In 1970, a SPIDER-MAN manga appeared in Shounen Magazine, illustrated by famed manga artist Ryouichi Ikegami. It was pretty good, and very faithful to the original story by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, but that ends with the Mysterio story arc (previously, Electro, the Lizard and a wrestling villain called "Kangaroo" appeared). After that, it becomes an artsy-fartsy mess that focuses less on Spidey and more on crime, violence, romance, rape, lust and stuff like that. One gets the feeling that Ikegami lost interest in the comic, and used it as his own personal scribble-pad. The manga was a failure in Japan, even with Spidey-fans there. Marvel brought an edited, translated version to the US in 1999 or so (Marvel Imports, or something like that), but few people actually cared. Neither did I.
And in 1978, Marvel struck a deal with Toei: For four years, they could use their characters in any way they saw fit. Toei producer Tooru Hirayama, who was responsible for bringing many great superhero shows to TV throughout the 70s, decided to do a Spider-Man series, and wanted the story to remain as faithful to the Marvel comic as possible, but Toei's sponsor Bandai wanted to sell more toys, so there was a major story rewrite, and they had to push a giant robot into the story! Toei's producers thought Bandai was crazy! Nonetheless, this was to be the first time in a Japanese superhero series in which a costumed superhero (as opposed to a regular pilot, such as in MAZINGER Z) rode a giant robot.
The next Toei/Marvel project was BATTLE FEVER J (the 3rd Sentai Series and 1st "Super Sentai"), a Japanization of Captain America (the project was going to be called CAPTAIN JAPAN), but Bandai got more control than Hirayama, for whom this show was the last straw. When he left superhero shows (and worked on kiddie/family shows at Toei), it was completely Toei and Bandai's show from there on (except for Ishinomori's Masked Rider shows). The next Sentai Series, DENJIMAN (1980) and SUNVULCAN (1981) had Marvel Comics Group in the opening credits, but no Marvel characters were ever used in either series! Go figure.
Here we have Toei's SPIDERMAN, which, despite its shortcomings, should definitely be a treat for Spidey/Marvel fans! I will say that it was better than the short-lived American series starring Nicholas Hammond (which wasn't TOO bad). Before the excellent new SPIDER-MAN film starring Tobey Maguire, this is definitely the most visually faithful Spider-Man ever portrayed on film! The costume was right, the poses and stunts were incredible, he can even do whatever a spider can; Spin webs from his wristband (but he only has one wristband; More on that later), scale buildings and even has his trusty Spider-Sense! But the faithfulness ends with Spidey himself.
The STORY is what bugs me! The Japanization is much more extreme than the aformementioned manga from 1970, and here, Spidey's foes are nowhere to be seen. Also, his origins have been changed completely! He's from outer space, he has a racing car (Spider-Machine GP-7) and rides a giant ship called the Marveller (hmmmm . . . Where DID they get that name . . . ), which transforms into the giant robot Leopardon! OK, now this is TOTALLY out of place for ol' Spidey, even more absurd than any of Ralph Bakshi's "drug-trip" Spidey adventures (from the last two seasons of the classic animated series)! But that's not all! Toei ran out of money to do the FX by Episode 5, and after Episode 10, no more footage of Leopardon could be done, as it was rumored that some nasty fanatic stole the robot costume! So its appearance was limited to stock footage of the robot, with new footage of the monster-of-the-week (reacting to and being destroyed by Leopardon's "Swordvicker" attack) spliced in!
But let's look on the show's plusses: At least we get to see more Spidey action! In fact, the show is VERY violent! Spider-Man rarely kills his enemies, so he doesn't have any Masked Rider-like attacks (unless he yanks his enemy by the neck with his webbing, like he did to one in the final episode; He usually resorts to using Spider-Machine GP-7 and Marveller/Leopardon, as his enemy is the monster of the week that grows to giant size), but he DOES get to use cool martial arts to waste a bunch of cannon-fodder henchmen (yep, every Japanese superhero show must have 'em) in each episode! Hirosuke Kayama, who plays Spidey's alter-ego Takuya Yamashiro, is very good and makes a nice dead-ringer for Peter Parker's later incarnations in the 70s! It's too bad that Kayama usually played villain roles (he later played General Hedrer in DENJIMAN), but this is one of his best non-villain roles! Veteran Hiroshi Miyauchi (MASKED RIDER V3, GORANGER, ZUBAT, etc.) is on hand as a semi-regular character, Interpol Agent Tachibana, who dresses like a cowboy, plays guitar and sings (exactly like his Ken Hayakawa/Zubat character!), as well as occasionally helping Spidey fight the baddies! It's still very refreshing to see our web-slinging hero fighting Henshin-style monsters (as opposed to his regular foes like Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus), and the ones in this show are pretty good! And also of note is the main villain, Professor Monster, played by the late Mitsuo Andou (Professor Gill in KIKAIDER, Fuehrer Geisel in INAZUMAN FLASH and Black Cross Fuehrer in the first Sentai Series, GORANGER)! Prof. Monster is obviously designed after Marvel's Doctor Doom (except that only half his face is covered)!
I'll be as brief on the plot as I can: In space, Professor Monster, leader of the Iron Cross Army (his cronies include right hand woman Amazones, a similar two Caucasian women, and crow-like henchmen) are in pursuit of the space craft Marveller, which comes to Earth and crashes on a mountain in Japan, freeing an old hermit named Galia, who was from the planet Spider (which the big Prof. plundered and destroyed long ago). After a race show, motorcycle stuntman Takuya Yamashiro (who lives with his sister and little brother, and has a photographer girlfriend, who's unaware that her boss is acutally Amazones in disguise! Wow, and you thought J. Jonah Jameson was evil!) is fatally wounded by Amazones and the crow-henchmen, but is saved by Galia, who injects "Spider Extract" into Takuya before turning back into a spider! He also recieves a metallic bracelet, which stores his Spidey suit (PLUS!!!), shoots webs, and is also a communicator for the Spider-Machine GP-7 and Marveller, which he can ride and transform into Leopardon, which kills Professor Monster's monsters with its "Swordvicker" attack (it hurls its huge sword at the monster, as opposed to slashing it)! That's pretty much the formula with the whole series.
I will say that the final episode (Episode 41), though incredibly rushed (especially after its slow first half), has its own cheesy, campy charm, mostly in the climax! After Spidey kills all of the other villains (right after Amazones meets her fate), he finally comes face to face with Professor Monster, who, after a little scuffle with our web-slinger, grows to giant size (Yes, just like all the other monsters!), pounds his chest like King Kong, and shouts "The Iron Cross Army is immortal!!!" Spidey does the usual Marveller/Leopardon thing and kills the evil Professor the same way he usually kills the other monsters, but this time, with a bit of ray-firing thrown in between for dramatic effect (remember, there was no Leopardon costume after Episode 10).
My final take: Toei's SPIDERMAN is a fun series, and a must-see for Marvel fans, just to see ol' Web-Head himself in breathtaking action! I say, don't let the minuses get to you, and just sit back and enjoy the plusses!
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