REVIEW: DOUBUTSU SENTAI ZYUOHGER

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Starring

Masaki Nakao (Cheer Boys!!)
Miki Yanagi (Kakegurui)
Shohei Nanba (Sengoku Basara)
Tsurugi Watanabe (Does the Flower Bloom?)
Haruka Tateishi (Prison 13)
Naoki Kunishima (You Are the Apple of My Eye)
Susumu Terajima (Human Trust)

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Recurring / Notable Guest Cast

Kohei Murakami (Kamen Rider 555)
Unshō Ishizuka (Choushinsei Flashman)
Shun Nishime (Kamen Rider Ghost)
Aoi Yuki (Hyakujuu Sentai Gaoranger)
Kenshiro Iwai (Code Blue)
Masami Horiuchi (Kamen Rider Drive)
Sayuri Inoue (The Hatsumori Bemars)
Seiya Osada (Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger)
Ayana Shiramoto (Kamen Rider Amazons)
Eriko Moriwaki (Kamen Rider Agito)
Ryota Ozawa (Nozokime)
Yūki Yamada (Holiday Love)
Mao Ichimichi (Uchu Sentai Kyuranger)
Kazuki Shimizu (A Day of One Herb)
Yui Koike (Daily Lives of High School Boys)
Junya Ikeda (Garo: Kami no Kiba)
Tomokazu Seki (Shuriken Sentai Ninninger)
Hiroaki Iwanaga (Kamen Rider 000)
Tomiyuki Kunihiro (Sleeping Bride)

doubutsu-sentai-zyuohger-1121483a-6b6a-4ade-8f3b-4a08f4720b2-resize-750There are some themes and motifs that Super Sentai will always come back to. In 2013 the long-running franchise turned to dinosaurs for a third time with Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger, and more recently it also did ninjas for a third time with Shuriken Sentai Ninninger. With that in mind, it seems almost fitting that the 40th anniversary Toei would revisit yet another popular motif – animals. 2016-2017 was the year of Doubutsu Sentai Zyohger, the 40th team in the Super Sentai series and released as part of Toei’s “Super Hero Year” anniversary celebrations.

After falling through a mysterious portal to a world of anthropomorphic animals known as Zyuland, zoologist Yamato Kazakiri encounters four of its people – Sela (a shark), Leo (a Lion), Amu (a Tiger) and Tusk (an Elephant), and is accused of stealing one of the six Champions Symbols that power the link between the two worlds. However their meeting coincides with the arrival of the Dethgalians – a group of aliens who have decided on the Earth as the site for their 100th Blood Game. As Yamato returns to Earth with the four Zyumen in tow, the five are able to use the Champions Symbols to become Earth’s newest guardians – the Zyuohgers. The team are able to fend off the Dethgalians first attack but upon their return to the Link Cube the Zyumen find the sixth Symbol missing, stranding them on Earth until it is found.

Blending in with humanity, the four Zyumen join Yamato as they search for the means to return home while fighting off the Dethgalian attacks. Eventually the Dethgalians raise the stakes as they create their own Zyuohger, created from three kidnapped Zyuman and the brainwashed human Mondo Misao. After freeing Misao from their clutches, he joins the team as Zyuoh The World as the Blood Games continue.

Starring two humans and four anthropomorphic animals, Zyuohger immediately sets itself apart from the usual Super Sentai formula of either an entirely human team or one limited to one or two “different” members. Sure the Zyumen adopt human disguises fairly quickly, but their clothing and tails (or in Sela’s case, fin) serve as a constant reminder that Zyuohger is playing with a slightly different dynamic. Don’t be too fooled into thinking Zyuohger is any less red-centric that most other Super Sentai though – it’s still Yamato that gets the most development, the most power ups (three animals compared to the others’ one) and the big speeches/action sequences.However presentation is key, and Zyuohger still manages to make the four Zyumen feel suitably fleshed out even if they aren’t getting the same treatment as their human teammate. They all get their obligatory spotlight episodes as their time to shine, but each Zyuman has their own distinct and well-realised personality that makes their interactions a joy to watch. A particularly great standalone episode is 32, where a monster attack causes the characters’ “hidden personalities” to also come on show.

But in terms of characterisation it’s actually Misao that deserves the most praise, who has arguably emerged as one of the most realistic and relatable characters the franchise has ever put out. As if his turn as an evil ranger and unique tri-coloured suit wasn’t enough to earn him a place in the cool books, the show’s honest depiction of someone suffering from depression is quite unlike anything Sentai has tackled before. Yes his fluctuating mood is the butt of numerous (and admittedly funny) jokes, but the actual narrative is relatively sincere in the way it portrays his constantly shifting mental state, survivors’ guilt and difficulty overcoming his emotions. Combine this with Yamato’s own parental turmoil, and Zyuohger has done a pretty good job of tackling issues rarely seen in Super Sentai these days.

However the Dethgalians fall on the simpler side of the Super Sentai villain spectrum, setting out with very little background other than “some aliens are here to destroy things”. While their motivations don’t make for particularly deep storytelling, seeing their leader Genis’ see everything as a game for his amusement works in their favour – painting him as a chilling opponent unphased by setbacks and always thinking two steps ahead of everyone else. It isn’t until the arrival of the megabeast hunter Bunglay that things begin to take an interesting turn, as the weekly monsters are recycled and pushed to one side story-wise. It brings forward development for Genis own generals (or “players”) – Quval and Azald. Although his attendant Naria is still left with no personality outside of being unflinchingly loyal, those two are pushed to be more than that.

Aesthetically Zyuohger thrives on simplicity, reflected both in the suits and the cube-themed animal mecha. The latter’s case is something that didn’t necessarily translate well when it came to the toys (minipla notwithstanding), but onscreen work rather well – with the cute brightly coloured animals giving Zyuohger a unique visual identity that sets it apart from the similarly themed Gaoranger. The simpler designs also make for far more fluid robot designs, which while boxy in nature don’t have the same unappealing pile-of-parts look many “ultimate” combos now suffer from. There’s nothing especially new to be had here and the combination of animals and retro-styled video game cubes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but as far as the show goes it definitely works.

Finally as the 40th entry in the franchise Zyuohger does have some anniversary element to it, but in the more reserved sense (akin to Gaoranger or Boukenger) rather than an all-out celebration like Gokaiger was. Gokaiger is far too fresh in everyone’s memories to try and top it yet, so instead Zyuohger’s main strength is in that it is simply a solid Super Sentai series. It never really tries to reinvent the wheel, but knows the tropes of the franchise well enough to keep them fresh and entertaining. Throwing a mecha battle in at the start of an episode might not sound like much, but for a show that’s stuck to its format so rigidly for decades it comes as a welcome surprise.Of course it wouldn’t be an anniversary without cameos, and while the Zyuohger vs Ninninger movie covers the bulk of that there’s also a wonderful two-part story here featuring the return of the Gokaigers. The two teams have a wonderful dynamic, with Gokaigers going about their heroism in their usual standoffish way. But most importantly these two episodes are integral to Zyuohger’s plot as well, making them far more than just some well-polished fanservice and the perfect opportunity to officially add the post-Gokaiger shows to the Ranger Key collection.

While there are undoubtedly some areas Doubutsu Sentai Zyuohger could have done better in, that doesn’t change the fact that this is arguably the strongest Super Sentai has been in the last few years. Even through its usual Red-centricity Zyuohger displays memorable characters with their own unique traits, arcs and development – presenting the feeling of a well-rounded and equal cast even when it doesn’t quite feel like that on paper. Additionally the villains for the most part all had their own stories to tell, which despite not coming into the spotlight enough were all well signposted and kept the show interesting. It also works perfectly as an anniversary series – not by attempting the same thing as Gokaiger but instead simply coming out as a well-crafted series that does all the things a good Super Sentai series should. Uchuu Sentai Kyuranger might be the one offering a much-needed shakeup to the formula, but 2016 was a definitely a year where Super Sentai shined.untitled