In the right circles in Japan, this show is a cult hit. That's because it's terrible. It was made on a very low budget, with a staff that didn't care and sometimes went off to the beach instead of going to work. The animation and writing are both sometimes laugh-out-loud bad. Its child hero personally kills hundreds of baddies, then in the last episode commits genocide.
Naturally that makes it the holy grail to a certain kind of fan. The show had been almost forgotten, but then it got a 2007 DVD release and word started spreading on the internet.
Obviously I had to watch it. Conclusion: it's not that bad, actually.
It's not a parody, you see. It's a fairly normal 1970s kiddie cartoon, except with lousy quality control. The animation is ridiculously cheap, with very few completed full frames per episode, but you get used to that. Similarly, five minutes (excluding title sequences) isn't long enough for a normal episode to go batshit enough to be funny. The pacing, coherence and visual storytelling are a train wreck, but only in a way that discourages audience attention and makes it harder to work out what the plot was. The show's action scenes won't usually have point-and-laugh errors, but instead are just clumsily put together and bad at conveying the story. What you'll watch will usually have been sort of okay, but you'd have a hard time answering if someone had kept pausing the episode and asking, "What just happened?"
It's a children's show. It's got kiddie jokes and a child hero who defeats cartoonish villains. The tone is light. I know I should be taking Ken's body count more seriously, but I can't.
Bearing that in mind, then, the show's often okay. Passable TV filler. These "okay" episodes are usually dull and nothing you'd rush out and watch, but they're still passable as kiddie adventures. Ten-year-old Ken will do something light-hearted with his family. (There's Mum, Dad, his little sister Caron and their pet robot, Barican. It's the year 2074.) Baddies will do something bad and unmask themselves as Juralians, so Ken transforms into his superhero identity and kills them all. (This would be more disturbing if they weren't gloatingly evil and he weren't a fairly normal small boy who enjoys playing with his sister and his robot.) Everyone then laughs at something that's not funny, just in time for the end credits.
Thus, for instance, I think the show has quite a good (if very occasional) line in surreal horror. I quite liked ep.21 (creepy doll and Caron flying out of the window) and ep.37 (plane passengers turn into vampires). I like the fact that they give the show a proper finale, instead of just stopping. I like the Juralian alien design, with those cyclops eyes and tentacle limbs. I'm also fond of the show's ability to go too far, e.g. someone trying to dissect Ken with a circular saw in ep.38.
That said, though, no one will ever watch this show for the good bits. You'll be trash-diving. You'll be disappointed when an episode does nothing howlingly bad. In that spirit, here are some lowlights.
Ep.3. "The Butterfly Swarm Flutters!"
"We were petrified with fear, of butterflies." Also has some, uh, amazing art.
Ep.7. "Man of the West Ken!"
Our heroes visit a Wild West setting and shoot Native Americans for fun. Men try to pick up Caron. Our heroes also meet cowboys, so of course they only shoot the guns out of their caucasian hands. (Don't worry, though. They'll kill them too later.) Fortunately no one's dead because it's Robot West Town... but I don't think Caron knew that.
Ep.16. "Murder Record, Melody of Terror!"
One of the show's two episodes that's become unbroadcastable. The main problem is its casual use of the word "kichigai", which refers to the mentally ill and is no longer a word that's okay to say.
Ep.20. "Ken Gets a Girlfriend"
So many jokes you can make while you're watching this one. (The blush made me laugh aloud.) The girl is Miyuki, who's nice and shows concern about Ken and Barican. Of course she turns out to be Juralian, but even then she refuses to hurt him and instead just runs away. After having spent the whole episode being googly-eyed for Miyuki, Ken cold-bloodedly hunts her down and kills her.
Ep.23. "Mental Hospital Terror!"
The other unbroadcastable episode. Ken pretends to be mad and sneaks into a mental hospital, whereupon we learn that the 1970s weren't politically correct. There's also a suicide.
Ep.27. "The Burning Poison Mushroom House"
You're in charge of children. What do you do? Answer: drive them into the woods to wander randomly and eat mushrooms, which turn out to be poisonous. Fortunately you can reverse the toxic effect by shooting Juralians. Phew.
Ep.31. "Crisis! One Second to Blast"
"I'll interpret it with my telepathy!" (Uh, since when?)
Ep.33. "Is My Dad Old-Fashioned?"
Dad thinks he's behind the times and uncool, so he attempts suicide. What a great children's show.
Ep.35. "Dynamite in the Brain!"
THE GREATEST. If you only watch one Chargeman Ken episode, make it this one for its sociopathic hero. "Dr. Volga, forgive me!" Ken is a bastard.
Ep.50. "Save the Orphan Center!"
Obviously suspicious person adopts lots of children from orphanage. No one performs any checks or even asks any questions until he's already driving away with them.
Ep.56. "Runaway! Horseback Ken"
We're accustomed to Juralians all being exterminated on sight, but here the same fate is extended to the horses they're riding. Bonus points for Ken's dad ramming a horse with a car.
Ep.61. "Barican's Old Friend Pays a Visit"
Ken repeats his trick from ep.35. There's also a scene where two villains discuss their evil plan in public, with Barican nearby, then say in shock, "He heard us!"
The show's not that great, to be honest. It's often just an uninspired kiddie adventure. Shoddily animated (sometimes to an amazing degree) and only doing sound effects in the second half of the season, but often mediocre in entertainment value. Its greatest goofs, though, are brilliant. It's authentically 1970s in being unsuitable for children, although to a much lesser degree than other children's shows like, say, Cutey Honey or Fist of the North Star. (No, really. Look up their broadcast slots.) It has blood, suicide, animal deaths and an episode where Caron tries to stab Ken with a kitchen knife. Watch this and do it at home, kids!
Ep.1 is called "Danger!! The Children's Space Station", but doesn't have a children's space station. There's often a sense that an episode was produced by writing a competent but overlong script, then discarding the odd-numbered pages. It's so famously bad that it's even got an English-language DVD release for exactly that reason. How often can you say that?