The anime Saint Seiya, which I discussed some time back here, gave rise to an entire subgenre which I call "God-Warriors" – young people chosen by something on deific level to battle god-level threats, generally in a "Five-Team" configuration. This of course owed a great deal to the "sentai" shows of the same era, but Saint Seiya codified it for its generation and a number of other shows quickly followed – some following its lead, and others trying to take off from it and go in another direction; its influence can be seen in shows as apparently far afield as Sailor Moon and was parodied and/or deconstructed in numerous other shows; perhaps the most successful of the deconstructions or riffs on the theme was Yu Yu Hakusho.
But Saint Seiya itself, though influential, had a number of significant flaws – many of them due to the fact that Kurumada, the mangaka who created the series, was in many ways a one-trick pony, as his later shows such as B'T X demonstrated all too clearly; not only did they have a lot of thematic and action similarities with Saint Seiya, but also the character designs were in many cases essentially identical, with the only changes being which of the five main "faces" got which personality. The Saints stayed almost universally separated from the rest of the world, only interacting with it on rare occasion. They existed in an isolated enclave of their own, either in the Kido mansion or in some remote location or even alternate dimension, battling bad guys whose plans might superficially vary, but always ended up involving a lot of running, posturing, monologuing, and predictable sequences of battle once you'd seen the first season.
It was inevitable that something would come along and do what Saint Seiya did, only better, just as later happened with Dragonball and Naruto. That something was Yoroiden Samurai Troopers (roughly translated, Legendary Armor Samurai Troopers), marketed briefly here as Ronin Warriors.
The Troopers – Ryo Sanada, Touma Hashiba, Seiji Date, Shu Rei Fan (or Lei Fang, or a number of other transliterations), and Shin Mori – were five young men of roughly the same age who were given mystical armor ("yoroi") which possessed the powers of the five elements (Fire, air/space, spirit/lightning, earth, and water, respectively) by a mysterious wizard or wise man called "Kaos" (NOT pronounced "Chaos", but as a sort of cross between "Kos" and "Cows", as best I can describe it). Kaos' purpose was to create five warriors to protect the world from the forces of the demonlord Arago; Arago was a man so evil that he battled his way through the hells and took his place as a demon instead of a damned soul.
Side note on names: The names of the characters were changed for the American version (Ronin Warriors). This was not uncommon in the early years and still happens occasionally today. What was bizarre about this was that they didn't change the names of the characters to "normal sounding" North American Names, but gave them, for the most part, equally unusual names which kinda-sorta sounded like the originals. Ryo kept the spelling but got pronounced "Rye-Oh", Shin became Cye, Touma became Rowen, and Seiji became Sage, while Kaos became "The Ancient One" and Arago became Talpa. While one change made sense (Nasuti, their Big Sis mentor, was pronounced "Nasty", so changing that to Mia was a good move) I never understood the point of those other changes; if they weren't changing them to make them "more accessible" to audiences (this was, after all, in the days before the great anime explosion), then why were they changing them at all??
What made the Troopers clearly different from, and superior to, Saint Seiya, was their connection to the real world. Much of the action of Yoroiden Samurai Troopers takes place in the real world of Japan, and the characters are clearly at home there. These aren't isolated characters who would have to work hard to adjust to regular life; these are kids with regular lives who have suddenly been asked to do something more. We learn a lot about the Troopers as people outside of their armor-wearing selves, and they are interested in doing things that ordinary people do – we see Shu and Shin surfing, for instance, or observe the Troopers visiting a restaurant. The only one who seems utterly out of place is Ryo Sanada, whose family is rarely spoken of and who appears in the middle of Shinjuku accompanied by the giant white tiger, Byakuen.
The five boys also have two other constant companions: the first is Nasuti Yagyu, a young woman (17 at the beginning of the series, when the Troopers are roughly 14-15) whose grandfather was an authority on mystical artifacts and history. She herself is well-versed on these things and often serves as the source of key information for the Troopers. She's also their transportation, as none of the Troopers can drive, so they're always being shuttled to their appointments with destiny in Nasuti's van! While Touma Hashiba is smarter than her (or anyone else we encounter, with the possible exception of Kaos), Nasuti's education, level-headedness, and dedication are key to the success of the Troopers as a whole.
The second is Jun Yamano, a young boy saved by the Troopers and who is in search of his parents, who may have been killed by Arago's faceless warrior troops during the initial invasion. Jun initially seems to be a "load", someone the Troopers have responsibility for but who is too weak and afraid to contribute anything, but in fact Jun is extraordinarily brave for a child of his age (8-10) and there are several key points in the series where it is his actions that help the Troopers. One of the most important was one in which Shu had lost his faith and trust in the armor (due to well-timed revelations and half-truths by the enemy) and could no longer summon it; Jun figured out that the only thing that would snap Shu out of it would be to see all his friends beaten and even Jun threatened, so Jun arranged to get struck aside and pretended to be hurt much worse than he was; this did indeed trigger righteous fury in Shu and caused him to break his self-imposed restraints.
Besides Arago himself, the Troopers have to face his legions of faceless mooks (which are still superhumanly strong and fast, but not bright suits of animated armor) and the Ma-Sho, demon generals. There are four Ma-Sho: Anubis, Shuten Douji, Rajura, and Naaza, each representing one of the four seasons. The Ma-Sho also represent four Samurai virtues, while the Troopers represent the five Confucian virtues. The fact that the Ma-Sho wear armor very similar to those of the Troopers is no accident; it is revealed at the end of the first season that all nine Yoroi were forged by Kaos himself, intended as weapons against Arago… and forged from Arago's armor itself, which Kaos had taken from Arago in the latter's defeat about five hundred years before. Unfortunately, the four Samurai virtues are more easily diverted to use by evil, since they emphasize things like duty and loyalty which can serve any will, rather than moral choices which are encouraged more by the virtues that the Troopers' armor are imbued with.
The Demon Generals are not, in the end, irredeemably evil; eventually they realize how they have been tricked and used. This is one of the primary themes of the series, that people make moral choices and choices have consequences – good and bad. The Troopers sometimes make bad choices which have consequences for many episodes, often because unlike Arago they simply do not understand the full scope of what's going on, and by the time they do understand it, they've already done some things that they probably wouldn't have if they'd known better.
The first season of YST involves the Troopers learning how to fully wield their powers and trying to understand their enemy, Arago; Kaos apparently told them very little, only advising them at key points. According to several sources, the series was only scheduled for one season, and the grand finale was supposed to kill off all of the Troopers and have Jun and Nasuti somehow pull off a last minute miracle to banish Arago. However, toward the end of that season, the producers were told "Hey, you're really popular, let's do another season."
This caused them to desperately stall – re-running Episode 17, when reruns were VERY rare in Japan at that time – and re-writing and re-animating the last episode or two to introduce a complete, pulled-out-of-the-butt deus ex machina, a white armored figure apparently composed of the entire group unified in Ryo Sanada, which proceeds to blow Arago straight back into his own world.
The second season was devoted, to a great extent, to explaining this huge "ass-pull", the armor known as Keikoutei, the Sun Armor. Once Arago was finally (for now, anyway) defeated at the end of that season, YST had three more stories: YST:Gaiden which was a two-part OVA series featuring a mad scientist tampering with Things Best Left Alone; YST: Keikoutei Dentsetsu, which showed the consequences of the existence of the super armor; and finally YST: Message, which … was confusing even to the Japanese.
Yoroiden Samurai Troopers was a big influence on me in many areas, especially in imagery. Kathleen and I introduced the Troopers into our gaming and fanfic world, as the Troopers and the Saints seemed tailor-made as possible friends – there were closely matched personalities and also complementary interests and capabilities. There were several stories, and many games played, around the interaction of the two groups (and, eventually, around how they dealt with the arrival of the most overpowered beings in anime, the Zed team from Dragonball Z… and enemies on their level).
Some of those concepts also influenced my world design, helping to solidify how I wanted to depict high-powered characters who were the chosen of the gods (as did Saint Seiya and a few others). Some player characters in my games got to play on that level, such as Rob Rudolph, whose original version of Tobimar tended to collect destinies the way other people might collect cards, who ended up with a version of the Rekka armor, and Chad Baird, whose one character ended up with the Kongo armor… and who looked in many ways so much like Shu that at one point it suddenly dawned on him, and us, that he was even sitting on the floor in the exact same pose as Shu in one of the posters on the wall, and looked like a mirror of the character.
I can't deny the influence on my writing; this will be clearest in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, though some of the most obvious "parallels" actually existed long before I saw YST; (SPOILERS for Spirit Warriors, if and when it's written, so your choice…)
… I mean it -- key spoilers for an entire trilogy to be written ahead. If you want to read them clearly, highlight the very light text seen below...
… for instance, five young people with special powers, created by a mysterious figure who created them for the purpose of opposing an evil utterly beyond the ability of ordinary people to fight, and the five of whom combine into one super-being to be the final weapon against the Big Bad sure sounds like YST, indeed… but it's also the grand finale of the single biggest influence on me of all – E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series.
The manipulative, brilliant, and sometimes creepy wizard, Konstantin Khoros, also existed long before I saw YST… but he was based rather closely on Nero Wolfe not just in language but in appearance (he remains very Wolfe-like in dialogue and in the "voice" I hear when I read his lines). After YST I decided to modify his look, and Khoros became the way he is described in Phoenix Rising, as a deliberate nod.
The music for the show was surprisingly good, especially as it was really a sort of second-string show, not originally intended to be a front-runner; some pieces of music, especially Kaos' theme, have stuck with me ever since, and apparently I'm not alone; some other movies used that piece, including the Hong Kong "Dragonball" live-action movie.
I would gladly give a link to the show, but it was only released in Region 1 once, for a short time, and the DVD set is now stupidly expensive to obtain. I hope that someday it will be re-issued. But if you ever get a chance to watch it, do so. It's one of the gems of its era. (NOTE: Do not watch the dub if you can help it. The dub wasn't bad for its time, but it does not hold up well, and changes some things. The original voice actors with a subtitle are much to be preferred.)