Marvel’s Japanese Spider-Man Documentary Is a Joy at the Strangest Time

Marvel’s Japanese Spider-Man Documentary Is a Joy at the Strangest Time
The emissary of hell leaps into action again! (Gif: Marvel Studios)

Last Friday, Disney+ dropped Marvel’s 616, a new documentary series examining the ins and outs of many Marvel aspects, from how toys are made at Hasbro to how comics writer Dan Slott is really, really bad at hitting deadlines. But its debut episode gave a look inside the making of one of its most delightful televisual artifacts…and I’m not entirely sure why.

The eight-episode run of 616 kicks off with a documentary directed by David Gelb. It focuses on the trials and tribulations of Toei’s Spider-Man, the 1978 live-action series created by Toei as part of Marvel’s plans to try and bring its beloved comics heroes to a new audience in Japan. Except, as the episode continuously painstakingly makes clear — to its eventual benefit — Toei’s Spider-Man show was unlike anything seen in the pages of Spider-Man’s Marvel comic book adventures.

This Spider-Man wasn’t Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider in an accident — this was Takuya Yamashiro, granted the powers of Spider-Man (and a giant robot named Leopardon) to fight the forces of the sinister Iron Cross Army. There were no Aunt Mays or Mary Janes, no Daily Bugles. No iconic villains like Green Goblin or the rest of the Sinister Six. Takuya may have worn a similar suit and had similar powers, but his quest for vengeance after the death of his father might fly a little in the face of Spidey’s grand mantra about wielding great power with great responsibility (luckily for him, the objectives for vengeance and being a good hero are one and the same: defeat the evil interstellar army threatening to dominate Earth). Takuya is uniquely his own hero, with his own ethos and approach to donning the mantle of Spider-Man and the burdens that come with it.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios Screenshot: Marvel Studios

It is this uniqueness that Marvel 616 celebrates across its oral history of the show’s production process. By interviewing everyone from main star Shinji Tōdō, to director Koichi Takemoto and Leopardon designer Katsushi Murakami, as well as Western figures like Gene Pelc who helped bridge the gap between Toei and Marvel, the documentary repeatedly emphasises that Toei took Spider-Man as an idea and imprinted it onto what audiences expected out of superhero fiction at the time. The early days of Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman had dramatically altered the landscape of superheroic television, and the reason Marvel wanted a presence in Japan in the first place was to try and tempt manga fans into reading its books. Spider-Man had to adapt to be welcomed by this unfamiliar audience, and in doing so, it created a legacy that didn’t just stand among its peers in the genre but left its own impact on them in turn.

This is all very lovely, but it feels strange to give an introduction to, and celebration of, Toei’s Spider-Man when access to the character outside of Japan is now restricted to a handful of Spider-Verse crossover comics. The documentary notes it wasn’t until 2009 that Spider-Man was made legally viewable outside of Japan for the first time, appearing online for free through Marvel’s website, but it doesn’t note that the archive has completely vanished.

Since then, the company has barely made attempts to bring the show to its home audience. Two episodes of the series were once again made available online in 2015 and the closest thing Takuya had to a resurgence is his aforementioned appearances in Spider-Verse and its follow-up event series, Spider-Geddon. But both of those were likewise not accompanied by an attempt to make Spider-Man accessible to that audience, and now, in 2020, with Disney+ being a thing? The fact that there’s been no inkling of a potential release of the show officially just makes its focus here feel all the stranger.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Maybe things will change after this documentary re-acclimates people with the history of Toei’s bold, peculiar, and effervescently charming take on one of the world’s greatest superheroes. After all, Takuya is set to make a potential appearance in Into the Spider-Verse 2, setting the stage for a whole new audience to become aware of him, just as the first introduced them to the likes of Peni Parker and Spider-Man Noir. If this documentary is testing the waters for a fresh attempt to sort out whatever deals need to be made to bring Takuya’s adventures to the West again in some capacity, then it is a fitting tribute to the show’s legacy, one that will hopefully be enough to introduce people to the show in the future (wherever it may land).

But if we don’t see any movement in that direction? It strikes me as peculiar. Marvel’s 616 is a celebration of how Toei took Spider-Man and turned him into a character uniquely its own, how Japanese creatives moulded what we knew of Spider-Man’s heroic ethos in the west into the superhero TV aesthetic and tone of Tokusatsu of the time. But it still feels weird to celebrate when you can’t watch the thing itself.

All eight episodes of Marvel’s 616 are streaming on Disney+ now.