Welcome to a brand new installment of Scholars Talking Toku. My name is Justin Mullis and I’m a scholar working in the academic field of religious studies who also happens to harbor a life long love of Japanese pop-culture. Last year an essay I wrote, “Notes from the Land of Light: Observations on Religious Elements Seen in Ultraman”, was published in the book Giant Creatures in Our World: Essays on Kaiju and American Popular Culture (2017, McFarland Press) edited by Camille D.G. Mustachio and Jason Barr. I recommend you pick it up!
One of my fellow contributors to Giant Creatures in Our World is scholar Seth Kim who is an Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University. Kim’s contribution to our book was a fascinating and provocative essay on the kaijin from the original Kamen Rider (1971), so asking him to be part of this series was a no-brainier. In addition to his examination of the kaijin from the original Kamen Rider, Seth has also published essays on Kamen Rider Fourze and Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger.
In the first part of this interview we talk about Gokaiger’s subtext of Japanese nuclear rearmament, the symbolic importance of Japanese role-playing toys, why giant robots are a total pipe-dream, how kaijin are just evil versions of American superheroes and the Power Rangers‘ secret connection to France. I spoke with Seth via Skype on Nov. 10, 2017.
Justin Mullis: Would you please give your name, field of study and current research interests?
Seth Kim: My name is Se Young Kim, or Seth Kim, and I’m a Mellon Assistant Professor in the Program of Cinema and Media Arts and Asian Studies at Vanderbilt University. My research interests are generally contemporary US and East Asian cinema with a focus on South Korea and Japan. I do a lot of work on new media with video games. A lot of my work tends to think about representations of violence in multimedia and new media. In terms of the intersection with tokusatsu, it fits into my interest in Japanese media in general but also the relationship of mass culture to WWII and postwar history.
JM: Picking up on that last thought, could you talk about how you first got interested in Japanese superheroes, or tokusatsu more broadly, and what made you want to write about it academically?
SK: Sure. I think like most academics, most of my interests originated in a very personal place. So in the early 1980s, while I was living in the US – because I’ve split my life between living in Asia and America – I had an aunt who was living in Japan and she would send me tokusatsu magazines, superhero magazines specifically. So before I ever had any actual contact with any of the shows I was looking at these magazines and being exposed to Kamen Rider and Ultraman and Super Sentai that way. And then in the early 90s like any other young person at that time I became enraptured by Power Rangers.
Fast forward, I’ve grown-up, I’m enamored with Japanese comic books, Japanese video games, Japanese television and animation, and while in college at Konkuk University in Seoul, I had an instructor Dr. Jeon Yun-gyeong who was teaching an introductory course on games and animation and she makes this proclamation: “All contemporary Japanese science-fiction has some connection to World War II.” And this was the sort of claim that completely blew my mind and it just never really went away. And then in graduate school, Japanese science-fiction wasn’t my concentration but Japanese media was, and I continued to think about that question, about the relationship between Japanese science-fiction and World War II and I could never find any research, at least written in English, that made that exact claim as forcefully as my professor did. That we can tie an entire nation’s mass culture to a specific historical moment. And so through grad school that was when I started to reacquainted myself with a lot of this stuff. I started watching a lot of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai in particular, all the while with that question about Japanese science-fiction and World War II, in the back of my mind the entire time, which lead me to start writing things specifically for the courses I was taking and then it built from there and expanded. And the more that I watched the harder it became to not see the allusions to the War. And that ties into some of my bigger research questions regarding East Asia and how trauma continues to resonate throughout East Asian media.
JM: Definitely. And I’m guessing at this point you’ve become familiar with Susan Sontag’s essay “The Imagination of Disaster” and Susan J. Napier’s essay “The Japanese Imagination of Disaster” and other scholars and writers like Takashi Murakami and his book Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (Yale U. Press, 2005) who have made that exact argument that your professor did, that you can link Japanese science-fiction back to this very specific trauma involving World War II?
JM: So I’ve read two of your essays, the one on the kaijin in the original Kamen Rider (1971) for the book Giant Creatures in Our World and the one on Kamen Rider Fourze (2011) for the journal Cinema. Are those the only two you’ve published so far?
SK: I have an earlier one that’s specifically on Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger (2011) that was published in the journal Asian Communication Research 12:2 (2016). There’s a lot of overlap between the three essays, maybe less with Fourze because that show is such an anomaly which is one of the reasons I think so incredibly highly of it.
JM: OK great and since I haven’t read the Gokaiger essay let’s start with that one. What was your insight into that show which marked the 35th-Anniversary of Super Sentai as a franchise?
SK: I think with Gokaiger in particular, but also with Super Sentai more generally, is a show that lends itself to a lot of interpretive meaning. Especially because with regards to Japanese superheroes be it Ultraman, Metal Heroes, or Kamen Rider, none of these shows ever successfully exported the way that Super Sentai did with Power Rangers. And the argument that I would make is that there is something about Super Sentai that lends itself more closely to the American idea of the superhero while still allowing enough distance that it also feels unique or “foreign” but at the same time familiar enough that it can translate not only to audiences in the US but also places like South America. It’s just a show that travels really well.
And for me what’s really important about Super Sentai is that – and Anne Allison says this pretty explicitly in the chapter on Japanese superheroes in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (U. of Cali. Press, 2006) – Super Sentai really taps into the post-WWII anxiety induced by the atomic bombs, even to a higher degree than other Japanese superheroes like Kamen Rider. It’s truly on a level that is almost comparable to Godzilla. And this goes back to the original class with Jeon Yun-gyeong that inspired me, because her point was, if you look at Japan’s obsession with robots, be it Astroboy or Gundam or Neon Genesis Evangelion, you see in that Japan’s desire for the super-weapon.
Now we know that Godzilla is the other half of that equation. What is the catastrophe of the atomic bomb or the hydrogen bomb, what is the disaster that it can bring about? But on the other end there’s also this part where it’s recognized that the atomic bomb is what allowed the Allies to win the war, it was the catalyst for Japan’s defeat and complete concession. So it creates this desire for a super-weapon. In particular a cybernetic super-weapon that’s made possible through science and technology. And that’s something that I think really resonates in Super Sentai and that Allison points out not only aligns with the relinquishing of militancy and the fact that Japanese gives up its right to belligerency as a State following the drafting of their new constitution by the United States. So militancy disappears in Japanese culture for a time, only to then reappear in these tokusatsu narratives and especially in line with the techno-nationalism – be it Sony or the robotics industry – that becomes necessary for the post-War rebuilding not only in terms of industry but also culture.
And you have all those things really kind of coming to a head in this idea of young people being not only the ones to lead the country into the future but also be the ones to ensure that this will never happen again. That Japan as a country will never again lose to foreign invaders. Because that’s what Super Sentai ultimately is. It’s a narrative where foreign invaders are constantly being thwarted by a team of colorful cybernetic Japanese youngsters. And for me what’s so important about Gokaiger is not only that it was the 35th-Anniversary show but that there’s also something just almost too-perfect about the metaphor of the key – the Ranger Keys – in that they not only bring in all of the capitalistic points which Allison so beautifully illustrates in her book but also can be seen as a desire to reinstate Japanese militarism.
So in the paper I contrast Gokaiger with the Cold War film Crimson Tide (Dir. Tony Scott, 1995) where you have this morality play narrative in which Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are shown anguishing over the fact that they might have to turn the nuclear-key and the whole time wrestling with their conscience and in the end when it’s decided that they do have to turn it, Denzel Washington becomes insubordinate and refuses to turn the key. Now in just one episode of Gokaiger you have these characters constantly turning keys to activate all manner of super-weapons, and so when you start to think about the ideological message of this, it is that youngsters have to be willing to turn the key. And then there’s the biggest component to all of this which is the toys, and I make this point in the Fourze essay as well, which is that the Japanese and American toy industries are different, they have different focal points, if you look at something like Gunpla and Gundam, it’s the robots, it’s not the individuals, and it’s role-play, so children are buying the Mobirates in which they learn through play to mimic the action of turning the key. Does that make sense?
JM: Yeah, well also there’s the fact that the Bandai America role-play toys are, over all, of uniformly terrible quality.
SK: True, but I don’t know if it’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue. And it’s important to remember, as you point out in your own chapter, that adults watch this stuff too. The Japanese toy industry has always been so sophisticated that even the mass-produced toys are of such quality that adults will collect them – which I say as I’m sitting here looking at two Kamen Rider Gaim Lockseeds on my desk. American toys pander and peddle to children in a way that Japanese toys don’t.
JM: Have you read Patrick Galbraith’s book Otaku Spaces (Chin Music Press, 2012)?
SK: No but I’m familiar with Galbraith’s work.
JM: It’s a fantastic book. Galbraith went to Japan and interviewed and photographed dozens of different adult otaku. And there are a few in there who are definitely very Toei-tokusatsu-centric fans and this one twenty-four-year-old guy in particular, who goes by the name “Quintessa,” his whole collection is just Rider belts and henshin devices. And Galbraith asks him at one point what exactly he does with all these toys and if he likes to put them on and “pose like the characters of Masked Rider?” And the guy replies: “If you’re playing with the toys, that is pretty much how it goes.” (p. 59)
JM: But to go back to your point about the Super Robots, I assume you’re familiar with the famous 1943 Japanese political cartoon ‘The Science Warrior Appears in New York’?
SK: I don’t think I am actually. That sounds fantastic though.
JM: Okay, so according to Frederik L. Schodt’s book Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (New York: Kodansha International Inc., 1986) it is the first example of a giant robot to appear in any kind of Japanese media. It was drawn by Ryūichi Yokoyama and appeared in the monthly comic magazine Manga in 1943 during the height of the war in the Pacific. The title of this cartoon is Kagaku Senshi Nyū Yōku ni Shutsugen su which translates as ‘The Science Warrior Appears in New York’ and it shows a giant robot, emblazoned with the Japanese imperil flag, smashing New York City into the ground.
SK: Oh my god…
JM: So here you have the very first example of a giant robot in Japan and it clearly represents this kind of desire for a Japanese super-weapon that can be used to defeat the Allies.
SK: Right, exactly. That makes total sense.
JM: Which is fascinating because then when you start trace the history of the motif of the Super Robot through the mediums of manga, anime and tokusatsu you find this same basic narrative reoccurring. So in Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go (aka Gigantor in the US) the robot is originally built to serve as a super weapon that Japan can use to defeat the Allies. But then they lose the war so the scientist gives the robot to his son to go off have adventures with. Same deal in Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z except the robot is built to fight Dr. Hell, who is basically a stand-in for the Nazis. But again the scientist father dies and the robot is bequeathed to his son. Same dynamic in Evangelion too, only in that case Shinji ends up seeing his dad’s robot as more of a curse than a gift.
But it’s also fascinating that Japan has this fixation with giant robot super weapons because it’s so impractical. I mean just a total pipe-dream. I don’t suppose you saw that thing in October of 2017 where that team of American engineers challenged Japan’s Suidobashi Heavy Industry to a giant robot fight?
SK: I did.
JM: Yeah it was our first ever actual giant robot fight between Japan and the US – and Japan lost!
SK: Yeah that happened right when I was writing all this in 2015, Suidobashi revealed these robots called Kuratas which they were selling as the first real-world mobile suit, a sort of rideable mecha, and there was even talk of it being weaponized and used in war. But as Anne Allison points out even if this is all just in the Japanese imagination it’s still reflected in the fact that Japan is the world’s leading robot producer, so even if they are never able to realize the dream of a ‘Real Robot’ – word play intended – the desire is still there. Like the Sony’s robot dog, Aibo, which was then followed by Sanyo trotting out a humanoid robot a few years after. And I’ve always been sort of compelled by this argument, because I think with the kind of work that we do, you want to figure out why certain images reappear. There has to be a reason beyond them just being cool. There’s got to be something else.
JM: I completely agree. So if there’s nothing else you’d want to say about Gokaiger then I’d like to talk about your most recent essay from the book Giant Creatures in Our World.
JM: So I thought this essay was fascinating. I was really intrigued by it as soon as I saw the title: “Kamen Rider vs. Spider-Man and Bat-Man.” So your big claim, which you’ve already touched on here, is that in Japan the superhero genre, just as much as the kaijū genre, is linked to World War II and the atomic bombings and is dealing with the literal and figurative fallout from that. And so then in this piece you talk about the fact that prior to Japanese superheroes getting established as their own genre, starting arguably with Ultraman, you have American superheroes being imported into Japan, specifically the characters of Batman and Spiderman. Could you talk about why you think those characters in particular are the ones to get brought over and which prove to be so popular?
SK: That’s a good question actually… And I don’t know if I have an answer. I could make a sort of theoretical guess but I don’t know what the actual historical answer would be. Because also implicit in your question is another question. Namely ‘Why Batman and Spiderman, but not Superman?’ And while I can’t speak exactly as to why it was those particular characters, I would guess, judging from what I know of the post-War milieu that, for one, the fact that Batman made it over to Japan is partially due to Batmania surrounding the Adam West Batman TV show in the late 60s. Because the bridges were already there with both the post-War occupation as well as this almost whiplash turnaround with the US going from enemy to ally in the rebuilding of Japan. So in that sense I think there was a Japanese fascination with American culture in general but then something about superheroes in particular. Now with Spiderman I think you have a much more curious case but it also might be something as simple as Toei and Marvel already being in dialogue and then already deciding on Spiderman because he’s sort of a flagship superhero of theirs that they can export.
In a lot of ways I would probably guess that it’s the same as asking how exactly did Haim Saban know that Power Rangers was going to do as well as it did? Probably, partially it was a risk. But he probably identified in Super Sentai some aspects that he thought would translate well and export well and resonate with American audiences. I can only imagine that there were certain aspects, and I think you even
makes these allusions in your own chapter, that there were some connections being made where the superhero mythology in the US had enough, let’s say, crossover appeal that it could be imported with little trouble, but at the same time, especially with Spiderman, there were adjustments being made. Which is why Jesus¬Jimenez-Varea and Miguel Ángel Pérez-Gómeztalk in their essay “Marvel and Toei,” from the book Marvel Comics into Film: Essays on Adaptations Since the 1940s (McFarland, 2016), both talk about how Spiderman had to be “Japanized” in the same way that Power Rangers had to be “Americanized.”
JM: With Spiderman I always assumed it had a lot to do with the fact that the Japanese have this real affection for insects and arachnids in general. Which you already see with Kamen Rider being based on a grasshopper. As well as series like Juukou B-Fighter (1995) where the heroes are based on beetles. And then there’s Mothra.
SK: Sure! Absolutely!
JM: And I actually remember reading an interview with Marvel Comics writer Ralph Macchio where he recalls that the way these negotiations between Marvel and Toei went down is that representatives from Toei would come to Marvel’s studios and be taken into a room where they had pictures of all their characters up on the walls and the Toei guys would just walk through and see which characters caught their eye. And the reason Macchio recalls any of this is because he remembers hearing that the Japanese really liked the rather obscure character Moon Knight, who Macchio was a writer for, because apparently they felt he “looked like a ninja.” [Note: This is recounted in Moon Knight Epic Collection: Bad Moon Rising (Marvel, 2014)]
SK: That was something else I was going to say, because Spiderman also aesthetically stands out from most other superheroes so it wouldn’t surprise me if that didn’t also appeal to the Japanese execs.
JM: Well Spiderman’s got the full-mask thing going on which is something the Japanese seem to really like in their superheroes.
SK: And it’s also one of things that makes Power Rangers, or really any Japanese superhero show, so easy to export because you can’t tell that there’s somebody Japanese underneath the costume.
JM: And real quick to your other comment about how did Saban know that Super Sentai would be successful if exported; what’s interesting about that – and it’s something I want to write about more in the future because I don’t think anybody has done a real good job laying it out and Saban has no interest in doing this because they want to preserve their own sort-of corporate mythology which says that Haim went to Japan saw Super Sentai and just had this eureka moment – is that Saban was almost certainly aware of Club Dorothée which was this children’s programming block on French television in the 1980s that was hosted by the then popular pop-artist Dorothée (real name: Frédérique Hoschedé). And in 1985, Club Dorothée imported and dubbed Choudenshi Bioman (1984) and it was a huge success. And when they ran out of episodes they just brought over Hikari Sentai Maskman (1987) and Choujuu Sentai Liveman (1988) which they sold as Bioman 2 and Bioman 3. They also brought over Space Sheriff Gavan (1982) which they ran as X-OR. So Saban knew that exporting Super Sentai to the US would work because he had seen it work in France firsthand.
SK: I didn’t know that.
JM: In fact Toei seems to have had a much warmer relationship with the French since Dorothée was actually invited to Japan to cameo in an episode of Liveman (Ep. 30) as well as the show Sekai Ninja Sen Jiraiya (1988). But as you say, Super Sentai seems to be the series that has had the most international appeal while other shows, like Ultraman or Kamen Rider or Metal Heroes, haven’t been as successfully leaving East Asia.
But to get back to your essay… You make this argument that what’s important about the popularity of the American superheroes of Batman and Spiderman in this context of Japanese superheroes, specifically Kamen Rider, is of course that the first two villains that Kamen Rider ever fights are Spider-Man and Bat-Man. Not the Marvel Spiderman and the DC Batman obviously but rather monsters that are called that.
JM: So I think you make a very good argument but I want to play devil’s advocate a little bit…
JM: …What I want to say is that if you’ve seen any of the original Kamen Rider series then you know that all of the Shocker kaijin are animal-human hybrids. Cobra-Man, Mantis-Man, Piranha-Man, Jaguar-Man, etc… So how is it then that you can defend the allegation that Spider-Man and Bat-Man are significant in the way you say they are and not just coincidental?
SK: I mean there are two ways, one is that those two characters, Spiderman and Batman, were known in Japan as we’ve discussed. They had a publication history. And they’re not just two random animals with no connection to anything. Because they could have been. They could have started with Jaguar-Man or Snake-Man, but they didn’t, and that fact alone seems really important. And even more specifically the fact that there was a connection being established between Toei and tokusatsu and Marvel. So there’s already this discourse that’s being built on here. And we already know this about mass-culture in general, because it is so referential and in a constant dialogue with itself, and that is certainly the case with tokusatsu and Japanese science-fiction and popular-culture in general. But the other is that for me, and I mention this in the article, the fact that it’s transliterated English, like Kamen RIDER or Urutora-MAN, where it’s this fusion of Japanese and English. The very concept of the Japanese superhero is something that is not purely domestic, purely regional, it’s already international, it has the tendrils that are already moving outside Japan, which is something that you and Jason Barr and Ivan Vartanian all argue, of course it doesn’t mean that it’s wholly new, drawing on the extent scholarship, it’s a hybrid which is also the very idea of the characters themselves, they are human-creature or human-machine hybrids.
There’s also the fact, and this stuck out to me and the reason why my chapter is only about those first two episodes and why they set the tone for the entire series, I think that after a few episodes, once the series gets its own legs, then they can start riffing a little bit more and the characters don’t have to be direct allusions or references anymore so that even if the villains that you’re naming there aren’t ones that are direct homages to extent American superheroes or super-villains they nevertheless still retain the same sort of totemic patterning that is so endemic of American superheroes. And while I can’t claim to have encyclopedic knowledge of all the Kamen Rider enemies, I can’t think of any of the other totemic, really paradigmatic and popular ones aside from Bat-Man and Spider-Man who are riffing on American superheroes. So there’s a tether there which simultaneously acknowledges, yes we exist in relationship to this established thing but we’re also establishing our own new territory.
And of course the other thing is, just thinking about this point in relation to my broader argumentation, that post-War Japanese science-fiction, to me, can’t exist without the US. It always kind of seeps in. And that’s really the thrust of all these essays that I’ve written. Because everybody knows about the role that the hydrogen bomb plays in Godzilla, but it was only just recently that I noticed in Kamen Rider Gaim (2013) for example, the central building for the Yggdrasill Corporation looks like a mushroom cloud. Because that’s what I’m really interested in. Not the things that everyone notices but rather the kind of stuff that is probably lost on most of us. And so in that same way I’m trying to argue that the Spider-Man monster and the Bat-Man monster are yet another way that the specter of the US is always there.
JM: So then having played devil’s advocate I want to switch back to your side now on this issue and ask if you are familiar with the Tsuburaya tokusatsu series Pro-Wrestling Star Aztekaiser?
SK: No, I’m not.
JM: So it was based on a manga created by Go-Nagi and it aired from October of ‘76 to March of ’77, so before Toei does their official Japanese Spiderman series with Marvel, and it’s a pretty standard tokusatsu show in most regards, though it is from the period where Tsuburaya was trying to compensate for lower budgets by splicing in action scenes done with animation, but the reason why I bring it up is that the villain for the third episode is a kaijin called Devil-Spider and I want to just show you a picture of him and get your reaction…
SK: Oh wow… That’s fantastic.
JM: It’s clearly Spiderman.
SK: Oh yeah, no doubt. And this is fantastic because it also highlights the connection that these types of shows have to pro-wrestling. Like if you go back and watch the original Kamen Rider the Shocker mooks look like luchadores. They are wearing pro-wrestling belts. And pro-wrestling in Japan is completely nationalistic. Especially in the older days with guys like Rikidōzan. It’s another arena of mass-culture where they are constantly challenging the American invader.
JM: I have another example I wanted to bring up which is from Rayna Denison’s essay on the Japanese Spider-Man series where she points out that the character of Amazoness is clearly a parody of Wonder Woman.
SK: Okay, yeah, that makes sense.
[Note: Following my interview with Seth, friend and fellow tokusatsu expert John Paul Cassidy also made the observation that the villainess Queen Hedrian from Toei’s Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan (1981) is clearly based on the super-villainess Hela from Marvel’s Thor comics and most recently the film Thor: Ragnarok (2017)]
Look for part two of my interview with Seth Kim soon, where we’ll discuss the influence of American comics on pioneering manga-ka, the connection between Japanese religion and kaijū, how every Japanese superhero is essentially The Punisher, and why Kamen Rider Fourze may be the most subversive show Toei’s ever made.