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When Spider-Man Went to Japan

This month Spider-Man swings into cinemas, for what is (amazingly) his fourth big-screen appearance in the last fifteen months. Not only that but the web-slinger starred in one of the biggest video games of the year. And while Spidey may be Marvel's most popular hero, there were still some challenges along the way. He proved to be pretty successful straight out of the gate- but Marvel noticed that Japan, for some reason, proved resistant to his charms. So, back in the 70's Marvel decided to team up with local talent to create a version of Spidey that would appeal to Japanese sensibilities.

It began where Spider-Man himself was first born- on the pages of a comic book. The first manga version of Spider-Man appeared in 1970, serialised in Monthly Shonen Magazine. "Anyone can wear the mask" as Into The Spider-Verse taught us, and so Peter Parker was replaced by a junior high student called Yu Komori. Relocating to Japan, it followed the main story beats of the original,  with Komori struggling to be a hero while dealing with teenage woes. He fought Japanse versions of villains such as Electro, Mysterio and The Lizard, lived with his aunt Mei, and worked for a local paper in his spare time. Drawn by future Crying Freeman artist Ryoichi Ikegami and written by Kosei Ono and Kazumasa Hirai, it had an altogether darker mood than the original. The later stories diverged even further from the original, featuring the kind of gruesome and sexual imagery that would never get past Marvel. The manga ended in September 1971.

Later on, Marvel signed a deal with Toei, allowing the two companies to use each other's properties however they wanted. Toei decided to bring Spidey to Japanese screens in a live-action tokusatsu TV series, commonly known as Japanese Spider-Man.

This version dumped pretty much every aspect of the original story, and retained only the costume (or a variation of it) and the fact that the main character has the powers of a spider. The lead character is a motorcyle racer called Takuya Yamashiro. Rather than being bitten by a radioactive arachnid though, Takuya instead gains his powers from an alien from the planet Spider. Rather than fighting criminals and swinging through the city, Japanese Spidey battles the invading Iron Cross Army.  And oh yeah.. can control a spaceship called the Marveller and summon a giant robot called Leopardon.

If you've seen a single episode of Power Rangers, you'll know the drill. Each week Spidey will fight a new alien invader with a gimmick. Then the monster will grow giant, Spidey will summon Leopardon and defeat the bad guy or girl and live to fight another day.

The Iron Cross Army is led by the marvellously monikered  Dr Monster and his first in command the warrior Amazoness (who disguised herself as the editor of a woman's magazine). Throughout the series, Spider-Man fights a constant stream of monsters sent by them- including mermen, spider-women and cat monsters- and even dealt with a deadly song called The Spider-Boogie.

The show's retro chic and campy feel have made Japanese Spider-Man a cult hit. Leopardon was referenced in the novel Ready Player One, and Takuya has appeared in crossover events such as Spider-Verse and Spider-Geddon. He was apparently considered for a role in the Spider-Verse movie, but didn't make the cut. Maybe in the sequel?

The series ran from May 1978 to March the following year. A 24-minute "movie" was also screened in July 1978 as part of the Toei Cartoon Festival. The series was also adapted into several manga series during its run.

Years later, when Manga began to become popular in the United States, Marvel attempted to cash in on its success, by creating the Marvel Mangaverse, which features its own manga style Spider-Man. Peni Parker (created by Gerard Way and Jake Wyatt) is an alternate universe Spider-person, who is heavily influenced by anime and manga, and appeared in the Spider-Verse movie. A real anime version of Spider-Man appears in Toei's  2014 series Marvel Disk Wars: The Avengers.

Spider-Man's Japanese adventures continue to this day, with the announcement of a new manga titled Spider-Man: Fake Red launching this summer. And for those of us who of our favourite friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man and Japanese pop culture- we hope that this won't be the last time Spidey goes to the land of the Rising Sun.