Kikaida: Hawaii's Favorite Superhero
After all these years, Hawaii’s favorite superhero is still kicking monster tail and inspiring local fans.
Earlier this summer, The Avengers saved the earth and destroyed a few box-office records in the process. Here in Hawaii, though, there will always be only one truly super superhero. Decades before Batman became a dark knight, before Spiderman had girlfriend problems, Kikaida was kicking robot ass. Every Saturday night at 8, Hawaii kids tuned in to watch the half-man/half-machine android use trampoline-assisted leaps, double chops and a death blow called denji endo (electro end) to destroy a monster every week and save Japan—and the rest of the world—from the DARK forces. Featuring a catchy theme song, a matinee-idol star and monsters that looked like giant chew toys, Kikaida first aired on Honolulu’s Japanese-language television station KIKU in February 1974, two years after its debut in Japan on the NET network. It was an immediate hit here, eventually attracting more than a quarter of Island viewers and routinely winning its Saturday night time slot by beating network shows such as Mission Impossible and Chico and the Man.
In an era before the Internet or even the VCR, fans couldn’t get enough of their robot hero. They flocked to public appearances that featured star Ban Daisuke, costumed characters and even an occasional polyurethane monster. An August 1974 autograph session at Pearlridge Shopping Center was shut down after a crowd of 10,000 showed up and clogged the mall’s thoroughfares, creating a fire hazard.
Kikaida’s run lasted 43 episodes. Reruns followed, along with a sequel, Kikaida 0-1 (pronounced zero-one), as well as a succession of other Japanese imports: Rainbowman, Kamen Rider V-3, Denjin Zaboga and Inazuman. However, none of the other heroes won the hearts and minds of Island kids like Kikaida had. Viewership numbers tumbled and only three years after it all began, KIKU’s kiddie experiment ended. The station’s Saturday night schedule returned to a reliable lineup of sumo matches, samurai dramas and detective shows.
The series may have concluded, but Kikaida never died. The show was rebroadcast here in 2001, and a nine-volume DVD set was released in 2002. This year, Kikaida turns 40. By today’s standards, the show’s special effects seem primitive and the costuming unfortunate. Yet, despite its age, the show continues to hold on to a loyal core of fans while picking up a steady stream of new devotees. What is it about the robot hero that inspires such love and loyalty? We spoke with some of the show’s most ardent followers to learn how Kikaida captured their imaginations so many decades ago and why their robot hero will live forever.
Hawaii has Joanne Ninomiya to thank for bringing Kikaida into Island homes, and many people—mostly nerdy men in their 40s such as the author—often thank her profusely. Ninomiya, the godmother to a legion of local fanboys, was the longtime general manager of KIKU. In 1972, she went to Japan to purchase new shows for the station when she heard of a new tokusatsu (literally “special filming,” but refers to a television show or film that features superheroes) that was about to air in prime time, a first in Japan at the time.
Ninomiya quickly learned that the bold scheduling wasn’t as risky as it sounded; the show had pedigree. It was created by Shotaro Ishimori, an already famous tokusatsu writer and manga author, as a high-tech cross between Frankenstein and Pinocchio. Kikaida’s Dr. Frankenstein/Geppetto is a scientist named Dr. Komyoji, who is kidnapped by the evil Professor Gill and ordered to create an army of robot monsters. Komyoji’s last robot is his best, Kikaida, who is designed to protect Komyoji’s children, Mitsuku and Masuru, along with the rest of Japan.
Kikaida is actually two robots in one. Most of the time, he is the dashing, guitar-playing, motorcycle-riding Jiro. When evil androids and monster robots attack, he transforms himself into a multi-colored, yin-yang robot with a half-transparent head and lethal karate chops.
“When I first saw the show, I knew immediately that it would be a hit. The story was simple, the characters were strong and there was all that action,” says Ninomiya. “We beat the network shows. That never happened at KIKU before.”
Ninomiya left KIKU in 1980 to start JN Productions, which, in the ’80s and ’90s, produced videos for the tourist industry but now translates manga and anime for distributors on the Mainland. Twenty years ago, Ninomiya started to get calls from fans urging her to bring back Kikaida. She didn’t put much stock in the occasional requests. But she eventually changed her mind when her staff of Generation Xers put down their collective foot and demanded their Kikaida. In 2001, Kikaida was back on the air, and a year later, JN Productions released the first of nine volumes of the show. In 2003, it released Kikaida 0-1 on DVD.
Ninomiya is continually amazed by Kikaida’s staying power. While the live shows and appearances now attract hundreds, not thousands, she says the audiences are a diverse mixture of old fans, their children and even some nostalgic grandparents. There’s something universally appealing about the show, but after all these years she still can’t put her finger on it.
“Kikaida wasn’t as dark as some of the other shows. The monsters did evil things but they were basically non-threatening, so maybe it attracted more kids than some of the other shows. It was very colorful and exciting,” says Ninomiya. “And that [theme] song, it was so catchy. Everyone could sing it.”
For Russ Ogi, a 39-year-old artist, Kikaida’s appeal is simple: The show had a main character who was decades ahead of his time.
“What makes Batman, Superman and Spiderman so popular now?” asks Ogi. “It’s inner turmoil. Today, superheroes don’t just beat up on the bad guys. Sometimes their biggest struggle is with themselves. Compare Kikaida to the Batman television show, which was on TV around the same time. Now, that was a campy show.”
“When you’re a kid, Kikaida was just a fun show to watch. But when you get older and you look at it again, there is so much more going on,” says Ogi. “I’d like to think that I was sophisticated enough to pick some of these things up, but it’s hard to say. Makes you wonder, though, if these things are reaching kids on some level.”
Ogi was clearly one of those that took something extra away from the show. Kikaida was the first television show he can remember watching. With its palette of primary colors and elaborately detailed costumes, the show was the reason he developed an interest in art, and continues to influence his work today.
Ogi is a 3-D sculptor. Instead of using clay or stone, he sculpts his works in a computer and then renders them using a 3-D printer. Currently, much of his work involves re-imagining and sculpting Japanese armor, fashioning otherworldly creations that are equal parts samurai and sci-fi. “When I was young, I found myself always wanting to draw Kikaida. As my skills developed, I moved on to other things,” says Ogi. “But I’d always return to Kikaida.”
Back in 2000, filmmaker Aaron Yamasato drew inspiration from an unexpected place. He was filming a scene for his martial arts action film Blood of the Samurai. After circling his actor, who was astride a motorcycle, Yamasato decided on a low-angle perspective, to make his character look larger than life. “I remember at the time thinking that the shot just looked and felt right,” says Yamasato.
Later, Yamasato screened a rough cut of the film for his crew. When the motorcycle shot flashed on the screen, someone called out, “Jiro!” and the rest of the small audience laughed and started to sing the Kikaida theme song. It turns out that Yamasato, a devoted Kikaida fan, had unconsciously mimicked the angle and composition of a staple shot from his favorite show.
“Kikaida helped me become who I am,” says Yamasato, who, like Ogi, says that Kikaida was one of the first television shows he remembers watching. “It was the music, the color, the sound. When you heard the guitar music, you knew Jiro had shown up to save the day. That was an awesome moment.”
Blood of the Samurai went on to win the Best Hawaii-Made Film award at the 2001 Hawaii International Film Festival. Yamasato spun off Blood into a television series, which aired on the cable station OC-16, and he’s currently working on a yet-to-be named ninja-inspired television show.
While Sam Campos remembers watching Kikaida as a child, it wasn’t until adulthood that the television director and producer developed a deep appreciation for the show. About five years ago, he produced a segment for the OC-16 show Dis-N-Dat, which paid tribute to Kikaida. While editing footage from the old show, Campos noticed an attention to detail that was impressive.
“I noticed that Jiro’s clothes were frayed at the ends, so I looked it up,” says Campos. “It turns out that, in Kabuki, a character that had frayed clothes has no soul. That kind of detail went into making the show and it blew me away.”
Shortly thereafter, Campos came up with an idea for a television show, and about a year and a half ago, started shooting Dragonfly. The show, which features a costumed main character who protects Hawaii from an evil alien monster, has been described as X-Files meets Kikaida. The project is self-financed and is produced around the cast’s schedule and Campos’ supply of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fried saimin.
Interestingly, both Yamasato and Campos have been able to convince Kikaida’s Jiro, Ban Daisuke, to star in their productions. The 65-year-old actor was cast in essentially the same role for each short, as a sensei and mentor to the hero.
“I was very nervous. Not only is he an experienced actor, he was my hero growing up,” says Yamasato. “I was afraid that I’d lose all that working with him.” But Yamasato had nothing to worry about. The actor nailed all his lines without any problems. He even contributed some ideas to the production. Jiro saved the day again.
Campos had a similar experience. “He was such a nice guy—professional, cooperative and very, very cool,” says Campos.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF TOEI CO. LTD.
Devin Oishi, 42, teaches drawing, painting and ceramics at Kaimuki High School. Slight and soft-spoken, he also possesses a dry, cutting wit and the jaundiced eye of a cynic, qualities that must come in handy for someone who has to deal with teenagers all day long. Like many Kikaida fans, he discovered the show early and it became a guiding influence for a career in art.
According to Oishi, behind a campy exterior, the show explored serious issues. It was about people’s inability to change no matter how hard they tried. “It is just the way it is and sometimes you can’t fix everything,” says Oishi.
As a high school teacher and the father of a 10-year-old son, Oishi has a good vantage point from which to assess the future of Kikaida fandom. At school, if any of his students draw tokusatsu characters, they draw Kamen Rider, a hero who was, and is, far more popular in Japan. He does report that his son is a big Kikaida fan. Father and son sat down and watched all 43 episodes together five years ago. He knows the song, and has practiced the karate kicks, but there is only so much a father can do.
“He likes the show, but not in the same way. He’s more influenced by Nintendo,” says Oishi. “And no matter how much my son likes Kikaida, his friends aren’t doing it and his cousins aren’t talking about it. How much fun can that be if you’re doing it all by yourself?”
Dave Choo is a former editor-at-large at PacificBasin Communications and a longtime Kikaida fan. His favorite Kikaida villain is Blue Buffalo.