Everyone knows the story of Spider-Man. Motorcycle champion Takuya Yamashiro (Shinji Toda) is haunted by strange visions of a UFO falling to Earth. His father, space archaeologist (is that really a thing?) Dr. Hiroshi Yamashiro investigates the crash site but upon discovering the space warship Marveller from Planet Spider is killed by Professor Monster (Mitsuo Ando) and his evil Iron Cross Army, an alien group out to rule the universe. Injured in battle, a dazed and distraught Takuya falls into a cave where he discovers Garia, the last surviving warrior of Planet Spider. The dying Garia injects Takuya with his blood giving him amazing spider powers. Vowing revenge, Takuya dons the Spider-Man costume and takes on the Iron Cross Army, battling enormous alien monsters with his indestructible giant transformer robot Leopardon. Wait, what? Where the hell is Peter Parker?
Around the same time that Nicholas Hammond was starring in the lacklustre American Spider-Man television show, Toei Films struck a deal with Marvel to produce this distinctively Japanese take on the iconic web-slinging superhero. As is obvious from the synopsis Toei's show-runners opted out of adapting the original Marvel comics (hence no Peter Parker) nor even the Spider-Man manga drawn by future Crying Freeman creator Ryoichi Ikegami which was being serialized at the time and likely confused a lot of Japanese kids bearing no resemblance to the TV version. In fact Toei originally planned to cast Spidey as a supporting character in a series about historical hero Yamato Takeru travelling through a time warp to Seventies Japan. Eventually, the studio concocted an "original" storyline drawn from a formula tried and tested by Shotaro Ishinomori's seminal Kamen Rider (1971): teenage biker becomes masked superhero battling a new monster every week.
Gone were Peter Parker, supporting players like Aunt May or Mary-Jane and the rogues' gallery of familiar villains. In their place we have all-Japanese hero Takuya Yamashiro, his perky yet oddly neglected photographer girlfriend Hitomi (Rika Miura), nagging sister Shinko (Izumi Omaya), token kid brother Takuji (Yoshiharu Yabuki) and in the villain's corner the decidedly Doctor Doom-like Professor Monster, scantily-clad Amazoness (Yukie Kitagawa) whose name makes no sense if you think about it, plus a revolving door of outlandish rubber monsters. Part animal, part robot and usually capable of shooting some sort of laser beam or missile, crazy creatures like the ejaculating crustacean Ganima, snarling Bomber Wolf (a werewolf with an eye-patch, shoulder-mounted missile launchers and a machinegun arm!) and Fire Fox (er, a fox with a fiery mane) may look ridiculous or even clunky to jaded western eyes yet they're attractively designed and will appeal to seasoned kaiju eiga fans not hung up on realism.
Although Stan Lee himself praised Supaidaman (to use the Japanese spelling) for its stunt-work and special effects most Americans were unaware the show even existed until only a few years ago when Marvel began streaming episodes online. In Japan the show marked a significant moment in the evolution of the sentai ('superhero') genre, though this had less to do with Spidey himself and more with his hi-tech hardware. Japanese television had featured giant super-robots before in such fare as Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot (1968) and Super Robot Mach Baron (1974), both of which spawned feature film spin-offs. But Leopardon was Japan's first transforming giant robot, morphing from the already formidable space battleship Marveller (so named in a nod to Spidey's parent company, perhaps?) into a sword wielding metal samurai. This innovation paved the way for generations worth of transforming robot warriors from the combining mechanical behemoths in Toei's Go Ranger (1978), later Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, to endless lines of anime shows and films as well as the American variant Transformers. Basically, if there was no Leopardon we would not have the live action Transformers franchise. Michael Bay would not have a career outside Victoria's Secret commercials. So it's all their fault... Interestingly, Leopardon was also the only element of the Japanese Spider-Man to cross into American pop culture. He featured as part of the Shogun Warriors toy line released by Mattel alongside robots lifted from the anime film and TV serials Combattler V (1976) and Danguard Ace (1977). Marvel put out a Shogun Warriors comic book than ran for twenty issues. Other unorthodox Toei Marvel adaptations include the sentai series Battle Fever J (1980) which started out as an oddball take on Captain America and the anime film Dracula: Sovereign of the Damned (1980), loosely based on the long-running Tomb of Dracula.
While the mecha and monsters are memorable the supporting players add little to the unfolding drama. Young Takuji hardly needed to be around given every episode wheels on a different cute kid for Spidey to befriend, protect or impart a life lesson. Romance, a big component of the original Marvel comics, barely gets a look-in. Takuya is so clearly disinterested, even disdainful of Hitomi one is tempted to theorize he is hiding more in his closet besides a Spider suit. To the cast's credit, no matter how ridiculous the stories get everyone approaches their roles with utmost seriousness and intensity.
By the late Seventies Toei had this kind of live action comic book down to a fine art. Frenetic direction, dizzying oft-inventive editing, dynamic action choreography and accomplished, eye-catching miniature effects work combine to impart a genuine feeling of pulse-pounding excitement that compensates for the often juvenile storylines. Rather than the soap opera stylings of Marvel's comic series the plots draw from an Asian tradition of storytelling, lifting elements from Chinese wu xia (the whole young hero falls into a cave then learns kung fu from a crazy hermit thing), Japanese folk tales, and in one instance the mystery thrillers of Edogawa Rampo (Episode 3: "Phantom Thief 001 vs. Spider-Man"). Coincidentally, Rampo's own short story about an arachnid super-criminal was adapted for the screen back in 1958 as Rampo's Spider-Man! There is an emphasis on the importance of filial duty over personal desire that while very Japanese is not too far removed from the dilemmas of Peter Parker. Many stories have a tragic or borderline traumatizing tone which was common in Japanese children's fare in the Seventies. In Episode 25: "The Treasure, the Dog and the Body Double", wherein Amazoness swaps her all-black garb for a red wig and silver miniskirt with skull belt, a little boy sees his grandfather drop dead and turn into a robot. In Episode 29: "Hurry, GP7! Stop the Time!", wherein we learn Amazoness has a day job as a ballet instructor, another little boy and his sister see their dad blown up by a car bomb.
Many of the silliest episodes are also the most delightful. In Episode 7: "Fearful Hit Tune! Song Dancing Murder Rock" (don't you love these hyperbolic titles?) the Iron Cross Army create cyborg duplicates of a pop group with a hit record about Spider-Man (Choice lyrics: "Shaking his bum, climbing up walls. He's so cool that Spider-Man! I adore that Spider-Man! Spider-Man Boogie!") that doubles as a sonic weapon. Despite a plot almost identical to the one in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (What was going on in 1978?!) the caped super-villains spend most of the episode trying to send their single to the top of the charts! Episode 33: "The Incredible Wild Girl Who Bullies Boys" finds Spidey playing Pygmallion to a Pippi Longstocking-like super-strong little girl able to bash Iron Cross minions and even best the wall-crawler in a fight. Imaginative imagery and a subtle critique of the abuse of religion renders this an intriguingly dreamlike, character-led episode although Spidey's suggestion she stop brooding over her dead parents is a bit rich given the central theme of the series is revenge. It is worth it just to see Spider-Man cower from a little girl.