To properly discuss the similarities and differences between heroes of the west and the east, we must first look back to the origins of both. While the two styles began on different ends of the planet, their origins are fascinating, and important to their respective cultural landscapes.
While stories of the superhuman and the divine have existed across the world for thousands of years, superheroes as we know them are a relatively modern invention. In particular, the modern superhero can be traced back to 1936, when George Brenner’s The Clock made his debut. The Clock was the first masked comic book hero, who made his first appearance in Funny Pages, and paved the way for the vigilante genre of comics, which spawned many fan-favorites including Batman and The Punisher. The Clock in particular stemmed from masked crime fighters of pulp magazines and radio, including The Phantom, The Shadow, and The Green Hornet.
However, the archetypical superhero, the super-powered spandex-wearing savior of justice, came about two years after The Clock in 1938. In June of that year, Superman made his grand entrance in Action Comics #1, courtesy of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Action Comics brought about many of the common archetypes that exist today, including includes the super powers, secret identities, iconic (or just colorful) costumes, and even the name “Superhero”. Superman’s debut kicked off the Golden Age of comics, which saw the rise of DC Comics, the formation of Marvel, and the birth of many heroes that continue to fill the dreams of young and old alike today. The short list includes prominent figures like Wonder Woman (1941), The Flash (1940), The Human Torch (1939), and Captain America (1941). As World War II began to loom, subject matter began to shift, and stereotyped caricatures of Germans and the Japanese became increasingly commonplace, as America became embroiled in combat. The genre managed to remain strong, despite heavy rationing and loss of writers to the war effort.
Japanese superheroes draw their roots from a similar background. In 1931, five years before The Phantom and The Clock, Ogon Bat (Golden Bat) was beginning to appear in traveling Japanese street theaters, known as kamishibai. The character’s exploits revolved around a mysterious Atlantian defender sent to modern-day to protect the world from ne’er-do-wells. His super powers were granted from a magical staff that could fire energy bolts or cause miniature earthquakes. Ogon Bat eventually made a comic book debut after World War II, courtesy of Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka.
Superheroes didn’t really catch on in Japan until the 1950s, during the period of post-war rebuilding. Tezuka’s Astro Boy stands as one of the first influtential heroes of the medium. Western-inspired heroes began to populate television serials in 1957, beginning with Starman. Many of the early heroes of this period were heavily inspired by US heroes like Superman, but quickly began to forge many of their own identity. Martial arts mastery, signature poses, and fearsome monsters (kaiju) began to populate the panels and scripts of these mighty warriors. In particular, 1966 saw the birth of one of Japan’s most prominent heroes, Ultraman, which began as a sequel to Ultra Q.
In 1975, the superhero began to give way to what many recognize as the modern sentai genre. At this point, Toei and industry pioneer Shotaro Ishinomori unleashed Himitsu Sentai Goranger. Goranger single-handedly kicked off super sentai genre, and ran for 84 episodes between 1975 and 1977. This led to a flurry of titles, including J.A.K.Q. Dengekitai in 1977, and Battle Fever J in 1979.
East and West briefly crossed in 1978, when Toei and Marvel teamed up to create a live-action adaptation of Spider-Man for Japanese audiences. The series was particularly offbeat, and featured many of the tropes and trademarks that were seen as requisite from the media empires of the time.