Saturday, August 27, 2016

Black Hole Message: Kamen Rider Black episodes 21 - 25 + Movie

21 - Fun episode with Battle Hopper influenced by the latest monster, rampaging and causing (off-screen) destruction. Cool moment with Birugenia attempting to hijack the bike and meddle in Golgom's plan. Awesome to see Koutarou keeping an all night vigil for Battle Hopper, which leads him to discover the reason for the bike's erratic behavior. You'd think once Black killed the monster, its minions (which are infecting Battle Hopper) would die, as per toku tradition, but it's interesting they don't. Black takes a gamble on attacking Battle Hopper with Road Sector (stop trying to make Road Sector happen), and it's ridiculous that we care as much about Battle Hopper as we do. Sensible viewers were probably worried in '87 that Battle Hopper would be killed so they could focus on Road Sucktor, but that's thankfully not the case.

22 - A bit of a strange episode, with a clairvoyant kid who's convinced Koutarou's going to kill his scientist dad, so there's a couple of weird-ass scenes of this kid attempting to kill Koutarou. The dad is building some big solar powered laser gun and Golgom's funding it for their latest plan. Kid learns Koutarou's the good guy and helps a blinded Black fight by using his special abilities, which he...loses as a result of doing? Whatever, weird episode.

One thing I like, though, is when Koutarou questions the kid, he actually seems kind of hurt and insulted that the kid thinks he could be a bad guy. While I like the angry, lost, uncertain Koutarou of the early episodes -- it suited his age, as the youngest Rider at the time -- he's settling into his role of being a hero and paragon of justice that he doesn't want anyone to think he's bad.

This episode also marks the debut of Birugenia's Demon Kakka-inspired make-up upgrade (make-upgrade?). So long, sickly jaundiced look. This make-up looks cooler, makes the character look meaner. There's no real explanation behind it; they just cut to Birugenia watching from the sidelines and he just does it.

MOVIE 1 (Race to Oni Island) - Standard toku movie; big on action, low on plot -- that's not to say I don't enjoy it, I think it's fun for what it is. It's Uehara's last script for Black, and he brings back some nasty Golgom weirdness -- the sicko chameleon monster kidnaps kids, the suitable ones being made into new monsters, the ones that don't pass becoming monster food. The main objective is to lure Koutarou to a small island and capture him, turning him into a monster. There's some cool action, like an early fight with Birugenia and neat wire-work when Black takes on five chameleon monsters. Director Mishio Konishi brings back some of the dark, horror-ish atmosphere, mainly on the titular island.

A couple of strange bits in this movie, though. One is a scene showing kids eating the Kamen Rider Black snacks you could actually buy in '87/'88. An episode already had a kid riding the Battle Hopper you could buy, but it was in the background, so you could kind of overlook it. Maybe you could think that some kid idolized Black and had his parents build him his own little Battle Hopper. But Black snacks!?!? Who's making that money, within the world of the show -- Adrian Veidt?

The other strange thing is choosing to end the movie with Tetsuo Kurata's flat singing of the "Ore no Seishun" song. This isn't the first time a toku character has burst into one of their own songs -- both the song and the scene is reminiscent of Hiroshi Watari singing his terrible song in Spielban -- but as a way to END the movie...?!? Strange choice.

Everybody knows and loves Shoutarou Ishinomori's cameo in this movie, where he's a knowledgeable fisherman who gives Koutarou a ride to Golgom's island hideaway. I think it might be the most Ishinomori's been given to do in one of his cameos. When I first saw this movie, I totally expected him to be a Golgom kaijin in disguise, though, he was acting so strange and being suspiciously too helpful.

23 - This is the first episode of Black that I feel really plays to the kids. It's not exactly a funny or lighthearted episode, but it's certainly kid-friendly, focusing almost exclusively on the kid of the week. How much you hate the episode depends on whether you're an animal lover. I'm an animal lover, so I felt bad for the kid guest star, who just lost his dog, and has that hole filled by finding a miniaturized fragment of a Golgom monster and adopts it. (And loses THAT by the end of the episode, too.)

24 - The first episode to heavily feature Katsumi and it's an odd one. Girls at her campus are going missing, and of course it turns out to be the teacher Katsumi is fond of, played by that unlikable dude who goes on to play Godai's old teacher in Kuuga. I always think of this episode as "Oh, the one where the writer saw A Nightmare on Elm Street that week." It's not touched on a lot, but the episode IS called "The College Girls' Nightmare," and the monster does effect their dreams, but the thing that REALLY stands out to me is when Koutarou comes across the manipulated Katsumi in the evil teacher's lab and she's sent rolling all across the walls and ceiling like Freddy killing Tina in the first Nightmare on Elm Street. (I'm a huge Nightmare on Elm Street fan, so that's a plus.)

It's also this episode that debuts Black's attempt at a Shonen Rider Tai sort of thing, which seems random here, IMO. Now, if you know me from Japan Hero or HJU, I have always whined about the Showa Rider shows using the Shonen Rider Tai. I think they're lame, I think they're pandering. They're seriously uncool. But I LIKE this take on them in Black. Here, they're a Golgom experiment gone wrong, lab guinea pigs and freaks -- they were operated on when they were kids and stopped growing. They might still look like tweens, but they're technically in their 20s. That gives them a bit more sorrow than the standard Shonen Rider Tai, and you can take them a bit more seriously than previous ones. It also gives the episode writer freedom to KILL ONE OFF!!!

25 - A follow-up to episode 12, it sees a former coworker of that episode's Professor Daimon kidnapped by Birugenia in order to force him to make his own Road Sector type of super bike. This episode's mainly cool for a lot of motorcycle action and a night battle between Black and Birugenia. (This show, awesomely enough, has A LOT of night shoots. They sadly ease up on them later on, at the time in a series when Toei typically likes slashing budgets.) Black's and Birugenia's sped-up race is pretty cool, especially considering the small area of terrain they were covering -- they make the most of it they're able to. And where else are you going to see a death scene for a motorcycle? Kamen Rider Black's the only place, motherfucker.

I like that this episode kind of points out a crucial difference between Battle Hopper and Road Sector. Not just that Battle Hopper is cooler, but that Battle Hopper is alive, while Road Sector's basically a super-computer.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Henshin! Rider Black -- Kamen Rider Black episodes 16 - 20

16 - Golgom's plan for today is to set off earthquakes that will cause Tokyo to sink, as Koutarou teams up with Interpol officer Ryusei Taki to stop the plan. With Black being a modernization of classic Rider, it's a cool idea to bring in an ally like Taki. Kazuya Taki, of the original series, was played by Sonny Chiba's little brother Jiro, and was reliable ass-kicking backup for the Rider. Being just humans, there's a limit to how much either show's Taki can help the Rider, so there's always this big sense of the odds being stacked against the Rider -- even when he gets help, it's not much help. The post-Original Series Riders really lost the sense of danger the Riders could be in once they relied on having old Riders themselves guest star to help the latest show's Rider. Black, being the first Rider show to completely break free of any previous show -- standing on its own and in its own world -- brings back that sense of how much danger our hero faces by going it alone. Especially with the way they show him gaining a new ally, but one who can't stick around -- he has to leave the country by the episode's end.

So, on one hand, I'm glad Taki doesn't always just pop in, but on the other, it's strange to know he makes only one more appearance after this, after debuting with so much fanfare, and after they cast toku fan and special guest star Masaki Kyomoto. And Kyomoto is a get for the show, he's fairly high profile, and it's interesting that Taki knew Nobuhiko (so he knew OF Koutarou), and Koutarou's able to unburden himself with the details of Golgom and Nobuhiko's abduction and being a Rider. In a way, Taki fills not only the Taki position from the original series, but Toubei Tachibana's. It's interesting to cross those two characters, but considering that Black's last attempt at filling the Tachibana role lasted as long as Ryusei begin to realize what an unlucky bastard Koutarou is.

17 - A nice, back to basics episode -- the Golgom supernaturally messing with the Akizukis. This is the first time an episode has focused at great length on Kyoko. It's a shame the way Kyoko and Katsumi can be so underused when they have just as much emotional involvement in the overall storyline, and they're played by good, likable performers. Though underused, Kyoko and Katsumi bring such heart to the show, they're a far cry from the typical supporting female cast Rider has had up until this point, written as ditzes who say stupid stuff and faint at danger and who the Rider and Oyassan can laugh at and be like "Girl, get back in that kitchen!"

The Golgom priests realize there's something wrong with the cocooned Nobuhiko -- he's in pain and possibly dying in the conversion process -- and set out on finding a lifeforce to transfer to him. Their best choice is his kid sister, Kyoko, and they have the latest monster manipulate her dreams so they can get her to a place where she'll be able to hand over her lifeforce. That's the diabolical catch, for this to work, she has to willingly give it up, and the Golgom don't sugar coat it -- her soul/dreamself is right there at Golgom's lair, she encounters the priests, she sees Nobuhiko's cocoon, and Darom lays out that Nobuhiko's in pain and needs her life force, and she agrees because she can't stand to see her long-lost brother suffering.

When I first saw this episode, I actually worried about Kyoko. Her character was so underused, I did think that it was possible that they would write her off like this. And how tragic would that be? I don't see it as a cop-out that Koutarou saved her in time, but the show CAN be accused of copping out that she doesn't remember what happened when she wakes up. I chalk that up to the murkiness dreams can have, and that maybe something happened to her since she WAS in the process of having her life energy drained over to Nobuhiko.

18 - Aw, yeah, Birugenia arrives! And what an entrance he makes. It's awesome the way the Creation King orders the priests to break him out of his prison. What better way to introduce our new ass-kicking villain than having a creep like Darom, upon entering the graveyard-like area where Birugenia is sealed, be like "I had hoped I would never set foot in this dreadful place again."

Right away, Birugenia doesn't disappoint. He's a bad-ass, but he's also arrogant, and always making snide remarks to and about the Golgom priests. And, as much as I like those creepy Golgom priests, Birugenia was a shot of energy the show needed; there really needed to be an active villain, a physical threat. The Golgom priests are best left in the shadows, so it wouldn't have worked to make them take on Koutarou (though the show makes that mistake later), so Birugenia's a great addition to the show in that regard. That he lives up to his boasting as a great and fearsome warrior -- when so many similar types of character don't -- is great.

And Birugenia certainly kicks Koutarou's ass in this episode. But the episode isn't all cool villains and awesome battles, but it nicely and subtly addresses Kyoko and Katsumi's knowledge of Koutarou's secret life as a Kamen Rider. It's a secret Koutarou obviously didn't want them to know, but they're not stupid. Once again, the supporting female characters of Rider shows prior to Black WERE treated stupidly. Like, Oyassan -- whether Tachibana or Tani -- were SO much cooler and intellectual than the stupid women working for him that they didn't even need the Rider to tell them -- they just knew, they were so awesome. Like, it's complete and total, total bullshit in V3 that you're under the impression that Junko knows Shiro is V3 by episode three, but there's an episode near the series' end when she wonders if it could be, like, totally possible for Kazami to be V3. And to add insult to injury, Kazami pops up a millisecond after V3 rides off like "Stupid girl! How can I be V3," as he and Tachibana share a condescending laugh. Meanwhile, that Taki-wannabe twerp that pops up in the later portion of the show (Ken Sakuma) learns V3's identity like *that*, because he's smart and has a dong!

I liked how Black gave Kyoko and Katsumi some credit, even if the show could have done a little more with them, especially considering how far Hirohisa Soda was taking female characters over on Sentai. But there's just a nice little progression to their knowledge. Koutarou fills Kyoko in on all that's happened with Golgom in the second episode (sadly off screen), and Katsumi gradually finds out over time by just being around them so much. Here, Kyoko and Katsumi confirm that Koutarou IS Kamen Rider -- not Kamen Rider's friend, that old side-splitting explanation every superhero mistakenly thinks is sufficient -- but address it in an indirect way that still kind of honors Koutarou's wanting to keep it a secret, by telling Koutarou the words of warning and concern for well-being they would tell "Kamen Rider." Koutarou knows they know, and nothing more is said on the subject; they know, so give them some credit.

This episode also reveals that the squiggly mark on Black's chest is meant to represent a snake holding an orb in its mouth, which is the mark on Birugenia's shield and sword. You might have thought it was a stepped on question mark Black was sporting, but you're wrong, jokester.

19 - An entertaining episode that's a nice send-off for Susumu Kurobe; this is the one that writes Kuromatsu out of the series. Birugenia prevents the Golgom trio from executing Kuromatsu so that he can shapeshift into him and lure Koutarou into a trap, under the scenario that Kuromatsu is defecting. Koutarou is suspicious and Kurogenia always comes *so close* to killing Koutarou, but with the way he's always being interrupted, it becomes almost comical. I also think it's interesting when Koutarou tells Katsumi to call an ambulance for an obviously wounded "Kuromatsu," but she refuses because of his association with Golgom and his involvement with Nobuhiko (and Koutarou's) situation. Kurogenia thinks fast on his feet, though, and promises to give information on Nobuhiko -- that's what saves him.

So, from here out, the Golgom trio start to be used more. I've always been a bit disappointed that Rider never seemed to use its villains as regularly as Sentai -- where you could count on seeing villains like Neferu and Wanda regularly on the battle field fighting the Flashman, you never see, say, Marshall Armor fighting V3 on the field. So, I like the Golgom getting more screen-time on one hand, but on the other...I like them in the shadows and mysterious and being the string-pullers. It's weird to have them out in daylight, more active in their plans and dealing with Black.

Birugenia gives another nice beatdown on Black, proving himself as a formidable new foe, even fighting off Battle Hopper (NO!). There's a scene where he's fighting off Battle Hopper while having a blade at Black's throat, and Black uses some quick thinking and calls for Road Sector to blindside Birugenia. (I love that Birugenia's even like "You cheating little shit!") One of the few times I like the Road Sector, man.

And that last scene, with Koutarou reading about Kuromatsu's strange death in the newspaper...he was executed by Golgom, and that's the chilling, sinister side of Golgom that's great.

20 - A really lazy episode that doesn't mind making our characters look dumb. You expect more from an episode called "Rider's Grave" than a stupid plan to lure Koutarou into an abandoned house and fight some plants, but...that's what happens. Hard to believe it took two writers to bring us this stinky filler -- Noboru Sugimura and Ken'ichi Araki. I've already said that I'm not a Sugimura fan -- sure enough, this episode focuses on a random kid, like he loves to do -- and Araki will never live down writing that god-awful Tomato King episode of Jetman, as far as I'm concerned. There's worse episodes out there in tokuland, but this is lazy, Space Sheriff-y stuff that Kamen Rider Black is supposed to be beyond. At least the kaijin is creepy.

This is also the episode where the Golgom trio start to become obsessed with getting the King Stone back from Koutarou. It starts to become a repetitive Faiz-style "Give back those belts!" thing.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Black Action: Kamen Rider Black episodes 11 - 15

11 - This episode could have dialed up some of the gross-out factor, IMO. When too many Golgom monsters are starving and fighting over food, the priests decide to use humans to sprout a fruit for the monsters to eat. It's depicted in a way we've seen so many times in toku, with little branches and buds coming out of people's faces, but it IS a suitably ooky premise. Not an entirely groundbreaking episode, but it does end with Golgom having to put a lot of their monsters on ice since their new food supply is cut off by Black.

12 - Uehara's return as writer, and the last episode he writes of this series, and it's a crummy commercial. (Son of a bitch!) In 1987, Sentais were starting to get two mechas, so I guess some asshole at Bandai was like "Hey, what unnecessary thing can we give Kamen Rider?" and another asshole replied "Hey, how about a new bike!" Because Koutarou doesn't need it, and it's especially useless when they've just built up Battle Hopper's importance, and it's especially useless since the Road Sector really, really, really, really sucks, and it looks like some dumb leftover from Super 1.

So we end up with some junk you don't care about, about how some guy's dad built the Road Sector for Golgom, who wanted to mass produce them and use them for eeeeeeevvvvil, but the guy's dad didn't like that, so he went and hid in the mountains and left the Road Sector for his son (who was a pro biker), who then trains HIS son to use it, but...sorry, random assholes and their sons endorsing an ugly Bandai toy doesn't sell, so we need to end this story with that Kamen Rider motherfucker gaining ownership of this piece of shit. And that's just what happens. I'll give the episode this: at least the biker and his kid didn't die in order for Koutarou to end up with the bike. But this is the first time in the series that the Golgom priests have seemed kind of dumb. "Yeah, dude, this stupid, ugly motorcycle is the key to our victory!" It's probably this episode which causes me in my subconscious to think of Baraom as the weakest of the three Golgom priests.

One thing I do like about the episode, though, is how Koutarou wins over the biker and his son. Not only by repeatedly saving them from monster attacks (I do believe Koutarou led Golgom right to their hiding spot!), but by laying out how much Golgom's screwed him over. (The biker's dad and wife were killed by Golgom; Koutarou's lost two dads, a mother, a brother, his own humanity...) One thing I think Black does better than a lot of the Riders before it is highlighting Koutarou's sorrow and repeating what he's lost. I know some of this has to do with changes in television storytelling style between the early '70s and 1987, but in V3, he was only really in pain in the first two episodes and maybe once in every dozen episodes he'd bring up his family. A lot of those times, it was the NARRATOR who brought up his family. In Super 1, Kazuya literally forgets about his murdered space camp friends after the first episode. That's it. Nothing is ever said, and he's never given much of a beef with Dogma beyond "he's the hero, and he'll fight the monster bad guy dudes." (Dude doesn't even ever mention his martial arts buddies who get killed halfway through the show.)

Kamen Rider is a tragic character, he needs his pain like Batman needs his pain, and I think that's something that needs to be at the forefront of the character's motivation. That doesn't mean he needs to be moody or whiny -- Black conveys this with Koutarou just visiting a place he visited in the past with Nobuhiko, looking solemn, and hoping there comes a day when they'll both visit that spot again. Kyoko will look at siblings with sadness, Katsumi will look at lovers with envy -- these little moments add up and help sell the cost this has on the characters, it gives the show more consistency and flow and authenticity rather than perpetually rebooting and focusing on some random scientist who the Rider doesn't know, but gets involved with because a freaking Shonen Rider Scout happened to witness something and buzzed the base.

13 - The first episode to be written by Noboru Sugimura, who will go on to write a lot of Black's key episodes later, being named its second main writer. This is the first time Sugimura's written for Rider, and I think he only does ZO after Black -- he goes on to play a bigger role in Metal Heroes and Sentai in the '90s. Despite liking Dairanger and Kakuranger, I'm not a huge fan of Sugimura's writing. I feel like writers like Hirohisa Soda, Susumu Takaku and Toshiki Inoue were trying to advance toku writing styles, and that Sugimura takes toku a step back. His scripts really remind me of uber-formulaic '70s scripts, where an episode's focus would be on a kid or scientist-in-need of the week. What Sugimura brings that's uniquely his own is a trying too hard to be bizarre (that's certainly a problem with his Sentai shows). He uses gimmicks and oddness rather than cohesive storytelling to mask an outdated style that's regressing the genre. However, he's more or less reined in here, and I do like a lot of his Black episodes.

Nevertheless, this episode is kid-focused and bizarre. Golgom's latest monster, the crab monster, lays a ton of eggs, so Golgom sets out on kidnapping new mothers to care for the eggs. The eldest son of one of the mothers takes it upon himself to try to find the monster's lair and save his mother, so that's how Sugimura brings a kid into the spotlight. This isn't the most terrible episode ever, or even one of the worst toku plans, because there is something sinister about Golgom snatching mothers just released from the hospital for their own use, but it just doesn't make sense to me -- you'd think Golgom would want more harsh methods so the monsters would hatch and grow to be aggressive, but it's just the mothers speaking kind of soothingly to the eggs. Huh?

More proof that Sugimura is a '70s-style writer in disguise is that he has a scene where Black's training himself in a rocky quarry to find a new technique to beat the monster. Black doesn't have a Tachibana to help him out, though, he's on his own. Something else reminiscent of '70s Riders is the crab monster's attack, spraying a foam on its opponents. Also: Sugimura seemingly mistakes Koutarou for one of the '70s scientist Riders -- there's an unintentionally laughable scene where Koutarou's hanging out in his abandoned garage Rider Cave, analyzing a bit of the crab's evil foam. It just doesn't seem very Koutarou-like -- Hongou/1 is a man of science, guys like Kazami and Keisuke were scholarly. Koutarou's supposed to be more average, so it's just out of character for him to be whipping out a telescope and flipping through science textbooks.

A new technique brings updated Rider Punch and Rider Kick sequences, which just means a couple of altered, slower shots and extra Seizure Flash. (What this sequence really needed was to be slowed down, too. Avert the eyes!) This is the first time in a while I've rewatched Black, and I have to say, this is the first time that damn flashing has bothered me. I wonder if the difference is watching Black on an HDTV versus an old-styled TV. I don't know, but it sucks that I pretty much have to look away for his transformation and finishers -- two signature marks of tokusatsu, taken away.

14 - Golgom's plan for today is to wipe out Japan's tuna supply so Kuromatsu can create an extract which will power the episode's monster, which is a mammoth. The terror of Japan's fish supply being stolen or blocked or wiped out is a common threat to a number of tokus, but it's not really used here in a way like "It will ruin Japan's cuisine!" "It will bring down Japanese food businesses!" or anything like that. That would be Godneros' agenda. It's something that maybe Golgom early on would have considered, one of the convoluted ways of bringing down society. But, no, here it's just to power the monster. If you haven't noticed, Golgom's legitimate faces have been dwindling, and we pretty much only ever see Kuromatsu from here on (and he's getting the boot shortly, too). Kuromatsu was always the more over-the-top of Golgom's puppets, so I think that his hanging around while the others are phased out represents Black's early intention of being grounded gradually being abandoned with the villains becoming more fanciful.

The guest stars are a sushi chef and his son. The sushi chef pushes it, he's a little too comical for Black's grim world, but he and his son are at least likable performers. Still, you get that uneasy feeling that Black's starting to slip, and that it will soon become Super-1's second half (where Kazuya is barely in the show, and it's instead kid-focused). Probably the most memorable part of the episode is Katsumi and Kyoko taking the kid to the beach, where he has an annual tradition of setting flowers into the sea to honor his dead mother. This scene is mocked for Katsumi and Kyoko busting out into song -- Long Long Ago 20th Century, no less -- but it at least brings things back to Black's grim Earth! The son is mourning his mom and Katsumi and Kyoko take the time to honor Nobuhiko while they're at it.

One part I love, though, and it's brief -- Koutarou pulls up to a few farmers talking about the stolen fish dilemma. He listens in and butts in asking questions and one farmer is just, very quickly, like "Who are you?" and Koutarou just bulldozes over that, he Rider Sidesteps it. It's hilarious to me because Koutarou's been really bad about that -- he pulls up to accident scenes, crime scenes and just marches up to an official and asks them for the details, like he's a cop! This is something pretty much every Kamen Rider up until this point has done. And people usually just fill them in! Cops, paramedics -- they're happy to answer him, no questions asked! A lot of Sentai heroes get away with this, but a lot of Sentai heroes are government sanctioned or ex-cops or whatever, or it's known that they're heroes. And keep in mind that it's not like Koutarou has advertised he's Kamen Rider and that he's a superhero; he's just an average 19 year old, strolling up to a crime scene, "Hey, what happened?" In this episode, there's finally someone who's like "And who the fuck are you, exactly?" The way the actor says it, it HAD to be a comment on how often this happens. Thank you, writer Hisashi Yamazaki! Too bad you only write one more episode of this show.

15 - The show, for as much as it's gotten away from the quality and style from when it began, has up to this point at least been entertaining. This is the show's first real stinker, a completely unnecessary episode without any redeeming feature. It reminds me of those mid-20s episodes of Liveman, which give a stink of a staff like "Hey, can we go on vacation now? Oh, we have one more to churn out? *scribbles nonsense* There! Let's party!"

Kyoko's roped Koutarou into helping whip a kid's soccer team into shape. That's the first inkling that we have a generic episode on our hands. But, hey, unlike when this happened in Metalder, it works for Koutarou, since he's at least been shown to be a sporty guy, and into soccer. This conveniently leads Koutarou to Golgom's plan this week, which is a TV-Y7 version of Joker's plans in The Dark Knight to show society "naturally" turning on each other and becoming cruel when the chips are down. Shit, that might sound more interesting than what we got here, which is...a gym coach under Golgom's influence creating a really, really tough study group that turns on anyone who fails to meet their standard. Shit, that might even sound more interesting...

The whole episode is a kid being beaten by his class with gym equipment and typical ways the Japanese punish the bad kids of class, all under the influence of Golgom's evil turtle monster. Once this school is taken over, the Golgom will ship the turtle to other schools and recreate this wonderful plan. There's bad lighting out of Freddy's Nightmares, and at one point randomly, the kid of the week is somehow speaking to Koutarou through a soccer ball which Koutarou desperately tries to talk to, Cast Away-style, before it just floats away. It's...just bad. It could literally be the script of ANY tokusatsu from ANY era.

Sad note, this is the last episode where Koutarou wears the cool grey jacket and black gloves. It was a dark look that fit the dark tone this show was trying to have. He wears the white outfit from here on, and continues to do so in RX.

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'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 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! 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.