In the mid-1980s I was introduced to Japanese live action tokusatsu super hero series by my friend Frank Strom, who was already an avid follower of the genre. I tended to gravitate more to the single hero programs such as Space Sheriff Shaider or Metaldar than the team shows. And the best such show of its era was KAMEN RIDER BLACK.
KAMEN RIDER BLACK was the latest in a line of live action shows spanning back to 1971, and devised by cartoonist Shotaro Ishinomori, who also created the popular manga and anime CYBORG 009. Unlike most of its predecessor series, BLACK didn’t have any connection to any of the previous shows. It was, in effect, a remake or updating of the original Kamen Rider concept.
KAMEN RIDER BLACK was Kotaro Minami, a young man whose birth occurred at the time of a solar eclipse. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised by the family of his best friend, Nobuhiko Akizuki, who was similarly born on that same day. Unbeknownst to Kotaro, Professor Akizuki is actually a minion of the evil cult of Golgum, who intend to use the two children to fulfill an ancient prophesy. On their nineteenth birthday, Kotaro and Nobuhiko are to be implanted with mystic Kingstones and transformed into cyborgs. One of the two is destined to usher Golgum into its ascendency, so they will fight to the death for this honor.
But at the last minute, Professor Akizuki has a change of heart, interrupting the surgery at a crucial point. As a result, Kotaro escapes with his memories and personality intact, while Nobuhiko is cast into a coma. Confronted by Golgum’s powerful mystic high priests, Kotaro discovers that he can transform himself into not Black Sun, their promised Century King, but rather Kamen Rider Black, an insectlike fighter who rides the anthropomorphic cycle Battle Hopper. As Kamen Rider Black, Kotaro dedicates himself to blocking Golgum at every turn, and to rescuing his step-brother Nobuhiko from their clutches.
Like most of the other tokusatsu series, KAMEN RIDER BLACK is a relatively silly show. It’s aimed primarily at young children. But comparatively, BLACK is a lot darker and more serious in its themes than most of these programs are allowed to become. This drama reaches its apex partway through the series, when Nobuhiko emerges from his coma transformed into the other prophesied Century King, Shadowmoon, an armored Kamen Rider by way of Darth Vader, and armed with the potent Satan Sabre.
In the manner of Peter Parker confronting the Green Goblin, Kamen Rider Black is drawn into successive conflicts with Shadowmoon, who is determined to fulfill the prophesy, and whom Black is desperate to restore to his former self.
What makes KAMEN RIDER BLACK so appealing begins with its lead actor, Tetsuo Kurata, who is able to make Kotaro likeable even while he is driven and intense. It was also produced at the very end of the era before computer graphics became the go-to special effect for this kind of show. Consequently, virtually all of the stunts, fights, trick motorcycle riding and action are created through the use of practical effects. And while it doesn’t have the budget of an A-list production, BLACK, as with most of these shows, doesn’t allow that to hold back its ambition. There’s an episode in which the three Golgum priests, having been transformed into powerful mutants by Shadowmoon, rampage through Tokyo in the manner of the three Kryptonian villains in SUPERMAN II. And the fact that you can instantly tell how everything is done takes nothing away from the verve with which the effects were all achieved. The how permits, if not demands, that you use your own imagination as a part of the process.
KAMEN RIDER BLACK was so popular that it spawned an immediate follow up, KAMEN RIDER BLACK RX. Tetsuo Kurata returned as Kotaro Minami, but he was the only member of the original cast to do so. Additionally, RX had a much lighter tone, more in keeping with the traditional Kamen Rider series, eschewing the darker cinematography and themes of BLACK. Consequently, it’s nowhere near as good, though the sequence of episodes at the end in which all of the previous Kamen Riders assemble to assist RX in his final battles with the Crisis Empire are thrilling even if you’ve never seen these other characters before. RX was also the show that was brought to the United States and used as the basis for MASKED RIDER, which was even dopier and lamer.