Kamen Rider Kuuga

September 20, 2009

Following the conclusion of Kamen Rider Black RX in 1989, there was an 11 year absence of new Kamen Rider series on Japanese television. A few one-off movies and specials came out, but for the most part the franchise was dormant through the 90’s. Toward the end of the decade, series creator and renowned mangaka Ishinomori Shotaro began to move on a revival of Kamen Rider. Despite Ishinomori not living to bring the project to fruition himself, the first new Kamen Rider series in over a decade hit Japanese airwaves on January 21, 2000.

The debut of Kamen Rider Kuuga would kick off a new era of Kamen Rider series. These would be known as the Heisei Kamen Riders, due to the changeover in the traditional Japanese calendar with the ascension of Emperor Akihito in January 1989. Though technically most of Black RX aired in the Heisei era, Kuuga was the first TV series to debut under the new era.

Kamen Rider Kuuga is the story of a jack-of-all-trades named Godai Yuusuke. Among his many hobbies, Yuusuke likes to travel to remote parts of the world. Frequently, he brings some kind of odd souvenir of his travels back to his friend, archaeologist Sawatari Sakurako. As the series starts, a group of archaeologists uncovers ruins of the ancient Rinto tribe, including the mummified remains of an ancient Rinto warrior and a sealed chamber. When they open the chamber, something escapes, killing the entire excavation team. Yuusuke arrives to check out the dig, finding the police there. Though he finds himself drawn to enter the ruins, he’s repelled by detective Ichijou Kaoru. Later, Yuusuke and Sakurako are called in by Ichijou to consult on the case, and are shown blurry video of the attack. The mysterious creature attacked the mummified corpse before going after the team. They are given the strange belt worn by the mummy, and asked to decipher the writing on it.

As Yuusuke and Sakurako go to leave the police headquarters, another unidentified creature bursts in, apparently after the belt. It quickly proves immune to the police officers’ gunfire and seems unstoppable. Acting on instinct, Yuusuke puts the belt on himself, only to have it disappear into his body. As the Yuusuke and the monster fight and move out onto a side street, Yuusuke’s body changes into a white armored creature, and he is designated by the police as Unidentified Lifeform #2. In this form, Yuusuke barely drives off the monster, saving Ichijou in the process.

Yuusuke consults Sakurako to better understand his new powers. He believes that he should have a different, red colored form as he sees in visions. When attacks begin from another creature, dubbed #3, Yuusuke and Ichijou confront it in a cathedral where it had been masquerading as the priest. Yuusuke declares his resolve to fight to Ichijou and achieves his true form, the red colored Kuuga Mighty Form. Though Mighty Form is misidentified as another creature, #4, by the police, he is able to drive off #3 and defeat #1.

Soon, others are brought into sharing Yuusuke’s secret. Tsubaki Shuichi is a doctor friend of Ichijou’s that looks after Yuusuke and studies the effects of Kuuga’s powers on his body. Ichijou also introduces Enokido Hikari, a scientist at the police’s research division who helps develop new weapons to combat the Grongi. One of the interesting things about Kuuga as a superhero show is that the regular humans aren’t useless. Kuuga works in conjunction with the police (though only a few know his identity), and the police actually become more and more capable as the series moves on. Initially, they just find ways to stun the Grongi, allowing Kuuga to finish them off. By the end of the series, they have a weapon that poses a real threat to the Grongi without Kuuga’s help.

The Grongi themselves are somewhat interesting, and really set a standard for monsters throughout the Heisei Rider shows. The Grongi’s main goal is the eradication of the descendants of the Rinto tribe, humanity. This is carried out through a ritual human hunting game called the Gegeru. There are several classes of Grongi, each with different Gegeru rules by which they must abide. The lowest level Grongi can’t even speak, but higher level ones are able to speak, use weapons similar to Kuuga, and even assume human disguises. This concept of intelligent monsters that disguise themselves as humans would reappear in several Heisei shows, as would the tendency for a monster to last through multiple episodes. They also tend to rack up a pretty substantial civilian body count before Kuuga can put a stop to them. The Grongi are led by the powerful Daguba, the creature that originally escaped from the crypt and is designated #0 by the police.

Following in the footsteps laid down by Black RX, Kuuga gained a number of power-up forms defined by a signature weapon. Each weapon is summoned by finding an object with a similar shape, and transmuting it. The blue Dragon Form sacrifices strength and armor for enhanced speed, agility and jumping power. Dragon Form’s signature weapon is the staff weapon Dragon Rod. Clad in green, Pegasus Form enhances all of Kuuga’s senses to extreme levels and features the Pegasus Bowgun for highly accurate ranged attacks. Pegasus Form strains Yuusuke’s nervous system however, and can’t be held for more than 50 seconds. Finally, the purple and silver Titan Form sacrifices mobility for thick armor. Titan is able to steadily walk through enemy attacks to strike at close range with the Titan Sword. Later, Yuusuke is able to access a “golden power” to upgrade his various forms to their Rising variant (Rising Mighty, Rising Dragon, etc), but only for 30 seconds. Finally, he becomes able to access Amazing Mighty Form and what may be Kuuga’s true form, Ultimate Form. This tradition of power up forms would persist through the Heisei era, as each main title Rider since has had at least one power up form.

Since Kuuga was somewhat experimental, one may find that the special effects and overall production values of the show may pale even to Agito which came immediately following. Despite this, the various costumes including Kuuga’s forms and the various Grongi all look pretty good. The special effects for the attacks may not be as flashy as some of the other Heisei Riders, but this is more in keeping with the way the older shows were. Once you’re sucked into the mysteries of Kuuga’s world though, none of this will matter much.

It’s often said that Kuuga is more like the Showa Riders than the Heisei ones. This mostly refers to the fact that Yuusuke is a pretty typical hero role model. He doesn’t have any inner demons to tackle, nor does he have any issues with his own confidence. He’s a classic hero archetype through and through. Kind, brave and strong. The overall story structure for Kuuga with its intricate plotting, mysteries to be revealed, and complex villains is pure Heisei. Kuuga is definitely the prototype for what came after.

Anyone who has been interested in the more recent Kamen Rider shows should really seek Kuuga out and try to see it. It really is a good series that doesn’t get a lot of attention due to being a bit older now. It may not be super flashy, but it’s a good, solid series full of great characters.

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Kamen Rider Black

May 19, 2009

I recently finished up 1987/88’s Kamen Rider Black. Black and its direct sequel Black RX almost exist as their own “era” of Kamen Rider. The last full TV series had been Super-1 in 1980, and there wouldn’t be another full TV series after RX until Kuuga in 2000. What Black does is introduce a lot of elements that would become hallmarks of the later shows.

The story begins with Minami Kotaro and Akizuki Nobuhiko. Kotaro was adopted by Nobuhiko’s father and raised as family along with Nobuhiko’s sister Kyoko. On their 19th birthday, both young men are kidnapped by an organization of evil cultists called Gorgom. The boys are each modified into cyborgs and implanted with a Kingstone. Being given the names “Black Sun” and “Shadow Moon”, they are to fight to the death, with the victor becoming Gorgom’s next Creation King. However, Kotaro is able to escape before his brainwashing is complete. When he’s attacked by Gorgom’s three high priests, he undergoes a transformation into his Black Sun form. Kotaro decides to use his powers to fight back against Gorgom, taking the name Kamen Rider Black.

Black’s premise and tone were considered generally dark at the time. The Gorgom organization is presented as extremely creepy and even disgusting at times. It may seem a bit funny now with its obvious rubber suits, but in 1987 I can see how this was unlike what people had seen before in this kind of show. It also introduces a lot of the tension and drama that would become standard in the later movie-era and Heisei-era riders.

The most important addition is an antagonist Rider. A little after halfway through, Nobuhiko awakens as Shadow Moon. This puts a lot of strain on Kotaro, Kyoko and Katsumi (Nobuhiko’s girlfriend), and creates a conflict of loyalties for Kotaro. Can he fight his best friend and brother? Shadow Moon of course is brainwashed by Gorgom, but sometimes shows unexpected compassion and restraint, especially when confronted by Katsumi. This all culminates toward the end of the series when the Creation King pushes the two to finally duel it out, and things don’t initially go as you’d expect…

Despite all that, most of the show is typical mid-80’s tokusatsu. Gorgom comes up with some wacky plan, Kotaro stumbles onto it, kicks the monster’s ass. The formula is broken up a bit during the first half by the introduction of Birugenia, a former Creation King candidate who was considered too out of control and sealed away. Birugenia would sometimes appear to challenge Black, spicing up the fight scenes until he was finally taken out and replaced by Shadow Moon.

The effects are decent for the time. The regular monsters are a bit cheesy, but the more major characters look great. Black has some nice organic muscley stuff in his joints, and Shadow Moon is just badass all over. The priests look really good too, both before and after their mid-series upgrade. I love the grip tightening sound effect when Kotaro clenches his fists before transforming. The biggest problem I had is that the strobe effect during Rider Punch and Rider Kick really hurts my eyes. I can only imagine the seizures this show caused.

Overall, I liked it. The regular episodes could drag on sometimes, but it’s made up for whenever the story kicks in with the Priests, Birugenia or Shadow Moon getting involved. Shadow Moon especially was a cool character, setting the stage for later Riders like Ouja, Kaixa, the Hoppers, Saga, etc. It’s certainly a lot cooler than the 70’s stuff I’ve seen (not to hate on that or anything), and much more satisfying as a full series than the one-off “movie” Riders. I’ve started into Black RX, which isn’t as dark but I still like it. Best part of RX, no Furbus.

Century Kings, a fansub group consisting of I think just one guy, has Black done through episode 38. The rest I got as raws from this thread on Henshin Justice Unlimited.