On a previous episode of RCR I spent a few minutes discussing what I saw as a huge difference in the style and substance of Kamen Rider series before 2009 and the airing of Kamen Rider Decade, and after 2010. I said during that cast that I would talk about this subject a bit more in-depth and that future is NOW. Click the read more to read like 10 million words.
(Just a quick little note – This isn’t a condemnation of post-Decade Kamen Rider at all, so don’t be sending in a bunch of hate mail asking me why I have such a smelly ass like usual, because I’m not even gonna cry this time. )
Let’s start at the beginning with Kamen Rider Kuuga and the things that made the series what it was and how that continued on throughout the early Heisei series and then we can get into the compare and contrast segment.
Kuuga was a rebuilding series after a decade and some change without a Kamen Rider series on the air. There had been several attempts to bring Rider to a modern audience before with movies like Kamen Rider ZO and Kamen Rider J as well as Croenenberg body horror snuff films like Kamen Rider Shin but none of them really captured the imagination of viewers in the same manner that the Showa Riders did. I believe this had a lot to do with trying to search for a viable tone that viewers could connect with and this plays a heavy part in why Kuuga was a success and reinvigorated the franchise.
Do you know what was most popular kind of show on television around the year 2000 in Japan? If you said character-driven drama shows then you understand where I’m going with this. Kuuga played heavily into the character-driven, thematically heavy J-Dramas of the time by casting a character the audience would care about in Godai Yusuke and giving him a cast of characters to play off of who would ground him in reality.
Plus he’s just so damn lovable!
Kuuga is a slow burn, as anyone will tell you, and that slow progression gives plenty of time for inter-personal stories to play out and for us to delve deeper into what makes Godai tick. The action can be rollicking as in any Rider series, but what makes the show work is Godai’s arc as a character and the manner in which other characters interact with him. This is most heavily communicated to the viewer through the cinematography. The tight camera shots on faces are no longer only done to show intensity and anger in dire situations as they were in Showa, they’re now done to give us Godai’s bright smile or Sakurako’s inquisitiveness and drive or even Ichijou’s confusion or his worry for his newfound friend. These elements are all communicated to us in a much less forceful, or should I say say action packed, manner than previous Rider series and that would continue to be a mainstay in the cinematography throughout early Heisei. For example – would we ever have known how bad the actors are in Blade if the camera wasn’t consistently plastered directly in their melodramatic faces?
Kuuga was also the first series to begin experimenting with camera angles, lighting, and what I like to call “mood cinematography” in a more independent film-making style. The scenes with the Grongi weren’t just a bunch of robed figures standing around in a dark room with a fog machine like Golgom in Kamen Rider Black (awesome as those scenes were), they were in our world surrounded by the trappings of normal life most of the time. This required the mood to be set by other means and that opened the doors to an artfulness in the direction of the series.
That’s probably the best way I can put my view on the direction in Kuuga, Agito, and parts of the following series during early Heisei and sprinkled throughout after: independent film-making. Not the french surrealist meandering black and white films with all the smoking and close-ups of eggs frying or whatever, but the really well-made low-budget movies on the indie circuit that were really trying to communicate something to the viewer beyond what the eye could see. These themes in early Heisei are all-encompassing from the cinematography, to the lighting, to the aesthetic choices of clothing, monsters, scenery, and especially in the script and acting. There was a care put into continuing the theme in early Heisei that wasn’t interrupted by the toy sales side yet. That care didn’t always translate to a good product in the end, or even a competent one, but it was certainly always an element. And sometimes the studio just chokeslammed the creator of a series the hell out the door and we have the second half of Hibiki.
This brings me to the crux of my point and that’s the fact that toy sales changed the face of Kamen Rider. Whether it’s for the better or worse is all a matter of opinion considered we’ve gotten some of the best Rider series in the history of the franchise since toy sales became the focal point of series creation.
Around the time of Kamen Rider Decade executives realized that the toy sales of previous series have been the main source of income and thus should be focused on more heavily. It’s not that this wasn’t true in the past – just look at how the Rider series in the middle of Heisei were so card-heavy during a time when every anime on the face of the planet Earth was all about card games or the like. However, the executives in charge realized that a standardization of the manner in which Rider was shot, acted and progressed could be helpful in the sales department around the same time. This becomes a big factor in the divide.
The style of early episodes of Decade are actually tonally quite different than latter episodes of the series if you have a keen, inquisitive eye and far too much time on your hands as I did back then. Early episodes carry over some of that thematic and cinematographic focus that the previous series had so ingrained in the manner in which they were presented (so perhaps the divide isn’t so much at Decade as half-way through Decade). The latter episodes become much more standard in the way they’re filmed and the action begins to drive the show instead of theme. Thankfully this doesn’t continue all throughout the proceeding years.
Pictured: Fuck and Marry. Not Pictured: Kill
Now Kamen Rider Double is one of my favorite shows of all time but the way in which it was filmed doesn’t have the same type of avant-garde artistry or dutch camera angles and strange lighting that early-Heisei does. This could honestly be a shift in the tastes of Japanese film-makers or audiences but it seems directly tied into the manner in which the shows wanted to present themselves either way. The storyline was quite episodic to begin with, built up to a more definitive story, had somewhat of a focus on the characters throughout and had parts of the show driven by the action instead of starting out with an over-arching story from episode one, focusing almost exclusively on the character interaction and progression, and having long stretches without much action at all as in early Heisei. You might recognize the former bullet points as being true in almost every post-Decade series – except for Wizard where the characters aren’t focused on that heavily because they’re all cardboard cut-outs of people that the crew move around with a complex system of pulleys.
OOO carried over the looser themes and bright daytime flat-angled cinematography of Double as well as the focus on the characters sometimes giving way to the action more heavily, but it was distinctly its own series with its own themes and its own tone. The drastic differences in the manner in which series were filmed and written before Decade seemed to be replaced with a more Super Sentai manner of filming where every series stands on its own because of its thematic and, for lack of a better term, gimmick differences. One person could watch both Double and OOO and hate one of them and love the other but it would probably not have anything to do with the way either of them were directed or filmed outside of the direction of characters. Meanwhile one person could watch Faiz and Blade and hate one of them entirely based on the fact that Faiz has so many camera angles that could make the viewer feel somewhat ill and seems to look faded and desaturated color-wise while Blade has a bit more vibrancy and difference in color palette between scenes and tends to shy away from the dutch angles. That’s just not something you would hear about a newer series, I would hazard.
Kamen Rider Gaim might be the exception to the progression of story rule set by the studio after Decade. It meanders a bit into episodic territory here and there but the over-arching story is present and clear throughout all of it and every episode brings you a few steps closer to the conclusion of it. This is much more pre-Decade Heisei than the other shows of the time and that might influenced by how much of a fan of those early Heisei shows, as well as Kamen Rider Black, that Orobuchi was. Still, in interviews Orobuchi has gone on record stating that the theme of fruit and samurai was given to him up front when he signed on as well as all of the designs of the toys and he simply had to write his series around them. This could have been going on as early as Ryuki for all I know, but it seems like a stark contrast.
In the end this is all just opinions and rambling, nearly-incoherent ones at that. We can’t really be certain of the way the studio operates from the outside looking in. Nor can we be sure that all of this drastic switch in style and content wasn’t just a period of directors and cinematographers coming in with a vision to create a series like the ones we’ve had and that Ghost’s crew won’t come in and bring us back to the slanted angles and dark shadows of Agito or Kiva.
In the end, I’m probably full of shit. Thanks for reading!