30 years ago, Super Sentai was in dire straights. A period of decline in the 1980s, even as potential outside interest from Western parties to adapt the superhero franchise beyond Japanese shores, meant that the series was facing cancellation. But one final effort to shake the longrunning series out of its slump revitalized it — and without it, we never would’ve gotten Power Rangers as we know it.
Today is the 30th anniversary of Chōjin Sentai Jetman, the 15th entry in the Super Sentai franchise that is maybe best known in the west for being the show before Toei made a deal with Haim Saban to turn its successor, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, into the mega-hit that was Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. But to Sentai fans, Jetman remains one of the most beloved entries in the franchise to this day, but because the bold risks taken to shake up the series’ stagnant formula made for a superhero series bursting with compelling drama.
The creative team behind Jetman — which follows the titular heroes, agents of the international defence program Sky Force, as they battle an alien invasion by the Dimensional War Party Vyram — knew early on in production on the series that, after years of declining viewership and toy sales, Super Sentai was facing either permanent cancellation or a long period of hiatus, akin to its sister show Kamen Rider’s period of inactivity in the ‘90s. That allowed them the freedom to incorporate dramatic elements in an attempt to expose the franchise beyond its typical young audience.
Conflict both within the villain faction and between members of the Jetmen themselves (particularly a love triangle revolving around Ryu, team leader Red Hawk, Gai, the Black Condor and Ryu’s second-in-command, and their feelings for Kaori, the White Swan) made for plotlines that focused more on the characters themselves rather than necessarily the action in their super-suits, and the slow burn of buildup and fleshing out of both sides of the show’s primary conflict made for a compelling human drama beneath the monsters and giant robots, while keeping the goofy fun of, well, monsters and giant robots.
Jetman became a surprising success, vastly improving on the ratings of its predecessor Chikyu Sentai Fiveman, leading to Toei deciding to keep Sentai going, building on a success that revitalized the franchise so well, it’s kept running for decades after that — it’s about to celebrate its 45th anniversary with the launch of Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger next month. And while Saban had attempted to make deals with Toei in the past to adapt Sentai for the west with ideas building off of the footage from Bioman or indeed Jetman itself, without the latter’s success we never would’ve gotten Zyuranger. And with it, Power Rangers as we know it to this day would never be the same. It might not even exist!
Thankfully, unlike plenty of Sentai shows, especially ones before Power Rangers, Jetman is relatively accessible in the U.S.. After Shout Factory spent years bringing over Super Sentai shows that had been adapted into Power Rangers, Jetman was the first pre-Zyuranger series to be officially released in the country back in 2018, and is now joined by many other Sentai shows available on Shout’s streaming services. If you’re interested in a slice of tokusatsu history, it’s well worth checking out — if only just to hear it’s banger of a theme song on top of all its superheroic goodness.