First episodes of Super Sentai shows can be tricky to pull off. There’s quite a lot to establish in the span of twenty minutes – not just the main cast, but also the arsenal, mecha, villains, motivations, themes, etc. How these annual reboots don’t come across as rush jobs is far beyond me to comprehend anymore. I just sit back, enjoy the fresh new sentai smell, and continue to be surprised at what new level of weirdness the show will take me to next. That’s a big reason why I still watch tokusatsu programs in the first place — everything is always new.
And everything does feel brand new here in Zyuohger’s premiere, which is promising. But it’s also recognizable, which is arguably more important for this franchise right now than trying something completely new and different again.
Zyuohger looks and feels like a Pinterest board devoted to the better sentai series from the past twenty-odd years. That in itself is invigorating in the wake of staler recent attempts such as Ressha Sentai ToQger and Shuriken Sentai Ninninger, which lulled the long-running franchise into a safe, mediocre limbo. Although both of these entries experimented with superficial attributes like visual design and merchandising, their proclivity for being kawaii over telling a captivating story was a toku turn-off. Since Zyuohger is written to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Super Sentai, here’s hoping that this series will be a return to form for the franchise that some people call “Japanese Power Rangers.”
Speaking of Power Rangers, the whole time I was watching the first episode of Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger, all I could think about was how well it’ll translate over to American audiences. It’s the perfect series for Saban to adapt after they’re done giving Ninninger a facelift. Zyuohger embodies the charm of our favorite spandex-clad protectors and their trippy gadgets perfectly. It’s got the classic sentai mystique to it, from its Liveman referencing logo to its sentimental Gaoranger throwbacks. And it does what the more subdued anniversary shows that weren’t Gokaiger did: commemorate the show in earth loving, tree hugging, monster exploding spirit only. Sorry kids. No Ranger Keys this time.
But that’s okay, this whole Minecraft-cubism thing is going to work out just as well, if not better. The toys might not be the high point here, but at least everything looks fun when it’s in action on the screen. That’s all I care about.
It’s no surprise that we meet the character who’ll become our red senshi in the first few minutes of the “pilot.” Kazakiri Yamato is a goofy zoologist that’s leading a small group of kids on a sightseeing expedition into the woods to, uh, look at serows and eggs and stuff. You know. Educational zoology crap (I had to look up what a serow is). As he climbs a tree to put a fallen egg back in its nest, because he’s naive and doesn’t know that his scent is all over it now so the mother bird probably won’t touch it, he accidentally drops his “good luck charm” — a strange looking grey cube — on the ground.
While he stumbles to catch it, Kazakari finds himself at the edge of a creek, staring at a much larger grey cube that’s floating in the air above him. Which is glowing mysteriously, I might add. On closer inspection, he notices a square hole that his own cube fits into. After he puts it in, the cube swallows him up, sending him through a rectangular portal through time and space. He ends up in a different world populated with even more giant cubes.
Oh, and furries too. All the furries. Any type of anthropomorphic animal you ever wanted to see (and possibly do other things with) reside here. Yes, even a were-ocelot. They’re the freakiest…or so my friend told me. Ahem.
After his cubic arrival, Kazakiri conveniently meets the rest of the team he has no clue he’s about to join right away: Tusk, a literal elephant man; Leo, a Rastafarian lion with dreadlocks; Sela, a moody shark woman thing; and Amu, a sexy little snow kitten. Rawr. They’re a friendly bunch, really.
So why are they wielding crude spears again? Because they’re the appointed guardians of the Link Cube, the big floating box that our over-enthusiastic zoologist fell out of. This fuzzy land of fur is known as Zyuland, the great world of Zyumans.
After giving him a tour of their flea market (?), the Zyuman league explain to the stupid human that there are six great keys needed in order to transport themselves to the human world through the Link Cube, and one of them was stolen. Tusk accuses Kazaki of stealing it. Because elephant people keep it real like that.
Kazakiri defends himself, explaining that someone gave the cube to him as a child on a rain-soaked night we catch glimpses of in a flashback. All of a sudden, the Link Cube starts to go haywire. Afraid he’s going to be stuck in Zyuland, Kazakiri grabs his cube key back from Tusk and unlocks the Link Cube, sending them all through the portal back to earth. There they discover the Deathgalians, the evil alien enemy of Zyuohger, have begun their invasion of earth and are burning down the forest. Somehow the Link Cube blows up, trapping the Zyumans in this world.
They get pissed about all this injustice, and their own cube keys respond, turning each one into blocky cell phone puzzle boxes. The four Zyumans use them to transform into the Zyuohger. After the battle begins, Kazakiri transforms into the red eagle-powered senshi, shocking everyone. Oh, the Zyumanity!
If Super Sentai teams are defined by their first fight, then Zyuohger quickly distinguishes itself as more of a traditional entry in the canon with its flashy eyecatch attacks and pleasantly homogenous thematic elements. All of the classic sentai tropes are called into play here, and to great effect. At least several different past sentai teams are referenced in under a few minutes of the first action sequence, and they’re all great ones.
Meanwhile, the “cube zord” fight was an amazingly random spectacle just like any truly awesome “zord battle” should be. Zyu-Oh-King looks much better on screen than in toy form, and that one flammable sword swipe he made was so Shogun Megazord Muteki Shogun from Kakuranger. The individual mecha are cute themselves, and the vocal cues for each are more amusing than some of the other summoning sound effects heard in recent years (I’ll be hearing “Kyuubo Ellyfaannt!” in my dreams for at least another month or so).
The Deathgalians themselves are also a strikingly familiar looking bunch. Judging from their appearance, one would assume them to be the distant cousins of the Zangyack Empire. And, I don’t know, maybe they actually are? Maybe we’ll find this out in a Gokaiger team-up film. If that’s the case, that’s probably why Nalia looks like she could be Insarn’s niece.
The head honcho Ginis is an adequate big bad, with noticeable shades of classic ‘80s sentai villains in his appearance. He seems a bit on the figurehead side, so we’ll see if he’s actually in charge or not. The Deathgalians have a strong coin theme going on here, which might be a poetic way of making toddlers aware of how corporations in money based economies are destroying the natural world, perhaps?
I love Super Sentai’s environmental messages, but they’re usually overshadowed by the wave upon wave upon wave of mass-produced plastic merchandise that’s released year round in its name. I doubt that Zyuohger is going to be the series that makes an actual difference in the world and practice what it preaches, but who cares. Look at the shiny new toys! Ooh, they make noises.
Toei has a colossal blender they tossed Gekiranger, Gaoranger, Liveman, and a booster shot of Abaranger into (the “unleashed” forms smell like dino guts, don’t they?). After adding in a scoop of greek yogurt, they pressed puree and now we have what might be an easter egg filled sentai series. After surviving the past couple years of weak sentai teams, I will gladly accept this.