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At this point, we’re used to thinking of Marvel as a global phenomenon. Just last year, Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing movie of all time by earning more than $1 billion in theaters outside the United States. But the world used to be a smaller place, and culture was more diffuse. The first episode of Marvel’s 616, the new docuseries out on Disney+ today, demonstrates this by uncovering the wonderful, forgotten mystery of Japanese Spider-Man.
Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Back in the ‘70s, Marvel struck a licensing deal with Japanese company Toei to bring Spider-Man to Japan. It seemed like a no-brainer, since Japan also has long had a strong culture of reading and loving comics. But despite the shared format, Japanese manga are pretty different from American superhero comics, and a lot of adjustments had to be made to Spider-Man’s MO during the translation process. Because so many changes were made, the deal limited Japanese Spider-Man to its country of origin; it could never air elsewhere.
This is why you’ve probably never heard of it. But director David Gelb (Jiro Dreams of Sushi) had, and when Marvel reached out to his production company Supper Club to make Marvel’s 616, he leapt at the chance to tell the full story behind Japanese Spider-Man. After all, just this week Spider-Man: Miles Morales was released on the new PlayStation 5 system, starring an incarnation of Spider-Man who did not exist 10 years ago.
“The secrecy of Japanese Spider-Man, keeping it contained only in Japan, was by design,” Gelb tells EW. “What Toei and the Marvel liaison Gene Pelc were planning on creating for the Japanese audience had no canon similarities, except for the costume of Spider-Man and the wonderful themes of using your power responsibly and helping people. I mean, it's totally, totally different because in Japan they want to sell a lot of toys. So it can't just be the one figure of Spider-Man. He needs a car, he needs a spaceship that transforms into a robot, all of these things were needed for the Japanese market. So the rule was okay, well, you can make all of these changes, but it can only stay in Japan.”
Gelb continues, “But I think that we realize now that you can have all different types of Spider-Mans. Into the Spider-Verse is a great example of how you don't need a single canon. The theme is the same, the inspiring message is the same, but you can have these different narratives of the character, and we can embrace all of them. They're not mutually exclusive. Because of that, I think it's a perfect time to reveal Japanese Spider-Man to the world.”
To make the episode, Gelb spoke with almost everyone involved in the creation of Japanese Spider-Man, from series star Shinji Todō to stunt coordinator Osamu Kaneda.
“They were surprised when we reached out because they thought that it had been completely forgotten except for real hardcore otaku types, people who are very into Japanese superhero and things like that. So they were quite interested that we were doing this,” Gelb says. “We managed to get a whole bunch of people who had worked on it. They were just really happy to relive these moments through these interviews and share it with the world because the amazing thing about Japanese Spider-Man is that it's awesome. It's so fun to watch.”
Gelb continues, “I think that everybody had a great experience working on it. So our episode is also about filmmaking. It's about a team working together and trying to make something great and new. The stunts, the special effects, all of this stuff was really kind of groundbreaking at the time, and it's just exciting to hear about how everybody puts so much work into it. It was really a labor of love for everybody that worked on it.”
If Marvel’s 616 finds an audience on Disney+, Gelb hopes that it would be possible to someday make the entire Japanese Spider-Man series available for American viewers to watch or stream. His descriptions of plot details and character backstories, as well as the amazing clips shown in the episode, are certainly tantalizing.
“Some of my favorite moments involves the family stuff, which actually is really funny,” Gelb says. “We’re used to Peter Parker living alone with his Aunt May. In this case, he lives with his younger brother and older sister. So he has a whole home family life that is really cute and funny. But some of the stuff that you just can't miss are the big differences. In certain cases, Spider-Man will just pick up a machine gun. He won't actually shoot anyone, but he'll just like shoot a volley of machine gun bullets, and all of these henchmen are all flying through the air trying to avoid them. Or Spider-Man is fighting a Fox God. It’s just so interesting and dissonant to see this stuff in a different way.”
Maybe one day we Americans will be able to view Japanese Spider-Man in full. For now we have a taste of the show, and the story behind it. Marvel’s 616 is streaming now on Disney+.