Back in 1990, there was a massive crossover special with all of your childhood favorites entitled Cartoon All-Stars To The Rescue. It was a noble effort to make a relatable anti-drug PSA but it’s hilariously bad. I bring this up because maybe if they had taken a hint from Episode 5 of Kaiketsu Zubat, it may have been a bit more successful.
Because honestly, this episode is essentially the badass version of Reefer Madness.
This week, it’s the Little Matchstick Girl with a twist. As it turns out, the flowers and matches sold by our token girl are a front for a cocaine dealer. Ken instantly rushes to get her out of the situation but there’s a problem: she’s in on it, and the kind uncle who takes care of her is Crimson Spider, the head of the whole operation!
So why is this a badass Reefer Madness alternative when it has to do with cocaine instead marijuana? Because it is Zubat and therefore, automatically superior to all.
But seriously, I have to give the show massive props for actually tackling a drug-related subject matter. Remember that Zubat made in the 70s, a time when cocaine was the hottest new thing on the streets and a growing epidemic. And while it slightly overdoes it by showing jail cells filled with blue-lit coke addicts, it’s still a powerful image for any children watching. The only other show to really touch on this was 1977’s JAKQ Dengeki Tai where Kenji Oba guest-stars as a drug-addicted character. I wish more shows had tackled it, but that’s a whole other article waiting to happen.
It’s because of that spotlight that I find this episode slightly lacking. It’s pretty standard fare for Zubat otherwise: we’re reminded of how utterly horrible Midori and Osamu are as traveling companions. (I call them the Poor Man’s Mitsuko and Masaru from Kikaider.) Our expert this week is a charming billiards player who is promptly defeated through the power of editing. The boss, Crimson Spider, turns out to be a complete monster and the usual bits of hilarity and action ensue.
This is one of the rare occasions where I wish they’d done a bit more with this episode. The fight with the billiard expert is surprisingly well done, being played completely straight without any effects. However, it’s too damned short! He’s one of the more remarkable Dakkar agents thus far and I’d have loved to see some actual suspense for that climax.
Speaking of which, I really wish that Crimson Spider hadn’t been rotten to the core. The problem with formulaic shows like Zubat is that there comes a point where the path to the ending locks in place, otherwise known as a “triggered flag”. When this happens, there may be some cool variations, but any sort of risk or suspense fades as things reach their inevitable conclusion.
Usually, this gets forgiven or overlooked because of Hiroshi Miyauchi’s on-screen presence and charisma, but this time, I wish the stakes had been a bit higher. The whole plot twist with Crimson Spider was a really wasted opportunity. I would have loved to see some shred of humanity or implication that he’d actually cared for the match girl. Alas.
But speaking of Miyauchi, everyone here at TokuNet is pretty much unanimous that our hero is one of a kind. This episode is no exception as Ken Hayakawa gets one of the best introductions to date. I mean who else can call themselves “The Janitor Of Hell” and manage an intimidating aura?
But an interesting thing to note about Ken’s trademark wandering guitar intros though: it’s a variation of a trope commonly used in various jidai-geki or period productions. More often than not, you’d have a samurai dramatically wander in, riding a wave of tension with a dramatic speech before proceeding to destroy the bad guys of the week.
Most of the shows produced by the late, great Toru Hirayama took this and ran with it. In Kikaider, we have Jiro playing his guitar from the highest possible place nearby, Kamen Rider V3 randomly comes out of trains… it goes on. This is a trait that even comes up in anime! Case in point, the infamous speeches of Rom Stol from Machine Robo: Revenge of Chronos. They need to be seen to be believed.
I’ve best described Zubat to friends as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo Meets Kamen Rider. By that I mean a fusion of elements from the American Western and jidai-geki (which is what Yojimbo was known and loved for – Seriously, go watch it on Hulu) and Tokusatsu hero tropes. As such, this is an episode which actually exemplifies this concept. You could take out Ken needing to transform into Zubat and it’d be a modern wandering samurai show.
But it’s the charm of the whole thing that makes you realize you’d really be losing something if you took those superhero elements from the equation. Decades later, Kaiketsu Zubat still remains to be in a league of its own.
Every Wednesday The Tokusatsu Network staff members review every episode of a tokusatsu series. To see previous episode reviews, visit our Reviews page.