Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

A Guide to Kamen Rider, the Masked Marvels of Japanese Superhero TV

Henshin! The gathered Rider heroes of the 21st century.
Henshin! The gathered Rider heroes of the 21st century.
Image: Toei

If you love Power Rangers, you are probably at least aware of Super Sentai, the Spandex-clad Tokusatsu series it borrows its costumes, mechs, and action footage from. But Toei, the makers of Super Sentai, are also behind another of Japan’s most iconic superhero franchises: the legendary Henshin Heroes of Kamen Rider.

Advertisement

Last week, Toei announced a major licensing deal with Shout Factory to officially bring the original Kamen Rider to America for the first time, laying the groundwork for more entries in the esteemed franchise to make their way out of Japan and to the West. It’s a chance to see the origin story of one of Japan’s most iconic superheroes, but if you don’t know what the fuss is all about—or what the difference between Kamen Rider and the likes of other Tokusatsu superheroes like the Super Sentai or Ultraman franchises—we’re here to help.

Advertisement

The Origins of Kamen Rider

While Super Sentai might be better known abroad thanks to its Power Rangers connection, Kamen Rider is actually its older sibling. “Kamen Rider” simply means “Masked Rider,” referring to the hero’s helmeted designs, which have often been inspired by bugs ever since the original’s grasshopper-themed design. Created by mangaka Shotaro Ishinomori and producer Toru Hirayama in 1971—spinning out of a plan to adapt one of Ishinomori’s manga, Skull Man, into live action—the original Kamen Rider followed Takeshi Hongo.

Hongo, played by Hiroshi Fujioka, was a cyborg who would transform (“henshin” in Japanese, activating a button on his belt with a cry of the word that would become one of Kamen Rider’s defining staples) into the hero Kamen Rider. He battled an international terrorist organization named Shocker, taking to his bike, the Cyclone, to chase them down and enact justice with another patented movie: the aerial kick, a finishing move that has now become another of the series’ enduring elements.

A terrible accident in filming gave way to one of Kamen Rider’s other staples. While filming the 10th episode of Kamen Rider’s debut season, Fujioka broke both of his legs after being thrown from a bike. In order to keep production rolling, the production introduced a second Kamen Rider—simply named Kamen Rider 2 to Hongo’s Kamen Rider 1—Hayato Ichimonji. This second character was played by Takeshi Sasaki who, like Hongo, was a cyborg given similar transformative powers. Kamen Rider 2 would become the defacto hero of much of Kamen Rider’s first season until Hongo returned in the show’s 53rd episode. But Hongo didn’t replace Sasaki, and instead fought alongside him for the remainder of the show, establishing the conceit that there could be multiple people wielding the power of a Kamen Rider.

Advertisement
Kamen Rider Stronger flexing for the camera.
Kamen Rider Stronger flexing for the camera.
Image: Toei

The success of Kamen Rider lead to more series, even after the conclusion of Hongo and Sasaki’s battle against Shocker. Over the course of the 1970s, four more series would air—Kamen Rider V3, Kamen Rider X, Kamen Rider Amazon, and Kamen Rider Stronger—and while each show, like Rider’s newly arrived counterpart in Sentai (which began in 1975 with Himitsu Sentai Gorenger), brought with it a new group of Kamen Riders and new villains to fight, there were recurring elements, most notably the character of Tōbei Tachibana, who acted as a mentor figure and confidant for each generation of Rider.

Advertisement

By the end of the ‘70s however, Kamen Rider became less of a regularity, unlike its counterpart in Super Sentai, which was on its way as a yearly franchise, swapping in new teams every series. There was a four-year-gap after Kamen Rider Stronger before the arrival of The New Kamen Rider and then Kamen Rider Super-1 at the turn of the decade, but in the 1980s, Kamen Rider largely retreated from screens. A manga by Ishinomori, Kamen Rider ZX, was followed up by a TV special in 1984 that brought the character and the nine prior Riders together, but a new series—Kamen Rider Black, and its sequel series, Kamen Rider Black RX—wouldn’t arrive again until 1987. And unlike prior shows, there were no references to past Kamen Rider series, until RX concluded with another multi-Rider teamup...because, for TV at least, it would be the last Kamen Rider for a while.

Kamen Rider Kuuga kicked off what is known as the Heisei period (named for the Japanese Imperial era it released in) of the franchise.
Kamen Rider Kuuga kicked off what is known as the Heisei period (named for the Japanese Imperial era it released in) of the franchise.
Image: Toei
Advertisement

Although there would be occasional attempts to revive the series at the Japanese box office—with films like Shin Kamen Rider, Kamen Rider ZO, and Kamen Rider J—as a franchise, Kamen Rider was on hiatus for pretty much all of the ‘90s. Meanwhile, Toei focused on the resurgent success of Super Sentai, which had faced potential cancellation until the landmark success of Chojin Sentai Jetman reignited interest among Japanese audiences. Kamen Rider wouldn’t return until the turn of the 21st century with Kamen Rider Kuuga, and since then, just like Super Sentai, it’s become an annual series for TV Asahi’s “Super Hero Time” Sunday morning block of programming. Just like its counterpart, each year brings a new Rider (and a new gimmick for kids to buy toys of, alongside elements like the hero’s transformation belt and weapons) and premise, all the way up to the currently airing Kamen Rider Zero-One, the first Rider of Japan’s “Reiwa” era.

Advertisement

Unlike Sentai, however, is Kamen Rider’s lack of success in being adapted for the west. After Power Rangers became a huge hit, Saban did attempt to capture the magic a second time around with 1996's Masked Rider, but it failed to spark the same mania that turned Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers into a sustainable franchise. Other people did eventually try—the CW, of all places, hosted Adness Entertainment’s adaptation of 2002's Kamen Rider Ryuki, called Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight, in 2008, but pulled the show before its full run could even complete airing.

Sometimes they even team up, like 2012's big crossover movie, Super Hero Taisen.
Sometimes they even team up, like 2012's big crossover movie, Super Hero Taisen.
Image: Toei
Advertisement

So What’s Different Between Kamen Rider and Sentai?

We’ve talked a lot about the similarities between Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, right down to the fact that they’ve shared a programming block together for two decades in Japan. So what actually sets them apart? Aside from the obvious one—Super Sentai is about a team of heroes, while Kamen Rider focuses on one particular hero and a handful of allies—a lot of the differences are more tonal than anything else.

Advertisement

At least in their modern iterations, Super Sentai is intended for a younger audience compared to Kamen Rider—although not by much, with Kamen Rider aiming at older pre-teens while Sentai is primarily intended for younger kids. The pre-2000s shows and movies targeted a much wider family audience and dealt with darker, mature themes in the process (and could be significantly more violent at times). Although modern Kamen Rider can be much more demure in comparison—there are exceptions to this, like the distinctly adult-oriented Kamen Rider Amazons spinoff made for Amazon Japan, a spiritual reboot of the original ‘74 show—it still has an occasionally darker and more drama-driven tone.

Advertisement

The series is also more serialized in comparison to Super Sentai—which is much more defined by its particularly rigid “Monster of the Week” structure—with long character arcs and intertwining plotlines interspersed between our hero (or heroes) battling monsters. Unlike Sentai’s emphasis on teamwork and unity, this often means that the multiple Riders of any given show can be in conflict with one another, either literally or ideologically, making themselves either uneasy associates or allies of opportunity. That can also apply to the villains of a series, who often draw their own superhuman powers from either the same or a similar, twisted take on the source that powers the heroes. It creates a much murkier premise than the white-and-black, good-versus-evil sort of storyline you get in Sentai.

These are, of course, still shows for kids, so don’t go in expecting The Boys but with Japanese people in Spandex or something. But if you want your multicolor-costumed action spectacle with a thin veneer of a more complex sense of maturity, Kamen Rider might be for you Also, it’s fine to like silly superhero shows intended for children, anyway. You’ll get over it!

Advertisement
You probably won’t be able to watch Zero-One legally any time soon, but...there are ways.
You probably won’t be able to watch Zero-One legally any time soon, but...there are ways.
Image: Toei

How to Watch

So, usually, this would be the bit where I have to inform you that to watch the franchise in question you’d have to do something that is kind of, sort of, technically illegal. And, it still is in many ways: To watch Kamen Rider, especially the post-2000s iteration of it, you’re going to have to turn to fan groups who self-translate the series and disseminate it online, either through streams of Japanese television or purchases of Japanese Blu-ray releases. These are not officially supported in any way, but given that Toei doesn’t crack down on them, they’re pretty much the only way right now you could watch the vast majority of Kamen Rider. Even in comparison to Super Sentai, which now has a healthy number of shows officially translated and released in the U.S. both on DVD and available to stream from Shout Factory, official support for Kamen Rider is minuscule.

Advertisement

That is, thankfully, seemingly slowly changing. Kamen Rider Amazons, Amazon Japan’s gory, adult-oriented reboot of the original Kamen Rider Amazon, made its way to Prime Video in the states as Amazon Riders. And with the announcement of Shout Factory’s TokuShoutsu linear streaming channel on Pluto TV, for the first time ever the very first Kamen Rider series is available subtitled and on-demand in the U.S.

Where that leaves the rest of Kamen Rider, however, remains to be seen. Toei’s recent announcement of an international YouTube channel launching in April 2020 dedicated to slowly but surely subtitling its classic back catalogue of Tokusatsu shows into English could bring some of the Showa-era shows or even the ‘90s Kamen Rider movies with it, but without knowing either the extent of Shout Factory’s deal with Toei, or even the catalogue that will be on this new YouTube channel, it’s hard to say. But these are, hopefully, just the first steps in trying to bring the franchise to the West in an officially supported capacity.

Advertisement

That said, if you wanna watch either Masked Rider or Kamen Rider Dragon Knight, those are likewise hard to track down legally. They did both get DVD releases in the mid ‘00s, but are now both out of print. Womp womp!

Advertisement

For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.

Advertisement

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

Share This Story

Get our newsletter

DISCUSSION

“Hongo, played by Hiroshi Fujioka, was a cyborg who would transform (“henshin” in Japanese, activating a button on his belt with a cry of the word that would become one of Kamen Rider’s defining staples) into the hero Kamen Rider.”

There was no button. Initially, Hongo was literally wind-powered — if he rode his bike fast enough or fell from a height, the wind would spin the turbine in his belt (the Typhoon) and initiate the transformation. (Luckily for him, Shocker was inordinately fond of dropping him into very deep pits.) When Ichimonji took over in episode 14, he debuted the practice of activating his transformation by making a stylized arm movement and saying “Henshin,” which uncovered his Typhoon turbine, whereupon he would (usually) jump to create the wind to transform (less wind than Hongo needed, and sometimes left out altogether, like when he was indoors). When Hongo returned, he adopted the same practice with a different arm move and the cry “Rider... Henshin!”

But Hongo didn’t replace Sasaki, and instead fought alongside him for the remainder of the show”

No, only for a couple of episodes before Ichimonji left (supposedly to fight Shocker in South America, just as Hongo’s absence had been explained as fighting Shocker in Europe). Though Ichimonji did come back in about five more episodes before the original series ended, and in subsequent series they tended to guest-star together as the Double Riders. (Oddly, the main way to tell them apart was that Kamen Rider #1 had two white stripes on each sleeve and Kamen Rider #2 had one thicker white stripe. I assume this is because the stripes debuted with Ichimonji and then Hongo was given a modified version of Ichimonji’s suit when he returned. Also, Hongo was taller.)

“The pre-2000s shows and movies targeted a much wider family audience and dealt with darker, mature themes in the process (and could be significantly more violent at times).”

Well, kind of. The original 1971 series was kind of a dark, weird horror-oriented show for its first 10 or so episodes, but after Ichimonji came along, it became a lot more kid-friendly and lightweight and stayed that way through at least the second series. I haven’t seen the other Showa seasons yet except for Black/RX, which were kind of dark but in a kid-friendly way (at least by Japanese TV standards).

As for the ‘90s movies, Shin Kamen Rider was a very adult reboot aimed at the grown-up fans of the original show, and it had plenty of violence, horror elements, and even a nude scene. The second movie, ZO, was fairly violent but also more kid-oriented with a preteen boy as a major character. And J felt more like a conventional Kamen Rider story, albeit with the Ultraman-like twist that Kamen Rider J could turn giant.