Former TV superheroes a draw for tourists

Michiko Makino, right, a former actress for the “Sentai Series,” talks with customer and fan Tom Constantine at her shop in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, in February.

Suwa Shoten - a long-established shop selling tsukudani, or traditional Japanese preserves, in Tokyo's Tsukiji Outer Market - is frequently visited by foreign tourists.

Their primary aim is to meet Michiko Makino, the proprietress of the shop, which opened in 1929.

Makino, 50, is a former actress who played the role of Hikaru Katsuragi in the TV drama "Chodenshi Bioman" in 1984, a superhero genre drama that used tokusatsu special effects.

Hikaru transforms herself into the squadron heroine Pinkfive. After Makino was introduced on a TV show, tokusatsu fans began coming to the shop, with more and more coming from abroad.

The "Super Sentai Series," which includes "Bioman" and similar serial TV dramas featuring super squadron rangers, marked its 40th anniversary this year.

A total of 39 series have been created, starting with "Himitsu Sentai Gorenger" in 1975 up to the latest "Shuriken Sentai Ninninger," which has been on the air since February.

The series is highly popular overseas as well, and actors from the series are sometimes invited to events abroad.

Foreign fans with figures and maps in hand visit shops and restaurants operated by former squadron rangers, which can be described as a kind of "pilgrimage" by "Sentai Series" fans.

Given their popularity, the five rangers in suits of five different colors could be the heroes for a nation hoping to promote itself as tourism-oriented.

Tom Constantine, a 28-year-old British man from London, is among one of the regular customers of the shop. He was instantly hooked on "Bioman" when he watched the drama online when he was 16.

Constantine said all the factors, including the great development of the stories, profound characters and special effects without using computer graphics, are all attractive to him.

After learning Japanese by watching DVDs of the "Sentai Series" shows, he moved to Tokyo a year and a half ago and now provides information related to tokusatsu dramas online while working as an English teacher.

Recalling the moment when he visited Makino's shop for the first time to see the real Pinkfive, he said he was too nervous to speak Japanese well.

Fans from around the world visit her shop once a week or so. Sometimes, a group of a dozen Taiwanese tourists come to Makino's shop to take commemorative photos in front of the store on their tour of sites related to tokusatsu dramas and shops operated by former rangers.

Even though her shop's tsukudani is made of ingredients like shijimi clams, tiny nama ami krill and other ingredients that those from abroad have maybe never seen before, they usually make sure to buy something at the shop, Makino said.

Makino and Ryosuke Sakamoto, who played the character who transforms himself into Redone in "Bioman," were among those invited to Paris Manga, an event held in Paris in early February.

There, autograph sessions were held six times over two days, attracting about 300 fans each time. Their discussion sessions were always crowded, too.

The cheering and applause from the crowd reverberated as the former rangers tried out their transformation poses.

"I'm very surprised to learn that what I did 30 years ago has such a big impact on people now," Makino said.

Amid the development of the Internet, more and more people who were born after "Bioman" ended are becoming fans of the drama. "Sentai Series Tourism" is likely to be even more popular for years to come.

'Pilgrimage' spots for fans

What kind of spots in Tokyo attract foreign fans of the "Sentai Series"?

Sosei no Tenma featuring tokusatsu special effects is a popular spot.

Located three minutes on foot from Araiyakushi-mae Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line, the cafe and bar is owned by actor Ei Hamura, 41, who appeared in "Gosei Sentai Dairenger" in 1993.

The drama is the 17th instalment of the "Sentai Series." Hamura played the role of Shoji, who transforms himself into Tenmaranger dressed in a blue suit.

"I had never imagined that such a large number of foreigners would come [to my cafe and bar].I was urged to write explanations about the cafe's system in English," Hamura said. "They know very well about tokusatsu in Japan, and it surprises us."

Kei Shindachiya, 47, who played Ken Hoshikawa, or Fiveblue, in the 14th instalment, "Chikyu Sentai Fiveman" in 1990, operates 7's Bar near Ookayama Station along the Tokyu Meguro and Tokyu Oimachi lines.

Shindachiya says foreigners visit his bar after learning about the bar through Facebook and other media.

"Because of its location, foreigners who are not fans of tokusatsu come to the bar, too," Shindachiya said. "Many of them are excited once they learn that I appeared in 'Fiveman.' Some became regular customers after learning that."

Ryosuke Kaizu, 56, who appeared as Takeru, or Redmask, in the 11th instalment, "Hikari Sentai Maskman" in 1987, runs the noodle shop Misoichi Kami-Shakujii Ten about a minute away from Kami-Shakujii Station on the Seibu Shinjuku Line.

The restaurant is popular, especially among visitors from the Philippines and South Korea.