Forty years ago today, on May 17, 1978, Tokyo Channel 12 aired the very first episode of a Marvel TV legend: Toei’s wonderfully weird Spider-Man. Forty years on, its legacy remains in some pretty bizarre ways, but we mostly remember it for giving us a take on the webslinger that’s unlike anything we’ve seen since.
Born out of a three-year licensing deal between Stan Lee and Toei to trade characters from each other’s roster of heroes, Spider-Man almost turned out very differently. Originally, Toei planned to bring a comics-faithful version of Spider-Man into a series about Yamato Takeru, a legendary ancient prince of the Yamato dynasty, who would’ve time-traveled to the present day. Which would’ve been... weird. But instead, Toei decided to make Spider-Man the main character and went even weirder. In a great way!
Spider-Man instead tells the story of Takuya Yamashiro, a young motorcyclist who finds himself gifted with spider-like powers by an alien (from the Planet Spider, of course) after encountering its crashed spaceship. Now blessed with the powers and identity of Spider-Man (oh, and also a giant robot named Leopardon), Takuya is tasked with safeguarding Earth from Professor Monster and the Iron Cross Army, alien warmongers who want to rule the universe.
It’s definitely not Spidey as we’ve known and loved him all these years, and that’s really what makes Spider-Man such a delightful and exciting show to watch—a slightly campy but fun action series that just happens to star someone who looks a lot like Spider-Man, has the same abilities as Spider-Man, but is just off enough that you can be enthralled by the uniqueness. It’s also, as you can see by the video above, a TV show with an absolute banger of a theme tune.
Spider-Man would only run for a year, and as far as the Western world is concerned, is consigned to the obscurities of history—a weird bit of Spidey-trivia that, outside of the rare cheeky reference in the comics, is largely left alone. Its legacy instead can still be found in other Japanese tokusatsu shows—specifically Super Sentai, the franchise that would eventually come over to the west as Power Rangers.
The addition of Leopardon to Spider-Man’s arsenal may have been born out of merchandising gimmicks, but Toei loved the idea so much it started giving its Sentai heroes giant mechs, too, starting with Battle Fever J, and they’re now a beloved staple of the franchise. Basically, if Spider-Man didn’t exist, the Megazord as we know it wouldn’t either!
Sure, it’s a weird, 40-year legacy to have. But it just wouldn’t be Toei’s Spider-Man if its lasting effect wasn’t something as delightfully absurd as a giant Spider-Man robot.