Lionsgate’s new Power Rangers film, out in cinemas now, is not a film which assumes any prior knowledge of the Power Rangers franchise. But that doesn’t stop it from containing a number of sly nods for long-term fans, and perhaps the slyest of these comes early in the movie, when Kimberly (Naomi Scott) is confronted in the school toilets by her frenemy Amanda. In a heated exchange, Amanda tells her:
“You shouldn’t have sent Tai that picture of me.”
Either this line is an extraordinary coincidence, or its middle words combine, Megazord-style, to form a tip of the hat towards Sentai – or rather, Super Sentai – the Japanese franchise from which the Power Rangers TV show has always taken the bulk (no pun intended) of its action footage.
There’s a good chance even now that some of you are thinking ‘Wait – Power Rangers used footage from a Japanese show?’ Though it’s painfully obvious when watching the original show as an adult that it’s stitched together from a mix of Japanese and American footage, a child’s suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing, and small matters like Rita’s voice not matching her lips and the rangers sometimes having ‘Zyuranger’ written on their morphers were just the show’s little quirks.
Though the Power Rangers didn’t teleport onto US shores until 1993, the Super Sentai franchise’s roots date back to 1975 with five multicoloured heroes known as the Himitsu Sentai Gorenger battling the evil Black Cross Army. This Sentai series (It would later be retrospectively labelled a Super Sentai) was popular enough to spawn a follow-up, 1977’s JAKQ Dengekitai.
But it was the success of production company Toei’s 1978 adaptation of Spider-Man that morphed the franchise into the behemoth that hit its 40th series and 2,000th episode last year. That show gave Spidey his own giant robot, Leopardon, and Leopardon performed so well in the toy shops that Toei introduced the concept to its 1979 show Battle Fever J (again a co-production with Marvel, originally to have been based on Captain America, the first series to run under the Super Sentai banner.
Throughout the 1980s, both Power Rangers creator Haim Saban and Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee made attempts to get different Super Sentai shows (the various series do not generally share plots or characters – the only constant is the idea of multi-coloured heroes with giant robots) onto US television screens. Unfortunately, the closest anyone got was with 1983’s Kagaku Sentai Dynaman, six episodes of which were dubbed over by the USA Network in 1987 and aired as a comedy series.
Saban persevered, and finally struck gold with 1992’s Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, the series which formed the backbone of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and whose core designs have been revamped for the 2017 movie. Rather than being about five ordinary high-schoolers who gain extraordinary powers, Zyuranger concerns itself with five young warriors who lived alongside the dinosaurs (Presumably Flintstones-style) and were placed in suspended animation when the evil witch Bandora (known to you and I as Rita Repulsa) was sealed away after wiping out the dinosaurs, so that they could be revived to save the Earth in the event that she ever escaped her imprisonment.
Though Zyuranger often follows the same basic structure as its US cousin, it also contains a number of significant differences. For one thing, the Zords are sentient – they’re the ones who sealed Bandora away in the first place – and when they come together they don’t form the Megazord; they form the Great Beast God Daizyujin, who will often act independently of the Zyurangers and give them warnings or advice. And whilst Bandora and Rita Repulsa are undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, Bandora has an ability that Rita doesn’t: singing. Bandora will often bring an episode to a standstill to lead her minions in a ditty and a dance, as you can see in this faintly disturbing video:
Of course, one of the biggest differences – and probably one of the more well-known – is that yellow ranger Trini – played by the late Thuy Trang in the original and by Becky G in the new film – stands in the place of the male yellow Zyuranger, who is genuinely called Boi. It’s to the US show’s credit that they decided one female ranger simply wasn’t good enough, and they would do this again for four later yellow rangers whose Sentai counterparts were men, but if you’ve ever wondered why Kimberly had a skirt and female physique while morphed and Trini didn’t, there’s your answer.
For a long time, there’s been a received wisdom that Zyuranger is easily a superior show to Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and for adult fans it’s easy to see how that’s come about; Zyuranger, of course, has the benefit of being the original, and as such there’s no need to weave plots in sometimes convoluted ways to accomodate the available action footage. Children’s programming in Japan also adheres to a slightly different set of cultural values and restrictions: you still won’t see any graphic sex or violence, but these rangers are allowed to bleed, and one of the main villains towards the end of Zyuranger is the giant floating head of ‘DaiSatan’.
And then, of course, there’s the Burai saga. Viewers of the American show will remember the story of Tommy Oliver, who was introduced as the evil green ranger under Rita’s control before joining the team and then losing his powers 20-odd episodes later (and then getting them back, losing them and becoming the white, red and black rangers). A fondly remembered dramatic highlight of the series, it’s considerably less traumatic than the Japanese equivalent. Rather than being under a spell, green ranger Burai is red ranger Geki’s brother with a serious grudge. Looking to avenge his father’s death, he teams up with Bandora to take the Zyurangers down and nearly succeeds.
Eventually Burai joins the Zyurangers, but it transpires he only has 30 hours to live, and as such must spend his days in a room where time stands still, only coming out to help the rangers when absolutely necessary. This is why Tommy would often be kept from the start of battles thanks to being in a lesson, or leaving his morpher in his locker. While Rita forms a green candle which drains Tommy’s powers, Burai has a green candle which signifies the amount of time he has left to live. Eventually Bandora finds and destroys Burai’s chamber, and the Zyurangers are unable to stop the inevitable. Burai dies. The rangers lose their teammate, Geki loses his brother, and the Dragonzord spends the whole of the next episode in mourning.
It’s tragic, operatic stuff, and rightly praised. But truth is that both shows have their good points and their bad points. For all its good qualities, Zyuranger has a few major weaknesses: its plots are often based around fairytales or other such juvenilia, and the vast majority of episodes focus on Bandora’s hatred of children, meaning there’s a lot of ‘child actor of the week’ stories.
And there are certainly times when it can be argued that Power Rangers improves on its source material. Take the sixth episode of MMPR, Food Fight, for instance – best remembered for its villain Pudgy Pig. Its Japanese equivalent is DoraCirce, a creature based very loosely on Greek mythology. Bandora spots a boy and his family who bond over mealtimes, so she decides to break the family up by sending DoraCirce to eat all of their food. The Zyurangers read an ancient Greek picture book and realise they need to feed DoraCirce a mythical herb, and in order to find it they must… complete an eating challenge set by a mischievous gnome (called Gnome).
In Power Rangers, Rita is inspired by the teens’ fundraising food festival to send down a monster to eat all of the world’s food. When Pudgy Pig attacks the food festival it leaves the really hot food alone, so the rangers deduce it can’t handle spicy stuff and feed it a hot radish (moly) sandwich, causing it to have indigestion and allow them to destroy it in its weakened state. It’s a much simpler, more logical plot, and as such makes for more satisfying viewing.
Whatever your preference, there’s no denying that Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger is an integral part of Power Rangers’ early success, in a way that other Super Sentai seasons might not have been had they been used in its place. Zyuranger was the first season to have a dinosaur theme, something which is a perennial favourite among the target audience, and it was also the first season to have a regular sixth ranger, which gave Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers a massive boost just as its repetitive weekly formula was starting to run dry – and of course, more rangers meant more robots, and more robots meant more toy sales.
If you were ever a fan of the original Power Rangers, Zyuranger is both fresh and familiar viewing. It’s also essential viewing for any self-respecting Power Rangers fan; it’s fascinating to watch the unedited footage that sparked off the American show, and in doing so you’ll gain not only a much deeper understanding of why Power Rangers did some of the things it did, but also an added respect for the writers and directors who got given these episodes and managed to turn them into the start of a franchise that continues to endure nearly 25 years later.
Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger is available on DVD in America courtesy of Shout Factory, along with the following three seasons of Super Sentai. Pete can be heard weighing up the merits of both Power Rangers and Zyuranger every week on RangerPod, available from rangerpod.com.