There was something of a tokusatsu reawakening in the ’90s following the success of Power Rangers; the parent series Super Sentai began in 1975 and continues unabated to this day. Kamen Rider, which debuted in 1971 and continued in various forms until 1989, returned to TV screens in the year 2000 in a similar fashion. Each season would be an individual new Rider story with new characters, theme, and suit. The first of these new Heisei-era (Jan 1989-April 2019) shows had the subtitle Kuuga. Kamen Rider Kuuga is available to stream in North America on Shout Factory TV, the Pluto TV tokuSHOUTsu channel, and on Tubi. It’s a show very worth your time.
Creating a whole new lore and mythology, Kuuga tells of two ancient races; the evil Grongi Tribe and the peaceful Linto Tribe. One warrior of the Linto harnessed the power of Kuuga to become the savior of his people. In the present day, archaeologists uncover Kuuga’s mysterious stone belt which also awakens the Grongi, who are monstrous in their true forms. They decide to get revenge on the descendants of the Linto…aka, humanity!
Enter Godai Yūsuke (Joe Odagiri), a happy-go-lucky 25-year-old who feels an inexplicable draw toward the belt. He dons it and becomes the new Kuuga, defender of humans against the evil forces of Grongi. Yūsuke isn’t alone, thankfully; helping him are a number of other forthright young people, including police inspector Ichijo (Shingo Katsurayama); graduate student and “Lintonese” expert Sawatari (Kazumi Murata); Minori (Wakana Chizaki), Yūsuke’s school teacher younger sister; Dr. Tsubaki (Yoshitaka Otsuka), Ichijo’s friend from childhood; and a host of other allies across the show’s 49 episodes.
Yūsuke is one of the most hopeful and positive characters ever in an action series. He combats any situation with his trademark thumbs-up and grin. A wandering adventurer prior to the events of the series, his entire goal is to bring smiles to people. And he takes that with him into his Kuuga battles. While the Grongi try to spread fear and hatred, Kuuga brings hope to those around him.
What sets Kuuga apart from the Kamen Rider series that came before are both in presentation and narrative style. This was the first of the series to film in widescreen on DV rather than 16mm film. As a result, it has a much glossier and brighter look. And, yes, the CGI doesn’t look all that great today; it was 20 years ago, we’ve come a long way. Rather than a pure monster-of-the-week type of storytelling with the barest threads of story arcs continuing on, Kuuga ushered in the era of serialized stories for Kamen Rider. While certainly new monsters appear all the time, and Kuuga even develops new forms and powers along the way, the overall story continues every week. Sometimes the episode will end in the middle of a big fight.
This narrative change meant the show existed much more like a soap opera or modern dramatic presentation. There’s a greater focus on the Rider’s friends and relationships; even the group of villains (all in human form played by hot young actors) got development from early on. It’s really a testament to the writing and performing on the show that the soapier aspects of the show don’t impede on the sci-fi/horror action. Yūsuke is so likable and cheery, we want him to succeed, and when he doesn’t, it impacts the rest of the characters. And you so badly want at least four different pairs of characters to get together by the end. That’ll keep you watching.
The Odagiri Effect
One truly innovative aspect of Kamen Rider Kuuga had nothing at all to do with the fighting or the suits. As the series went on, the producers noticed two main audiences: one was children and young people, which wasn’t a surprise; the second was women in their 30s. Inexplicably, as Kuuga continued, the number of thirtysomething women tuning in continued to climb. The reason, they discovered, was because of how attractive star Joe Odagiri was. The mothers of the kids watching Kuuga would tune in, just because the lead actor was handsome. This led to a change in how producers market and cast TV series. It’s called the Odagiri Effect; it’s real, you can look it up.
Good action, a cool mythos, handsome-as-heck performers, and a story that keeps you watching episode for episode. Even if it doesn’t quite seem up your alley, Kamen Rider Kuuga feels very akin to modern superhero or sci-fi serials and at 49 episodes, it’s a nice healthy journey that neatly wraps up at the end. And hey, “no fear, no pain” is a pretty great motto to live by.
You can watch Kamen Rider Kuuga on Shout! Factory TV, tokuSHOUTsu, and Tubi.
Featured Image: Toei