On Monday I gave you a primer on what the Tokusatsu genre was, its origins and tropes, and mentioned some of the most famous TV series in the genre and in fact opened the article with my favourite, the one I’ll talk about today: Kamen Rider.
As I mentioned on Monday, Kamen Rider is the brainchild of Ishinomori Shotaro, a man anime fans might recognise as the creator of Cyborg 009 and the lesser-known Skull Man, series that would on occasion cross-over with the TV superhero series Kamen Rider, though only in his manga. The ‘Rider’ in the name is because the characters drive around in motorcycles, the Kamen (Mask) part is self-explanatory I believe. Kamen Rider Drive, one of the latest series, was the first one to show the protagonist Rider driving a car instead of a motorcycle.
While other series kept the Kaiju formula invented by the Godzilla film series, the Kamen Rider series focused on human-sized creatures and while there was always the monster-of-the-week (something that is around even today), there was a greater focus on the characters and their stories and motivations.
The protagonists of the early Kamen Rider series were people taken by the organisation SHOCKER to become mindless augmented soldiers, but they escaped and fought to stop the organisation’s world-conquering plots. Sure, they typically labelled the protagonists, the early Kamen Riders, as heroes but if you look at the stories, the underlying tone is more about revenge, about paying the organisation back from what they attempted to do. By converting them into the Kamen Riders, they destroyed the heroes’ normal lives and put anyone close to them in jeopardy.
Kamen Rider was and has always been edgier than most other tokusatsu series, with darker plots and storylines often involving loss and betrayal. In fact, one of its early series was so dark and with such graphic violence that they cut the airing short. By today’s standards, Kamen Rider Amazon’s violence might feel silly, but at the time in Japan it was too hardcore for what was essentially a children’s show. Even in the current era (more on this coming next), there have been many shows featuring Riders fighting and killing each other.
If you look up Kamen Rider, you will find a distinction made between “Showa Riders” and “Heisei Riders.” The former are those produced up 1989, during the Showa Period of Japan’s history, which ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito—posthumously known as Emperor Showa—whilst the new ones take the name of the current era under Emperor Akihito, Heisei.
Showa Kamen Rider series remain largely unknown to me. I know the basic gist of them but they’re too old and too clumsy in their cinematography and style to be appealing to me. Heisei riders on the other hand are much more stylish and appeal to me greatly.
I started watching with the tenth Heisei series, Kamen Rider Decade. At first, when hearing of Kamen Rider from a friend, I dismissed the show instantly. I had seen the American adaptation of Kamen Rider Black RX, known simply as Masked Rider and it was appallingly shoddy, so I had very little respect for the show.
But I’ve always believed that you can’t hate something without knowing it, so I asked my friend to give me a couple of episodes to watch. I was sure I would hate it but even as I scoffed at the Tokusatsu special effects, particularly the sparks and tiny explosions, the plot and characters drew me in so that when I next spoke to my friend, I was already a fan.
As I mentioned on Monday, tokusatsu series live and die on whether they can grab you even with or even despite the silliness of the effects. And that trend continues on in Kamen Rider, where you’ll have to ignore or accept certain things to enjoy it all. In many ways, it’s like watching professional wrestling, where things don’t make sense in the day-to-day kind, but you still enjoy it.
Perhaps it was my appreciation for tokusatsu that made me like professional wrestling so much. After all, many of the moves used in pro wrestling today you’ll see in the combat choreographies of Kamen Rider. And much like pro wrestling, each Rider has signature and finishing moves, the most commonly mentioned is Rider Kick.
One of the things you have to accept is that most protagonists will strike a pose—often a very ridiculous one—when transforming and no one will ever comment on how silly this is. In the world of Kamen Rider, these poses are perfectly normal. It’s ridiculous but it is part of the charm, a moment or element of goofiness to what can potentially be a dark and gritty storyline.
Only Kamen Rider Gaim acknowledged the silliness and had the protagonist practice the pose at home. In the context of the series, most characters are street performers, so the poses become part of their showmanship. One of the recurring elements is that if a character has a silly pose, there will be a more “sober” Rider who will transform without much fuss. There is a bit of balance to it.
Kamen Rider, whilst for children, doesn’t shy away from dark subjects. Sure, there are lines it doesn’t cross, but it’s not unusual to see high casualties, particularly because more than transforming heroes, the Kamen Rider are people, with their own lives, and only fight monster when they hear about them rampaging. In the time it takes to reach the scene, there will often be dozens of dead and injured. The heroes don’t usually swoop in to save people at the last moment, but become avengers of sorts, making sure the creatures can’t harm anyone else ever again.
I mentioned before that Kamen Rider is much more character centric and what I love the most about it is that it extends to the monsters. In the different worlds of Kamen Rider, monsters are people, at least most of the time and in fact, some of its best stories are in those series where humans become the monsters. Kamen Rider series teach you about the enemies, tell you of their motivations, the things they hold dear and why they do what they do.
The series never dismiss the monsters as plain evil. Instead, they have their own stories and subplots and you get a clear understanding of their motivations. With how easy it is in the superhero genre to dismiss inhuman creatures are plain evil, Kamen Rider takes the refreshing approach to show you how that isn’t really the case.
I mentioned on Monday that most tokusatsu series have very tight budgets and Kamen Rider isn’t the exception. You’ll often see the same locations across series, the same warehouse where they fight the monsters and even the same buildings. In terms of CGI, Kamen Rider uses it sparingly, mostly on the very good transformation sequences, and occasionally on the one-off giant monsters. The quality of these is poor to be honest and even as a fan, I wish they would skip them.
I’ve always believed that if you can’t do the big CGI, then less is more. There are tokusatsu out there that can do the CGI very well, but Kamen Rider is not one of them—nor is Super Sentai for that matter, but I can’t really speak for that series, as I don’t like it.
Kamen Rider is my favourite tokusatsu series and I’m still watching new episodes of the current one, Kamen Rider Ghost, with a protagonist who dies in the first episode and fights monsters using the spirits of luminaries from our world, such as Musashi and Edison. If you’re interested in checking out Kamen Rider, let me know in the comments and I can point you in the right direction.
Tomorrow I’ll close off this little series talking about my other big tokusatsu love, the series that shows you can make tokusatsu for adult audiences: Garo.