Editor's note: This is the second installment of a four-part series on film and TV dramas featuring live-action "tokusatsu" special effects and superheroes.
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Tokyo-based Toei Co., which pioneered martial arts dramas in which the characters transform themselves, produces "Go-Busters" and "Kamen Rider Fourze," the only "tokusatsu" superhero shows still airing on a regular basis.
Both are the latest offerings from the "Super Sentai" and the "Kamen Rider" series.
Toei has been churning out tokusatsu TV shows since "Captain Ultra" made its debut in 1967.
Explaining the company's 45-year history in the genre, Toei's senior managing director, Takeyuki Suzuki, said: "It's because we have a business model in which royalties from toy sales are plowed back into production funds."
For example, a toy belt modeled after the one worn by Kamen Rider Fourze, which the protagonist uses to transform himself into a masked crusader, is a hot-selling item. Priced at 6,825 yen ($87), sales are expected to reach 800,000 units.
And then there are all sorts of "Astroswitch" gadgets that can be inserted into the belt. Sales of these products have already topped 30 million units.
Each year, the market is flooded with 6,000 related items--books, fashion accessories and so on--aimed at children.
To bolster the appeal of the toys, Toei spends seven or so months to develop character settings and designs for the action hero. After a show airs, a new robot is introduced at three-month intervals.
"Strength," "coolness" and "sense of excitement" are the defining features of these products.
A toy belt from "Kamen Rider OOO" (pronounced Ohs) can look cool to children when it is added with a single action that makes the buckle tilt in a diagonal way with a clanking sound, according to Toei.
Since 2000, the company has enlisted some really cool actors, among them Joe Odagiri, Hiro Mizushima and Jun Kaname.
In popular lingo, they are "ikemen," meaning they have super cool looks.
These installments have been dubbed the Heisei Kamen Rider series because they began airing in current imperial Heisei Era that began in 1989. The studio wanted actors who "look cooler" than the fathers of the children who watch the shows.
The company also realized it would have more luck promoting the toys if the shows drew good viewer ratings from the children's mothers. After all, it is the mothers who hold the purse strings.
When it comes to feature film adaptations, Toei's policy is to release films on a regular basis to earn steady revenue, according to Suzuki.
The company used to release a feature film only in summer. But now, it produces five or six features each year.
The crossover between the Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai superhero franchises means that each feature film series generates box office earnings in the range of 1 billion yen ($12.7 million).
For Toei, which has struggled to find box office success with other live-action flicks, the tokusatsu films and TV shows are its mainstay revenue source.
The bottom line is all about whether the profits from toy sales and other merchandise can cover pricey the production costs for tokusatsu special effects, such as miniature sets and costumes.
As it happens, Kamen Rider production costs are relatively low because the superheroes fight life-size "enemies." The Super Sentai series on which the U.S.-produced "Power Rangers" is based features giant robots and monsters through the combined use of tokusatsu and computer-generated imagery.
Technological innovations since the 1990s have allowed Toei to scrap a lot of the painstaking work associated with creating model sets.
"To be honest, it is a bit of a luxury being able to create miniature sets and props because it requires so many staff members and hours and hours to shoot scenes," Suzuki said. "But creating scenes that appear to really exist is what gives tokusatsu that special something. And that is very important."
Tokusatsu director Hiroshi Butsuda put it this way: "Think of when children are having fun crashing toy blocks. I think scenes where miniature towns are destroyed will always attract people."
Toei realizes its cannot rely solely on traditional photographic techniques. On the other hand, the shows would lose their charm if they were produced only with superficial "tokusatsu" special effects.
This requires a delicate balance, which is the hallmark of the Toei productions and the key to having a successful business model.
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