Join Team TokuNet Staff Writer Brody Salzman as he travels back to the beginning of Kamen Rider‘s Heisei era to rediscover an old hero with a renewed legend.
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers. Please be advised.
Kamen Rider Kuuga played an absolutely integral role in the realm of tokusatsu. The Kamen Rider series had been on a hiatus since the end of Kamen Rider Black RX in 1989. While various movies had released as part of the series during the ’90’s, without Kuuga, the Super Hero Time programming block might have looked very different today.
So, how did Kamen Rider return to television after a decade, and how does it hold up today? Thanks to TokuSHOUTsu and Shout! Factory releasing the show officially in North America for the first time, I and many fans new and old were finally given an opportunity to find out.
A New Hero. A New Legend.
Kamen Rider Kuuga’s setup focuses on establishing an unquestionably evil force from which Kuuga’s powers originate as the audience would slowly come to understand. The Grongi are murderous monsters who want only to win a game by killing innocent “Linto” people. The Linto were a peaceful race of ancient people who were protected by a warrior called Kuuga. Later in the show, it’s revealed that Kuuga draws his power from the Amadam stone in his belt similar to the ones inside the bodies of the Grongi.
When archaeologists unearth a tomb containing the late warrior Kuuga and an army of Grongi who are supposed to be dead, one powerful monster murders the team and unleashes the full army on Japan. With the Grongi disguising themselves as humans, it’s up to the police to track them down before it’s too late. However, the officers led by Kaoru Ichijo have another ally: The new Kuuga, Yusuke Godai.
Yusuke is a free soul who loves to go on global adventures and show off his 2,000 skills in an effort to make people smile. When Yusuke’s friend, Sakurako Sawatari, gets wrapped up in researching the Linto artifacts, a bat-based Grongi attacks the public. In a moment of instinct, Yusuke is drawn to Kuuga’s belt, and it merges with his body. This allows him to transform into a white-armored “Growing Form” Kuuga. With his limited powers, Yusuke protects the police and civilians. While nobody really knows how to tell that Yusuke isn’t one of the Grongi, his thumbs-up signals to Ichijo that he’s a friend.
From there, the story follows Yusuke and the many friends he makes as they try to navigate life with “unidentified lifeforms” (ULF’s) on the loose and killing tens, sometimes hundreds, of people. Meanwhile, Yusuke (referred to by the public as ULF #4) must come to understand the burden of Kuuga’s power, unlock more powerful forms, and not succumb to the darkness of Kuuga’s ultimate power. The hunt is on to find the Grongi who killed the original archaeology team: ULF #0, the most powerful Grongi.
The most interesting part of this setup to me is how the story of the Grongi isn’t really important. The show never explains the final goal of their killing game except to become powerful enough to oppose ULF #0, Daguva. Their social hierarchy is based entirely on how powerful they are. Apart from that, the Grongi’s relationships don’t matter, and none of them are ever treated as anything more than murderous monsters with different methods of murder.
By taking this approach, the show is able to focus more heavily on the humans, their relationships, and how they react to the horrors of the main story. Rather than recognize that humans have similarities to monsters by showing the human side of the monsters, Kamen Rider Kuuga wants its audience to focus on the monstrous side of humanity.
The comparison is best described by the high-ranking Grongi who Ichijo continually pursues, ULF B1, Ra-Baruba-De. Baruba tells Ichijo as he aims his gun at her that the peaceful Linto have changed and became more like the Grongi, referring to the humans’ violent tendencies.
However, a pair of episodes later feature a young man claiming to idolize the Grongi. These eventually end with him seeing what makes the Grongi so terrifying and dangerous. In doing this, the show says early on that even though humans have tendencies similar to the Grongi, our humanity is what separates us from the true monsters. Kuuga’s finale drives this point home as Yusuke is prevented from losing his sense of self in the face of his own Ultimate Form thanks to his pure heart and will to protect people’s happiness.
Watching In A Well-Lit Room, At A Good Distance From The Screen
Of course, Kamen Rider Kuuga is a relic of a bygone era, and its age shows through the cracks at times. Sometimes this is a very good thing like with its story that focuses on character relationships and moral dilemmas. Other times, the CGI and computer visual effects of the early 2000s could pull me out of my immersion.
The CGI really isn’t much of a downside to the show, but it’s worth mentioning as it sometimes dates Kuuga. While Yusuke’s henshin sequence does look rather silly and unrealistic- for as realistic as a henshin can look- by today’s standards, it’s also quick and simple. The camera never really holds for long on the 3D model of Kuuga or his weapons once the transformations are complete. The only time those sequences really bothered me was in early episodes where Yusuke’s armor appeared piece by piece. The animation of the CGI was never perfect, and the rendering could not be done with enough detail to make it look real.
The only other time the effects used in the show bothered me was when Kuuga was being flown around by his beetle-like machine, Gouram. This wasn’t used very often, but Yusuke’s arm wasn’t extended enough to look like he was actually dangling, and the way Gouram and Kuuga are placed into the wide shots, it looks very fake by today’s standards. For some, this is minor. In my case, it stuck out; however, neither of these lesser effects hurt the overall experience for me.
For starters, Kuuga features one key aspect of Kamen Rider that’s been sorely missing from the shows of today in a way I never really had a chance to see: Motorcycle action. From early on in the show, Kuuga utilizes some impressive motorcycle stunts done largely without special or visual effects. I had never seen such action in Kamen Rider before this, and it makes me wish motorcycles were used more often in Kamen Rider. I mean, isn’t riding motorcycles what made Hongo the Kamen RIDER?
On top of the intense action, the show’s story is also handled impressively with less emphasis on the villains and more focus on humans.
In modern Kamen Rider, it’s very common to treat the villains as fleshed out characters who grow and develop over time. Usually, this shows that the monsters are more human than they seem at first. That being the case, it also stands to reason that humans are then closer to the monsters than we’re inclined to think. Kamen Rider has always been about blurring the line between hero and monster. Since the beginning, the hero of each show has drawn power from the same source as the monsters they fight. Modern shows bring this theme a step further by having the story more directly draw attention to this comparison through the growth of villains.
There’s obvious merit to writing villains who are fully realized characters because it makes them more believable as people, but Kuuga takes a different approach to this than the modern shows that explicitly explain their villains’ depth. Rather than show us what makes the Grongi fully-realized characters with the potential for good in them, it leaves their deeper motivations shrouded in mystery. On the surface, we only ever see unquestionable evil from the Grongi, but if you pay closer attention, you can see methods to their actions that hint at deeper motivations. This approach helps make the Grongi more believable as people without introducing any moral grayness to their actions. The Grongi are evil and murder humans, and they need to be stopped. That’s treated as an unquestionable fact even though we see glimpses that show they can grow beyond murderous instinct.
Kamen Rider Kuuga takes the opposite approach of more modern shows by focusing on how evil the Grongi are and drawing attention to how the human characters are similar to the monsters. This connection to our monstrous tendencies is drawn more directly than in most modern shows because it emphasizes bad things humans do instead of the potential for good in the monsters. Here are some examples:
The scientist, Hikari Enokida, neglects her son to help develop weapons for killing the Grongi. Meanwhile, Ichijo dedicates himself fully to killing Grongi to a degree that even frightens a young girl after she had a pleasant conversation with him. And of course, Sakurako’s research foretells Kuuga succumbing to darkness as he becomes more powerful. Even though these things are being done to protect people, the audience is meant to reflect on this as being the darker side of humanity.
The lack of focus on the villains in the story also gives Kuuga more room than modern shows, in my opinion, to explore the intricate relationships of its human characters. A show like Kamen Rider Zero-One is very fast-paced with many things happening every episode. It’s like there’s a risk that slowing the pacing down will cause the show to lose the attention of young children. That said, I’ve been used to this style of pacing for a very long time.
In contrast, Kamen Rider Kuuga lets its scenes play out in a slow, relaxed pace until the fighting begins. Even then, the action is drawn out as well. While monster-of-the-week and two-episode formulas are largely used in Kuuga, it never really got old for me. This might be due to the increased stakes where death is very real, very brutal, and follows each and every Grongi, or it might be due to the focus on character exploration instead of direct plot progression. Those inter-character relationships and subplots are very engaging.
No matter what specific aspect creates the effect, Kamen Rider Kuuga never got boring for me, and I felt very attached to its characters by the time they were being put in serious danger or even just as they faced their personal struggles. For instance, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for Hikari to build paper models with her son. Kuuga accomplishes the same goals of modern Kamen Rider shows in a very different way that felt refreshing to experience as a Kamen Rider fan who had already seen every Heisei Phase 2 show and not much from before that.
No Fear, No Pain!
Kamen Rider Kuuga was masterfully created. It shows the darkness in humanity without writing humans off as a hopeless force of destruction, thereby emphasizing themes Kamen Rider had been known for since its creation. It manages to create compelling villains despite being able to present them as simply an unquestionable force of evil. Finally, the pacing gives Kuuga’s audience a chance to reflect on its messages right up until the very last two episodes:
As we see Yusuke use his Ultimate form to fight Daguva, ULF #0, we’re left both unsure if he can win when they’re both forced to throw punches in their human forms and unsure if Yusuke can hold onto his humanity. The final episode of the show refuses to reveal what happened to Yusuke. Instead, we see how the various supporting characters are holding up now that the unidentified lifeforms are gone. They reference Yusuke being gone as well without specifying in what way he’s gone. Finally, we get closure as the ending song plays and we see Yusuke walking along a beach, off on his next adventure as he’s still helping make others smile.
This ending wraps up every subplot in a satisfying way without letting the audience off the hook until the very end. In the end, there was no complex solution where the Grongi got a happy ending and where every good character who was killed comes back. Humanity must move forward from a tragedy, and the monsters are simply defeated because Yusuke held onto his kindness and humanity. That is what allowed him to succeed as Kuuga. His humanity is why the Grongi were destined to fall.
I had a blast being transported back to 2000 to see how Kamen Rider began anew. Kuuga may have been a new legend when it was airing, but now I understand what enshrined it as a classic: its simplicity.
While this review focused largely on the depth of this show, I can see clearly that its simplicity is what makes it such a classic. Yusuke took the power of Kuuga which is the same power the Grongi used. He turned that power against the evil Grongi and protected people’s smiles because of his kindness and humanity. For as deep as the subplots of the show get, and for as much as the show pushes its audience to reflect on the darkness in humanity; at the end of the day, it’s a story of a hero who could have become a monster but didn’t because of his pure heart. Like most Kamen Rider shows, it’s a story that pushes its audience to strive to be pure of heart and seek to protect people rather than fall to dark feelings and urges.
I’m so glad everyone can enjoy Kamen Rider Kuuga legally with English subtitles for the first time in the West. This monumental release from TokuSHOUTsu gave me an excuse to experience a new hero in an old legend, and it is absolutely worth watching. I would even go so far as to recommend Kuuga to superhero fans who do not watch tokusatsu. The character drama is compelling enough that it even interested my own mother who caught a few episodes with me as it aired on Pluto TV. I cannot recommend Kamen Rider Kuuga enough. I’d go so far as to call it a tokusatsu masterpiece with an enthusiastic thumbs-up!
Kamen Rider Kuuga is currently available to watch on the TokuSHOUTsu channel on Pluto TV Channel 681, Shout! Factory TV, Tubi TV, and VRV.