One more thing about Ressha Sentai ToQger, now that the show’s over.
When last we left our ersatz heroes, they had discovered what truly, utterly terrified them: oblivion. It seems strange that a literally rainbow-colored children’s program would be wrestling with existential anxiety, but that’s been the ToQger MO from the get go. The first villains were a Grim Reaper, a duelist who made people kill each other, and golem made of chains dragging a coffin. All superhero stories use the threat of death to increase the stakes, but ToQger stands out as willing to ruminate what that threat means. Even in its brightest moments, this was a show with death on its mind.
Ressha Sentai ToQger has distinguished itself from the rest of its Power Ranger brethren by a willingness to abandon the usual superhero tropes in favor of a convoluted dream-logic and a clear sympathy for the villains. While both were in full force in the show’s finale, one element was surprisingly new. ToQger surprised us all by offering the one thing it never had before.
A recurring motif in the show has been a lantern festival attended by the families of the heroes. The whole event looks like an Obon festival, where lanterns are strung to guide the dead back to the spirit world. This connection is made explicit by the lights of the lantern literally becoming tracks for the Rainbow Line to ride on. These lanterns were made to guide the dead, and so do our dead kids on a train ride them back home.
If that weren’t enough to seal the deal that we have been following the exploits of a handful of ghosts for 47 episodes, our heroes are greeted by their families, who not only recognize them as young adults but also see them as the children they are. If this was a horror story—and it almost is, several times over—and our Dead Kids had the ghastly visage of most ghosts, the families’ reactions would be the same. They see the children the lost in the outlandish visions in front of them.
Why? Because they could imagine it.
Imagination has been the catch-phrase of this show from the get-go, but its not until the final episode, set at festival for remembering lost loved one, that its true importance is really discovered. Having an imagination means that you can picture an afterlife. It may not be true—ToQger comes down pretty hard that it isn’t—but imagining it means that you don’t have fear oblivion. The Emperor of Darkness repeated question “Is there nothing else?” gains extra poignancy in the face of this. It was just bad luck he was surrounded by people who couldn’t imagine beyond the material world.
The whole business really comes together with resolution of Akira/Zaram, who spent the entire show with a Klingon-esque philosophy looking for a noble way to die. This hunt is played for comedy, but the need to be remembered not for one’s sins but for something great is surprisingly adult inner-conflict for a weekly toy commercial. Akira gives up looking for that one last stand that would give his life meaning, because it doesn’t exist. Instead of looking for a way to be remembered, he realizes that writing the story after his death is out of his control.
“I live on the Rainbow Line,” he says. Akira lives in the imaginations and memories of others. No longer worried about how he will be thought of after he’s gone, Akira finally finds peace.
He’s also a rain-cowboy/repairman. But that’s neither here nor there.
One of the last scenes contains an acknowledgement of the mystery of the universe. You will never find out what the deal is with the monkey puppet, or what the robot would do if she ever got the physical affection she so dearly craves, or what the true face of God is under his giant bunny head. There may be an afterlife. There may not be. Confronted with uncertainty, the only sensible option is to imagine what might be.
Considering that uncertainty, secrets and mysteries are the bedrock of superhero stories, this shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does.
Superhero stories are simple beasts, but far sturdier than they are given credit for. There’s a bizarre reverence for the form, even in things like the original Superman and Spider-Man films, which have an almost audible third act groan of “right, we’re telling a superhero story, let’s give the babies what they want.” That reverence persists in the current Marvel movies, having taken great pains to reinvent these characters for a modern audience, end up with the same dramatic beats, film after film.
The genius of ToQger was its willingness to abandon superhero tropes in favor of something far stranger. It’s not the first to do this—Jaime Hernandez’s “Ti-Girls Adventures Number 34,” remains the best riff on taking the superhero concept and using its natural surreality to tell a different story altogether, and it would take a lot to topple the tyrannosaurus rex with machine gun arms that is “Axe Cop.” But there’s something to be said for ToQger’s undermining its own framework at every turn, and yet still managing to stay together. ToQger questions the perfunctory set-up of the superhero narrative, not just why is this character a hero and this character a villain, but why do some characters have powers and not others, why is the narrative so arbitrary, who benefits from these battles, and most strikingly, why are we fighting to begin with?
The final episode contains no giant monster fight, which doesn’t seem exceptional until you remember that giant monster fights are why these type of shows exist.
In true ToQger dream-logic fashion, the series ends with everyone getting what they want, including the villains. The dead kids remain dead, but know they live on in the imagination of their families. And, after the credits roll, one red, helmeted hero hands off to another red, helmeted hero, who looks to be treating the idea of being a superhero with far more reverence.
What a disappointing life after Ressha Sentai ToQger. We’ll just have to imagine a better one.
Oh, folks! This is exciting! Thanks to generous support of the backers of The Cockroach Strikes! Kickstarter, I have a wealth of Comrade Cockroach comics to share with you. The backers got to enjoy them first, and soon you, too will be able to read the fruits of the “stronger narrative platform” I promised so long ago.
(Man, did I really say I was coming back in 2013? Talk about optimistic.)
What can you expect from these all new adventures in D-list supervillainy? Well, a little of this:
A bit of this:
And, just for fun, plenty of this:
Yeah that’s right. We’re getting some Dr. Mercury up in this piece.
It all begins March 3rd with Part 1 of The Definition of Insanity! Only at jaredaxelrod.com/cockroach! So spread the word! Tell your friends! Let ‘em know that Comrade Cockroach is going to be back! And better than ever!