Saturday, August 6, 2016
Black Sun Rising: Kamen Rider Black episodes 1 - 10
It was a new world, with new enemies, and new threats...but you could still depend on one man...
Kamen Rider Black doesn't need an introduction; it's one of the most popular entries in the Kamen Rider franchise, considered to be one of the best. Kamen Rider Black was the first Rider show on the air in several years, but it was going to be Kamen Rider coming back with a bang. It was going to be dark and hip and with the times; it was going to be the first truly standalone series and not rely on the past shows at all...
Out: stuffy scientist protagonist. In: a young average guy, a teenager, the youngest protagonist yet.
Out: Scarves, cloth suits. In: monstrous flesh, rubber suits.
Out: Stunt team Ono Ken Yukai. In: Dynamic Japan Action Club, which brings ACTING along with ACTION.
Out: Longtime franchise producer Tooru Hirayama. In: Metal Hero vet Susumu Yoshikawa, fresh off of fan-favorite series Metalder, known for its poetic, lyrical style. (Koutarou even has to get angry to transform, as Spielban had to do in order to kill his villains and as Ryusei had to do in order to become Metalder.)
Out: Longtime writer Masaru Igami. In: respected tokusatsu writer Shozo Uehara. (For a while, anyway.)
Out: Composer Shunsuke Kikuchi. In: the up-and-coming, modern, experimental Eiji Kawamura.
That's right, Toei was cleaning house and pumping in fresh blood. They had attempted to reboot Rider with Skyrider, which eventually relied on tying itself into the past shows. Super 1 attempted to be different, but was inconsistent, while also attaching itself to Skyrider by carrying over the Tachibana-wannabe Tani as Rider's "oyassan" mentor. In the end, both shows wanted to be fresh takes, but ended up feeling same old same old. Wanting Rider back on the airwaves, but wanting it to be a success, Toei actually had the balls to be different...
This was going to be a darker Kamen Rider than you remember. Gloomy, gothic, stylish. It was going to be more emotional, more personal. It's 1987, and VCRs are changing the way people view television and movies. Television wanted to still be accessible to new viewers, but also needed to reward the longtime viewers, the viewers who are now recording this stuff and always accessing it. Where the old shows could get away with mentioning a Rider's pain in the premiere, and leave it to the lyrics of the main theme to remind you from there on, Black's pain and loss was going to be the centerpiece of the story.
He was going to be a new hero for a new era. One gets the impression from the early episodes that Black was aiming higher than most of these shows tend to; it wanted to tell a good story, it wanted to appeal to viewers of all ages, fans and non-fans. It wants to be a good show above all, not interested in shilling toys. It's a dark reiteration of a classic brand, a modernization of the essential ingredients of the Kamen Rider character, but done in a grounded approach. I look at the build-up for the series, those early episodes, and see a precursor to the mature, serious, brooding and dark approach that most filmed superhero stories started adapting after Tim Burton's Batman film.
There was excitement surrounding Black, there was hype. Take a look at how they had an introductory special a week before the series premiered, where they ran down Black's stats in a Trekkie-like obsession, interviewed Ishinomori, showed footage from the auditions, interviewed the cast in character, and so on. The show was reaching for big things, and wasn't going to be exclusively a kids show. (So, it's a big shame when writer Noboru Sugimura is put in charge as main writer and makes it all about kids.)
Before Kuuga, Black was going to be the new hero and legend that rewrote the rule book...
And its debut episodes are some of the strongest episodes in the history of all henshin hero series, setting up a dark, realized world. And then the show is hit with departing writers and rumored difficult cast members and other behind-the-scenes shenanigans. What Kamen Rider Black would have been like if it had stayed true to its original intentions is something you're left only to imagine. The show changes. Writer Shozo Uehara leaves and leaves the show scrambling and eventually replaces him with Noboru Sugimura, new to tokusatsu, and a lesser talent than Uehara. And then there's Toei getting soft. Their desperation at bringing Rider back and making sure it appeals to the new audience gave them a boldness and courage to make Black what it was in the first place; the fear of losing that new audience leads the show to begin to play it safe, becoming more of a formulaic, typical entry in the franchise, when it was going to be so much more...
Black's one of my top favorite Rider shows. To me, it's the best representation of Ishinomori's entire Rider concept. (If Agito wasn't such a great, strong work of excellence, Black would probably be my favorite Rider.) Sure, the show disappointingly dips in quality, sort of abandons its original intention, but I still think overall, it's more consistent than any Rider series before it had been. And this is pretty much the last of the true Ishinomori Rider shows; RX does its own stupid thing, the movies are failures and then Kuuga takes the franchise in another direction.
I first wanted to say, however, what I think Black does well above the other Riders. Kamen Rider is a tragic character. A loner. One in pain, and he needs his pain, the way Batman needs his pain, the way Captain Kirk needs his pain. Each of the Showa Riders have a personal stake in their fight -- Hongou loses his humanity and his mentor; Kazami his family, Keisuke his dad; Stronger his friend; Skyrider his friends and parents; Super 1 his entire scientific colony. The thing was, with henshin heroes being so new at the time, and with the constraints of the way television was made and distributed, the shows didn't dwell on these important moments, these character motivators.
Like, the premiere episodes of V3 has Kazami mourning his family. From then on, they're only brought up whenever the show feels like it (and it rarely did), leaving the only reminder to be lyrics in the opening theme. Most of the shows were like that! Super 1 loses a ton of friends and never mentions it after that! At the halfway point of his series, he loses his martial-arts mentor, and NEVER mourns him or mentions his loss after that! (Strangely enough, after that episode, the show becomes a comedy that focuses on the Junior Rider Kids, with Super 1 basically becoming his own show's equivalent of a Sentai mecha, summoned at the last minute.) The '70s shows are just straightforward superhero adventures like that, practically like a '40s movie serial -- you're joining the adventure in progress, practically.
So Black made the smart move of focusing on not only the pain the villains cause Koutarou, but his family. Instead of being the mere set-up, it's the focal point of the story. The show has a little more depth and tries to be bolder about using Koutarou's pain as an ongoing storyline. Koutarou loses his birth parents and his adoptive father; not only is Koutarou kidnapped and surgically altered by the villains, but his adoptive brother is, too. His brother isn't lucky enough to escape, which becomes the core of the show -- is his brother beyond saving? These are things always effecting Koutarou, his adoptive sister and his brother's girlfriend. The villains have ruined the lives of the entire main cast, and it's something the show doesn't let them (or you) forget. So, I find Black to be more emotionally tangible than most of the Riders before it. Koutarou never forgot what drove him, needing his anger to transform into Black, but he didn't let it consume him, either. And people like Shadow Moon not because he's some new character pulled out of the writers' asses at the halfway point, but because of the ominous and suspenseful buildup throughout the series. Black also tried to give everything more of a reason, more of a lore to the mysterious and cult-like villain group, Golgom.
I've been having a Kamen Rider marathon over the past few months, picking shows I don't remember well or feel I should give another shot. I threw in a couple of shows I really like so the marathon wouldn't be a total chore, Black being one of them. It's been quite a while since I have watched Black, so I was excited to get to it. I wanted to pay close attention to it, keep an open mind about the later episodes I consider weaker. So, I made notes and observations as I watched each episode, hoping to track what I liked about it, and get into where I felt it went wrong. I'll cover 5-10 episodes per post.
Episodes 1 - 10
1 - 2 are perfect episodes; alongside Liveman, some of my absolute favorite debut episodes of a toku series -- some of my favorite toku episodes, period. THIS is how to do a classic Kamen Rider. Uehara hits it out of the park, perfectly updating the Kamen Rider lore and style for the '80s, while homaging certain scenes from the original without at all feeling like a lazy imitation. Great atmospheric style from pilot director Yoshiaki Kobayashi (this pilot is what put his name on my radar), which director Makoto Tsuji picks up in the second episode.
I love the start of the first episode; a panicked Koutarou running through the streets of Japan, at night, chased by the three creepy Golgom priests. What I like about them is how they're depicted as being scary and menacing, but really low-key. The show wants these guys to be intimidating and spooky. As much as I like a lot of the Rider villains prior to Black -- General Shadow is my favorite Rider villain -- most of them tended to be large and colorful and over-the-top. Black's starting off wanting to be, sure, scary and supernatural, but also more grounded. The Golgom guys aren't yelling or have a gimmick, they're not Nazi lovers or cosplayers for a wax museum or kooky aliens; they're weird motherfuckers, they're obviously into the occult, they're mysterious, they're ancient. Koutarou's terrified by these guys, and he should be. I love those Shocker villains, but if you saw Shinigami Hakase in a dark alley at night, you'd be like "What's with this motherfucker? You're too early for Halloween, Grandpa Munster!" If you see Darom or Bishum coming your way...you're not gonna wanna be hanging around. And I like that Golgom is pretty much a cult, and they have members who are legitimate, seemingly normal members of society -- doctors, politicians, businessmen, A-list celebrities. Golgom's influence has a far reach, and it gives them a more realistic feel, makes them seem like even a bigger threat at large.
3 - A more standard sort of scenario you'd expect from Uehara, but it picks up by the end. The plot of the missing people and the random mayhem seems like something that could be found in any of Uehara's average Metal Hero shows, but what sets it apart is the dark and creepy atmosphere; this is Golgom making their presence known to the public, planning to create and display a creepy tableau made up of their victims and the destruction they've caused -- which they hope to top with Black's decapitated head.
4 - It's too early to have an episode this weak, Uehara really fell down on the job. Yutaka Hirose guest-starring as Koutarou's friend and racing monster who gets turned into a werewolf sounds awesome, but it isn't. Mad scientist Kuromatsu experiments on athletes as a way to find a formula to defeat Koutarou, but it's all just lame.
5 - First episode not written by Uehara; not the strongest plot, but it makes up for it in creep factor and tension. Golgom's goat monster possesses a small village, turning everyone homicidal. The reason? A peace conference of various world leaders will soon be held there, and Golgom's sending a message. Flashman's Yayoi Satou gives an effective performance as a traumatized village escapee.
6 - A kind of ho-hum episode involving Golgom kidnapping artists to...memorize tech schematics, give them to the public, and ruin companies? What? I mean, I appreciate the attempt at a kind of realistic plan to depict Golgom's attempts at ruining society, but this episode just isn't done well or in a way that's interesting or in a way that makes you think it all warrants a superhero to stop this boring shit.
7 - I like some of these more low-key plans of Golgom's -- in this episode, they recruit and hypnotize angry young men who have been wronged or have had loved ones killed by reckless hooligans. Golgom's people are such bastards in this episode, lying through their bastard teeth that Golgom's the ones that want a peaceful utopia. A problem with this episode, though, is Red One from Bioman, whose performance is so completely hammy and so over-the-top it's overflowing the bowl; he seems nuttier than any of Golgom's longtime members. (That's not the intention. At all.)
The highlight of this episode is the confirmation that Battle Hopper is a living being. The show indicated this, but flat out says it in this episode, not only having Battle Hopper take hits for Black (he shields an unconscious Black from a collapsing roof!), but gets torn up by the rhino monster and is shown healing his tissue. Back in my day, a Kamen Rider was a dude and his bike. He didn't need cards or trains or rings or Gashapon shit. A bike is his ally, his trusted arsenal. So I think it's pretty smart of this show to have Battle Hopper be a living creature, making the Rider's important tool an actual character -- and doing it in a way that can still work dramatically, but not be a talking, obnoxious, cute cartoon character like an Engine.
Be on the lookout for Darom suit-actor Hirokazu Shouji as the guard who catches Red One leaving the Golgom guy's mansion. Shouji's one of the recurring Soldier Group guys in Changeman, a good JAC performer, and he died in a car crash a few years after Kamen Rider Black.
8 - Another low-key episode, but one that brings back some creepiness and horror, as Golgom kidnaps young women musicians and controls them to play their deadly tune, all while alluding to musicians who sold their souls. The awesome Miyuki Nagato guest-stars as a Golgom henchwoman. I like that this episode speaks the truth of the world, that money and connections is what wins out over talent. This ain't the syrupy message of your typical superhero show, where everything is supposed to be awesome and only the yucky bad guys are bad! Also: that stock footage of that colliding and burning car I made fun of all throughout Changeman's anniversary makes an appearance!
9 - Weak. I usually pick on this episode when I'm looking for a lazy toku plot to mock. "The one where the villains' big plan is...to distribute necklaces that unleash killer bees!!!!!!!!" Golgom's plan could have been depicted better. It's diabolical, the stings of the bee monster's minions spreading disease. That Bishum wants to focus on a trendy part of Japan fits their MO. But the necklace thing? The surrounding story of the West Side Story dancers and stuff? It's just...weak. (The one dance team is color coordinated, and one of them is played by a pre-Zyu Hideki Fujiwara, whose color is...blue! Pretty much every Black episode so far has had one or two familiar-to-toku actors, it's crazy.)
10 - The one that's infamous for being called "Where is Nobuhiko?" despite having jackshit to do with Nobuhiko. Kaura/Bias guest-stars as a soldier under Golgom's thumb, staging road collisions and scooping up the victims to kidnap and force into being Golgom soldiers. That's a bit sinister, but also a bit convoluted. It's interesting to have Dr. Kuromatsu coerce people into joining his cause by healing their crash injuries, but I think the episode would seem less odd if he was healing people suffering from all kinds of pains and maladies and disease and blackmailing THEM. This car crash stuff...huh?
Despite its misleading title, the episode does at least bring up the earlier episodes, and has Koutarou checking out Golgom's more legitimate members (Kuromatsu and Sakata), getting bullshit answers and brush-offs and cover stories to throw him off.
This episode is also the second and last appearance of Toudou, the dude who inexplicably handed his shop off to Kyoko in episode 2. He was this show's obvious attempt at having a Toubei Tachibana, but they just didn't want to bother, I guess, and just cut him out altogether.
And I have to say that the scenes depicting Kaura/Bias' harsh training of the potential Golgom army is pretty minor compared to Ibuki's training of the Changeman. Think about that for a second.