In this way, breakthroughs are made: after all, Nakashima was a playwright, Urobuchi wrote visual novels and Toh Enjoe, one of the best writers who contributed to Studio Bones’s recent success Space Dandy, had up to that point never written for anime at all! Crossover extends outside of writing as well, with successful talents like composer Hiroyuki Sawano having composed the soundtracks for j-drama such as Iryuu: Team Medical Dragon before breaking into the anime industry with his work on Sengoku BasaraAttack on Titan and Kill la Kill. To quote from an old favorite, Pixar’s Ratatouille: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” Pop culture is not a monolith, or a field where each genre is put in its own separate box. It’s a curry of many ingredients all bubbling together, the tastes mixing with each other in unique and sometimes unexpected ways. Some might look at the results and be confused, but for me it’s in seeing how these varied ingredients alchemize that culture truly comes alive.

GARRRROOOOOOOOOO

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One response to “In Search of Heroes of Justice; A Brief Investigation into Anime and Tokusatsu

  1. Kamen Rider Gaim’s gotten a lot more attention from anime fans, simply because Urobuchi’s hand in writing it. But I’m glad you’ve pointed out that Urobuchi’s hardly the first example of a writer crossing genres & mediums…anime and tokusatsu writers can learn a lot from each other. What makes anime like Garo so appealing to fans is how straight it plays the dark fantasy genre, without feeling the need to adopt or acknowledge tropes exclusively characteristic of anime. Super Sentai and Kamen Rider series are more diverse than people assume and there are series that are darker and more serious than your standard Power Rangers fare.

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