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Massaya Matsuzake Ono
"Denjiman" Action-packed and wildly imaginative sentai series
When I watch older sentai series (the Toei line of Japanese live-action sci-fi superhero series about five heroes in color-coded costumes which change their casts every year and have, since 1992, supplied the American Power Rangers franchise with action and effects footage), I'm impressed with the serious tone of the ones made in the 1970s and '80s and the more mature casts of actors in the parts, as opposed to the younger, more fresh-faced members of the sentai teams of the 1990s and 2000s. In the old days, they often used actors trained at Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club, so they came to the series with considerable martial arts experience. "Denjiman," the 1980 sentai season, has a darker tone than later sentai series and its actors bring more gravitas to their parts. One of the team, Denji Blue, is played by Kenji Ohba, who had already been a team member in the previous year's sentai season, "Battle Fever J," and would go on to star in one of the greatest tokusatsu (Japanese live-action effects-oriented sci-fi) series of them all, "Space Sheriff Gavan" (1982). He would later turn up as Sonny Chiba's sidekick in the sushi bar scene in Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL, VOL. 1. Ohba was quite an accomplished screen fighter and stunt man and performs a lot of exciting action in this series outside of his Denji Blue costume.
I'm also impressed with Denji Pink, played by Akira Koizumi. In one of the episodes I watched, #43: "The Puzzling Spectrum Lady," the focus is entirely on her as she seeks to stop a villainess who's been kidnapping a series of beauty contest winners and other accomplished women. In the course of it, Akira changes costumes many times, taking on a wide variety of personae, including an 18th century French swordswoman (a la Lady Oscar, from "Rose of Versailles"), a sexy club hostess, a Chinese kung fu girl who foreshadows Chun Li from "Street Fighter," a cowgirl, an American Indian, a nun, a sailor, and a kendo champ. I would have loved a whole movie about this character. I was sorry to learn, upon consulting IMDb's filmography for Ms. Koizumi, that "Denjiman" is her only credit.
The other great thing about "Denjiman" is the presence in the cast of Machiko Soga as the lead villainess, Queen Hedrian. Ms. Soga is much better known for playing the interplanetary space witch Bandora in the 1992 sentai season, "Zyuranger." That role, of course, made her internationally famous when "Zyuranger" was reedited into "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" for the American audience, with Soga's scenes as Bandora retained, but with English dubbing performed by Barbara Goodson and the new name of Rita Repulsa bestowed on the character. Rita Repulsa was so important to the franchise that when the producers of MMPR used up all the "Zyuranger" footage of Bandora, they hired an actress who barely resembled Ms. Soga and shot new scenes with her as Repulsa, continuing to use Ms. Goodson as voice actress. (Too bad American audiences didn't get to hear Soga's great voice.) In "Denjiman," Soga's villainy is so over the top that she makes Bandora seem like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in comparison. Soga has such a great face for this role, with piercing eyes and a wide, expressive mouth and jaw that can erupt in maniacal laughter at one moment and withering, lethal snarls the next. There are many great closeups of her and she's a delight to watch the whole time, especially as she's saddled with an outlandish costume and massive headpiece that any lesser performer would have found daunting, but not Ms. Soga, who wears it all with aplomb. One episode I watched, #48: "Banriki Devil King's Rebellion," is significant because it gives Ms. Soga lots of screen time and focuses on a violent rift within her villain cohort which results in her being overthrown and jailed in a dungeon for a time, not that any jail can hold her for long.
Another thing that continually impresses me about older sentai series is the frequent use of Japanese locations, particularly around Tokyo, and the way elaborate action scenes are staged in them. If you want to see what Tokyo looked like in 1980, this series is a good place to start. One episode I watched, #26: "Princess Denzi's Space Tune," is about a pop song called "Honey" that becomes a huge hit and so annoys Queen Hedrian that she sends a monster adorned in vinyl records to wreak havoc on the song's fans. This includes scenes shot in a Tokyo Park where teenage girls (and some boys) dressed in fashions evidently linked to a particular scene of the time dance to the latest tunes played on boom boxes. The footage looks like actual documentary footage with real crowds formed around them to watch, but when the monsters attack and do something to cause the dancers' faces to suddenly experience horrible burns and scarring, it's obvious the dancers are actors. But they sure looked like the real thing.
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