You mess with Harpo Marx, you get the horns.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Super Android Destroyer Guitar Player Sidecar Guy!

When I was a kid, I lived in Hawaii for four years. Usually, when I say this people are momentarily distracted from staring at whichever parts of my hair are sticking out of place that day. They smile, make momentary eye contact, and say things like, "Cool, dude you must have hung out at the beach all the time."

The funny thing is that I rarely went to the beach. When you're in elementary school, you can't just hop in the dune buggy, grab some brews, and cruise the beach. Mom and dad frowned upon that sort of thing, as did the military law enforcement*. Also, I hate the way wet sand chafes in my swimming trunks.

Most kids cruised the neighborhood streets on their bikes. One of my best friends had a neon-green, three-speed chopper, with three working lights up front and a little plastic, gold-painted winged victory statue, just our in front of the long, sleek handlebars. If Evel Knievel had seen this bike, he would have immediately dropped his whole red, white, and blue motif and cornered the market on plastic statues.

After a few months, my friend grew bored with the green design, painted the bike neon-orange, and replaced the handlebars with a black, rubber-gripped steering wheel. The guys on Top Gear would've drooled in puddles.

We also bowled. We bowled a lot. I'm not sure why.

Anyway, in addition to biking, bowling, and other youthful pursuits, one thing most kids in Hawaii had in common was that we watched oodles of Japanese television. I loved most of the shows. The cop and private detective shows all had ample quantities of high-energy, bone-crunching Karate. (Seriously, the Foley artists were probably up to their ears in cracked chicken bones.) The samurai shows were like westerns, only the gunslingers had long, lethal swords that were so sharp, you got the impression their foes were all made of butter that had sat out on Waikiki Beach a few hours in mid-summer heat. The sports consisted primarily of Sumo wrestling, which combined brutal pancake smack-downs with hilariously inadequate costumes.

However, the coolest shows were, by far, the superhero programs.

There were cartoon superheroes, of course. Two decades before most people in the US had heard the words "anime" or "manga," we were watching them on KIKU, Channel 13, Japanese language, out of Honolulu. We saw Raideen, soon to be of the "Shogun Warriors." Getta-Robo-G was another favorite. They were unlike anything in the U.S. The heroes were colorful, giant robots, the villains were so weird that in later years, I imagined hippies must have seen them on really bad acid trips. The music was bright and dynamic. There was violence to be done, and it was done in the most grandiose style.

But even those looney programs couldn't match the full-out wackiness of the live-action shows. The live-action programs contained robots, animal robots, shape-shifting mystical warriors, guys who looked like insects, giant extraterrestrials, half-animal/half-men warriors, and at least one robot who turned into a motorcycle. All of them knew martial arts, of course.

For American kids weaned on Superman and Batman, it was like falling through the rabbit hole and waking up with Alice's cool, kick-butt, Japanese friends and their whacked mechanical enemies.

The first show I remember seeing was Kikaida. Kikaida is Japanese for "Destroyer," which any kid will tell you is a great name for a superhero. (It was also the name of at least one KISS album.) Kikaida was the story of a guy named Jiro, who rode around on his motorcycle and sidecar, somberly playing his guitar and trying to do the right thing. It all sounds like an American 60's-era road movie, except for the fact that the "do the right thing" part consisted of Jiro changing into a super android and kicking the utter crap out of a collection of freaky, evil robots.

The inventor of the freaky, evil robots was a demented madman named Professor Gill. I assume he could only go by Professor, because he failed the very easy to pass Doctoral sanity test (See Dr. No, Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Shrinker, etc.) This tells you just how completely mental the guy was. Visually, it was even more obvious, because he wore his hair and dressed like the leader of a hippie, suicide cult. A guy like that would have to rely on androids because his human followers probably had the lifespan of a sickly fly.

The evil robots themselves took the form of over-caffeinated, monochromatic animals. Grey Rhino, Green Mantis, Blue Buffalo, and many others faced off with Kikaida, and despite their wild, menacing gesticulations, they were always done in at the end, literally, by a cross-chop that Kikaida delivered while shouting, "The End!**" in heavily-accented English.The villains were mangled worse than the pronunciation, exploding more dramatically than Keith Olbermann at a George W. Bush foreign policy retrospective.

The chief robots were assisted by lesser robots who were dressed in gray body suits, with weird red and black faces that seemed to be a cross between demon faces and Cardinals (the bird, not the baseball team or Catholic officials). These robots wielded flimsy spears and also wore, I kid you not, Chuck Taylor basketball shoes. (Take a look again at the link: Chuck Taylor's, classic black. I guess these 'droids could play some ball.) These characters also shouted "Giru! Giru!" which was a reference to the demented Professor Gill. To us kids it sounded like they were shouting "Get 'em! Get 'em!" So, naturally, we called these androids the "Get 'em Guys." Only, they never got 'em.

The show was great demented fun. The robots would set up some ridiculous scheme, usually involving kidnapping and explosions. At the height of the scheme they would suddenly hear a soothing guitar riff and look up to find Jiro standing at the top of a nearby cliff or mountain. Jiro would then dramatically point at the villains and announce that he was hear to save the day. He would then flip down and fight them for a little while as Jiro, and then change into Kikaida, in a transformation sequence than can only be described with the words "70's video technology."

Sometimes, he would change directly into Kikaida, just to change things up a bit.

Anyway, just the other day, as a result of a brilliant birthday gift from Mrs. Fando, I got to see this delightful television series again. The first six episodes are on DVD and they are sitting in our house. We watched the first one, to the massive amusement of our daughter, who's RiffTrax-like commentary was only slightly dissuaded by my pointing out that we were watching a "small piece of my childhood." By "slightly," I mean "not at all."

(Seriously, to the great folks at RiffTrax, Japanese television is a perfect vehicle for your talents. I heartily recommend the episode of Ultra Man with the monster named "Jirass," which in Japanese is apparently pronounced "Jour Ass." Hours of fun in a 30-minute episode.)

There are many more Japanese "Henshin" (transformation) heroes: Kikaida 01, Rainbow Man (sadly unavailable on DVD - this may be the most deranged series of them all), various Kamen (Masked) Riders and Ultra Men, Zaboga - the robot who turned into a motorcycle***, Diamond Eye, the original Rangers that the sappy Power Rangers were based on (and are much more entertaining in the original Japanese) and many, many others.

American live action superheroes are positively anemic by comparison. Batman? That looks like a particularly chatty episode of Masterpiece Theater next to the average episode of Kikaida. They used lopsided shots of the villains' hideouts in Batman? The villains in Kikaida were themselves frequently lopsided!

Good times! Good, good times!

*At least as far as little kids are concerned. As far as I could tell, it was their preferred off-duty past-time.
** Apparently, in later episodes, he shouted "Denji Endo," which means "Electromagnetic End." As far as I can remember, they sounded the same. 
*** He also had a little helicopter than flew out of his head, and two halves of a little car that would drive out of his feet and magnetically pop together. If the series had lasted longer, we might have seen a train fly out of his butt.

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