A Newbie’s Guide to Tokusatsu
What is tokusatsu?
Tokusatsu is a genre, it simply translates to “special effects” and is actually a pretty broad term. There are really quite a few shows and movies that could be considered “tokusatsu” just by the general nature of the term (even American movies like the Avengers would fall under that definition), but most fans mean a specific type of Japanese television and movies when using the term. The shows/franchises that most consider to be part of the genre include: Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, Space Sheriff Gavan, GARO, and Godzilla.
How to learn more about tokusatsu?
Of course, being that these shows are all Japanese, this presents a language barrier for enjoying or learning more about them. But never fear! There are plenty of fans out there who only speak English and have created some English-language resources.
First off, there’s The Tokusatsu Network. Definitely follow their social media – that’s your go-to source for news relating to popular tokusatsu shows and actors. They have a team of writers, including a small group who speak Japanese and can translate for the rest of the team.
When it comes to finding various shows and which fan groups have created English subtitles (known as fansubs), there is a fantastic Toku Subs wiki page. It lists the various seasons of shows like Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, and more, along with which fansub groups have worked on those seasons (or if there are official subs in existence) and links many of the fansub groups directly.
There are also groups on social media, where members are willing to help introduce new people to their favorite shows. One big one is the TokuNet Community, connected to the Tokusatsu Network. While the group is newer, there are a good number of helpful members! For the ladies, there is a Ladies Tokusatsu Emporium, which was created as a safe space when some members of the fandom in other groups became toxic.
How to watch tokusatsu?
Unfortunately a lot of toku is not easily accessible in the west. Some is brought over and altered (Super Sentai comes over to the U.S. as Power Rangers, though in recent years Shout Factory has begun releasing Super Sentai seasons on DVD, making it easier for western viewers to see what Power Rangers looks like before it becomes Power Rangers). Crunchyroll, a streaming service in the U.S. for anime, has licensed many Ultraman series for their library. However, while anime has become very easily accessible to western fans, toku is still a bit harder.
For more recent series, there are a number of fan groups which create subs, some within a day or two of the episode airing in Japan. Most of these groups offer video files for download, which can then be downloaded to a local computer and played using a video player (VLC is the best one as it can easily handle most of the video formats popular with the groups). Downloads are offered by torrent or direct download.
For older series, it can be a mixed bag. Some are subbed, with varying degrees of quality (often tied to varying degrees of quality for the source material – Goranger seems to only exist in pretty poor quality TV recordings, while some seasons of Kamen Rider have been released on DVD or Blu Ray and had their quality fixed up a bit). There are seasons of shows, particularly older seasons of Sentai, that have not yet been subbed by any group, or only partially subbed (the second season of Sentai, JAKQ, is one of these). The Toku Subs wiki is great for finding out what is and is not available. Most of these will need to be torrented.
Currently, Crunchyroll licenses a good number of Ultraman seasons (though nowhere near all of them), which can be viewed on streaming through Crunchyroll or its sister streaming site VRV. There is also the streaming platform TOKU, which has quite a few seasons of Ultraman, as well as Gridman and other shows. VRV is also adding more tokusatsu content, with some Sentai being added recently and plans for more to come. Some of the seasons of Sentai that have been released in the United States by Shout! Factory are also available for streaming at Shout’s website.
What are these series like? Where to start?
Most fans when talking about tokusatsu series are focusing on a certain selection of franchises: Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Ultraman, GARO, Godzilla. Let’s go over each one.
Godzilla is the oldest, chronologically, with the first movie dating back to the mid-1950s. The franchise focuses on kaiju – giant monsters. Godzilla is the main one, but over the years he has gained friends and enemies just as big as he is. To this day, the effects are done mainly with suit acting. A skilled suit actor dons a rubbery Godzilla suit and stomps his way through a small set, usually Tokyo or some poor hapless small island, which has been recreated to scale. Fans at G-Fest, a Godzilla-focused fan convention held in Chicago every summer, try their hand at this technique by building a cityscape in one of the hotel ballrooms and having Godzilla stomp his way through.
Ultraman is the next oldest series, with the first tv show airing in the mid-1960s. The Ultraman universe has both television and movies, and quite a few of each, not to mention some animated entries. There are more than 30 Ultramen in the franchise, not to mention a few “unofficial” ones from other countries. Ultramen are aliens, who will merge with a human to survive on Earth, but can emerge for short battles against kaiju that are attacking. Ultraman is again done with suit acting on a scale set – the silver and red Ultraman suit is a thick foam rubber donned by the suit actor. Ultraman himself says very little, most of the talking is done by his human associates. This is one of the most accessible series in the west, as a number of seasons have been dubbed over the years, plus a few movies were actually produced in the United States in the 80s and 90s.
Kamen Rider came next, in 1971. Based on a manga series by Shotaro Ishinomori, Kamen Riders are heroes who transform to fight monsters. The first Kamen Rider (referred to as Ichigo, for “first”, though in series he was simply called “Kamen Rider”) was portrayed by Hiroshi Fujioka, both in and out of suit form. His character, Takeshi Hongo, was an enhanced human, who had been modified by the evil organization Shocker, but later turned and fought against them. In addition to the insect motif (Ichigo’s design is very much a grasshopper), Kamen Rider also has the prevailing theme of the good guys and the bad guys getting their powers and abilities from the same source, with the only difference being one side uses the abilities to save people and the other tries to harm people. The earlier Riders all fought Shocker, but in the Heisei era of the show (from 2001 to present), the bad guys are different each year, though Shocker does occasionally show up again from time to time. The Kamen Riders transform, usually using a belt-based device, and fight the bad guys in an armored suit form. The original Rider was portrayed by the same actor both in and out of suit, but after he was badly injured, the show began using skilled suit actors to portray the character once transformed. With a couple of rare exceptions, the Riders all have distinctive motorcycles, usually customized to match their suits, and that is where the name Kamen Rider comes from (“Kamen” means mask, which refers to the helmet when transformed).
The next franchise to begin was Super Sentai, which began with 1977’s Goranger, though Goranger and it’s followup, JAKQ, were not considered part of the greater Sentai world until years later. Sentai means “team” and the series is characterized by the teams of heroes, wearing bright colors. They also transform, to helmeted suits (though with a little bit less armor than the Riders wear), and fight the bad guys. Once the bad guy is defeated, though, he then grows big and the team use mech to create a giant robot to fight the now-enlarged monster a second time. The giant robot is also achieved through suit acting, just like Godzilla, beating up the monster in the mountains or in the midst of Tokyo. It is this footage, along with footage of the team in their suits, that is used to create Power Rangers in the U.S.
GARO is the newest series, the first one airing in 2006. The focus is on the Makai Knights, who defeat the Horrors.
As for where to start, there’s many easy jumping on points for each series. With Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, you can generally pick any season to start with, and not really be lost. There’s a few exceptions – Kamen Rider Decade and Kamen Rider Zi-O reference other Riders a lot, but the rest of the seasons exist in their own sort of separate universe (Decade actually says the Rider universes are separate). For Decade and Zi-O, it helps to have seen the other Riders but it’s not absolutely necessary (I hadn’t seen any pre-Decade Riders before watching it). You will loose some of the subtle nods and references though. Super Sentai seasons are pretty much all self contained, but may reference other teams. Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger, being the 35th anniversary season, did heavily reference past seasons/teams (the team that season were pirates trying to collect all the Ranger Keys to find the ultimate treasure), but it is absolutely not necessary to have seen other seasons – Gokaiger will introduce you to those teams and make you want to watch them though!
For Rider and Sentai, I usually say to start with a season that sounds interesting to you. If someone loves detective stories, I highly recommend Kamen Rider W (my personal favorite!), but if they’re a space fiend they get Kamen Rider Fourze and Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger thrown at them instead.
As far as other series, I haven’t really watched enough to give recommendations. But there’s plenty of fans who have – it’s easy enough to ask around in groups like TokuNet Community for suggestions.