One of the great things about getting into a new fandom, or even just dipping your toe, is learning how much there is to enjoy. That can also be pretty daunting. This is especially true when you realize you have 50+ years of things to catch up on. One such franchise that might seem overwhelming is one of Japan’s flagship tokusatsu brands, Kamen Rider. Kamen Rider began in 1971 to capitalize on the wild success of special effects hero shows at the time. It has since spawned 30 distinct television incarnations, spin-off movies and merchandise, and continues today.
We’re about to host a panel about Kamen Rider as part of Nerdist House 2020; I thought it would be a good time to give some very basic info on the series. Specifically the series that started it all, streaming now on Shout! Factory TV and the TokuSHOUTsu channel on Pluto TV.
Chances are if you’re a kid of the Power Rangers generation, you have a vague memory of the one-season wonder that was Masked Rider. That show featured a teenage alien prince who defends Earth from evil with insect-like armor and a motorcycle. As with Power Rangers, which took action footage from Toei’s Super Sentai series, Masked Rider took action footage from Kamen Rider Black RX, the ninth and final Kamen Rider series of the original run. And while Masked Rider wasn’t particularly good, the Japanese series were pretty darned awesome.
The original Kamen Rider began, as I said, in 1971. The initial idea from producer Toru Hirayama was to adapt manga legend Shotaro Ishinomori’s Skull Man to live-action TV. That eventually morphed a bit and became the story of a young motorcycle-riding hero who is forcibly turned into a cyborg by the evil post-Nazi, occult-worshiping organization Shocker to do their nefarious bidding. The mind-controlling part of the conversion doesn’t take, however, and the hero retains his forthright will and intelligence and lets-loose his newfound abilities to defend Japan from Shocker’s minions.
The Rider himself wore distinctively motorcycle-inspired armor, with an insect tinge. The helmet/mask had oversized red eyes and antennae, while the coloring on the jacket/armor looked a lot like an insect’s thorax and wings. It was a very effective design. Unlike Tsuburaya Productions’ popular Ultra series which were the height of special model and monster-suit effects of the time, Kamen Rider‘s scope was much less grandiose. It clearly didn’t have the budget of something like Ultraman and instead relied on hand-to-hand combat and stunt performers doing death-defying acts.
The Evil of Shocker
Monsters and fighting them is always a big part tokusatsu, but Kamen Rider‘s aesthetic takes a major turn toward horror. Shocker’s minions are all humans modified with animal or insect DNA with cybernetic enhancements. Shocker’s leader takes many forms throughout the years, but in the first series he’s a cyclopean creature with red robes. His under bosses all have names like Doctor Death and Ambassador Hell. And the monster-of-the-week formula provided such amazing encounters as mummies, werewolves, vampires, and even evil dinosaur professional wrestlers. One time the Rider had to fight a giant carnivorous flying squirrel man.
Toei would eventually produce the now-legendary Spider-Man live-action series in 1978, but in 1971 they wanted to ensure their own hero outshone those other famous icons. That’s why I can’t imagine it’s a coincidence the first two Kamen Rider episodes are “The Eerie Spider Man” and “The Terrifying Bat Man”; wanna know how awesome our hero is? He defeated Spider-Man and Batman the first two weeks he existed.
A Tale of Two Riders
One of the hallmarks of Kamen Rider is the team-up with other Riders. While later on, that would meaning bringing back past heroes for huge event episodes. But in the first series, it was much more about necessity. Fujioka Hiroshi played the handsome, sensitive hero Hongo Takeshi who became Kamen Rider. In addition to acting, he also performed his stunts; during the filming of the 10th episode, Fujioka broke both of his legs in a motorcycle accident. That meant he would be out for months, from a popular show that just started. It’s a disaster any way you slice it. Or it could have been had the producers not thought quickly.
For the next few episodes, Takeshi would only appear in full Rider gear (a stunt double) with the occasional piece of stock footage of the actor out of costume. Starting in episode 14, in the story of the show, Takeshi goes off to fight Shocker in Europe, leaving Japan in the hands of the second Kamen Rider. Ichimonji Hayato (Sasaki Takeshi) was a photographer and thrill-seeker who was to be yet another victim of Shocker’s gene-splicing; luckily (offscreen) Kamen Rider saves him mid-transformation and he gets to be Japan’s new savior, in a very similar but marketably different suit.
The genius of this move meant the show was essentially refreshed after 13 weeks. And not just with a different actor, the two characters are markedly different. Takeshi is a sweet and humble university student with a knack for motorcycle racing, while Hayato is much more hip, brash, and has an attitude. He’s more of a ladies man and has a suave style all his own. This was all the more important beginning in episode 40.
After 26 episodes with Rider 2, Hongo returned for a two-part team up wherein the Shocker villain of the week brainwashed him so they fought each other. At the end of those episodes, Takeshi goes back to Europe. He returns again in episodes 49 and 51 before re-taking the reins of the series in episode 52. At that point, Hayato had been the star of the show more than twice as long, so it felt again like a brand new show. Hayata returned for his own guest appearances in episodes 72, 73, 93, 94, and the series finale of 98.
Kamen Rider was a smash hit and the next iteration, V3, began the week after the original ended (very common in Japanese shows). From 1971-1976, there was always a Kamen Rider on TV. After a few years off, four more series ran from 1979-1981 and then 1987-1989.
All 98 episodes are currently available to watch for free on Shout! Factory TV and are airing on Pluto TV’s TokuSHOUTsu channel. It’s really worth a look, for its creepy-funky monsters, emphasis on stuntwork and fights, and for that cool-ass theme song.
Featured Image: Toei/TokuSHOUTsu