Tuesday, October 6, 2020

To Shin, with Love

Since the mid '90s -- probably even longer -- Kamen Rider's always had the reputation of being the "dark, brooding, mature, adult" tokusatsu. I was a Sentai kid of the '80s; I saw very little of Kamen Rider Black and remembered even less about it beyond commericals. When I finally tracked all these funky shows down via the power of the internet, my priority was diving into Sentais I missed. But the talk of this TV-MA-it's-so-grow'd-up Kamen Rider had me interested...

This was the late '90s. Kamen Rider had had only three new "movies" (two shorts and a DTV, fercryinoutloud); the last show was RX. Before that, Black, which I knew of. Before Black? A bunch of really old-looking shows. For me, toku shows from before the ones I grew up with in the mid-1980s seemed really old, and it took me a while to get accustomed to them. So I remember ordering the first volume of Black and the '90s movies.

I liked Black, but it wasn't exactly the SUPER DARK, BLEAK, ADULT! show people painted it and the franchise to be. The way people built up this franchise, they acted like all Sentai was Go-onger and to jump into Rider would be like jumping to GARO. I don't remember what order I watched Shin, ZO and J in, but I was initially bored by ZO and I HATED J. (I still hate J, really. I've come to like ZO's style but find its story is bare-bones, to put it kindly.) When I saw Shin, I was like, "Now THIS is more like what I had in my mind when people kept building up Rider." Before seeing the movie, I knew from his design that I'd like it, because it was just so different and monstrous and cool.

I've liked Shin from the first moment I saw it. Funny that Rider fans loathe the movie and reject it even though it was, at the time, the best representative of all of their claims regarding the franchise. Sure, it had infamy for the scene when Shin rips Goujima's head off, but for the most part, it was denounced as being a bad movie and un-Rider.

Being a big horror fan, the movie drew me in right from its start -- a couple in a parked car at night being bloodily slaughtered by a freak monster that can only be found in tokusatsu. (Meaning, it looked like a slasher, but instead of some dude in a lumberjack's outfit and a mask, it's a creatively designed, well-made monster suit. It even upends the slasher cliche by having that couple be undercover cops trying to capture the killer!) From then on, I was hooked. The movie doesn't have the highest budget. It has more than a few flaws, but I came away from it feeling pretty satisfied, wishing there was more to the adventure...

It wanted to be darker, edgier, and for adults. A genuinely great and inspired idea for an anniversary project: reward the longtime fans who grew up with Kamen Rider by giving them a for-adults take on the character and make a sincere attempt to ground the franchise, take it more seriously, make it more realistic. The movie was ambitious, but you can tell there's still an amount of fear involved, hence its low budget and the decision to have it be a direct-to-video release. (And while DTV releases don't have the exact same stigma in Japan that they do in America, they still aren't given the attention and don't have the amount of money poured into them the way a theatrical does.) 

To me, though, the low budget kinda helps in giving the movie a darker look, a closed-in feel that keeps things smaller scale -- personal. The dark way it's lit, things often being given an off, blueish tint...it's something that's lost when they spruced the movie up for Blu-ray. A lot of the lighting was intentional; the movie's meant to be dark and in the shadows, give it a mood and make it more suitably horror-like. Sometimes with restorations they just care about getting the crispest picture possible and will (wrongly) alter what was the filmmakers' original stylistic intentions. And, funnily enough, it's often horror movies that suffer when given the Super-Hyper-Ultra HD remastering treatment. Of course, you want to see your movie, but when you're turning the sharpness to 100 and brightening the picture so much it takes away all of its original darkness, what you're doing is ruining it, not remastering it.

Kamen Rider's always had horror in its DNA, and it's something the regular shows never delve into enough for this fan. So I love that Shin basks in it. Not only because of its gore (this movie probably has the highest body count of any tokusatsu) but the themes and its dark, visual style. It embraces the essence of Ishinomori's character -- the young man, cut down at the prime of his life, a pawn and guinea pig for a nefarious organization, a monster clinging to his remaining humanity and soul. Also, he rides motorcycles. Shin's obviously influenced by the types of quiet, intense, cerebral, introspective works of body-horror by the likes of David Cronenberg. (It's probably the only superhero movie Cronenberg would like.) It's the closest a tokusatsu has come to being a mood piece. I don't think it seems quite like any other toku project. It's its own unique thing.

Replacing the Nazi-based occultists responsible for capturing and transforming our hero is a more modern criminal organization using scientific research as a cover for their experiments. All in the name of curing some of the world's deadliest diseases, the organization is really trying to find a way to make the best supersoldiers to sell. But one really cool part of this movie? It still has some of that occult feel of the original series since renegade doctor Onizuka is shown to be dabbling in the occult, experimenting on and TRANSFORMING HIMSELF...! He's the one responsible for causing Shin's mutation because he wants a partner in crime and wants to start the next stage in evolution to overthrow the order of the world.

I love that what kicks off the movie's storyline is Shin's fear that his nightmares aren't nightmares but acts of violence he commits in his sleep. It reminds me of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, where Freddy Krueger made the main character sleepwalk and kill for him; the character dreamt of crimes he'd later find out were real. No, that movie doesn't have a silly gay metaphor. Like Shin, it's about the fear a person has about the potential within them to commit violence, potentially hurting the ones they care about. Shin's not afraid to go extra dark, though, and acknowledge the violence a person is capable of, that beast within -- the first time Shin henshins of his own will in this movie, it's to brutally kill human villain Himuro after he gunned down Shin's pregnant girlfriend, Ai. (Fun fact: Shin doesn't even transform until the movie's 50 minutes in.)

Shin dreams of the crimes and murders, fearing that he's responsible, eventually learning that he's seeing them through the true culprit, Onizuka, since they share a telepathic link. Onizuka's insane and a horrible person, but I always found there to be something sad about the way he calls to Shin for help when he's being hunted and then burnt alive by the CIA. That leads to Shin's first transformation, his sharing the pain and fear along with the transformed Onizuka. And while Shin retains control of his faculties while transformed, the fact that he, too, is a monster puts him next on the CIA's kill list.

Shin's between a rock and a hard place. His torments don't let up throughout the movie. Knowing that his father's work has led to people's deaths in the past, he volunteers to be his dad's newest guinea pig to spare anybody else. He doesn't know the extent of his father's research. So you can't really fault his choice. I think it's pretty heroic but also damning. He loses his humanity and everyone he loves because of it! He's thrown into a war with the shady organization behind the experiments, the CIA and their myriad conspiracies. Who can he trust?

Actor Katsuhisa Ishikawa (presently known as Shin Ishikawa -- no kiddin') is often given flak for being stiff in the movie, but I think he's just a different kind of lead giving a different kind of performance for what's meant to be a different kind of Kamen Rider. Remember, the movie wants to be grounded and realistic. You can't have one of tokusatsu's usually larger-than-life, grandiose performances from someone like Hiroshi Fujioka, Hiroshi Miyauchi or even Tetsuo Kurata. They wanted someone realer, and I think Ishikawa succeeds in making Shin real. He's lost, scared, and doesn't know where to go. His performance isn't loud or over-the-top. His Shin is a very sorrowful, very withdrawn man. Introspective, going over all of his torments in his mind. No bombastic speeches, no on-the-nose dialogue about what he's thinking or feeling. It's mostly all internal. And, c'mon. The dude actually changed his name to Shin in real life! That's dedication. (And he changed it well after the fact; he says he got tired of people not knowing how to pronounce his first name, so he changed it to Shin, since that's what he's best known for.)

What I think gives people the perception that Ishikawa is stiff is because he doesn't get teary or blubbery in scenes that call for it. Certainly, when Ai dies, you'd expect the actor to break down for at least that moment. But I think not having Shin be THAT emotional is a choice, either by Ishikawa or the production. They wanted to focus more on Shin's anger and anguish and physical pain. I think, wanting to be so grounded, wanting to be the "true" representation of the classic hero, and with the Shin character being older, that there might have been some hesitance to make him cry on top of it all. Not only for fear of emasculating him but to maybe avoid potential theatricality. Look at the poor actor from A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 -- he lets it rip and isn't afraid to cry or scream or do anything to convey his character's horror and pain, and he's been unfairly made fun of for 35 years now.

I used to consider Shin's dad, Daimon, one of the movie's villains. Even though Shin volunteers for his experiments -- Daimon doesn't force him like some other past crazy Rider fathers -- it always seemed harsh to me that Daimon knew of his past failures, and yet still kept pursuing his research AND allowing his son to be involved. But Akira Ishihama gives the character this really tired, weary, put-upon aura. You can tell Daimon's a man who doesn't have the say or the power he believes he has, that he's pressured into continuing his research. He's forced into it, another pawn of the organization. Unlike his coworkers, though, he does have a genuine interest in the research as a means to benefit the world.

Similar with Ai, Shin's love interest. I used to think of her as a bit villainous, but she's really just naive. She's used as a way to keep tabs on Shin but ends up falling in love with him. She tries her best to eventually be honest with Shin, but it's a little too late. She herself isn't aware of just how far the organization she works with will go to reach their goals. She knows what their goals are, but still thinks they're capable of listening to reason or being fair. Actress Yumi Nomura perfectly conveys a quiet, hurt, haunted quality to the character, for all of the guilt Ai feels for her part in Shin's pain and what he's going through, his transformation. One of my favorite parts in the movie is Ai's first sighting of the transformed Shin; she nearly runs him over in her car, before getting out and instinctually recognizing the monster as Shin, running to him, embracing him, apologizing in tears as the mutate then embraces her. It's well acted, shot nicely at night. (This movie has a lot of great night shooting, which is appropriate for its mood and atmosphere.)

Mother and child.

This was suit actor Jiro Okamoto's third time playing the lead in a Rider. His second role, really, since Black and RX were the same character. But he does such an awesome job as Shin, perfectly capturing that he's just an ordinary man, but he also throws in these little inhuman, monstrous, bestial movements -- and his Berserker Rages are awesome. Okamoto will throw in these great touches; after he slaughters Himuro, he's hunched over, beast-like. But he slowly starts to stand upright as he looks over and sees his dad and Ai; the violent outburst was primal, but then he slowly regains his composure, standing tall as a human. It's something that occurs in, like, five seconds of screen time, but it conveys a lot...and that's Okamoto's skills and dedication. 

Kazutoshi Yokoyama is Goujima's cyborg form, while Jiro Okamoto is Kamen Rider Shin.

And I love the Shin design, it's a perfect realization of a grasshopper monster but still stylized and such a well-crafted suit that really does its job in conveying a grasshopper's body and skin coloring with its detailed painting. Nori Maezawa and Rainbow really outdid themselves with the quality of suit craftsmanship in this movie, but especially with Shin. And I love all of the various dummy heads they made for Shin, in order to let him have different reactions and expressions, it really adds to the realism and makes the transformed Shin seem that much more alive, that transformed he's a living being and not just a mask.

Along with Akira Ishihama, veteran actor Daijiro Harada was considered a bit of a get for this movie. As the movie's main villain, Himuro, Harada makes for a great, slippery villain. Eager to turn on the charm and tell you what you want to hear, he's sharpening the knife behind his back. You just hate the guy and might be a little too happy when Shin murderizes him. And Kouki Kataoka as the unstable Professor Onizuka makes for another entertaining villain; Kataoka's just one of those skilled character actors who can ace deranged, madman monologues about grasshopper-man civilizations.

The movie is also the last time we've seen Kiyomi Tsukada in a toku. I don't understand why fans don't like her more. She was likable in Machineman and Juspion, and even memorable and funny in an episode of Shaider. I liked her, and it's nice to see her in this more serious role of CIA agent Sarah Fukamachi. I like that Sarah herself is pulled between her feelings and her duty -- she recognizes that Shin is good, unlike Onizuka, but she's following orders and still hunts him down. She's tough as nails and even fights past being shot up multiple times in order to still try and take down the helicopter carrying Shin...with a freakin' bazooka! (It's easy to make fun of all of the English they give her, but...Tsukada's supposedly lived in America and has taught English in Japan. I don't think her English is bad, I think she was told to deliver the lines slowly, and it leads to some strange word emphasis.)

The most fanciful the movie gets is in its depiction of Shin and Ai's unborn baby. (The official name Toei gives it? It used to just be "mutant baby," but now it's the creative "Rider Baby.") In a movie of this type, perhaps it was a mistake to show the baby, especially how it displays its power by emitting a golden glow from Ai. I do like the depiction, the design of the baby -- an ordinary human infant, but it has the third eye, and its back is the cocooned wings of a grasshopper -- but I think it's shown too much. I think they should have dialed back the SFX. (It's curious that longtime SFX director Nobuo Yajima was chosen to handle this movie's effects. A movie trying to be so fresh and different, you'd think they would have gone with a newer guy, someone like Hiroshi Butsuda, who had just taken over Super Sentai, or Katsuro Onoue, who ended up taking over the Metal Heroes.) I think it unfortunately has become something to mock about this movie when...it's a decent idea. And it's highly unconventional to depict the hero and heroine of a toku to have a child so early in their romance. (Read: out of wedlock. Sinning heathens!)

Back in the day, people rejected this movie for being too dark and different. Modern viewers now mock it. (Because they want their Kamen Riders to dance and dress up in fruit armor.) I liked the ambition of this movie, the genuine desire to take it so seriously. It's not done in a pretentious way, just a way of "Let's make Kamen Rider...but as real as possible. What would that be like? What would that feel like? What does that do to a person?" It's important to remember just how new and different this was at the time, how BOLD. Some people accuse it of a slow pace, but I like that it's an actual MOVIE-length movie, and that it's willing to take its time. Is it flawless? As much as I love the movie, no. But they made ten times the effort than they have in the past 15 years of Rider. The creators dived into their vision, sticking to their guns, telling the story they wanted to tell.

Late actor Reiji Andou makes for a memorably creepy and formidable foe as Goujima.

I've taken lumps for saying this, but I still say Shin paved the way for the Heisei Rider shows as we know them. (People are like "OMG, Shin flopped, how could it inspire the successful new shows?! Ultraman Tiga did!" Yeah, yeah...) But look at its grounded, realistic approach. That's what Kuuga tried for, filtered through an American drama style. Kuuga was even more fanciful. Shin strives for human, believable characters in an adult drama. Something like Kuuga was filled to the brim with too-hard-to-believe dudley do-rights, while subsequent shows like Ryuki or Faiz would lean more into heightened dramatics or even just melodrama. These shows had to play up the Kamen Rider character's being a superhero; Shin was free of that, but that doesn't mean the character doesn't have the capacity for being heroic.

There's also eschewing the typical type of song used for a toku theme for an emotional, orchestral song by mainstream idol Noriko Watanabe. "Forever" could have easily been a regular tune on the radio at the time; it's not just any ordinary anisong. It's a strong, melancholic song that I think is sung from the point of view of Ai. "Never forget your promise," one of the lyrics, obviously tying back to Ai's dying request asking that Shin take care of their baby. So, it's a really depressing song to be called "Forever" when it's, in my opinion, from the point of view of the doomed Ai. I'd really love for Watanabe to pop up at some Rider anniversary concert and perform the song sometime, but there's probably a better chance of TOM showing up somewhere to do the SD theme.

Ten years after Shin, Noriko Watanabe cameos in the franchise's 30th anniversary movie, Project G4.

And there's also the fact that some people who went on to be crucial staff members of the Heisei Rider series worked on this movie, including: Shinichiro Shirakura, sub-producer of this movie and chief producer of most of Phase 1 Heisei Rider shows; action-directors Osamu Kaneda and Kazuyoshi Yamada are the guys behind Kuuga and Agito's action, with Kaneda becoming a regular director of many Rider shows; designers Tamotsu Shinohara and Yasushi Nirasawa worked on the film in minor capacities.

Let's take a look at the movie's key staff members here...

The executive producer is Katsushi Murakami, the genius Bandai artist who's responsible for all of your favorite heroes if you're a '70s, '80s or '90s toku kid.

The planner of the project is longtime Toei producer Susumu Yoshikawa. Yoshikawa had already modernized Kamen Rider with Kamen Rider Black. He's the guy who was mortified that Kamen Rider was being parodied and pulled the plug on the franchise. So you know he's someone who takes things seriously. (RX was an unfortunate misstep.) Why haul out Rider so soon after mothballing it, if it was now a subject of parody? I always wondered if this movie was somehow inspired by the juggernaut success of Tim Burton's Batman. That movie itself rode the darker wave comics were taking at the time. So I kind of wonder if the thinking at Toei was, "Hey, let's take Japan's Batman equivalent and treat it as seriously as that movie." (Shin Kamen Rider: so dark, it's from the DC Universe.)

It's awesome that Shin utilizes make-up and prosthetic work when regular toku shows don't have the time or budget to do so. Also, it's really Ishikawa behind the make-up, when it could have easily been a double.

The movie's producers on Toei's side is Nagafumi Hori and the already mentioned Shirakura. Hori started as a director, but moved to producing, mostly doing the late '80s and '90s Metal Hero shows. You can tell he wanted to give the shows a more polished look, wanting them to look like regular drama shows on the surface.

Shin's director is Makoto Tsuji, who directed a lot of Metal Hero episodes in the '80s, but I always associate him with being the director of the first few episodes of Spielban and Jiraiya, which both have a unique, sweeping, big-scale dramatic feel to them. He also did the first two awesome episodes of Blue SWAT, which were so good, they edited them together and made them the show's theatrical short. Grounded, intense action in that show. Most importantly, Tsuji directed episodes 2 and 3 of Kamen Rider Black, which leaned heavily into dark, eerie horror vibes and imagery. Who can forget Koutarou and Nobuhiko's doomed birthday party?

Sharing writing duties are Jun'ichi Miyashita and Jou Onodera. Miyashita's done most work in the '90s Metal Heroes, but he handled a big chunk of Black's second half, a lot of its stronger episodes. Onodera is Shotaro Ishinomori's eldest son, the son who convinced his dad to make Kamen Rider a grasshopper in the first place, so who better than to help write the Kamen Rider who is the most grasshoppery you can make him? There used to be rumors that Jou Onodera has disagreed with his brother Shou Onodera -- an Ishimori Pro staff member, credited as "supervisor" for every Heisei Rider series -- about the direction the franchise has taken. If true, I take this to mean that Jou, as an admitted huge Kamen Rider fan, is a little protective of the character and his father's work, that he cares for the integrity of the character. So, again, who better than to help write what's supposed to be the TRUE/SHIN Kamen Rider?

I, of course, have to mention Keita Amemiya's involvement. He did some concept designs (the Level 2 cyborg is his design, which is such a cool and gruesome opponent) and storyboarded and oversaw the filming of the henshin sequences for the heroes and villains. (Shin's transformations, the length of the sequences and the pain the character endures, have to be more than a little inspired by An American Werewolf in London.) I know a lot of fans critical of this movie wished Amemiya had directed it (and some are under the impression he did), but I don't think he works well at emotional pieces. He's definitely more interested in the style and the visuals. So he was perfect for follow-up movie shorts like ZO and J. Those two movies were intended to be short, stylish, non-stop rides and were made in reaction to Shin and the criticisms against it for being slow-paced and too serious and so on.

Keita Amemiya's original concept for Goujima's cyborg form included a spider motif. A shame the idea was abandoned, since spider-kaijin are the traditional first opponent for a Kamen Rider to face.

I've already touched upon Noriko Watanabe's heartfelt theme song for the movie, but I'd hate to not mention the movie's BGM. Composers Ryudo Uzaki, Kaoru Wada, Takefumi Haketa and Yoshihiro Matsuura are credited for the soundtrack. It's a soundtrack I've always taken for granted, because I never noticed how truly great it is until I listened to the album. There are some seriously terrific, suprisingly big and stirring orchestral pieces which belie its DTV budget and genre trappings, but there are also some brief, sharp, jolting horn pieces which appropriately recall some horror soundtracks by the likes of Harry Manfredini. There's differing styles, from all of those different composers, but none of it ever clashes or feels out of place. They're woven into the movie well.

If you want a more polished version of Shin Kamen Rider, I'd recommend Ultraman The Next. I think there are a lot of similarities between the two. I really like The Next, but I find it to be even slower paced, and it's really only most rewarding when you have a knowledge of early Ultraman and even Ultra Q. Also, the Ultraman franchise has always played it a tad too safe for its audience and is too afraid to depict its human characters in too negative of light. Kamen Rider's world is a harsher, more cynical one. Rider used to not be too afraid to show characters' flaws or have them be antagonistic or villainous or lethal. And something about The Next makes it feel even smaller scale and more insulated than Shin, when it's dealing with cosmic events and giants! (Another superhero movie that reminds me of Shin in tone? Ang Lee's Hulk. I have a strange fascination with that movie, but it definitely falls into the "pretentious" side of things.)

Shin takes things seriously, it wears its heart on its sleeve, and that leads to things that make today's viewers either laugh it off or dismiss it. I've always thought people should be more open-minded with Shin. If fans were more open-minded, maybe the movie would have had a better chance back in the day. But it dared to be different, and people get too hung up on the small things, like Kamen Riders should always have a belt and a henshin pose and a scarf and speechify about justice. This movie was meant to be the first in a series. This was the "prologue." Where could it have gone?

Contrary to popular belief, Toei claims this movie *wasn't* a failure, that it made enough in video sales to justify a follow-up. Nevertheless, the movie was so controversial, was so off-putting to a lot of fans, that Toei just wanted to go back to what's expected of the franchise, deciding to focus on the more traditional and glossy ZO instead of a new Shin adventure. If Shin had had a follow-up, Ishinomori wanted to give him a new form -- a regular looking motorcycle suit and helmet, which was an unused idea for Kamen Rider Shin in the Prologue itself. It's reminiscent of his Kamen Rider Black manga, in which Koutarou would don an ordinary motorcycle suit and helmet in order to keep fighting Golgom at times when his power would be maxed out. I always liked that idea (and obviously, Ishinomori did, too), so it would have been cool to see something like that in a movie. (And since Shin would be wearing a mask, it would make him an even TRUER Kamen Rider. Ever stop to think that none of the Showa Riders really wear masks? They turn into their remodified monster forms. That's not masked! G3 is the closest to the "truest" Masked Rider AND that motorcycle-gear-dress-up idea of Ishinomori's, eh?) It would be even more interesting to me if Shin was meant to put this costume on over his monster form -- masking the monster in order to save people, but not frighten them.

I remember a fan in the '90s thinking a further Shin adventure would have looked like the '70s Incredible Hulk TV series -- a Shin on the run, trying to track down the organization, hunted and feared because of his being a monster. The logical thing to do at this point would be pick up Shin's story with his now adult child. (The gender's not known, it could be a daughter -- Aiko.) A real missed opportunity was to bring Shin back in around the time of W. Why? Shin's villain organization is just referred to "zaidan" -- organization/group/foundation. W's ultimate villains ended up being "Zaidan X" -- Foundation X. You could have had it be they were the new incarnation of the "zaidan" Shin fought or a rival faction. But, nooooooo, let's just forget about yucky old Shin, because that movie was too serious and he didn't say "henshin!"

Ishikawa would be up for reappearing, you know it. The dude's pushing 60, but he still looks pretty much the same. As much as I like the comedic short they made about Shin to promote the Decade movie (imagining a world where Shin was a hit and beloved by kids), a new movie -- that promised next chapter -- which catches up with Shin, made with the same seriousness and intensity, would be a mind-blowing shock. But Toei is no longer courageous or bold enough to take the risk. I guess I should be grateful that there was a time where they were bold enough to make this one. The new charge could learn a lot from Yoshikawa, Hori, Tsuji, Jun'ichi Miyashita and Jou Onodera.

It might have been a flawed experiment, one that fans were cold towards, but I always appreciated what it attempted. It's underrated. It's overlooked. It's unappreciated. *It's unique.* I think it honors the tortured, horror side of Ishinomori's creation. And, hey, it beats the henshin outta The First.

If this is your POV, say your prayers.

If you're a fan with an open-mind and you haven't seen it, it's currently on Toei's Tokusatsu World YouTube channel, uncut, subbed and free.