Team TokuNet contributor Rain discusses Kamen Rider and how the meaning of being a Kamen Rider has changed through time.
Spoiler warning: This article contains extensive spoilers for Kamen Rider Kuuga, and mentions instances of fictional suicide.
What does it mean to be a Kamen Rider? This deceptively simple question lies at the heart of the Kamen Rider franchise, and most people could give you an obvious answer: it means to be a hero. But every iteration of Kamen Rider gives a different answer. And over time, trends have emerged of how being a Kamen Rider is presented. In this article, I want to take you through this expansive media franchise, and look at how the concept of being a Kamen Rider has changed from a curse to a blessing – and whether or not that’s a good thing.
Showa: Tragic Heroes
Starting off the Kamen Rider franchise, 1971’s titular show Kamen Rider presents being a Kamen Rider as an explicitly tragic circumstance. Surgically turned into a cyborg against his will by the evil organization Shocker, Takeshi Hongo had no choice in becoming a Kamen Rider. There are times when he laments his fate. Early in the series, he says, “A secret villain society targeting the weak and seemingly endless fights to the death with monsters. How long… is this Hell going to continue?”
Kamen Riders as men with fate thrust upon them is an ongoing theme throughout Showa Kamen Rider. Many of the riders are cyborgs created by their show’s villains. They fight not for glory or a reward, but to protect innocent people from cruelty. A moment that really stood out to me was a brief conversation in Birth of the 10th! Kamen Riders All Together!!. After being introduced to the other nine Kamen Riders, Ryo Murasume (Kamen Rider ZX) is surprised to find out so many others have been through the same suffering he experienced. In response, the other Riders tell him that even now, their journeys for revenge finished, they cannot stop fighting.
In these stories, there is no humanity in being a Kamen Rider. There is only an endless cycle of violence that must be endured.
Early Heisei: The Old And The New
The advent of the Heisei era brought many changes to the core Kamen Rider formula. Beginning with Kamen Rider Kuuga in 2000, Heisei shows moved away from episodic fights and introduced a more traditional drama format. Kamen Riders were no longer necessarily good, and beginning with Kamen Rider Agito, would even fight each other.
Kamen Rider Kuuga really stands out to me as an incredible show that perfectly captures the pain of being a Kamen Rider. Godai Yusuke is forced to become Kuuga through circumstance, and his once-normal life is turned into a tumultuous battle against the Grongi. In this terrible fight, there’s a possibility Godai cannot even trust himself; Kuuga’s Ultimate Form may turn him into an evil being far worse than any monster. All throughout the show, however, Godai rarely wavers from being positive. He is endlessly gentle and kind to everyone around him, reassuring them that he won’t lose control.
When he does give in to his anger towards the Grongi after they drive a child to suicide, the results are frightening. In a violent rage, he attacks Go-Jaraji-Da with such ferocity that even the murderous Grongi is afraid of him. By the end of his savage outburst, he can only look back on his actions, and contemplate the horrors that he is capable of.
The final fight against N-Daguva-Zeba is a culmination of the tragedy of being a Kamen Rider. With the threat of his Ultimate Form looming over him, Godai faces N-Daguva-Zeba alone. Their fight is so brutal that they both return to their human forms, resorting to punching each other with bloodied knuckles until only one of them is left alive.
To me, this is what Showa and Early Heisei is really about. Beyond the fun fight scenes and the morals taught to children, it is fundamentally a reminder that despite the appeal of violence in media, it should not be glorified. Being a Kamen Rider is a burden that is nobly carried, and rarely something to be happy about.
Heisei Phase 2 And Reiwa: Moving Forward
After Kamen Rider Decade, the second phase of Heisei Kamen Rider began. Generalisations of this period tend to mention a more polished show structure, more gimmicks and toys, and most significantly for this article, a change in what it means to be a Kamen Rider. While still not always the case, being a Rider has become less of a bad thing, more often being a role willingly chosen by the protagonists.
In Kamen Rider Build, while there may be evil Kamen Riders, being a Kamen Rider is not necessarily a bad thing. Sento Kiryu (Kamen Rider Build) readily helps people for no recompense, and often enjoys himself as he does it. When Banjou Ryuga is confused by Sento Kiryu’s willingness to put his life on the line as Kamen Rider Build, Sento tells him how much he enjoys being able to save people.
While it may be hard and dangerous, being a Kamen Rider is a good thing. The Riders are proud of their work, and once the battle is won, they can get back to life with a smile. (Until, of course, the mandatory summer movie…)
Throughout the years, being a Kamen Rider has meant many things. Sometimes, it is a burden. Sometimes, it is a blessing. I personally love both interpretations of it. The hope and positivity of Kamen Rider Zero-One moves me just as much as the pensive tragedy of Kamen Rider Blade. Fundamentally, being a Kamen Rider should always be something to be used for good, and that’s what has kept the heroes of these shows in our hearts for 50 years.