Retro Marvel TV
Supaidaman: The Amazing Spider-Man Swings East

Bob Chipman | 16 Jul 2014 12:00
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japanese spiderman leopardon

Yeah. If you've seen an episode of Power Rangers -- or V.R. Troopers, or BeetleBorgs, or Kamen (re: Masked) Rider, or really any live-action Japanese superhero show -- you pretty-much know what you're getting from Supaidman ...except, y'know, this particular guy dresses like Spider-Man. But, believe it or not, a lot of what makes the series seem so routine today was actually pretty revolutionary at the time, or at least as revolutionary as a series could be in the notoriously slow-to-evolve production of Toei tokusatsu shows.

The main novelty of the series (beyond borrowing an American comic-book hero for the lead) was that when Professor Monster ordered the Monster of the Week to grow to skyscraper size (didn't see that one coming...) Spidey could summon The Marveller warship (which, for some reason, has its bridge built in the shape of a mechanical leopard's head) for backup. Though previous Japanese TV heroes had used vehicles to battle major threats before, Marveller came with a new-to-Toei value-added feature: While piloting the spacecraft, Spider-Man could transform Marveller into a humanoid giant robot called Leopardon.

Giant mechanical or otherwise robotic-looking heroes had of course been a common sight on Japanese kids' shows since at least the debut of Ultraman, But Supaidaman is regarded as the first time a transforming mech, giant monster enemies and a Kamen Rider-style hand-to-hand combat hero had been mixed into a single series. That novelty, combined with the fast-paced action, colorful characters and lively music one expects from Toei (who really are the best in the world at this particular subgenre) made the show a hit (41 episodes and a movie-length theatrical special -- that's a good run in tokusatsu numbers) and Leopardon the in-demand toy robot among Japanese children.

The Legacy
While Supaidaman was easily popular enough to have spawned an ongoing franchise after the initial season, Toei opted not to do so, likely influenced by the licensing deal with Marvel having a three year original limit. But the show's success, along with a second Marvel-related project, changed the course of the company's productions -- and indeed the subsequent history of Japanese television.

Along with Kamen Rider, Toei's other repeating franchise was Super Sentai, which involved coordinated teams of color-coded costumed heroes beginning with Himitsu Sentai Gorenger ("GoRanger") in 1975. American audiences, of course, are more familiar with the Sentai franchise as the source material used to create the ongoing Power Rangers series, but in 1979 East almost met West in the Sentai realm over a decade ahead of schedule: The third Super Sentai team almost included Marvel's Captain America!

Toei producers, intrigued by the idea of a hero named and costumed after their nation of origin, envisioned an international Sentai team made up of heroes representing their home countries, with no less than (a version of) Captain America himself standing for the United States alongside a (newly created) Japan-based counterpart and others. The result was Battle Fever J, and while Toei ultimately opted to forego making use of Captain America (instead, a blonde-wigged "Miss America" reps the Stars & Stripes), they did borrow the Marveller/Leopardon concept first popularized by Supaidaman: In their fifth episode, the Battle Fever team officially become the first Sentai heroes to pilot a giant robot into battle -- a conceit that has been an inseparable part of every Sentai series (colloquially re-christened "Super Sentai" after this) since... in fact, before the inspiration to add a mech to the mix, Toei was actually considering not continuing the Sentai franchise at all!

For whatever reason, Toei didn't take much advantage of their arrangement with Marvel beyond this, save for an anime-adaptation of the Tomb of Dracula comic books that was (barely) released to American VHS as Dracula: Sovereign of The Damned. Marvel, for their part, borrowed a pair of Toei's anime robot characters (Combattler V and Danguard Ace) to expand the cast of their U.S. comic-adaptation of the Shogun Warriors toy line.

As Supaidaman himself? This November, he'll make his first appearance in almost forty years and officially become part of the Marvel Comics canon when he plays a yet-unspecified role "Spiderverse" Event, which promises to unite every iteration of Spider-Man ever for a single massive multiverse-spanning crossover. No word yet as to whether he'll bring Leopardon with him... but then, why wouldn't you?

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