Shotaro Ishinomori + Spider-Man = Power Rangers
Just as many cartoons leapt from the pages of comic books, sentai can also trace its roots to the paneled pages. The man who can best be described as the father of sentai, Shotaro Ishinomori, got his start creating his own manga. While he might not be as well known in America as Astro Boy-creator Osamu Tezuka, his career stretches back almost as far.
These days Ishinomori’s best-known series are likely Cyborg 009 and Kikaider, which debuted during the summer of 2003 on Cartoon Network’s Toonami and Adult Swim blocks, respectively. While that might have been America’s first exposure to two of his franchises, in Japan the Cyborg 009 manga dates back to 1964.
Cyborg 009 follows the exploits of nine people of various ages and nationalities who were captured and turned into cyborgs against their will by the evil organization Black Ghost, which intended to use its victims as soldiers in its quest for global domination. But our heroes escaped and dedicated their unique powers to taking down Black Ghost once and for all.
In 1971, while also continuing Cyborg 009, Ishinomori reworked his successful concept into a new manga called Kamen Rider. Instead of a team of nine, this series only featured one hero who had been captured by an evil organization. Again, it turned him into a cyborg against his will, and (again) it had him escaping and turning his new powers against his former masters. Unlike the cyborgs of 009, which appeared in uniform most of the time, Kamen Rider actually transformed into his cyborg form. Since its introduction in Kamen Rider, this transformation process has become a staple of the sentai genre.
The Kamen Rider manga quickly became a hit and, like Cyborg 009, was adapted for television as a live-action series, new seasons of which are still airing today. It was introduced to American audiences in the mid-1990s as the Saban-produced show Masked Rider, but attempts to translate live-action sentai for an American audience were largely unsuccessful until the introduction of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers in the early 1990s.
But American companies did assist in the production of sentai series in Japan. Probably the most bizarre of these adaptations was the 1978 Japanese live-action series Spider-man. Yes, the Spider-man of Marvel Comics fame.
The show had its sentai-derived quirks. Spider-man’s villains had a habit of growing to several stories in height, even after he’d “defeated” them. Large webs just wouldn’t cut it against this kind of threat, so Spidey would do the only logical thing: he’d fight them a second time with his own giant robot. The result was a plot formula that will be familiar to any viewer of Power Rangers. While this live-action Spider-man has never been broadcast in America, the giant robot was referenced in the final episodes of the 1990’s Spider-man: The Animated Series.
A year later another Marvel-influenced series hit the airwaves in Japan. While the series was going to be based on Captain America, the version that aired starred the hero “Battle Japan,” who was part of a team of five. The five-member team had already become a staple of many sentai series, but Battle Fever J, as the series was titled, is still significant in that it introduced the mouthplates that have become an essential element of sentai costumes.
Today, the word “sentai” might not be well known to American audience, but Power Rangers, the American adaptation of the definitive collection of Japanese sentai series, most definitely is. Currently, only the DC Animated Universe, which started with Batman: The Animated Series the year before Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers debuted, has run longer than the Power Rangers. While Power Rangers may now be a television staple, the franchise would look a lot different if it weren’t for its animated and comic-book roots in the work of Shotaro Ishinomori and Marvel Comics.
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