Forget Netflix, the weird free app for your quarantine binge is here
Get a dose of cultural learning as Kamen Rider and Ultraman come to western streaming.
Being kept indoors when there's a worldwide pandemic is no fun, especially when you've exhausted nearly all your entertainment options. Which is why it's exciting that niche pop culture masters Shout! Factory have done the impossible: Importing Japanese superheroes to the west, notably the original 1971 series Kamen Rider, complete with English subtitles in a new and totally free streaming service.
On Monday, Shout! Factory announced the launch of TokuSHOUTsu, a new English-language streaming channel dedicated to Japanese superhero shows like Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Super Sentai. The big attraction is Kamen Rider, a culturally significant show from Japan being made available for the first time (legally) in the west. There will also be an original talk show, Let's Talk Toku hosted by Squall Charlson, in which Charlson and guests will talk about the genre's long history and its enduring appeal.
The channel will stream on the free digital television service Pluto TV, channel 681 in the Tech + Geek section, and launches at midnight on March 17. While TokuSHOUTsu will broadcast episodes like a traditional broadcast channel on Pluto TV, it will also provide the shows on-demand to stream at your own leisure.
What's fun about the new service is the cultural service it's providing. TokuSHOUTsu (say that fast) is now the easiest way for English-language audiences to get into the Japanese genre known as tokusatsu ("special filming"), which typically denotes superhero and sci-fi productions with special effects. At first glance, the stuff looks like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but dig into the genre's history and there's so much more.
Generations of Japanese superheroes dominated television airwaves way before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In shows like Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and Super Sentai, colorful superheroes fought monsters and saved the world, but their episodic adventures never really made it to American shores. (Ultraman was dubbed in English and aired on TV, but was dwarfed in popularity by Batman.) The biggest import to date has been the Power Rangers franchise, a semi-original show that adapts material from the Japanese series Super Sentai and remixes it to suit American tastes.
Until recently, fans of the genre outside Japan had to enjoy tokusatsu content through semi-legal tape trading, which then evolved into legally grayer bootleg downloads with fan-made subtitles. (It's kind of scary to think how an innocent fandom's obsession technically made them criminals.) In 2014, Shout! Factory began importing classic seasons of Super Sentai on DVD. Now, they've made a whole streaming service just for it. (And all of Shout! Factory's previously-released Super Sentai shows on DVD will also stream on TokuSHOUTsu)
This is also the first time that Kamen Rider, one of Japan's most important pop culture icons, is being made available for Western audiences. Takeshi Hongo, a college student and motorcycle racer, is kidnapped by the mysterious terrorist organization Shocker (formed by, I'm not kidding, surviving Nazis) who attempt to turn him into one of their cyborg minions. But when Takeshi breaks free, he uses the powers Shocker gave him to fight back and save the world. The popularity of Kamen Rider spawned a multimedia franchise that continues in Japan to this day.
While there have been versions of the Kamen Rider franchise adapted for North America — once in 1995 for the Fox Kids series Masked Rider, and again in 2009 for Kamen Rider Dragon Knight on The CW — this is the first time the original 1971 show is not just made available, but accessible. And with the coronavirus pandemic forcing all of us to stay inside, there's definitely some time to give something this weird a try.
TokuSHOUTsu launches March 17.