Kamen Rider is an incredibly important franchise to me and today marks its 50th Anniversary. There are objective reasons to care about Kamen Rider, it has a deep international cultural influence and fingerprints all over the modern conception of what a hero is. However, the real reason I love the franchise, the reason why it endures and what I want to highlight, is that it is constantly changing to meet the needs of the viewer.
Shotaro Ishinomori created something incredible and simple with the original Kamen Rider, a super hero template that could change with the times. Sure, the grasshopper imagery is iconic and often repeated. Sure, you should probably say henshin when you transform. Sure, belts just work as a toy and prop in most cases. At the end of the day though, Kamen means masked and Rider means rider and that’s all you need.
The base thrill of Kamen Rider is, like all super heroes, half a power fantasy and half wish fulfillment. We all want to be anonymous, highly skilled, and powerful with the ability to step in and solve others people’s problems. We also want someone to do that for us. With their powers, a Rider can be righteous and strike down evil. A Rider can also help someone without their powers, on a personal level they can look someone in the eye and support them. These dualities of Kamen Rider, Human and Hero, Power Fantasy and Wish fulfillment, are what endure.
This is important because Kamen Rider is for children. This is the case with Marvel, DC, Star Wars and most popular entertainment franchises. These characters are models of who we can be and friends we could use. Kamen Rider #1, Takeshi Hongo, is a genius at “science”, a world class racer, and has perfect trimmed hair. When he shows up in his low cut 70s shirts to defeat the evil forces of Shocker, it’s great because Japanese kids needed a cool modern hero of their own. This still resonates with adults years later because that desire to be known as or know your own hero never fades.
Kamen Riders aren’t bugs all that much anymore. Not all use belts or bikes. Ryotaro, the main character of Kamen Rider Den-o, is unlucky, and weak, needing other people to do the fighting for him most of the time. He is a hero of kindness and persisting, for being unashamed of needing help. Shinji, the main character of Kamen Rider Ryuki, is a big loud idiot who is often tricked by other people. He is a hero for not letting up when seeing injustice in the world. Takumi, the hero of Kamen Rider Faiz, is a real asshole who is quick to insult. He is a hero for finding fulfillment in the simple happiness of others. None of these characters would exist in the 1971 version of Kamen Rider. They exist now because they continue to address what people need- flaws that can exist in us and others yet don’t stop you from being a hero.
Kamen Rider has endured all these years because it’s a franchise that serves as a prompt for what hero is. Like comics and wrestling, real time passes in Kamen Rider, and as it responds to this meeting us and saying Henshin. The prompt for Kamen Rider is “Who do people need to smile at them now?”