Tokusatsu (特撮?) is a Japanese term that applies to any live-action film or television drama that usually features superheroes and makes considerable use of special effects (tokusatsu literally translates as "special filming" in Japanese).
Tokusatsu entertainment often deals with science fiction, fantasy or horror, but movies and television shows in other genres can sometimes count as tokusatsu as well. The most popular types of tokusatsu include kaiju monster movies (the Godzilla and Gamera film series), superhero TV serials (the Kamen Rider and Metal Hero Series), and mecha dramas (Giant Robo). Some tokusatsu television programs combine several of these subgenres (the Ultraman and Super Sentai series). Tokusatsu is one of the most popular forms of Japanese entertainment, but most tokusatsu movies and television programs are not widely known outside Asia.
The term tokusatsu originated as a portmanteau of the Japanese phrase tokushu satsuei (特殊撮影?, "special photography") In production, a special-effects director bears the title of tokushu gijutsu (特殊技術?, "special techniques") or tokusatsu kantoku (特撮監督?, "special effects director").
Tokusatsu has origins in early Japanese theater, specifically kabuki (with its action- and fight-scenes) and bunraku (which utilized some of the earliest forms of special effects, specifically puppetry). Modern tokusatsu, however, did not begin to take shape until the early 1950s, with the conceptual and creative birth of Godzilla, one of the most famous kaiju (monsters) of all time.
The special-effects artist Eiji Tsuburaya and the director Ishiro Honda became the driving forces behind 1954's Godzilla. Tsuburaya, inspired by the American film King Kong, formulated many of the techniques that would become staples of the genre, such as so-called suitmation — the use of a human actor in a costume to play a giant monster — combined with the use of miniatures and scaled-down city sets. Godzilla forever changed the landscape of Japanese science fiction & fantasy, and cinema, by creating a uniquely Japanese vision in a genre typically dominated by American cinema.
In 1954, Godzilla kickstarted the kaiju genre in Japan, which remained extremely popular for several decades, with characters such as the aforementioned Godzilla, Gamera and King Ghidorah leading the market. However, in 1957, Shintōhō produced the first film serial featuring the superhero character Super Giant, signaling a shift in popularity that favored masked heroes over giant monsters. Along with the anime Astro Boy, the Super Giant serials had a profound effect on the world of tokusatsu. The following year, in 1958, Moonlight Mask premiered, the first of numerous televised superhero dramas that would make up one of the most popular tokusatsu subgenres.
These original productions preceded the first color television tokusatsu series Ambassador Magma and Ultraman, which heralded the Kyodai Hero genre, wherein a regular-sized protagonist grows to larger proportions to fight equally large monsters.
Suitmation (スーツメーション Sūtsumēshon?) in Japanese identifies the process in tokusatsu movies and television programs used to portray a monster using suit acting. The exact origin of the term remains unknown. At the least, it was used to promote the Godzilla suit from The Return of Godzilla.
Franchises and productions
The many productions of tokusatsu series have general themes common throughout different groups.
Kaiju (怪獣 kaijū?, literally "mysterious beast") productions primarily feature monsters, or giant monsters (大怪獣 daikaijū?). Such series include Ultra Q, the Godzilla film series, the Gamera series, the Daimajin series, and films such as Frankenstein Conquers the World, War of the Gargantuas, and The X from Outer Space (宇宙大怪獣ギララ Uchu Daikaijū Girara?).
Kaijin (怪人?, literally "mysterious person") productions primarily feature a supervillain as their central character. This includes films such as The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor, The H-Man, Half Human, and Tomei Ningen.
Productions that feature yōkai (妖怪?) have central characters such as "apparitions", "spirits", or "demons". The Yokai Monsters films became a popular yōkai series.
Since about 1960, several long-running television-series have combined various other themes. Tsuburaya Productions has had the Ultra Series starting with Ultra Q and Ultraman in 1966. P Productions began their foray into tokusatsu in 1966 with the series Ambassador Magma. They also had involvement in the Lion-Maru trilogy which concluded in November 2006. Toei Company has several series that fall under their Toei Superheroes category of programming, starting in 1961 with the single series, Moonlight Mask. Then, they produced several other longrunning series, starting with the Kamen Rider Series in 1971, the Super Sentai Series in 1975, the Metal Hero Series in 1982, and the Toei Fushigi Comedy Series in 1981. Toho, the creators of Godzilla, also had their hands in creating the Chouseishin Series of programs from 2003 to 2006.
Various movies classified as tokusatsu actually work like generalized science fiction films. These include Warning from Space (宇宙人東京に現わる Uchūjin Tokyo ni arawaru?, Spacemen Appear in Tokyo), Invasion of the Neptune Men (宇宙快速船 Uchū Kaisokusen?, Space Hypership), The Green Slime (ガンマー第3号 宇宙大作戦 Ganmā daisan gō: uchū daisakusen?), The Birth of Japan (日本誕生 Nippon Tanjō?), The Last War (世界大戦争 Sekai daisenso?), Japan Sinks (日本沈没 Nihon Chinbotsu?), Virus (復活の日 Fukkatsu no hi?), Sayonara Jupiter (さよならジュピター Sayonara Jupitā?), The War in Space (惑星大戦争 Wakusei daisenso?), and Sengoku Jieitai 1549 (戦国自衛隊1549?).
Original video productions
- Ginga-roid Cosmo X (銀河ロイドコスモX)
- Evolver (イヴォルバー -EVOLVER-)
- Gynoids: SAD Story (ja:ガイノイド GYNOIDS-SADSTORY-)
- Moeyo! Dragon Girls (萌えよ!ドラゴンガールズ)
- SFX Giant Legend: Line
Non-traditional tokusatsu productions
Non-traditional tokusatsu films and television programs may not use the conventional special effects or may not star human actors. Though suitmation typifies tokusatsu, some productions may use stop-motion to animate their monsters instead (Majin Hunter Mitsurugi (1973), for example). "Puppet shows" may use traditional tokusatsu techniques, but are cast with puppets or marionettes (e.g. Uchuusen Silica (1960), Ginga Shonen Tai (1963) and Kuchuu Toshi 008 (1969); Go Nagai's X Bomber (1980)). Some tokusatsu may employ animation in addition to its live-action components (e.g. Tsuburaya Productions' Dinosaur Expedition Team Bornfree (1976), Dinosaur War Aizenborg (1977) and Pro-Wrestling Star Aztekaiser (1976)).
Japanese fan films
As popular culture fandom in Japan grew in the 1980s, Hideaki Anno, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, Takami Akai, and Shinji Higuchi set up a fan-based group called Daicon Film (Renamed Gainax in 1985 and became an animation studio). Besides anime sequences, they also produced a series of tokusatsu shorts parodying monster movies and superhero shows. These productions include Patriotic Squadron Dai-Nippon (1983), Swift Hero Noutenki (1982), Return of Ultraman (1983) and The Eight-Headed Giant Serpent Strikes Back (1985).
Around 2000 the comedian Shinpei Hayashiya produced a number of tokusatsu fan films. These include Godzilla Vs. Seadora and Gamera 4: Truth (2004). In 2005 he completed his first original effort, Deep Sea Beast Reigo.
Tokusatsu-influenced productions outside Japan
Tokusatsu techniques have spread outside Japan due to the popularity of the Godzilla films. In 1961 England-based film-makers produced the Godzilla-style film, Gorgo, which used the same suitmation technique as the Godzilla films. That same year, Saga Studios in Denmark made another Godzilla-style giant monster film, Reptilicus, bringing its monster to life using a marionette on a miniature set. In 1967, South Korea produced its own kaiju movie titled Taekoesu Yonggary. In 1975, Shaw Brothers produced a superhero film called The Super Inframan, based on the huge success of Ultraman and Kamen Rider there. The film starred Danny Lee in the title role. Although there were several other similar superhero productions in Hong Kong, The Super Inframan came first. With help from Japanese SPFX artists under Sadamasa Arikawa, they also produced a Japanese-styled monster movie, The Mighty Peking Man, in 1977. In 2001, Buki X-1 Productions, a French fan-based production company, produced its own series, Jushi Sentai France Five (now called Shin Kenjushi France Five), a tribute to Toei's long running Super Sentai series. In 2004, Peter Tatara (with his company Experimental Amateur Hero Productions) produced a low-budget superhero video series called Johnny Robo, which is a tribute/deconstruction/parody of Kamen Rider and the Henshin Hero genre. The low-budget television series Kaiju Big Battel directly parodies kaiju and Kyodai Hero films and series by immersing their own costumed characters in professional wrestling matches among cardboard buildings. In 2006, the South Korean series Erexion premiered as a "children's special effects drama;" its style is reminiscent of tokusatsu techniques. In 2006, Mighty Moshin' Emo Rangers premiered on the internet as a Power Rangers spoof, but was quickly picked up by MTV UK for broadcast. In 2006, Insector Sun, a low-budget tribute to Kamen Rider was produced by Brazilian fans. In addition, a Thai Sentai-style series Sport Ranger began broadcasting on August 2006. Chinese television started broadcasting Armor Hero (铠甲勇士 pinyin: Kǎi Jiǎ Yǒng Shì) in 2009 which calls itself "Chinese Original Tokusatsu".
Godzilla, King of the Monsters! first appeared in English in 1956. Rather than a simple dub of the Japanese-language original, this work represented an entirely re-edited version which restructured the plot to incorporate a new character played by American actor Raymond Burr. Ultraman gained popularity when United Artists dubbed it for American audiences in the 1960s.
A major influx of tokusatsu adaptations came to American television in the 1990s, starting in 1993 with Saban Entertainment's purchase of footage from Toei's sixteenth installment of their long-running Super Sentai series, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger to become Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and start the popular Power Rangers franchise. An adaptation of footage from Choujinki Metalder, Jikuu Senshi Spielban, and Uchuu Keiji Shaider (from the Metal Hero Series), became VR Troopers in 1994. There followed an adaptation of the ninth series in the Kamen Rider, Kamen Rider Black RX, into Saban's Masked Rider. In 1996 and 1997, Juukou B-Fighter and its sequel B-Fighter Kabuto became Big Bad Beetleborgs and its sequel Beetleborgs Metallix. DiC Entertainment, in 1994, purchased the footage of Tsuburaya Productions' Denkou Choujin Gridman to create Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. Most recently, the third Heisei Kamen Rider series Kamen Rider Ryuki has been adapted into Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, which began broadcast on The CW4Kids in 2009, and won the first Daytime Emmy for "Outstanding Stunt Coordination" for its original scenes.
Foreign productions as tokusatsu
The Japanese market regards several British and American live-action series dubbed into Japanese as tokusatsu programs. These include Doctor Who, Lost in Space, Smallville, Wonder Woman, MacGyver, Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, Red Dwarf, The Greatest American Hero, Knight Rider, and even puppet shows such as Thunderbirds and Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.
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