Tokusatsu (Japanese: 特撮, "special filming") is a Japanese term for live action film or television drama that makes heavy use of special effects. Tokusatsu entertainment often deals with science fiction, fantasy or horror, but films and television shows in other genres can sometimes count as tokusatsu as well. The most popular types of tokusatsu include kaiju monster films such as the Godzilla and Gamera film series; superhero TV serials such as the Kamen Rider and Metal Hero series; and mecha dramas like Giant Robo and Ambassador Magma. Some tokusatsu television programs combine several of these subgenres, for example the Ultraman and Super Sentai series.
Tokusatsu is one of the most popular forms of Japanese entertainment, but despite the popularity of films and television programs based on tokusatsu properties such as Godzilla or Super Sentai, only a small proportion of tokusatsu films and television programs are widely known outside Asia.
Tokusatsu has origins in early Japanese theater, specifically in kabuki (with its action- and fight-scenes) and in bunraku, which utilized some of the earliest forms of special effects, specifically puppetry. Modern tokusatsu, however, did not begin to take shape until the early 1950s, with the conceptual and creative birth of Godzilla, one of the most famous monsters (kaiju) of all time.
The special-effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya and the director Ishirō Honda became the driving forces behind 1954's Godzilla. Tsuburaya, inspired by the American film King Kong, formulated many of the techniques that would become staples of the genre, such as so-called suitmation—the use of a human actor in a costume to play a giant monster—combined with the use of miniatures and scaled-down city sets. Godzilla forever changed the landscape of Japanese science fiction, fantasy, and cinema by creating a uniquely Japanese vision in a genre typically dominated by American cinema.
In 1954, Godzilla kickstarted the kaiju genre in Japan called the "Monster Boom", which remained extremely popular for several decades, with characters such as the aforementioned Godzilla, Gamera and King Ghidorah leading the market. However, in 1957 Shintoho produced the first film serial featuring the superhero character Super Giant, signaling a shift in popularity that favored masked heroes over giant monsters called the "Henshin Boom" started by Kamen Rider. Along with the anime Astro Boy, the Super Giant serials had a profound effect on the world of tokusatsu. The following year, Moonlight Mask premiered, the first of numerous televised superhero dramas that would make up one of the most popular tokusatsu subgenres. Created by Kōhan Kawauchi, he followed-up its success with the tokusatsu superhero shows Seven Color Mask (1959) and Messenger of Allah (1960), both starring a young Sonny Chiba.
These original productions preceded the first color-television tokusatsu series, Ambassador Magma and Ultraman, which heralded the Kyodai Hero genre, wherein a regular-sized protagonist grows to larger proportions to fight equally large monsters. Popular tokusatsu superhero shows in the 1970s included Kamen Rider (1971), Warrior of Love Rainbowman (1972), Super Sentai (1975) and Spider-Man (1978).
Suitmation (スーツメーション Sūtsumēshon) in Japanese identifies the process in tokusatsu movies and television programs used to portray a monster using suit acting. The exact origin of the term remains unknown. At the least, it was used to promote the Godzilla suit from The Return of Godzilla.
Franchises and productions
The many productions of tokusatsu series have general themes common throughout different groups.
Kaiju (怪獣 kaijū, literally "mysterious beast") productions primarily feature monsters, or giant monsters (大怪獣 daikaijū). Such series include Ultra Q, the Godzilla film series, the Gamera series, the Daimajin series, and films such as Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, and The X from Outer Space (宇宙大怪獣ギララ Uchu Daikaijū Girara).
Kaijin (怪人, literally "mysterious person") productions primarily feature supervillains as their central character. This includes films such as The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor, The H-Man, Half Human, and Tomei Ningen.
Since about 1960, several long-running television-series have combined various other themes. Tsuburaya Productions has had the Ultra Series starting with Ultra Q and Ultraman in 1966. P Productions began their foray into tokusatsu in 1966 with the series Ambassador Magma. They also had involvement in the Lion-Maru series which concluded in November 2006.
Toei Company has several series that fall under their Toei Superheroes category of programming, starting in 1961 with the single series, Moonlight Mask. Then, they produced several other long running series, starting with Shotaro Ishinomori's Kamen Rider Series in 1971, the Super Sentai series in 1975, the Metal Hero Series in 1982, and the Toei Fushigi Comedy Series in 1981. Toei also produced several other television series based on Ishinomori's works, including Android Kikaider and Kikaider 01, Robot Detective, Inazuman and Inazuman Flash, and Kaiketsu Zubat. Toei was also involved in the Spider-Man television series, which influenced their subsequent Super Sentai series. In 2003, TV Asahi began broadcasting the Super Sentai and Kamen Rider series in a weekly one-hour block known as Super Hero Time. Toho, the creators of Godzilla, also had their hands in creating the Chouseishin Series of programs from 2003 to 2006 and the Zone Fighter franchise.
In 2006, Keita Amemiya's Garo, a mature late-night tokusatsu drama was released, starting a franchise composed of several television series and films. Other mature late-night series followed, including a revival of Lion-Maru in Lion-Maru G, the Daimajin Kanon television series (based on the Daimajin film series), and Shougeki Gouraigan!! (also created by Amemiya).
Various movies classified as tokusatsu actually work like generalized science fiction films. These include Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる Uchūjin Tokyo ni arawaru, Spacemen Appear in Tokyo), Invasion of the Neptune Men (宇宙快速船 Uchū Kaisokusen, High Speed Spaceship), The Green Slime (ガンマー第3号 宇宙大作戦 Ganmā daisan gō: uchū daisakusen, Ganma 3 Space Mission), The Birth of Japan (日本誕生 Nippon Tanjō), The Last War (世界大戦争 Sekai daisenso, Great World War), Japan Sinks (日本沈没 Nihon Chinbotsu, Japan Sinks), Virus (復活の日 Fukkatsu no Hi, Day of Resurrection), Sayonara Jupiter (さよならジュピター Sayonara Jupitā), The War in Space (惑星大戦争 Wakusei Daisensō, War of the Planets), and Sengoku Jieitai 1549 (戦国自衛隊1549).
Kaiju and tokusatsu films, notably Warning from Space (1956), sparked Stanley Kubrick's interest in science fiction films and influenced 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). According to his biographer John Baxter, despite their "clumsy model sequences, the films were often well-photographed in colour ... and their dismal dialogue was delivered in well-designed and well-lit sets." Steven Spielberg cited Godzilla as an inspiration for Jurassic Park (1993), specifically Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956), which he grew up watching. During its production, Spielberg described Godzilla as "the most masterful of all the dinosaur movies because it made you believe it was really happening." Godzilla also influenced the Spielberg film Jaws (1975).
Non-traditional tokusatsu productions
Non-traditional tokusatsu films and television programs may not use conventional special effects or may not star human actors. Though suitmation typifies tokusatsu, some productions may use stop-motion to animate their monsters instead, for example Majin Hunter Mitsurugi in 1973. TV shows may use traditional tokusatsu techniques, but are cast with puppets or marionettes: Uchuusen Silica (1960); Ginga Shonen Tai (1963); Kuchuu Toshi 008 (1969); and Go Nagai's X Bomber (1980). Some tokusatsu may employ animation in addition to its live-action components: Tsuburaya Productions' Dinosaur Expedition Team Bornfree (1976), Dinosaur War Aizenborg (1977) and Pro-Wrestling Star Aztekaiser (1976).
Japanese fan films
Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Takami Akai, and Shinji Higuchi set up a fan-based group called Daicon Film, which they renamed Gainax in 1985 and turned into an animation studio. Besides anime sequences, they also produced a series of tokusatsu shorts parodying monster movies and superhero shows. These productions include Swift Hero Noutenki (1982), Patriotic Squadron Dai-Nippon (1983), Return of Ultraman (1983) and The Eight-Headed Giant Serpent Strikes Back (1985).
Outside of Japan
Tokusatsu techniques have spread outside Japan due to the popularity of the Godzilla films.
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! first appeared in English in 1956. Rather than a simple dub of the Japanese-language original, this work represented an entirely re-edited version which restructured the plot to incorporate a new character played by a native English-speaking actor, Raymond Burr. Ultraman gained popularity when United Artists dubbed it for American audiences in the 1960s.
In the 1990s, Haim Saban acquired the distribution rights for the Super Sentai series from Toei Company and combined the original Japanese action footage with new footage featuring American actors, resulting in the Power Rangers franchise which has continued since then into sequel TV series (with Power Rangers Beast Morphers set to premiere in 2019), comic books, video games, and three feature films, with a further cinematic universe planned. Following from the success of Power Rangers, Saban acquired the rights to more of Toei's library, creating VR Troopers and Big Bad Beetleborgs from several Metal Hero Series shows and Masked Rider from Kamen Rider Series footage. DIC Entertainment joined this boom by acquiring the rights to Gridman the Hyper Agent and turning it into Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad.
In 2002, 4Kids Entertainment bought the rights to Ultraman Tiga, but simply produced a dub of the Japanese footage, broadcast on the Fox Box. And in 2009, Adness Entertainment took 2002's Kamen Rider Ryuki and turned it into Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, which began broadcast on The CW4Kids in 2009. It won the first Daytime Emmy for "Outstanding Stunt Coordination" for its original scenes.
In 1961 England-based film-makers produced the Godzilla-style film, Gorgo, which used the same suitmation technique as the Godzilla films. That same year, Saga Studios in Denmark made another Godzilla-style giant monster film, Reptilicus, bringing its monster to life using a marionette on a miniature set. In 1967, South Korea produced its own monster movie titled Yonggary. In 1975, Shaw Brothers produced a superhero film called The Super Inframan, based on the huge success of Ultraman and Kamen Rider there. The film starred Danny Lee in the title role. Although there were several other similar superhero productions in Hong Kong, The Super Inframan came first. With help from Japanese special effects artists under Sadamasa Arikawa, they also produced a Japanese-styled monster movie, The Mighty Peking Man, in 1977.
Concurrent with their work on Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, DIC attempted an original concept based on the popularity of Power Rangers in 1994's Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills. In 1998, video from an attempted Power Rangers-styled adaptation of Sailor Moon surfaced, combining original footage of American actresses with original animated sequences.
Saban also attempted at making their own unique tokusatsu series entitled Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, set in medieval Ireland and featured four, later five knights who transform using the power of the elements (for the most part) at they protected their kingdom from evil. Saban had also produced the live action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, which was known in the turtles fandom for introducing a female turtle exclusive to that series called Venus de Milo and eliminating the fact that the other turtles were brothers. The show primarily featured actors in costumes most of the time, but featured similar choreographed fights like other tokusatsu shows.
In the 2000s, production companies in other East Asian countries began producing their own original tokusatsu-inspired television series: Thailand's Sport Ranger and South Korea's Erexion in 2006; the Philippines' Zaido: Pulis Pangkalawakan (itself a sanctioned spinoff of Toei's Space Sheriff Shaider) in 2007; China's Armor Hero (Chinese: 铠甲勇士; pinyin: Kǎi Jiǎ Yǒng Shì) in 2009, Giant Saver (Chinese: 巨神战击队第; pinyin: Jùshén zhàn jí duì) in 2013, Metal Kaiser (Chinese: 五龙奇剑士; pinyin: Wǔ Lóng Qí Jiàn Shì); and Indonesia's Bima Satria Garuda which began in 2013.
On July the 1st, 2019, Vietnam's Transform Studio co-operating with Dive Into Eden announced their own original tokusatsu series, Mighty Guardian (Vietnamese: Chiến Thần). The first season in the series is Mighty Guardian: Lost Avian (Vietnamese: Chiến Thần Lạc Hồng) - using Vietnamese Mythologies as the main concept.
Homage and parody
In 2001, Buki X-1 Productions, a French fan-based production company, produced its own series, Jushi Sentai France Five (now called Shin Kenjushi France Five), a tribute to Toei's long running Super Sentai series. The low-budget television series Kaiju Big Battel directly parodies monster and Kyodai Hero films and series by immersing their own costumed characters in professional wrestling matches among cardboard buildings. In 2006, Mighty Moshin' Emo Rangers premiered on the internet as a Power Rangers spoof, but was quickly picked up by MTV UK for broadcast. In 2006, Insector Sun, a low-budget tribute to Kamen Rider was produced by Brazilian fans.
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