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The secret origins of… Supaidaman?

Today, Marvel Comics is one of the most popular entertainment brands in the entire world. Its characters and franchises dominate the blockbuster movie scene, have entertained generations of children as cartoons and are now rapidly expanding into the tough realm of prime-time television. As we speak, they’re getting ready to confidently launch a theatrical movie franchise whose principal characters include a talking space-raccoon.

Hard to imagine it wasn’t always this way. Hard to imagine that, until the release of the first X-Men movie in 2000, Marvel’s biggest success outside the realm of comics was the hit 1978 TV series based on The Incredible Hulk — a success they spent many years trying (unsuccessfully) to replicate. One of Marvel’s many, many small-screen non-starters, as we explored last week, was The Amazing Spider-Man.

Funny story, though… American network television wasn’t the only place where Marvel was trying to expand its characters — including Spidey. At the same time as they were making deals to get Spider-Man on CBS, they were also striking an ambitious licensing collaboration with Japanese entertainment giant Toei by which the two companies would have free reign to use one another’s characters. It was a forward-looking plan on both sides: Marvel characters had proved surprisingly popular in Japan (there was even a Japan-specific Spider-Man Manga), while Marvel itself had noted the growing popularity of Japanese movies (or, at least, Godzilla movies) and anime imports like Speed Racer and Battle of The Planets and wanted in on the action.

japanese spiderman professor monster

Turning Japanese
Originally, Toei had planned to merely incorporate Spider-Man (or, at least, the familiar Spider-Man costume and powers) into one of its popular live-action tokusatu series as an ally of Japanese folk hero Yamato Takeru (sometimes called “Japan’s King Arthur”) but decided to instead create a solo series for the Marvel hero. The result was heavily inspired by their already mega-popular insect-themed superhero franchises Kamen Rider. Thus was born: SUPAIDAMAN!

The story: Gaira, the last survivor of Planet Spider, crashes to Earth in his warship The Marveller while being pursued by the intergalactic conqueror Professor Monster. Discovered by brave young motorcyclist Takuya Yamashiro, Gaira gives the boy an injection of Spider Blood which grants him super powers and access to what remains of Gaira’s equipment and weaponry (read: the Spider-Man costume, web-shooters and lots of more traditional Japanese TV superhero gear) plus a suped-up weaponized car called Spider-Machine Gp-7 so that he can defend the Earth from invasion by Professor Monster’s Iron Cross Army (which, you will be shocked to learn, includes an inexhaustible supply of easily-thwarted henchmen, several scheming generals and a number of size-changing monsters roughly approximate to the number of episodes in the series).

japanese spiderman leopardon

Yeah. If you’ve seen an episode of Power Rangers — or V.R. Troopers, or BeetleBorgs, or Kamen (re: Masked) Rider, or really any live-action Japanese superhero show — you pretty-much know what you’re getting from Supaidman …except, y’know, this particular guy dresses like Spider-Man. But, believe it or not, a lot of what makes the series seem so routine today was actually pretty revolutionary at the time, or at least as revolutionary as a series could be in the notoriously slow-to-evolve production of Toei tokusatsu shows.

The main novelty of the series (beyond borrowing an American comic-book hero for the lead) was that when Professor Monster ordered the Monster of the Week to grow to skyscraper size (didn’t see that one coming…) Spidey could summon The Marveller warship (which, for some reason, has its bridge built in the shape of a mechanical leopard’s head) for backup. Though previous Japanese TV heroes had used vehicles to battle major threats before, Marveller came with a new-to-Toei value-added feature: While piloting the spacecraft, Spider-Man could transform Marveller into a humanoid giant robot called Leopardon.

Giant mechanical or otherwise robotic-looking heroes had of course been a common sight on Japanese kids’ shows since at least the debut of Ultraman, But Supaidaman is regarded as the first time a transforming mech, giant monster enemies and a Kamen Rider-style hand-to-hand combat hero had been mixed into a single series. That novelty, combined with the fast-paced action, colorful characters and lively music one expects from Toei (who really are the best in the world at this particular subgenre) made the show a hit (41 episodes and a movie-length theatrical special — that’s a good run in tokusatsu numbers) and Leopardon the in-demand toy robot among Japanese children.

The Legacy
While Supaidaman was easily popular enough to have spawned an ongoing franchise after the initial season, Toei opted not to do so, likely influenced by the licensing deal with Marvel having a three year original limit. But the show’s success, along with a second Marvel-related project, changed the course of the company’s productions — and indeed the subsequent history of Japanese television.

Along with Kamen Rider, Toei’s other repeating franchise was Super Sentai, which involved coordinated teams of color-coded costumed heroes beginning with Himitsu Sentai Gorenger (“GoRanger”) in 1975. American audiences, of course, are more familiar with the Sentai franchise as the source material used to create the ongoing Power Rangers series, but in 1979 East almost met West in the Sentai realm over a decade ahead of schedule: The third Super Sentai team almost included Marvel’s Captain America!

Toei producers, intrigued by the idea of a hero named and costumed after their nation of origin, envisioned an international Sentai team made up of heroes representing their home countries, with no less than (a version of) Captain America himself standing for the United States alongside a (newly created) Japan-based counterpart and others. The result was Battle Fever J, and while Toei ultimately opted to forego making use of Captain America (instead, a blonde-wigged “Miss America” reps the Stars & Stripes), they did borrow the Marveller/Leopardon concept first popularized by Supaidaman: In their fifth episode, the Battle Fever team officially become the first Sentai heroes to pilot a giant robot into battle — a conceit that has been an inseparable part of every Sentai series (colloquially re-christened “Super Sentai” after this) since… in fact, before the inspiration to add a mech to the mix, Toei was actually considering not continuing the Sentai franchise at all!

For whatever reason, Toei didn’t take much advantage of their arrangement with Marvel beyond this, save for an anime-adaptation of the Tomb of Dracula comic books that was (barely) released to American VHS as Dracula: Sovereign of The Damned. Marvel, for their part, borrowed a pair of Toei’s anime robot characters (Combattler V and Danguard Ace) to expand the cast of their U.S. comic-adaptation of the Shogun Warriors toy line.

As Supaidaman himself? This November, he’ll make his first appearance in almost forty years and officially become part of the Marvel Comics canon when he plays a yet-unspecified role “Spiderverse” Event, which promises to unite every iteration of Spider-Man ever for a single massive multiverse-spanning crossover. No word yet as to whether he’ll bring Leopardon with him… but then, why wouldn’t you?

Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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