This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Power Rangers franchise in the United States. On August 28, 1993, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers first aired, capturing the imagination of millions of children, myself included. We had seen nothing like it before: too young to understand the precedents of Voltron and Godzilla, we were enchanted by colorful heroes, buffoonish evil monsters, appealingly Manichean morality, and gigantic robots that responded to teenagers’ commands. With the advent of Jurassic Park that same year, the dinosaur motif was particularly well-timed, feeding on a craze that exploded until Power Rangers had cornered a third of the action figure market in mere months.
For us kids, Power Rangers was like nothing we’d ever seen. What we failed to understand is that the special-effects-heavy show was made possible by adapting footage from the 1992 show Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, from Toei Studios in Japan. The English translation of the name: Dinosaur Squadron Beastranger. What was even more obscured from us is that Zyuranger itself was the 16th installment in a long-running Super Sentai franchise that dated back to the ’70s.
The massive history of Super Sentai has been the subject of hundreds of its own articles, but the short version is that it coalesced out of many influences–including kaiju films, giant robot anime, the concept of the henshin or transforming hero, and even Spider-Man–in the heyday of the Japanese special effects industry. Using techniques pioneered in the ’50s for Godzilla, every studio produced its own take on superheroes fighting kaiju. The major innovation of the Super Sentai family of programs was their focus on a 3-5 person team of heroes who shared a theme.
The foundations for lasting success were laid very early by a combination of serendipity and savvy. Rather than letting characters, villains, and designs go stale, the production team started a whole new show every year. This led to a relationship with Bandai, the toy company, that was positively symbiotic. The uniforms eventually settled into that famous spandex outerwear with opaque helmet. That way, stunt performers could handle the elaborate fight sequences (and remain employed year after year, gaining experience) even as a fresh crop of actors and characters rotated in. Even if fans responded poorly to one incarnation, there was always the next to look forward to.
By the time of Zyuranger, the formula and appearance of Super Sentai was so robust that it was able to play with genre pretty radically while maintaining its classic look and feel. The battlesuits, laser guns, and giant robots had, in every series previous, been sci-fi elements. Super Sentai was an incarnation of the long tradition of Japanese science fiction, after all. In fact it was not uncommon for the Sentai to be members of a government agency with advanced technology, a la Ultraman.
For Zyuranger, even though they were still building rangers and robots for Bandai, the production team decided to create their own epic fantasy. Even outside the spandex, these Rangers were costumed heroes, who had been frozen in time for 190 million years, having lived alongside the dinosaurs and other great beasts. Their eternal foe is Bandora, who is a Western fairy tale witch, always seeking to draw innocent children into her wicked plots, and paying fealty to Satan. Though they still are each associated with a giant robot, in this case the robot is a “Guardian Beast” who is fully sentient. And the robots do not combine into a greater form just to win battles; they are actually the pieces of a near-omnipotent god of the dinosaurs, DaiZyuJin. And yes, the Yellow Ranger was a dude.
Enter Haim Saban, a children’s show producer who had previously been responsible for Inspector Gadget. A light bulb apparently went off in his brain the first time he saw a Sentai series. Since most action scenes take place with the heroes in full, face-obscuring costumes, with a little dubbing you could make an action series without having to shoot any of the action yourself. He shopped the idea around for years, and by the time he had a greenlight and made all the agreements with Toei Studios, the material he had to adapt into Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was…Zyuranger.
But there was clearly no simple way to translate Zyuranger. First of all, due to cultural differences, there was no way that a Satan-worshipping child-murdering witch would be acceptable. So while Witch Bandora was memorably adapted into Empress Rita Repulsa, much of the material filmed with this character was unusable (ever notice just how repetitive the Rita scenes get over time)? In addition, some of the more intense death and city-destruction scenes were also ultimately deemed inappropriate. And some stuff, such as a scene where a young child is “grown” by Bandora and snatches DaiZyuJin’s sword, I would imagine was rightly dismissed as “just too freakin’ weird.”
Second, in Zyuranger the differences between the characters when they are “morphed” and when they are in their normal form were pretty modest. The Zyurangers still wear color-coded ceremonial garb, ride dinosaur-themed motorcycles, and have super-strength even before they transform! For this reason, much of the ACTION in the show was unusable as well, which if you recall was the whole point of this exercise. To get around this, first Saban made the protagonists ordinary high school students who are granted powers, an idea that may have been borrowed from the earlier Sentai series Turboranger. This made the Rangers more relatable to a young audience. He also combined the characters of Barza and DaiZyuJin from Zyuranger into the singular mentor figure / deus ex machina Zordon. Zordon had the ability to teleport the Rangers anywhere as they transformed, which allowed the production to use roughly the second half of every Zyuranger fight. This is why fights with the monsters begin VERY abruptly in MMPR.
Finally, Saban correctly sensed that in a production that was going to introduce the concept of superheroes with giant robots to a new audience, he couldn’t have the robots ALSO be sentient gods. And so the Guardian Beasts became the simple “Zord” automatons. This had the beneficial effect of clearing up a plot hole from Zyuranger – why sometimes the Beasts must be called and piloted by the Rangers, and sometimes act on their own instead.
The challenges faced by the first Power Rangers production team resulted in a show that was very rough around the edges, but all the more memorable for it. Watching the first season of Power Rangers and looking for the footage switches, or comparing episode plots to Zyuranger, is a lot of fun. In attempting to reconcile the blatant fairy-tale/fantasy setting of Zyuranger with the high-tech-looking gear of the heroes, they wound up creating a memorable “technology vs. magic” motif, as Linkara pointed out in his popular video series. More importantly, it inspired a creative, can-do attitude in the culture of the Power Rangers production staff that a more straightforward translation of Super Sentai wouldn’t have.
Let’s take the famous “Green Ranger Saga” as an example. One way in which adapting Zyuranger was very fortuitous is because this was the first Sentai to introduce a true “sixth ranger,” a ranger with powers just like the heroes but who is not as firmly aligned with them. This opens up a wide range of different plots and conflicts. It also had the effect of adding an additional robot to the fighting scenes and making them even more spectacular. Nowadays it’s considered almost essential for Super Sentai and Power Rangers to introduce a sixth (or even seventh or eighth) team member midway through the season to mix things up.
As those of us of a certain age remember like it was yesterday, in MMPR Rita Repulsa comes into possession of a sixth Power Coin. Rita kidnaps a fellow teenager and magically compels him to obey her. Since he has a Power Coin, the Green Ranger can enter the Power Rangers’ base and injure Zordon so he can no longer guide the Rangers. The Green Ranger proves capable of defeating all of the Rangers, and teleports the Red Ranger into another dimension. Rita gives the Green Ranger the “Sword of Darkness,” which somehow maintains her control over him. She then casts a spell to cut off the Megazord from its solar power source and has Green Ranger and her other generals beat the hell out of it till it is destroyed. Green Ranger is then given the “Dragon Dagger” by Rita, which summons his own Zord. He tears up the city until the Rangers revive Zordon. Zordon then resurrects the Megazord like it ain’t no thing and the Rangers beat up the Green Ranger till he’s good again (shooting and obliterating the Sword of Darkness). However, Rita retains enough control over the Green Powers to create the Green Candle, which she burns down to drain away the Green Ranger’s power, forcing him to retire before long.
The major difference from Zyuranger is that Burai, the Dragon Ranger, was never enchanted to be evil. He’s an ancient warrior like the Zyurangers, but is the Red Ranger’s estranged, hateful older brother. Burai fights to kill the Zyurangers and take over the world, leading to an alliance of convenience with Bandora, who does indeed give him a powerful evil sword. In this version the Red Ranger isn’t teleported to another dimension, he just forsakes his ability to transform for a little while because he doesn’t want to kill his brother. Therefore, MMPR couldn’t show him on screen when the Zyurangers confront Burai, and had to invent the other-dimension story. In a fun little illustration of how tonally different Zyuranger could be, DaiZyuJin summons ITSELF and demands that the Red Ranger execute Burai. When he refuses, DaiZyuJin attacks him!
Bandora “destroys” DaiZyuJin in this version too. But here, Burai attacks her afterwards, and she defeats him. Burai then meets a good sprite, Clotho, who presents him with the Dragon Dagger to summon his Guardian Beast. Writing around this storyline is why in MMPR Rita inexplicably doles out gifts piecemeal to the Green Ranger, which opened the question of why she didn’t just summon Dragonzord herself ages ago. Burai does start wrecking the city, and Bandora sends her own generals down to fight him (a sequence that was used in a different episode of Power Rangers, after Green Ranger had already turned good). The Red Ranger defeats Burai, just like in MMPR, but instead of breaking the “spell,” he turns his back and asks Burai to kill him if it will dispel his hatred. Burai is shocked into tears, and the tears fall on his evil sword and dissolve it. Burai begs forgiveness and joins the Zyurangers.
The “Green Candle” plotline, however, was even more different. Burai’s Green Candle represented his remaining life. His dagger let him travel mystically back and forth from a “Timeless Room” which housed the candle. He could stay in the room indefinitely, but whenever he left it the candle would burn down. By the time he discovered the Green Candle he had only thirty hours left.
This is why the Green Ranger hardly appears in Power Rangers after he turned good–Burai only appeared in the direst need. Burai does eventually succumb, and I’ve heard repeatedly that Burai’s death was almost adapted directly for Power Rangers. But the producers were wary, given that Tommy the Green Ranger was incredibly popular. In addition, death in a kid’s show is a much bigger deal here than it is in Japan. So to match the Green Ranger-less footage from the end of the season, the Power Rangers crew just took away Tommy’s ability to morph, leaving open the door for him to come back some day. Which he did…again…and again…and again…in fact he’s guest starring in THIS year’s incarnation of Power Rangers.
Where the story really gets interesting is the ending. Like all Sentai shows, Zyuranger had a definite ending in which the villains come closer than ever to destroying the heroes, but in the end are thoroughly defeated. In Zyuranger, Bandora summons her boss Satan (a giant floating head) who then enlists her undead son to attack the Zyuangers. Ultimately, the heroes manage to kill Bandora’s son (and Satan), and her grief causes her to lose her powers as a witch.
Initially, Power Rangers was going to adapt this story more or less straight, with the teens encountering and killing off Rita’s son “Bubba.” Zyuranger’s “Satan” was already established as the more mundane monster “Lokar.” Then Rita would lose her power and Zordon would end the Power Rangers’ tenure. A cameo for Tommy was even filmed, since the spirit of Burai appears briefly in the source material.
The problem was that Power Rangers was too damn popular to let it end and try again next year with a whole new series. Saban, newly flush with cash, needed to strike when the iron was hot. He removed all references to Rita’s/Bandora’s son and had the villains beat a more usual retreat. Zordon still offers to take the Ranger powers for some reason, but they refuse him. And good thing too, because Rita’s back at it again the next episode!
How did they pull this off? They were entirely out of Zyuranger episodes to adapt! In a unique move for the franchise, Saban commissioned Toei Studios to produce brand new fight footage meant exclusively for Power Rangers. This allowed the season to proceed onward with a noticeable uptick in quality (the transitions became less violent and the stunt footage more cognizant of the Power Rangers’ characters). It also allowed Tommy to return as the Green Ranger. Moreover, without having to deal with the exceptional weirdness and fairy-tale quality of Zyuranger, MMPR established a more consistent sci-fi tone. The production team also became more confident staging fights on their own. Eventually, the commissioned footage ran out, but Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers managed to continue for another two years by creating wholly original plots and using footage from Gosei Sentai Dairanger and Ninja Sentai Kakuranger for the giant robot battles.
As with all things though, the hype started to wear off and the money started to run out, so starting with Power Rangers Zeo, the Power Rangers franchise went back to repeatedly adapting the Sentai series of the previous year. Some years, the Power Rangers storyline is surprisingly radical and original compared to the Sentai storyline–such as Power Rangers in Space and Power Rangers Lost Galaxy–and some years it is a straightforward adaptation, such as Power Rangers Time Force and Power Rangers SPD. And sometimes, it’s just a muddled mess. (I’m not naming names). But while quality may vary, the successful adaptation of Zyuranger for American audiences created an evergreen franchise that is going as strong as ever, 20 years later. And while it’s definitely for kids, for adults it can be a fascinating study in adaptation and writing with constraints.