Power Rangers Samurai: Lost in Translation
Story Editor James W. Bates describes creating a Power Rangers season that was nearly a carbon copy of its Japanese counterpart.
In 2010, Power Rangers was on life support. Ratings had plunged into the gutter with Power Rangers RPM and Disney’s half hearted attempt to rebrand Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers episodes with goofy comic book effects was nothing more than filler for early morning slots on a few ABC stations. Fans were left without a lot of hope. Maybe it was just Power Rangers time. After all, how many other series run seventeen years without a break? Maybe Power Rangers just needed to quietly die.
All mourning ceased in May of that year when something completely out the blue happened. Saban Brands, the original owners and creators of Power Rangers, bought the franchise lock, stock, and morpher back from Disney. Fans lit up the internet with excitement. A new series would be airing on Nickelodeon the next year. A movie was even mentioned.
What could go wrong?
Well, buried amongst the headlines was one promise that gave fans their first inkling of what was to come. Jonathan Tzachor would be returning as executive producer for the new series. Tzachor had worked on the show since its inception all the way through the final Saban produced season of the series, Power Rangers Wild Force,and had become synoumous with everything that was wrong with the show at that time.
Instead of adapting the Super Sentai footage from Japan and using it to create an original story, it had been reported Tzachor instead favored a more direct translation of Japanese series for American audiences. This can especially be seen in Power Rangers Time Force, a season that so closely resembled its Japanese counterpart that one fight scene utilized longshots of the Japanese actors, since they wore the same clothes as the American characters.
Tzachor producing the series that would be adapting footage from Samurai Sentai Shinkenger, a series deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, immediately set off red flags amongst fans and Saban was not pleased with the early scripts for the series. Something had to be done.
Senior Vice President of Development and Production at Saban Brands, Brian Casentini enlisted the help of writer, and former Fox Kids executive, James W. Bates to assess what was going wrong with the series.
“They wanted to bring someone in, an American writer, that they knew to join the team and try to bridge that gap between what Jonathan very much believed needed to be done and what Mr. Saban wanted,” Mr. Bates told us. “I was asked for any recommendations on who should take that job and I recommended myself.”
Fans long held assumption about Tzachor proved correct as Bates began work.
“His story editor was a translator,” Bates says. “To Jonathan, Shinkenger is a great show. Why change it too much? There are things that appealed to him, like the kids would be ancestral Samurai that were sequestered with their mentor in a beautiful set. He saw what he thought was working in the show and was just sticking very close to it.”
This strict adherence to the Japanese series had caused production to fall dangerously behind schedule. “We had to rewrite those fifteen scripts, write five new episodes, and do two clip shows and shoot all of them in ninety seven days,” he recalls. “The show premiered in February and I came on in September. I was working seventy to eighty hours a week.”
Bates, along with several writers he brought onto the series, quickly tried to infuse as much life into the scripts and characters as possible. This proved to be a huge challenge. “Jonathan very strongly believed that they should be sequestered to the point where one of my writers, who developed a story where some of the kids were using a Playstation in the Shiba House, it was like we had punched his puppy. It’s just something he wasn’t interested in ever doing.”
Although Bates was constrained with writing the Ranger characters, he was shocked how much they were able to get away with when it came to Dayu and Deker’s plotline. It’s revealed in the series that Deker and Dayu were once human but Dayu sacrificed her humanity in order to bring Deker back to life.
“I mean, Deker what a great character to write,” Bates says. “I don’t know why he’s wearing a tuxedo in his wedding flashback but he was an amazing character to write.”
In 2015 Rick Media, who played Deker, was arrested after he allegedly stabbed his roommate to death. Samurai episodes were quickly taken off air since Deker’s primary weapon was a sword.
“(It’s) very awkward now in retrospect, when you’re writing a character at four in the morning in your bathrobe and you’re creating something that you think is really cool,” Bates told us. “Who knows what went on in real life in his mind? It’s boggling to think something you’ve written has influenced someone’s life. I’m not going to say that happened, I don’t know.”
Samurai also featured the return of long running Power Rangers character Bulk, played by Paul Schrier. While this should have been a welcome and celebrated return, fans wondered why Bulk seemed confined to scenes with wacky sidekick Spike. If they were going to bring back such a fan favorite character shouldn’t he have been interacting with the Rangers?
“Mr. Saban loves the comedic elements of the show, but it came to a point where Paul couldn’t relocate to New Zealand so we only had him for limited time,” Bates explains. “You had the choice of creating new characters or having Bulk and having Paul play Bulk.”
Early casting sheets for Samurai listed two singing street sweepers, Big Jack and Skinny Mack, as possible comic relief. The producers chose to use the character of Bulk, even with Schrier’s limited involvement.
“He’d shoot his bits like three episodes at a time,” Bates explains. “It was not a creative choice but more a creative solution. If I had my choice (Bulk and Spike) would have been integrated into the stories.”
When Samurai finally premiered in February of 2011, it did not start with the two-part premiere. Nickelodeon instead aired the third episode, “The Team Unites” first and didn’t air the premiere two parter until after Samurai had finished it’s run. Fans were perplexed. Bates tries to shed some light on this.
“That was a Nickelodeon decision. Maybe they thought, ‘Well (the third episode) episode is funny.’ The first two episodes were very dry and expositional to get people into certain places. That’s my guess. ‘This one is fun. We don’t need to see those first two.’”
Bates attributes that fun to the character of Mike, his original gateway into loosening up the show. “Remember, I was brought in to make dry toast tastier,” he says. “Mike’s character in the Japanese was more teenager energetic. He’s a character who has flaws.”
Mike quickly emerged as the fan favorite amongst a cast of characters that were often times dry and wooden. Even with Bates trying to infuse life into the show the scripts were still very obviously translations of the Japanese scripts. “The Team Unites” went so far as to copy several sequences shot for shot from Shinkenger. There wasn’t much Bates could do at that point but he was able to have more control over the following season, Super Samurai.
“Of the four seasons I worked on I’m the most pleased with Super Samurai,” Bates says. “It’s the one where I had the most control. There’s still a lot of sticking with the Japanese plot but we were able to deal with it in a way I was very pleased with. I was able to go deeper into character in our own way as opposed to just following the Japanese series. I also had an extra thirty days to work on it.”
Super Samurai was an improvement over Samurai and several episodes, including “The Strange Case of the Munchies” gave some glimpses into what the series was capable of. When the actors were given dialogue that wasn’t wooden or awkwardly translated they all shined. It’s a shame more episodes didn’t allow for this kind of fun environment between the characters.
While fan critcism continued throughout Super Samurai, one element of that season that received near universal acclaim was the introduction of Lauren near the end of the season. While still a carryover from Shinkenger, having Lauren be the first heroic female Red Ranger was a huge deal for many viewers.
“At Morphicon I met a girl, maybe she was 9 or 10 with her dad and her favorite character was Lauren. To see that really worked, that’s why you do it.”
The series ended several episodes after Lauren’s introduction with a climatic battle between the Red Shogun Mode Ranger and Xandred. Bates regrets they couldn’t have shoot more original footage to flesh out the shows big bad. “He plays as just “Merrr…Evil. We’re not doing as well as we should!’ One of our limitations for many reasons is that we didn’t shoot any new Xandred stuff until the end. If I remember correctly Shogun Mode was created for when Xandred finally came to Earth.”
Samurai and Super Samurai highlighted the divide between the shows target audience, kids, and its adult fanbase. While kids clearly enjoyed the series and it was a hit for Nickelodeon fans were less than receptive. Kids enjoyed the dynamic action and more simplistic characters while fans yearned for something that was more original and not such a carbon copy of the Sentai.
Many fans were able to excuse some of the problems of Samuraiand Super Samuraiaway, however. The series had been rushed into production and Saban was trying to find its way. Plus, the show’s twentieth anniversary was coming up. Hopes were high for the next season.
Looking back on Super Samurai, Bates is pleased with how it turned out even with all the restrictions.
“We did twenty original episodes, two clip shows, and a clip movie in a hundred and thirty days. It was still a crazy schedule but I spent more time physically with Jonathan where I was happy with how much I was able to do my job. Far from perfect cause I wasn’t able to develop the show from the start. But I’m still very proud of that season.”
It may not have been have been the triumphant return fans were expecting, but at least Power Rangers was back from the dead.
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