9:34am PT by Simon Abrams
'Supaidaman': Looking Back at the Delightfully Bizarre Japanese Spider-Man
Part 1. Into the Spider-Verse
You won't find two of the wildest (and most interesting) members of Marvel Comics' Spider-Verse in the new animated superhero blockbuster Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. Granted, you will find several other variations on Peter Parker's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man in the film, like Spider-Ham, Spider-Man Noir and Spider-Gwen. But you won't find either Spider-Man: India's Pavitr Prabhakar or Supaidaman protagonist Takuya Yamashiro (Shinji Todō) in Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, even though both characters have appeared in the Spider-Verse comics, scripted by Dan Slott and penciled by Olivier Coipel and Giuseppe Camuncoli.
The main difference between Prabhkar and Yamashiro — the latter of whom isn't even the only Japanese Spider-Man, let alone the only Japanese Spider-Man in the Spider-Verse comics — isn't just a matter of personal taste. Spider-Man: India, a four-issue miniseries published by Marvel Comics in 2004, is fairly staid, especially when compared to the glorious wackadoo Supaidaman, a Toei-produced 1978 tokusatsu sci-fi/action TV show reminiscent of earlier sentai shows like Ultraman and later sentai shows like Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
Spider-Man: India was conceived and produced in-house at Marvel. This probably explains why India is a rote variation on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's by-then decades-old Spider-Man origin story. Prabhakar, a dhoti-wearing Mumbai resident, watches his Uncle Bhim die in a dark alley, but only after Prabhakar gets bitten by a super-powered spider. Prabhakar also fights superficially Indian-ized variations on familiar villains like Nalin Oberoi (aka: Norman Osborn) and Aadi (a barely developed riff on Venom). Prabhakar also dotes on his Aunt Maya and is in turn doted on by girlfriend Meera Jain, especially when Flash Thompson (yeah, they didn't even bother to change that one ...) picks on Prabhakar at cricket practice.
The worst thing that can be said about Spider-Man: India is that it perfectly exemplifies Marvel's need to make almost every variation on their biggest properties seem as in character/on brand as possible. That's an important sticking point when you consider that Spider-Man: The Manga was collected in bits and pieces from 1997-1999, despite not being produced or conceived in-house at Marvel.
Nevertheless, Supaidaman is the most striking Spidey-adjacent series/adaptation/riff/whatever. Granted, Supaidaman — originally released throughout 1978 in Japan — is an item of cult curiosity and will probably remain that way (despite being name-checked in both the book and film versions of Ready Player One). But: over the course of 41 episodes (and one episode-length, theatrically released "movie"), Supaidaman delivers some of the most consistently entertaining and overwhelmingly creative Spider-stories this side of Lee and Ditko.
What follows is my loving defense of that show — strange as it may seem — followed by a selective episode guide (focusing only on the show's highlights).
Part 2. An Emissary From Hell?
You can tell that Supaidaman is a different kind of Spider-show just by watching its dazzling, albeit cluttered pilot, which draws very few parallels between Peter Parker and Takuya Yamashiro. Parker is a freelance photographer who supports himself and his geriatric aunt while Takuya Yamashiro is (deep breath) a self-absorbed motorcycle racer who gains superpowers after a mysterious bracelet (gifted to him by a kindly, cave-dwelling loner named Garia) injects Yamashiro with "spider extract." Garia's bracelet is also Yamashiro's way of summoning the GP7 Spider-Machine (a cheesy Speed-Racer-looking race car), and the Marveller, a gigantic transforming robot that Yamashiro uses to dispatch equally gigantic monsters, all of whom are in thrall to the evil Professor Monster, former scourge of the (now destroyed) Planet Spider.
Garia mysteriously dies after he gives Yamashiro his spider-related jewelry, but not before he asks Yamashiro to avenge his confusing, abrupt death. And to make matters even more daddy-issues-rific: Yamashiro's dad also dies right after the new hero gets his spider-powers. At the pilot's conclusion, an end credits song announces, through sweeping melodramatic lyrics, that Yamashiro's Spidey "[hides] in my heart my callous fate" because "under a grave maker/lies my father." Yeah, but which one?
Look, none of what I just described is that weird if you're a tokusatsu fan. It is, however, pretty out there if all you know about Supaidaman is that it's a Japanese Spider-Man TV show. Still, there are several tokusatsu (or tokusatsu-adjacent) tropes that perfectly suit the show's iron-clad, Mad-Libs-generic formula that are as standard as the use of ballet numbers in French operas or drum solos in stadium rock songs. In fact, many of the Supaidaman scenes that conform to tokustasu tropes are fittingly accompanied by musical leitmotifs. We hear Morse-Code-like electronic beeps (kinda like Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity") every time we visit Professor Monster's hidden inter-planetary techno-fortress. We can also hear a bouncy xylophone-intensive version of the show's theme song whenever Spider-Man fights Professor Monster's tengu/birdman-like henchmen. We also hear, in later episodes, a weird, flute-heavy variation on the upbeat martial theme of "The Army Goes Rolling Along" whenever Spiderman meets up with the rambunctious (but clueless) members of a "youth detective group."
Still, there are several other endearing Supaidaman tropes that do not make as much sense, mostly in scenes where Yamashiro has to behave more like a regular guy than a Spider-Man who periodically strikes diva-like action poses and yells that he's an "emissary from Hell" (whatever that means). Look, there's no easy way to say this, but: Todō often looks embarrassing in his Spidey suit. His character produces a high-pitched slide whistle sound effect every time he web-swings. Also: during Spider-Man's wall-crawling scenes, Todō always seems to be on a very bad acid trip. He keeps feeling up various office building's walls, shifting his weight, and pooching his ass up and into the air. It looks as if Todō doesn't feel comfortable touching the building's outer walls. Or maybe he doesn't understand the special physics that allows Spidey to wall-crawl (I know I don't). Then again, Todō's awkward movement might have been a result of the crude rope/pulley-based system that allowed Todō to move up and down various vertical surfaces (you can sometimes see a wispy trace of an otherwise thick rope cinched around Todō's waist and hung horizontally high above his head, possibly by a window-washer's platform).
That said: the show's creators were consistently inspired in their (liberal) use of melodramatic narrative shortcuts. These little storytelling cheats — episode two: a seconds-long photo montage is used to show a train being derailed by a laser-beam-spouting, multi-colored, disembodied, floating human brain monster, complete with brain stem — effectively convey a lot of plot and emotion in a short amount of time. Take a look at episode 27, where Spider-Man learns to be more like Jun, a black German shepherd who struggles to help our web-headed hero fight Professor Monster's Iron Cross army, even though Jun is badly injured ("Don't force yourself," Spiderman calls after Jun). I bet this episode went over great with its original target audience of manga/anime-addled pre-adolescent children given (and not in spite of) how much time Jun spends hamming it up (this dog makes Hobson's Choice-era Charles Laughton seem modest). I know what you're thinking, but it can't be overstated: this show is for (and probably best appreciated) by kids. Adult viewers can, however, also appreciate many of the series's more questionable aspects.
Adult viewers can find some answers to their many burning questions in the form of another re-assuring comic-book-like trope/melodramatic shortcut that's used throughout Supaidaman: voiceover narration worthy of the mighty Marvel tradition, the kind where carnival barker-like patter is used to make superficial, pseudo-psychological commentary. In episode 41, Amazoness grows jealous (she's always jealous) of Bella and Rita, a pair of lesser hench-women who were introduced a couple of episodes ago. So the narrator jumps in with: "Amazoness was desperately trying to hide this anxiety that was eating away at her." That sort of observation may be perfect for kid viewers (who might not otherwise understand why Amazoness is jealous or even upset). But it's not even ideal for that purpose.
Nevertheless, the narrator's comments are generally charming thanks to his typically blunt expression of simple, kid-friendly ideas (from the pilot: "Transforming into a spider, Garia shares his need for revenge with Takuya"). Supaidaman's voiceover commentary is, in that sense, a great example of what makes the series great while also being a prime illustration of why the show will probably never taken seriously beyond a point. Supaidaman will only ever be great termite art. I don't know if it should be anything else.
Part 3. A Supaidaman Episode Guide.
Episode 2: This is a more cogent origin story episode, complete with flashbacks that visualize events that we never saw in the pilot (like Professor Monster's destruction of the Planet Spider). I like to imagine that some key member of the show's creative team watched the pilot and thought, "Ah, jeez, we made a real hash of this whole Spiderman thing, we gotta fix that pronto!" And fix it he/they did.
Episode 5: This delightfully confusing episode starts off like a romantic-comedy starring Takuya and Hitomi — complete with wacky wedding-related hijinks — but ends as a story about Spidey's relationship with Ichiro, a sad little orphan who wants to live with Spider-Man. Spidey and Ichiro ("Ichiro, I defeated the truck that ran over you!") clearly have a stronger bond than Takuya and Hitomi do, as we see when Hitomi teasingly suggests that Takuya should propose to her so that she can be a housewife. His reply is priceless: "You disappoint me. I don't like it when people give up their careers for live." By contrast, Spider-Man's tough, but fair advice to Ichiro seems sincere: "A boy like you should toughen up!" Ichiro agrees: "Okay, Spider-Man!" Ichiro does not, however, say "You can let go of my hand now," but I heard it all the same.
Episode 7: In this episode, Professor Monster uses mysterious "ultrasonics" — a low-frequency type of sound that only Spider-Man can hear — to effectively drive Spider-Man out of his mind. These ultrasonics are embedded in a Spidey-centric pop song by Kobayashi Kotaro's inexplicably popular rock group, The BB Five. Funnily enough, the BB Five's song is, in reality, terrible, so one can't help but laugh sympathetically at poor Spidey when he screams "I hate that song!"
Episode 8: This episode is a must-see for fans of gender-ambiguous, man-sized cat-monsters with mops of untamed, Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey black hair and two metallic coffee cup filters covering their otherwise hair-covered breasts. Men: if your boy/girlfriend spends most of their time skulking around the local cemetery, peeking out from behind old tombstones and snarling like a P.O.ed cat: that's not your significant other, it's a Supaidaman villain.
Episode 14: My favorite episode set in/around Hitomi's office, the Weekly Woman newspaper's headquarters. Amazoness, disguised as Hitomi's editor, tries to trick Hitomi into investigate her own boyfriend's secret identity. First she asks Hitomi if she has any leads. Hitomi says no. So Amazoness hysterically offers Hitomi an obviously fictitious letter from a reader, which reads: "I think the racer Takuya Yamashiro is Spider-Man." This episode also features Big Bat (he's got a battle-axe for a fist!), one of my favorite of the show's monsters.
Episode 15: Come for the fun monster — Killer Unicorn, who actually looks more like a Triceratops dinosaur — but stay for the amazing spectacle of Spider-Man yelling at a pack of bratty schoolboys (including Takuji, Takuya's younger brother). Spidey's preachy sense tingles because he sees Junichi — a physically and financially poor neighborhood boy — get picked on just because he can't do sports good. Junichi's definitely one of the best boy protagonist/audience surrogate in the series ... because he's the most pathetic. I mean, come on: Junichi has a pinhole-sized hole in his heart and he also can't afford to replace the groceries that Takuji and his baseball-playing cronies knock out of Junichi's hands. This show's writers could be so cruel.
Episode 17: Hey, that one guy looks like Ben Grimm!
Episode 19: Araki, a local fear-mongering yahoo, keeps his Brigadoon-like village (which is invisible and therefore inaccessible to outsiders) under control by pretending to be a prophet of a false God. He puts pressure/exerts his will on the townsfolk with the help of Kamenger, a big ol' pond monster. Also, Spider-Man's there, too, I guess.
Episode 21: Kind of a ho-hum episode save for a shocking introductory sequence as well as a later scene where Spider-Man gets shot and chased by a low-flying helicopter, piloted by an Iron Cross bird/henchman. It's just like North by Northwest, only with a Japanese Spider-Man and a helicopter full of armed bird-dudes. Sorry, Hitchcock fans, but you just can't beat that.
Episode 23: Spidey investigates a mysterious (and mysteriously kid-friendly) casino chain called The House of the Mysterious Sorceress, a den of inequity that allows adult gamblers to bet on rabbit or baby chick races. "It's a casino. But what a suspicious casino it is."
Episode 24: The episode title — "The Great Battle of the Cockroach Boy!" — kinda says it all.
Episode 25: Nakayama, an old cabby, is tortured because he refuses to tell Amazoness where a priceless artifact is hidden. Nakayama tries to escape Professor Monster's island prison(?!), but winds up getting chased around by a foam-spurting crab monster. It's like Benny Hall, but somehow better.
Episode 27: Best dog-related melodrama EVER.
Episode 30: Takuya gets arrested for, uh, resisting arrest, and generally acting like a dick to Akane, a harried traffic cop ("I'm just trying to uphold the law to the best of my abilities"). Shinko, Taukji and Hitomi mount an impassioned street-side defense on Takuya's behalf, complete with bullhorn and sandwich board slogans like "Save our weak brother." Hilarious and heart-breaking: a Supaidaman specialty.
Episode 31: Every-body must get stoned. I mean, must not, MUST NOT.
Episode 33: A local schoolgirl who hits boys with sticks — "This is how we kill rats where I come from" — finds a pendant from the Planet Spider that gives her super-powers. This interstellar pendant only further emboldens the girl, who then throws sticks at Spider-Man, forcing him to flee up a tree. And it only gets better from there!
Episode 34: Nobuo, a young photography buff, witnesses a blustery local politician commit a murder in the local junkyard. Worth a look just to see Nobuo confront his Trump-like adversary in ways that real-life journalists should do more often: when the Chairman says "[Nobuo's incriminating] pictures capture the faults of adults and reveal the boy's hatred towards adults," Nobuo replies "The pictures I take show the truth! You're stupid, stupid, stupid!" Ah, cathartic and oh so timely.
Episode 35: Shinichi, a fraidy cat kid protagonist, is bullied by a pack of boys wearing rubber gorilla masks (they try to gaslight Shinichi by dismissing a local cop that comes to Shinichi's rescue: "[Shinichi's] a coward, so everything's a gorilla to him") Featuring my favorite of the show's monsters: Tiger Pump, who's basically a guy in a Furry-like tiger suit, only with a high, upturned metallic collar and a belt with a bat-shaped buckle(??) and two mini-gatling guns, one on either flank.
Episode 36: This episode features another great monster-of-the-week villain: Dr. Miracle, a capering, onion-stealing, cloak-wearing villainess with a smiling Comedy mask (called "the Miracle Mask," which helps her to take on the appearance of anybody). The kiddy detective agency subplot feels tacked on, but eh, it's not the end of the world.
Episode 39: This action-intensive episode is mainly of interest because it's got a weird Master of the Flying Guillotine kinda vibe since it takes place at a martial arts tournament set at a desolate rock quarry-type place (complete with ominous Kubrickian whooshing noises in the background). Weird, but in a good way!