When I started working on this essay I believed that I was breaking new ground, that work by academics on Japanese superheroes was probably minuscule to nonexistent. What I soon realized however was that a number of scholars were in fact interested in this topic, through separated both geographically and by areas of expertise. The goal of this series then is to bring these scholars together and place them conversation, not only with each other, via myself, but also with you; the fans.
For my inaugural interview I was pleased to speak with British scholar Tom Gill who is a professor of social anthropology at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan and author of the essay “Transformational Magic: Some Japanese super-heroes and monsters,” first published in the book The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998), edited by Dolores Martinez.
In the first part of this interview we talk about whether or not Japanese superheroes are for “children only,” the importance of Kamen Rider X villain Starfish Hitler, why Japanese superheroes don’t fight crime, and the politics of Ultraman vs. Superman. I spoke with Tom via Skype on Oct. 27, 2017.
Justin Mullis: Would you please give your name, field of study and current research interests?
Tom Gill: My full name is Thomas Paramor Gill, but everyone calls me Tom Gill. I’m a social anthropologist, 57 years old, and I obtained my doctorate in 1996. My PhD work was on labor districts in Japan called doya-gai and yoseba, places where there are lots of cheap flophouses where men sleep and then get up very early and try and get a job on a building site or on the docks. I’ve been studying these places for a very long time now and for a while they were my main topic of study, also leading naturally into studies of homeless men, because failing to get work at a yoseba is often a stage on the road to homelessness. But since the great Tōhoku disaster of March 11, 2011 I’ve kind of shifted my focus to the victims of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. I’m actually living in Fukushima city at the moment, spending more time with my Fukushima friends and informants and trying to work on a book on that. I also have various other academic side interests including gambling – I’ve already published one paper about gambling and there will be more to come on that as well.
JM: Great. And my first follow up question is ‘How did you get interested in the subject of Japanese superheroes?’
TG: To be honest, it was a bit of a sideline for me. Actually back in the mid-1990s when Dolores Martinez asked me to contribute something to the book she was editing, I was originally planning to write a completely different paper about Japanese tabloid newspapers. A long time ago I once wrote for a British tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mail, so I have a little bit of a journalistic background. So that’s what it was going to be about, but at the time I had these two small children who were watching these amazing Japanese children’s TV programs and I just sort of got drawn into them and that paper almost wrote itself. All these themes seemed to naturally emerge out of what I was watching at home with my children. And it was a paper that was a lot of fun to write and it’s probably been more read and cited then any of my other papers. In fact it was the first serious academic paper I ever published. Since then I haven’t published anything else on that topic of Japanese children’s TV, heroes and monsters, although I do have quite a strong interest in manga and I’ve published three papers on a particular Japanese manga artist, Yoshiharu Tsuge, who’s a big favorite of mine.
JM: That seems to be a common answer. Duke University anthropologist Anne Allison has said something similar, that she was living in Japan with her kids and because of that these shows that wouldn’t have otherwise caught her attention did. And I can definitely relate to what you said about this surprisingly being the thing that got you the most attention academically. A lot of my writing has been about fandoms and fan cultures in the United States and I’ve tended to write mostly on fandoms that I had something of a predisposed interest in but I ended up doing a piece on the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic which has attracted a lot of adult male fans in the United States over the last five to six years…
JM: …Yeah and it’s a paper that actually ended up being really popular and has now been published as a chapter in the book The Retro-Futurism of Cuteness (2017, Punctum Books). But it was one of those things where I didn’t have any interest in the topic initially but apparently a lot of other people did.
TG: I had the impression that My Little Pony, like most of the things that I discussed in my paper, was aimed at extremely young children like 3 or 4 years old?
JM: Yes, yes it is. But what’s interesting is that this current series is heavily influenced by Japanese anime. Specifically Japanese superhero shows. Sailor Moon being the big one. So in my work I actually trace a kind of genealogy where I argue that the reason why these people who don’t seem like they would be My Little Pony fans, and who have had no prior interest in this franchise, are suddenly becoming attracted to this incarnation of it, is because it features all of these elements from Japanese anime that they were already fans of.
And actually that’s a good segue because one of the first things that I wanted to talk about was that you say that a lot of these Japanese superhero shows are aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 6, or right around there, and I think that’s interesting because American fans of Ultraman, Kamen Rider and Super Sentai tend to be much older. They’re in their late teens, twenties or early thirties. And what’s so interesting about that is that a lot of these fans, when you talk to them about the fact that these shows in Japan are made for and aimed at elementary school aged children, they’re very incredulous about that claim because they see these shows as being in some ways too adult for kids that young. They think they’re too violent, too sexual, and I think that touches on an issue of Japanese standards for children’s entertainment verses American standards, and I was wondering if you could speak to that?
TG: Yeah, so let’s start with another interesting case in point. No doubt you’re familiar with the manga and anime Barefoot Gen (Manga: 1973-74 by Keiji Nakazawa, Anime Film: 1983, Dir. Mori Masaki)?
TG: So I have in my possession a copy of the video that was made for the US market. On the back of it there’s a sticker with a picture of a child’s face with a line drawn across it and it says ‘Not suitable for children. Contains graphic and disturbing imagery.’ However Barefoot Gen is regularly shown every year in thousands of Japanese elementary schools to children around the age of 8 or 9 years old. Both of my children had to watch it when they were in elementary school and they came home thoroughly shaken up by the vivid depictions of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and the incredibly sad things that happened after it. So in Japan that’s considered suitable educational material for elementary school kids while in the States it’s got an adults-only warning on the box. And incidentally, for what it’s worth, I think the American have got it right in this case. Both of my kids were very disturbed by that video and it is quite amazing what the Japanese authorities sometimes think is suitable for small kids to watch. But looking at the entertainment available for kids more generally it seems undeniable that there is a much higher level of sophistication in the Japanese products then the British or American ones that I’m familiar with. I mean, what do 3 or 4 year-old-kids watch in England? Well it would be things like Teletubbies, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them?
JM: Yes, we have those in America too.
TG: Yeah, they don’t even speak. They just make sounds. And they are very consciously directed at an infant audience whereas these Japanese shows are perhaps designed to be watched by the kids with their parents who of course need to be aware of them because they will be the ones who go out and buy all the merchandise. So I think they may have a parent and child duel audience in mind. What do you think?
JM: I definitely think that’s part of the reason. It’s interesting because I was going to ask when exactly you were doing your research, which I think you’ve already answered, but in your essay you say that these shows’ aired between 5 and 7pm on weeknights…
JM: …Okay because my understanding was that most superhero shows used to air in that time block until ’96/’97 at which point they switched to Saturday mornings where they still are. But they were originally shown in the evening because they were intended as not just children’s shows but family shows.
JM: The primarily audience may have been children but the idea was that the whole family would sit down and watch these shows together whether it was Ultraman or Super Sentai or what have you. So the shows had to be more sophisticated so that the parents could enjoy it on one level while the kids enjoyed it on another level.
TG: Right. And I was just re-reading the paper and puzzling a little about that because I distinctly remember that Tokusou Robo Janperson was on at 7 or 7:30am on a Saturday and being dragged out of bed by my kids insisting that I watch it with them and wondering why on Earth they put these shows on at this particular time. Now these days, well I’m a grown-up so I don’t watch quite as much children’s TV as I used to, but of course that 5:30 to 7:30pm time slot does still have time-honored favorites like Sazae-san, Doraemon, and Crayon Shin-chan and a cluster of other programs that I didn’t discuss in that paper but which do have some interesting parallels – because Doraemon is a kind of modified superhero isn’t he? He has superpowers and special bits of equipment so he ticks a lot of the boxes for that kind of program. And he’s still on in that family suppertime viewing slot, 7pm on Friday night, followed immediately by Crayon Shin-chan at 7:30, both on TV Asahi. Sazae-san is on Fuji TV, 6.30pm Sundays. Each of these programs has been running for several decades now, and Sazae-san is the longest-running TV animation on planet Earth. It first aired in 1969. Meanwhile TV Asahi shifted the Super Sentai series from Fridays at 5:30pm to Sundays at 7:30am in 1997, eight episodes into Denji Sentai Megaranger, the 21st iteration of the series. The Friday slot was a little earlier than the classic animations – I imagine mum cooking the dinner while the kids watch the Rangers, then sitting down together for Doraemon, Sazae-san etc. The shift to Sunday morning I tend to think of as a gift to mum and dad – they can get another half hour in bed while the kids watch the Rangers.
JM: Yeah and I definitely think it has a lot to do with the desire for these shows to have a multi-generational appeal. Also after the shows were moved in the late-’90s from being in the evening to being primarily on Sunday mornings they did begin to suffer in the ratings department, especially certain shows like Kamen Rider which had so few viewers that Toei took it off the air for a while. Actually the switch for Kamen Rider happened much earlier in 1987 when Kamen Rider Black was moved from Friday or Saturday evenings to Sunday mid-morning. But then the current producer of the Kamen Rider series, Naomi Takebe, came in in the early 2000s with this plan to reinvigorate the franchise via the realization that this show was not only being watched by small children but also by their mothers who obviously had control over what was actually on the television and so by making the protagonists younger more attractive male actors she knew she could keep the mother’s attention on Kamen Rider and not wanting to change the channel.
TG: Right, yes, yes. What’s the average age of these actors? Because I’m thinking of the Super Sentai actors and they’re always fit, young twenty-somethings aren’t they?
JM: Yeah they are. And it’s the same for the Kamen Rider actors. They’ll be in there early 20s though they’re trying to portray teenagers.
TG: Right, right, right… And it’s also obvious that they are attractive to the small children watching because they’re like big brothers and big sisters inhabiting a world that a small child might imagine him or herself also inhabiting. But of course they’re also supposed to be handsome guys for mum to look at, typically with a token pretty girl to stop dad from changing the channel.
JM: Yeah, well it was the sort of thing that a lot of fans noticed because there’s a big difference between the original Kamen Rider in the 70s where your lead actor is Hiroshi Fujioka – who’s a very gruff, square jawed kind of character – versus the kind of guys they have playing Kamen Rider now who are much more along the lines of the whole bishōnen – “pretty boy” – kind of thing. It’s very clear that in this current Takebe era they’re picking actors who women are going to swoon over.
TG: I see. Well that’s very interesting, thanks for telling me that. I wonder if one could read this as part of a process where you start off with something that’s pretty serious and adult and then you gradually parody it and turn it into something ever more child friendly. Programs that start off with at least genuinely frightening monsters and bad guys and trying to be pretty serious fables of conflict between good and evil but which gradually descend into self-parody as the monsters get ever more farfetched and elaborate so that you eventually get cute plastic figurines of Godzilla and that kind of thing. And likewise the actors also follow this trend and gradually becoming less like macho-men and more like bishōnen as you were saying.
You know, just the other day I was actually watching some Kamen Rider on YouTube for the first time in some years and it was when Kamen Rider was taking on Starfish-Hitler…
JM: Oh yes!
TG: That’s a pretty old episode I guess.
JM: Yeah, that’s from the 70s, that’s from Kamen Rider X.
TG: Yes, that’s right, it was X. It’s an absolutely delightful episode I must say. But you know no 4 or 5-year-old kid is going to understand anything about Hitler so clearly that’s aimed at the adults watching with their children.
JM: Right, and it’s not something that you see any more in the modern series. I mean I can’t imagine a contemporary Kamen Rider or Super Sentai having a villain who’s a mash-up of an animal plus a world famous dictator or terrorist. And I think that part of what makes Starfish-Hitler so bizarre and has transformed him into a meme online is the fact that it’s so alien to modern sensibilities as far as superheroes go. This leads into another interesting point that I wanted to talk about which is this compare and contrast you do in the essay between the characters of Ultraman and Superman.
JM: So the way I have it in my notes is that you say that Superman looks human while Ultraman looks like an alien. Superman clearly has emotions while Ultraman in most cases appears to have no emotions. Superman speaks, Ultraman as a general rule doesn’t speak. Superman fights crime, Ultraman fights monsters. And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that. About what you think explains those differences between Superman, who is pretty much the holotype of American superheroes, and Ultraman, who is the holotype of Japanese superheroes. In particular I find that ‘crime verses monsters’ paradigm really interesting because I can’t actually think of a single Japanese superhero program I’ve ever seen where they’ve fought criminals. Like I’ve never seen Kamen Rider stop a bank robber for example. It’s always monsters.
TG: Right, right, right… It is an interesting comparison isn’t it? Well I think one of the reasons is that while Superman is political, Ultraman is more mythical. Superman is ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way.’ He’s very consciously tied to American patriotism with his costume echoing the American flag in its colors, red and blue, albeit offset by the bits of yellow on his chest, which is a color combination which quite a few other American superheroes also share, like Captain America who just wears the red, white and blue. Whereas Ultraman’s colors of red and silver are essentially a shiny version of red and white, which are the colors of the Hinomaru or Japanese flag. And indeed when you consider the American flag versus the Japanese flag, the American flag is very political in its symbolism with the stars and stripes representing the number of states in the union, whereas the Japanese flag is a stylized representation of the sun in the sky. So it seems that those two flags fit quite nicely into a set of opposites as I was discussing in the paper. And if you wanted to take it a bit further you could also start arguing about the religious influences on these cultural traditions, where you have this obsession with right and wrong, good and evil in the American version but in the Japanese ones instead of villainous people you have these unpredictable and possibly dangerous monsters stepping on skyscrapers which is not evil in the same way that a guy robbing a bank and taking hostages is. They’re more like a force of nature then a morally corrupt human. And that does seem to tie into a lot of other cultural tropes that you find in the two countries. I’m afraid my anthropology colleagues would probably accuse me of cultural essentialism in making this kind of argument but nevertheless I’m willing to go out on a limb and say I do think the Judeo-Christian faith is a big influence on Superman and that Shinto concepts of living gods and an environment that is fused with the supernatural is a big influence on the Japanese version – and it is very interesting to see how these contrasting cultural traditions find expression in what are basically similar creative projects about a super/ultra man.
JM: I would not only agree but I’d also say that I don’t think it’s so much an issue of cultural essentialism as it is one of recognizing broad trends and patterns. And of course there are always going to be exceptions but nevertheless you can still say that nine out of ten Japanese superheroes function this one way, while nine out of ten American superheroes function in this other way. And what that outlying figure does, I would argue, is actually just reinforce the legitimacy of the pattern by being the exception that proves the rule.
TG: And in the case of the Super Sentai series it was Battle Fever J that was the outlier wasn’t it?
TG: Because that addition was somewhat politicized with Battle Japan leading the gang which included Battle France and a very attractive Miss America being his main partners while the lower level, back-of-the-team members were Battle Cossack and Battle Kenya, which all gives off the appearance of a Japan-dominated global order. But I think that was a bit of a one-off. And you have to remember these programs are made by committees made up of mostly middle-aged blokes and sometimes they just mess around and do things for fun which aren’t necessarily extremely sophisticated attempts at targeting their very young audience.
JM: My understanding is that Battle Fever J is so odd because it originally began as a Japanese Captain America. Toei was working with Marvel at the time on a Japanese Spider-Man show that came out in the late 70s which I assume you’ve probably seen?
JM: Right, so this was going to be their follow-up, they were going to do a Japanese Captain America and the Avengers and it evolved into this concept of Battle Fever J.
TG: Right, right.
Look for part two of my interview with Tom Gill tomorrow where we’ll discuss why the leader of Super Sentai is always red, the scarcity of purple superheroes, how Kyuranger is like pop-group AKB48, the link between Dairanger and WWII Japanese propaganda, and the influence of Christianity on one of Japan’s most beloved superheroes: Anpanman!