Making Sense of Senselessness (in Jetman)

So this is a little different, even for what I’m used to. Tuesday I finished watching the Chojin Sentai Jetman, one of the odder entries in Toei’s sentai pantheon. This is going to end up being primarily an exploratory post, as I use writing to find my own thoughts and feelings on something. With that said, this post is about the ending to the show, which is (contrary to popular wisdom on sentai shows), eminently spoilable. If you haven’t seen the ending, don’t read this (unless you don’t care, I suppose).

Before I get to all that, though: Jetman was made in 1991, and while at first it hides its year they make it clear as the series goes on that it’s set in 1991 as well. The story is that the world government wanted to make super-soldiers to protect peace, and so they started the Jetman program. Ryu and his girlfriend / partner Rie were supposed to be the first subjects. Ryu gets dosed with the hilariously-named Birdonic energy, but before Rie can be dosed evil aliens from another dimension attack, destroying the space station with ease.

The Birdonic energy machine spits out a bunch of energy, which naturally hits four random Japanese people and gives them Jetman powers. These four people are Kaori, a spoiled rich lady; Ako, a gold-digging high school student; Raita, a “fat” farmer; and Gai, an asshole biker / jazz musician.

Yes, the cast is amazing. Naturally, since it’s sentai, they’re all actually good people. Ako insists on a huge check to be a Jetman, but returns it after their first adventure. Kaori decides to help easily, but keeps trying to avoid work for a while. Raita gets mad when the aliens trash his farm, so he helps. Several episodes are devoted to Ryu winning Gai over, and the greatest sort of bromance of sentai began By the end of the series they’re best friends, after dozens of episodes where Gai hates Ryu for his dedication to work first, his apparent single-mindedness, and basically all his traditional Red virtues.

The draws of the series, other than the strange and adult cast – I love how they all have their own lives and none of them jump at the chance to be Jetmen; casts of eighteen year olds will naturally jump at the chance, they don’t have anything to do yet – are the villains and the monsters. I guess that’s obvious. The villains in this case aren’t necessarily deeper than other sentai shows, but they are startlingly opaque. We never know why most of them do what they do. Grey, the robot, likes to kick back with brandy and a cigar while listening to classical music. He’s basically a court samurai for the villains, insisting on combat as a way of life and enjoying his off hours in courtly ways. Maria is actually Rie, kidnapped and brainwashed. Radiguet is the leader, weird and angry and insistent humankind deserves to be destroyed. Tran is a kid with a power glove and an 80s visor sunglass-hat thing. He eventually uses his own rage to speed up his aging process, so he becomes Tranza, the super-badass who takes over the villain side for a while.

I mentioned the monsters. Highlights include an apartment building, a cup noodle who needs constant hot water, a mirror, a sniper cat (named “Sniper Cat”), and a pile of garbage. This last one’s actually really nice, by the way.

Should you watch this show? Yes.

What do I need to write to discover? My reconciliation with the ending.

If you were foolish enough to brave the spoiler tags above, here they are again: beyond this point I will ruin the fucking ending.

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Rie dies, after regaining her memory and becoming horrified at what she did while a villain. She stabs Radiguet in the back, ultimately allowing the Jetmen to defeat him when he morphs into an invincible giant thing. Grey dies, catching Gai and insisting on a fight to the death. He dies as he lived, smoking a cigar and being generally the best villain. And then, in the epilogue, during Ryu and Kaori’s wedding, Gai gets killed by a mugger with a knife.

I’ll let that sink in, if you didn’t watch this yourself. The guy who single-handedly destroyed Grey, the robot dedicated literally to killing things, gets stabbed while stopping a mugging. And then Gai goes on to the wedding instead of a hospital.

Yes, I understand the implications: Gai lived the way he wanted, like he always said he wanted to do. He hid his pain from his friends instead of bitching, and put them before himself. But, outside the personality constructs of the show, I feel like that’s not putting your best friend first. Now, forever, Ryu will recall his wedding anniversary as the day his best friend died. That is not a gift of happiness. That is ruining a perfectly good fucking holiday right there.

I’ve tried to look around online. There’s no particular explanation for why in the fuck this happens. The general fan assumption is it’s one last chance for Gai to be a tough guy, putting friends before his own mortality.

So here’s the thing: how in the hell does this make any sense? Because I haven’t talked myself into it making sense, yet. Like I said, it doesn’t actually demonstrate anything good or bad about his character.

OK, so one thing about Jetman is that its characters are interesting but it often drops the ball in consistently developing them. It’s not that they ever really act out of character, it’s just that it skips steps. For instance, for a while Gai loves Kaori, who loves Ryu. Ryu mourns Rie, so that doesn’t work out. Gai finally gets Kaori to date him. Gai hates Kaori’s parents, because they’re stereotypical rich parents who keep listing fancy, important, or money-making jobs he might have. He never takes the easy route out and says “I’m in the military.” That is literally true, the Jetmen are still a branch of the military. Instead he storms out and, well, the relationship is apparently over.

There’s one scene in the next episode where Kaori and Ako have lunch. Kaori tells Ako about it, and Ako says “Well it was never meant to work out anyway. I never thought so.” It appears in every way to be one of those conversations people have while still dating the person in question. This is the last time the relationship is ever really addressed in any way. Later, Gai says with no hesitation that he’ll always help everyone on the team because they’re his friends. I can’t recall if he says “nakama” or “tomodachi,” but it’s one of those two. Possibly the implication is supposed to be that he’s over Kaori, or saying he is? But it’s not related to the relationship subplot in any way. There is a scene at one point where Gai’s back to dating two women at a time (I mean that literally, they go to the bar all three together, or the pool). At the pool he sees Kaori’s face in the water, complains about never changing, and then swims around.

Soooo? Gai’s not over Kaori. Is his death supposed to be about how he can’t live without her, but won’t stop Ryu from being happy? It is still a random act (of sorts), the mugger isn’t a kind of suicide. But on the other hand, Gai should have been able to stop a guy with a switchblade from stabbing him, even if for some reason they’ve turned in their Jetman bracelets (necessary to transform even though the Birdonic energy is in their bodies). He was buying a huge bouquet for the wedding before the mugging, and said it was for his best friend’s wedding. There was no indication he was bothered by it; naturally the epilogue is “three years later,” so shouldn’t we assume some development? There’s stuff about how Ako’s a singer now and Raita, married probably maybe, runs a farm now. Gai’s dressed the same way, so maybe he hasn’t changed? Is it his refusal to change that damns him?

One of the obvious answers here is that “life is cruel, random shit happens,” but that doesn’t really suffice for this kind of story.

Going back to growing as a character: everyone does have something they’re doing. Ryu already had a career, now he has a personal life. Ako has a job, and one she likes and makes her rich (her fondest dream). Raita is doing what he wanted to do, with his childhood sweetheart alongside him (naturally…). Gai was playing jazz in a club and, well, playing music in a jazz club. He did date a lot of women, and presumably have a lot of emotionless sex. Now, if the show were about stasis, then this would sort of make sense then: he hadn’t been living, so he almost logically would have to die. But the show is about growth, and they do all grow, so we’re still left with a kind of break in narrative logic.

Why is Gai dead? In the end, it’s just because a writer said he would die. The scene doesn’t call to mind the “getting hit by a bus” reflection of life some stories try to portray. It’s patently just something a writer did.

Gai’s last words were about how wonderfully blue the sky was, and a thanks to Ryu for everything Ryu had done for Gai, intentionally and unintentionally. Gai, then, is kind of like those old rebellious biker characters. He can’t get old, so he has to die young. But because he’s grown he gets a chance to say goodbye.

Possibly, in light of that, I should take the injury as simply mortal. I’m prone to thinking of being stabbed in the stomach as something that takes a long time to kill one (read enough historical fiction about knife- and swordfighting, it’s funny the things you learn). That, coupled with his ability in the past to take enormous sword slashes across the chest with no more than a bruise, and I tend to underestimate the danger of the injury. But I suppose within the fiction it’s meant to be the end – Gai will die now no matter what he does. Then, in that contingency, his actions clarify. He chooses to die with his friends instead of anonymous in a hospital. Possibly it was simply the confines of a sentai show – a “show for kids” – that kept them from portraying a truly mortal injury.

P.S., ten years later, in Gokaiger, we learn that Gai’s been playing poker with God in heaven in an empty bar. He goes back to Earth because he’s so stubborn he can do that, he beats the bejeezus out of the new sentai team, nearly beats the villains on his own, and naturally teaches the team a valuable lesson about overcoming fear (it being, basically, that Yuuki Gai fucking came back from the dead to keep fighting, you can get over being afraid).

The last piece of the narrative of Gai is a quick pan at the end. Back in the bar, he beats God again. She asks him to play, and he does. The camera pans away from him to show a table with a half-full bottle of whiskey. The same whiskey that had been sitting next to Gai’s gravestone, along with a plethora of gifts from all the Jetmen. Their gifts reach him in Heaven, which does imply that whenever it is they all die, Gai will be able to see them all again. It’s the standard narrative of the afterlife, but with the implication that Gai is once again stubborn, waiting for them as long as it takes. So, oddly, it shows the redemption of the “womanizer” through friendship rather than a romantic relationship. He has a family now, so he gives up womanizing, but never settles down. His family is enough for him. So narratively maybe that offsets the traditional marriage of Ryu and Kaori that appears to end the show?

Gai is never held back by anything, even the borders of life and death or the traditional ways of “growing up.” He dies, slipping the bonds of the latter, and waits patiently for the former to stop mattering.

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