Power Rangers and the Rise of Anime in America by Jerry Whitworth
Anime (Japanese animation) has made its way to the United States for decades. Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Speed Racer paved the way for Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers which lead to Voltron and Robotech. Series trickled in slowly until the 1990s where it seemed like a veritable explosion lead to anime becoming staples of programming blocks like Fox Kids, Kids’ WB, and Toonami. The rise in popularity of anime is generally attributed to the cultural phenomenon of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Debuting in 1993, Power Rangers was created by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy using footage from Japanese production studio Toei and its super sentai series. The relationship between America and super sentai predated Power Rangers, super sentai owing a fair deal of its life to a relationship between Toei and Marvel Comics. Super sentai toys were even produced in the United States by Mattel as part of their Shogun Warriors line (itself bringing anime to the US in Force Five), the line which created Marvel’s initial arrangement with Toei. By the time Power Rangers captivated America, super sentai existed for nearly two decades in Japan inspiring content there over that time (aforementioned series like Battle of the Planets likely helped inspire super sentai where Voltron was produced by Toei and aired the same year as Marvel and Toei’s final co-produced super sentai series). The first anime series to come to America based on the popularity of Power Rangers was Ronin Warriors in 1995.
Produced by Sunrise of Gundam fame and airing in Japan in 1988, Yoroiden Samurai Troopers was inspired by Toei’s popular Saint Seiya series (known in the US as Knights of the Zodiac). Although, where Seiya drew its mythology from Greece, Yoroiden was decidedly Japanese. Featuring a team of heroes that transformed into different bright colored samurai armor, the series was brought to America by Graz Entertainment with its obvious similarities to Power Rangers. However, with live action series created from the success of Power Rangers in Saban’s VR Troopers and DIC’s Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, the show’s name was changed to Ronin Warriors to prevent confusion. The series ran in syndication during the summer of 1995 before re-airing on the Sci-Fi Channel, USA Network, and Cartoon Network. It was accompanied with a toyline from Playmates of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame (based on the action figures from Japan’s Takara, co-creator of Transformers). Within weeks of Ronin Warriors‘ American debut, the series Sailor Moon was also released in syndication.
DIC Entertainment was quick to capitalize on the success of Power Rangers, pumping out two similar live action series the following year in Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad (from footage from Tsuburaya Productions, famous for its franchise Ultraman) and its entirely original Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverly Hills. It should then be little wonder DIC also licensed Toei’s popular Sailor Moon series (interestingly, Toon Makers made a failed bid against DIC in order to produce a partly live action show based on the material). Featuring a team of girls who transform into different colored costumes to fight monsters, the series drew inspiration from super sentai but was made to appeal to little girls rather than little boys. Of course, DIC having licensed the show due to Power Rangers, edited its original content in order to appeal to those viewers. While not reaching the fandom like it experienced in Japan, Sailor Moon nonetheless proved to be remarkably popular (especially with girls). Bandai, who produced both the super sentai toys in Japan and Power Rangers toys in America, also produced the toys for Sailor Moon for both countries. Sailor Moon aired in the US in syndication for nearly two seasons before being canceled due to low ratings (though, many feel given its late morning/early afternoon timeslot, lasting so long was remarkable). It was eventually picked up by Cartoon Network where the second season was aired in its entirety. In Japan, Toei eventually made its own live action Sailor Moon series in 2003. With Saban’s creation of Power Rangers, it should not then be surprising they too would begin producing similar animated content.
When Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted and became the hottest kids show of its time, Saban was quick to capitalize. By the following year, Saban began pumping out similar live action shows in VR Troopers, Masked Rider, Big Bad Beetleborgs, Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation, Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, and Los Luchadores (the former three using footage from various Toei shows). In 1995, Saban also syndicated two animated series in the vein of Power Rangers with Tenko and the Guardians of the Magic and Teknoman. Tenko centered around real life Japanese illusionist Princess Tenko and the fictional adventures of the Guardians of the Magic who used the Starfire Gems to transform into heroes. While not an anime (animated instead by Korean company Rainbow Animation), it’s interesting to note how thoroughly Saban covered his bases. Tenko had a toyline from Mattel that used designs from the canceled Wonder Woman and the Star Riders series. As an aside, Bohbot Productions and toy company Hasbro teamed with Hong Ying Animation to produce Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders and Ruby-Spears Productions teamed with Ashi Productions to produce Skysurfer Strike Force (with a toyline from Bandai) after Power Rangers. Saban’s Teknoman, however, was an anime adapted from Tekkaman Blade.
Tatsunoko, who produced the source material for series like Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets, made various animated superhero series like Casshan, Hurricane Polymar, and Yatterman around the same time Toei’s live action superhero shows like super sentai were coming into being. Among these series was Space Knight Tekkaman. Airing in Japan in 1975 and America in 1984, Tekkaman featured a transforming space hero fighting aliens. A more successful spiritual successor emerged in Japan in 1992 in Tekkaman Blade that was adapted for American television by Saban in 1995 as Teknoman. Therein, the show followed a similar premise to its predecessor but also featured various evil Teknomen. Interestingly enough, the sequel in Japan Tekkaman Blade II featured a squad of heroic Tekkamen in the super sentai vein. Going into the following year, Saban only continued to Americanize anime with themes related to Power Rangers.
By 1996, Saban had finally partially succumbed to Toei’s super sentai convention of changing up its teams every season. However, Power Rangers still had the previous season’s cast but now in the new costumes used in the Japanese source footage for its Power Rangers Zeo. Saban had also abandoned VR Troopers when it ran out of Toei’s metal hero Space Sheriff footage in favor of its latest metal hero brand for a new series in Big Bad Beetleborgs. Saban continued to bring anime to America with Samurai Pizza Cats and Eagle Riders. A co-production from Tatsunoko and Sotsu Agency in 1990, Kyatto Ninden Teyandee was a comical parody series poking fun at shows like Yoroiden Samurai Troopers with a nod to Mobile Suit SD Gundam. It should be noted, some believe the show was also made to capitalize on the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in Japan but that show wasn’t dubbed and aired in the country until 1991 and did not become popular until 1993 (leading to the infamous super sentai-inspired anime Mutant Turtles: Legend of the Super Mutants in 1996). Saban picked up Teyandee in 1991 (keeping in mind they had the super sentai license since 1984 and previously secured anime like GoShogun/Macron 1 and Dragon Quest/Warrior) and aired it in Canada as Samurai Pizza Cats in 1993 the same year Mighty Morphin Power Rangers debuted. By 1996, the show ran in syndication in the United States. Eagle Riders, debuting the same year, represented a rather interesting cycle of concept.
Noted earlier, Tatsunoko’s Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was an inspiration to the emerging super sentai while becoming a popular series adapted in America as Battle of the Planets. Less than ten years after debuting in the US, the show was re-edited to be closer to the source material as G-Force: Guardians of Space. In Japan, Gatchaman saw two direct sequels in Gatchaman II (1978) and Gatchaman Fighter (1979) which formed the basis for Saban’s heavily-edited Eagle Riders. The show aired alongside Dragon Ball Z which Saban distributed for Funimation after Dragon Ball only lasted thirteen episodes in syndication the previous year. Of course, what impact Dragon Ball Z had on anime in America is worthy of its own article. As interest began to wane in Power Rangers in Zeo compounded by Turbo‘s failure, it seemed the road was paved to the end of the brand and Saban became progressively more interested in anime finding a hit in Digimon in 1999 (following the success of Pokémon the previous year). Fortunately, interest renewed in Power Rangers for what was supposed to be its final season in Space which saw the brand live on (at the cost of Mystic Knights: Battle Thunder) as America likely received its last animated series built on the back of the brand’s success.
When Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made its debut in 1993, parents across the country instantly shared the same thought: ‘So, it’s like Voltron?’ Produced by World Events Productions and airing in 1983, Voltron was a composite anime series using two properties from Toei. Primarily known for its first half adapted from Beast King GoLion, the source series as noted earlier aired in 1981 during the same year as Marvel’s last co-produced super sentai series with Toei in Taiyo Sentai Sun Vulcan. It should be noted, Sun Vulcan had the first giant robot in super sentai made from combining vehicles. However, Sun Vulcan Robo only used two with GoLion beating super sentai to the punch with five combining beasts. Voltron proved to be popular (the first half, at least) but seemingly burned out in 1986 with the television special Fleet of Doom animated by Toei featuring a team-up between both Voltrons from the series. However, Power Rangers renewed interest in the brand and so a sequel series in Voltron: The Third Dimension was produced by Netter Digital and Mike Young Productions. Set five years after the original show’s first half and airing in 1998, Third Dimension used 3D animation (hence the name) in the same vein as Mainframe Entertainment’s ReBoot and Beast Wars: Transformers but was decidedly poorer in quality (instead, more in line with what one would see in a video game cutscene at the time). Third Dimension managed to last two seasons as two more Voltron animated series emerged in the ensuing years (the most recent in 2016 on Netflix). Trendmasters provided toys for the series.
Power Rangers, like super sentai, has managed to survive to this day and will continue into the foreseeable future. If the brand started a revolution in bringing anime to America, Dragon Ball Z picked that flag up and has run with it since (so far as that series continuing on today in Dragon Ball Super). Power Rangers and super sentai have become so ingrained into the American lexicon that aspects of it bleed into dozens of series. Shows like Animaniacs, Arthur, Mummies Alive!, Dexter’s Laboratory, Code Lyoko, Megas XLR, Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!, Titan Maximum, Sym-Bionic Titan, Steven Universe, Big Hero 6 (2014), Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, PJ Masks, The Amazing World of Gumball, We Bare Bears, and gen:LOCK, to name a few, parodied or paid homage to the concept. It’s interesting to consider that American animation like Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Popeye, and Mickey Mouse helped influence anime and how decades later Japanese products like anime and tokusatsu have influenced American culture. Today, it’s hard to imagine anime not being part of content consumed by American youth or to notice its influence on American animation. Not bad for five teenagers in bright colored spandex with attitude.