Expatriate guest writer, it’s morphin’ time!
Living in Japan for the past two years, I’ve been struck by a curious difference in the way this country and my native United States approach ongoing continuity in televised speculative fiction. Shows here are constantly refreshed with new storylines and new characters that (we’re led to believe) US audiences would never stand for. Why? I have no idea, but bear with my while I lay out the basic differences and offer a few theories as to the forces at work.
Serial narratives on TV in Japan tend to follow the same short form as they do in the UK: limited runs designed to end in one season or less. This is generally true in anime and live-action drama alike. Yes, you have your Inuyasha (7 seasons) and your One Piece (15 extra-long seasons and counting), but those are outliers that are both based on ongoing manga. Serial manga like these, as well as Crayon Shin-chan and Doraemon, stretch into infinity and drag tie-ins with them. What I find most peculiar are shows like Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. These shows have been running non-stop for decades, but they start over again with new characters, usually in a new universe, every year.
Every single year.
In the States we know Super Sentai by the name Power Rangers, and if you’ve ever seen it, you may have noticed that the costumes and robots and theme change every season. This is because Power Rangers uses the action sequences from the Japanese show while adding new “civilian” sequences with English-speaking actors. Furthermore, the US version of the show keeps using the same actors and tries to bend the story into a pretzel to keep some semblance of continuity; on Super Sentai, the show has introduced a new universe every year for over 35 years. Two years ago? Pirate theme. Last year I don’t know what that was supposed to be. This year has just started with a dinosaur theme again, just like the year it was introduced to American audiences in 1993.
Why doesn’t the US follow the same format? It’s been tried, but in the case of Transformers, it didn’t really work. In 1986, the
long-format toy commercial popular children’s cartoon Transformers killed off Optimus Prime, the hero of the first two (regionally parallel) seasons of the show. This was meant to herald a new wave of transforming toys in US, Japanese, and European markets, and the plot point did that job well. What it didn’t do well was kill Optimus in America. Fans were crushed. Children’s hearts were broken, including mine.
On the American-produced cartoon, the continuities diverged in Season 3, and as the story moved on, the canons moved apart. In the US, a miraculously resurrected Optimus took command once more and the story moved forward in other media. In Japan, Rodimus Prime stayed in control and passed leadership onto characters like Fortress Maximus, Dia Atlas et al. in additional Japan-made seasons. To this day, when Americans think of Transformers, they think of Optimus Prime. Perhaps they latched onto the red/blue/white color scheme?
So what happened? From what I’ve been able to tell, Hasbro (US) and Takara Tomy (Japan) made the best decision for the different preferences of their localized audiences, and this is a pattern that plays out again and again in both the native and imported shows in each country.
There are a few notable advantages to the annual cycle method, not the least of which is a constantly refreshing toyline. Every single year, you can put new Super Sentai on the shelves for children to demand:
“But Mooom! I want the red one!”
“You already have a Red Ranger, sweetie.”
“No, I have Gokaiger Red and Gobuster Red. This is KYORYUGER Red!”
The same sales problem in the US is addressed primarily with repaints and gimmicks rather than reboots and redos. This is how we end up with Combat Belt Batman, Turbojet Batman, Lightning Strike Batman, Anti-Freeze Batman, Knight Star Batman, Rapid Attack Batman, Tornado Batman and more–and that’s just for Batman: The Animated Series, not even including the films, comic books, or other associated media.
Another advantage of the renewal format is that the writers don’t have to worry about long-term continuity. Super Sentai writers would go mad trying to reconcile 35 years of canon. Just look at the big US comics properties. This gives them a way out and lets them keep their stories simple for their target audience.
The obvious downside is that you can easily lose fans in the annual refresh. Did you start watching the show because you love pirates? “Sorry kid, this is a dinosaur show now, go watch something else!”, the cycle taunts. The nostalgia factor for the fandom takes on a different flavor: you’re a fan of the brand, not a fan of the character.
There could be a kernel of a longer discussion here. I hope there is, in fact! I’m sure there are countless examples of seasonal reboots I just don’t know about. I’ve heard it whispered that the magical girl anime Pretty Cure does the same character/universe resetting that Super Sentai is legendary for, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. If you’ve seen this phenomenon before (or a curious counter-example) please let me know in the comments!