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Morphin Transformation Through the Ages

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posted by Timothy Takemoto alias timtak on Friday 15th of January 2010 04:21:11 AM

When Japanese superheroes transform they do not hide their true identity. They have a human identity but it is often no secret. If there is a secret, then their transformation serves to dispel secrecy, demonstrate a continuity, and reveal their true identity. The transformation of Japanese superheroes often involves a sort of ritual. Heroes strike a specific pose, say a specific and individual trasnsformatory phrase, and or manipulate a symbol such as brandish a special card, or insert a speaking chip into a slot into their belt. Thus, Japanese superheroes transform, ontologically (please see previous post) after manipulating symbols in a codified way. The pose, and invocation of the transformation phrase, the manipulation of a concrete symbol, is a the catalyst for the transformation. A Typology of the mechanism of Heroic Transformation The transformation (henshin変身) of Japanese superheroes is precipitated by the first three of the following elements or properies. 1) Transformation Pose Japanese superheroes strike a pose to transform. Young Japanese boys often imitate these poses. Striking specific poses are popular in Japanese society. Like the "kata" of Noh performers, a "pose" often consists of a specific movement, which freezes, or almost freezes, into a specific bodily position. Japanese strike specified poses when they are having their photographs taken. Japanese baseball players strike specific poses when they come to bat (and not only Ichiro, the one legged stance of Sadaharu Oh is also immediately recognisable). Japanese comedians often have specific poses which draw laughs, such as Beat Takeshi's imitation of the attire of Nadia Comăneci , called the “Komanecchi" pose. Imagine Clark Kent, putting one fist to his chest and his other pointing up into the air. 2) Transformation Phrase This phrase often designates the process of transformation, so the word "transform" (henshin変身) is commonly heard. Similarly, in the Tomika Rescue Fire series members all say "suits on” (chaku-sou) which is a name for the transformation itself. However, transformatory phrases are often individual and designate the being into which the hero is about to become. Thus the transformatory phrase is often sort of a self-naming. Imagine Clark Kent saying "Transform (me into) Superman." 3) Transformation Symbolic Artefact Kamen Riders and the Tomika Rescue force used magnetic cards swiped into a reader on their belts. The Tomika Rescue fire heroes use a special megaphone which on hearing the transformatory command (2) above. Super Sentai Go-Onger heroes insert a small electronic box that speaks certain phrases (called an "engine soul") which are also inserted into their belts. These same devices are used to transform their weapons and vehicles. These objects are signs comprising a physical signifying substrate and a significant, often linguistic, meaning. Taken together, imagine that for Clark Kent to transform into Superman, if he were Japanese, he would have to take out and present a Superman “S” sign, while performing a Superman salute, while shouting “Transform, Superman.” 4) Putting on a Super Suit The use of symbols immediately preceding transformation into a hero is shared by Western superheroes in that Western superheroes generally don a special costume. Batman is the "Caped Crusader." Clark Kent would be a strange sort of superhero without his Superman suit. A change in appearance is de rigueur for transformation into a superhero, Western style. Japanese superheroes change their suits too. However, this super-suiting-up, is the result of the transformation rather than its catalyst. In Japan, symbolic manipulations (posing, shouting, manipulating symbols) give rise to the change in appearance, rather than the change in appearance giving rise to the change to super-hero status. Precidents Japanese heroes use of symbols prior to transformation is nothing new. It is also a characteristic of the immensely popular Japanese "period dramas," viewed by adults, such as "Mitokoumon," "Touyama no Kin-san" and "MomoTaroZamurai." In all of these and more, just before the climatic fight or denouement, the heroes undergo a transformation precipitated by the manipulation and presentation of symbols. Mitokoumon appears to be a harmless old man wandering the country with his companions. At crucial points in the narrative however, he takes out his medicine chest (!well he is old) and points to the seal thereupon, exclaiming “Don't you see this seal!" ("konomondokoro ga me ni hairanu ka"この紋所が目に入らぬかぁ) The seal in question is that of the Japanese Shogun family, indicating that the humble old man is in fact the son of a Shogun. Mitokoumon and his entourage then proceed to fight and dispatch a multitude of enemies with their swords. Momotaro Samurai is unassuming up to immediately prior to the sword-fighting scene where he strikes a pose and announces his identity with a sort of poem about his origins. It transpires that he is in fact, like Mitokoumon, related to a feudal lord. His enemies quake at his name before Momotaro dispatches them with splendid bloodless swordsmanship, and heavy handed music (itself another feature of this genre). Touyama no Kin-san, another wandering would-be-harmless, but this time a playboy, performs a double transition. Immediately prior to cutting up all but the most powerful of his enemies, he announces himself by showing his tattoos of a cherry blossom snowstorm. At the very end of the same episode however, when the leaders of the baddies kneel to receive judgement from the local feudal lord (?), the feudal lord bears his right shoulder exclaiming "Don't say you don't remember this cherry blossom," (この桜吹雪の刺青に見覚えがねえといわせねえぜ Kono sakura fubuki ni mioboe ga nee to iwasenee ze) at which point the baddies realise that he is none other than the "playboy" that dispatched their minions earlier with his sword, and that their fate is also sealed. These traditional period drama transformations are of the epistemological type popular in the West. These transformations are not ontological. The swordsmen are no more powerful as a result of their transformation. The transformation of Japanese period play heroes effects only what is known about them. However, in complete opposition to the cape wearing of the Caped Crusader, and the other super suits of Western superheroes, the transformation Japanese superheroes is always carried out in full view, and the symbols they use serve not to hide a secret identity but to inform enemies of their true identity, and to demonstrate its continuity. Transformations preceded by Self-Referential Symbols in the Real Word. Finally, in the real world, Japanese Samurai warriors were required to state their name before attacking their enemies. Before drawing their sword they said something like "I am Tanaka, a warrior retained by the enemy of your leader, Suzuki and I hereby challenge attack you." While not preceding a transformation Japanese Yakuza were required to go and state their name, in a ritual self naming (knees bent, palm outstretch) to the heads of the Yakuza in the towns through which they pass. The self-naming of “Tora san” at the beginning of the Otoko wa tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, "It's tough being a man") is related to that tradition. While again there is no transformation, Japanese businessmen to this day get down to business after first manipulating their special symbol, their "meishi" or business card. By Way of Conclusion I am not at all sure what is going on, but from a structuralist perspective, the differences and similarities with Western heroes and their transformations seem to be systematic. Further in conformance with the Takemoto theory, I suggest that there is a topological shift in the visual-symbolic plane: Japanese superheroes use words and symbols to transform their appearance. Western superheroes use changes of appearance to transform their status and people’s perceptions of who there are.



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