I’ve heard many people call Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy, the Walt Disney of Japan. (I’d say a better comparison might be Will Eisner but that’s a discussion for another time.) If we’re going to call Osamu Tezuka Japan’s Walt Disney then I think it would be safe to call Shotaro Ishinomori Japan’s Stan Lee. However, Ishinomori was also an artist in his own right and is probably more like an amalgam of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
One of Ishinomori’s longest lasting creations, and my personal favorite is Kamen Rider. Kamen Rider began 1971 and grew out of an attempt to adapt his manga Skullman. Kamen Rider debuted nine years after Spider-Man. Early Kamen Rider feels very much like an attempt to translate that sort of Marvel style hero to a Japanese audience. Like Spider-Man and Ben Grimm (aka The Thing), Kamen Rider 1 or Ichigo is a bit of brooder who sees his powers as something of a curse. He was a genius biochemistry student and motorcycle racer named Takeshi Hongo who is kidnapped by an evil organization called Shocker and transformed into a cyborg. Ichigo escapes from his creators and proceeds to wage a war on them and their grotesque creations.
The first Kamen Rider series establishes all of the elements that tie the various Kamen Riders of the next 45 years together. Each of them uses a belt to transform between their normal human forms and their armored Rider forms, rides a motorcycle and dispatches enemies with a flying kick. The first Kamen Rider has a grasshopper motif. His helmet’s large faceted eyes, and bug-like mouth or “crusher” were carried over into the helmet designs of nearly every subsequent Rider. The most important feature of a Kamen Rider is that their powers must be connected to their enemies in some way. If they aren’t outright created by their enemy then a Kamen Rider must, at least, draw their power from the same source as their foes. This is a common theme across a number of Ishinomori’s works. Many of his characters act as a sort of heroic Frankenstein’s monster.
There have been over 25 Kamen Rider series over the years and they can be divided into two or three eras depending on who you talk to. The first era, the Showa era, spans from the 1971 Kamen Rider to the 1988 Kamen Rider Black RX. The Showa era encompasses every series produced in Inshinomori’s lifetime. The Heisei era starts with the 2000 revival series Kamen Rider Kuuga and continues either to the present day or until the 2009 Kamen Rider Decade. Whether or not you count it as the end of an era or not, Decade is definitely a point where the franchise changed. The Showa era series had a loose continuity but the Hesiei era was largely unconnected. Decade is a massive crossover of all the series and ends with the creation of the new universe in which some version of all Kamen Rider series are canon.
Early Kamen Rider merchandise was handled mainly by Popy, a subsidiary of Bandai. Their Popy World Heroes line included figures for the first Kamen Rider, Sky Rider, V3, and Super-1 as well as a few villains from the Skyrider series like General Monster and Kumojin (most riders fight a spider monster in their first appearance and Kumojin is Sky Rider’s take on the tradition). They also produced a carrying case in the shape of a Kamen Rider Ichigo bust. The Popy World Heroes line was initially conceived as a way to import Kenner’s now iconic 3 ¾” Star Wars figures. Those figures were unsurprisingly, quite popular and inspired Popy to start making figures for Japanese properties in the same scale.
Popy might be most well known for their Chogokin diecast figures of various mecha. Some readers might be more familiar with Mattel’s Shogun Warriors and Bandai America’s GoDaiKin figures both of which were attempts to sell Chogokin figures in the West. Despite being known mostly for titanic super robots the Chogokin line gave us quite a few Riders over the years. The first was the lizard-like Amazon Rider (a concept that was just recently revived for a web-series called Kamen Rider Amazons). Popy also produced Chogokin figures of Ichigo, Kamen Rider Stronger, Sky Rider, and Super-1.
The early Chogokin designs were blocky and bulky. This worked perfectly for adapting giant robots like Mazinger Z and his ilk but didn’t do the sleeker Kamen Riders and their fully human proportions much justice. However, Chogokin’s sister line, Popinica, was a much better fit. Popinica was focused on vehicles. So instead of producing weirdly proportioned takes on the riders themselves, they produced rather accurate takes on their rides.
The Chogokin line proved popular enough to continue even after Popy was reabsorbed by Bandai in 1983. Bandai’s Chogokin line produced a number of figures based on Kamen Rider Kuuga and redid a few of the classic riders like Amazon and Stronger.
Popy’s biggest contribution to Kamen Riders legacy and success are the DX Henshin Belts. The belts and the henshin action they facilitate are one of the core features of the Kamen Rider franchise. The DX Henshin Belts were child-sized replicas of these essential accessories. Popy produced one for each rider from the first up to Super One. The only exception from time is Kamen Rider ZX, the star of a tenth-anniversary crossover TV special.
Kamen Rider has a lot of charms and would have stuck in the popular consciousness no matter what but I don’t believe it would have the longevity it has without these toys. These sorts of role-play toys have become a huge part of the Kamen Rider franchise. With each successive series the marketing of these toys have become a bigger and bigger part of the shows themselves. Now each series not only has at least two riders with their own belts and weapons but also a line of collectible accessories that can be used with the belts, like Kamen Rider Fourze’s Astro Switches and Kamen Rider Gaim’s Lockseeds. Much like Chogokin, Bandai has continued to produce DX Hneshin Belts after reabsorbing Popy and has produced one for each rider from 1987’s Kamen Rider Black up to the current rider, Ghost. I would not be surprised to find that the sales of these belts and their accessory lines were the main reason that we continue to get new Kamen Rider series.
Bandai has expanded Kamen Rider’s figure lines well beyond Popy’s humble offerings. Their high-quality S.H. Figuarts line has produced detailed, highly poseable figures of nearly every rider from both the modern and classic eras. My favorite among these is their faithful takes on Kamen Rider 1 and Kamen Rider 2 (as well as their accompanying motorcycles) and Kamen Fourze with his space theme and many interchangeable limbs.
Running in the opposite direction of the Figuart’s true to screen stylings are the Super Imaginative Chogokin figures. The S.I.C. figures are specifically variant takes on the riders and a few other Ishinomori creations. They rework the designs, sometimes merely adding details, other times rendering them in more monstrous organic style and often drawing specific aesthetic influences to the forefront. Their take on Kamen Rider Gaim plays up the Sengoku era samurai influence giving him more detailed and realistic armor. Their take on Kamen Rider OOO latches on to the animal motifs in his design and gives him wings and insect-like legs. The goal of the S.I.C. line seems to be an attempt to more closely emulate the style of Ishinomori’s manga and to that end embrace the horror influence more readily than their television counterparts.
Kamen Rider might just be to Japan as Doctor Who is to England. They are both long-running, highly influential genre shows. They aren’t afraid to recast their lead over and over. Each of them dropped off the radar in the nineties but the rise of modern geek culture has created an opportunity for both to have a resurgence and they each continue to rise in popularity. Also scarves, they both have scarves!