The very word conjures up images of powerful, colorfully costumed individuals with masks and capes, soaring above a metropolis teeming with crime. Our champion of truth and justice is out to do battle against similarly cowled and cloaked villains out to cause mayhem and take advantage of the innocent.
So...wait...Are these Superheroes?
What about these guys?
Surely these are Superheroes! Right?
Yes, according to the Japanese, these are all Superheroes and yet rarely if ever are they called that.
The thing is, the Japanese have a slightly different view of what qualifies as a Superhero and it's not necessarily just that they are 'Chōjin' - literally a Super Natured/Powered Person. In fact, the term Superhero is often reserved for American-style Comic Book characters, although more and more of those are popping up in Manga, Anime, and Japanese Pop Culture entertainment all the time. The basic concepts of the Japanese 'Chojin Hiro' and the American Superhero aren't all that different and yet like Japanese Horror, their physics defying champions have a distinct flavor all their own.
The first Superhero of Japan was very possibly the first Superhero in the history of the world. Ōgon Bat or 'The Golden Bat', was created in 1931 - predating both Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) - by a 16-year old Japanese lad named Takeo Nagamatsu and 25 year old Suzuki Ichiro.
The name came from the Golden Bat Cigarette company, while the elements that originally inspired the character's design and story came from paintings of Japanese mythological characters and some of the Western fiction available after the First World War. The creators decided to portray the character as Scientific in origin rather than Supernatural, another first for a Japanese fictional hero.
Originally created for kamishibai (paper theater), a form of traveling show that would display sequential illustrations while a narrator told a story, the two young men would go around telling tales of Ōgon Bat, periodically showing pictures of him in action. After World War II, with the decline of Kamishibai as a form of entertainment, Ōgon Bat transitioned to Manga (done by none other than Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy/Tetsuwan Atom) and eventually a live action film and one of the earliest Anime.
Speaking of Osamu Tezuka, we can thank him for one of the most internationally well known Japanese characters of all time, Tetsuwan Atom, better known in the US as Astro Boy. First appearing in Manga form in 1952, The Mighty Atom's story was viewed as a Science Fiction tale and he was not really seen as a Superhero by Japanese fans. Other characters created by Tezuka, including his very popular Princess Knight heroine, were likewise not seen in the same category as Superman or fictional entities commonly thought of Superheroes.
Manga writer and artist Shotaro Ishinomori released one of the first Manga series specifically aimed at something like the Superhero genre, creating a Superhero Team in point of fact. Still essentially viewed as a Science Fiction story with Espionage components, Ishinomori's Cyborg 009 shows signs of things to come, clear to anyone familiar with early American Superheroes such as Wally Wood's THUNDER Agents or the original X-Men.
Cyborg 009 tells us about a team of nine individuals, kidnapped and transformed into superpowered cyborgs against their will by the Black Ghost organization. The group escapes to use their abilities to stop Black Ghost's plan for world domination. Costumes? Basically. Check. Superpowers? Check. Multi-national, multi-ethnic team? Check and check. Curiously, while early Western Super-Teams mostly consisted of White Males, Ishinomori depicts a team including an African Member and a Native American member in 1964. Thought the initial designs of these characters were a bit stereotypical, they were full and effective members of the group and their looks have been improved over the decades.
In 1966, Tsuburaya Productions aired the first Tokusatsu TV series featuring a heroic character battling evil space monsters; the now world famous Ultraman! Tokusatsu refers to any live action series featuring fantastic or science fiction-related elements and involving elaborate costumes and special effects. Prior to Ultraman, many of these were Kaiju/Giant Monster related and before that they dealt with Mythology or Sci-Fi related stories. Now those aspects were being directed towards telling a story about a alien being who has come to Earth to protect Humanity against more villainous aliens. The first Kyodai Hīro - Giant Hero - is born!
The next live action Superhero to take Japan by storm was the Toei Company's 1971, motorcycle-riding, insect themed, kaijin (Strange or Monstrous Person) known as Kamen (Mask) Rider! Kamen Rider was the Batman to Ultraman's Superman, a darker (though still kid friendly) avenger doing battle with the Sacred Hegemony Of The Cycle Kindred Evolutionary Realm or S.H.O.C.K.E.R.. In case you haven't noticed, there is a common theme emerging. Unlike American-Style Super Villains, Japanese baddies almost always serve at some level of a larger HYDRA or COBRA like organization. Their origins, goals, and methods may differ but the tendency is to go less Dr. Doom and The Joker and more James Bond's SPECTRE.
This sort of 'Secret Agents with Superpowers' or with super equipment (sometimes both) would take off in Anime and Manga form from 1972 to 1975, with the Tatsuunoko Production company leading the charge. The famous Tokyo based Animation studio and producer, responsible to one of the earliest of these heroes 'Mach GoGoGo' (aka 'Speed Racer') would develop solo and team heroes such as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (Battle of the Planets / G-Force in the US), Casshan, and Hurricane Polymer.
The Western entertainment influences on Japanese culture were becoming increasingly more evident if not yet prominent by the mid-70s. American Comic Books made it to Japan by way of G.I.s and their families. Hollywood films and TV show were coming over with more regularity. As with all such things however, the Japanese are quick to adopt, adapt, and then make it their own.
In 1975, the first Super Sentai series, Himitsu Sentai Gorenger (Secret Squad Goranger) would debut, changing the face of Japanese Supers forever. Here, when the villainous Black Cross Army emerges and virtually wipes out the Earth Guard League EAGLE, the five remaining agents are summoned by the surviving EAGLE Leader to save the world from the terror of The Black Cross Fuhrer and his forces.
Gorenger ran from 1975 to 1977 and was such a success it spawned a second series, then a third, and on and on to this very day. Unlike the American adaption 'Power Rangers', each of the Japanese shows are a self-contained story and universe, crossing over only for special occasions (TV Specials, Anniversary episodes, and the like). Interestingly, the third series, Battle Fever J, was a Toei Company / Marvel Comics co-production and yet not the first time Marvel had inspired a Japanese Tokusatsu show. In 1978 Japan saw a live-action Spider-Man show featuring a very different webslinger and of course his giant robot, Leopardon!
It should be noted that all of these characters - Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Sentai - fall into a Superhero sub-category that is extremely popular in Japan: The Henshin Hero! Henshin means to change or transform and Henshin Heroes are known for transforming from normal (or seemingly normal) Humans into superhuman ones.
While not unknown in the US and beyond - the Hulk and Captain Marvel/SHAZAM! qualify as henshin characters - in Japan the tropes is very popular and can go further than their Western counterparts. For example, many versions of Kamen Rider have him as a normal person with a tiny implant that enables him to go from Human to full-on Cyborg. I vaguely remember a character, a little boy, who uses a special device and becomes a robot with the boy's mind.
As time progressed forward and exposure to more American products grew, the opposite was also true. The appearances of Japanese Anime and Manga sent abroad and translated meant the lines of inspiration were beginning to blur and a new generation of Japanese creators were influenced by the Western depiction of the Superhero in different way. Likewise American artists and writers were seeing Japanese Animation and Comic Books and a cross pollination of epic proportions slowly but surely began taking place.
In 1983 the Japanese Manga and Animation studios Kadokawa and Madhouse teams up to produce an animated film based on the 1967 Manga series 'Genma Wars' by science fiction writer Kazumasa Hirai and manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori.- yes, the same Ishinomori who gave us Cyborg 009. The character designs for the film version were done by Katsuhiro Otomo, the writer and artist of the groundbreaking 1982 series and 1988 film Akira. The film was entitled, 'Genma Wars: Harmagedon'.
While the Manga and film were once again placed in the Science Fiction genre, it is impossible not to see the influence of American comics on movie version, particularly Giant Sized X-Men #1 by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. Thanks to Otomo, the look of the characters changed; they are less cartoonish in overall design to coincide with the modern aesthetic of the time and the dark nature of the story. The global threat is pointed out by showcasing the international origins of the various Psychic/Psionic defenders of the Earth. It's not that this wasn't done in the Manga but the Manga focused more on the main hero, Jo Azuma, and he was Japanese.
A domino effect had begun at this point, with Japanese artists and writers wanting to integrate more elements from outside of Japan, while America, England, and other nations were finally realizing the scope of the Japanese Anime and Manga empire and its fresh creativity and lucrative opportunities.
Fast forward a bit and the Superhero would leap across the ocean in a single bound to have game-changing impact of Japanese/American fandom relations...
準備をしなさい True Believers!