In Power Rangers canon, the evil empress Rita Repulsa molds her monsters out of clay.
Episode 1, “Day of the Dumpster,” establishes the monster-making premise when Rita launches her first attack on the unsuspecting teenagers. Perched in her moon lair, watching the pretty Americans through a giant telescope, Rita blinks once and recoils from the eyepiece. She furrows her brow and curls her bottom lip, an expression the makeup artists exaggerate through liberal application of lipstick and eye shadow. Her horned headdress and spiky neck piece aid the overall effect. “So, you think you can stop me, do you?” Rita snarls, the English overdub more than a little slapdash. “Finnster, hurry up with those putty patrollers!”
“Yes, your evil madness. I’m molding the last ones now.” A humanoid creature, Finnster looks part-eagle, part-triceratops, only he’s five feet tall and wears spectacles and an apron. He works diligently to form a series of clay figurines. He places the figurines on a conveyor belt, which then feeds them into the mouth of a large copper-plated, steam-powered machine. “Into the Monster-matic they go,” Finnster says. “Ten seconds ought to do it.”
The sculptor pulls a lever, and the machine starts to chug and rattle, whistle and spew steam. There is a large ventilation hose attached to the back of the machine. The hose convulses and spits smoke. A flash and a bang, then a stream of monster men come shooting out. Meant to resemble clay, they wear silver spandex and matte-gray masks with fixed, vacant expressions. They hunch over and wriggle instead of walking, and they make unintelligible pigeon noises with their deformed mouths. Besides the putty patrollers, Finnster employs the Monster-matic to produce a variety of fiends. Almost every monster the Power Rangers face begins as a clay figurine before emerging animate from the hose of the Monster-matic.
In one sense, this process of monster creation lends color and personality to the show’s villains and fills time during each episode’s slower first act. But this molding of clay also functions as a clever metaphor for the imaginational leap of the child. The endgame of Power Rangers was always to sell toys, and so it’s no coincidence the Monster-matic works through rapid manipulations of scale. The implicit message: Watch the clay figurine become an imposing monster in the flesh, then envision the plastic red man from your toy chest squirming free of your grasp and exploding into life. The child’s mind will work through such transformations with ease, inventing correlation between the object in hand and the onscreen image.
This is why in Power Rangers instances of transformation and
metamorphosis morphin’ recur so often. Besides helping to smooth the transition from American to Japanese footage, morphin’ enacts the power fantasy. When the ordinary can so easily transform into the extraordinary, the child learns to think themselves larger and more powerful than they really are.
The manipulations of scale go further. Most every monster, grown from its corresponding clay figurine, takes a third form brought on by Rita’s sorcery. In the third act of “Day of the Dumpster,” when the Power Rangers dispatch the putty patrollers and gain the upper hand in their battle with the sphinx-monster Goldar, Rita responds in a fit of rage. She casts out her staff, sends it hurtling towards the Earth.
“Magic wand,” she shouts, “make my Goldar grow!”
The staff plummets then impales the dirt, causing a massive crater on impact. The ground trembles and splits apart. Vapors escape through the cracks. Rising up from the chaos, the fearsome Goldar grows into a three hundred foot behemoth, flexing and stomping with newfound might.
To counter Rita’s escalation of the fight, the Power Rangers summon the Megazord, which resembles a shogun reanimated as a cyborg and rendered in a comic book color palette. Piloting the Megazord from a control room behind its glowing eyes, the Power Rangers charge in to do battle with the giant Goldar. The massive figures clash high above the ground, exchanging blows. Each landing strike erupts in a pyrotechnic shower. The mountains behind them stand only waist-high; the cityscape brushes against their legs. Multitudes are imperiled by their every stumble.
Such imagery places Power Rangers firmly in the tokusatsu tradition of Japanese film and television special effects techniques. More specifically, the trope of the giant monster finds its antecedent in the kaiju (literally: strange creature) films that rose to popularity in post-World War II Japan. Using a technique similar to that used for classic films such as 1954’s Godzilla, the giant creatures in Power Rangers are portrayed by actors disguised in monster suits who then move about an elaborate scaled-down model of a land- or city-scape. This, coupled with a camera positioned close to the ground, cultivates the illusion of massiveness. Much like the use of hand-painted acetate layers to produce animation, this technique has largely fallen out of practice, outmoded by computer graphics. Compared to the fluid movements and detailed renderings possible with modern CGI, a performer traipsing around in a monster suit can look rather quaint. Still, for a child’s eyes, their understanding of space, ratio, and perspective still ever so slightly in flux, the muted luster of latex under the hot lights looks just right.
At the time of its debut, when the Godzilla monster cast its long shadow in the darkened theaters of Japan, it stood tall as a metaphor for the nuclear threat. So, in some sense, every subsequent incarnation of the kaiju reflects the anxiety inherent to the post-atomic psychic landscape. More broadly, the kaiju, encroaching landward across a featureless blue sea, embodies the threats of the external world to a nation late to open itself to interactions of a global scale. It is a filmic response to the problem of rendering the unseen from a vantage point of relative isolation.
While decidedly campy in tone, the monsters featured in each episode of Power Rangers draw on this anxiety. Finnster is not merely forming vile fiends out of clay, he is plying the matter of a hidden consciousness. Goldar is not merely a physical threat, he is nameless fears made manifest in silicon and polyfoam. And whenever he appears, towering over that young boy kneeling in front of the television, the Power Rangers will summon the Megazord to smite the beast, and the boy will watch, his fears dissolved in a fury of sparks and neon light.
I remember that boy well, just eight years old, sitting in farmhouse surrounded by mountains in the fall of 1993. Picture him in that quiet gloom when the screen cuts off, the circuit severed. What lingers in that echo of light behind his eyelids? What remains in that ringing silence once the speakers turn off? A low rumble perhaps, soft at first but getting louder, enough to trick the boy into thinking he hears his father’s truck laboring over the ridge.
But gradually, unmistakably, the rattling of his mother’s antique dish cabinet times out the thumping rhythm of footsteps. The boy scurries upstairs to his bedroom, rushes to the window. At first he can’t believe it, but there, a giant stepping over the mountaintops. The creature hunches over, arms tucked at its sides. It drags its tail across the hay field, tearing at the sod. Its animatronic jaw opens and closes. Its unblinking eyes gape lifelessly at nothing. The whites are run through with capillaries, the irises painted in blue acrylic. The right pupil moves aimlessly in a mechanic whir; the left pupil locks onto the boy, a gaze that melts the glass between them. The giant marches closer, eclipses the light of the setting sun. Noticing the plastic figurines scattered among his feet, the boy decides he will wait for the heroes to come and save him. He will wait for some sign of the Megazord, for the gleam of metal, for a sky lit up with lasers.