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Useful Notes / Tokusatsu

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Tokusatsu is special effects programming from Japan, more basic information can be found in the main article. This Useful Notes page is specially to go into more detail about the genre and how its tropes link into culture.

First off, some history.

    A Very Abridged History of Tokusatsu 
Tokusatsu as a medium goes back to the 1930s with King Kong Appears In Edo and Wasei King Kong, both lost films. Both only have evidence of existence via lobby cards and posters; everything else was destroyed during World War II. During the 1940s, Eiji Tsuburaya, considered the "Father of Special Effects", worked for Toho producing wartime propaganda using miniatures and large scale water scenes filmed in pools. A lot of these techniques continued to be standard for decades after. Tsuburaya went on in The '50s to continue using his effects work to produce Godzilla and Madame White Snake. The first tokusatsu television shows popped up only 2-3 years after Godzilla came, with Gekko Kamen, Nana-iro Kamen, Messenger Of Allah (a tokusatsu set in The Middle East!), National Kid (a Product Placement based show for National Appliances), and a short-lived adaptation of Astro Boy being among the earliest longform tokusatsu television. Most of these toku series were significantly different than what we have today, being more akin to the adventure serials that graced American theaters of the 1940s than anything else.

The first "modern" tokusatsu television series could be considered to be Ultra Q. With the most expensive TV budget of its day, Monster of the Week stories, a colorful cast played by name actors of the time from Toho's kaiju movies, and a "mystery" feel inspired by The Twilight Zone, Ultra Q was successful and paved the way for Ultraman and Ambassador Magma (The Space Giants), the two first color tokusatsu TV shows. Ultra Q also kicked off the first "Monster Boom" where movies and television alike did their best to somehow incorporate giant monsters into the story. This brought us, among others, Gamera and an adaptation of Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Giant Robo manga (Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot). Ultraseven was the first sequel in the Ultra Series, and is still hailed as one of the best today.

Tokusatsu continued to thrive into the early '70s. However The '70s is an interesting time for tokusatsu because kaiju films experienced shrinking viewershipnote  while television tokusatsu experienced production unlike anything before or since. Kamen Rider and Super Sentai both were created in this decade thanks to Shotaro Ishinomori. The Ultra Series had a successful early part of the decade, however in 1974, Leo's poor viewership caused the franchise to stop producing television shows for 5 years(compilation films and animated Ultra series still enjoyed viewership). The '70s was also home to many new companies producing tokusatsu shows then folding shortly after. Thunder Mask, Osamu Tezuka's attempt at a tokusatsu production is a lost show due to this.

In the late Seventies, something big happened. Star Wars premiered, and the film was met with as much enthusiasm in Japan as in the West. This had a "double-edged" effect. Along with many of the attempts to Follow the Leader in tokusatsu such as Message from Space and War in Space, companies such as Tsuburaya Productions and Toei begged television studios for more funding to produce more unique and less standard effects. The '80s were entered with less shows being produced but more innovation allowed in preestablished franchises. Tsuburaya produced Ultraman 80 with a larger budget and massive-scale miniatures filmed outdoors, Toei produced Kamen Rider Super-1 with a hero designed to allow for scenes set in space, and the Metal Heroes franchise premiered and the Space Sheriff shows mixed high flying kinetic action from stuntmen such as Kenji Ohba, Naomi Morinaga, and Hiroshi Watari with increasingly surreal and experimental green screen/miniature and early CG effects. The Godzilla franchise returned to dark and serious territory and wowed audiences both in Japan and the US with The Return of Godzilla, featuring a huge for the time Godzilla, meticulously designed miniature sets that reflected modern Tokyo, a dark and majestic music score, and a story written to evoke Cold War paranoia. During the mid-part of the decade, parents groups concerned about violence in the shows caused some shows such as Kagaku Sentai Dynaman to suffer from budget or story cuts. This resulted in Sentai lessening focus on stunts but tightening the writing. Shows such as Choujuu Sentai Liveman, Hikari Sentai Maskman and Choushinsei Flashman are still fan-favorites today for their mature writing, memorable characters, and new technology of the time allowing for more interesting mecha battles and better toys. The late eighties also saw the resurrection of the Kamen Rider franchise with Kamen Rider BLACK. Black was and still is beloved by fans today for its Gothic Horror inspired monster design, well cast actors, an endearing main hero in Kotaro Minami, and serious, no-filler plot.

Kamen Rider Black and its more standard sequel propelled tokusatsu into The '90s with a few shakeups happening. The Rider series went back on hiatus due to behind the scenes troubles as well as the untimely death of series creator Shotaro Ishinomori.(He still wrote enough of Kamen Rider Kuuga as well as designs for Kamen Rider Agito that it is oft-acknowledged as an Ishinomori-written series.) The Ultraman franchise revived in the middle of the decade with digital technology that they perfected two years prior with Cult Classic Denkou Choujin Gridman. Ultraman Tiga was a hit with adult fans of the franchise and children alike for both its dazzling new effects work and well-done writing and casting. Lead Daigo was played by Hiroshi Nagano of the boy band V6. Nagano may be the Ur-Example of most tokusatsu actors today. His Bishōnen good looks and well-done acting chops gave the show a Periphery Demographic of young women. It was also during this time that Tsuburaya Productions began producing things specifically for older fans. Ultraseven Evolution was meant to cater to fans raised on the series but were now adults, with the OVAs treating most of the franchise as never having happened, and the series beginning by continuing with an older, wiser Dan Moroboshi passing the mantle and identity of Ultraseven onto a younger and brasher new Ultra Garrison member. On the Super Sentai side, the Nineties was the first decade to give us The Sixth Ranger. Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger's saga with Burai and Geki was a Ratings Stunt that worked so well Toei continue to bring in Sixth heroes to this day. Choujin Sentai Jetman was a relatively mature series for a sentai, with a "grounded" plot, well-written and realistic heroes, and a Myth Arc to boot. The series may have been the only sentai before or since to receive a cult following from dorama fans, with magazines devoted to the subject including blurbs on Jetman in some issues. The Godzilla franchise continued until 1995, with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah killing off the Big G in a dynamic way, and the film received news coverage from CNN and Godzilla's "funeral" was broadcast on national TV in Japan. The Godzilla films of the Nineties became a guaranteed ratings trap for the Sci Fi Channel in the US, with the films continuing to be a syndication staple today. The Metal Heroes franchise died a relatively quiet death in 1997 due to ratings failures.

The Noughties was where the modern perception of tokusatsu began to truly take off. A lot of the "old guard" of anime and manga fans in the west, disillusioned by the seemingly declining anime industry, turned attention towards tokusatsu's maturing writing as well as engaging characters and fansub groups and discussion boards such as Japan Hero, Henshin Justice Unlimited, and UltramanLAH! helped create a relatively large fandom for tokusatsu for the first time. Kamen Rider launched its new breed of heroes in 2000 with Kamen Rider Kuuga. The Rider series, this time around was far darker and more morally ambiguous. Kamen Rider Ryuki and Kamen Rider Faiz both shocked and thrilled audiences with its cast of tormented heroes, moral intrigue and flashy attacks and weapons. At the same time, Tsuburaya premiered the Ultra N project (Ultraman: The Next and Ultraman Nexus), a realistic take on the franchise with a world afraid of monster attacks, a Science Patrol that was more ambivalent towards the Ultramen than anything, and scary kaiju created from everyday people. The franchise also celebrated it's 40th anniversary with Ultraman Mebius. Mebius brought back many of the Ultra actors from the '60s and '70s and is still heralded as the proper way to celebrate a franchise's history.

The New '10s thus far has heralded anniversary series for both Sentai and Kamen Rider, a new Rider continuity of sorts, a new streaming show targeted at adults from the Rider franchise, Kamen Rider Amazons, and the Ultra Series gaining the honor of being the first simulcast tokusatsu series thanks to Crunchyroll. At the same time, Super Sentai is being released on Region 1 DVD in the United States.


     Techniques and tropes of toku 
Many tokusatsu tropes have roots in Kabuki theater. As Tomoo Haraguchi of Tsuburaya Productions has said, things such as explosions going off on the heroes suits was meant to be representative of bleeding in the same way that stagehands throwing smoke bombs and sparklers when heroes were wounded was in Kabuki Theater.

Most tokusatsu makes use of suitmation to a certain degree. Suitmation is the use of a man in a suit in a backdrop of plywood or sometimes vinyl miniatures.


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