In the previous installment of The History of Tokusatsu, we learned how Godzilla laid the groundwork for tokusatsu as a whole. This installment will focus on the hero aspect of the medium– more precisely, the earliest heroes.
During the 50s, often considered the golden era of Japanese film and television, there were six major players, six studios that defined the industry. The studios were Daiei, Nikkatsu, Toei, TOHO, Shochiku, and Shintoho.
While TOHO laid the foundation for much of tokusatsu thanks to the success of Godzilla, Shintoho and Toei would be the ones to push tokusatsu towards the path it’s on today.
Created in the 1930s as part of the Kamishibai, a form of theater involving a narrator speaking as wooden cards showcased the illustrated action, Golden Bat was one of the few characters to survive into the post-war era of Japanese production. Golden Bat was a pulp-styled crime fighter, the sole survivor of Atlantis who wore a suit more fitting of a villain than what one might consider the traditional image of a superhero today. Despite sporting a skull-themed helmet and looking very menacing, Golden Bat was a hero through and through, catapulting the character into stardom with the nation’s children.
Golden Bat’s popularity lead to his first film in 1950 with Golden Bat and the Monstrous Skyscraper, produced by what would eventually become Toei Company. The film was an instant success in Japan. Although not originated by the Golden Bat film in and of itself, many of the common tropes seen in tokusatsu were first depicted alongside a tokusatsu hero by Golden Bat, including bizarre masked henchmen as well as a black-themed evil version of the hero himself.
While Toei would later create a second Golden Bat movie in 1966 starring Sonny Chiba, it was another character who would help keep the world of Japanese superheroes alive and strong.
Created in 1957 by Shintoho, Super Giants was a film serial featuring a hero referred to as Super Giant. The character wore tights and was adorned with an antenna, hailing from the Emerald Planet. Super Giant was created from steel and his mission was to defend all peace in the universe – this typically involved getting himself into action on Earth.
Super Giant himself would go on to star in eight different serials by the end of his run. While the serials were popular, lead actor Ken Utsui vehemently refuses to talk about his time in the role. Film studio executives figured a character with a large groin would entice female viewers into attending screenings, thus Utsui’s costume, namely the crotch area, was stuffed with cotton and other filler material to make him appear well-endowed – at all times.
In the late 50s, superheroes were by no means new to the Japanese public, but they hadn’t made the crossover to the small screen. Television was still a relatively new and untapped market at the time. TV remained fairly static in its earliest days, with programs that did little to push boundaries and broaden appeal. To shake things up and induce change, the earliest of TV heroes appeared in the late 50s, some of the most prominent being Moonlight Mask, 7-Colored Mask, as well as Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28 of all things.
Moonlight Mask began in 1958 and has the distinction of even now, more than half a century later, having been the longest running tokusatsu show. While the original Sentai, Goranger, had 84 episodes, Kamen Rider had 98, and Ganbare!! Robocon had an astounding 118 episodes, Moonlight Mask surpassed them all with a whopping 131 episodes and three films.
Earliest production began on the show in 1957 when television executives were looking for something new to replace an outgoing comedy as a series to be aired five nights a week. The president of KRT (currently the Tokyo Broadcasting System) was adamant that there be a Japanese superhero on TV capable of rivaling the biggest American superheroes. Despite these desires, superheroes were totally untested ideas on Japanese TV at the time and obtaining a sizable budget was all but impossible. After a great many trials, the show secured a small amount of financing and, to help save face should it have been a failure, a puppet studio known as Senkosha Productions was opened. When Moonlight Mask became a hit, Senkosha found itself in a more legitimate position and would go on to bring various tokusatsu shows to life, including Red Baron and Iron King.
In Moonlight Mask, viewers followed detective Jūrō Iwai and his assistant/comic foil Gorohachi Fukuro, along with his children Shugeru, Kaboko, and Fujiko as they found themselves solving all manner of crimes. Ranging from bank robberies to kidnappings and even the first appearance of a monster on TV screens, Moonlight Mask fought villains as a hero whose identity was never actually revealed, not even to the viewer. The credits saw Moonlight Mask’s actor credited with a simple question mark. However, to any viewer who pays attention, it’s quite obvious who Moonlight Mask was within the show.
Moonlight Masks’s appeal laid in the show’s ability to run the gamut from hard-boiled crime to science fiction and straight up superhero fantasy action. The hero wore a very rudimentary costume and wielded pistols to help him in his fight against villains all over the city. The series was divided into five story arcs: Skull Mask, The Secret of the Paradi Kingdom, Mammoth Kong, The Ghost Party’s Revenge, and Don’t Turn Your Hand to Revenge. Each arc played out like a traditional theater serial, leaving the viewer on some sort of exciting cliffhanger or twist that would compel audiences to return for the conclusion. During the height of popularity, the show reached an all time high 67% viewership rating – granted, in an era with a handful of channels, this wasn’t unheard of, the series would average ratings in the 40% range. Thanks to the era in which it was created, Moonlight Mask remains the highest rated tokusatsu TV series.
Despite the massive popularity and success of Moonlight Mask, the show came to an unplanned end after the conclusion of its fifth and final story arc. The show received negative backlash after a young boy fell to his death, attempting to imitate a stunt seen on the show. Magazines and newspapers ran cover stories claiming the show was a danger to children and should be avoided. After much pressure from investors and viewers, KRT finally pulled the plug on the show and cancelled Moonlight Mask in 1959.
Despite the negative press, the superhero genre had proven a success on TV.
Although Toei’s first superhero movie came in 1950, their first superhero TV series was 7-Colored Mask in 1959. Like Golden Bat, the show featured a hero who looked more like a villain, played by Sonny Chiba later on in the series. The hero’s powers allowed him to change into seven different human forms, with the seventh being his superhero identity, the 7-Colored Mask. The series ran for 57 episodes and would later be remade into Rainbowman, Warrior of Love in the 1970s by TOHO studios.
Toei Company had actually been the studio behind the various Moonlight Mask movies at the time. By adapting various stories from the small screen to theaters, along with a new cast, the studio found success with Moonlight Mask. Once that series came to an end, they decided to pursue further endeavors in the genre with their first original superhero. Due to their reputation as a high quality studio, the show was initially very expensive to produce, eventually leading to re-planning and the use of stock footage for many of the show’s fight scenes. The show ran for 57 episodes and was renamed New 7-Colored Mask in its final quarter, which also saw the introduction of a young Sonny Chiba as star of the show.
The continuing success of transforming heroes on TV screens as well as Godzilla films, which were quick to spawn genres, would also be instrumental in prompting Eiji Tsuburaya to open Tsuburaya Productions in 1963.
The History of Tokusatsu is a series of articles chronicling the progression of tokusatsu from its earliest roots to the modern day film and TV shows.