Welcome to the second installment of a brand new series here on HJU, Scholars Talking Toku. My name is Justin Mullis. I’m a scholar working in the academic field of religious studies with a life long love of Japanese pop-culture. Earlier this 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!
As a result of my work on this essay I came to realize that there were a number of scholars, like me, who were interested in the topic of Japanese superheroes, through separated both geographically and by areas of expertise. The goal of this series 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.
This is the second half of my interview with Tom, so if you haven’t read the first part I recommend you check it out here. In this second half we 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!
Justin Mullis: So I want to go back to something you mentioned before when talking about Ultraman and Superman and the colors of their costumes because for me that was one of the most fascinating parts of your essay, where you talked about the significance of certain colors and numbers from a Japanese cultural standpoint. Could you talk a little bit more about that? About why, for example, the red ranger is always the leader in Super Sentai and why it is that we almost always have a team of five rangers?
Tom Gill: Well with regards to the colors, the supremacy of red goes back a long way in Japanese culture and its combination with white as well. I mentioned the Shinto religion and in Shinto the Torii gates are always painted red and at festival time they hang out bunting which has red and white stripes, and some of the food that’s eaten, kamaboko, that’s pink and white which is another variation of red and white, and so on. And so in the paper I argue that it’s a combination that’s ultimately derived from fire and blood which are two very powerful substances in the human imagination and which take a kind of natural supremacy given that the imaginations of the people who are making these programs have these deep-lying cultural norms in their minds.
And in the paper I do mention that there is one slight exception with the color purple which is even more supreme. Purple is associated with these old sages who advise or direct the rangers in quite a lot of the Super Sentai series. And the red leader isn’t actually a general, he’s more of a field commander, and very often you have this bearded mystical character who also appears and if he has a color associated with him it’s quite often purple. At least that was my observation at the time, does that match your own observations?
JM: Yeah, it does as far as purple is concerned. There have not been very many purple rangers. In fact the only two series I can think of are Juken Sentai Gekiranger and Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, the second of which has a purple ranger who is a very old mechanic who serves as a kind of mentor to the group and is the one who developed the ranger’s mecha and technology. But he’s very old so they make a lot of jokes about how every time he tries to morph and fight he throws out his back and so he ends up passing the torch on to his granddaughter who is younger and more physically fit and so she becomes the purple ranger as a result.
TG: That series sounds like it’s a lot of fun. It’s interesting how the color purple is associated with older, wiser characters although that’s the first time I’ve heard of one of them actually being one of the rangers. Update me Justin, is it still the case in the more recent Super Sentai that there tends to be this sort of mystical figure that they consult or are sometimes given orders by?
JM: Yes, there’s always a mentor character. The sensei that runs the group.
TG: Also Janperson was purple, we mentioned him earlier.
JM: Yes he was.
TG: But if I remember rightly, when I watched RoboCop I had a black and white TV, but wasn’t RoboCop purple?
JM: He had a kind of bluish gunmetal sheen to him. So yeah he has a kind of a blue-purple oily metal look to him.
TG: So it may be that in the case of Janperson it was more a kind of homage or parody of the American original then any deep lying cultural trope, because of course I try to make the point in the essay that while I am claiming that you do have deep-lying cultural streams that inform these modern productions, of course they’re also influenced by a whole course of other more recent superficial things including apparently the urge to parody RoboCop when they made the Janperson series.
JM: RoboCop is actually a very interesting case of a rather cyclical kind of relationship between Japan and the US, because while it’s beyond a doubt that characters likes Janperson were based on RoboCop, it’s also pretty clear that RoboCop himself is a rip-off of the Japanese superhero Space Sheriff Gavan from the early 80s.
TG: Oh really?
JM: Yeah they even look alike. If you check out the Special Edition RoboCop Blu-ray from a few years back they have a Making Of… documentary on it, and obviously nobody says on that documentary, ‘Oh by the way we totally ripped off Space Sheriff Gavan,’ but when they talk to the artists who designed RoboCop, one of them does admit that they used a bunch of pictures of Japanese robots from different shows as reference material.
TG: Ah ha! So there’s your smoking gun then.
JM: In a sense yes. But it’s a very interesting example of Japanese and American pop-culture cross-pollination which you’re right in saying is a point that often gets downplayed in order for people to emphasize these older traditions and their influence.
TG: You’re absolutely right, both of these aspects need to be taken into account. But you also mentioned numerology and in the paper I make several significant points about the number five because there are nearly always five members in Super Sentai and in the case of the few exceptions there are three but never four because four is an unlucky number in Japan. Is that still the case?
JM: Yes, you nearly always start out with five.
TG: And then sometimes there’s a newcomer who’s introduced later.
JM: Right. And starting with Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan you’ll get periodic teams of three. They rarely stay a team of three however because usually they’ll be joined by two other rangers at a later date. Now the current series which is on right now, Uchu Sentai Kyuranger, is rather unprecedented because it has a massive team of twelve rangers.
TG: Wow. I didn’t know that. But if that’s the case I think we can probably relate that to the recent trend of gigantic pop-bands like AKB48 and their various spin-offs, as well as Pokémon where the number of members suddenly grows exponentially. In the paper I discuss Edmund Leach’s famous work on animal categories and verbal abuse where I mentioned the importance of the categorizing impulse. This impulse is quite separate from the excitement you feel because these guys are jumping around or riding their motorbikes or getting into swordfights with bizarre monsters. Rather it’s another type of appeal for the young audience, because you know the name of the red ranger, the blue ranger, the green ranger and so on, you know what their special tokusatsu gizmos are, you can name the mecha and various machinery that they use, etc… and it allows you to be like a little museum curator and gives you a sense of wellbeing and being in control of your world because here’s something about which you have total knowledge. And I’m a little bit proud of that observation because I wrote my paper just a couple of years before Pokémon came along and that really is the museum curator’s TV program par excellence because they really go to town on the huge number of characters and the vast amounts of information that you can gather about all of them coupled with this obsessive idea about how you’ve “gotta catch ’em all.” And the bands with 48 girls in them, mainly girl bands but some boy bands as well, again it’s the otaku impulse, otaku want to be in command of numbers and patterns and the people who produce the entertainment sense that need for big data and hence this escalation. What do you think?
JM: Absolutely. With a lot of my interest being in fandom and the dynamics and mechanics of fandom I think that your observations are spot on about how there is this fundamental impulse among fans, among otaku as you say, to collect and catalogue and have everything in order and have total knowledge of it. This is something that Japanese scholar Kotani Mari has argued, that the otaku subculture really evolves out of early Ultraman fandom where you have people engaged in this practice of trying to catalogue all of the kaijū that had appeared on the show. And these fans are doing this well before the internet, before there aren’t any official publications about the shows and this is before even VHS tapes and players, so they’re doing this all from memory. Actually this past year Tsuburaya Pro. put together a drama called Kaijū Club about a group of adult male Ultraman proto-otaku in the 1970s doing just that. I don’t know how successful it’s been at producing high drama but it’s been interesting to watch to see things like how fans at that time were recording the audio from shows on external tape players held up to their televisions and then trying to describe the episode to each other after the fact.
TG: You’ve got to admire the dedication. It seems to be very strong, this collector’s impulse, it seems to very male centered – there seem to be relatively few girls who are obsessive collectors – and I think the collector’s impulse accounts for and helps us to understand a lot of male behavior in quite a few countries, don’t you think?
JM: Absolutely. Now I know you said you had a few points you wanted to bring up?
TG: Okay, one is children against men. That was a theme that I touched on in that paper and also relates to another little academic side interest that I have which is comparing Japanese and British war comics. In the Super Sentai series we have teenagers who turn into heroes but in one of the series you also have a much younger child who comes along and joins the team in the course of the show.
JM: Yes, in Gosei Sentai Dairanger.
TG: Right, he comes along and manages to win acceptance from the much bigger, cooler teenagers who are the existing members of the team. I think that’s another part of the appeal for the very small child watching the program, although I noticed that when they launched Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers in the US the sixth ranger, who wore white, was played by a gigantic American football player-type guy whereas in the Japanese original he was played by an 8-year-old elementary school kid.
JM: Yeah I actually have a note here about that because it appears to be a case of cultural disconnect. In Dairanger, the character of Kou, the Kibaranger, is a young boy who comes and joins the team and becomes the sixth ranger. Now whenever he transforms he turns into an adult-sized superhero who wears this very distinctive black and gold-type vest with shoulder pads – in fact it almost looks like something an American football player would wear – and a lot of fans, and probably the producers of Power Rangers too, make a connection between that vest and the shield worn by the Green Ranger, or Dragon Ranger, from the previous series, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, which in that case signified a higher position or standing among the team, whereas, if I’m not mistaken, that vest that the Kibaranger wears is in its original Japanese context is a symbol of immaturity, it’s a training vest, which you can also see the young characters wearing in the anime series Dragonball which you also talk about in your essay.
TG: Ah right, right. Okay, well in Japanese war comics some of the pilots are small children and in fact in one of them, Shidenkai no Taka (Trans: “The Hawk in the Modified Purple Lightening”) by Chiba Tetsuya, there’s actually a pilot who is literally a baby, whereas the enemy pilots, the Americans, are huge strapping men. So the war between Japan and America is depicted as literally a war between boys and men. Well, the officer of the Japanese squadron is a big tough man with stubble on his jutting-out jaw and the like, and one or two of the bad guys, because there are bad Japanese pilots in this yarn, are also depicted as grown adult men. But most of them are depicted as children and so this idea that we find of the astounding power and energy of the small child to achieve amazing things, which can be traced all the way back to the Momotaro and Kintaro myths of Japanese folklore, is a really strong trope in Japan and indeed plays a large part in Japanese wartime propaganda. I don’t know if you’ve come across John Dower’s classic work War Without Mercy (1987, Pantheon)?
JM: I have not.
TG: It’s a discussion of wartime propaganda by the US and Japan during the Pacific War, and the contrast between the images used is really fascinating. One of the most common ones in Japanese propaganda is Japan being depicted as a super-powerful little boy whereas America and Britain will typically be depicted as very old decrepit demons or oni. It’s Churchill and Roosevelt depicted with little horns on but they’re old and corrupt and doing things like playing gambling games with cards, and it’s rather amusing to find something as relatively commonplace as that used to try and undermine the image of your enemy. But anyway that trope of the little-big-man is ever so important in Japanese culture going back a long way and still today. You find it in Dragonball with the little boys with their super magical powers and of course you’ve got it in Anpanman… Did I mention Anpanman in that paper of mine?
JM: I believe you do.
TG: Tell me – was there much debate about Anpanman among the American otaku community when Takashi Yanase passed away a few years ago?
JM: Not that I know of. Actually I’m not sure that Anpanman has any kind of following among American otaku.
TG: Really? Maybe it’s just too childish for them?
JM: It probably has more to do with the fact that in many ways a lot of American anime fans are still playing catch-up in a sense because most of the Japanese media that’s been translated and made available has been from the 1980s going forward so anything that’s older than that, even if it’s very famous, tends to not be very well known. A good example, which also ties into your point about little kid superheroes, is Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitarō. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American otaku who knows who Kitarō is despite how incredibly famous that character is in Japan. But that’s because it’s only been in the last few years that Mizuki’s Kitarō manga has begun getting translated into English.
(JUSTIN’S NOTE: To learn more about Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitarō manga and it’s influence on tokusatsu check out my essay “Shigeru Mizuki and Kaiju.”)
TG: So in that case let me ask you Justin, how familiar are you with Takashi Yanase and Anpanman? It’s not that new – the manga dates from 1975 and the TV anime from some one-offs starting in 1979 and a regular weekly slot on Nihon TV from 1988.
JM: Not at all.
TG: Alright then, well Anpanman is gigantically popular in Japan and has been for thirty years or more. And when Yanase-san died in 2013 there were a huge number of TV programs about him. And being the dilettante that I am I had never really properly researched him before, but I was interested to learn more. So for a start he was a dedicated Christian and Anpanman was originally conceived not as an amusement for children but as a serious moral fable for adults. And the original Anpanman was not a tiny little boy but a grown man, but he still had the cape and would walk around the backstreets of Tokyo and help homeless people and downs-and-outs and that kind of thing. But the one thing he did that was the same as the modern Anpanman is that he would tear off parts of his head and give it to people to eat because his head is made of Anpan, which is a sort of jam-bun or dumpling with sweet Azuki bean curd in it. So whenever Anpanman comes across somebody who is in trouble he literally gives of himself, the point of this being that he was originally conceived as a sort of Christ figure and in the way that Christ says when you drink of this wine you drink of my blood, when you eat this bread you eat of my flesh, in the same way Anpanman was a modern backstreet messiah. Incidentally Yanase was also influenced by his brother who died as a kamikaze pilot, which is another example of giving of yourself, giving up your body for others.
But anyway you have these really serious ideas going on there but the original cartoon never took off because people thought it was kind of weird and creepy. And then one day Yanase’s editor says ‘You know, why don’t you try and redraw this for little children?’ And he did. And the result was that Anpanman is today one of the top four or five most popular TV programs in Japan of any kind. Gigantically popular! Every single Japanese child knows who Anpanman is.
And there’s also been a lot written, particularly by anthropologist Debra Occhi of Miyazaki International College, about how Anpanman is a dramatization about good hygiene because his arch-enemy is Baikinman – literally Germ-man – who likes to infect small animals. And when Anpanman comes across this sort of thing he gives Baikinman an ‘Anpanchi’ (Anpanman Punch) and sends him flying off into the distance while saying “Bye Baikin” (bye bye, germs) and whatever poor little forest creature was being bullied by Baikinman and is lying there exhausted will receive succor from Anpanman who will tear off a piece of his head so they can eat the Anpan. And there’s no need to worry because at the end of each episode he goes back to the Jam Factory where Uncle Jam lives. And Uncle Jam – who is a sort of plump and cheery distant relative of the older mentor character in Super Sentai and some of these other dramas we’ve been discussing – bakes heads for Anpanman and will give him a new head. He lobs the new head in the direction of Anpanman, it lands on his shoulders and we never see where the old half-eaten head goes. But the new head spins around a few times and then starts to glow and Anpanman will say “Genki hyakubai!” which means “A hundred times fitter!” at which point he’s ready to go off on his next adventure. But you know there’s some really crazy stuff going on there and it’s stuff that only makes sense if you see as a sort of ramming together of that very old Japanese trope of the big-little-man merged with this self-consciously Christian parable.
JM: That’s fascinating and it makes me think of a couple of different things. It’s interesting that you say that Anpanman is a Christ figure and note the influence of Christianity here, because Eiji Tsuburaya, the creator of Ultraman, was a Catholic and you certainly see certain Christological elements in the character of Ultraman including the fact that in the original Ultraman series there is an episode where they make allusions to the idea that Ultraman has visited Earth before and that he may be responsible for inspiring certain Biblical characters, specifically Noah, which eventually leads to the creation decades later of an Ultraman Noa which now exists in the series. And there’s also the fact that nearly every Ultraman has at some point or another been crucified. So that’s a big recurring motif. In fact it’s a recurring motif in nearly all Japanese superhero shows though I think that probably has less religious significance and more historical significance considering the fact that crucifixion was a popular mode of execution practiced by the Japanese. But this image of your main superhero being crucified is something you can find in nearly all the Toei and Tsuburaya series up until the late 90s, and certainly hangs on in some cases but is not nearly as prevalent today as it used to be.
TG: That’s really fascinating Justin. Now might one go a step further and suggest that the hand gesture that Ultraman makes when he’s going to release his Specium Ray is also somewhat like the sign of the cross? I hadn’t really thought of that as having any Christian significance but now that you mention this other stuff, perhaps it’s not too farfetched.
JM: Yes. And it’s not just Christianity. This is what I try to get at in my essay for the book Giant Creature in Our World (2017, McFarland Press). There are also Shinto elements and Buddhist elements in Ultraman. Really Ultraman is an amalgamation of all these different religious traditions that one finds in Japan. And this ties into an idea that Jolyon Baraka Thomas talks about in his book Drawing on Tradition (2012, U. of Hawaii Press), about manga, anime, and religion in Japan, which is that when compared to Americans the Japanese seem much more willing to play around with religious ideas in their fiction including in ways which might even seem irreverent, like Anpanman basically being a living communion wafer. Other examples which spring to mind include Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion with its monstrous kaijū angels as well as Hiroyuki Takei’s Shaman King which is essentially the same sort of thing as Dragonball in that it involves a bunch of young male protagonists with superpowers engaged in a big martial arts tournament, only these characters are religious adepts of various faiths and traditions and the winner of the tournament, the titular Shaman King, gets to commune with God and reshape the world in his image and in the manga they actually state that past Shaman Kings included both the Buddha and Jesus Christ.
TG: And then if we take things into the realm of parody there is Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men where you have Jesus and Buddha living together in an apartment in the western suburbs of Tokyo.
JM: Yes, of course!
TG: Well this is all so very fascinating and I haven’t gotten to have a conversation about this stuff in a long time and I’ve really enjoyed getting to dip back in today.
JM: Well it has been a pleasure talking with you Tom and I look forward to hearing from you again in the future. Good luck with your further work.
TG: You too.