From Toei’s Metal Heroes to Saban’s Beelteborgs
(Originally published in KAIJU-FAN Issue # 6 Fall 1997)
Emerging from Toei Co.’s television production stables of Japanese heroes,Heavy-Armored Beetle Fighter(Juko B-Fighter) premiered on the TV Asahi network on February 5, 1995 in the 8:00-8:30am time slot.B-Fightersprang from the imagination of creator Saburo Hatte, one of Toei’s most prolific super herovisionaries of recent years. Hatte’s credits reach deep into the history of Toei’s popular Super Sentai series since 1979’sBattle Fever Jand their 1978 version ofSpiderman, considered the influential forerunner to employ the theme of a title super hero who relies upon the service of a giant robot when confronted by a titanic menace. Of course, this same device became essential to Saburo’s sentai programs, which were introduced to main stream western audiences with Saban’sMighty Morphin Power Rangers, an Americanized version of Toei’s own Dinosaur SentaiZyuranger(1992).
A Heavy-Armored History
B-Fighter; however, has more obvious roots within the genre of Toei’s Metal Hero series, going back to Hatte’s own revolutionary Space Sheriff Gavan (1982), about a law-enforcing robot which predated America’s own RoboCop. Early Metal Hero series such as the super-dimension warrior Speilvan (1986) and super machine Metalder (1987), both of which had their battle action sequences and characters converted by Saban for American television into V.R. Troopers, confronted all varieties of mutant alien invaders as they fought to protect the Earth. These incredible battles would sometimes extend into other dimensions and eerie alternative universes. In the 90s, however, the Metal Hero formula took a radical departure from these established conventions with super police and special rescue series such as Windspector ( 1989), Solbrain (1991) and Exceedraft (1993). In these series, specially-trained law enforcement agents would don super-armored battle suits on missions of civilian or national defense against high-tech criminals and terrorists. This shift into a more futuristic setting without bizarre monsters, aliens, mutants or alternative dimensions was a controversial move that lost some of the viewing audience, while enticing a new generation of fans. But eventually, popular demand would open the door to let creatures back in by the time of Blue Swat (1994), the series that preceded B-Fighter
Earth’s Great Crisis
The series of Heavy Armored Beetle Fighter is set against the conceptual environment of an Earth that faces the threat of invasion from another dimension. The Jamahl Empire, under the leadership of Emperor Gaohm and his commanding generals, Jera, Shuvaults and Gigaro, sets its goal of conquest upon the dimensional domination of Earth. Sudden unprecedented swarms of erratic insect behavior precede the impending doom of Jamahl, while at the Japanese branch of the Earth Academia, the development of special bio-machinery technology continues. The study of insects such as beetles, and the natural use of their exoskeletons as a coat of armor, has been the primary focus of this particular project. Entomologist Takuya Kai (Daisuke Tsuchiya) encounters the mystical, insectiod extraterrestrial Guru during a jungle expedition. This sentient, beetle-like sage warns of the approaching menace of Jamahl and extends his magic to Earth Academia in order to aid in the terrestrial defense. When the activation of the prototype robo-armored units fails, Guru brings the bio-machinery to an advanced level at which they respond like living insect armor. Transformed by the life energy of beetles as channeled by Guru, these new and Beetle Fighters step forward and convert the essence of their forms into three hand-held devices called B-Commanders. Takuya accepts the device that allows him to transform into Blue Beet, the leader of the B-Fighters. The other B-Commanders seek out two particularly defiant humans who have been taken prisoner by the Jamahl soldiers. Before they can be executed, Rei Hayama
(Reina Kazuki) and Daisaku Katagiri (Shigeru Kanai) gain the ability to become Reddle and G-Stag and join forces with Earth Academia. Together with their arsenal of special weapons and battle vehicles, the B-Fighter team becomes Earth’s primary defense against Jamahl and its many monsters. Throughout the 53 episode series, the battles of the B-Fighter team carry them into the alternative dimensions of Jamahl, in which the evil invaders hope to trap and someday destroy the armored heroes.
A Galaxy of Heroes and Villains
Later in the series, Mai Takatori (Chigusa Tomoe), a young officer from the South American branch of Earth Academia, replaces Rei as Reddle. Just when it appears that the B-Fighter team has gained the advantage against Jamahl, the villains perfect the anti-Beetle Fighter, Black Beet. Black Beet’s true identity turns out to be Shadow, the dark clone of Takuya manufactured by Jamahl from the young hero’s cells and he proves himself to be a formidable opponent. A new white-armored B-Fighter named Kabuto emerges to meet the challenge of Black Beet. The son of Guru, Kabuto joins the B-Fighter team and the series concludes with the final destruction of Gaohm. A special two part finale features the team-up of the B-Fighter team and former Toei heroes Jan Person and Gun Gibson from the 1993 series Janperson, as well as the heroes from Blue Swat. The teams join forces to battle the sudden arrival of the demonic creature Jaghoul and hammers the final nail in the coffin of further inter dimensional threats.
B-Fighter: The Next Generation
The popularity of B-Fighter on Asahi TV paved the way for an immediate sequel in 1996 entitled B-Fighter Kabuto. (Kabuto is the Japanese word for helmet or head-piece. The kanji combination of kabutomushi means helmet beetle, a reference to the family of rhinoceros beetle which is the main symbolic motif of the B-Fighter concept). This series introduced the expansion of Earth Academia into Cosmo Academia where an even stronger B-Fighter armor, the Neo-Insect Armor has been developed, along with a new arsenal of weapons and vehicles. Takuya and Guru have pushed their combination of bio-machinery science technology and magic to the next level. Their timing is perfect because a new threat is reaching out to seize the world. An ancient race of prehistoric creatures has evolved into the Melzard Tribe. Arising to claim the surface world like devils, the imperial family beneath the empress Mother Melzard has become divided over the millennia into two primary military clans. Leading the land creatures is the powerful dinosaur general, Raija, eldest son of the Empire. Beneath him, the insectoid female fencer, Miohra, serves as commander of his body-guard troops and mutant soldiers. Leading the aquatic creatures is the deep-sea fish-man, Dezul, second son of the Empire. The seashell chamberlain, Dord, commands Dezul’s troops and mutant soldiers. To counter Melzard, a new, young generation of B-Fighters steps up to the challenge. Kohei Toba (Hideomi Nakazato) is a particularly diligent teenage scholar excelling equally in school academics and athletics. He becomes the great golden warrior of power, B-Fighter Kabuto, initiating the transformation with the insertion of a special input card into the hand-held Command Voicer. Kengo Tachibana (Naoto Adachi), a Cosmo Academia student of environmental research, accepts the transformation to B-Fighter Kuwagar. Ran Ayukawa (Yukina Kurisu), the young Cosmo Academia electric engineering expert working in the area of electronic computer brain development and research, takes on the identity of B-Fighter Tento.
The New Kids on the Block
As the war with Melzard escalates, the younger heroes receive a helping hand from their elder predecessors, Blue Beet, G-Stag, and Reddle, although the B-Fighter genus doesn’t end there. A lethal group of armored villains known as the B-Crushers arise to specifically eliminate the B-Fighter team. The B-Crusher enemies, Deathcorpion, Killmantis, Mukadelinger and Oeezack are matched by the new forces of yet more B-Fighter warriors, BF Genji, BF Yanma, BF Min, and BF Ageha, who are more than ready to face the challenge of the B-Crushers. And if that doesn’t spell out a growing Super Sentai influence to everyone, then check this out: the introduction of gigantic beetle robots, Kabuterios, the great armored god of the astral saber, and Kuwaga Titan, the great armored god of injustice. For those of you who have yet to catch up on your Ultraman or Masked Rider lineage’s, beware: the B-Fighters are multiplying fast! It seems as though the Saban-Toei relationship has come full circle, as the youthful BF heroes of BF Kabuto appear to display a particular touch of influence from the American teenage Power Rangers or VR Troopers. I’m also reminded of several U.S. criticisms of the Saban versions in which they were compared to Sid and Marty Krofft shows; the seashell chamberlain, Dord, in particular, looks like something that washed ashore from the set of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters
The Inevitable Americanization
Having hit the high-ratings bulls-eye with young American viewers through the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, V.R. Troopers, and Masked Rider, it was inevitable that Haim Saban and Shuki Levy would soon extend their grasp to the B-Fighter universe. Their method of buying up Toei’s live-action television hero properties and creating altered versions that have extracted the original Japanese casts and replaced them with young American actors who mainstream American audiences can better relate to has become the trademark of Saban Entertainment. Although greeted with contemptuous disdain by most American fans of Toei’s traditional Japanese tokusatsu television heroes (some even consider the replacement of Japanese actors to be racist), a new generation of western youth became infatuated with these programs since the premiere of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. And even as the once untouchable ratings of that benchmark series began to subside, enough dedicated fans remained to keep the format alive and kicking on American television. Or alive with “less” kicking, anyway, as the most vocal opponents to Saban’s shows have been U.S. parental media watchdog groups and some educational children’s television advocates who repeatedly insist that these programs encourage violence among young viewers in a society that they depict as a wasteland of juvenile delinquency. Using Saban as a convenient scapegoat for infinitely more complex social problems and has created a backlash against these programs and has directed a flood of pressure against Saban to tone down the action. This influence has steered the course of Saban productions from the likes of V.R. Troopers, perhaps the closest effort Saban has ever offered in approaching any semblance of the original Toei-styled action hero dramas with respect for the martial arts, to an overly comedic and simplistic version of Toei’s intricate Kamen Rider series. From here, we enter the current climate in the U.S. where we find ratings codes preceding the programming in question, and the Saban shows in particular, with the issue of television fantasy violence having taken some precedence in debate even on Capital Hill over such subjects as poverty or education. For B-Fighter, it could not have been a more unfortunate time in which to enter the landscape of American television. Over time, Saban has utilized less and less of the original Toei action footage in their U.S. productions to a point in which the final versions of the latest Power Ranger adventures or Saban’s Masked Rider have seen a continued decreasing resemblance to their Original Japanese counterparts. When B- Fighter was converted into Big Bad Beetleborgs for U.S. television, the Japanese version was scarcely recognizable at all. Outside of the costumes and vehicles, which happen to be the major marketing elements for Bandai’s toy line, nothing survived, conceptually or in spirit.
Here Come The Beetleborgs
Opening with the hour-long premiere episode, “Beetle Rock,” written by Shuki Levy and Shell Danielson and produced by Robert Hughes, alongside supervising producers Michael Montgomery and Scott Page-Pagter with direction by Shuki Levy for the Fox Children’s Network, Big Bad Beetleborgs established its basic premise in the setting of an old haunted house known as Hillhurst, on the outskirts of Charterville. Challenging the dare of two local kids, three children, Andrew McCormick (“Drew” as portrayed by Wesley Barker), his little sister, Josephine (“Jo” as played by Shannon Chandler), and their best friend Roland Williams (Herbie Baez) enter Hillhurst where they accidentally free an eccentric ghost that calls himself Flabber, the Phasm. Flabber, portrayed in an overwhelmingly overboard comedic style by Billy Forester that treads on the heels of Jim Carry’s heavily physical performances, wears facial makeup that visually spoofs Jay Lenno’s pronounced features and sports a nearly indescribable wardrobe that ignites memories of Liberache when seated at the magical pipe organ. In appreciation for his newfound freedom, Flabber uses his magical Phasm powers to grant the kids a favorite wish. Their choice: to become their favorite super heroes out of a recent popular comic book called “Beetleborgs.” The Blue Stinger Borg, (Blue Beet in the Japanese version), merges with Drew, the Red Striker Borg (Reddle) becomes Jo and the Green Hunter Borg’s identity (G-Stag) is bestowed upon Roland. They transform by using their hand-held Beetlebonders (B-Commanders) and shouting “Beetle Blast!” An unpredicted residue of powers extends to the kids when in their normal bodies, giving Drew telekinesis, Jo super strength and Roland super speed.
From Serious to Slapstick
Unfortunately, when Flabber’s magic opened the gateway from the comic book dimension to allow the Beetleborgs their passageway into reality, the forces of evil against which they fought also escaped. The Magnavors (Jamall) Noxic (Shuvolts), Jara (Jera), Typhus (Gigaro), and their leader, Vexor (Gaohm), extend their threat into the real world with the ability to summon any of their monsters or fighters to do their bidding. Against this crisis, the Beetleborgs must remain on guard and meet the challenges of the Magnavors with their own weapons and vehicles. Along with the sound effects, visual graphics have been superimposed over the action footage similar to those of the 1966 Batman television series which starred Adam West. Add to this already-confused scenario a group of goofy monsters residing in Hillhurst: Count Fangula the vampire (Joe Hackett), Mums the mummy (Blake Tomey), Wolfgang the werewolf (Frank Tahoe) and Frankenbeans (David H. Fletcer), all of whom gaze upon the kids more as tasty delicacies to pursue than super heroes. And you can forget about the conventional laws that govern the activities of such creatures; the Count and “Wolfie” can roam about as freely in the daytime as anyone else and they cower away from the equally bumbling Magnavors with the fright of ordinary Charterville citizens. Yet more comical relief invades the series through Nano (Vivian Smallwood), Roland’s tough karate-chopping, motorcycle-riding grandmother. Roland’s father, Aaron (Kim Oelgado), is the more conservative contrast to Grandma Nano as the owner of Zoom Comics Shop, where the kids often help and hang out. He later accepts a sales representative marketing position with Beetleborgs Comics, leaving his wife, Abbie (Channe Nolen), in charge of the store where the diverse personalities between her and Nano come into conflict.
Frustrated by the repeated failures of his Magnavor team, Vexor later constructs the Shadow Borg (Black Beet in B-Fighter) to destroy the Beetleborgs. Through a week’s worth of episodes, the “Curse of the Shadow Borgs” mini-series (condensed into a 90-minute home video recently released by Fox), the Shadow-borg seems to be gaining an advantage over the Beetleborgs until Beetleborgs’ comic creator, Art Fortunes (Rigg Kennedy) designs the White Blaster Beetleborg (Kabuto) to meet the challenge. Later in the series, Wolfgang gets hold of one of Flabber’s old magic books and accidentally casts a spell on Jo that somehow changes her appearance to those closest to her (allowing for the introduction of a new child actress, Brittany Konarzewski, into the role).
An Open Ended Ending
Eventually, the Magnavors break into the studio of Art Fortunes and steal the design of a new super villain called Nukus (Raija from B-Fighter Kabuto), a strategic genius. Vexor brings the new character to life to serve as his latest warrior in their battle against the Beetleborgs. Because Nukus is not a creation of Art Fortunes and has not appeared in the comics, he is an unpredictable problem for the Beetleborgs. However, the cunning creature aims for a more immediate goal of double-crossing the Magnavors with a plan that tricks them back into the comics. Flabber, however, is too quick to ask the kids for their Beetlebonders back when the battle with the Magnavors appears to have ended and the world seemingly restored to normal. Nukus challenges the Beetleborgs alone outside of Hillhurst, so Flabber returns the power to the kids, but a frightened Fortunes warns that their powers will be useless against this new enemy. Thus concludes the season finale, offering more than a hint that other elements of B-Fighter Kabuto will be used in Big Bad Beetleborgs.
The Great Ratings Debate
And so, with Juko B-Fighter and B-Fighter Kabuto having fallen into the most juvenile Saban series yet, we can only speculate as to what future fate may await other Toei Japanese superior productions. At this point, perhaps Saban might consider abandoning U.S. Kidsvi1le altogether, as it is highly unlikely that this type of programming would ever meet with any smiling approval from their most vocal opponents. Is the sacrifice for that big TV “Y” rating that precedes Big Bad Beetleborgs really worth it? Power Rangers Turbo, as toned down as it is now, pushes a Y7 and continues to pop up in debates about television violence. To be fair, the Toei television heroes in Japan have their critics, too, who insist that this fantasy “violence” is harmful to children; after an unrelated incident of child murder in Kobe, some have even suggested that Japanese television needs to be regulated with viewing codes and restrictions similar to those introduced in America. That incident has even had an influence on the distribution of certain western films into the Japanese culture, the most recent being an indefinite delay of Wes Craven’s Scream. However, much of the support in favor of Toei’s programming in Japan has a basis in the traditions of the culture that cannot be erased so easily. In America, the Power Rangers phenomenon is likely to be dismissed as a one-time fluke with little support for Saban, so the risk of producing a more mature, straight-forward Toei-styled action hero drama for post prime-time syndication or perhaps through such outlets as the Sci-Fi Channel might be well worth it, particularly if pushed to a full hour’s format. At least it would be embraced by the legions of American tokusatsu fans, if not by a whole new generation of viewers.
Article © 1997, 2003 Kevin Grays/Visagraph Films International.