By Jerry Hrechka / April 3rd, 2015
Welcome back to Toku-Talk where we talk about tokusatsu: Japanese television shows with an emphasis on special effects. Technically speaking, any show with special effects counts as tokusatsu, but we’re generally going to use it to refer to Japanese superhero shows. Those of you who are fond of anime or American comic books will no doubt find plenty to like about these shows.
Last time, we talked about the Japanese iteration of Spider-man. This time we’ll talk about one of the most long-lived heroes of Japanese culture: Kamen Rider! If you watch anime or play video games, you’ve probably seen parodies or send-offs of the show. The popular anime Pretty Cure often features mooks reminiscent of the series and the manga Franken Fran features a parody character called the Sentinel. I could go on, but instead I’ll just provide a link to the numerous references and parodies.
Kamen Rider was created by Shotaro Ishinomori. Here in America, he’s probably best known for Cyborg 009, though many probably don’t realize that he holds the Guinness record for most comics published (128,000 pages!). Of his creations, Kamen Rider is easily the most successful. The first series ran from 1971 to 1973 with 98 episodes. That’s nowhere near the end though. Kamen Rider is still airing with 24 different series having aired, each featuring a new protagonist in the role of Kamen Rider. We’ll probably revisit some of those series in later articles, especially since they comprise some of my favorite TV shows, but for now we’re going back to the very beginning.
“Takeshi Hongo is the cyborg Kamen Rider. He was remodeled by Shocker, an evil organization bent on ruling the world. Kamen Rider stands against them for the sake of humanity!”
This is the opening narration for the series, putting the franchise idea succinctly. It misses some key facts though. Takeshi Hongo isn’t just any regular guy, he’s one of the world’s best stunt motorcycle drivers. This skill is what led Shocker to kidnap him and attempt to transform him into a cyborg that would be one of their soldiers, what with their being so much overlap between sick dirt bike flips and international conquest. I tell ya, if Alexander the Great had developed the motorcycle, we’d be living in a much different, far more extreme world.
Takeshi breaks out in the middle of the experiment and, finding out what has happened to me, vows to fight to destroy Shocker. This is a theme that regularly appears in almost every Kamen Rider series. Often the powers of the Kamen Riders comes from the same place as that of the villains. This places them often as outsiders, neither belonging to normal society nor to the monsters they fight. Nowhere is this more clear than with the drifter Takeshi Hongo.
One of the fascinating things about the early episodes of Kamen Rider is the tone of the series. It’s not only a relatively dark show, but it’s almost a horror series. Some superficial parallels could be drawn to the Supernatural TV series with the show opening with the attack of a Shocker monster, followed by Kamen Rider coming in to fight the threat, usually blowing it up with his deadly RIDER KICK. After complaints from parents, however, the violence and fright of Shocker was toned down.
That wasn’t the only change to hit Kamen Rider. Hongo’s actor, Hiroshi Fujioka, broke his leg on set, putting the weekly show in jeopardy. Hurriedly, actor Takeshi Sasaki was brought in to play Hayato Ichimonji, the second Kamen Rider. For slightly over thirty of the ninety-eight episodes of Kamen Rider, Hayato would be defending Japan on his own as Kamen Rider 2 while Takeshi Hongo fought Shocker in Europe until the actor healed and Takeshi could return to Japan to work in concert with Hayato to defeat Shocker.
While this was a slapdash cover for behind-the-scenes issues, the replacement gave Kamen Rider an angle that no other superhero has ever succeeded at as much: the idea of a legacy hero. Western superheroes have played with the idea of new people inheriting the mantle of a superhero. The most successful were Wally West replacing Barry Allen as Flash and Kyle Rayner replacing Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern — both Barry and Hal are back in their costumes now, seeming to cement the static nature of superheroes. But that’s not even counting the numerous even more short-lived legacies, such as when Dick Grayson became Batman or when Doctor Octopus possessed Peter Parker and became Spider-man. (Yes, really)
But here in Kamen Rider, we had two Kamen Riders fighting side-by-side as equals. This meant that Kamen Rider wasn’t a singular person but a mantle that could be bestowed on numerous masked dirt bikers with justice in their hearts and the ability to make things explode with their feet. After the end of Kamen Rider, the sequel series Kamen Rider V3 aired, starring the hero Shiro Kazami who was battling not Shocker, but the no-less evil Destron. After that, each new series featured a new Kamen Rider with a new threat to fight, down to today with Kamen Rider Drive. It doesn’t have the issue with American comic books of alternate realities or whether something is ‘canon’ or not. Which Kamen Rider show is the real one? All of them.
Though their series is over, the original Kamen Riders aren’t quite done yet. They often appear in crossover movies, played by Fujioka and Sasaki themselves. Beyond that, a reboot movie about the first two Kamen Riders, entitled Kamen Rider The First, hit theaters in 2005 with new actors and acting as though the events were to take place in 2005. It was designed for an older audience, took on a more grim, down-to-earth tone, and in general could be mistaken for a Christopher Nolan re-imagining of the character.
The sad news is that, unlike Spider-man, Kamen Rider is not readily available in America. The only one of the many series that found its way to America untouched was Kamen Rider V3, which is pretty darn pricey. Saban, the company responsible for turning Super Sentai into Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, attempted to give Kamen Rider a similar treatment with Masked Rider, which used footage from Kamen Rider Black. The results were awful, being a mess of incomprehensible editing, phoned-in acting, and dull storytelling. Let’s be kinder than every other Kamen Rider fan and just say that it was not very good. It wouldn’t be until 2009 when America would get a second shot with Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, which used footage from 2002’s Kamen Rider Ryuki. Fans were far more positive about this version and it even received a daytime Emmy.
Beyond that there is also the Kamen Rider manga by creator Shoraro Ishinomori. It’s available digitally on Comixology for $4.99 a volume and are well worth it. It’s a significantly darker series, taking advantage of the freedom from television censor and budget to emphasize the horror aspects of the series, featuring a Kamen Rider on the brink of existential despair. It’s dynamic, tortured writing and Ishinomori’s art has a bright, dynamic style that might not seem new to most manga readers, but that’s only because of how influential Ishinomori was over the entire manga industry.
Beyond that, unfortunately, you’ll be hard-pressed to legally find the series in America. But if you can and have a taste for a new kind of superheroics, then you can’t do much better than Kamen Rider.
Kamen RiderShotaro IshinomoritokuTokusatsu