While there will soon be 20 Heisei Kamen Rider shows, a tragic event played a vital role in the continuation of the series.
Kamen Rider was created by Shotaro Ishinomori as a hero who rebelled against his captors to take them down, using a mask to hide his sorrow. The tokusatsu TV show began its broadcast in 1971 and eventually became a huge hit, with Kamen Rider becoming a national hero. However, after 1988’s Kamen Rider BLACK RX, Kamen Rider disappeared from TV. This was the end of the so-called “Showa Rider” series.
Kamen Rider eventually returned with the “Heisei Rider” series with Kamen Rider Kuuga in 2000. Shinichiro Shirakura, a producer at Toei, is said to be the “parent who raised Heisei Rider”, and he now looks back on the circumstances of its return.
By the 90s, the prevailing notion was that Kamen Rider was thought of as old fashioned, something people should be content to leave in the past, but not everyone thought that way. Requests to make a pilot for a new Rider show were sent out to Toei and Mainichi Broadcasting, a TV network in Japan, despite constant requests, Shirakura felt like there was some sort of statue of limitations and no one would give a positive response.
Elsewhere, on TV Asahi’s Sunday morning block, the remake of another Ishinomori show, Burn it Up!! RoboCon, was doing very well. It was decided this could be the route through which Kamen Rider is resurrected.
That series of events lead to the birth of Kamen Rider Kuuga. The show was targeted at boys aged 4 to 12 but found an extra audience in the fathers of those young boys, who had watched Kamen Rider in their childhood.
Kamen Rider shows typically featured a hero who was remodeled through surgery, but this was now seen as insensitive to people who had undergone organ transplantation. During Kamen Rider’s original run, organ transplants weren’t seen as very realistic, leading to their use as a plot element. But by the year 2000, this was not the case.
The hero was a man named Yuusuke Godai, who became Kuuga after finding a belt amongst ancient ruins of a lost civilization. The plot followed the enemy of that ancient civilization, the Grongi, in their brutal game of targeting and murdering humans. The series also saw the police cooperate with Kamen Rider Kuuga.
Both the Rider and monsters within the show were referred to as “unidentified life forms”.
Kuuga contained a more realistic view of the world that was not seen in the original Showa Rider series. The show went on to become a hot topic not only among children, but their parents as well. And with TV ratings of 9.7% and goods sales of 11.9 billion yen, the show far exceeded expectations. Kamen Rider Agito was quickly brought into production to capitalize on the momentum of the times. Agito followed three protagonists, a first for any Kamen Rider series, and had ratings of 11.7%, exceeding Kuuga. Kamen Rider Agito remains the most watched Heisei Rider series, with episode 12 having the highest ratings in all of the Heisei era at 13.9%.
Although the Heisei Rider series is entering its 20th show, at the time, Agito was planned to be the final series.
“There’s something called the “3-year cycle theory” that says something can become tiring after three years, even if it’s a success. By this point, I had worked on three Ishinomori revival shows with Robocon, Kuuga, and Agito, so I planned on doing something new,” said Shirakura.
As planning on the series that would replace Kamen Rider Agito in its time slot began, the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States occurred.
“We got a memo from TV Asahi saying ‘now more than ever, we need to teach kids about justice’…and I had to relent,” said Shirakura.
The following series, Kamen Rider Ryuki, was inspired by this guideline. For the first time in series history, there were evil Kamen Riders. The series featured 13 Riders fighting and killing each other with the promise of a wish being granted as their prize.
Some of those Riders are fighting because they have someone to protect, some simply because they enjoy killing.
Shirakura says the concept of justice itself is a difficult one to grasp.
Children sometimes envision themselves as the heroes and think they might also be justice. There is also the idea that people often don’t accept themselves as being wrong, because in one’s mind “I am myself, so I’m not wrong” is the prevailing thought process. These thoughts lead to selfish patterns because kids might not see themselves as themselves but as the heroes. Mr. Ishinomori had fears that too many people would think this way when working on his creations.