Japanese Spider-Man Documentary Spotlights Fun, Weirdness, and Spectacular Stunts

Marvel's 616 sheds light on one of the weirder corners of Marvel history with a wonderful documentary about the Japanese Spider-Man TV series.

Supaidaman: Japanese Spider-Man
Photo: Marvel/Toei

You’ve certainly heard about the Japanese Spider-Man TV series from the 1970s. Maybe you’ve seen clips here and there on YouTube, or reaction gifs have made their way into your social media timeline. Perhaps you’ve even seen an episode or two, via a convention-purchased bootleg set during a hazy evening at a friend’s place or during the brief period a few years ago when they were officially available to stream on Marvel.com. Whatever the case, the Japanese Spider-Man TV show is designed to elicit strong reactions from western viewers, particularly comic book purists, who might balk at how it completely dispenses with most familiar Spider-Man mythology in favor of a story involving alien invasions, the planet Spider, giant transforming robots, and much more.

But whatever your opinion about the series, officially known as Supaidaman, you owe it to yourself to check out the first episode of Marvel’s 616, the new documentary series that just landed on Disney+. It’s an eight episode first season that touches on an eclectic range of topics that surround the Marvel Universe, and perhaps no topic is more inherently eclectic that Supaidaman. The first episode of the series is an hour long exploration of the making and legacy of the Japanese Spider-Man, and it’s an absolute delight from start to finish, and loaded with information and details unknown to most fans.

This isn’t a snarky look at a piece of Marvel history that the company is ashamed of. Instead, expect a treasure trove of heretofore unknown information, as well as archival images and new interviews, that finally give western audiences a full picture of what the Japanese Spider-Man was all about. If that isn’t enough incentive, it’s packed to the bursting with footage from the series itself, looking better than it has in any versions I’ve ever attempted to watch it in.

The weirdness of Supaidaman is well known, but what’s rarely discussed is its raw, joyful energy. From the absurdity of the rubber-suited villains (one of the many harbingers of Tokusatsu shows and American offshoots like Power Rangers to come) to the dynamic, intricately choreographed fight scenes and dangerous stuntwork, this show is unmatched among live action Spidey adaptations in its willingness to make the most of its practical effects and stunts, a realm where Spider-Man seems most at home.

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The episode is told primarily through the lens of Gene Pelc, who worked as Marvel’s liaison in Japan in the 1970s and worked alongside Toei to bring the show to life. Pelc is joined by others from the development of the series, and I’d be willing to bet that this is the first time they’ve been interviewed about this series with an eye on explaining it to global viewers. Key to these, of course, is Shinji Tōdō, who played Takuya Yamashiro/Spider-Man on the show. Tōdō’s love for the role is still plain, and it’s touching to see him reflect on the series with such fondness.

The most fun may come from the moments Hirofumi Koga, the stuntman who played Spidey in costume for much of his screentime. Koga, whose background in gymnastics made him an ideal choice for the bizarre, spider-like movements of the hero, as well as the show’s tremendous reliance on practical effects for Spidey’s most well known powers like web-slinging and wall-crawling, tells numerous stories of stunts that it’s difficult to imagine any production getting away with these days. It’s all accompanied by an appropriate amount of incriminating footage, such as Koga in Spidey costume climbing “30-40 meters” up the legs of the Tokyo Tower without a safety rope, climbing upside down under a suspension bridge above a ravine, or swinging from said bridge on a web line…smack into a grove of trees dozens of feet below.

There’s barely a minute of screen time without footage from the series, and even those who don’t have the patience to actually sit through any of its 41 half-hour episodes will get a thorough look at the good, the bad, and the weird of Supaidaman. There’s even what appears to be brand new footage of someone wearing one of the original costumes, demonstrating the character’s spider-like “low center of gravity” movements. It’s always a breath of fresh air to see a Spidey suit that’s tights rather than a layered and overly textured blockbuster creation, and this, alongside the practical effects of the series, are perhaps a reminder that Spider-Man works better when all of the rough edges haven’t been completely sanded off.

For a series that was never meant to be seen outside of Japan, this is a wonderful spotlight for this forgotten piece of Marvel history. Although, interestingly enough, the American live action Spider-Man TV series from just a few years earlier doesn’t quite get the same treatment. In stark contrast to how sharp Supaidaman looks, the few seconds of footage from The Amazing Spider-Man (all taken from that series’ pilot) are shoddy, and of lower quality than versions that can be found on YouTube. A combination of apparent (and unwarranted) corporate shame and rights issues have long muddied the waters for an official release of that show, but maybe a future season of 616 can finally give it some love.

Perhaps this episode of Marvel’s 616 can be seen as a trial balloon for dives into other, semi-forgotten corners of Marvel’s multimedia history. Or maybe more immediately, maybe this is a precursor to an official Supaidaman released on Disney+. Whatever the case, indulge yourself with an hour on Planet Spider with this episode, and enjoy some of the most wildly creative Spidey-centric stuff ever put on film.

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