The "hero trilogy" of Viewtiful Joe, The Wonderful 101, and Project GG have their roots in Japanese film and TV. So what in particular are the shows that influenced Hideki Kamiya?
Beginning at Capcom with Viewtiful Joe, moving on to Platinum with The Wonderful 101, and now teasing the first glimpses of Project GG, Hideki Kamiya has directed a number of games with transforming heroes in colorful costumes. When put together, these three games form a meta-trilogy that are disconnected from each other, but share a common theme in their setting and aesthetic.
Fans of Japanese television may be familiar with the term “tokusatsu”, meaning “special filming.” This term refers to a type of live-action television show or movie that includes a lot of visual effects. You’ve probably seen something that fits the bill for tokusatsu before; the 1954 film Godzilla is one of the most famous examples of all time that’s also one of the earliest examples of tokusatsu. For decades tokusatsu was defined by its use of practical effects and complex costuming, though flashy computer-generated effects are also used nowadays in tandem with more traditional methods.
Another form of tokusatsu you’re probably familiar with is the masked hero style. The most notable example of masked hero shows would be Super Sentai, a long-running series that was adapted into the American television show Power Rangers. Masked heroes were known for their ability to transform from regular people into costumed heroes - which made it easy to convince western children that the colorful Super Sentai from the Japanese footage were actually the American teenagers they were seeing in the new, English-language footage.
There are clear similarities between these transforming tokusatsu heroes and the protagonists of Viewtiful Joe and The Wonderful 101. Viewtiful Joe’s own catchphrase - “Henshin-A-Go-Go, baby!” even makes use of the Japanese word “henshin” (transformation) that tokusatsu heroes will often call out before donning their colorful costumes. So when we had the opportunity to talk to Hideki Kamiya at PAX East 2020, I asked him if the similarities were intentional.
“You’re very correct,” Kamiya told us through his translator. Viewtiful Joe, The Wonderful 101, and Project GG were all influenced by tokusatsu shows that Kamiya himself had been a fan of. Not only that, but each game also represents a different sub-genre of tokusatsu. “In terms of the trilogy, you can see it as Viewtiful Joe being the single transforming hero, Wonderful 101 as the team hero, and then Project GG being the giant hero.”
Each game had its roots in a different kind of show, so I asked if there were any particular shows that Kamiya was familiar with that he could trace his inspiration back to.
For Viewtiful Joe, the lone hero that fights evil is a universal story, and it’s best represented in tokusatsu with the Kamen Rider franchise. Kamiya himself mentioned that “for the single transforming hero, of course it’s Kamen Rider." Kamen Rider began airing in 1971, and starred a young hero named Takeshi Hongo (played by Hiroshi Fujioka) who was forcibly turned into a super-power cyborg by the evil organization “Shocker”.
The show was a massive success, kicking off what Takeshobo magazine called the “Henshin Boom”. Transforming superheroes became all the rage, and in 1979 there was even an original live-action adaptation of Spider-Man (nicknamed “Supaidaman” by western fans) that followed the Kamen Rider formula more closely than its own source material. Kamen Rider went on to be a long running franchise with more than 30 different television series to date and more theatrical film releases than I can manage to count.
When I asked what would be a good show to watch to learn more about the genre, Kamiya named Kamen Rider Ryuki. Ryuki aired from February 2002 to January 2003, and is notable for being adapted Power Rangers-style into the American series Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight. It takes place during the Rider War, a battle royale between 13 people who wield the power of a Kamen Rider where the last man standing will be granted a single wish. The series doesn’t appear to have inspired anything specific in Viewtiful Joe, but given it aired right in the middle of the game’s development, it’s very possible that Kamiya was watching the series while working on the side-scrolling beat-em-up.
For The Wonderful 101, American audiences are already familiar with the idea of a transforming superhero team from Power Rangers, which as I mentioned was an adaptation of the Super Sentai franchise. The original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was specifically an adaptation of the 1992 series Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the 16th Super Sentai show. Power Rangers continues to air on Nickelodeon to this day adapting newer and newer Super Sentai shows, though the first 15 series have never been adapted.
For this genre, Kamiya recommended Himitsu Sentai Goranger, the very first Super Sentai series which aired from April 1975 to March 1977. In Goranger, the world is threatened by a terrorist group called the Black Cross Army, and a special military force known as the Earth Guard League (EAGLE) is formed to defend it. When EAGLE is nearly wiped out by the Black Cross Army, the five remaining EAGLE agents are assigned super-powered battlesuits that allow them to fight back against evil. It may be difficult to get your hands on a copy of Goranger - it hasn’t received an official English release in over 40 years - but it’s an essential part of tokusatsu history if you want to see where the idea of a team of transforming heroes came from.
For the giant hero genre that inspired Project GG, Kamiya had difficulty choosing just one show. The one that western audiences would be most familiar with is Ultraman, which began in 1966. The TV series was a monster-of-the-week show where a different man in a large rubber costume would be defeated by our hero in every episode. It was a spin on the kaiju (“strange beast”) genre that had been popularized by Godzilla, and many of the monsters that appeared in the early series were even made out of repurposed props and costumes from the Godzilla films.
The character of Ultraman is hugely popular in Japan; in the 1980s he made enough money in merchandise to be the number three top-selling licensed character in the entire world despite having virtually no presence outside of his home country. By the late 80s, Ultraman would begin appearing in western-produced works as well, starting with the 1987 Hanna-Barbera film Ultraman: The Adventure Begins.
Although Ultraman is the only giant hero to have reached mainstream western appeal, Kamiya noted that there were plenty of other series that he was a fan of. Off the top of his head he was able to name Mirrorman, Fireman, Spectreman, Jumborg Ace, Megaloman, and Dinosaur War Izenborg. While bringing up these shows, he even pulled up a photo from his instagram featuring his personal collection of figures based on characters from various tokusatsu series.
A post shared by 神谷英樹 (@pg_kamiya_insta) on Jan 7, 2020 at 12:09am PST
I wasn’t able to identify the green figure in the back-left corner, but his other figures are, from left to right:
- Ultra Act Ultraman
- Zone Fighter
- Redman (from Ultraman)
- Jumborg Ace
- Silver Kamen
- Jumborg 9
We don’t know enough about Project GG to be sure which giant hero shows it will draw from, but there’s no doubt that Kamiya is a passionate fan of the genre, so if you want to be ready to catch any references or homages you may want to start brushing up now. It’s clear that tokusatsu shows have had a strong influence on Kamiya’s pseudo-trilogy of masked hero games, and they represent a genre of film and television that most western fans know nothing about. If you’re into the flashy signature style of the masked heroes in Kamiya’s games, then perhaps it’s time to take a look at tokusatsu shows and see where it all began. After all, there’s no better place to start than recommendations from the man himself.