Kamen Primer 101

The Unofficial Read-First Manual

So, I like this show called Kamen Rider. A lot. If you’ve been within proximity of me for a good amount of time recently, I have probably tried to convince you to watch it. And while I’m sorry about me, I’m not sorry about spreading the glory that is this four-decade-old live-action martial arts drama. I can (and probably will) say a whole lot more  in future posts about what Kamen Rider is, is not, tries to be, etc., but for newcomers I like to boil it down to “a bunch of super-pretty Japanese boys become superheroes and deal with their ANGST by beating up thematic kaiju cosplayers and/or other super-pretty boys”. If this description seems lacking in some crucial details, here’s a more objective explanation.

Kamen Rider is a Japanese superhero franchise that started in 1971 and remains wildly popular today. It originated as a manga by Shotaro Ishinomori and expanded into a live-action television serial, a movie franchise with more than 75 entries, many lines of toys and action figures, a videogame series, original music soundtracks and international spin-offs. There are even two minor planets named in honor of the franchise (12408 Fujioka and 12796 Kamen Rider).

While the title is Rider in the singular, there are actually dozens of heroes who have taken up the mantle of Kamen Rider over the decades. Each new series debuts at least two new Kamen Riders, and sometimes there are movies that throw them all together to team up against a greater evil. Sometimes it’s against the Power Rangers.

Each Rider has their own story, their own aesthetic themes and their own bad guys they need to defeat. And with surprisingly few exceptions for such a large franchise, all Kamen Riders have several motifs in common:

The superhero costume (the “Kamen”, or “mask”, of the Kamen Rider).

photo credit: kamen rider wiki

The belt that allows them to transform from an ordinary human into a hero.

photo credit: DX Tokusatsu on youtube

The motorcycle that gets them to where they need to be kicking ass (the Rider part of the formula).

photo credit: henshingrid.blogspot.com

That’s so many Riders! Where do you start?

Anywhere you damn well please. The franchise is so huge it can be quite daunting; my only advice is to dive in wherever you feel like and don’t worry about not “getting it”. For a bit of orientation, the live-action show is divided into three parts; the Showa Era (1971-1989), the Heisei Series Phase 1  (2000-2009) and the Heisei Series Phase 2 (2009 onward). The eras are based on the Japanese system of organizing years by the reign of their emperors.  Also, you may have noticed that the franchise skipped over the 90’s; while there wasn’t a complete absence of Kamen Rider media being produced in those ten years, events like the death of Ishinomori in 1998 put large dampers on the franchise’s production.

As for where to start, you could start at the beginning with the 1971 live-action show, or even the manga. However, Kamen Rider has come a long way in presentation and narrative style since then, so be aware you’ll be looking at a piece of history, rather than something made for modern tastes.

same feathery hair and tight pants at least.

You could start at the beginning of one of the Eras and work your way through. You could also just scroll through some content online and start with whatever catches your eye. Since the Heisei Era, most of the Rider series are self-contained and don’t require any prior knowledge to jump into. Want to watch a Rider show about space and the cosmic power of friendship? Check out Fourze. How about two detectives who combine into a single hero to solve mysteries? Go for Kamen Rider W. A Rider who teams up with a villain in order to take down the others who betrayed him? Start with OOO. (Can you tell my own Rider experience is relatively narrow?)

Isn’t the show campy and childish?

I mean, yes. There’s no denying it. Kamen Rider has always targeted the “young male” demographic quadrant, and it works well for them. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, part of what keeps me watching is how surprisingly well-written the plots are, and how endearing even the wackiest characters become. Also, it depends on personal tastes; I managed to find a side of myself that can enjoy hokey live-action sentai shows. Of course they’re all just people in high-budget cosplay. Of course they overdramatize nearly everything. But watching it just to laugh at how dumb it all is is still a way of enjoying it.

I assure you this is an incredibly dramatic scene.

Also, the second part of my answer is no, there’s stuff in this franchise that I can’t believe made it into a show aimed at kids. People fuckin’ DIE. On the regular. Lots of extras and minor characters. A few major ones. Bad guys employ a lot of guns, as well as some good guys (though this is a cultural difference between Japan and America, which needs to be taken into account).

hmm. what year did RWBY come to Japan again?…

There are multiple bad guys that are just straight-up serial killers. Like, not just because they’re monsters or something, they started as human serial killers. The fourth show in the series, Kamen Rider Amazon, only ran for half a season because of how graphically violent it was.

Where can I hear more of one amateur’s opinion about the various Kamen Rider series they watch?

Hahaha. My friend, you are already here.

(This post was greatly enhanced by the information provided by the kamen rider wiki).

— Nagi