If there’s any quality that Japanese pop culture excels at better than almost any other country’s pop culture, it’s sheer craziness. The worlds of anime, manga and tokusatsu (basically Power Rangers) are filled with boundless bizarre creativity. Naturally, this embrace of the odd extends to many of Japan’s beloved superhero characters. The superhero genre in general is already fairly silly and rife with weirdness, so why not embrace that side and go whole hog with absurdity? If you’re going for comedy, that absurdity just means more laughs. If you’re aiming for something more serious, weirdness can actually make things more interesting.
This isn’t to say Japan necessarily does superheroes better than America does. The superhero genre as we know it today is primarily an American invention, and even today many of the best superhero stories are written in the states. Still, there are lessons American superhero writers could learn from their peers in Japan. The following fifteen heroes are embrace absurdity in ways often hilarious, sometimes oddly dramatic, yet almost always with significant awesomeness in some way or another. This list starts in the realm of the more mainstream and normally accessible before working its way down to peak inanity. Prepare to get nuts!
15. ONE-PUNCH MAN
Let’s start with a character American geeks have likely at least heard of. One-Punch Man started life in 2009 as a crudely drawn webcomic by a creator who simply goes by the name ONE. That webcomic has since been adapted into an amazingly drawn manga illustrated by Yusuke Morata, which in turn became a hit anime series. Having aired on Adult Swim’s Toonami, the anime is one of those which even people who don’t normally like anime will recommend, and for good reason.
Saitama, the hero, trained so hard that all his hair fell out and now he can defeat any bad guy with (as you can guess from his superhero moniker) just ONE PUNCH!!! Being the best can actually be quite boring, however, and that sense of a quarter-life crisis gives this crazily overpowered character a sense of relatability. A second season of the anime is coming later in 2018.
My Hero Academia is probably the most “normal”-feeling show on this list to American sensibilities. It’s not an outrageous parody like One-Punch Man but a more earnest, straightforward blend of American-style superheroes and Naruto-esque shonen action storytelling. Of course, even more “traditional” superhero stories have plenty of room for weirdness.
In the world of My Hero Academia, superpowers are called “Quirks,” and some of these Quirks are absolutely… well, quirky. There are characters with navel lasers, tentacles and bird heads, but the fan favorite super-weirdo is Tsuyu Asui, codename “Froppy.” Froppy has the powers of a frog. This might not be that unusual, given Toad from X-Men exists, but she’s, well, an insanely cute frog. Her character design alone is hilarious. Her vacant stare, constant “ribbit”-ing and brutally honest personality are crazily charming.
13. WILD TIGER
If you want the true Tiger & Bunny experience, watch the version on Hulu instead of the version on Netflix. What’s the difference between the two streams? The Netflix stream censors out the product placement! Tiger & Bunny takes place in the futuristic American city of Stern Bild where superheroes are reality stars with corporate sponsors. Everyone’s supersuit is emblazoned with a different corporate logo. Protagonist Kotetsu “Wild Tiger” Kaburagi reps SoftBank, while other heroes promote the likes of Bandai, Pepsi and Ustream among others.
There’s an amusing “have your cake and eat it” situation going on here. The show satirizes reality TV and corporate advertisement while also partaking in a particularly ridiculous version of the latter. Even if the product placement is bizarre, there’s a lot of good action and comedy in the show, and Wild Tiger’s interesting as one of the rare anime protagonists in his late 30s-early 40s.
12. ACTION… WHAT NOW?
You can actually blame America for a lot of this character’s absurdity. In the Japanese version of Crayon Shin-Chan, he’s known as Action Mask, a silly but fairly standard parody of tokusatsu shows. There are some suggestive jokes, but Shin-Chan in Japan skirts the line between edginess and family-friendliness. But there’s not much of a market for mildly edgy family anime in America.
FUNimation had two options for marketing a dub: tone it down to sell to kids, or push the content further to sell to adults. It chose the latter, and the English dub upped the raunchiness to sell to Adult Swim. While in Japan, Crayon Shin-Chan s roughly comparable to The Simpsons, the dub is closer to something like South Park. With the dub’s changes, Action Mask becomes Action Bastard, and the gleefully inappropriate humor goes to the extreme.
11. SAMURAI FLAMENCO
Samurai Flamenco is one of those shows that starts simply enough and goes utterly bananas by the end of it. The title character is an aspiring superhero in the real world without any powers. So far, this is not too weird. Think along the lines of a gay Japanese version of Kick-Ass with less R-rated content. To get into why he makes this list, we need to get into SPOILER territory in the next paragraph.
So basically, in episode 7, a criminal transforms into a gorilla with a guillotine for a torso and the whole show just escalates from there. The whole “what if superheroes were in the real world?” premise gets thrown out the window for a series of escalating fantastic twists. Fans debate whether this series was fun nonsense or if it was any good at all, but it’s certainly an experience.
Thanks to Devilman Crybaby on Netflix, Americans are finally falling in love with Devilman, the hero with the strength of a devil and the feelings of a man! Devilman was created in 1972 by Go Nagai, an artist famous for pushing the limits of violence and sexuality within shonen manga. Devilman’s battles with demons are over the top in every sense of phrase.
While comical in its extremes, the story of Devilman is ultimately a tragic one (SPOILER ALERT: Satan destroys humanity and kills Devilman before admitting his unrequited love for his lost opponent). Its extreme popularity in Japan, however, kept dragging Nagai back to his creation, setting up a cosmic cycle of destruction and rebirth to allow new incarnations of Devilman, including Devil Lady and Violence Jack.
9. KAMEN RIDER X
Kamen Rider is one of the most iconic tokusatsu franchises, up there with Ultraman and Super Sentai (Power Rangers in the West). Created by Super Sentai creator Shotaro Ishinomori, there are 27 Kamen Rider series and dozens of characters who’ve taken the mantle of Kamen Rider. The adventures of these insect-suited superheroes frequently get pretty wild, but picking out just one entry for this list, Kamen Rider X‘s craziness might be the most legendary.
Why is Kamen Rider X so legendary? It’s not so much the hero himself as the ridiculous villains from the evil organization G.O.D. that he fights. These baddies include Spider Napoleon, Ant Capone and, most infamously, Starfish Hitler. Combining legendary bad guys from history with random animals is certainly one way to go about making memorable villains…
Does Takeshi Miike ever sleep? The cult director’s made over 100 films, and that’s not even counting his TV series! His filmography ranges from extreme horror to serious action to campy comedy. Zebraman is firmly in the comedic category as a parody of tokusatsu. The film is about a teacher who starts dressing up as a childhood favorite fictional TV superhero, only to gain that superhero’s actual powers and have to fight slime aliens.
The first movie was a big enough hit in Japan to get a sequel, Attack on Zebra City. The follow-up, however, bombed. Some think the reason the sequel didn’t do as well was its topicality, making the villains vaguely disguised analogies for the real world religious cult known as “Happy Science.”
7. GOLDEN BAT
Golden Bat is Japan’s first superhero, and one of the first in the world. He was created in 1931, a year after The Shadow, five years before The Phantom, seven years before Superman. Golden Bat first appeared in the artform of kamishibai, a sort of street theatre with illustrations popular in Japan in the ’30s. Kamishibai faded in popularity, but Golden Bat stayed around in movies, manga and anime.
Golden Bat has a gold skull for a head, wears a cape (which can make powerful gusts of wind) and carries a sword. He has pretty much every superpower you’d need: he possesses flight, super strength, X-ray vision, can shoot electricity, you name it. As a character, he’s fairly close to Superman, except he looks more like Red Skull.
6. PRINCESS TUTU
“Magical girl” anime is its own subgenre of superhero stories with its own unique tropes. Sailor Moon is the best known magical girl show internationally, while those who like their magical girl shows with more surrealism are advised to check out Revolutionary Girl Utena and Puella Magi Madoka Magica. But if you want a great magical girl show where the magical girl herself is totally weird, you’re looking for Princess Tutu.
Princess Tutu is the story of a duck who transforms into a human ballerina who transforms into the magical Princess Tutu, randomly at the whims of the sadistic dead author still controlling Tutu’s storybook world from beyond the grave. Tutu solves problems not with violence but with dance therapy sessions. It’s practically the definition of “better than it sounds” because it’s actually AMAZING.
Did you know Superman and Wonder Woman have a Japanese schoolgirl daughter? The Project A-Ko OVA series isn’t at all DC canon (her parents aren’t shown in costume to avoid a copyright infringement suit), but for an unlicensed knock-off, A-Ko is pretty amazing. She sometimes saves the world but mostly uses her absurd strength to fight the (again, unlicensed) daughter of Tony Stark over the affections of an incredibly annoying alien princess.
Project A-Ko actually started as a series of comedic wrap-around segments for a more salacious project, but the studio realized the funny bits were so much better than the dirty bits that it became its own more PG-13 series. In addition to the American comics characters included, it’s filled with parodies of other ’80s anime including Captain Harlock and Fist of the North Star.
4. KEKKO KAMEN
There’s a reason CBR is using a picture of Kekko Kamen’s head. Her mask, gloves and boots are normally her only articles of clothing. One of Go Nagai’s more blatantly salacious creations, Kekko Kamen is a nudist superhero created as a parody of “Gekko Kamen” (“Moonlight Mask” in English, Japan’s first TV superhero). This spoof took on a life of its own, earning multiple manga, anime and live-action film remakes.
The Kekko Kamen manga is told from the perspective of Mayumi Takahashi, a student at Sparta Academy. All the teachers there are sadistic misogynistic perverts, led by the principal known as Toenail of Satan. Only Kekko Kamen defends the students from the teachers’ advances. Her trademark finishing move involves leaping onto her enemy’s face crotch-first.
3. MESSENGER OF ALLAH
After kickstarting the tokusatsu genre on TV with Moonlight Mask and Seven Color Mask, Yasunori Kawauchi converted to Islam in 1959. He decided to explore his newfound faith with a new tokusatsu show, Messenger of Allah, in 1960. Running 26 episodes, it was not his biggest hit, but remains one of his most fascinating.
The weirdest thing about Messenger of Allah is how it combines earnest religious engagement with the requirements of commercial television. Notably, the show is actually an advertisement for the Kabaya Foods Corporation! It takes place in the Kabayan Kingdom. Characters such as “His Imperial Highness Coconut” and “Mammy” take their names from Kabayan food products. The title character is portrayed by a young Sonny Chiba, who’d later play Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill.
2. THE BOTTOM BITING BUG
What’s more heroic than spreading happiness around the world? And what better way to spread happiness around the world by biting people in the rear? That’s how the Bottom Biting Bug spends his time. He’s a magical “happiness fairy” that makes everyone happy when he bites their butts. Somehow this is an acceptable hero to market to children in Japan.
This completely nutso premise was initially fuel for a song on the kids show Minna no Uta. The song hit the top 10 singles charts, and soon this magic hero was spreading happiness through video games and four seasons of a TV anime. Now it’s hard to call this phenomenon “good” in most senses of the word, but isn’t it incredible this exists? Also, that song is pretty catchy.
If you want proof of how profitable the craziest idea for a superhero can be, take one look at Anpanman. A superhero made of bread with red bean paste who feeds children pieces of his head is about as strange as you can imagine for a cultural icon. Yet a cultural icon is exactly what Anpanman‘s become in Japan. The manga lasted 40 years while the anime is at 1,320 episodes and counting. The series holds a Guinness World Record for the highest number of characters in an animated franchise.
Anpanman’s inspiration is surprisingly serious: he’s inspired by creator Takashi Yanase’s experiences with starvation during World War II. People not only love Anpanman in Japan, they get extremely defensive about him. A parody in an episode of the adult comedy anime Mr. Osomatsu got censored due to viewer complaints that the spoof was “disrespectful” of “an important anime for children!”
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