I love Kamen Rider. I used to call the series my guilty pleasure, until I decided that “guilty pleasures” is one of the dumbest things in the planet—there is no guilt, associated to it, only the perception that people will ridicule you for liking certain things, to which I say do your worst, bub!
Kamen Rider—translating to Masked Rider, which might give you a clue of what it is—is a tokusatsu series in Japan with a history spanning over 40 years, created by Ishinomori Shotaro in 1973, the man who brought Cyborg 009, Skull Man and later Super Sentai to the world. The first few series happened in the same continuity, dealing with modified humans fighting against their would-be masters, the dark organisation SHOCKER.
Later series would deal with other antagonists, protagonist and concepts, but would also keep familiar elements around, such as the belts used by the protagonists to transform into their battle armours as well as them shouting “Henshin!” before activation, the word meaning “Transform!” By the end of the 80s, the series vanished, only to be brought back in the year 2000, two years after Ishinomori’s death. To this day, the different series list him as the creator in their credits.
In this regard, a long-standing children’s series dying in the 80s and brought back in the new millennium, Kamen Rider is very much Japan’s Doctor Who (at least I think of it that way).
There are many things I like about Kamen Rider and other tokusatsu series, and I’ll go into them, but before we can dive into the different worlds, monsters and heroes, you need to understand what Tokusatsu is and the common tropes in the genre.
Tokusatsu literally means Special Filming and it’s a term used to describe any film or TV series with a considerable amount of special effects. The most recognisable element of the Tokusatsu genre is Suitmation, with an actor or stuntman dressing up as a monster to destroy a miniaturised city. If you’re thinking Godzilla, then you got it in one, as this film used all the techniques that would become the staple of the Tokusatsu genre.
In Tokusatsu, sparks and explosions become visual cues for the audience, conveying the effectiveness and power behind a creature or character’s actions and abilities. Ball-of-fire explosions tell you that the action had devastating effects, which is why it’s very common in tokusatsu productions to have the monsters die in huge blazes of glory, as it’s understood that they won’t be coming back from that one. Sparks are one level below explosions, showing the effectiveness of any other special attack, and this even includes claws and weapons. If it could injure someone, then it’ll cause a shower of sparks to happen, though the action won’t always be lethal—and yes, it’s possible for an action to cause sparks and then go into an explosion, especially for overwhelmingly powerful foes.
It’s very unusual for simple punches to show sparks, as they’re considered too mild within the tokusatsu production’s context.
A last ‘special effect’ is just puffs of smoke to convey the destruction of inanimate objects or structures, the best example being the buildings Godzilla steps on. In the context of this Kaiju film, edifices are inconsequential, they’re random property with no value whatsoever—and more often than not assumed to be empty. Because of this, simple puffs of smoke and foam ‘debris’ are enough, as they’re not worth more ‘powerful’ effects.
Godzilla was the first film to show these techniques, and with the success of the series, it wasn’t long before it made the leap into the small screen.
There have been hundreds of Tokusatsu series out there but arguably the most famous are: Kamen Rider, Ultraman and Super Sentai, which most in the west will recognise as Power Rangers—the company creating the series in the US appropriated one of the Japanese series, reused the combat footage and replaced the actors with their American cast. Didn’t you ever wonder why the Power Rangers fight footage looked so dark compared the bright and clean acting footage? It’s because those were old as dirt!
Overall, tokusatsu hasn’t changed its style in the past 50 years, still using the techniques I mentioned above for even the most modern series, with very little use of CGI, leaving that for creatures or sequences impossible to do with practical effects. Kamen Rider, for example, a series that sees the protagonist fighting human-sized monsters—in contrast to Ultraman and Super Sentai which often include building-sized creatures and giant robots, all of it Suitmation, and the biggest inspiration for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim—uses CGI for the very rare colossal creature rampaging. It’s fair to point out that the norm is that these CGI elements will be rather cheap, as they often deal with tight budgets—though the Super Sentai and Kamen Rider do amazing things with the budget they have, unlike many others who look and feel depressingly cheap.
In this regard, a series stands out from the rest: Garo. It’s still tokusatsu, it still has the elements that make it part of the genre, but instead of practical effects it uses CGI almost exclusively, paired with its cast doing most of the fight scenes without stunt-people. Their CGI is generally much more realistic or at least grandiose enough that you don’t care about the realism as much. Garo also targets a much more mature audience—whereas most Tokusatsu target young children—and not only is the world and the plots much darker but there is even partial frontal nudity at times—read, boobs.
The video below shows one of my favourite fights in Garo, happening in the second series, Garo: Makai Senki. The CGI’s quality is shaky, but it’s several steps above what most Tokusatsu series can even attempt. I will of course cover this series in a future piece, and perhaps I’ll get to show you even better fights.
Tokusatsu, as a genre, lives on your suspension of disbelief. If you can immerse yourself in the events happening on the screen despite or even because of the practical special effects, then you’re gonna have a good time. If these elements repel you, it’ll be a hard watch.
Tokusatsu has a long history and with the long-running series and sagas on TV, it’s fair to say it’s going to be around for a long time. If you saw Pacific Rim and enjoyed seeing a giant robot fighting a monster, or if you’ve seen the Godzilla films—not the Matthew Broderick one, the good films I mean—then have a look at the Tokusatsu genre, you might find something you like. Tomorrow I’ll get into my favourite one: Kamen Rider.