Even if There is no God or Buddha: 50 Years of Kamen Rider

On April 3, 1971, children across Japan gathered around televisions to watch the debut of an exciting new superhero, who would launch a franchise that endures 50 years later: Kamen Rider. To celebrate, I thought I’d share an overview of the series, the franchise, its influences and legacies, and why it is such an important of Japanese pop culture.

Tokusatsu

Kamen Rider is classified as a tokusatsu series, a word literally meaning “special film,” used to describe shows with an emphasis on special effects. Although tokusatsu heritage can be traced back to Japanese theater, it was the 1954 movie Godzilla that pioneered tokusatsu media, spawning several movies and TV shows featuring elaborate special effects. Tokusatsu isn’t a genre in and of itself, but one of the major types of tokusatsu series is superhero shows including Kamen Rider, Ultraman, and Super Sentai.

The roots of Kamen Rider can be seen in earlier tokusatsu shows. Eiji Tsuburaya, who pioneered the special effects in Godzilla, would later turn his attention to television. In 1965, he developed a show called Ultra Q, inspired by American series such as The Twilight Zone, featuring investigators exploring strange paranormal phenomenon across Japan. Ultra Q was succeeded by Ultraman, a more action-focused series featuring a man who transforms into the giant hero Ultraman to fight aliens. Ultraman was an immediate success, joining a parade of superhero shows in Japan such as Super Giant and Moonlight Mask that would draw attention from “kaiju” tokusatsu featuring monsters such as Godzilla, toward tokusatsu with an emphasis flashy superheroes.

It was amidst this backdrop that Kamen Rider emerged. Created by prolific manga author Shotaro Ishinomori, Kamen Rider features the adventures of Takeshi Hongo. Hongo, a brilliant athlete and super genius (boasting an IQ of 600!), is captured by the evil criminal organization Shocker. Shocker kidnaps people, transforms them into cyborgs, and brainwashes them to further its aims of world domination. Although they succeed in turning Hongo into a cyborg, he escapes before the brainwashing. He then uses the very power they gave him to fight back at Shocker by transforming into the superhero Kamen Rider. There is an inherent sadness to Hongo’s mission: he fights for humanity despite no longer being human himself. Many episodes end with him driving away on his motorcycle to his next battle, feeling he cannot live among society and with the rest of humanity.

However, his battle is not entirely solitary. He is aided by his motorcycle coach Tobei Tachibana, FBI agent Kazuya Taki, and the rotating cast of Tachibana Racing Club who can help Hongo investigate Shocker’s schemes and help his victims. An accident while filming the show meant a departure for Hongo’s actor Hiroshi Fujioka after episode 13, and Hongo was replaced by photographer Hayato Ichimonji as Kamen Rider 2. Although he has the same abilities, he has a very different personality. Whereas Hongo is stoic and lonesome, Ichimonji is more brash and sarcastic, providing a contrast between the two. Hongo would return for the second half of the series and Ichimonji would depart, returning for occasional team-ups.

Kamen Rider ran for 98 episodes between 1971 and 1973. Watching it 50 years later, its age is apparent, featuring dated special effects and a plot that can be downright nonsensical. A typical episode will feature Shocker sending their monster of the week to attack someone or something, Kamen Rider and his allies learning about it, and Rider defeating it with one of his signature moves (his Rider Kick being the most famous, which would become a franchise staple). Occasionally the Riders will face one of Shocker’s generals, upping the stakes. Supporting cast drifts in and out without much explanation or introduction. Plots can be downright bizarre — an early episode sees Shocker (founded by Nazis) seeking Hitler’s lost buried treasure in Japan to help fund their aims. In the last 18 episodes of the series, Shocker merges with an until-then unmentioned organization, creating brand new mooks and monsters that are hybrids of multiple creatures rather than inspired based off a single. This all leads to a grand finale in which Kamen Rider finally takes down Shocker’s Great Leader.

Franchise

Kamen Rider was an immediate success, spawning a media franchise that continues to this day. Although it has not run continuously since 1971, there have been 31 series (plus some movies) bearing the Kamen Rider title. After the original series finished, it launched immediately into a sequel, Kamen Rider V3, featuring a hero rescued by Riders 1 and 2 and turned into a cyborg to fight the evil organization Destron. Throughout the 70s and 80s, more Kamen Rider shows would follow until the series took an extended break as production company Toei shifted instead to its Metal Heroes franchise.

However, in the year 2000, Kamen Rider would make a return with the series Kamen Rider Kuuga. Drawing on the franchise’s roots in horror, it was a dark and violent show that modeled itself after police dramas. An excavation of ancient ruins releases the villains Grongi tribe, and Yusuke Godai inherits the power of a legendary warrior to strike them down as Kamen Rider Kuuga. Kamen Rider Kuuga revitalized interest in the franchise, and new Kamen Rider series have premiered annually since then.

Although each series has its own plot and characters, generally unconnected to the show that came before it, Kamen Rider features common elements across each iteration: A protagonist, typically unwavering in their belief in justice and goodness, who draws power from the same source as the villains he fights (such as Hongo being able to turn into Kamen Rider because of Shocker’s experimentation). Typically they have a belt that acts as their transformation device, usually interacting with trinkets (which Bandai will gladly sell you toys of) to give the Rider different forms and powers. They also always (with one exception) drive motorcycles. Riders early on had insect motifs: For example, Riders 1 and 2 are styled after grasshoppers, Super-1 as a wasp, and Stronger as a kabuto beetle. The series began branching into other design influences, particularly following the revival, but insects remain prevalent.

They are nearly always men. Kamen Rider Stronger in 1975 would feature a female heroine, Electronic Wave Humanoid Tackle, although she was never given the title Kamen Rider (a later manga would try to justify this by explaining her desire to live a normal life and her retaining her humanity meant she could not be a true Kamen Rider). The franchise has slowly introduced female Kamen Riders over the years, but representation remains frustratingly low. It was not until 2019’s Kamen Rider Zero-One that a female Rider would be part of the main cast from the beginning.

She does get the best suit in the series, at least.

2003’s Kamen Rider Ryuki would spark another trend for the franchise: Though initial shows focused on one or two masked heroes, Ryuki featured 13 Riders battling it out in a Rider War. Following that, Rider shows would often feature multiple Kamen Riders, often coming into conflict due to differing goals and ideals. Sometimes they are able to resolve their differences, and sometimes they remain opposed to the very end.

But despite the common motifs of the franchise, each series gets to put its own spin on the formula. Kamen Rider Ex-Aid tells a story combining video games and medical drama. Kamen Rider Hibiki is a coming of age tale where the central protagonist isn’t even a Rider. Kamen Rider Kiva is a gothic tale told across two generations. Gen Urobuchi would pull a similar stunt to his famous anime Madoka Magica of luring viewers into a lighthearted show before quickly pulling the rug out from under them in Kamen Rider Gaim. Some even draw inspiration from American tropes: Kamen Rider Fourze features a high school very inspired by America, whereas one of the major influences on Kamen Rider Drive was the series Knight Rider. And the first two monsters featured in the original Kamen Rider are a bat monster and a spider monster, very specifically inspired by American superheroes Batman and Spider-man.

Legacy

The success of the original Kamen Rider launched the “henshin boom” in Japan. Henshin (meaning transformation) shows would feature heroes who transform into a new costume and gain powers to fight monsters or other villains. This influence would be felt most strongly in tokusatsu shows, but even a series such as the anime Sailor Moon owes some debt to Kamen Rider for making transforming heroes a popular concept. Kamen Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori would create several other transforming heroes, including the 1975 series Gorenger, launching the Super Sentai franchise. In contrast to Rider’s solitary heroes, Sentai featured a team of costumed superheroes working together to fight evil organizations.

As part of the henshin boom, production company Toei would license the character Spider-man from Marvel, creating a Spider-man tokusatsu series. It shares very little in common with its American counterpart. Japan’s Spider-man centers on motorcycle racer Takuya Yamashiro finds a UFO containing the last survivor of the Planet Spider, who gives him spider powers and also a giant robot to the evil Iron Cross Army.

Seriously, if you haven’t heard of the Japanese Spider-man, it’s a trip:

Spider-man’s giant robot would inspire Super Sentai to also begin including giant robots. Eventually, a producer named Haim Saban would discover Super Sentai and license the Sentai series how Zyuranger, featuring five reawakened members of ancient human tribes who would fight with dinosaurs against the evil witch Bandora. Taking the footage of the costumed fights and giant robots, but replacing “members of ancient human tribes” with “teenagers with attitude” and it would become Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

In addition to kickstarting a genre, Kamen Rider himself remains an enduring symbol as well. Kamen Rider is one of the most popular superheroes in Japan. His transformation pose and signature attacks are referenced and parodied frequently in Japanese media. Kamen Riders would be even be used in an advertisement for a home security system:

Kamen Rider In America

Power Rangers was a runaway success in America, so Saban tried his hand at bringing over Kamen Rider as well. The start of the third season of Power Rangers featured a backdoor pilot for the show Masked Rider, taking footage from the popular Kamen Rider Black RX and splicing it with American-made footage for out of costume sequences. Masked Rider saw Prince Dex of Edenoi escape to Earth to fight the evil Count Dregon, and try to adjust to Earth customs with his adoptive family. Despite the popularity of Power Rangers at the time, Masked Rider never made much of an impact. It does, however, feature an early appearance of Verne Troyer. He was suit actor for Dex’s furry friend Ferbus.

The series would get a second shot in America in 2002. Adness Entertainment licensed Kamen Rider Ryuki and release an adaptation as Kamen Rider Dragon Knight. This series centered on Kit Taylor, drawn into a battle against the alien warlord Xaviax and other Kamen Riders. The show aired on The CW’s CW4Kids block, and won a Daytime Emmy for stunt coordination, but otherwise was not a major success.

Although there were trademarks filed for Power Rider in the 2010s, giving fans hope that Kamen Rider might once again come to the US, another attempt has not been made to adapt it for American audiences. However, Shout! Factory, seeing some success with their Super Sentai releases, has dipped their toes into the Kamen Rider waters. Last year, they released subtitled versions of the original 1971 Kamen Rider series and the revival series Kamen Rider Kuuga. They followed it up by releasing one of its recent films, Heisei Generations Forever, which celebrates the 20 year span from Kuuga through the anniversary series Kamen Rider Zi-O. Toy company Bluefin has also begun releasing many of the high-end Kamen Rider toys aimed at collectors in America as well. Whether that will lead to more Kamen Rider in America still remains to be seen.

Enduring Appeal

So why does Kamen Rider endure, 50 years later? Despite its absurdities, the original series remains a gripping show. Although the special effects are dated, it’s impressive to see what they could do in 1971 on a small television series budget. Drawing influence from its roots in kaiju movies and the Twilight Zone-inspired Ultra Q series, there is an element of horror, especially in its early episodes. Monsters and humans alike die in brutal ways. This creates genuine stakes, as you never quite know what will happen as the episode unfolds. Will Rider save the day in a flawless victory? Or will there be casualties as he tries to stop this week’s new Shocker monster?

That said, it is ultimately a series for children. And that means there is a limit to the complexity of its plot and characters. Despite that, many Kamen Rider shows make for fun television. Kamen Rider Fourze, released in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, is infectious with the relentless positivity and cheer of its protagonist Gentarou, who hopes to befriend everyone at his school. Kamen Rider Build has a plot that moves at a breakneck pace with a memorable cast of compelling characters and villains. Kamen Rider Zero-One asks questions about the intersection of technology and society that do not offer easy or clear answers. Of course, not every show manages to be good, but the franchise’s penchant for pairing cool designs with great choreography ensure that even the worst series have moments that get your blood pounding.

Kamen Rider Wizard is a pretty bad show, but the costume and flashy fighting style are still fantastic

But above all else, Kamen Rider posits a world where heroes never give up and justice always prevails. Much like Superman and Captain America, Kamen Riders are superheroes who change the world more than themselves. They begin and end the show unflinching in their dedication, even if the road requires struggle and sacrifice. But Kamen Rider never backs down. Whether it’s aliens, monsters, or fascists, Kamen Rider will always fight evil and will always defend those who need help. And that makes him one of the all time great superheroes. Here’s to another 50 years, Kamen Rider.