DEEP DIVE: The Long-Lasting Appeal of the Original Power Rangers
Who knew coloured spandex would have such a lasting impression on our pop culture? On March 24, Haim Saban will be bringing Power Rangers back to the silver screen, 22 years after the original theatrical film grossed $66 million worldwide on a $15 million budget. What is old is new again, which seems to be the running theme for a lot of franchises these days.
The story will remain almost identical to the original premise, with Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Trini and Zack playing teenagers who are tasked with saving the world in a classic tale of good vs. evil. But, of course, by “original” I mean staying true to the American iteration of the series that actually came from Japan, which is often overlooked for its contribution to cross-continent cultural sharing.
It’s called Super Sentai in Japan – a TV series made by Toei aimed at kids that is best described as a superhero anthology, featuring regular people with the ability to transform (henshin in Japanese) into fearsome warriors with an emphasis on colour-coded super suits and giant robots. It debuted in 1975 but has been running non-stop since 1977, and has spawned at least two movies a year since 2010. Every season features a completely new team, robots and theme, and it’s as much a part of Japanese pop culture as kaiju films with Godzilla and Gamera. They’re known in its entirety as tokusatsu, which basically means “special effects.”
The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers we know in North America is based on Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger (JU-LEN-jaa), the 16th chapter in the Super Sentai series that debuted in 1992. It is the second straight year Toei made a theme based on animals following 1991’s Chojin Sentai Jetman (JET-to-MAN), in which each team member took on the identity of a specific bird. The new theme was dinosaurs, so right away Zyuranger had a pretty good start to becoming a global brand with an easily accessible and popular subject matter that appealed to kids. It was also the first to feature a permanent sixth member, which meant one more character for merchandising.
As the story goes, Saban and business partner Shuki Levy went to Japan on a trip and noticed the popularity of Super Sentai, and realized that there was no real equivalent in North America. Saban and Levy reportedly had trouble getting the show picked up until the race for children’s TV heated up in the early ‘90s, and Fox Kids, a new venture at the time, stepped up to the plate. Not only did Power Rangers become Fox Kids’ flagship show in 1993, it became the flagship show for kids, one year after Zyuranger debuted.
Japan was experiencing a special year in 1992, not only with the debut of their yet-unrealized global potential of Zyuranger¸ but also marked the year Toei launched Sailor Moon, which later became another popular Japanese import and introduced American audiences to mainstream anime, and paved the way for other shows such as Samurai Pizza Cats, which was also licensed by Saban (and has a funny history of its own). It was also when the Japanese economy took an extended downturn, leading to the Lost Decade, a hole they continue to have trouble climbing out of. Toshiba is mired in an accounting scandal due to pressure to increase profits, and Sony’s business is a mixed bag. Japan is a very interesting and somewhat isolated country in itself – this is a country that believes instant noodles is their biggest contribution in the 20th century, ahead of the Nintendo consoles, Sony mp3 players and Pokemon, but seems neglectful of the global impact of Super Sentai, which has made billions in the U.S. alone.
Set in modern Japan, the Zyurangers were actually royal family members and warriors from five ancient human tribes that co-existed with dinosaurs 170 million years ago. (It also explains their rather medieval looking garb). After her son is killed in an accident involving a tyrannosaur, the witch Bandora vows to avenge his death and sells her soul to the Great Satan in order to do so. She manages to wipe out the dinosaurs, but is ultimately defeated by five members from the human tribes with the help of their giant animal robots known as Guardian Beasts, which can combine to form a humanoid robot called the Great Beast God (Daizyuzin in Japanese), and banished to a planet called Nemesis. The five humans, now known as the Holy Warriors of Justice, were sent into hibernation under the watch of an immortal wizard, Barza, only to be awoken if they were ever needed again.
The names of the American version were changed for obvious reasons, but much of the story as well. The whole backstory with humans and dinosaurs is gone, and the Rangers are simply five “teenagers with attitude” who’ve been given the ultimate “gift” of defending the universe. The Rangers are now composed of three guys and two girls, rather than the traditional 4:1 ratio the Japanese versions had. Barza is completely cut out of the show, again for obvious reasons, and replaced by floating holographic head called Zordon. The Rangers’ giant robots were known as Zords, the giant robot it formed was called the Megazord, and Bandora was re-named Rita Repulsa, who was imprisoned on the moon for 10,000 years before the Rangers are called into action when she escapes.
Certain storylines are echoed, such as the villain-turned-hero story of the Green Ranger, and all of the early action scenes were recycled from the Japanese version in a cost-cutting measure. It explains why all the Rangers suddenly look very svelte in their suits, and also why the Yellow Ranger, who is male in the Japanese version, doesn’t wear a mini skirt like the Pink Ranger when both are supposed to be female. The villains are also recycled, although appearing in a different order, with only Lamy, a Japanese femme fatale, being the only one completely cut from the show. As is tradition, Zyuranger lasted just one 50-episode season, but Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers lasted for three seasons, the latter two made possible by Saban’s request for Toei to come up with new villains and monsters while continuing to use stock footage. Lord Zedd, a cross between Shredder and a blood bag, was the first villain to be made specifically for the American show, and eventually takes over Rita Repulsa’s spot as the main villain.
The story and tone of the original is far more serious and interesting than its American adaptation, which replaced much of the Zyuranger and Super Sentai lore with family-friendly Breakfast Club characters in clichéd plots with over-the-top villains and only the slightest illusion of danger. If anything, the American version should be noted for ushering a love story that, although frustratingly stupid and annoying, was one of the first shows targeted at kids that really had any resemblance of boyfriend-girlfriend dynamics – a huge risk at the time – and ultimately responsible for the sexual awakening of an entire generation of young boys thanks to the Pink Ranger.
If the superiority of the Japanese version can be summed up in one instance, it’s the story of Burai, the green Dragon Ranger who is the older brother of Geki, the red Tyranno Ranger. Separated at birth, Geki was taken as a ward after their father rebelled against the ruling tribe, and Burai locked himself into a hibernation chamber. Sometime between then and the present day, Burai’s chamber collapsed, but a god-like entity named Clotho revives him to help the Zyurangers, seemingly unaware Burai had vowed to avenge his father’s death. His revival comes at a cost – Burai is forced to live on borrowed time, which is only paused when he stays in the Timeless Room, and in one of the best arcs of the series, reconciles with Geki in intense one-on-one fight and joins the Zyurangers until his death.
In the American series, where the Rangers are identified only by their colour, the Green Ranger begins as a villain recruited by Rita Repulsa, and is later won over simply by the forces of good, and presumably because a love story with the Pink Ranger would be easier to write if both were on the same side. The conflict between the Green Ranger and the rest of the team exists without much of a backstory, and due to the different standards in regards to audience suitability between the two countries, the conflict is bloodless. It’s a passable attempt to incite drama and provide character development, but in many ways falls short of the original.
As much as Super Sentai is revered in Japan, and the warm reception it received in North America a welcome surprise, the American production wasn’t without some major controversy. Though the original production team claimed they didn’t mean to be racist or otherwise enforce social constructs by casting an actor of indigenous descent as the Red Ranger, a black actor as the Black Ranger and deciding yellow and pink were feminine colours that necessitated female actors, in today’s political environment there would’ve been at least multiple Facebook movements, a hashtag Twitter campaign or whatever kind of clicktivism is popular at the moment against this practice. It just seems too obvious of a potential problem that the producers would go through with it, unless they thought it’d be some sort of inside joke no one would catch.
There’s also the plight of David Yost, the original Blue Ranger who quit the show, because of the abuse he suffered on the set for being gay was so severe he went into conversion therapy. The original reason given was that he had balked at Saban’s low pay, which was a story in its own right. Saban is worth around $3 billion, according to Forbes, and the Power Rangers brand continues to do well, but he paid his actors the bare minimum, recycled their own footage to save even more money and eventually replaced three of the original actors because they had threatened to unionize. Any shrewd businessman knows that one way to keep making money is to keep costs low, and nothing Saban did was claimed to be illegal. It’s just an odd feeling that the kind of fan support the series has also perpetuates such an imbalance of power – which is nothing new – but also that this type of system continues to persist, as if we’re saying such an imbalance is only not okay when we don’t like the product being sold.
The Power Rangers still exist on TV, as they continue to borrow from its Japanese counterpart, but no iteration since Mighty Morphin’ has captured the pop culture heartbeat of an entire global generation the same way. Zyuranger would’ve been difficult to follow, but Gosei Sentai Dairanger in the year following was similarly well-received in Asia, but was never adapted into an American series on its own except for footage of the new Zords; perhaps its theme of tai chi and mystical Asian creatures was deemed to foreign, and its villains a little too BDSM, to draw American audiences. The TV series is still ongoing, but difficulties lie ahead after 2016’s Zyuohger (JU-oh-jaa) had the lowest ratings in history.
There’s little doubt Power Rangers will gross enough worldwide to exceed its reported $105 million budget – if the rebooted Ninja Turtles can gross $191 million and Transformers can gross $319 million, then $100 million doesn’t seem like such a big target for such a popular brand. It doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to have some self-awareness of just how silly it is, and to take a nostalgic enough approach that can entice fans of the original series, like bringing back that silly theme song with the guitar riffs. It’s funny to think about both how much and how little has changed over the past two decades.
The bigger question is whether this is a solo feature or a potential multi-picture franchise. Remember, the film was supposed to be a big summer tentpole film with a July 2016 release date, but was delayed until this year. With sequel fatigue a very real thing, Marvel concluding their MCU in a few years and DC already making a mess of theirs, it’s as if studios are now scrambling to capitalize on anything that made a ‘90s kid tick, since these kids are supposedly now adults with real jobs and disposable incomes and perhaps with kids of their own as well. (Joke’s on them, right, millennials?)