Special thanks to my friends Branden and Sarah for helping me proofread this.
You’re probably asking “What in the heck is tokusatsu?” The word tokusatsu, or toku for short, is a Japanese word with the literal translation of “special filming”. A broader interpretation is “a film with special effects”. The tokusatsu genre has grown throughout the years and jumped across Japan’s borders to influence film around the world. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the history of tokusatsu in Japan and how it has influenced American cinema.
Toku-like films began before the start of the “giant monster” craze, although they had more puppetry than true special effects. Tokusatsu got its true start with a film American audiences may be a little familiar with called Godzilla. Yes, the giant, fire-breathing lizard can easily be considered the grandfather of all things toku-related. Godzilla was released in Japan in 1954, but in only two short years, a different version of the movie was edited and re-shot for American audiences. All the Japanese actors from the original were dubbed and some scenes were re-shot with American actors, with the most notable being Raymond Burr. This would not be the last time a toku production was re-edited before crossing overseas.
After Godzilla, giant rubber suit monsters, or “kaiju”, became a fast craze for Japanese and American audiences. Gamera and King Ghidorah both became huge in their home country, with various features released in the US. While never receiving quite as much adoration as Godzilla, Gamera still has a bit of a cult following among American audiences today. In 1957, the first superhero-themed tokusatsu broke away from the kaiju craze with Super Giant. Older American audiences may know this character as Starman, which was adapted into four US TV films using nine of the films from the Japanese series. After that, superheroes became more popular on Japanese television with series such as Moonlight Mask and Ultraman. Ultraman had such success at home that it also was re-cut and dubbed for the States. In recent years, Ultraman has left the small screen and can almost exclusively be seen in movie theaters.
During this run, Toei became the go-to company for television superheroes. With hits like Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, Toei ruled the airwaves. They even adapted the two aforementioned series into several films. In fact, Super Sentai was eventually re-cut into the Power Rangers series in the US. The Power Rangers were so popular that they actually received their own film spin-offs in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie and Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, respectively. In 1995, Kamen Rider was re-cut into the series known as Masked Rider in the US. However, the television version of Kamen Rider went on hiatus in Japan, so Masked Rider only had enough footage to use for one season. During this time, Toei created several Kamen Rider films, until they decided to bring the series back to television. After Kamen Rider returned to Japanese airwaves in 2000, the 2002 series Kamen Rider Ryuki was re-cut and dubbed for American audiences in 2009 by Steve and Michael Wang with Kamen Rider Dragon Knight.
You may be asking “What does any of this have to do with American Cinema?” Tokusatsu’s influence is felt throughout many popular American productions. Other than the Godzilla re-cuts and Power Rangers, 1991’s The Guyver was without a doubt the first all-American produced tokusatsu (directed by Kamen Rider Dragon Knight’s eventual show-runner Steve Wang). Based on the Japanese comic of the same name, The Guyver was billed as starring Mark Hamill. However, the main character was actually portrayed by Jack Armstrong. Unfortunately, the film did not perform too well at the box office although its sequel, Guyver: Dark Hero, fared much better with its 1994 release.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the definition of tokusatsu began to grow as it applied to American produced movies and television shows as well. Television series such as Doctor Who, Lost In Space, and Red Dwarf, and movies such as Independence Day, Star Wars, and The Matrix all rest comfortably under the tokusatsu blanket due to their heavy use of special effects and costume design.
In the last 20 years or so, tokusatsu has definitely evolved as an art form in both Japan and the US. Superhero series Kamen Rider and Super Sentai now see yearly film releases for their respective series. In fact, just this year, the two franchises debuted their first ever cross over film entitled Superhero Taisen. On our side of the world, Godzilla was given the Hollywood treatment with the 1998 American adaptation. In 2008’s shaky-cam/giant monster movie Cloverfield, the kaiju presence is extremely noticeable.The film’s producer, J.J. Abrams, admitted that Godzilla had made a huge impact on the film’s production. Marvel’s Iron Man, Captain America, and The Avengers, though they were not directly influenced by tokusatsu, all play with the same formula of combining long-established characters and letting them interact in different features with a great mixture of over-the-top acting and over-the-top action. This technique has long been perfected by the yearly Kamen Rider and Super Sentai theatrical features. Godzilla himself is even due for a comeback with a new Hollywood produced film which appears closer in spirit to the original series of films than the 1998 production.
In the modern era of the internet where Youtube reigns supreme, several independent tokusatsu productions have begun to see the light of day right here in the USA. The Thousand Pounds Action Company is a group of like-minded individuals who set forth to make short films based on their favorite franchises. After several shorts loosely based on the long running Street Fighter video game franchise, they upped their game with a longer video that featured a fight between characters from the Japanese animated series, Naruto. Most recently, they started a Kickstarter page to fund their first original full-length feature entitled Clandestine: Follow The Path. Not content to let Thousand Pounds get all the indie-toku glory, Fernando Jay Huerto decided to take his love of Kamen Rider to the extreme and created Battle Hero Absolute, an episodic web series about an average Joe that transforms into a superhero to defend earth from invading aliens.
All in all, tokusatsu is really just a word. Its definition has stretched over the years, and with recent American outings, even applies to films that aren’t Japanese in origin. The special effects have really evolved over the years, going from simple camera tricks to a good mixture of CG and live-action. It will be fun to see how the word re-defines itself in the years to come.
Thousand Pounds Action Company: http://thousandpoundsaction.com/media
Battle Hero Absolute: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hI2YlGOaHs