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Why tokusatsu, Power Ranger style shows, became so huge in Indonesia, and the diehard fans who made their own series

JAKARTA — Grotesque aliens and flamboyant robots may be the stuff of fantasy but, decades after first appearing on Indonesian television screens, they still captivate Komutoku’s thousands of members.

Komutoku members perform in tokusatsu costume at the Jakarta Little Tokyo Ennichisai Festival.

Komutoku members perform in tokusatsu costume at the Jakarta Little Tokyo Ennichisai Festival.

JAKARTA — Grotesque aliens and flamboyant robots may be the stuff of fantasy but, decades after first appearing on Indonesian television screens, they still captivate Komutoku’s thousands of members.

Short for Komunitas Tokusatsu, or Tokusatsu Community, the group is a forum and meeting space for devotees of tokusatsu — a term that translates to “special effects” and means Japanese live-action films or television series that are big on special effects and superhero scenarios. They generally appeal to a younger audience.

Stars of tokusatsu include kaiju — giant Godzilla-like monsters — and humans who turn into robot-like superheroes through the process of henshin, or transformation, such as those in the Metal Hero Henshin series. Indonesians are particularly fond of these warriors.

The genre originated in early 1950s Japan and became popular in Indonesia in the 1980s. It found broader international appeal when the Americanised henshin series, Power Rangers, debuted in 1993.

Heroes are either lone warriors or a group of diverse characters dubbed the Super Sentai — or “task force” — who battle monsters with gimmicky super powers and absurd moves. The monsters look like a combination of animal and alien, with sociopolitical, mythological or pop culture references.

“One of the things I loved about tokusatsu were the costume designs, both of the heroes and villains,” says Mr Ferdi Firdaus Ahmad, 38, a Komutoku co-founder. Like many Indonesians, he fell for the genre as a young child.

“But it was also the stories, which were about good versus evil, all sprinkled with drama and comedy, and sometimes even horror. The essence of the stories was relatable to people of all ages, and not just kids.”

Mr Ahmad is nicknamed Verde in the Komutoku community after a character from the series Kamen Rider Ryuki, part of the long-lasting and highly popular Kamen Rider series that features heroes who turn into robots with insect-like features.

Modern versions of tokusatsu are still being produced, but the genre originally found its place in the hearts of Indonesians in the late 1980s, when video rental was a thriving business and tokusatsu titles were widely stocked.

At the time there was only one local television channel in the Southeast Asian nation, and — for those who could afford it — one nascent half-day cable channel. A number of American cartoons were popular back then, but only a few evoke as much nostalgia today as the Japanese live-action shows.

“Tokusatsu have all kinds of special effects, they’re colourful and they’ve got great-looking casts — it’s a feast for the eyes,” says Ms Sonia Rizki, 28, Komutoku’s Facebook page administrator.

Komutoku’s leader, 45-year-old Marzuki Nuril, says the genre’s popularity skyrocketed in Indonesia in the early 1990s. “Tokusatsu was already familiar to us through the video rental era, but it became more popular when our local television stations started broadcasting them,” he says.

A growing number of cable channels, some eventually becoming free to view, broadcast tokusatsu series with Indonesian subtitles, unlike some rental videos. Channels that remained paid services would provide a few hours of free programming to entice new customers. As a result, tokusatsu programmes were screened during after-school, kid-friendly hours.

The tokusatsu programmes produced today are made using arguably more sophisticated special effects and are considered by some viewers to be more progressive and inclusive — “attracting more female fans”, says Mr Nuril – but old-school devotees regard the late 1980s and early ’90s as the genre’s glory days.

“The effects are more elaborate today, but it looks too current and colourful with monotonous stories,” Ms Rizki says. She also laments the addition of needless gear and costumes, which she considers too blatant an attempt to ensure there is a plentiful supply of related merchandise to sell.

A lack of funds drove the ingenuity of the genre’s early creators, she adds. “In the old days, the budgets were small so the costumes were simple, and they had to be creatively designed, and so looked really attractive.”

Komutoku’s Facebook group has more than 8,000 members who regularly congregate wearing the costumes of their favourite characters at cosplay-like events. Some even take part in major exhibitions, such as the annual Japanese-centric Ennichisai festival in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, which usually attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors during its two-day run.

“We do everything, from discussing tokusatsu series and sharing information about upcoming news and activities all the way to singing karaoke of tokusatsu theme songs together,” says Mr Nuril. “It’s a great feeling to get together.”

The group also usually holds a large annual gathering during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, where they break their fast together after sunset, and hold talk shows and quizzes about their shared hobby — but not this year.

During quarantine measures in place during the coronavirus pandemic, the community has instead been running a collaborative project: Musically inclined members have been performing covers of their favourite tokusatsu songs.

Back in 2012, Komutoku produced two episodes of its own tokusatsu series called Wild Warden Lennaiger, about an archaeology student who turns into a superhero, directed by community member Josep Tri Ronggo. Modest, but featuring some impressive special effects, the episodes can be viewed on YouTube.

The popularity of Komutoku’s activities proves one thing, Ms Rizki says: “There are a lot of grown-up tokusatsu fans.”

The group’s members range in age from teenagers to devotees in their fifties, and also include fans from Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

Komutoku started life in 2006 when a small group of friends came together in an online community intended to promote a short-lived tokusatsu magazine called Henshin.

“After a year, this magazine was forced to close down,” says Mr Nuril. “The membership of the forum had reached 5,000 people. We thought it would be a shame if the forum had to be closed because we already had so many members. So, in 2007, my friends and I continued the forum (on Facebook) with a new name, Komutoku.”

The group was initially managed by seven members and the administrators now include Mr Nuril, Mr Ahmad, Ms Rizki and Mr Erland Arisandi, who is second-in-command to Mr Nuril.

“The very first tokusatsu series I saw was Choudenshi Bioman (Super Electron Bioman in English). I was around five or six years old,” Mr Nuril recalls. “The looks, the transformation process, the roll-call, and the exclaiming of names are some of the reasons I liked it.”

Older Komutoku members rarely engage in cosplay, but they have been known to wear fancy outfits for special occasions.

“I have a costume that was made by one of the Komutoku members. It’s a Jark Shogun costume from Kamen Rider Black RX series,” Mr Nuril says.

Ms Rizki thinks that for anyone who grew up with tokusatsu, the theme songs of their favourite series live on in their souls. She often still sings tunes from the Turboranger and Kamen Rider Black series.

Komutoku hopes to recruit more members, and Mr Nuril says the group could launch a “reinventing the community” type of rebranding project. “We’d like to present ourselves more throughout Indonesia,” he says.

According to the group’s members, tokusatsu has universal appeal. Every time they gather for a meet up, or look at their large private tokusatsu figurine collections, they are reminded of the reasons they have remained passionate about the genre for so long.

“When I was a kid, I watched some anime series, including super robot stuff,” Mr Nuril recalls. “But, as I grew up, anime was no longer an interest. Tokusatsu are live-action movies; it’s close to real life.”

Mr Ahmad says he remembers feeling touched when his name popped up on the credits to Wild Warden Lennaiger –=ù “even though I only helped out a bit here and there”. He was also moved when Komutoku celebrated its 10th anniversary a few years ago. As a co-founder, he felt a unique sense of pride.

“When you hang out with people with the same niche taste, there’s nothing like it,” he says. “We could have strongly different opinions about the same tokusatsu series, for instance, but that’s often the reason our conversations are so alive.” SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

Related topics

Indonesia pop culture Power Rangers

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