Why Tokusatsu Deserves To Become As Popular As Anime Or Manga
Written by Eoghan O'Connell on 30 Dec 2022
As Ross Locksley has previously said about tokusatsu, "Simply translated it means SFX, and showcases filming techniques involving miniatures, costumes, CG and special effects. Toei began making such shows in the 1950's, and culminated in classics like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai." Tokusatsu, despite its importance in Japan, seems to be overlooked too often by Western fans of Japanese media and so I thought it worth sharing why I think that tokusatsu deserves to become as popular as anime or manga.
I think it's fair to say that a character like Godzilla has been very successful at permeating popular culture. Ever since I was a kid, I can remember seeing references and parodies of him with one of the more notable ones being Reptar from the Rugrats. However, given how well-known he is, it didn't occur to me until I first began to consume anime and manga in my teenage years that Godzilla wasn't merely a pop culture icon but had his very own films. For many years, I remember having a DVD of the 1954 Godzilla film wishlisted but never picking it up because of the prohibitively high price. However, I recall popping on UK Anime Network one day, before I ended up writing for this website, and seeing a review of the first Godzilla film written by the esteemed Richard Durrance. Little did I realise the world I was about to enter as I clicked to read his review. It very quickly became apparent that the film was part of a boxset containing the first fifteen Godzilla films and I immediately went to Amazon to see whether it was available. Imagine my surprise to see that it wasn't merely available but that it was discounted as part of a sale. I quickly purchased the set and, as soon as it arrived, set about watching the films. While certainly uneven in quality, as I'm sure Richard Durrance would heartily agree with, I found myself nonetheless bewitched by the style and very quickly began searching for more. While it's unfortunate that only this boxset and Shin Godzilla are available over here when it comes to the Godzilla films, I've managed to pick up several other kaiju films such as Mothra, Gamera, Daimajin etc.
Speaking of Hideaki Anno, since he wrote and co-directed Shin Godzilla, a manga written by his wife, Moyoco Anno, called Insufficient Direction also contributed to my intrigue with tokusatsu. An autobiographical work, Moyoco Anno explores how she was overwhelmed by Hideaki Anno's passion for otaku subculture such as anime and manga. However, something that really fascinated me was how evident his passion for tokusatsu was as he would frequently bring up various tokusatsu series such as Godzilla, Gamera, Ultraman, Kamen Rider etc. There was even a particularly noteworthy chapter where Moyoco Anno learned that Hideaki Anno had created his own fan film in 1983 called "Return of Ultraman" in which Hideaki Anno himself played Ultraman. This passion has clearly made its way into reality as Hideaki Anno not only worked on Shin Godzilla but also wrote and produced the recently released Shin Ultraman and is currently directing and writing Shin Kamen Rider. Reading the manga made me realise that, despite all of the anime, manga, light novels etc. that I'd experienced, I was still missing out on a key part of otaku subculture.
Hideki Anno's Shin Kamen Rider
It was only recently when I got a chance to experience a tokusatsu TV series. Living in Ireland, I'm quite reliant on UK releases of various home media and for a long time it seemed that I wouldn't be able to experience any tokusatsu TV series since, as far as I'm aware, no UK distributors have picked up any. However, I eventually found that a US company called Mill Creek Entertainment had gotten the rights to release the Ultraman franchise on home video and had been releasing a variety of them over the years. I was happy for the US fans but a little disappointed that I wouldn't be able to experience Ultraman myself. Then one day, I decided to look into whether anyone knew if the Ultraman blu-rays worked on region B players. Turns out that the original seven Ultra series did in fact work and I began looking to find them at an affordable price. I finally managed to and have since picked up several boxsets. Having only watched the first two so far, Ultra Q and Ultraman, I can say that I'm truly excited to experience more from this franchise and to show episodes from these series to my friends.
The Kaiju films are a form of Tokusatsu that have permeated popular culture
As for what it is about tokusatsu that appeals to me, I think it comes down to several factors. My introduction, as evidenced above, came from kaiju, a genre of tokusatsu that involves gigantic monsters and I must say that I truly love the creativity present in their designs. When I think of kaiju now, I don't simply think of Godzilla, as great as he is, but I also think of Mothra, King Ghidorah, Gigan, Anguirus, Gamera, Barugon, Legion and Daimajin. Their costumes, their abilities, their sounds, it's truly startling to me how distinct and unique they can be and it's one of those cases where I ended up feeling very invested in them and their struggles, perhaps in a way I would root for an animal in many other media. With regards to the more superhero oriented TV series, it again comes back to the style where it feels both over the top but also sincere, something that is absent from a lot of Western media. I've also always been a big fan of practical effects and this is where tokusatsu shines. Even modern tokusatsu use numerous practical effects and generally use CGI only as a way to enhance these effects.
It seems that these tokusatsu releases have been doing quite well in America where a distributor, the wonderful Discotek Media, have now launched a sub-brand called Toku Time. When asked, they responded by saying "We wanted to create something distinct for tokusatsu fans because we’ve seen that fandom emerge in the past few years" and they've already got an impressive lineup of tokusatsu titles such as Space Sheriff Gavan, Space Wolf Juspion, Cutie Honey: The Live and, most enviously, a release of a true classic, Kamen Rider Black. I sincerely hope that this move proves successful for Discotek Media but I must admit that I'm a little frustrated that the UK market feels so far behind. While we have seen some companies such as Criterion, Arrow, Eureka etc. release some kaiju films, we are still missing so many important kaiju works such as Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy and even the Heisei and Millennium eras of Godzilla! That's not to mention that tokusatsu TV series seem to be completely absent! While I and many other people can import American copies of these shows, it's always more awkward due to import fees, longer delivery times, a concern that the discs may not work in my player etc.
Now there's nothing that specifies that tokusatsu must be released by companies involved in distributing anime. However, it does make sense as an expansion opportunity, similar to how light novels proved to be an expansion opportunity for manga publishers, due to the fact that many Japanese licensing companies deal with both anime and tokusatsu, that fans of anime are already familiar with some of the intricacies of Japanese culture and that many figures important in anime and manga have been involved with or inspired by tokusatsu. For now, the best way to experience tokusatsu here is to support the current tokusatsu releases such as Godzilla, Gamera and Daimajin boxsets. If you, like me, find yourself hungry for more tokusatsu content, then I can confidently encourage you to import the Ultraman blu-rays as they've worked flawlessly on my player. However, I do hope that we eventually see many more tokusatsu films and TV series released here and that they may prove to become as popular as anime or manga.
About Eoghan O'Connell
Going by the online persona Immortallium, I'm a YouTuber as well as a Manga, Anime and Video Game enthusiast.