A guide into the weird and wacky world of masked karate bugmen
So with the impending start of the new Kamen Rider series, Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, and also the beginning its coverage here, I think it’s time I got the Bit Cultures readers clued up on what Kamen Rider is. The easy answer to “What is Kamen Rider?” is that it’s the sister series to the show Power Rangers is adapted from (which is called the Super Sentai Series, which needs its own article to explain) where instead of a team of spandexed heroes fighting a rubber monster, it’s in fact one spandexed (but more likely armoured) superhero fighting a monster. But that doesn’t really cover the actual complexity behind the show and what makes it one of my favourite franchises ever. So dear reader, do read on to figure out what, in fact, is Kamen Rider!
So the beginning of the long answer to this article’s question is that Kamen Rider is a tokusatsu (a genre of films/TV relying heavily on practical effects) children’s show that began WAY back in 1971, with the simply titled Kamen Rider. This first entry to the now 45 year old franchise was very simple with the premise being that the eponymous hero was kidnapped by a dastardly (maybe Nazi) evil organization, turned into a cyborg, and rebelling against his creators and vowing to protect the world from them. This initial series was the blueprint for the first chunk of entries to the franchise, named the Showa era due to airing during the Showa era of Japanese history, with most Riders (the collective name for the heroes in the franchise) following a similar premise, but with variations upon this formula, such as the eponymous protagonist wanting revenge for the evil organization killing his family with Kamen Rider V3.
Now this initial batch of Kamen Rider series ended in 1989 with the decidedly different Kamen Rider Black and its sequel Kamen Rider Black RX, which for the most part did not have any connections to prior series in the franchise and distinguished itself from its predecessors by having a darker tone. Then for about 10 years (with the exception of 3 movies) Kamen Rider disappeared. But then BAM! In May of 1999 Toei, the owners and production company behind the franchise, announced a new project for the new millennium: Kamen Rider Kuuga. This fresh take on the franchise was meant to be a one-off return of the series, but due to its massive popularity it spurred the franchise to continue on to this day, thus creating the Heisei era (again named after the period of Japanese history when it aired) of Kamen Rider. This era is quite distinct from the Showa era as rather than following a similar formula with every entry, each series (which now came out on an annual basis) has its own story, its own cast, crew and merchandise. This meant that every year you would get vastly different shows that were overall quite distinct and different from each other, while still maintaining various key aspects that come from being part of a wider franchise. An example of these vast differences between series is one year the main motif was classic horror and vampires, while another was based on trains.
Yet, after the 10th entry to the Heisei era, Kamen Rider Decade, there was another shift in the franchise as from Kamen Rider W/Double onwards, where there were some major changes to the franchise. Firstly there was a return of some continuity: from W/Double onwards, every rider has 2 crossover films with the first being with the previous year’s Rider and the second being with its successor. Another shared trait of this era of the franchise is the larger focus on selling toys. This is as now all the riders have some kind of collectable gimmick toy involved with their transformation belt. For example, one year the collectable gimmick was plastic eyeballs which contained the souls of historical figures that the Rider could use the powers of (Kamen Rider Ghost); another yea’s gimmick was locks that were in the shape of fruit that summoned various fruit themed armour that the riders of that show could use (Kamen Rider Gaim); and so on and so forth. There was also a bit of a shift in this era of Kamen Rider to a more superficially light-hearted plot with the shows in this period not being as obviously dark as earlier entries in the franchise; however their plots don’t lose any complexity, their characters still have great development and they still have great emotional cores to them, so really the lack of “darkness” really doesn’t affect their quality at all.
So now that I’ve told you what Kamen Rider is, why should you watch it? Well the first hurdle obviously is whether you are down to watch a live-action, practical effects based children’s superhero show. This isn’t a criticism of the show at all, it’s just I understand that the programme might not be everyone’s cup of tea: the franchise can be silly, over the top and very unrealistic, so I can understand if you wouldn’t want to watch that. Now if you are down to clown with that, here are some reasons why you should watch Kamen Rider. Firstly the action is quite compelling as a lot of work goes into the action scenes both from the stuntmen (here called suit actors due to the fact that they act within these full body costumes) and the directors. Secondly, Kamen Rider has very strong character arcs and developments in most of the franchise, at least when it does focus upon this aspect (a personal favourite being Alain from Kamen Rider Ghost’s character arc). Thirdly, the costumes in the show, the civilian, transformed superhero and monster outfits, are all really well made and designed and a fun part of watching the show. Finally, despite what a lot of people say, the plots are always fun and worth staying with even though some of them aren’t the best poorly paced or as deep as they could be. One should not go in to Kamen Rider always expecting a classic that has the best narrative in the universe, but you, at the very least, will have a lot of fun seeing characters grow and evolve over the course of each series that outweighs the occasional flat storyline.
So I hope my little article here has been quite informative for you and maybe convinced you to check it out! A word of warning however is that each series (apart from a handful of exceptions) are around 45-50 episodes each so they are an investment of time. If you are looking for a good place to start, I’d suggest Kamen Rider W/Double as it set the precedent of this current era of Kamen Rider. I’d also suggest Kamen Rider Decade that, despite its lacking narrative/plot, gives the viewer a snapshot into the Riders that appeared prior to it and so would be great to watch for someone who doesn’t know the history of the franchise. I’d also recommend Kamen Rider Fourze as it’s a very easy entry due to its simplicity and anime-esque over the top nature (plus it was written by the writer of Gurren Laagan). Hopefully this answered any questions that you might have had about Kamen Rider, convinced you to give it a shot and made you look forward to Kamen Rider Ex-Aid and its impending coverage here on Bit Cultures!