The Wild Way the '90s 'Power Rangers' Was Spliced Together From Japanese TV Scraps
Dean Israelite is living his tweenage dream. As a kid growing up in South Africa, the blockbuster director obsessed over the confectionary TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which had it all: monsters, robots, martial arts, and even the squeaky-clean teenage friendships of Saved by the Bell. On March 24, Israelite rewires the American import into a big-screen blockbuster.
What few realize is that the 2017 Power Rangers is the first time the billion-dollar, 24-year-old property could be considered "American" at all.
The origin of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers property is a strange dialogue between Japanese and American entertainment, enacted by one of Hollywood's true mad scientists. To fully realize Power Rangers, which premiered on Fox's Saturday morning lineup in 1993, a visionary producer cobbled together footage from the 16th installment of a long-running Japanese action franchise with footage shot around Los Angeles to create a syndication- and toy-friendly monster.
A Japanese show about magical alien descendants battling a Satanic witch may not have grabbed an 11-year-old South African's attention. But Mighty Morphin Power Rangers did. This is the story of how scrap footage led to one of the year's biggest blockbusters.
Why costumed heroes fought monsters in the first place
Japanese audiences of the mid-20th century hungered for action entertainment. From the 1950s surge of "tokusatsu," the Japanese equivalent to "blockbuster" that encompassed everything from stunt-heavy spectacles to Godzilla's big-screen kaiju battles, came "henshin" ("transform"), live-action superhero dramas that downsized movie special effects for television. One of the first henshin shows, 1971's Kamen Rider, told the the story of Takeshi, a motor-biking college student abducted by the terrorist cabal SHOCKER (Sacred Hegemony of Cycle Kindred Evolutionary Realm) and transformed into a cyborg weapon; 1975's Himitsu Sentai Gorenger ("Secret Squadron Five Ranger") replaced a single transforming hero with five, and ran for 84 episodes.
Toei Company, Ltd., the conglomerate behind Gorenger, discovered a formula it would use over and over and over again: a team of brightly colored costumed squads (or "sentai") would team up to fight a monster conjured by an evil organization that threatened the world. Himitsu Sentai Gorenger and the like were so accessible that they soon caught the eye of Marvel titan Stan Lee, who entered a deal that would allow Toei Company, Ltd. to launch henshin shows starring Marvel characters. Which explains those YouTube videos of Spider-Man fighting 50ft monsters in a mecha-robot (named Leopardon, obviously).
Spider-Man would shape Japanese henshin through practice (introducing oversized mechs and monsters, and earning the genre title of "super sentai") and subsequent shows, including Battle Fever J, which morphed from a Captain America series to a standard sentai. The two companies also collaborated on 1981's Denshi Sentai Denziman, following a band of masked crusaders with mech assistance who battled variations of famous Marvel villains. Actress Machiko Soga, who went on to play Rita Repulsa in Power Rangers, appears in Denziman as Queen Hedrian, a villainess based on the Hela, the same character Cate Blanchett will play in this November's Thor: Ragnarok.
From his experience on the Super Sentai shows, Lee wondered if his company's co-productions could be introduced to American audiences by replacing footage of the Japanese actors with American stand-ins. His dream wouldn't come to be -- the partnership eventually broke down and Lee moved on to stateside Marvel ventures -- but it didn't take too long for another eager businessman to sense the same potential.
The man who dreamed of Power Rangers
Haim Saban was an Israeli-American musician-turned-entrepreneur who stumbled into children's entertainment after producing soundtracks for cartoons like M.A.S.K. and He-Manand the Masters of the Universe. The course of his life changed after a 1984 business trip to Japan, when he stumbled across Toei Company's eighth Super Sentai series, Choudenshi Bioman. Like Lee, he wondered why this wasn't playing in front of American kids, and set out to rectify the matter.
Convinced he had a hit idea, Saban set out to shoot a Bioman TV pilot two years later. Information is scarce, and any footage is lost to time, but the results, which spliced new footage together with clips of the Japanese Bioman, sounded more like a proof-of-concept for a guy hungry to get a show going. "This isn't brain surgery," he said to the LA Times in 1986. "If Bio-Man [sic] dies, maybe I'll go on and work on something that becomes the next 'Wheel of Fortune.'"
Networks would pass on Saban's pilot, but remnants from the Bioman story eventually became the "American" aspects of Power Rangers, including the master "Bio Robo" and his assistant droid Peebo, who flee their destroyed planet, Bio, and five Earthbound teenagers who are the descendants of their Bio ancestors. Basically, Bio Robo and Peebo were the Zordon and Alpha 5 of their day; rather than genetic lineage, Zordon prefers "teenagers with attitude."
In 1991, Saban made an aggressive move to license super senti footage. His new target was Toei Company's 17th series, Chōjin Sentai Jetman, a show set in 199X (not a typo) about a team of aerial fighters who defended Earth using "Birdonic Wave" technology. According to Tony Oliver, the supervising producer of Mighty Morphin'Power Rangers' first three seasons, Saban personally pitched Shigeru Okada, then President of Toei, and pulled out all the stops.
"[Haim Saban] thought it was a great idea and wanted to license it, and the President of Toei wasn't so sure that Americans would be able to deal with this," Oliver said in a 2016 interview. "So Haim said 'You know why it's gonna happen?' Then, he stood up and he sang the theme to Jetman, [in the restaurant], out loud, in front of him." According to Oliver, the impromptu performance convinced the Okada that "this guy is just about crazy enough to pull this off."
Jetman was too radical for Saban's plan, featuring more mature plots and a deeper romance than any previous super sentai, but as business dictated, Toei Company was already preparing a new series. 1992's Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger reverted the never-ending henshin machine back to the child-friendly drama of the late 1970s. Saban thought Zyurangers was "the perfect one," and after establishing "Saban Entertainment," pitched the idea of re-edited version to Fox Kids! Network President and CEO Margaret Loesch. Fox was in… if it could work. Saban finally had his show. Kind of.
How to make crazy kids TV out of crazier kids TV
"You're out of your effing mind," Oliver told Saban after their first screening of the Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger footage. Saban may have agreed, given the jigsaw-like way he pieced together the show.
To create cheap episodes for "Galaxy Rangers," as it was called early on, Saban and his team needed to splice together the pyrotechnic-enhanced monster battles from Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger with new footage shot stateside. Zyuranger was, at least, sleeker in design (J.A.K.Q. Dengekitai's rangers were modeled after playing cards; Kagaku Sentai Dynaman used baseball-inspired designs) and lifted from Western mythology: "Bandora the Witch" (renamed Rita Repulsa), is freed from a container in a riff on Pandora; "Grifforzer" (renamed Goldar) was designed like the griffin, part-lion, part-eagle (and, based on fashion choices, part Liberace). Zyuranger were humanoid and, for the first time, color-coded based on zord. Any American producer would hear toy store cash registers ringing in the distance.
Saban's reconception paved over Japanese touchstones and filled the Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger ranger roles with '90s teen archetypes. "Victor," the Red Ranger, was a martial arts expert similar to the final character, Jason. The first iteration of Zack, the Black Ranger, was detective. Kimberly was a clumsy aerobics instructor, while Trini, the Yellow Ranger, was a struggling novelist. A promo video designed for Bandai toys pitched Billy, who'd become the nerdy Blue Ranger, as "an athletic heartthrob with a body of steel." When they weren't fighting monsters, the gang hung out at the youth center practicing karate, faced down relatively harmless bullies, and addressed deep concerns about the environment.
Saban locked down the Power Rangers deal at Fox Kids!, while Loesch stepped in to soften the characters into the ones we saw in 1993. "Kids are desperately in need of positive role models and, whether or not they like the show, people agree that our teen-age stars are delightful to both boys and girls," Loesch said a year after the show's debut. "And it is extremely rare that an action-adventure show appeals to girls as well as boys."
The new teenagers had broad enough appeal for Saban to remake potent Japanese drama into a show that paired well with Americans' Lucky Charms. Case in point: An episode of Zyuranger about obesity and portion control ("Terror! Eaten in an Instant!") became Rita Repulsa's campaign against a "Cultural Food Festival." Both involve killer pigs.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted as part of Fox's Saturday morning lineup in August 1993, and quickly became the most popular kids television show, thanks to a marketing blitz from Bandai's toy line. Saban pumped out adventures built from Japanese material. The show avoided Zyuranger's serial approach until introducing the Green Ranger plot line in a five-part epic (at least, epic compared to Fox's other cartoon shows).
The Green Ranger wouldn't be the red TyrannoRanger's long-lost brother from the late cretaceous period, but Tommy Oliver, a martial artist under Rita's mind control bent on destroying the Rangers with his dragon-morphing coin. The Rangers manage to flip Tommy back to the good side, but the team-up was short-lived; Burai, the Green Ranger's Zyuranger counterpart, didn't stick around after his introduction -- so neither could Tommy.
This was Saban's great hurdle: He struck gold by appropriating Japanese television for American audiences, but without his own material, there would always be limitations.
Go, go, Power Rangers franchise machine!
After the success of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Haim Saban hustled to produce a sequel series. But a network demand for more episodes of the original, and contracts that forced him to repurpose Zyuranger footage in any future endeavors, made his recycling tactics less viable. Super sentai series always had a new set of heroes every year; Power Rangers was going to keep the same characters. Circumstance forced the producer to strike a new deal with Toei Company: 25 episodes' worth of original Ranger, Monster, and Zord footage. After coming stateside, Saban shipped the Ranger costumes back to Japan along with a few props from the Mighty Morphin set.
This footage, dubbed "Zyu 2," was made specifically for Power Rangers and used to complete the first season (plus the beginning of Season 2). Many aspects of Zyuranger were changed for the Zyu2 productions. The Power Rangers' communicator watches were used in battle for the first time (the Zyurangers communicated telepathically), dynamics changed based on gender swapping (in Zyuranger, the yellow ranger was a boy named Boi, not a girl named Trini), and, most notably, the Green Ranger returned to the team, appearing in a total of 43 episodes (compared to the Zyuranger Green Ranger's 26).
To support the rest of the second season, Saban licensed the newest sentai series Gosei Sentai Dairanger for new monsters and the mecha battles, created an American-original villain "Lord Zed" to make up for lack of new Bandora/Rita Repulsa footage, and went back to the editing bay to sew together this Frankensteined kid's show.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers kept a coherent plotline for three seasons while combining footage shot in America with the Angel Grove cast and the Zyuranger costumes and props. Any time Toei Company produced a new sentai series, Saban would license the footage and shift directions. Gosei Sentai Dairanger, licensed to complete Mighty Morphin’ season 2, had a White Ranger with a talking Tiger Dagger and a White Tiger Zord, so Tommy transformed into a White Ranger with a talking Tiger Dagger and a White Tiger Zord.
The Power Ranger’s original Zords were destroyed, and Zordon gave them "Thunderzords" as a story contrivance to cover the transition over to Dairanger footage, so Tommy’s White Tiger Zord could interact with the new Thunderzords in monster battles. The White Ranger could never appear side by side with the other Rangers, but Saban made it work.
This way of life became a burden, even for Saban. In 1995, his company shot Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, which avoided licensing footage from Toei Company but still required Saban to dance around the narrative pitfalls of the brand. Back in television, the producer felt resigned to fall in step with the output of sentai series.
The fourth season of the show became Mighty Morphin' Alien Rangers and swapped in child actors in ninja costumes to match the 18th sentai series, Ninja Sentai Kakuranger. The story excuse? Zordon calls in the "Alien Rangers" while the pint-sized Earth Rangers seek out parts of the Zeo crystal in space... which a new lineup of rangers could take over for 1996's Power Rangers Zeo (which reaped footage from the futuristic 19th sentai, Chōriki Sentai Ohranger).
Through two more years and one more movie (Turbo: A Power Rangers Movie, which drew from the Japanese footage that would inspire the Power Rangers: Turbo television series), familiar characters would come and go, episodes would churn out like the sentai series across the seas.
If you think this process slowed down, you're dead wrong; Saban's franchise is worth well over $1 billion, and continues to air in countries around the world. The 24th Power Rangers series, Ninja Steel, based on the 39th super sentai series, Shuriken Sentai Ninninger, currently airs on Nickelodeon.
The first "all-American" Rangers
This month's Power Rangers reboots Saban's original 1993 series, but is unencumbered by connections to super sentai. It's the first American installment, 24 years after entering American pop culture.
"It wasn't deliberate, but I think that's right," Israelite tells me, when sizing up the functionality he never questioned as a kid. "We didn't have to use all these disparate ingredients, we get to bake the cake with whatever we want."
In the new movie, most Rangers mythology, Japanese or American, is gone. The movie opens on a Green Ranger murdering an alien Red Ranger who calls down a meteor (presumably causing the extinction of the dinosaurs), before segueing to a good hour of hanging out with the new versions of our "teenagers with attitude." Not only do the modern Power Rangers have personality, they have something no sentai team has harbored: a death wish. "Kind of metaphorically, they do die. They die over and over," Israelite says, "because I feel like coming of age, there are these moments that feel like death and you have to be reborn... It's part of the Hero's Journey."
Haim Saban gave Israelite freedom to mess around with the internal logic of the license, and if the Japanese cultural aspects weren't gone when the producer first cut up Zyuranger, they are now. The suits look like modern superhero uniforms. Goldar drops the griffin look. Rita Repulsa is no longer a witch, but the Green Ranger, in battle against Zordon himself, the original Red Ranger.
Even the henshin roots, the morphin', has evolved. Instead of the teenagers summoning their armor and dinozords using space-age coins, the movie imagines the transformation as a metaphor for a teenager's emotional journey. Morphing as a metaphor for friendship: Does it get more American?
If expanding his characters to be quintessentially American teenagers accidentally erased any Japanese cultural allusions, director Dean Israelite isn't too concerned about it: "I think if something is actually really well observed and specific, it becomes universal."
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