Every country has their own idea of what constitutes a superhero. In the US we like men in capes, especially if they have strange powers or are based on the old mold of masked dilettantes from the old pulp novels. In Britain, superhero creators seem to like science fiction scenarios and mythology. In India, they make superhero movies based on whatever powers are cheapest to film. (Invisibility is a good example you don't have to show anything!)
But what happens when the Japanese try to make a TV show based on a beloved American superhero? Remember all the griping about the fact that Americans didn't show the proper respect for a Japanese icon? Well, maybe we can claim that it was just revenge for the bizarre spectacle that was Toei's 1978 TV series based on Spider-Man. (We'll be using the Japanese phonic spelling, Supaidaaman, interchangeably with the more familiar American spelling of Spider-Man, so just swing with it.)
Doctor Doom - the beta version.
Everyone knows the story of Spider-Man, thanks to innumerable comic books, TV shows, Hostess Twinkie ads, and the occasional film featuring Bruce Campbell. Forget all that, because none of it applies to Spider-Man in the land of the rising sun. The three episodes we saw were entirely in Japanese. Since we don't speak the language very well, we had to guess at on some of the plot details, but since it's a superhero show aimed mainly at kids, it wasn't difficult to decipher.
Our story begins in space. The Iron Cross Army, a group of aliens headed by "Professor Monster," a man with a severe countnenance and a Nikon lens implanted in his skull, is chasing the Marveller, a spaceship from the ex-planet of Spider. The ship crashes into a mountain in Japan and buries itself. Rather than use his superior technological might to overwhelm Earth's pathetic ground-based armies, the Iron Cross' leader disguises his second-in-command, a beautiful woman with great fashion sense named Amazon, in glasses and sensible business attire. Amazon immediately gets a job as the editor of a magazine. It's a little-known fact, but nearly 80% of all newspaper and magazine editors are aliens in disguise.
As she heard the strains
of "Macho Duck" start up in
the background, Yoko swore she'd
never go on another blind date.
Meanwhile, Yamashiro Takuya, a young motocross racer, is having strange visions of spider webs. His father, a scientist, spotted the Marveller's impromptu landing and decides to go on a little day excursion to the crash site. Once there dad is attacked by a robot dinosaur. Yamashiro follows his web visions to the crash site and finds his father face down in a river. Dad passes on some final wisdom to his son, then expires. Yamashiro enters the spaceship (injuring himself on the way) and meets Garia, last survivor of Spider. In order to save Yamashiro's life, Garia clips a bizarre bracelet to Yamashiro's wrist. Oops it looks like the bracelet was the only thing keeping Garia alive. After a deathbed speech that would have made Shakespeare blush, Garia kicks the oxygen habit too. Geez, Yamashiro's company is even more dangerous than Angela Lansbury's!
The bracelet gives Yamashiro all the powers of a spider. . . or something. Maybe spiders in Japan are very technologically sophisticated and hang out with leopards, because that might explain the Japanese Spider-Man. Spider-Man wears a costume that is essentially the same as the classic version, though there do seem to be little booties and the eyes are small and asymmetrical. The tights also pop out of the bracelet, similar to the way the Flash's costume pops out of his ring. (This isn't the only thing borrowed from another superhero one of the musical themes is nearly identical to the theme from the 1960s Batman series!) The bracelet can shoot the "Spider-String" and "Spider-Nets," and it even has a mini-TV screen that lets Spider-Man call the Marveller to him. Then Spider-Man can use his incredibly cool flying racecar, the Spider Machine GP-7, to dock with the Marveller, which then (of course!) transforms into a giant robot called Leopardon.
Optimus Prime, eat your heart out.
If you think that's confusing, then Spider-Man's enemies will really throw you for a loop. Iron Cross' main lackeys are foot soldiers in grey tights with birdlike beak-masks on their faces. They can crawl on walls and phase into solid matter. Every episode also features a monster of some sort, which Spider-Man fights at normal size until it grows to giant size. At this point Spider-Man calls in the Marveller, transforming it into Leopardon which wields a blazing sword to end the fight permanently. Sure, Spider-Man could just call the Marveller when the monster is normal sized and end the fight by stomping the monster into a jellylike substance, but Spider-Man has a keen sense of fairness.
The first episode we watched was the series premiere. It ends with Spider-Man fighting the robot dinosaur that killed his father. The second episode involves a plot by Iron Cross in which mushrooms harvested from a mushroom monster cause regular Japanese people to do crazy things, like wear a sweater with Playboy bunnies on it.
There's also a subplot about a singing cowboy (they have those in Japan?) who shoots about twenty million of the Iron Cross henchmen. The final fight between Leopardon and the mushroom monster is mercifully short. After all, what combat abilities can a mushroom have, other than standing still and blowing up in a very pretty explosion?
The third episode (we don't think these were consecutive episodes) is the best of the lot. Yamashiro meets with a guy from Interpol (okay, the guy says the word "Interpol" a couple of times, so we're assuming he's an agent) and then spends the rest of the episode in a huge chase scene as Spidey tries to keep the Interpol guy out of the hands of the Iron Cross. The monster in this episode is an absolutely ludicrous guy with a shark's head. If you can walk into a room full of Iron Cross soldiers and still be the silliest guy in the room, that's saying something. The shark guy also vomits torpedoes, which is the best monster ability we've seen since Godzilla used his radioactive breath as flight propellant in Godzilla vs the Smog Monster.
You think you're laughing now?
Wait until you hear him sing.
We have heard a number of conflicting stories regarding the Supaidaaman series some sources claim that there were fewer than twenty episodes made. Others maintain that as many as fifty shows were produced, but these three were the only episodes we were able to track down. Whatever the show's actual popularity and longevity, the influence that Toei Co.'s Spidey show had on later Japanese TV is obvious. Toei later co-produced the various Power Rangers series, which featured silly costumed monsters and acrobatic henchmen in high-energy fight sequences much like the ones in Supaidaaman. Giant robots called forth to combat enormous monsters were also a staple of the Power Rangers series. Leopardon's feline design and transforming features call to mind a later animated show also produced by Toei Go Lion, imported into the U.S. in the early '80s as Voltron. Whether these concepts originated with this series or were merely incorporated along the way isn't clear, but students of Japanese TV imported to the U.S. for kids' entertainment will recognize the style that inspired American kids to do flips over the couch on weekday afternoons in the '80s and '90s.
Supaidaaman also embraced a few well-worn traditions from giant monster movies of the '60s and '70s. Our hero's tendency to escalate his use of powers only as his enemies escalate theirs is highly reminiscent of Ultraman. Regular readers will recall our theories that Ultraman, who usually winds up obliterating his enemies with a beam weapon, prefers to tackle his enemies in hand-to-hand combat first because, darn it all, Ultraman just loves to wrestle! Spider-Man, on the other hand, loves to tumble. He'll use his Spider-String and acrobatic style of kung fu until the monster goes all gigantic, which forces Spidey to call on Marveller. ("Mah-vu-lah!")
Catches thieves just like flies,
Pilots a robot that's giant-sized.
Hey therrre, there goes Supaidaaman.
Simultaneously the scariest and most amusing aspect of kaiju films adopted by Supaidaaman is the presence of a young boy who plays the part of Spider-Man's pal. That's right, boys and girls: Spider-Man has a Kenny! In the evil mushroom episode, the singing cowboy also has a short-pantsed sidekick. (If Kenny had a line of action figures, then this kid would be Western Gear Kenny.) At this our TV set started to show little wisps of smoke from Kenny overload. Thank goodness it only lasted the one episode. The incorporation of Kenny into the Spider-Man stories doesn't come anywhere close to the sanity-threatening levels of, say, Godzilla's Revenge, but it's important to recognize Toei's cagey move here. Put a kid in your superhero show, and the kids watching it will identify that much more closely with the series. In turn, the youngsters will pester the bejeezus out of their parents to buy them transforming Leopardon toys. This practice can be found even today in Japanese fantasy films like Ultraman Gaia: The Battle for Hyperspace.
Fourteen hundred words on an obscure footnote in Spidey history has probably clued you in to the fact that we're pretty big Spider-Man fans. While it's true that Spidey has had something of a renaissance lately due to the wildly successful Spider-Man feature film from Sam Raimi, we can't help but feel that there's something missing from the glut of Spidey toys and videos available in retail outlets recently. Maybe the greatest gift that this resurgence in Spidermania could give us (you know, other than more footage of Kirsten Dunst in a wet t-shirt) would be a reappearance of the remaining episodes of Supaidaaman. Translated and collected on DVD, if you please.