On Kyuranger, No One Can Hear You Scream – Henshin Justice Unlimited

2017 has been a year of highs and lows for me as a tokusatsu fan. At one end of the aisle, there were heavy hitters. Big surprises and reinvention, breathing new life into what had seemed a little too routine of late. At the other end, we had some duds. Weak efforts with minimal creativity and just no drive to wow us. Sometimes those two things would happen back-to-back within the same franchise! Amid all the chaos emerged a title seeking to recapture my heart when it appeared all but lost in the shuffle of rotating monsters, morphers, and mecha. Let’s take a closer look at Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger, and see where it ranks on the scale so far.

Not gonna lie, when this show first premiered, I completely gushed. We’re finally going where Super Sentai has never gone before, taking the franchise into space where the heroes explore other worlds, meet aliens, and have big interstellar adventures? Shut up and take my credits!

It’s true that Sentai has dabbled in space-themed stories before, including old school shows like Flashman, and more modern stuff like Dekaranger, the latter of which has been getting tons of love lately with movies and specials galore. But those were still primarily Earth-based titles, where the setting of a typical episode was still pretty familiar, adhering to a fairly strict tradition. Having a show that took us lightyears from home, across a vast universe of danger and mystery, was a tantalizing detour from such a well-beaten path.

Kyuranger dropped into an atmosphere already hot with anticipation after word escaped that Bandai of America, known in western communities for Sentai adaptation Power Rangers, had offered creative input for the show’s designs. It remains unknown whether this was a large contribution or a small one, but there’s no question that this show looked different. The general appearance of the team, eventually ballooning to a startling twelve-person line-up, was a departure. Even when we’d gotten expanded casts before, as in with Kyoryuger and even Dekaranger, there was such an obvious divide between the show’s core five or six leads and the rest of the gang, who made infrequent appearances, and rarely all at once. Kyuranger is a huge team whose entire cast of heroes appears in the opening credits, and we don’t lose sight of almost any of them for more than a few episodes, typically with a pretty compelling reason.

And those suits! How do you not like those glorious costumes, all given key elements to make sure you know they belong to the same crew, but also with special hallmarks that make each hero stand out individually. I especially love the purple RyuuCommander suit. Both its simplified early form and the more elegant, caped upgrade are some of the coolest outfits to come out of Super Sentai in years. I also favor ChameleonGreen, the first regular female with this color designation, and the trend-busting, tricked-out HououSoldier, one of only a few “Secondary Reds” in a single series. But what really matters most is what’s behind those exceptionally-crafted masks. Which, for some, may be considerably harder to love.

The title of this review says no one can hear you scream. I’d add that the reason they can’t hear you is because Lucky would just shout you down, completely drowning out your voice and everyone else’s combined. Honestly, I feel like I’m in the minority when I say I wasn’t totally bothered by this loud, overbearing red dude with the luck of the Space Irish. When he arrived in the middle of a battle, seemingly by total accident, helping members of the Rebellion fight against the oppressive Jark Matter organization almost without realizing it, my first response was laughter. It’s just so completely absurd and they owned it so well, I thought, that I couldn’t help but be amused. It doesn’t hurt knowing that Lucky was just going to be one dude in a sea of other heroes, all competing for a sliver of my attention each week. With this much colorful variety, surely there wouldn’t be time for one guy’s wild persona to get annoying? Well.

Never underestimate Sentai’s determination to make you see the red guy. All the time. Everywhere. No matter what. To the actor’s credit, I think Kizu Takumi pulls off the shtick better than most. And it seems like he’s been slowly becoming more subdued as the series goes on. One might speculate that it could be due to complaints that he’s just too in-your-face, but given the small army of “obnoxious” Reds we’ve had in the past, I prefer to think that this was a deliberate story choice. Never illustrated better than through the story arc in which the almost supernaturally-fortunate Lucky, for the first time ever, is hit with a streak of bad luckā€¦ and it breaks him. What at first could seem like a dumb gimmick to give the character some kind of outrageous identifier to his personality now has a deeper layer to it. Someone who enjoys a constant, unexplained privilege would be devastated if he suddenly finds himself without it. He’s humbled by the experience. Not so much that it’s gonna stop him from shouting your face off when the mood strikes him, but just enough that he’ll gradually ease up.

Either that or he beats you down so hard that eventually you just resign to the madness. Whichever.

What’s remarkable about this cast is that its enormity could have been the thing that sunk it. With so many people in need of focus, was there really enough room to develop them all and pay off everyone effectively? So far, I’m leaning more toward the “yes” column. You still have your outliers like Hammi, Spada, and Raptor, but by and large, the show has taken great pains not only to juggle the focus but to keep characters involved in extended arcs, where you keep following one episode to another to find out what happens next to your favorites.

The robotic Champ evolving from his adversarial attitude with Stinger, whom he blamed for the death of his creator, into a grudging rival, and eventually into a close friend was a surprising ride. Meanwhile, Stinger’s treacherous brother Scorpio reveals his scheme to overthrow Jark Matter’s leadership only to perish in the attempt. And recently, the emotionless alien Naga is seduced by Jark Matter into becoming the vicious HebitsukaiMetal, intoxicated with every dark impulse that once laid dormant behind his usual charmingly awkward veneer. Damn, Kyuranger is going in on the character drama and I am so onboard.

While our starry-eyed heroes do indeed take their journey to the far reaches of the cosmos, and wacky space romps abound, I do wish they weren’t so quick to jump back to Earth at a moment’s notice. Until young Kotaro (this era’s audience-identifying Kid Ranger, less offensive than his predecessors) joins the crew, it was made up entirely of people that were alien, each hailing from different constellation clusters. I knew there was no way they’d stay off Earth altogether, but since the show was already impressing me in other areas I allowed myself to think maybe we wouldn’t get extended stints on this big dirtball we call home. It’s nice to want things.

Though their terrestrial adventures are pretty numerous, at least it afforded us one of the best TV-based crossover episodes in recent memory. Not necessarily because it was super-compelling or big on attention-grabbing feats, but because it was just plain fun. These are the type of episodes that can sometimes annoy more than they endear, clearly existing just to get you to watch some other thing you may or may not care about, putting a dead stop to whatever was happening in the show before the special guest stars roll up. I can’t tell you why this one wins for me where so many others failed, except that it was just the right combination of fun elements. Plucking heroes from the Space Sheriff and Dekaranger canon, throwing them together with the Kyuranger cast in a multi-dimensional, space-themed mini-mash-up that doesn’t overstay its welcome? That’s an equation worthy of Kamen Rider Build!

To be more critical of the show, I have a similar complaint here as I did when Kamen Rider Ex-Aid was airing. And, truth be told, this isn’t anything new to the genre. It’s the chicks! Where are all the chicks?! And why do the ones we do have always seem so quiet compared to the boys? I mean, I know what show I’m watching. These titles are boy-targeted first and foremost and it’s understood that male characters are more likely to get the lion’s share of focus. But come on! At least let Hammi get more episodes where she’s not basically just there to help one of the dudes with something. Raptor’s whole purpose seems to be assisting others, and we can excuse some of that on account of her being a machine that was probably designed with that in mind, but these titles seem pathologically obsessed with positioning female characters into support roles, even while simultaneously paying lip-service to their supposed skills and battle prowess. Whether the catalyst for these decisions is cultural, creative, or economical, I just feel like we could do better than defaulting so often to making the girls into helpers and cheerleaders in their own focus-episodes, let alone someone else’s. I’d like more of them, but I’d settle for higher quality on the ones we’ve got.

Beyond its few faults, Kyuranger has still shaped up to be a fun series that I always look forward to jumping back into. Where others in its franchise took longer for their characters to make a lasting impression, Kyuranger did almost immediately. It wastes little time with typical routine episodes (we’ll forgive the occasional birthday escapade) and sends its characters on multi-part quests, sometimes separating into different squads but never leaving our notice for very long. This opens up the world so much more than on your average toku show, where events feel locked into a very tightly-fixed position. It’s not just a ton of random episodes; eventually things add up and one thing literally leads to another.

The search for the mysterious vessel Argo lures the group toward their newest teammate, the hibernating Earthling warrior who reveals a deep backstory about the dawn of Jark Matter, which leads to their mission to retrieve a special item that manipulates time, prompting half the gang to take a trip into the past and uncover hidden truths about the enemy, while potentially screwing up all of history in the process. Still with me? This is a saga, the likes of which we seldom witness in Super Sentai.

My greatest hope would be that this lights another fire under the franchise, sparking more innovation and adventurous approaches to the tried-and-true method of bringing these spandex-clad heroes to our screens. We’ve had false starts before, as with the criminally undervalued Go-busters, but for some, maybe that was too much too fast. Maybe Kyuranger has the greater mass appeal to nudge the door open just a bit more. So when 2017 ends and we’re approaching another year of color-coded saviors rushing off to win the day, we know it’ll be something special.