Entry updated 20 September 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Tokusatsu is a contraction of the Japanese term tokushu satsuei ["special photography"] and is the term for special effects used in live action film and Television. It is mainly associated with those sf, Fantasy and Horror productions that are dominated by special effects; thus there are many works in those genres not classifiable as Tokusatsu.
Strictly speaking, Tokusatsu applies to all special effects and can refer to works from any country. However, it is typically used to refer to Japanese productions, with a tendency to be associated with what are now considered old fashioned techniques. Kaiju movies are the most popular example, giving us Tokusatsu's most familiar trope: a man dressed in monster suit (called "suitmation") rampaging through scale models of cities and other structures. The pioneer of this was Eiji Tsuburaya, whose special effects work for Godzilla (1954; original title Gojira) used suitmation because of its time-saving and economic virtues over other options – as opposed to the film's inspiration King Kong (1933), which used stop-motion and mechanical models for its main character. Save for the big Superhero franchises (see below), most of the works popularly referred to as Tokusatsu were made prior to 1980.
Many Tokusatsu works feature Kaiju, Mecha or Superheroes – and frequently a combination of them; productions centred on the first two are covered in their respective entries in this encyclopedia. Others are listed below, where if the English title is used the Japanese original is included after the date.
Japan's earliest film in the superhero category is Ôgon bat: Matenrô no kaijin (1950) – featuring the cape-wearing, rapier-wielding Ôgon bat ["Golden Bat"], a revived Atlantean mummy and arguably the world's first superhero, depending on the definition used (his adventures first being published in 1931 – see Kamishibai). However, this film is obscure and the amount of special effects used is unknown. A later film Ōgon Bat (1966) did use many special effects.
The next big-screen Japanese superhero was Super Giant (in Japanese, Sūpā Jaiantsu) who starred in 9 short films, 38-57 minutes long, called Super Giant, Super Giant 2 etc (1957-1959); he is a human-like Alien, with some superpowers, such as flight, though not exceptionally tall; in 1964 the stories were edited into four television films for the US market, Atomic Rulers of the World (1964), Invaders from Space (1964), Attack from Space (1964) and Evil Brain from Outer Space (1964). However, most Japanese superhero films tend to be spin-offs from successful television series and are not mentioned here, save for – as an early example – Planet Prince (1959; Yūsei Ōji) and Planet Prince – The Terrifying Spaceship (1959; Yūsei Ōji – Kyōfu no Uchūsen), two films about a superhero fighting an Alien invasion, which were spin-offs of the Planet Prince (1958; Yūsei Ōji) television series and were combined to become the US television movie Prince of Space (1962). A rare superhero film unconnected to a television series is Invasion of the Neptune Men (1961; Uchū Kaisokusen; vt Invasion From a Planet; vt Space Greyhound) where superhero Iron Sharp combats an Invasion of metal aliens, who are eventually defeated by a nuclear weapon.
As for Television, Astro Boy, beginning with the 1963-1966 series, is of great importance – but the most influential Japanese superhero series is Ultraman (1966-1967), which had numerous sequels and film spinoffs. It inspired the creation of other superheroes, most notably Kamen Rider (1971-current) and Super Sentai (1975-current) – the three franchises having spawned over a hundred television series. Kamen Rider is a motorcycling hero (or heroes) fighting Monsters – initially he was a Cyborg created by ex-Nazis who escaped before he could be brainwashed and then battled the group's fully conditioned cyborgs, but the situation and backstory would alter in later series. Super-Sentai concerned a team of super-powered heroes who battle groups that threaten Earth – but the setting, heroes and protagonists varied considerably over the years: re-edited with new material, it formed the basis of the US show Power Rangers (1993-current). Another franchise is The Metal Hero Series (Metaru Hīrō Series), comprising the Space Sheriff Series (1982-1989; Uchū Keiji Shirīzu), Rescue Police Series (1990-1994; Resukyū Porisu Shirīzu), B-Fighter Series (1994-1998; Bī Faitā Shirīzu), which had 17 different series in all, with films being released up until 2018: the metal heroes, Android, cyborg or human, can be police, military, ninjas or private detectives (see Crime and Punishment) – usually protecting the Earth from alien invasions (including those from other Dimensions), often with Space Opera elements; but sometimes simply protecting Tokyo from criminals. The show was often darker than the typical superhero series. A later, briefer, franchise was the ChouSeiShin Series (2003-2006; Chōseishin Shirīzu) which had 3 series plus 2 specials and a film, and concerned battlesuits created by a human civilization hundreds of millions years ago: they were defeated by aliens who saw them as a threat – but the suits are discovered in the present day, the wearers fighting amongst themselves until the aliens return, whereupon they work together to clear humanity's name.
Aside from the aforementioned Planet Prince, other television series include National Kid (1960; Nashonaru Kiddo), its hero is from the Andromeda Galaxy and his human alter ego raises orphans who explore odd events and, when endangered, summon him; Ambassador Magma (1966-1967; Maguma Taishi; vt Space Giants), a borderline Kaiju and Mecha series where Earth is protected from an alien invader by a golden giant; Masked Ninja Akakage (1967-1968; Kamen no Ninja Akakage), set in a sixteenth-century Japan where three ninjas fight Kaiju and other evils, using both ninja skills and high-tech gadgets; Spectreman (1971-1972; Supekutoruman), where an alien, looking for a planet to conquer, comes to Earth (and is shocked by the Pollution) – fortunately friendly aliens send Spectreman to aid humanity; Mirrorman (1971-1972; Mirāman), whose lead is the son of the alien superhero Mirrorman (his mother is human) who must defend the Earth from alien invaders (initially darker than most superhero series, commercial pressure led to it lightening its tone); Chojin Barom One (1972; 1 Baromu Wan; vt Superhuman Barom 1), in which two boys can transform into a single superhero; Warrior of Love Rainbowman (1972-1973; Ai no Senshi Reinbōman), whose wrestler protagonist, trained by an Indian yogi, can transform into Rainbowman with seven different forms representing attributes of Chinese philosophy, shown by different colours – he fights a foreign organization that wants revenge on Japan for World War Two; Android Kikaider (1972-1973; Jinzō Ningen Kikaidā; vt Kikaider, Android of Justice), in which a Scientist designs an Android to protect his offspring, but disappears before its conscience circuit is finished – despite this it fights the Robots sent to kidnap the children; Kikaider 01 (1973-1974; Kikaidā Zero Wan), a follow-up series to the previous one; Fireman (1973; Faiyāman; vt Magma Man), in which a member of a Utopian Underground civilization moves to the surface to help defend the Earth – but when he transforms into the hero, using magma powers, he can only survive in sunlight for three minutes; Jumborg Ace (1973; Janbōgu Ēsu) a benevolent alien turns the hero's plane into a giant mecha to battle alien invaders; Zone Fighter (1973; Ryūsei Ningen Zōn), in which an alien family moves to Earth after their planet is destroyed, and later those responsible come to invade Earth and the son becomes Zone Fighter to battle them (Godzilla makes a guest appearance); Robot Detective (1973; Robotto keiji), where a female scientist builds a robot (that joins the police) designed to defeat the robots built by her evil brother; Diamond Eye: Warrior Of Light (1973-1974; Hikari no Senshi Daiyamondo Ai), where a reporter has a blue diamond ring from which Diamond Eye can be summoned; Inazuman (1973-1974), whose the hero, a mutant, can transform into an energy-absorbing pupa – when enough is absorbed he becomes a superpowered moth; Inazuman Furasshu (1974), a follow-up to the previous series; Symbol of Justice Condorman (1975; Seigi no Shinboru Kondōruman), whose hero, dying after helping a Dragon Condor and her egg, merges with the newly hatched chick, revives and can become Condorman at will; Akumaizer 3 (1975-1976; 3, Akumaizā Surī), where three refugees from an underground civilization fight to prevent it conquering Earth's surface (references are made to Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers); Chōjin Bibyūn (1976-1977), sequel to the previous series; The Kagestar (1976-1977; Za Kagesutā) has a motorcycle-riding hero with a weaponized cape who can merge with his shadow; Megaloman (1979; Megaroman), a mother and son take refuge on Earth after their planet is invaded, only to find Earth is the invaders next target – the mother gives the son a bracelet that transforms him into Megaloman and also gives such bracelets to his martial-arts friends.
Shows like Moonlight Mask (1958; Gekkō Kamen) and Seven Color Mask (1959-1960; Nanairo Kamen; vt New Seven Color Mask; vt Shin Nanairo Kamen; vt Rainbow Mask), though Superhero series, were less reliant on special effects and so are borderline Tokusatsu.
Tokusatsu sf films not dominated by Kaiju, Mecha or Superheroes (though there are grey areas and overlaps) include: Warning from Space (1956; Uchūjin Tokyo ni arawaru), where aliens warn of a rogue planet on collision course with Earth – it is destroyed by nuclear weapons; The Mysterians (1957; Chikyū Bōeigun); The H-Man (1958; Bijo to Ekitai-ningen); Battle in Outer Space (1959; Uchū Daisensō); The Human Vapor (1960; original title Gasu Ningen Daiichigō), where a man turns to crime when a Scientist's experiments give him the ability to turn into a gas; Gorath (1962; Yosei Gorasu); Atragon (1963; Kaitei Gunkan); Matango (1963), based on William Hope Hodgson's story "The Voice in the Night" (November 1907 Blue Book Magazine), where shipwreck survivors who eat an island's mushrooms turn into fungal creatures; The Terror Beneath the Sea (1966; Kaitei daisensô; vt Water Cyborgs), in which two journalists are kidnapped by cyborg fish-men and taken to the villain's underwater lair, where he plots to take over the world; the US/Japan The Green Slime (1968; vt Ganmā Daisan Gō: Uchū Daisakusen); Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968; Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro), where the survivors of a crashed plane battle an alien blob that can possess people and is vampiric – most die and the alien escapes to its Spaceship to join the Invasion fleet; the Japan/US Latitude Zero (1969; Ido zero daisakusen), whose title indicates the location of a technologically advanced underwater Utopia that guides humanity and which a supervillain wishes to destroy.
In Tidal Wave (1973; Nihon Chinbotsu); Prophecies of Nostradamus (1974; Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen; vt Last Days of Planet Earth) we see the world is blighted with giant Mutant slugs, bats and leeches (see Great and Small), plus cannibals, Telekinetic children, environmental Disasters, nuclear war and then horrifically mutated humans fighting for food in a Post-Holocaust world ... only to reveal that this is a cautionary tale by a modern-day advocate of Nostradamus's prophecies speaking to the Japanese parliament (a controversial film in Japan, it was quickly edited down following complaints over some scenes); in Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds (1977; Kyōryū Kaichō no Densetsu) a Plesiosaurus and a Rhamphorhynchus terrorize an area near Mount Fuji – they battle and the mountain erupts (a borderline Kaiju work); in The War in Space (1977; Wakusei Daisensō; vt Great Planet War), aliens based on Venus invade the Earth – there is a successful race to complete the space battleship Gohten in time (there are connections to the 1962 film Gorath); Message from Space (1978; Uchū kara no Messēji) is a film where the influence of Star Wars (1977) may be detected – her planet conquered by the Gavanas Empire, Princess Emeralida flees, seeking help, which she finds. It might be argued that improvements in special effects meant sf films now became too polished to be considered true Tokusatsu: possible later examples are Cyber Ninja (1988; Mirai Ninja: Keigumo Kinin Gaiden; vt Warlord; vt Robo Ninja), where a rogue cyber-ninja sides with humans in the war between humans and cyborgs; and GUNHED (1989; Ganheddo), where the AI in charge of a robotics factory decides to wipe out humanity, and though its robots defeat the military's GUNHEDs (Gun UNit of Heavy Eliminate Device), a stalemate follows – years later, as the AI plans to attack again, scavengers recover a damaged GUNHED.
As for sf television series not centred on Kaiju, Mecha or Superheroes (though, as with films, there are overlaps, particularly with the latter category), examples include Akuma-kun ["Devil's Child"] (1966-1967), based on a Manga by Shigeru Mizuki, concerning a boy given a flute by a Dr Faust that enables him to control the demons he is destined to fight – he is allied with Mephisto, a lecherous devil from Hell (and an unwilling participant); Space Tokusatsu Series: Captain Ultra (1967; Uchū Tokusatsu Shirīzu: Kyaputen Urutora), loosely based on Captain Future, which has Captain Ultra of the Space Patrol protecting the Earth; Giant Robo (1967-1968; Jaianto Robo; vt Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot) where, after Earth is invaded, a captured scientist manages to pass control of a giant robot to a young boy, who joins Earth's freedom fighters; Space Ironman Kyodain (1976-1977; Uchū Tetsujin Kyōdain), where aliens from the planet Dada kidnap a scientist, forcing him to upgrade their robots before they invade Earth, but he programmes his sons' personalities into two of them, to defend our planet; Daitetsujin 17 (1977; Daitetsujin Wan-Sebun), another "young boy controls a giant robot series", where he uses it to fight the robots of the rogue Computer, Brain; Star Wolf (1978; Sutā Urufu) is based on Edmond Hamilton's trilogy Starwolf (1967-1968), though Morgan Chane's name is changed to Ken Shinsei – the series was later edited into a US television film, Fugitive Alien (1988); Dinosaur Squadron Koseidon (1978; Kyōryū Sentai Koseidon; vt Dinosaur Squadron Koseidon Fight Human Cannon Koseider; vt Kyōryū Sentai Koseidon Tatakae Ningen Taihō Koseidā), in which a time patrol (see Time Travel; Time Police) protects the Cretaceous era – however, in 2001 Japan is attacked from that era as part of an alien invasion plot, which the patrol seeks to prevent, hindered by the aliens' ability to control dinosaurs via Telepathy – fortunately the hero can stop time for 30 seconds (see Stasis Field); Message from Space: Galactic Wars (1978-1979; Uchū kara no Messēji: Ginga Taisen), where an Earth colony which lives peacefully with indigenous aliens is taken over by an evil galactic empire – but some resist the occupation – this is a spin-off of the previously cited film Message from Space (1978). From the 1980s, outside the superhero franchises, there were fewer live action sf shows heavily reliant on special effects, perhaps because anime could provide them more cheaply.
It should be noted the US versions of these films and tv shows were often cut and uninspiringly dubbed/translated, sometimes with added material featuring American actors and the plot drastically changed. [SP]
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