The Henshin Boom | Sunday Observer

The Henshin Boom

12 March, 2023

The Henshin Boom refers to a Japanese media phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s, characterized by an explosion in the popularity of superhero shows and tokusatsu (special effects) programming.

The term “henshin”, literally translated from Japanese as ‘Transform’, refers to the transformation of the hero from their ordinary self into their superhero form. The heroes of this genre needed to transform in between these two states, usually depicted with an elaborate transformation sequence, introducing popular aspects of western superhero comics, such as costumes, hero teams, and secret identities into tokusatsu.

Henshin heroes quickly became a staple feature for many of the shows that were popular during this period, inspiring many media franchises even outside of Japan.

The Henshin Boom can be traced back to the success of the show “Kamen Rider,” which debuted on Japanese television in 1971, codifying many of the classic tropes of not just Henshin shows, but tokusatsu and action shows as a whole. Created by veteran manga author Shotaro Ishinomori, “Kamen Rider” followed the adventures of a young man named Takeshi Hongo, battling the evil organization known as Shocker, who converted him into a transforming cyborg.

The success of “Kamen Rider” paved the way for a slew of other shows that followed a similar format, employing the use of a techno themed hero and sometimes a thematic vehicle. These shows featured ordinary people who were transformed into superheroes, often with the help of some kind of device or artifact. Kamen Rider included much heavier stories that tackled social issues, something relatively new for tokusatsu programming at the time.

Super Sentai

One of the most popular shows of the Henshin Boom was “Super Sentai,” which debuted in 1975 directly following the immense success of Kamen Rider.

The first “Super Sentai” show, Himitsu Sentai Gorenger was also created by Shotaro Ishinomori and featured a team of heroes who were each given a special suit and weapon, banding together to fight the evil “Black Cross Army”.

The tone of Sentai shows were far more lighthearted than Kamen Rider, and worked off the character dynamics between the unique, color coded team members.

The success of the first Super Sentai led to the start of a franchise that would become a juggernaut in Japan, spawning over 2,000 episodes across 50 sequel shows and spin offs. In addition to the creation of a number of other team-based shows and media, including “Power Rangers,” which was adapted for American audiences in the 1990s.

Another popular show of the Henshin Boom was “Ultraman,” which first aired in 1966 and served as a transitional show from Kaiju oriented tokusatsu into Henshin tokusatsu, as it had both in the form of a transforming hero and giant monsters. The show was notable for its use of special effects, which were groundbreaking at the time, especially for television programming. Kamen Rider and Super Sentai rose from the foundations that Ultraman set, and took the henshin genre into two unique directions.

Mech robots

The 1978 Japanese TV adaptation of Spider Man was also a revolutionary and influential series for tokusatsu and henshin heroes, introducing concepts such as mech robots, and its success cemented a long term import relationship between Western properties and Japanese media. The most instrumental aspect of Henshin shows that made it so much more lucrative than its kaiju predecessors was its merchandising potential.

Many of the shows featured heroes who had unique outfits, weapons or vehicles, that regularly changed up throughout the franchise, all of which were turned into massively successful toy lines for the Japanese public.

The merchandising success of a show would almost guarantee the continuation of the franchise into another iteration, resulting in many Henshin shows that seem very similar to outsiders, but to fans of the show, the minute design and story differences make the merchandise unique and valuable.

The Henshin Boom had a significant impact on Japanese culture and its entertainment industry. The shows were hugely popular with both children and adults, and they helped to shape the popular imagination. The popularity of the shows also led to an increased interest in special effects and other forms of visual media, which inspired generations of new high profile industry professionals not just in tokusatsu, but in all media.

Today, long past the heyday of the Henshin Boom, the period is often seen as a nostalgic time for Japanese culture. Many of the shows and characters from this era remain popular with modern audiences, and continue to inspire sequels, remakes and reboots of franchises to huge acclaim.