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Kamen Rider

Sophia Staite
Published: 5 October 2021

Abstract: 2021 is the fiftieth anniversary year for Japanese live-action superhero franchise Kamen Rider. For half a century, heroes bearing the name Kamen Rider have battled rubber suited monsters and defended the smiles of children. Unlike many superheroes, however, the Kamen Riders are grotesque heroes, usually drawing their powers from the same source as the villains they battle. Grotesque human-machine-animal hybrids, they differ from their opponents only in the kindness of their hearts and the strength of their spirits. Although the Kamen Rider franchise includes a variety of texts including manga, novels, movies, and stage musicals, the central text is the Sunday morning children’s television program. This article focusses exclusively on the television series. Each season of the television program is comprised of around fifty twenty-five-minute episodes, and each season features an entirely new cast, title, and premise. Kamen Rider was originally created at a time of economic downturn and social unrest, and the unease of the zeitgeist is reflected in the figure of the no longer human hero. A little over thirty years later Japan was again facing a variety of crises and intense debate over what, if any, role it should play in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The 2002 television season, Kamen Rider Ryūki, tackles difficult questions about what justice, heroism, and monstrosity mean, through the medium of a children’s martial arts and live action special effects hero television program. This article explores the blurred boundaries between monster and hero in Kamen Rider, in the context of social attitudes toward children. The First Kamen Rider The inaugural Kamen Rider (protagonist of the 1971 television season), Hongo Takeshi, is a university student who gains superpowers after being abducted and experimented on by Shocker, a terrorist organisation founded by Nazis. Their medical experiments are part of a plan to produce an army capable of world domination. Takeshi’s body was modified with grasshopper DNA and cybernetic enhancements, but he was able to escape before the mind control portion of the operation. Although he appears human, Takeshi transforms via a special belt into Kamen (masked) Rider in order to fight. His face is obscured by an insectoid helmet with red compound eyes and antennae. The transformation scene is a highlight of every episode, and the transformation belt is the most important of the (many) tie-in toys. The primary audience of Kamen Rider is children between two and seven, and as a media-mix (Steinberg) franchise the sale of toys and branded products to the primary audience is vital. Anne Allison (105) identifies the transformation and blending or crossing of bodily borders it entails as the “money shot” children anticipate and enjoy. There is also a substantial tertiary audience, however, which includes older children and adults. During the early 1970s, when the first few seasons of Kamen Rider were broadcast, ‘employment trains’ were transporting Japanese teenagers (immediately following their graduation from middle school) from rural areas to the large cities, where they worked in factories and construction far from their families (Alt 54). Kamen Rider’s creator, Ishinomori Shōtarō, had debuted as a manga artist while still in school himself, and his works were particularly popular among this disenfranchised demographic. The figure of a young man taken and changed against his will and left to forge his own path in the aftermath may have been particularly resonant with these teenagers. Kamen Rider’s creator, Ishinomori Shōtarō, was a member of the yakeato (burnt ruins) generation, who were children during the Second World War and experienced the fire- and nuclear bombings of Japan and grew up amidst the burned-out ruins. Roman Rosenbaum (Redacting 97-98) argues that this generation (or perhaps more accurately, micro-generation), “later subconsciously released the bent-up trauma of their early childhood experiences throughout their adult lives in their body of work”. Ishinomori was not alone in this experience, of course; other members of the early Kamen Rider creative team were also motivated by childhood trauma. Hirayama Tōru, who helped Ishinomori bring the Rider concept to television as a producer, was sixteen when his hometown of Nagoya was firebombed. He and other schoolboys were dispatched to dispose of the bodies of civilians who had died while trying to escape the flames only to die in the river (Oda and Muraeda 41-2). Members of the yakeato generation were prominent in anti-war activism during the 1970s, opposing Japan’s entanglement in the Vietnam War (Rosenbaum Generation 284). Violence and the meaning of justice were urgent issues for this generation. This first season of Kamen Rider, along with many of the subsequent seasons, is classifiable as a horror text, with numerous Gothic elements (Staite). Many of the monsters Takeshi battles are “designed to elicit a specific reaction: that of abject horror” (Kim 28). While some of the prosthetic suits are quite silly-looking by contemporary standards, many remain compellingly disturbing in their fusion of animal-human-machine. Although he proceeds up the chain of command to eventually battle the leaders of Shocker, Takeshi is always aware when battling other victims of Shocker experimentation that the only difference between himself and them is that he was able to escape before losing his will. He, like them, is no longer entirely human, and has become as grotesque as the unfortunate monsters he must defeat. As Miura Shion (180) puts it (translation mine), “Kamen Rider was originally an entity created by evil. The reality is that the enemy in front of you and you are actually the same. The fate of Kamen Rider is to fight while struggling with this”. Noting that Kamen Rider was...
Keywords: children / text / live / Kamen / Rider / human machine animal / suited

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