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Iron King

A Japanese superhero program that ran for 26 episodes from 1972-73. Similar to ULTRAMAN, each episode featured a guest giant monster that must be defeated by the heroic Iron King. Sounds tiresome, but the format is redeemed in the details: The hero, Gentaro Shizuka (Shoji Ishibashi) does not become the giant Iron King, instead, his goofy sidekick Goro Kirishima (Mitsuo Hamada) does. And not only that, Iron King doesn't defeat the giant monster all by himself: usually Gentaro must come along, and using only his "Iron Belt", which transforms into a very long whip or a sword, and a handful of grenades, Gentaro must finish off the monster himself, in action set-pieces that defy all known laws of physics and have terrible problems with scale. But the leads are such fun that it is hard not to be swept along with the show.

The 26 episode series is basically broken into three stories, or three groups of villains that Gentaro and Goro must face. First up is the Shiranui Clan, who control giant robots and want to conquer Japane as "revenge against the Yamato Clan", to whom they feel a "2,000 year old hatred." Heady stuff for a kids show, the bad guys are basically terrorists, and in some episodes a relative of one of the villains tries to plead for them to leave the evil group, and come back to their family, with predictably dire consequences.

The second batch of villains is perhaps a bit less serious, the Phantom Militia, who wear primary-colored outfits topped by white Bedouin headscarves. They are still mad terrorists, though. They control a group of not just robots but monster-robots, making the giant battles a whole lot more interesting. The third and final batch of bad guys are the Titanians, a group of aliens from outer space who dress like Zorro and wear white face masks. Come to think of it, a bit of V FOR VENDETTA, really. According to the comprehensive and interesting liner notes included in the DVD set, compiled by the ever-reliable and authoritative August Ragone, the show switched to aliens because the kiddies were getting a bit confused about the villains being altogether too human. Not sure if that helps, though, because the aliens immediately start "body-jacking" innocent villagers, women, and children, and fighting Gentaro and Goro while in those human forms.

I had the pleasure of watching IRON KING with a seven-year-old boy. It was his first subtitle-reading/watching experience, except for a few segments of the ULTRAMAN DVD from the same company, which appeared whenever the dubbing dropped out (certainly a horrible thing to happen on a dub track, and yet, the occasional drop-outs gave him some much needed little bits of practice that probably made him feel willing to try IRON KING in the first place). He had no trouble, though sometimes the words did go "a little too fast." He immediately idolized Gentaro - he kicks ass, plays the guitar, and the ladies love him - and slowly grew to really like Goro, too, in ways he never attached to the ULTRAMAN cast. (The stiff hero Hayata is fine, but the fact that he disappears, and is replaced by ULTRAMAN during the action scenes, makes it harder to identify with his heroism. And the rest of the team are sort of goof-balls). Basically, he thinks Gentaro is pretty much the coolest guy in the world. The girls were a lot harder to like. The first is sort of a friend/sort of an undercover spy (Chieko Morikawa), but she departs the show by the end of the Shiranui clan story, and is replaced by one-off heroines until the end of the series, when our heroes are joined by Officer Noriko Fujimori (Chiaki Ukyo), who scolds them regularly.

Too bad that Japanese children's programming from the 70's is not exactly what you might call politically correct.

Too bad that Japanese children's programming from the 70's is not exactly what you might call politically correct. Sometimes, Gentaro is a complete bastard. He ignores people in peril to focus on defeating the main villains, puts people in danger as bait to draw the bad guys in, and generally lacks compassion - maybe just outwardly, but still. In one episode, he kisses a nun just so she would leave them alone. Goro acts as his conscience, though, and the two strike a good balance.

Still, in an era when Sesame Street releases old episodes of its TV show but labels them inappropriate for kids today, and Whoopie Goldberg provides a disclaimer at the front of Looney Tunes boxed sets to warn that a few of the cartoons may have inappropriate stereotypes, a little more warning of the polically incorrect bits would have been nice. The worst moment was in episode 12, when Gentaro finally takes a little break from his adventures -- previously he and Goro were always out in the woods, camping, living off the land, and fighting the bad guys. He is depressed, and next thing you know he is sitting at a hotel bar swigging some booze and smoking up a storm. I could hear an audible gasp from the chair next to mine -- and the wheels turning, trying to reconcile the hero with this new vice. (At least, he doesn't start smoking again until episode 24). Parents watching with their kids who are not interested in promoting an interest in smoking might wish to skip those episodes. If you would rather avoid bad language, that's much harder, as outbursts of "Bastards!" and "Damn it!" are quite common, but I thought relatively harmless.

Parents may also want to be prepared for the introduction of the Titanians at the end of Episode 18. They say nothing, they just laugh, in their immobile white masks, then suddenly their shadows stretch out and grow into the sky. In other words -- pure nightmare candy. I still remember a dream I had when I was six years old about shadows very similar to those cast by the Titanians in that moment. Watch it early in the day, perhaps, or follow up right away with the next episode, which largely de-mystifies the Titanians and makes them just another bad guy group in need to of a good smackdown.

Despite these flaws, IRON KING is great fun and compares quite favorably with the classic original ULTRAMAN. In IRON KINGs favor, the two leads are really great, and I'm a sucker for regular human beings fighting against giant monsters, which I find much more interesting than the monster vs. robot wrestling matches almost every episode of every Japanese superhero series eventually devolves to. In ULTRAMANs favor, each episode has a unique self-contained story. I understand that IRON KING is more the norm in this respect, but I do find it a bit tedious when episode 1 features 10 bad guys, and the leader says, "Bad Guy #1, go!!!!", and next episode, they face #2, and so on through 10 episodes. Happily, the stories get increasingly diverse in IRON KING as the series progresses.

BCI plans to release more Japanese superhero shows from the seventies to DVD, including SILVER MASK, which was made by the same production team and immediately proceeded IRON KING, and SUPER ROBOT: RED BARON, which immediately followed. Given the quality of this release both in terms of the package and the program itself, it's likely I will be picking up the others as well, though I'm already skeptical that anything else could match the fun of IRON KING.