My trip through Kamen Rider was not a straight line. I know people who started from the beginning with the first series from 1971 and set out to watch everything that has subs in chronological order. I know people who started from generally-accepted starting points like W or Kuuga and went forward. I also know people who have only seen the show as it airs with the most recent series. Me? I downloaded a bit of everything and proceeded to binge-watch through whatever looked the most interesting. At first I tried a little of Amazon (the original, not the currently-airing Amazon Prime series), but the style of the show didn’t interest me past the first few episodes, and I skipped ahead to then marathon most of the modern series in the course of five months.
Hey, it was when I was still in grad school, I had a surprising amount of time on my hands in the evenings.
But because of that, it was quite awhile before I took another look at the Showa-era series, classified as Rider shows that aired before 2000. If you can tolerate the shoe-string budgets and tag-along kid sidekicks, there’s a shocking amount of engaging material that holds up to the more continuously-developed style of storytelling we expect today.
It’s tough to give a general overview to a unifying style of the older Kamen Rider series, since even within the individual seasons themselves, there’s quite a bit of variation. Tones shift, important plot lines are brought up, dropped, skewed, and even whole casts of supporting characters can come and go. In other words, each show has a lot of elements of experimentation within them. However, because all of them were produced under the helm of the franchise’s original founder – Shotaro Ishinomori – these shows still retain very similar themes in mind, even if the characters, story structure, and aesthetics vary a bit between them, and can change directions on a whim.
One major element, which has also extended into modern Rider series made after Ishinomori’s death, is the concept that Riders must become like the monsters they face in order to protect humanity. There’s a lot of other corollaries that go along with this, such as the idea that violence is inherently dehumanizing, pushback against creeping industrialization that also results in dehumanization and destruction of the natural order of the world, and the isolation that the Riders face because they must engage in this struggle. These themes extend through every single Rider series made during this period, although with different variations reflected through the differences in the main Riders themselves.
Other elements are also recognizable, but less central. For example, the villains that the Rider (or Riders) usually face come from an evil, monolithic, secretive organization bent on world domination through manipulation of world events or politics, or just outright murderous terrorism. Some of these plots are goofy, some of them are downright harrowing, but all of them are carried out by enemy generals who enact the will of the shadowy Great Leaders who run the show off-camera. These enemies are modified in the same way the Riders are, but are wholly given over to mercilessly advance the directives of the evil organization.
Both these points are developed in interesting ways with the Kamen Rider series Black, which I just started watching through this past week while on vacation. I’ve been meaning to start it for quite a long time because it’s one of the most highly recommended seasons of Rider, and after seeing the first few episodes, I can plainly understand why. Here, I’m going to show how the start of this series continues these common themes of Rider, but emphasized in new ways. With better technology and techniques for special effects, there’s a lot more options for the show-runners to develop classic elements of the franchise, more strongly than what was previously possible. Black uses those options to craft a dramatic, gripping, and often horrifying first introduction into Minami Kotaro’s fight against Golgom.
Within the first five minutes of this series, Kotaro is chased through the nighttime streets of Tokyo by masked cultists with supernatural powers, electrocuted, tossed through at least two concrete walls and dropped through a ceiling.
Oh and in the middle of this surreal chase scene, we see a flashback to the reconstruction surgery said cultists put him and his brother, Nobuhiko, through. An event which he miraculously escapes before it was completed thanks to the sacrifice of his adoptive father.
Then he involuntarily turns into an armored karate bugman to kick said cultists in the face.
So yeah, welcome to Kotaro’s no good, very rotten awful day. Which is about to get worse.
Joking aside, this is honestly the strongest first episode of any Rider season I’ve seen. It’s legitimately tense , and the quick pace of camera cuts and tightly-focused, zoomed-in shots provides audience with the same feeling of anxious confusion that Kotaro faces in this opening sequence. The effects work is also incredibly strong for a series that’s almost 30 years old now, both in terms of physical stunts and suits, and animated effects like the LASERS EVERYWHERE.
This show’s style is 80’s as all get-out, but the extreme detail of all the practical suits and effective horror atmosphere of its surroundings make it feel almost refreshing rather than tired or outdated.
The audience is immediately sucked into the events even if they – like Kotaro – have no idea what the hell is going on. It helps that there’s also some very uncomfortable body horror going on with Kotaro’s new understanding of his inhumanity, and the grotesqueness of Golgom’s appearance and methods.
The scenes following this manic introduction clarify the background exposition – Golgom is our evil organization bent on world domination, and Kotaro’s adopted father was forced to strike a deal to hand him over, along with his own biological son, Nobuhiko, to serve as their prophesied “Century King” and usher in the end of humanity.
But even the small offering of bare-boned apologies doesn’t alleviate the horror of the situation as they’re attacked by Golgom mutants and Kotaro’s father is killed.
What follows is a Henshin sequence so incredible I need to link it to you as a video clip rather than even attempting to capture it in screencaps.
So now we have our major direction set up for the show, laid out explicitly by the narrator who voices over Kotaro’s slow, determined walk to meet his fate as a Kamen Rider.
In this first episode we see all these classic elements of Kamen Rider highlighted in quick succession, most prominently, the necessary loss of humanity in order to face an all-consuming, crushingly oppressive evil. In fact, Golgom’s operation – although covered with a more elevated veneer of spiritual devotion – is similar to many other villainous organizations in Rider. Hell, when I sat down to write this, I realized that you can draw a straight line between Golgom’s motivations to control the world to Masamune Dan’s schemes as an evil businessman in the currently-running season of Ex-Aid.
What all these villains have in common is their shared desire to control humanity by exterminating it entirely, and pre-ordaining what survives to follow. After all, since they are the ones who control the technology and means of ascending beyond humanity, everything that is elevated through those means will only be allowed to do so in order to serve their machinations further. Kotaro is the only one who has the power to fight back because of Golgom’s evil science, and yet seeks to undo those machinations.
Often people tend to summarize Kamen Riders as fighting for “Justice”, but the theme that is emphasized most by Kamen Rider Black is the idea of Kotaro fighting for freedom instead.
One of the elements of horror that Kamen Rider understood from its earliest days, is that one of the most profound terrors a story can provide is the perversion of the familiar. Taking common circumstances or experiences and twisting them in a way to create an unsafe atmosphere will stick with the viewers even after the show is over. This second episode does a great job of doing just that. In retracing the steps of the previous day, Kotaro remembers the full context of the events that led to him becoming Kamen Rider Black, and the true extent of the conspiracy he now faces.
What starts out as a happy occasion – his shared birthday party with his all-but-biological brother Nobuhiko, Kotaro remembers those parts that seemed out of place, that creates that atmosphere of horror. While the fancy party is going on, and the boys are rubbing elbows with all the fancy celebrities, there’s uneasy conversations, and strange prophecies afoot.
Lots of grasshoppers.
There’s the obvious connection to Kotaro’s own mutation to become a Kamen Rider after Golgom kidnaps him immediately after this party, but this swarm is more appropriately a plague of locusts. These swarms appear and consume enough food from crops and other plants to render entire swaths of land completely bare. You can see the relation to Golgom in this metaphor, which represents a powerful evil that sweeps up and consumes everything in its path. Some people, including the influential figures who murmur about the oncoming Century King at this party, become a part of the plague itself and simply ignore the corruption and pestilence they’ve found themselves trapped in. Others are simply swept aside or destroyed.
But not all of the figures who are caught in this conspiracy do so unwillingly, we saw Kotaro’s adoptive father agree to aid Golgom out of despair – he saw this as the only way to save the two boys from certain death. This episode, along with other self-contained plots later, show something that a lot of Showa-era Rider stories don’t emphasize, how individuals willingly join Golgom for various reasons. The horror elements here involve people seeking to use the power that Golgom offers for their own gain, and then those that wind up having second thoughts – showing weakness – are consumed by it and conquered by other recruits who have no such compunctions.
In fact as we’ll see next episode, many of those here on the boat swear their allegiance to Golgom out of desire to also wield that same power.
Businessmen, doctors, masters of industry, influential public figures and –
Yep, not even Ultraman is free of their insidious grasp.
This second episode sets up a lot of psychological elements of horror, by twisting around familiar and seemingly-innocuous circumstances into something sinister, showing the evil that lurks underneath. But it also gets some effective tension from more mundane effects, later on framing a frantic fight against an enemy mutant in tightly restrained surroundings.
The claustrophobic shots actually set up a few well-done jump scares before Kotaro knocks his enemy out of a window and dispatches him in a more traditional showdown.
I wanted to leave off on this episode mainly because it sets up what will become the common formula for episodic plots from here on out in the show. (At least, up to where I’ve left off watching the show at the moment.)But in providing that framework, it also gives another insight into the nature of Golgom and it’s operation that connects to the other two episodes of this introduction for Black.
First of all, the shopkeeper where Kotaro and Nobuhiko’s sister have taken shelter left for vacation (and will never come back, spoiler alert). This leaves them running the coffee shop he leaves behind, and also provides the primary framing for pretty much every week’s story. They hear about a weird circumstance on the TV while chilling out at their home base – or simply run across it while out having a semblance of a normal life – Kotaro smells Golgom behind it, then goes off to investigate.
This episode is no different, but first we have a bit of exposition from the three high priests of Golgom. They fear what Kotaro can do while left unchecked, but obviously it’s bad Evil Overlord practice to over-commit on destroying him while neglecting to invest their evil capital! Again, this sets up common patterns of plots for later in the series, combinations of world domination schemes and assassinations planned for Kotaro himself.
In this episode, Golgom tries to do both by unleashing its Silk Worm Mutant to kidnap everything and everyone it can so they can build a
monument to nonexistence terrifying edifice to strike fear into the hearts of humanity, but also to Kotaro by foretelling his own doom by their hands.
It’s a creepily psychological bit of braggadocio, but unfortunately for Golgom, their threat of violence to back it up, the Silk Worm Mutant, falls easily to Black’s attacks.
As a tangent, can you imagine swearing undying fealty to Golgom in exchange for inhuman power, only to get turned into this ugly sunnvabitch? That must be a pretty awful way to spend your life that has now been extended by 50,000 years.
Anyways, to wrap this introduction up, I’m not too far into watching this series yet, but it’s been a surprisingly compelling story so far. Combining old-school horror sensibilities of Kamen Rider with effects work that is downright impressive even 30 years later, Black has managed to grab my attention and retain it in a way that some other Showa-era series haven’t managed.
If you’re a toku fan complaining about how toy-driven and cartoony Modern Rider has become in terms of aesthetics, I highly recommend backtracking to check out this series.