This week, we look at the creation of the very first Kamen Rider series.
Before we get into it, Kamen Rider is often split into two groups, the Showa Riders, that is everything from the original series through Black RX (and sometimes the 90s Riders), coinciding with the reign of Emperor Showa of Japan and the Heisei Riders, everything from Kuuga onwards, coinciding with the current Emperor Heisei of Japan.
Kamen Rider began in 1971 but its creation goes back a couple of years to 1968 and the finale of a Toei tokusatsu called Giant Robo. The story goes that after the screening of Giant Robo’s final episode, Toru Hirayama, a creative producer at Toei, was contacted by another Toei employee, Uchida Yuusaku, to create a new tokusatsu series. Hirayama himself was made the executive producer of the show and began working to make the concept a reality. After initial troubles with the concept, Hirayama was able to meet with one of the most popular manga artists at the time, Shotaro Ishinomori.
Ishinomori is impressed by the passion Hirayama presents for the new show and creates a hero design for to be used for the show. The show the two were working on at this point in time was not called Kamen Rider but Cross Fire Ishinomori’s hero design is dubbed Cross Fire, due to the cross shaped visor on his helmet. Cross Fire itself came from the original idea for the show, Maskman K, which became Masked Angel before being known as Cross Fire. There was also a stage in which the show went through a couple of titles written in Kanji at the request of Toei. Some of the names from this stage included Fire Juji (Cross), Juji Kamen, and Cross Fireman.
It’s said that some of the inspiration for wearing a mask came from the novel The Man in the Iron Mask. Also to be noted is that by this stage in pre-production, the hero’s human identity was determined to be Hongo Takeshi.
Hirayama is said to have instantly fallen in love with the designs and presented them to his superiors at Toei and Mainichi Broadcasting, who were also enamored with what Ishinomori was able to create. As luck would have it, Ishinomori ends up wanting to change the design. The manga artist wasn’t particularly enthused with a cool hero and wanted to do something different, something visually striking. (famously quoted as saying “it has no impact, it needs to be more grotesque) The new design presented to Hirayama was visually similar to Skullman, the star of a manga series Ishinomori drew that would, decades later, become an anime series itself. Hirayama loves this design and presents it to executives at Toei, all of whom are unsure about having a scary looking hero as the start of a tokusatsu hero program. Ishinomori’s idea was that this show should be a horror show for children. Kids can watch it, but it would need to be scary to them.
At this point in time the show being worked on is called Juji Kamen Rider with script writer Shozo Uehara serving as the lead script writer. Casting is also finalized at this point with Hiroshi Fujioka and Chieko Morikawa cast as Hongo Takeshi and Ruriko Midorikawa respectively. After a couple of hard fought battles Hirayama finds a sort of middle ground everyone can agree on that involves using a less fearsome design but one that still bucks the trend of outwardly clean and shiny looking heroes. Ishinomori designed 50 new hero designs in attempting to creating something somewhat more palatable to TV executives. Ishinomori remarked that we should “listen to the children” and allowed his son, Onodera, to select the final design. Onodera is said to have almost instantly selected the design that we know of today as Kamen Rider. Hirayama presents this design to Toei TV Vice Director Yoshinori Watanabe, who falls in love with the design and approves it for the show. There’s a bit more to this but it essentially involves showing the design to even more executives who have to approve the thing.
By this point it’s determined that Juji Kamen Rider will begin in April of 1971 and with most of the pre-production details finalized it would seem everything was ready to go. Unfortunately, things would get somewhat complicated when Uehara steps down to work on an upcoming Ultraman show, leaving Hirayama without a lead script writer on the show. Masaru Igami is brought on the write the show at this point. Igami himself is the father of Toshiki Inoue, who many fans know as the writer of shows like Chojin Sentai Jetman, Kamen Rider Agito, and Kamen Rider Faiz.
Production on the show continues and the name is changed yet again to Kamen Rider Hopper King and the idea was tossed around that this guy needed to have the ability to become a giant much like Ultraman. Ishinomori insists on the character remaining human size so as to further drive home the idea of him being a suffering hero – he looks like humans but he is no longer one. Somewhere along the lines it’s also decided that Kamen Rider Hopper King is a ridiculously wordy title and is shortened to simply Kamen Rider.
Come April Kamen Rider finally hits the airwaves, competing against Ultraman Returns, the revival of the Ultraman series. (side note: early newspaper ads herald the fact that it’s “in color”) At this point Ultraman was seen as an incredibly strong force in TV, drawing enormous ratings but Toei was confident their show could compete. The series followed a brilliant university student, Hongo Takeshi, who was kidnapped by the mysterious organization called Shocker, lead by the terrifying Great Leader.
When Kamen Rider begins its run the ratings come in and they’re not good. They’re actually pretty bad. Numbers don’t seem to improve as the series goes on and it’s looking like Kamen Rider will be a failed experiment that might end quickly. To make matters worse the series star Hiroshi Fujioka shatters his leg in an motorcycle accident while filming and is unable to continue on in the series. Hirayama is frantic by this point, not knowing what to do with the show. Restart it from scratch? Simply recast Hongo? End the show? It’s eventually decided to bring in another actor to play a second Kamen Rider, Hayato Ijimonji. Takeshi Sasaki, a popular actor at the time, is brought on to play this new character. Sasaki joins the show only under the condition that the reigns be handed back to Fujioka once he recovers. Before the decision to introduce a new Kamen Rider is made the episodes continue with minimal appearances of the Hongo Takeshi character. Hongo mostly appears in stock footage, new footage of him from behind, or simply remaining transformed throughout an entire episode. The preview for Sasaki’s first episode called that episode “new program”, using the phrase most commonly heard in commercials for new Sentai and Kamen Rider programs today, shin bangumi. It was around this point that the character of Taki Kazuya, played by Sonny Chiba’s brother, Jiro Chiba, was introduced to the series and would stay a constant for the rest of the show’s run, along with the mentor character Tobei Tachibana.
Fujioka faced bouts of depression while in the hospital during his recovery – shattering your leg was not something easily recovered from. During his time in the hospital Fujioka received many visits from Hirayama, who proclaimed that everyone on set was eagerly waiting for him to get better and come back. This encouragement was one of the things that gave Fujioka the strength he needed to recover. Once he’s better Fujioka makes a couple of guest appearances, which even include the first Rider on Rider fight, before taking back the show with the 53rd episode. By this point the ratings had not only risen but skyrocketed, making the show one of the most popular on the air, even managing to beat out Ultraman Returns, an incredible feat for a new show.
Kamen Rider comes to an end after 98 episodes and a couple of movies and cementing its place in Japanese pop culture. The follow up series, Kamen Rider V3, was actually initially envisioned as being part of the same series. V3’s first episode was actually written as Kamen Rider episode 99 before being turned into the script for a new series.
Before we launch into the next part, I’d like to quickly talk about the original Kamen Rider manga. Since this is a history about the heroes on the screen, I won’t go too in depth but I feel like it should be talked about.
The original Kamen Rider manga ran for four volumes and featured a hero named Hongo Takeshi, later a hero named Hayato Ichimonji, and they transformed into Kamen Riders to fight Shocker. That’s about where the similarities end. While the TV show was episodic in nature, the manga crafted a bit of a serialized story for itself, even utilizing Fujioka’s accident as the chance to introduce the new Rider. In the manga, Fujioka’s brain is removed from his body. In addition, the greatest change is this running social commentary throughout the manga. Ishinomori uses the original Kamen Rider manga to heavily criticize the Japanese government, paying particular attention to then Prime Minister, Eisako Sato. The manga’s overall message is that evil is everywhere and while you can defeat the monsters, the true monsters are the elected officials. This was how Ishinomori decided to end his manga series aimed at children.
Find out more about the rest of the original run, in The History of Tokusatsu Part 6: Showa Kamen Rider Part 2
Source: The Men Who Created Kamen Rider