What exactly is Tokusatsu?
The short answer is Japanese live-action media that uses special effects, the most recognizable in the West being The Godzilla films and the Super Sentai series(the Japanese television shows that Power Rangers is made from). If you read that and think “Oh ok, so it’s giant monsters and, maybe, giant robots shooting lasers at each other until one blows up!” You would only be half correct, while those things ARE staples of the Tokusatsu genre they do not encompass it.
The Different Eras of Tokusatsu
Being a Japanese genre Tokusatsu isn’t divided up into decade increments like music, or even series increments like Star Trek or Doctor Who, it’s divided into “Eras” based on who the reigning Emporer of Japan is. The Eras are as follows and the years are approximate as each individual series has its own spans of time where no content was being created.
- Showa Era
- Heisei Era
- Millennium (Godzilla 2000-Godzilla Final Wars)
Different sub-genres of Tokusatsu
There are different genres within the overall genre of Tokusatsu. The most famous being Giant Monster or “Kaiju” films E.G. Godzilla movies. Most kaiju films used “suitmation”, an actor inside of a monster suit combined with miniature models to create the illusion of a giant monster, or monsters, fighting and destroying cities. Even now, in times where CGI is almost as commonplace in movies as the actors and actresses themselves, a large percentage of Japanese kaiju movies still use suitmation to simulate their monsters.
Next up we have the second most easily recognized Tokusatsu Genre: Superhero. Japan has had groups of people donning multicolored spandex suits and using a plethora of weaponry to fight aliens and other threats to Earth since the 1970s. The west finally got a proper taste of the genre in 1993 when Haim Saban was able to use footage from Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger to produce Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Another staple of the superhero sub-genre is Kamen Rider (Masked Rider). Kamen Rider is another long-running Tokusatsu series, however, the heroes in the respective shows ride motorcycles and have an insect motif. A common thread among the different Kamen Rider series is that the hero derives his power from the same source as the villain(s) giving the hero a slightly more moral reason to fight the villain(s).
The last sub-genre would be Mecha. As the term “mecha” is a Japanese shortening of the English words “mechanism” and/or “mechanical” but in Tokusatsu has come to be synonymous with “Robot” and “Giant Robot”. This is, from the research I’ve done, the smallest sub-genre as in a large percentage of Tokusatsu the heroes, and sometimes villains, have their own mecha. Every single Super Sentai series has a giant mecha that is unique to their team, and most teams will get multiple mecha by the end of their series. Kamen Riders always have their motorcycle or alternate vehicle of choice and, sometimes, even a robot of some kind to aid them. While mecha are irreplaceable within Tokusatsu they are typically used as a tool BY the protagonist, or antagonist, rather than being the outright focus of the show.
What to watch??
With over 50 years of content figuring out what you may want to watch could seem a bit overwhelming at first! Here are a few selections that I think would appeal to someone looking to get into Tokusatsu.
Starting off with The King of The Monsters and the start of modern Tokusatsu as we know it: Godzilla. Known as one of the most famous Kaiju of all time Godzilla set the bar for how monster movies should be. Created in 1954 Gojira was a direct allegory for the horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a decade prior. While being a stand-in for the bombs, Godzilla was created by nuclear testing and the movie showed in great detail what destruction mankind could inadvertently bring upon itself. In the first movie, Godzilla is strictly portrayed as a force of nature, basically, a nuclear hurricane or earthquake that you simply must get out of its path if you want to survive. I would always recommend Gojira 1954 as a starting point as it’s as much a work of art as it is a kaiju movie. It gives you everything you need for an introduction to Godzilla and Kaiju movies overall.
As most Godzilla movies are standalone films I would next suggest Godzilla: Final Wars. Final Wars was the last film of the Millennium Era and Toho pulled no punches in making a grand farewell for the King. The movie centers around Godzilla globetrotting and fighting EVERY major monster from past movies. It is a touching farewell (for now) to the King of The Monsters and ends with one of the best fights I have seen in a monster movie.
Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger
If the superhero genre is more to your taste I suggest Kaizoku Sentai Gokaiger. It is the 35th show in the long-running Super Sentai series and is an excellent place to start due to the fact that it crosses over with two of the other big superhero Tokusatsu, those being the Metal Hero series and the Kamen Rider Series. In this series, the other 34 Super Sentai teams joined forces to stop an alien invasion and in the process, their powers were taken from them and spread about the universe. The heroes of the series are a band of Space Pirates who incidentally find and use the different ranger powers, thus giving viewers a small snippet into past series as well as this new one.
This is just a sampling of what Tokusatsu has to offer, honestly, there really is no BAD place to start or movie to watch as everyone has their own tastes and preferences. The only advice I can give at this point is ENJOY, Tokusatsu is awesome! It’s filled with giant monsters, lasers, robots, and stories that can make you cry.