As Power Rangers and Super Sentai come further into the public consciousness this week, Contributing Writer, Kaylyn Saucedo explores the humble beginnings of Himitsu Sentai Gorenger which would later launch the Super Sentai franchise.
While the industry made a number of improvements over the decades, early television tokusatsu had a lot of freedom to take lots of risks in order to find whether or not something worked. Oftentimes, that resulted in bare-bones storytelling, repeated over and over again for years on end. That was already the case for the original Kamen Rider series, which had nearly 100 episodes produced over the course of almost two years, from 1971 to 1973.
Himitsu Sentai Gorenger would follow a similar pattern starting in 1975 and ending with 84 episodes in 1977, created by Shotaro Ishinomori, the mastermind behind Kamen Rider and hundreds of other properties over the course of decades. This would be the humble beginnings of what would one day come to be known as the Super Sentai franchise.
A powerful terrorist organization known as the Black Cross Army threatens to destroy the Earth, with only the defense organization EAGLE able to oppose them. In retaliation, Black Cross Army destroys multiple EAGLE headquarters across Japan, killing all but five people. Now, these five remaining EAGLE members are called to form a secret, powerful team known as Gorenger, the only force left that has a chance to stop the Black Cross Army and their evil leader, Black Cross Führer.
At its core, simply by catching a glimpse of five costumed heroes standing and posing together, it’s obvious to identify Gorenger as a Sentai series now. However, watching its earliest episodes may leave you wondering how it evolved into the franchise we know and love today.
For starters, some staples aren’t there, such as giant combining robots, ending credits dances, or even flashy transformation sequences initiated by powerful devices. In fact, at the core, the members of Gorenger are little more than five skilled people in costumes. Costumes that, mind you, are not the stylized lycra suits of the modern age, and instead are thick, somewhat baggy cloth jumpsuits that sometimes hang awkwardly off their stunt actors, and helmets with wide-spaced holes drilled into the face so the stunt performer can see out of them.
But watching this series begin to grow and change into something more recognizable is a beautiful thing to behold. Its pacing begins somewhat slow, with some shots lingering for far too long. The traditional Sentai roll call before a battle is sluggish and not very tightly edited. And those fight scenes themselves, especially straight out of the gate in episode one, can be somewhat miserable to watch, leaving you wondering how much choreography was planned out ahead of time and how much of it was improvised right there on the spot in front of the camera.
As time goes on, many of these things slowly begin to improve. Most notably, both the storytelling and action ramp up at Episode 67, as this would be the first time the action scenes would be choreographed and performed by Japan Action Club (now known as Japan Action Enterprise). It may have taken two-thirds of the series to get there, but watching the difference between episodes 1 and 67 is almost like watching two completely different shows. It’s completely night and day, and I was shocked at how pumped I was feeling as I watched the stunt work blow past my expectations.
Another great difference between Gorenger and many other modern Sentai series is that I honestly felt that the Black Cross Army was a genuine threat to the planet Earth. In many other stories, the destruction of Earth isn’t necessarily the goal. Oftentimes, I think our generation may be more familiar with tales of villains that are looking for sources of energy or to dominate the planet, but not actually to kill anyone in the process.
Make no mistake, the Black Cross Army holds no sympathy for anyone on Earth, and great destruction and terror is their one and only goal. Granted, this doesn’t make for very in-depth storytelling. There’s no real reason or purpose behind Black Cross Führer’s destruction. But man oh man, the explosive firepower evident in every single episode of Gorenger is so fun to watch and really doesn’t need any explanation. People will simply die– lots of people– and the show doesn’t even think twice about it. This is imagery that definitely has been shied away from in recent years, as sensibilities for children’s television even in Japan have gradually changed. But, let’s be honest, as adults that are more than willing to admit that they’re watching children’s shows, sometimes you just want to see stuff blow up. Gorenger absolutely delivers.
However, I can’t say that there aren’t times in which I wished that the series told deeper stories through all of its wanton death and destruction. In fact, in episode 67 (the very same episode in which the Japan Action Club would begin performing stunts), an important main character is killed, and for the most part in the episode they are treated with respect and dignity. But then episode 68 comes along, and the characters go on about their business as if the events in the previous episode and several episodes beforehand never even happened.
Similarly, once we reach the end of episode 84, the last episode of the series, Black Cross Army has been defeated and the series just ends. There is no sense of an epilogue of any sort, no sense of how the Earth is recovering in the aftermath, and no indication that each of the Gorengers ever went back to any sort of normal lives. Even after so many episodes, I had a feeling like the series was just pulled out from under me, and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself anymore after completing it.
In that sense, though, this is the mark of a good series. It kept me coming back for more, looking forward to another episode full of goofy themed monsters and fun heroes. And of each of the Gorengers, there wasn’t one I felt didn’t deserve to be part of the team. As selected by the EAGLE Commander and working in a hidden base under a snack bar, the squadron is perfect for all children to have someone to aspire to.
Tsuyoshi (Naoya Makoto), the red Akaranger designated #1, makes for a strong older team leader, something I’ve found to be missing from many Sentai series that came after it. Akira, the blue Aoranger designated #2, is easily the coolest member of the team with charm and personality, though I would frequently find myself making fun of him because, as the team’s pilot, he would confidently state that their secret plane, the Variblune, was his best friend. Many tokusatsu fans will recognize his actor, Hiroshi Miyauchi, for his multiple roles as Zubat (Kaiketsu Zubat), V3 (Kamen Rider V3), and numerous others.
Peggy (Lisa Komaki), the pink Momoranger designated as #4, is easily one of the strongest female characters to grace Super Sentai, which is saying a lot for the time period in which it was released. She’s someone who can handle herself with her own tempered skills and a level head, and even is in control of the team’s explosives. Kenji (Yukio Itou), the green Midoranger designated as #5, is the youngest member of the team with something of a hot head, who gets decent character growth and comes into his own over the course of the series, perhaps more so than any other character on the team.
I specifically saved Daita (Baku Hatakeyama), the first yellow Kiranger designated as #3, for last, as I found that he could have potentially been a really great character, but was given the most flaws. Hatakeyama is just slightly bulkier than his fellow actors, and as such the character Daita was given the position of being “the fat guy,” forced to shovel curry and rice into his mouth in nearly every episode, characterized as having food as the most important aspect of his character.
Another Kiranger would be cast in the middle of the series (Jiro Daruma), but even he filled literally the same position of being the hungry fat guy on the team, which I found to be really disappointing. Daruma would eventually leave only to have Hatakeyama return, but he still couldn’t escape the hungry fat guy role. The characterization leads him to make stupid mistakes, like getting caught in a monster’s trap when it leaves out a plate of curry specifically to catch him. Reportedly, this would be Hatakeyama’s defining role, and ended with him typecast in later roles outside of tokusatsu, which lead to his eventual suicide in 1978. It’s an unfortunate real world fact, and it’s sadly too easy to see how it came to be as you watch Himitsu Sentai Gorenger.
Despite this, the monster fights are frequently entertaining, as I found myself in love with a number of bizarre monsters the Black Cross Army would throw out every week. Some of my favorites include Piano Mask, who clearly just has a piano for a head, and the infamous Baseball Mask, whose head is a giant baseball and uses baseball-related powers. But easily, my favorite, most ridiculous monster has to be Boat Ear Mask, a monster wearing a mask that has enormous ears shaped like boats slapped on either side of his face. His powers don’t even have anything to do with boats or ears. It’s bizarre moments like these that brought a smile to my face every episode.
As Super Sentai brings itself further into the Western public consciousness, I think it’s important to see how truly simple things once were before the launch of either the Super Sentai or Power Ranger franchises. Growing an appreciation for where we came from is important for also appreciating where we are now. We have a lot to thank Himitsu Sentai Gorenger for, and I truly hope others will take the time to search it out and see it for themselves. I think through the cheesy practical effects and miniatures, you’ll find yourself having a lot of fun.