If you’re at all like me you probably wasted most of your childhood watching Super Sentai: imported, live-action, Japanese superhero shows, repackaged for American audiences. The most famous examples were brought to America’s shores by the Egyptian-born warhawk Haim Saban, but he is only the tip of a good-sized professional iceberg. As anyone who’s seen Prince of Space knows, Japanese superhero shows have not moved along all that much since the 1950s, and neither has the process of Westernizing them.
Tonight’s subject is a relic from the first wave of Super Sentai success. In 1975, Toei Company’s Secret Squadron Go Rangers proved that children will watch just about anything – especially if that anything involves a team of costumed heroes and the advanced technology they employ to defend the Earth from armies of giant monsters. While we American children languished in the vapid hellhole called “the 70s”, our Japanese counterparts basked in the glory of an emerging genre…one that exhausted itself almost as soon as it cohered. Successive series followed Goranger annually, and someone over at Tsuburaya Productions (makers of Ultraman – which was, until that time, Japan’s undisputed king of superherodome) must’ve seen green. Someone (producers Akira and Nobor Tsuburaya, probably) must’ve wondered how best to cash in on this rising wave of superhero squadron shows? Then the light bulb moment came. “We’ll re-editing old footage from crap TV shows and replace all the actors with cheap, South Korean animation. Provide the illusion that this is some kind of real Super Sentai show…rubes won’t know we hit ’em ’til they’re bleeding on their carpets.”
As soon as the stock footage rolls under the obviously-tacked-on credits, we know we’re watching a compilation film: in reality, Attack of the Super Monsters is four episodes of 1977’s Kyoryu Daisenso Aizenborg, poorly dubbed and spliced together with little or no thought to how those episodes might hang over, say…an hour, twenty-three minutes and fifty-seven seconds. Like the hot air inside lost desert tombs, that’s how: stifling and musty, it knocks its viewers out with its own stiff wind, which even in the early 80s showed obvious signs of decay.
English-language version writer Tom Wyner’s opening narration (last resort of the filmmaker who thinks his audience stupid, or his work too stupid to speak for itself) informs us that it’s the year 2000 (ha!), and dinosaurs, once thought extinct, have returned to destroy mankind. They’ve grown superintelligent in the intervening sixty-five million years, and their mad Emperor Tyrannus (Mike Rynolds) is out to retake the Surface World from the race of shambling, shaved apes who replaced them at the top of the food chain. (We know where the Super Mario Brothers movie found its plot, now don’t we?)
Like any good villain, Tyrannus’ glowing red eyes give him the power to turn any animal into a city-smashing machine “who will obey his every command” thanks to that most versatile of weapons, the cartoon laser beam. Tyrannus demonstrates this by turning a fellow tyranosaurus into a fire-breathing monster before ordering the transformed minion topside. The Emperor’s Rex surprises a pair of wabbit hunters and turns their dogs into bloodthirsty, fire-engine red, Cujo clones with its own Cartoon Laser Eyes. Before long, whole packs of red, cartoon dogs are attacking “the city.” You know. Like in The Matrix.
Humanity’s only hope? Gemini Command: “a defense squad, created to ensure the security of Earth, and its chief is the well known biologist and physicist, Dr. John Carmody.” Right. Thanks, Helpful Narrator. Leading this particular super squad we have Captain Jim Starbuck (Dan Woren), and his sister, Lt. Gem (Robin Levenson). More on them later. Let’s round out the Odious Comic Relief with Lt. Jerry Fordham, and science officer Lt. Wallace Singer (Cam Clarke), or “Wally, the goof.” Dr. Carmody, blissfully ignorant of the narrator’s expository dumps, believes these “strange reports from Alpha-Sector Three” are the results of “recent underground activity.” As if that could cause perfectly ordinary dogs to turn fire-engine red and attack everything in sight.
This somehow falls under Gemini’s jurisdiction because Dr. Carmody says so, and in the grand tradition of 1980s cartoon heroes Carmody is always right. What he says goes. So too with Captain Starbuck. Ever the Good Solider, he pulls a solution to the mad dog problem right out of his ass. Using lasers, ‘natch. Gemini Command is more than a nerd club with pretensions of Avengerdom: they counter roving packs of dogs with an armor-plated, flying ATV studded with more rocket pods than an Apache helicopter from the Israeli Air Force. It even separates itself into smaller vehicles, allowing our Team to split up, and its separate sections both fly around through the aid of rockets concealed in the otherwise-ordinary looking tires (take that, Back to the Future Part 2).
Emperor Tyrannus is unimpressed with this, and his Evil Minion proves a harder nut to crack than your average threat to Life On Earth (that is, brown people). “For millions of years,” Carmody explains, “these creatures have been subjected to the tremendous pressures that exist far beneath the surface. As a result, they’ve evolved into this almost-indestructible form.” And gained the ability to breath fire, apparently. And speak badly-dubbed English, if only on the level of “Death! Kill! Destroy!”
That’s a direct quote, mind.
But there’s hope. Being a heroic Scientist, Dr. Carmody has tampered with God’s domain in the best possible way, allowing Gem and Jim to combine “their life essences” and their physical bodies into a single being, conveniently known as Gemini. Supposedly, this involves “bionics”…and helps things out…somehow. The catch? They can only remain locked together in their vaguely-incestuous symbiosis for three minutes before…something happens. As the giant buzz saws on Gemini’s special tank/drill/plane slice off the evil dinosaur’s head, I wonder what that something might be. I guess they cross their streams and destroy all life on Earth…though they seem to cross a lot more than that. Gem and Jim have got to be the most intimate pair of twins since Adam and Lilith. Their transformations into and out of the Gemini state forms a dramatic pivot point to every episode. And these are clearly episodes in the worst possible sense, repetitive refrains the likes of which you’ll only find in toy commercials disguised as children’ cartoons. In the great tradition of evil suitmation monsters everywhere, every monster the Gemini Squad vanquishes explodes on contact with the ground, as if they were all stuffed full of nitro.
In all fairness to Tom Wyner (whom I know from his role as Sid the Dummy in a far-off episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), this was probably poorly written in the first place. It suffers from all the flaws inherent in what I like to call the Super Sensei Metaplot, in which:
–The Villain always kicks things off with an villainous speech, unveiling his latest villainous plan to take over/destroy the world. With villainy. Despite it’s surface permutations, this plan will always revolve around a heretofore anonymous Evil Minion who’ll be send down to Earth/up to the Surface World and charged with implementing The Plan.
–Said minion’s implementation of The Plan will always be just successful enough to attract the Hero(es)’s attention. The Hero(es) will then go through their usual motions of Springing Into Action since
–Its time for the Fight Scene, wherein the Hero(es)’s initial plan to destroy this week’s/month’s/episode’s Villainous Minion fails, if for no other reason than to pad out time. Then and only then can the Hero(es)
–Power Up(!) That is, through the magic of montage, transform into alternate, equally-action-figure-worthy versions of themselves, as they inevitably must to
–Accomplish a Task, usually having to do with foiling this week’s/month’s/episode’s Villainous Plot. This can be pretty much anything, be it rescuing a damsel, destroying the Villainous Plot’s key element, or putting out a fire. Preferably all three at once. If this is a team-based series, expect the Heroes to utilize some form of teamwork into order to Accomplish whatever it is. Culminating in
–The Villainous Minion’s Destruction. Which inevitably leaves me wondering, “Why not just Power Up (!) in the first place and save all that time you wasted back there trading punches and laser beams? Your own life’s a ticking clock, you know? Every second you let the Villainous Minion monologue is another second of your life over and done. To say nothing of all the collateral damage you caused, wrestling with that thing in the middle of a populated area. How many thousands died while you were shouting your catch phrase, Gemini?
–Meanwhile, back in his villainous lair, the Villain Vows Vengeance. Usually through monologue. Repeat.
The film repeats itself four times and its ending is beautifully open, befitting the thirty-nine episode show from which it was cannibalized. I can only hope that the show eventually dealt with the questions its premises raise. Like, just how balanced is this symbiosis between Gemini’s two halves? And why didn’t anyone realize the implicit creepiness of this, or any other concept in the script(s)? Odd that one of this series’ writers, Masaki Tsuji, also wrote a fond, childhood memory of mine, Unico. Is he responsible for the third quarter of things, when Gem inexplicably grows some ovaries and stands up to her insufferably in-command sibling?
Even that stab at characterization is derailed to make room for the a dinosaur attack. Like its English-language voice acting, the suitmation and city-smashing sequences are stiff, cheap, and to the point, befitting Tsuburaya Productions of the period. The 70s were as tough a time on Japan as they were in the United States, and the quality of movie eye candy suffered worldwide. This does not mean the primary reason for enjoying these shows also suffers. In fact, the shopworn special effects only enhance Attack‘s viewing experience…though not in the way anyone intended. Its hammy voice acting, overly-literal dialogue, and bargain basement effects are sure to please the Bad Movie fans in the audience, making Attack a sought-after commodity for a time, before people stopped caring about intellectual property.
In that spirit, here’s everything good about Attack of the Super Monsters, edited down to one easily-digestible six minute chunk and set to Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero.” Apart from being hilarious, this clip is a much better film than its source. Watching it will allow you to avoid the path its creator took when “the copyright police” pulled Attack off of YouTube. No need to give anyone any money over this. Not when you can laugh at it for free.
Still want more? Then by all means, plunge into Attack of the Super Monsters, fully aware of what you’re getting yourself into.