Kamen Rider (also known as Masked Rider), one of Japan's popular hero manga series-turned-television and movie series, celebrated its 50th anniversary on April 3.
Since the beginning of the stories, children have been enamored with the strong figure of the Masked Rider who battled a huge evil organization.
Naturally, with the passage of time, the image of the hero has also changed so that it is easier to relate to. However, the basis of Kamen Rider’s search for "good versus evil” remains unchanged, even now.
Prototype of a Life-size Hero
The Kamen Rider TV series was first broadcast in 1971, the year which many in Japan associate with the return of Okinawa to Japanese administration. The main character in the story was such a hit that, even with a change in actors, the popular TV program continued for two more years.
The TV series was revived in 2000 under the name Kamen Rider Kuuga, followed by 22 consecutive movies until the current Kamen Rider Saber became a prototype hero and a model for superheroes of other similar series, such as Android Kikaider and Space Sheriff.
The evolution in battle scenes also enthralled the young audience. In the Showa era, especially the 1970s to 1980s, most of the action scenes were filmed live. But after that the advent of CG (computer graphics) made it possible to depict faster movements, show special techniques such as "Rider Kicks" and other special effects, as well as making the backdrop more varied.
The Characters in Transition
In the original story, the main character Hongo was a student at Jonan University. During the Showa eraーbefore 1989ーmost of the main characters were university students, except for one called Amazon, who was adopted by an Inca family and eventually became “Masked Rider Amazon”. The characters were usually smart and well-rounded sportsmen.
On the other hand, from 1989 onwards, the protagonists began to reflect a wider range of profiles from real life, such as domestic helpers (Agito) and “freeters” or part-timers (Rider 555 and Den-o). Since then, there have even been professionals like a policeman (W), a detective (Drive), a comedian, and a company president (Zero-One). In some cases, these professionals become an important part of the story.
"The main characters of the Showa era were strong and dependable. After 1989, on the other hand, this was no longer the case," explained Koichi Kuzuki, associate professor of education at Kagawa University's Center for Educational Infrastructure, who has published papers on the relationship between the Kamen Rider and children.
According to Kuzuki, Ryotaro Nogami of Masked Rider Den-o, for example, is one of the “weakest in history", and Wataru Kurenai of Masked Rider Kiva ”was initially a social recluse.
"It’s not so interesting for the audience if the main character is reliable from the beginning,” said Kuzuki. “There is little room for him to grow, and it cannot be presented as a story in which the main character evolves.”
“Originally, this was probably done to make the kids feel more empathy for the principal characters,” Kuzuki added.
The Charm of the Imperfect Hero
The Showa era series included an opposing evil enemy organization, Shocker. The Riders confronted the enemy one by one. However, since the 1990's there have been many complex plots, such as the case of Kamen Rider Ryuki, in which multiple riders fight each other.
Masato Hayase of Ishimori Pro Inc, which produces and sells video, manga , music and games, explained.
"Riders are not complete heroes because their origin is determined by how the enemy organization is structured. It's not a simple dualism of good and evil, and that's what is appealing about the Riders." He continued, “There is universal justice, and that does not change through the times. But, as the creator of the series Shotaro Ishinomori believed, 'Riders always change with the times.'"
Women to be Main Characters?
The image of future riders is also likely to reflect the world as we know it. Among other things, Riders will evolve to adapt to the fundamental changes in society caused by the coronavirus pandemic," Associate Professor Kuzuki commented.
There will probably also be focus on female riders. There were heroines in the Showa series, but the woman Rider who was active for the first time throughout the whole story was Zero One in 2019’s rendition Kamen Rider Valkyrie.
It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, to see women play a leading role in the future.
"If maestro Ishinomori were still alive, he might have invented something even more unexpected than the Train Rider in Kamen Rider Den-o (in which the train takes the protagonists to a different time).”
“It is the rider who breaks through the shell and "transforms himself", commented Hayase. “I think that [the series] should have the conviction to continue to change with the times in the future.”
(Read the full Sankei Shimbun story in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Yasushi Kanematsu