American Tokusatsu Shows: Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad

Our looks at the Ameri-Toku shows that followed Power Rangers (but not its success) continue with Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad.

Tony Oliver was right, Power Rangers was going to be copied by others, and Super Human Samurai was the first. Produced by DIC with a toy license from Playmates, the show was one of only three Ameri-Toku series to not be produced by Saban. The series opted to adapt footage from Denkou Choujin Gridman from Tsuburaya Productions, famous for Ultraman.

Story: High schooler Sam Collins is the leader of his own rock band, Team Samurai. When Sam is zapped by a power surge he’s given a strange device, which allows Sam to travel into the digital world as the super hero, Servo. Aided by his friends in an arsenal of vehicles, they fight against Kilokhan, an escaped military artificial intelligence program. Kilokhan partners with Malcolm Frink, a student who attends the same school as Sam and despises him. Sam has everything Malcolm wants, particularly his off and on girlfriend Jennifer.

Sam is the easygoing main character who’s a little full of himself but has a good heart. Tanker is a jock football player who harbors a not so secret crush on the brightest kid in school and fellow band member, Syd. The strangest of the group is Amp who  appears to live in his own world. While his actions seem weird to everyone, Amp lives by his own logic, and is actually incredibly intelligent. Later in the series Amp leaves (maybe he really was an alien?) and is replaced by surfer dude Lucky, always laid-back, and new bassist for the band.

The school also featured Principal Pratchert, his daughter Yoli, and cafeteria lunch lady Mrs. Starkey who has several ex husbands and a deep affection for Dennis Quaid (oh, the ’90s.)

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What Worked

Unlike Toei, Tsuburaya provided DIC with high quality copies of Gridman footage. The producers were able to match up the American and Japanese footage perfectly and many fans couldn’t even tell that the footage had originated in Japan, it was that clear and clean. To compare, Power Rangers were often given copies of episodes that still had Japanese text all over them and weren’t often the best masters available. If you ever go back and watch something like Season 1 of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers you’ll notice just how grainy the footage from Zyuranger is, even in comparison to how cheaply the American sequences were shot.

The show boasted amazing talent, more than any other Ameri-Toku. Matthew Lawrence, who portrayed Sam, was a hot item after appearing in Mrs. Doubtfire and gave the show some of its star power. The real star however was renowned voice actor Tim Curry, who played Kilokhan. The best part of the show, he invested his supreme talent into the snarky villain. His back and forth with Malcolm, requesting viruses to destroy the digital world were always hilarious, along with his constant deriding of humans, calling them, “meat things.”

The music of the series was also top notch, with a whole soundtrack of original music (with lyrics!) that sadly has never been released. For a show where the main characters rock band NEVER plays a song? It’s nice we got some decent rock and roll to keep the fights engaging.

The originally intended two part series finale is without a doubt the best set of episodes in the series, with an actual threat to the team and the world in Kilokhoans surge of power thanks to a bunch of Christmas lights being plugged in (don’t ask). He more or less kills the team besides Sam, who goes to confront Malcolm who finally discovers Sam is Servo.

When Kilokhan also kills Sam, Malcolm finally changes sides and prepares himself to go into the digital world as Servo. Sam’s spirit goes instead, and while defeating Kilokhan, is forced to stay in cyber space. It’s an emotional ending that only suffers from the show resetting everything by the end and continuing for another batch of episodes.

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What Didn’t Work

The show was incredibly limited in its storytelling potential thanks to the show only featuring four sets: Sam’s basement, the cafeteria, a school hallway, and Malcolm’s room and very sparse other sets. The show actually only had two moments where they shot outside the studio, that being a news segment that featured famous voice actor Jess Harnell, and the final episode of the season that takes place entirely outside. Because of these limited sets the stories become quickly repetitive, with most focusing around some relationship problem with one of the characters that was put in jeopardy thanks to Malcolm’s general loathing of the group.

The show has little continuity from episode to episode and what little we do get is the back handed explanations for the reused monsters. You see, Gridman only had 39 episodes while Super Human Samurai had 53. Thus, several monsters returned, “upgraded” or were just outright reused for fights to open certain episodes. Again, the whole thing seemed repetitive.

Losing one of the more fun characters in the last run of episodes didn’t help either. When Amp’s actor left the series he was replaced with Lucky, who just seemed like a cheap knock off. He’s never given a proper introduction as to how he learned about Servo and receives little in the way of development. He was just a meat suit to pilot one of the vehicles.

The show’s lack of budget was the biggest thing holding it back from success. Any time anything that would require a little extra money would happen…they would cut away or simply go to the next scene. Outside of that previously mentioned two parter, the series never strived to be anything more than it was or to expand its own universe.

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Why It Didn’t Catch On

According to G. Beaudin (Malcolm) the show was doing very well, but the companies involved made the money they wanted and then pulled out. So it appears to have had more to do with internal politics then ratings or the quality of the show itself.

Speaking of the quality, the show had a lot of fun elements but nothing really stood out. It was a copy of Power Rangers and it was plainly obvious. The only thing that seemed original and had some depth was Malcolm’s relationship to Kilokhan.

Pictures have leaked in the years since that another season of Gridman was planned, with the show adding a new hero, Gridman Sigma. It’s very probable that Malcolm would have taken on the new mantle, as his counterpart in Gridman was going to. This would have been a beautiful sequel to the events of “Do Not Reboot ‘Till Christmas,” with Malcolm learning to work with the team and getting over his own personal issues after being under the thumb of Kilokhan for so long. Sadly, it was never to be.

Is It Worth Watching?

While the other Ameri-Toku are very of the time in which they were made, Super Human Samurai is so ’90s it hurts. While the shows under Saban did little in the way of pop culture references (Although Cassie does want to be just like Tina Turner in Power Rangers Turbo) Super Human Samurai is filled with them. It’s wall to wall and while that may have been fine when the show aired it just makes it damn near impossible for the show to be anything else but a relic of the time, whether it is references to current bands or Syd’s Blossom-esque hat. 

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So I guess if you’re one of those die hard ’90s nostalgia kids this will be right up your alley. For Toku fans, it’s really only for hardcore Ameri-Toku enthusiasts. If you’re curious however it’s damn easy to pick up. Released by budget DVD company Mill Creek, you can find both volumes of the show for around $5 each in various stores. Not a huge investment but they might sit on your shelf unwatched for quite awhile.

Trivia

– Aaron Pruner who played Percy on VR Troopers tried out for the part of Amp.

Super Human Samurai is only one adaption of the popular Ultraman franchise on American shores. Previously Ultraman had largely been ported over as dubs, including the well known 1966 dub. Other USA attempts at bringing Ultraman over had been co-productions such as Ultraman: The Adventure Begins and Ultraman: The Ultimate Hero which never aired in the U.S. even if it was produced there.

– Kevin Castro, who played Tanker, appeared as a completely different character in what is widely considered one of the best episodes of Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills.

– G. Beaudin described that he wore a ring for the character of Malcolm to signify being “married” to Kilokhan. When crew members asked, “Isn’t that a bit gay?” he responded, “It’s not gay, it’s just weird. He’s a computer.”

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– According to show star Glen Beaudin the show “was never pulled for lack of fan support but that DIC and Disney made their money and pulled out.” No information about Disney being involved has ever come to light so it might just be Glen misremembering or maybe it did have some small involvement, which would be hilarious considering years later they bought Power Rangers.

-The show was originally going to be titled, “PowerBoy” but the name was changed to avoid confusion with Power Rangers

-In the original PowerBoy concept, the character who became Sam Collins was originally named Zack Jason. Yep, you ready that right. Zack Jason. This had to be changed to once again avoid confusion because two of the original Power Rangers characters shared that name.

-The greatest bit of this PowerBoy intensity is just how petty the feud between DiC and Saban got. Check this bit from a 1994 Variety article.

Saban issued a statement last week at the National Assn. of Television Program Executives confab asserting that DIC had agreed to change the name of “PowerBoy” and the main characters, and to put a disclaimer on all marketing materials disavowing any relationship between the two series.

The feud between the companies heated up at NATPE when DIC took out a large front-page “PowerBoy” ad in Variety’s show daily that contained a disclaimer in 2-point type, which was so small that readers needed a magnifying glass to see it.

Flawless.