So you’ve seen Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Marc Webb’s reboot, and maybe you’re feeling a little ‘ho-hum, webs this, nerdy photographer that, all the same to me.’ Maybe you need something a little more out-there; if so, join me on a little journey, to a magic place where beer’s sold in vending machines and the Spider-Men ride transforming robots to fight axe-handed dragons. America, meet Japan’s Supaidaman.
Yeah yeah yeah . . . WOW . . .
Between the dark valleys of buildings
Eyes sparkle with the flash of anger
Giving up peace, giving up everything,
Chasing evil through the skies.
Why do you, why do you,
choose to continue to fight, risking your own life?
With only one goal, with only one goal,
The invincible man, Spiderman!
No, the above was not a National Poetry month semi-finalist–that’s the opening score to Supaidaman, Japan’s ninjutsu-touting, mecha-piloting version of our American Spider-Man, who just, you know, sticks to buildings and spins webs and stuff. That’s cool too! But please, let’s not compare.
Now I know Supaidaman’s taken a lot of crap for not resembling his American namesake in the slightest (save for the name), but dig a little deeper and you’ll find Japan had just as much love for the guy as we did, and possibly more. And if that’s not enough reason to care, get this: if you like your transforming robots, especially the kind that’s made from several smaller, inteconnecting robots, and if you like color-coded superhero teams a la Power Rangers, then you owe it all to–yep–Supaidaman.
All this was made possible when Japanese TV company Toei made a licensing deal with Marvel, allowing them to swap a few of their flamboyant protagonists for a few of ours. Marvel received the OK for things like the Godzilla comics and the supremely awesome Shogun Warriors toys (the ones with the spring-loaded axes), and in return, Toei received the rights for Spider-Man, among other things. Once they had their eyes set on Spidey, the company gave mechanical designer Katsushi Murakami to do whatever was necessary to market this thing in Japan.
How To Sell Spiderman to Japan
ONE – “Spider-Man’s gotta be an alien. Period”
TWO – “We gotta have a spaceship. That is non-negotiable.”
THREE – “That spaceship’s gotta transform into a robot. If that sounds like a tall order, too bad, because transforming robots are all the fucking rage right now in Japan, 1978.”
And you know, somehow it worked out just fine.
Well they didn’t make Supaidaman full-alien, that’d be a bit drastic, so the scripters and marketers hatched an origin story to please everyone and their impressionable 8-year old children: interstellar warship “Marveller” (eh? Marvel comics? get it?? I’ll stop) crash-lands on Earth, and is discovered by a Japanese space-archaeologist and his son Takuya. Things happen, the professor is murdered by one Professor Monster, and Takuya meets the Marveller’s commander, the warrior Garia, who injects him with all that sweet spider mojo he needs to take revenge.
And Supaidaman’s gonna need it–no offense to American Spider-Man, but it seems his Japanese kin has it a bit tougher. American Spider-Man had to deal with such unbelievable nasties as a man who thinks he’s a rhino, another who think’s he’s a vulture, a third who thinks he’s a scorpion, one who likes octopuses… yeah, boohoo. Supaidaman’s adversaries, on the other hand, were a bit more planetary in scale, and Yo Gabba Gabba! in appearance. Let’s look at a few!
Supaidaman’s Greatest(?) Foes
BOKUNRYU (Tyrant Dragon)
“It changes from the pocketable one into the size of 60 meters. BOUKUNRYU’s arms are fangs set in the mouth. And a big broadax of the left hand. A huge rock is pulverized in an instant.”
It’s got a haiku-like quality going on towards the end, dunnit?
I believe Spider-Man’s equivalent is Scorpion and his acid-spitting tail, but he only had one brain. Supaidaman wins again.
HANGYOJIN (Merman’s Monster)
“Only to kill Spiderman, this MachineBEM was made.
The mortal combat is done in Spiderman and the cage.
Arms are sharp cutleries which have placed to the elbow.
It is the strongest in current Machine BEM. Spiderman was afflicted.“
My heart is crying. The meter, the syntax, the turmoil; “Spiderman was afflicted”, so too sir, am I.
Now look me in the eye and tell which Spider-person has more on his plate – the guy who fights a San Diego Zoo escapee every night, or the 5’10” ninja who finds himself in fucking Pacific Rim every week?
Did I Mention SupaidaMan Had a Giant Robot?
The obvious question here is how the hell Supaidaman didn’t get creamed on day one, for a premature ‘The Death of’ special. Well, like his predecessor, Supaidaman’s got the super-strength, spider-senses, agility, and web-slinging . . . sort of. It’s more like he’s really good at rope tricks, but hey, tomato, potato, let’s call the whole thing Japan.
There’s really only one way a super-do-gooder can survive in Japan’s criminal environment, and that’s with the help of his trusty mecha. Say hello to LEOPARDON, the anthropomorphic robot, inexplicably with the face of a leopard. Again, sort of.
Leopardon is the transformed-robot form of the warship Marveller that Garia left to his Earthling trustee, and to do battle with the forces of MST3K, he’s got an array of goodies by his side: a detaching rocket-arm-punch-thing, the crest on its helmet detaches into a flying boomerang blade, a snazzy web-decorated shield (never actually used in the show, but what a figurine!), and when the fights go into over-time and threaten to spill over Supaidaman’s time slot, Leopardon’s got his invincible Sword Vigor, a literal show-stopper of a weapon. If you’ve ever seen Voltron or Pacific Rim, you know what kinda heat Leopardon’s packing.
So… Was Supaidman Any Good?
Holy crap in a ten gallon hat, it was good. Now I know it looks all kooky Power Rangers-y from what I’ve given you, and that’s all true, but there’s more to it than that. The acting is complete over-the-top pulpy goodness, and the fight sequences were leagues beyond anything in American television at the time. It’s not Shaw Brothers, but it’s close, and damn satisfying for primetime TV. To top it all off, the show had SFX that even Stan Lee had to give a nod to in the DVD commentary. That’s right–it’s got the official thumbs-up from the Stan man himself, and deservedly so.
And Lastly, No Supaidaman = No Power Rangers
Aside from its technical feats, the show’s developed a strange lineage in terms of influences and odes. The show featured the first ever instance of a costumed superhero piloting a giant robot to defeat a giant monster; previously, all giant robots in Japan had been piloted by, er, regular pilots. In this respect, Supaidaman was a melding of two action genres–that of mecha and that of superheroes, into a genre that’s spawned multitudes of franchises.
I said earlier that the Toei company received the rights to Spider-Man in addition to other characters, one of which was Captain America, who they then took as the sort-of inspiration for the superhero team of Battle Fever J. That show, in turn, was hugely influential with the concept of a superhero team, in the vein of Power Rangers and Battle of the Planets. Toei would later use their production experience from Supaidaman’s Leopardon to create the mecha of Battle Fever J, which would become the first superhero team ever to pilot a giant robot.
But to recap:
Supaidaman = first superhero in a giant robot, which leads to . . .
Battle Fever J = first superhero team in a giant robot, which leads to . . .
Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, aka the source material for Power Rangers
Whew. So as you can see, popular culture, and especially comic book culch, undergoes unimaginable mutation and fruitful cross-pollination in the process of translating, license-sharing, fan-fic-ing, and all that goodness. You see, fandom is an international community; we’re working together to find better ways to put people in spandex, to put those people in robots, and to put those robots to the test against bigger and better monsters. And Supaidaman is the extreme example of what can go so right, over so many generations, even with a translation that arguably went oh so wrong. Supaidaman, you da man.