At the most casual level, you can count on the average Western geek to be familiar with exactly one Japanese superhero-tokusatsu franchise: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The band of candy-colored costumed heroes battling through equally colorful villains in practical-effects live-action is a familiar sight in American pop culture. More than a few of you look back nostalgically on the mid-90s TV show. Most of you probably even know that the Power Rangers derived from a mid-70s Japanese show called Super Sentai.
But to dive a little deeper, Super Sentai was only one of many superhero tokusatsu series produced by the late and legendary Shotaro Ishinomori. It’s a name you’d damn well better know in manga, because he got into the Guinness Book of World Records as the mangaka who had published the most amount of books in a lifetime. That’s over 500 volumes of manga. As if all that weren’t enough, he also fostered several influential superhero tokusatsu series.
Persistent fans sometimes follow on from Power Rangers / Super Sentai and discover the other cornerstone TV series of Ishinomori, such as tokusatsu Kamen Rider and the more obscure anime series Cyborg 009. But there’s one action-hero-tokusatsu series spawned by Shotaro Ishinomori’s fertile imagination that is too often overlooked today…
Let’s just let this show introduce itself:
Kaiketsu Zubat deserves to be better-known!
Kaiketsu Zubat ran for 32 episodes from February to December of 1977 on TV Tokyo in Japan. The main character has the typical comic-book tragedy origin story in detective Ken Hayakawa, whose professional partner was murdered by the crime organization Dakker (this is shown in the series titles and the first episode). Ken avenges this bloodshed by donning the Zubasuit to become Zubat, whereupon he wanders the landscape exterminating the minions of Dakker wherever they may hide.
Hey, why are we doing all this talking when there’s action to show?
Yes, as you can see, Zubat is clearly the best kung-fu artist in Japan. He has a few other specialties too.
He’s also the best billiard player in Japan. He can even play combat billiards.
Oh, just by coincidence, he’s also the best boomerang… -ist… in Japan. What a ham! He can also sling a gun too…
Alright, we get it! Ken Hayakawa / Kaiketsu Zubat is this amazing stud who’s the best at everything you can be best at in Japan. You notice he has a signature bit in every episode where he meets a big baddie who thinks they’re the best at something, Zubat chucks back his hat and calls them second-best, they have a contest, and of course Zubat wins.
And when he plays that guitar he lugs around, his song is also so studly that he melts the panties right off you. Even if you’re a dude. But now that we’ve gotten to know Kaiketsu Zubat, there’s a few things about him that might seem confusing.
Explaining what’s up with Kaiketsu Zubat
Even when you stumble across the occasional review, modern day audiences seem a little bit lost. Zubat is clearly a henshin-style superhero, yet he never “henshins” and in fact barely bothers with his Zubasuit alter ego at all, even though it comes equipped with a cool flying car. The typical episode only has him changing costumes at the end, springing his Zubasuit out of the hidden compartment in his guitar (how it plays in tune with a suit stuffed in there is anybody’s guess), and donning it to become his Zubat form. He kicks just as much ass this way too, naturally.
Reviewers get as far as recognizing Zubat’s default mode as “like an American wild west cowboy,” but that’s not quite right.
This is actually more of an accurate cultural touchstone. Spaghetti Westerns, pioneered by the likes of director Sergio Leone, got their start in the 1960s and began spreading their fame from Italy to the rest of the world, including Japan. The genre was well into its golden years right when Kaiketsu Zubat came out. In fact, it had turned the corner into slapstick self-parody beginning with films like They Call Me Trinity (1970). That movie starred actors Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, who would go on to make a string of Spaghetti-Western-comedies, many of which had stunt showdown scenes exactly like Zubat’s bits with the boomerang and billiards contests.
The other cultural influence over not just Zubat, but all Japanese superhero-tokusatsu franchises in general, comes from a source that’s obvious when you think of it, but not exactly a chapter modern fans like to acknowledge:
Are you seeing the connections there? Wacky costumes, live-action practical effects, goofy storylines? The 60s was just a groovy time in TV, full of camp and unrestrained fun that never took itself seriously for one minute.
Now import that same 1960s Batman aesthetic into Japan and this cascade of tokusatsu madness makes more sense:
By the way, henshin heroes are also influenced by Mexican luchadores superhero media, especially characters like El Santo. Mexico has its own version of superhero series where the costume guys are professional wrestlers, and if one more culture sticks its head into this post we’re going to be here all day!
Shotaro Ishinomori, as we mention earlier, was such a prolific mangaka and originator of Japanese superhero TV shows that some have called him “the Japanese Stan Lee.” The moniker is fitting, considering that Ishinomori’s home genre, henshin-hero-tokusatsu, was also the imported home of Japanese Spider-Man.
Yes! Japanese! Spider-Man!
That will teach you to skim blog posts paying half-attention!
The Japanese version of Spider-Man, same title, was actually licensed by Marvel comics and ran on TV Tokyo for 41 episodes from May 1978 to March 1979. They threw away everything but the Spider-Man persona itself, translating the rest into typical Japanese toku including the Power-Rangers-style villains in awkward costumes. Spider-Man is changed here to the alter ego of Takuya Yamashiro, a motorcyclist who gets a miniature henshin sequence to become Spidey.
And that’s the wild world of tukosatsu henshin heroes!
That about sums ‘er all up. The hallmarks of this genre are nonstop action, continuously over-the-top stunts, practical effects on a shoestring budget, campy comic book characters, and a sense of humor. Their cultural influences come from a blend of worldwide superhero-type franchises, remixed under distinctly Japanese aesthetics.
As for Shotaro Ishinomori, we could explore his works all day and debate which one stands out as his magnum opus. But if you watch Kaiketsu Zubat – it’s all over YouTube, and subtitles are barely even necessary – I think most will agree that there’s something special going on with this show. You can feel that this is the point where Ishinomori was pulling out all the stops, really spreading his wings and seeing what he can do.
Kaiketsu Zubat is the kind of show that comes along once in every great artist’s career; when they’ve just discovered that they’re an unusually accomplished talent and begin to take confidence in their skill, but not yet so famous that there’s a truckload of investment in what they’re producing, so they can experiment and take risks.
That is where the magic always happens. “People call me the wandering hero… Kaiketsu Zubat!!”