They look like Power Rangers. They fight like Power Rangers. They even morph like Power Rangers.
But these heroes battling five sword-wielding females in gray masks and miniskirts during a TV shoot on a recent winter day are arguably better than the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
They are Ninja Rangers--the next generation of America's hottest youth heroes from the people who created them in the first place--Toei Studios of Japan.
Unbeknown to many Power Ranger fans, the Japanese film company created the original characters and licenses their use to Saban Entertainment of Burbank. Saban, in turn, mixes the Japanese action clips with its own footage featuring the familiar American teen-agers who transform into heroes against the dastardly Lord Zedd and Rita Repulsa, Empress of Evil.
Yet here in Japan, where new products and programs are cycled in and out with numbing speed, the Ninja Rangers are already passe. Just a few days earlier, Toei had given the media here a sneak peek at the next, next generation of Rangers: King Rangers--or Hyper Power Rangers. (Toei hasn't yet decided on the English name.)
These are dashing young fighters of a global peacekeeping brigade endowed with mystical powers gleaned from a pyramid. They are set to debut in May.
In fact, while Power Ranger mania may have hit the United States just 18 months ago, Toei this year is marking the 20th anniversary of its heroes, who, despite the passage of time, still rank as the most popular children's program in Japan. And thanks to Saban, the Rangers--now broadcast in 20 countries--are well on their way to becoming Japan's biggest international screen stars since Godzilla.
"We never dreamed it would come to this," said Susumu Yoshikawa, a Toei TV division chief in charge of the Ranger series. "But as long as the Rangers are popular, we'll do it forever."
That would be no easy task. One reason the Rangers have stayed as popular as they are for as long as they have is because Toei dreams up a new theme for them each and every year. King Rangers is the 19th version of the original heroes, known simply as "Five Rangers."
"It's really tough to keep coming up with new ideas," Yoshikawa said. "We always have to look ahead of the times."
The "Five Rangers" was created in 1975 when Toei was casting about for a group of heroes. The studio hit on the idea of having each Ranger wear a bright, distinctive color to take advantage of the color TVs sweeping Japan.
Although the "Five Rangers" lasted two years, Toei decided to replace them with a new version every year after that. Since then, there have been Turbo Rangers. Bioman, Flashman and Liveman Rangers. Goggle Five Rangers. Battle Fever J Rangers.
The Power Rangers that American children know and love are fashioned after No. 16, formally known as the Beast Rangers of the Dinosaur Corps. Yoshikawa said the studio chose that theme to ride on the dinosaur fever generated by "Jurassic Park."
King Rangers were created with two trends in mind: Japan's growing participation in global peacekeeping forces, and what Toei producer Shigenori Takatera called an increasing interest in "strange and mysterious power."
Takatera said amulets from Easter Island and other talismans have been selling briskly in Japan, suggesting growing interest in the psychic and spiritual realms. "We thought this might be a major theme and target of interest for the 21st Century," he said.
The Ninja Rangers were inspired by the interest in Japan's ancient stealth fighters, popularized by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
A recent visit to a film shoot in this port city outside Tokyo gave a taste of pure, original Ninja Ranger action. About 100 fans braced against the chill to watch the heroes film the climactic final scene of their yearlong TV series. The intense silence was broken only by the producer's occasional command--"Jump!"--as the Rangers prepared to push the nefarious Daimao, or "Colossal Evil," back into hyperfreeze using an energy beam from the heavens and the stealthy fighting techniques of their ninja ancestors.
According to Toei's story line, one of the Ninja Rangers accidentally unfreezes Daimao and unleashes him and his hooligans--including his sexy bodyguards, the "Flower Ninja" female fighting quintet--onto an unsuspecting world. The Rangers spend most of the year's weekly TV series battling to push them back into the otherworldly dimension of deep freeze.
On this particular day, both kids and grown-ups watch the action, transfixed. As 2-year-old Chiaki Tagawa shrieked, wide-eyed, "Daimao is dead!" her mother eyed the handsome actor in the blue Ranger costume--her favorite.
"There are no good men around me," she sighed, explaining why she is just as taken by the Rangers' world of fantasy as her children.
Toei's core team of five people begin their brainstorming each April, after the year's new Ranger series premieres in February. They closely consult with Bandai Co. Ltd., the Japanese toy manufacturer that develops the character figures that have become America's hottest Christmas item for the past two years.
(In Japan, the Rangers line ranked third in Christmas sales, pulling in $102 million--one-third the projected U.S. sales. Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball ranked first and second, respectively.)
"What the Rangers comes down to is a perfect expression of good versus evil . . . saving the weak and prevailing over the bad guys," said a Bandai spokeswoman. "We think the reason American children like it so much is that it's really the first action program aimed specifically at them. Until now, there's mainly been animated cartoons and programs."
The yearly line of new Ranger toys keeps Bandai's factories buzzing--but also forces beleaguered parents to constantly feed their children's appetites for the latest items. They don't come cheaply.
While the Power Rangers figure set sells for up to $10 in the United States, Japanese children prefer the companion robots--which are significantly more expensive. The Invincible Shogun, the Ninja line's granddaddy of robots, which is made up of the five Ranger robots, retails for about $80.
Bandai also puts out other paraphernalia, ranging from the mystical scroll on which the ninja secrets are etched to smaller robots and Rangers candy.
Kanako Yamashita, 36, figures she spends about $400 every year on Ranger toys for her two children, Rie, 7, and Ryosuke, 3. "I'm made to buy them," she groaned. "All of their friends have them."
Even Takatera, the Toei producer, is chided by his friends every time he and his team spin out a new Rangers series. "They always complain to me: 'You're coming out with something new again?' "
In addition, a Rangers stage show featuring the heroes in live battle scenes is performed every week at Tokyo's Korakuen Park. The shows are invariably sold out.
Although the U.S. production of Power Rangers is not expected to undergo such rapid changes, the Toei team said some elements of the new versions may gradually be introduced. As a result, they are now consulting with Saban over their program content. So far, Saban has made two requests: Less violence and at least two of the Rangers should be girls.
Despite the Rangers' longstanding popularity, however, future trends here don't look bright--one reason the move into overseas markets comes at a fortuitous time. Japan's population of children is shrinking, and the average number of children a woman will bear is now at an all-time low. Largely as a result, the Rangers' TV ratings have steadily dropped over the years and now stand at about 7.5%.
Still, Toei is not particularly worried. Asked how long the Rangers will last, Takatera smiled.
"As long as there are children," he said.
Researcher Megumi Shimizu in The Times Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.