From Gokaiger to Go-Busters and Beyond: Where Sentai’s Been and Where It’s Going – Part 3

So Gokaiger comes and goes, and while it is the longest Sentai in quite some time, it managed to bring new viewers in, and even worse, managed to hold its viewer share. Here comes another bold claim that might be obvious to a select few: Toei wants to get as far away from traditional Sentai as possible. The traditional image of Sentai, epitomized with Gokaiger, showed that it’s not quite supportable at the moment. It might seem like a bold claim, but it really isn’t. Toei believes they need to shake things up. Sentai is floundering on TV and still making a killing at the stores, they fear Bandai might cut funding and do their own thing, leaving Toei without a huge source of revenue. Go-Busters is the epitome of change and you’re about to see the evidence for it and Toei’s line of thought.

The producer – Naomi Takebe, having never worked on Sentai in any major capacity before, was brought on to be the producer for Go-Busters. While she has done minor, and I mean minor, work in Sentai before, her forte is Kamen Rider. Takebe is known as the woman who introduced the ikemen, or pretty boy, trend into Kamen Rider in her days as a sub-producer back in the early Heisei Rider era. Along with the chief producer of those shows, Shirakura, Takebe is credited as bringing in this theme of drama and melodrama to the Kamen Rider franchise that saw it gain mass appeal. Her latest show before Go-Busters, Kamen Rider OOO, was not a hit in ratings, but had massive character appeal.

The writer – Yasuko Kobayashi. I told you to remember the name and here’s why. Gingaman, Timeranger, Shinkenger, Kamen Rider Den-O, Kamen Rider Ryuki, Kamen Rider OOO. Those shows are all Kobayashi’s work. What do they have in common? They print money. Ryuki was, for a time, the most successful Kamen Rider series ever, Den-O brought the franchise out of a funk and OOO saw a very critically appealing story. Shinkenger and Timeranger brought in the high drama to Sentai and Gingaman gave us a very solid show with some exceptional writing. Kobayashi is Toei’s go-to girl when they want something that prints money. More often than not, her shows have been ratings success.

The action director – Hirofumi Fukuzawa. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it is. This guy has been the suit actor for Red Sentai warriors for a decade and more. To bring him on as action director indicates an enormous respect for his work and a want for change. I figured that someone who worked so closely on Sentai wouldn’t stray far from the mold of the regular action, but I was wrong. Fukuzawa brings about a very high energy and kinetic sense of action that doesn’t feel as if it’s playing by the books at all.

The director – Takayuki Shibasaki – A relative newbie to Sentai and tokusatsu in a head capacity. He’s done a single episode of Sentai in the past and smatterings of Kamen Rider. His most recent work befor Go-Busters was as the head director for Kamen Rider OOO Wonderful: The Shogun and the 21 Core Medals, a film that had mass appeal and is up there as one of the most successful Kamen Rider films of all time. Fresh eyes if Sentai ever needed it.

Long story short – Toei is trying to emulate Kamen Rider and it’s not hard to see. Go-Busters and Kamen Rider OOO share the exact same production team, right down to the secondary head writer. The story runs along at a pace that makes one feel as if there is a more dire sense of gravity to everything going on, the fights are incredible, real time transformations and the mecha? Don’t get me started. Go-Busters challenges the idea that mecha fights in Sentai have to be these slow and lame events with lumbering giants that can barely move around. The Go-Buster Ace suit is by no means streamlined, but the fact that the stunt man is jumping around and running around in this suit sends a pretty clear message that they want these fight scenes to be fun and energetic. The filming, oh lord, the filming. The mecha scenes in Go-Busters are amazing and without a doubt the best Sentai has ever seen. There is a sense of real scale and incredible quality in the first couple of episodes, and even when this drops to what I imagine is the series norm afterward, the fights are still movie quality.

Go-Busters even takes the Kamen Rider emulation a step further by ditching the spandex for the first time in 30 years. No, we’re not going back to the cloth suits of before, we’re actually getting Rider-like leather suits. These suits still carry the overall Sentai aesthetic, but they feel so fresh and brand new. For all intents and purposes, Go-Busters is the change Toei wanted and thinks they needed. Things are dandy, right? Wrong.

Go-Busters is, yet again, another Sentai that is probably going to fail to perform on TV. When I learned of how different Go-Busters was going to be, I actually figured this would be the Sentai with the Decade ratings effect. It would come after a very low rated series, have a very low rated first episode, and then, when people notice how unique it is, it would take off. Sadly, this wasn’t the case. I was ready for low ratings with episode one, but the 3.8% ratings were just depressing. Go-Busters came onto screens with a roar and it netted the titled of lowest rated Sentai premiere ever. Not off to a great start.

I had hope, though! Like I said, I expected a lower than usual rating for the first episode. Even if the rating the first episode did get was a heck of a lot lower than I expected, I held out hope that the series would start seeing drastically better numbers in no time. Episode two had worse ratings than episode one, a pitiful 3.2%! Episode three came along and hey, 5.0%, we’re in business, right? Wrong. The series has failed to move beyond the range of the low fives, only even hitting that percentile twice.

The reason I waited for so long to write this article is because I wanted to have a decent idea of what the ratings trends for Go-Busters were going to be like. Now that we’re coming to the end of the first cours, or season, I have a decent idea. Go-Busters is likely going to find that its trends will be highs in the low fives, averages in the mid fours, and lows in the threes, one can hope. Numbers are a fickle thing and they can always drop, but the only unexpected change I want this show seeing is freakishly high numbers.

Now, people are often very quick to discount ratings because this is a show meant to sell toys to kids. Yes, this is true, but you’re missing the picture and grander scope of things if you toss ratings out the window. Someone has to pay for this show and while, yes, Toei gets a percentage of the revenue from the toy line, Bandai doesn’t get anything from the TV show. When the TV show fails to perform but the toy sales are stellar, worry sets in because there are multiple partners when it comes to funding these shows.
The ratings for Go-Busters at this point are averaging out to be the lowest in Sentai history. Yes, it’s true that the numbers have been steady, but they’re not stabilizing in an area you want them to. Ideally the numbers for Go-Busters should be one or two full points higher. I say two because, this is a radically different show than anything we’ve seen before. At least visually, the story isn’t anything too ground breaking, but the visuals do not come cheap. We can already see Toei trying to cut corners by introducing a stock transformation sequence in the ninth episode of the show. It’s kind of disappointing when I’m sitting here looking at the Gokaiger numbers and, on average, they’re higher than Go-Busters.

I’m rather convinced that the Go-Busters experiment is just that, an experiment, and a failed one thus far. Unless there is a major upswing in ratings later on, expect Sentai 2013 to go back to the norm in terms of visuals. The things mentioned in this article aren’t quite reflected in toy sales, so they probably aren’t going to stick around. And honestly? That’s a shame. I think Sentai has fallen into stagnation and needs a new identity, and I think Toei knows this as well.

Go-Busters is essentially a search for identity for Sentai, or rather, this period is a search for identity. Who knows what the future holds, but I think Toei is going to continue to try and find some new way to market Sentai. Be it in visual aesthetics, toy gimmicks, the story presentation, I don’t know, but I don’t believe, even if the radically different approach to Go-Busters doesn’t stick around, that we’ll go back to Sentai standards. Historically, Sentai suffers from stagnation, and when this changes, it enters a period of incredible stabilization in incredible territory.

So, no, Go-Busters won’t get Sentai canceled, in fact, I don’t think Sentai will ever be canceled as long as Toei plays a major role. Sentai is not what it once was, Kamen Rider doing nearly double per year in business, and Sentai in general not doing as great as other Toei properties, but I believe, and I know Toei believes, that Sentai can rise again and find its footing. We just need some more experimentation to see where that footing lies. It could something major, like another revamp, it could be something minor, like a new place to air. Actually, that last one doesn’t sound so bad. I’m under the impression that Go-Busters could probably find itself doing a heck of a lot better in the afternoon than in the mornings. If it can hold these numbers in the afternoons, the show would be set as those afternoon shows do tend to have lower ratings.

Whatever the future holds for Sentai, the one thing I’m sure of is this: We’re nowhere near done with the bumpy ride that is the search for identity.


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