Join TokuNet writer Rain as they review the fascinating oddball tokusatsu of the 90s, Choukou Senshi Changerion.
The 1990s were a fun decade for tokusatsu. A plethora of unforgettable shows came from this era; Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, Kamen Rider ZO, Ultraman Tiga, the list goes on. But where there are hits, there are also misses. And sometimes those misses are so experimental and downright weird that it’s worth watching them just for the trip. That, in essence, is Choukou Senshi Changerion.
In 1996, Sega and Toei co-produced Changerion (stylised Changéríon), predominantly directed by Takao Nagaishi. The series was supposed to run for 52 episodes but was cut to 39 episodes due to low ratings. Fans of tokusatsu may recognise the series’ writer Toshiki Inoue, who has earned a reputation for his melodramatic and distinct writing style. His style is present in spades in Changerion, despite the show being a comedy – a mix that I surprisingly enjoyed immensely.
Your everyday tokusatsu hero!
Changerion follows the story of Suzumura Akira, a private detective played by Takashi Hagino. After getting into a car crash with a SAIDOC truck carrying a mysterious crystal, Akira is accidentally bestowed the power to transform into Changerion. Their original plans for the crystal ruined, the Darkzeid-fighting organisation SAIDOC must instead rely on Akira to fight for them. Darkzeid are monsters that came to Earth from the Dark Dimension, and feed upon Larm (human life energy). This would be a fair setup for your average tokusatsu show – except that Akira has absolutely no intention of being an average tokusatsu hero.
Akira is the heart of the show, with a larger than life personality and very few good traits. He’s selfish, cowardly and flippant, much preferring to go on dates with women rather than fight Darkzeid. His carefree attitude makes him constantly butt heads with Hayami, the man originally meant to become Changerion. He’s not all bad though; when push comes to shove, Akira’s always there to protect his friends – especially if that friend is a beautiful lady. Takashi Hagino does a wonderful job of portraying Akira. It’s hard to make such a self-absorbed character likeable, but Hagino exudes charm in the role.
Akira’s more grating side is also made more pleasant by his friends. His secretary Akemi keeps his wilder side in check, while his SAIDOC coworkers Hayami and Eri do their best to convince him to be a functional human being. I especially liked Hayami and Akira’s rivalry-turned-friendship, which began as Akira teasing Hayami and developed into Akira still teasing Hayami, but far more good-naturedly.
The light side and the Darkzeid
Each episode, Akira has to fight a different Darkzeid monster- and boy, they are weird. Every Darkzeid has a human and monster form, and the monster designs are all over the place. Some are normal-ish, like the first episode’s tornado-themed Darkzeid, but then there’s episode 2’s toilet paper monster. Or episode 25’s moon trilobite monster. As characters they’re just as strange, often barely managing to hide in human society as they hungrily devour human souls. Each Darkzeid monster has their own taste in Larm too, which ranges from as basic as ‘beautiful women’ to as specific as ‘people who insult my flute playing’.
Something I found striking about Changerion was how Darkzeid was written. Although Darkzeid had to abandon the destroyed Dark Dimension for Earth, they still have their own rulers, laws, and court system. They even go to counseling when they’re struggling to fit into human society. Some of them are pretty sympathetic for soul-eating monsters, and Akira has a tragically short friendship with one Darkzeid woman. It was these emotional moments amongst the immature jokes that really endeared me to Changerion.
The standout Darkzeid character is Gauzer, known by his human name Shogo Kuroiwa. Kuroiwa, originally a counselor for Darkzeids struggling to conform to human society, desires to rule over Darkzeid and, by extension, the Earth. He also falls in love with Eri, and their romance is startlingly touching and tragic. But, of course, this is Changerion, so their tender love story plays out alongside antics like Kuroiwa declaring himself emperor of Japan, and taking Akira to Darkzeid’s legal court for not paying rent.
There are a few other important Darkzeid characters, but none of them are given as much screentime and only stand out because they survive for longer than an episode each. Dark General Zander is the leader of Darkzeid, assisted by Priest Modes and Doctor Vinsu. Later on the death of Modes precipitates the revival of the dangerous Zapphire. As characters they’re all very one-note, but their suits are diverse and incredibly cool – especially Zander, whose helmet can split apart to reveal his piercing eyes.
Almost every episode follows the same plot: Akira is given a detective case, and it turns out to be caused by a Darkzeid monster. It’s a good thing, too, because as a detective he’s totally useless. Once he works out who the Darkzeid monster is, the episode’s fight can begin. To transform into Changerion Akira uses the chanvisor, and can use a range of weapons all very clearly meant to be merchandisable toys. His weaponry also has a disc theme – for example, to use the gun laser he inserts a disc into the side. This is one of the few things that makes it very clear that Changerion is a show co-produced by Sega. Fortunately the show’s product placement is rarely overt.
The fight scenes in Changerion are… bad. There’s no way around it. I love Changerion as a suit, but everything else about the show’s action is subpar. The suit is clearly heavy and restrictive, so Akira lumbers around as he fights, rarely kicking or doing stunts. For his finisher, Shining Attack, he doesn’t even move, instead standing still as a CGI animation finishes off his enemy.
He’s also occasionally supported by the three Knights, robots made by SAIDOC to sell more toys – I mean, to support Akira in battle. The Knights have even less mobility than Akira, and are barely capable of walking, let alone attacking anything. Instead they just waddle around and pad out the episode’s runtime. They’re pretty cute, but they add nothing to the show.
The beginning of the end
Disclaimer: Spoilers beyond this point!
As I mentioned before, Changerion had its run cut short. There were concepts made for a sequel if the show did well, but this all had to be thrown out the window and a new ending arranged. Unfortunately, this wreaked havoc on the show’s final stretch of episodes. Darkzeid monsters that had been previously set up as major antagonists are downgraded to normal enemies and easily beaten by Akira. Then, three episodes from the end, the final battle begins. Kuroiwa, who had previously earned the position of governer, declares Tokyo to be an independant nation. He immediately enforces an authoritarian state and prepares for his crowning ceremony to be declared emperor.
Interestingly, Akira is not the one who defeats Kuroiwa. Instead, a young boy shoots him, getting revenge for his father. Bleeding out, Kuroiwa staggers into a river, smiling as he slowly sinks beneath the water. I felt it was a strange choice to not end with a fight between Kuroiwa and Akira, but his ending still felt satisfying, if ambiguous.
But wait! There’s still one more episode! And this is where Changerion really goes off the rails.
The final episode is a bizarre fever dream – literally. The plot goes back and forth between two worlds: one where everything is back to how it was before the finale, and one where Darkzeid has already taken over Earth. In each world, Akira considers the other a dream, and the episode never indicates which one is ‘real’. The episode ends on the apocalyptic world, with Akira the last human alive, staring death in the face as he transforms one last time. It’s jarring and feels totally different from the rest of the show, so much so that it left me feeling dazed.
Overall, Changerion is a mixed bag for me. I love Akira and his friends, and the show is at its best when the characters are getting up to sillly monster of the week hijinks. Unfortunately, a few of the episodes left a sour taste in my mouth. Homophobia, transphobia and suicide are treated as jokes, and near the end of the show’s run the tone shifts to being noticeably bitter. There’s a fourth-wall break episode where Changerion is a tv show in-universe, and the episode is both gratingly boring and has the audacity to feature a young child clearly disinterested in the unfolding plot – I can relate, little guy.
Changerion never seemed to find its demographic. Changerion’s weapons and the Knights are clearly meant to be toys, but the show is full of jokes inappropriate for young children. In the end it’s a baffling mess – but one that kept me hooked right up to the end with its charm. It also left behind enough of a legacy to be referenced in Kamen Rider Brave ~Let’s Survive! Revival of the Beast Rider Squad!~, due to Takashi Hagino returning to his role as Kamen Rider Ouja. Choukou Senshi Changerion isn’t a great show, but it’s ridiculous, lighthearted and charming, and for me that was enough to have a great time watching it.
The first two episodes of Changerion are avaliable with English subtitles on the official Toei Tokusatsu Youtube channel.