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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Henshin Transformation Through The Ages

Henshin Transformation Through The Ages
Originally uploaded by timtak

When Japanese superheroe transform they do not hide their true identity. They have a human identity but it is often no secret. If there is a secret, then their transformation serves to dispel secrecy, demonstrate a continuity, and reveal their true identity.

The transformation of Japanese superheroes often involves a sort of ritual. Heroes strike a specific pose, say a specific and individual trasnsformatory phrase, and or manipulate a symbol such as brandish a special card, or insert a speaking chip into a slot into their belt. Thus, Japanese superheroes transform, ontologically (please see previous post) after manipulating symbols in a codified way. Irrespective of whether or not there is an ontological change, the pose, invocation of the transformation phrase, and the manipulation of a concrete symbol, are the catalysts for the transformation.

A Typology of the mechanism of Heroic Transformation
The transformation (henshin変身) of Japanese superheroes is precipitated by the first three of the following elements or properies.

1) Transformation Pose
Japanese superheroes strike a pose to transform. Young Japanese boys often imitate these poses. Striking specific poses are popular in Japanese society. Like the "kata" of Noh performers, a "pose" often consists of a specific movement, which freezes, or almost freezes, into a specific bodily position. Japanese strike specified poses when they are having their photographs taken. Japanese baseball players strike specific poses when they come to bat (and not only Ichiro, the one legged stance of Sadaharu Oh is also immediately recognisable). Japanese comedians often have specific poses which draw laughs, such as Beat Takeshi's imitation of the attire of Nadia Comăneci , called the “Komanecchi" pose. Imagine Clark Kent, putting one fist to his chest and his other pointing up into the air.

2) Transformation Phrase
This phrase often designates the process of transformation, so the word "transform" (henshin変身) is commonly heard. Similarly, in the Tomika Rescue Fire series members all say "suits on” (chaku-sou) which is a name for the transformation itself. However, transformatory phrases are often individual and designate the being into which the hero is about to become. Thus the transformatory phrase is often sort of a self-naming. Imagine Clark Kent saying "Transform (me into) Superman."

3) Transformation Symbolic Artefact
Kamen Riders and the Tomika Rescue force used magnetic cards swiped into a reader on their belts. The Tomika Rescue fire heroes use a robot megaphone which on hearing the transformatory command (2) above. Super Sentai Go-Onger heroes insert a small electronic box that speaks certain phrases (called an "engine soul") which are also inserted into their belts. These same devices are used to transform their weapons and vehicles. Ultraman used a pen, spectacles, and even a toothbrush. These objects are signs comprising a physical signifying substrate and a significant, often linguistic, meaning. Taken together, imagine that Clark Kent must take out and present a Superman “S” sign, while performing a Superman salute, while shouting “Transform, Superman.”

4) Putting on a Super Suit
Western superheroes generally don a special costume when they transform. Batman is the "Caped Crusader." Clark Kent would be a strange sort of superhero without his Superman suit. A change in appearance is de rigueur for transformation into a Western style superhero. Japanese superheroes change their suits too but often from one super-suit, to another super equipped one. Further, this super-suiting-up, is the result of the transformation rather than its catalyst. In Japan, symbolic manipulations (posing, shouting, manipulating symbols) give rise to the change in appearance, rather than the change in appearance giving rise to the change to super-hero status.

Japanese heroes use of symbols prior to transformation is nothing new. It is also a characteristic of the immensely popular Japanese "period dramas," viewed by adults, such as "Mitokoumon," "Touyama no Kin-san" and "MomoTaroZamurai." In all of these and more, just before the climatic fight or denouement, the heroes undergo a transformation precipitated by the manipulation and presentation of symbols.

Mitokoumon appears to be a harmless old man wandering the country with his companions. At crucial points in the narrative however, one of his companions takes out a badge and points to the seal thereupon, exclaiming “Stand down! Don't you see this seal!" ("Hikaero! konomondokoro ga me ni hairanu ka"控えろ!この紋所が目に入らぬかぁ"). The seal in question is that of the Shogun, indicating that the humble old man is in fact the Shogun's uncle. Mitokoumon and his entourage then proceed to fight, and dispatch a multitude of enemies with their swords.

Momotaro Samurai is similarly unassuming up to immediately prior to the sword-fighting scene where he strikes a pose, and announces his identity with a sort of poem about his origins. It transpires that he is in fact, like Mitokoumon, related to a feudal lord. His enemies quake at his name before Momotaro dispatches them with splendid, seemingly-bloodless, swordsmanship, and heavy handed music (itself another feature of this genre).

Touyama no Kin-san, another wandering would-be-harmless man, but this time a playboy, performs a double transition. Immediately prior to cutting up all but the most powerful of his enemies, he announces himself by showing his tattoos of a cherry blossom snowstorm. At the very end of the same episode however, when the leaders of the baddies kneel to receive judgement from the local feudal lord (?), the feudal lord bears his right shoulder exclaiming "Don't say you don't remember this cherry blossom," (この桜吹雪の刺青に見覚えがねえといわせねえぜ Kono sakura fubuki ni mioboe ga nee to iwasenee ze) at which point the baddies realise that he is none other than the "playboy" that dispatched their minions earlier with his sword, and that their fate is also sealed.

My wife used to wonder why no one attacked these heroes in that moment when they are performing their ritual. It is as if time freezes, all viewers stand agape.

These traditional period drama transformations are of the epistemological type popular in the West. The transformations are not ontological. The samurai are no better swordsmen as a result of their transformation. The transformation of Japanese period play heroes effects only what is known about them. However, in complete opposition to the cape wearing of Batman, the Caped Crusader, and the other super suits of Western superheroes, the transformation Japanese superheroes is always carried out in full view, and the symbols they use serve not to hide a secret identity but to inform enemies of their true identity, and to demonstrate its continuity.

Transformations preceded by Self-Referential Symbols in the Real Word.
Finally, in the real world, Japanese Samurai warriors were required to state their name before attacking their enemies. Before drawing their sword they said something like "I am Tanaka, a warrior retained by the enemy of your leader, Suzuki and I hereby challenge/attack you." While not preceding a transformation Japanese Yakuza were required to go and state their name, in a ritual self naming (knees bent, palm outstretch) to the heads of the Yakuza in the towns through which they pass. The self-naming of “Tora san” at the beginning of the Otoko wa tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, "It's tough being a man") is related to that tradition. While again there is no transformation, Japanese businessmen to this day get down to business after first manipulating their special symbol, their "meishi" or business card.

By Way of Conclusion
I am not at all sure what is going on, but from a structuralist perspective, the differences and similarities with Western heroes and their transformations seem to be systematic. Further in conformance with the Takemoto theory, I suggest that there is a topological shift in the visual-symbolic plane: Japanese superheroes use words and symbols to transform their appearance. Western superheroes use changes of appearance to transform their status and people’s perceptions of who there are.

I also compare the "symbolic transformation" of Japanese superheroes with the way in which Western monsters are outed by symbols, and Western love romances contain a symbolic outing, or declaration of love.

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The original Kamen Riders were kaizo ningen, reconstructed humans or cyborgs. They were energized by their henshin belts, except for Amazon. The first 1, 2, V3 were wind powered as was #7 Skyrider.#6 Stronga or Stronger was electric. Amazon got his power from an armband and was magic based.

The Gorangers got their powers from their suits. JAKQ were cyborgs. Battle Fever J it was power suits again. Some of the other super sentai supposed to be science based, others magical.

Rainbowman got his powers from a Hindu guru. Diamond Eye was essentially a genie. Kaiketsu Lion Maru, Fuun Lion Maru and Henshin Ninja Arashi all magical heroes from the past, when samurai and ninja existed.

Kikaida, Kikaida-01, Bijinda and Metalder were jinzo ningen, artificial humans or androids, robots that could disguise themselves as human when not in combat mode.

Denjin Zaboga was a robot that could transform into a motorcycle. Denjin Zaboga was trhe first live action trasnformer.

Kaiketsu Zubat wore a power suit. Toei's version of Spiderman got his powers from an alien spider and wore a costume to disguise his identity.

Most of the Ultras as well as Fireman had hand held henshin devices.

Another fan is helping me to have Henshin Hall of Fame return online.
Thank you ZoneFighter1. You are very knowledgeable. Are you Japanese? I am just thinking of writing about the differences between Japanese and Western heros at last. The problem is that the topic is huge.

Perhaps the original Kamen Riders were influenced by Western superheroes? There are quite a lot of super human mutants in the Western hero tradition (Hulk, X-Men, "Ben Boxer and his friends Steve and Renzi, a trio of mutants genetically engineered to survive in Earth") whereas mutants tend to occur as baddies in Japan, more often I think.

If there is a continuum between having a super body and having a super suit, it seems to me that Westerners are more likely to tend towards the former, whereas Japanese the latter -suits.

You kindly point out Japanese exceptions, where the heros are in part powerful themselves, not just their suits.

On the Western side there are a few suit wearers, most famously Iron Man. Spider Man is a sorty of cross over since in the DC Comic original he got his power partly from an animal (a spider) like many Super Sentai, and partly from his suit (like the majority of Japanese heroes). Batman gets part of his power from his suit.

Green Lantern gets his power from a ring, which is a bit like the henshin-items that almost all Japanese heroes have, such as the handheld henshin devices of Ultramen and the "Fireman."

By fireman do you mean Tomika's REscue Force? My son had a henshin loudhailer. Henshin devices almost have something to do with language or symbols and they often make a noice. They are I think perhaps symbols that can say themselves. Perhaps they are like mirror images that are thought to be able to see themselves each acting as a catalyst to the formation of the self.

Please give me the URL of the Henshin Hall of Fame.

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.