WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!!!
Super Sentai is a long running series of tokusatsu shows. Started in 1975, it now spans 37 series with the same central premise: a super-powered and spandex-clad team fights against a villainous organization in the age-old conflict of good versus evil.
Over the years, there have been many homages to and parodies of Super Sentai, such as the Mad Midget Five from God Hand. Usually, these parodies poke fun at the core tenants of the series, with five multi-colored goofballs stumbling over themselves while yelling something about justice. While humorous, most of these parodies just take pot shots at the giant, though series like Astro Fighter Sunred will occasionally take the Super Sentai format and twist it.
Fast-forward to 2012, and the arrival of a new parody series: Unofficial Sentai Akibaranger. Produced by Toei, the same group that makes the real thing, the show looked like it was going to be a sequence of fun, but otherwise forgettable, jokes and gags based on the Super Sentai premise.
Instead, it’s one of the best toku shows of all time.
It’s Super Sentai for adults. Not because of the slapstick comedy, the villains’ low cut outfits, or the playfully juvenile titillation, but because it takes a surprisingly sophisticated look at tokusatsu fandom.
Akibranger follows the adventures of Nobuo Akagi, a 29-year-old delivery boy, otaku, and Super Sentai fan living in Akihabara. When monsters threaten the safety of his otaku-paradise, a scientist gives him special equipment that transforms him into the heroic Akibared. He’s joined by cosplayer Mitsuki Aoyagi, who becomes Akibayellow, and Yumeria Moegi, who takes on the mantle of Akibablue (until Season 2, when she’s replaced by wannabe idol Luna Iwashimizu). Together, this valiant team battles against the forces of evil that plague the city.
Except they don’t actually fight. Their equipment merely sends them into a shared daydream called the Delusion World, where they defeat the monster of the week with the power of their overactive imaginations. Basically, the Akibarangers are just three geeks pretending to be super-heroes in their heads.
All Super Sentai boils down to a battle between good and evil, and the protagonists are either what the target audience wants to be (ninjas, martial artists, powerful super-soldiers), or idealized versions of what they are (cool students, loving siblings).
But the Akibarangers are an entirely different type of team. Akagi drools over his favorite anime heroine. Mitsuki is steadfastly in-character at all times. Yumeria loses track of everything except the fight, and Luna selfishly focuses on her idol career over heroics. They transform with anime figurines. These aren’t paragons of justice. They’re people instantly recognizable to any adult fan watching the show. They’re reflections of the toku fandom, and a source of incredible wish fulfillment.
The Akibarangers’ understanding of “death flags” can turn the tide of a battle. Their encyclopedic knowledge of Super Sentai plot points becomes a weapon. And the deeper into their delusions they fall, the stronger they become. It all sets up a world where otaku are the ultimate warriors.
Meanwhile, the bad guys start as obvious metaphors for the dangers that plague an otaku’s life: male hosts, salarymen, etc. But by the end of the first season, we discover the real big bad in an amazing bout of meta-commentary: Hatte Saburo, the collective penname for the producers of Toei (the company that makes Super Sentai).
That’s right. The writers are Akibaranger’s greatest evil. It’s a fun way to explore the back-and-forth struggle between creator and fanbase that surrounds every artistic work, especially within the otaku community.
Unfortunately, the second season’s great evil is just some foreign production company. While that’s a disappointing downgrade in terms of self-reflectiveness, there is humor (and truth) to the idea that the only thing that can bring fans and creators together is the threat of a corporate buy-out.
It would be easy to do this parody and paint the hero-fans in a negative light. All of the Akibarangers are lovable fall-men ripe for schadenfreude. But, at the end of the day, they are the heroes. And in Super Sentai, the heroes always win.
Since the Akibarangers represent the fandom’s point-of-view, every aspect of the show sends the audience an overwhelmingly positive message. “You’re awesome. Even if your base is a hobby shop, your car is covered in moe decals, and you spend most of your time in your head… you eventually save the day. You are the hero.”
The producers of this series don’t just know their audience, they actively respect and appreciate them. They recognize that Super Sentai’s deep history is partially due to fan support. So, the series rewards its audience with a steady stream of old heroes and references to memorable moments from the past; moments that old Super Sentai fans recognize, and new Super Sentai fans are excited to discover. In this “unofficial” parody show, we somehow find the greatest acknowledgement of the long-running series’ legacy.
And yet, Akibaranger remains a light-hearted fun romp. There are a few striking moments where reality pokes through the upbeat tone, but the troubles are usually solved by the characters sinking back into the delusion. Again, this isn’t presented as a bad thing. Instead, the escapism is celebrated.
Akibaranger is a show that applauds those that made Super Sentai into a success. It’s a parody, homage, and love letter to the genre’s long history and the fandom that supports it to this day. This makes it one of the best Super Sentai series to date.
Now, if only we can get an Unofficial Rider…