Tokusatsu is a form of media native to Japan. At its most basic, it means any kind of Japanese SFF, horror or war drama that relies heavily upon special effects. But since the 1960s popular usage has defined it as any action-packed TV show or movie with colorfully costumed superhero characters who have their own set of unique visual and cultural tropes.
The great-grandfather of the genre is 1954’s atom bomb cautionary tale Godzilla (Gojira in Japanese) which featured Eiji Tsuburaya’s use of rubber suits and miniature sets. Tsuburaya went on to produce Ultraman a decade later, further cementing his reputation as a tokusatsu pioneer. Though there were other monsters and aliens duking it out on Japanese TV both before and after Ultraman’s 1966 debut, none have had his staying power, which has lasted 55+ years. (Which makes him eligible for a senior discount I suppose.)
The vintage magazine cover above features a prime selection of the alien, offputting beings spawned in Ultraman’s wake. Known as Kyodai Heroes in Japan, each had its own unique series premise and storyline, but all did the same thing: growing to huge size and battling giant monsters. Some of them were truly whacky, such as Lion-Maru, an anthropomorphic white lion who rode a flying horse, and Spectreman, who battled Dr. Gori, an intelligent alien gorilla being in a pink Nehru suit. Japanese creators took inspiration anywhere they could get it and I suppose Planet of the Apes was but one element in the mix. They were and continue to be a lot of fun.
Another subgenre of tokusatsu was created when Kamen Rider debuted in 1971: a human superhero who dressed just as oddly as the Kyodai Heroes above, but stayed normal size and indulged in Batman/spy movie shenanigans against evil organizations out to conquer the world. Like Ultraman, Kamen Rider proved it had legs and is still around today.
But both were eclipsed in the later 1970s when Himitsu Sentai Gorenger debuted, the first of the Super Sentai shows. This third subgenre had a team of human heroes who derived their powers from some mystical or technological McGuffin. They dressed in a color-coordinated way around a certain theme (elements, jungle animals, prehistoric creatures, etc.), used advanced technology, had special attack modes which they shouted out before striking (“Super lotus energizer side kick!”) and protected the earth from some alien or supernatural foe. Several of these shows were later imported to the U.S., excised of all but the costumed fight scenes, and received new storylines with American actors. Yes, this was the genesis of The Power Rangers. The popularity of the American version of the show has since waned, but in Japan, new teams continue to debut year after year, most often with five young people.It is traditional for the two token females of the group to receive pink or yellow as their team color.
If you need an imaginary tokusatsu show of your own, here’s a randomgenned list.
Tokusatsu Shows of the 1970s
Mighty Five Man
Fighter Fighter 979
Baron Raiden Maskless
Lady Grid 42
Space Devil Girl