plastic toy figures

My Biggest Complaint About Modern Tokusatsu

Before I begin with this, let me state first that I completely understand that Tokusatsu shows as they stand are driven by a need to sell toys.  That’s been the standard model for years now, going back as far as at least the original Kamen Rider, if not further there are a LOT of cool vintage Ultraman toys but I am not sure if they were an intentional thing or a byproduct of a successful show. 

The shows have always tried to present cool and marketable concepts.  Heck, it’s the reason giant robots were added to the Sentai concept to create Super Sentai.  The toy sales of the Leopardon robots toys from Toei’s 1978 Spiderman convinced them that that was a great avenue for extra sales on a tokusatsu series and thus, they put one in Battle Fever J, leading us to the series as we know it today.

Bring in the henshin belts, transformation devices and weapons and you have role play toys to add to the plastic figures and toy robots, which makes things all the cooler for kids (and yes, some of us adults) who like to imagine what it would be like to be our favorite heroes.  It’s all good fun and doesn’t really intrude on the series itself.

That said, I feel that the marketing side of things has often eclipsed the storytelling side of things in recent shows.  Instead of just having one transformation device or one robot (maybe two), things have become more and more about collecting all kinds of little things that interact with the main toys.  A good, very recent example of this would be the Eyecons from Kamen Rider Ghost.

Each of these toys interacts with the main role play toy of the line and even some of the extra ones to create new effects and/or grant new powers in the context of the show.  This can be a very fun aspect of things but it also results in having to hunt down more and more little things to complete your collection. This in and of itself isn’t so bad, it’s when it begins to intrude on the story of the TV series that things become a problem.

Let’s stick with Kamen Rider Ghost for a good example.  The first dozen or so episodes felt like a fetch quest to collect all the Luminary Eyecons needed to make their wish and bring Takeru back to life.  Each week saw a new Eyecon pop up and the heroes get one more little plastic eyeball for their collection. Time that could have been used to better tell the story and advance the plot was spent introducing the latest toy of the week.

Kamen Rider Ghost isn’t alone in this, not by a long shot. One of the parts of 2013′s Ultraman Ginga that hurt the show was that it seemed less about the heroes and how cool their fights were and more about collecting dolls of the various monsters and Ultra Heroes to add to their collection.  It essentially turned an entry in a venerable franchise into a half hour commercial for Bandai’s line of barely poseable soft vinyl dolls.

Super Sentai isn’t immune to this.  If you travel back to 2001, the series Hyakujyuu Sentai Gaoranger (Hundred Beast Task Force Gaoranger) seemed pretty determined to live up to its name, introducing a new animal every few episodes and each of those animals could become a new part of the team mecha.  Some of them were only seen for one episode and then rarely, if ever, used again.  It was a blatant bit of ‘Hey Kids here’s the new toy to buy’!

That’s not to say these things can’t be done well without interrupting the flow of the series.  For example, Kamen Rider OOOs did a good job or organically adding the medal quest aspect of things into the mains story without taking away from the actual story being told. It wasn’t flawlessly done but it never seemed to derail the story itself.

Another good example is Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger.  The characters didn’t spend their time looking for the collectible objects in the show, they already had them all (well most of them) from the start with their treasure chest full of Ranger Keys.

The real quest of the show was to figure out how to harness the actual powers of the keys and the heroes they represented.  This never felt overly forced or just to sell more products (though we all know they sold a TON of plastic Ranger Keys and kept making them for later series). The quest aspect never seemed to get in the way of characterization or story and felt pretty natural for a group of space pirate treasure hunters.

This collectible aspect of things seems ingrained into modern tokusatsu with very few shows failing to incorporate some aspect of it into their story engine.  In fact, the only series I can think of in recent memory not to have a collectible line to go with it was Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters and that series failed to move toys off the shelves in Japan, perhaps dooming the concept of a series without a tie in collectible aspect. 

This really is the nature of the beast when it comes to marketing driven franchises.  They either adapt with the times or die.  I don’t know if Pokemon itself is to blame for this but it seems to mark the beginning of when collectibles became a big trend with it’s wildly successful idea of hunting down and collecting all of a certain kind of creature to make the player stronger. It certainly created a lot of imitators and influenced media beyond gaming and anime.

Even though I criticize this aspect of modern tokusatsu, I’m not immune from it.  Anyone who has seen my personal collection knows I got sucked in by the Zyudenchi from Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger and have tons of little plastic batteries, some of which never even appeared in the series itself but just exist to give people MORE to collect.

I know this aspect of things is here to stay for the foreseeable future but I just hope they keep finding ways to incorporate it without derailing the story in favor of the merchandise.  They have been getting better about this in some shows, that’s for sure.  For example, Ultraman Orb incorporated the collectible cards in a fun way that actually added to the series itself.

I know this is really just my pet peeve with a lot of modern tokusatsu (and not my only one) but it has been a trend I’ve seen growing and growing over the years.  When done well, it can add some fun to a series and really sell the idea as well as the toys to the audience.  When done poorly, it pulls the audience out by displaying a blatant marketing device that smacks of taking advantage of the audience.