Friday, December 3, 2010

Kamen Rider V3

Dreamt up by Ishinomori Shotarou, the creator of many heroes to Japanese children, Kamen Rider has gone on to become one of the most iconic of all Japanese superheroes. As well, it’s considered the granddaddy of the “Henshin Hero” genre where the main character changes into a superhuman form to battle a different monster in each episode. There were hero shows that technically involved someone transforming into a superhero to battle monsters before (like Ultraman and its parade of sequels), but unlike Ultraman, Kamen Rider didn’t let an alien take over his body and grow to humongous size to fight. He was still a regular guy behind the mask, making him easier to relate to. And he rode a sweet, sweet motorcycle.

There’ve been a ton of sequels over the years repeating the same basic formula of “monster shows up, hero becomes Kamen Rider, destroys the monster, world is safe until next week.” Kamen Rider Amazon, X, Black, Kuuga, Ryuki, and Decade to name a few. Today we’ll talk about the second one, V3, but before that it’d help to explain the first.

Hongo Takeshi is kidnapped by Shocker, an Evil Organization bent on world domination by surgically altering people into half-animal mutant killers. Fortunately one of his old teachers happens to work for Shocker but has an attack of conscience, freeing Takeshi after he gets grasshopper-esque powers but before he’s lobotomized into a monster of the week, beginning Takeshi’s crusade against Shocker as the modified human, Kamen Rider. Problems arose when Takeshi’s actor, who did his own stunts, crashed his motorcycle and badly injured his leg. To work around this another Rider, Ichimonji Hayato, was introduced and Takeshi left to battle monsters offscreen while the actor recovered. Eventually the two Riders teamed up to destroy the evil Leader behind the monster menace once and for all.

Then there was “Rider Number 3! His Name is V3!”

A guy investigates an open manhole late at night and is rewarded for his curiosity when giant blades emerge and slice into him. Motorcyclist Kazami Shiro finds the man just before he melts, and a black car tries to run Shiro down. When his morning coffee sets the floor on fire Shiro starts to wonder if someone might have it in for him and confers with his mentor, none other than Hongo Takeshi. Takeshi tells his own mentor, Tachibana Tobei, what’s bugging Shiro, but Tobei laughs it off and says the Riders cut evil off at its source. He’s a little less sure after someone tries to blow Shiro up at motocross practice.

Takeshi sees a bunch of black-clad KKK members chant “Destron” and prepare a grave for him. These are, obviously, the guys after Shiro, but why the ceremony if they want to kill witnesses?

And kill witnesses is exactly what they try to do. After a woman named Junko sees a bunch of masked weirdoes enter a building and Shiro drops her off at his family’s place, the monster Scissors Jaguar attacks the house and kills Shiro’s relatives trying to get to Junko. And constantly says “Scissors!”

Before he can finish Junko the Riders show up and chase him away, but Shiro doesn’t take his ordeal well. He asks the Riders to give him powers like them even if means giving up his humanity, but they tell him it’s bad enough there’s the two of them and promise to take care of this “Destron.” Accepting they know what they’re talking about, Shiro lets the Riders take care of business. They storm the building Junko found which turns out to be Destron’s monster factory. They blow up the building with the leaders inside, and Japan is saved before the invasion’s even begun.

You didn’t buy any of that, did you? The Riders do attack the building but it’s a trap and they’re soon being fried by a cyborg-killing laser gun while the voice of the mysterious Shocker Leader, now head of Destron, taunts them. Shiro, being a hot-blooded youth in an action show, followed and saves them, but takes the laser himself in the process. Evidently figuring life as a cyborg is better than none, the Riders renege on their earlier words of wisdom and operate on Shiro to make him like them. Not sure how they can do that since the villains were the ones who operated on the two of them, and when Takeshi got a power-up it was because he let them capture him and implant upgrades before escaping again. But, whatever.

The building is rocked by blasts from another Destron Monster, Turtle Bazooka. Despite their unshakeable resolve it looks like he’s got the Riders right where he wants them until a red-masked combatant appears, Kamen Rider V3, leading straight into “Last Testament of the Double Riders.”

Trying to protect the new kid, perhaps, the Double Riders send V3 off to keep Destron from sinking Tobei’s office into the ground. Just making the earth swallow up the building wasn’t enough, it seems, they also sent Scissors Jaguar to take care of Tobei. V3 shows up in time to get Tobei away from the monster, then for some reason drops out of his superhero form as they make a break for it. Scissors Jaguar and some goons catch up to them but run away when the other Riders show up.

Junko offers her sympathies for Shiro's family, but he tells her to stay away from him for her own good, only for the show to immediately prove that’s exactly what she shouldn’t do when Scissors Jaguar tries to kidnap her. Shiro didn’t go far and changes into V3, only to realize he doesn’t know what his powers are. The other Riders are able to talk him through the fight with some convenient telepathy and tell him about a flying camera that he uses to find Scissors Jaguar after the monster escapes despite very clearly falling off a forty-foot cliff and exploding.

He finds Scissors Jaguar again, who goes into a plot-revealing gloat that Turtle Bazooka has a nuclear bomb planted in his body that’ll destroy Tokyo and Shiro will never get back in time to stop him. Except thanks to that convenient telepathy the other Riders heard everything he said and are on their way. They realize they won’t be able to beat Turtle Bazooka before the bomb ticks down, so they grab him and fly out over the ocean.

V3 destroys Scissors Jaguar by discovering the first of his moves, the V3 Revolving Double Kick, but can only watch as a huge mushroom cloud fills the sky…

Talk about starting things off with a bang (yes I'm aware these were meant to be the final two episodes of the previous show), Kamen Rider V3 is perhaps even more well-loved than its predecessor, and a lot of that can be chalked up to its star, played by Miyauchi Hiroshi. Kazami Shiro was his breakout role, and he’s since become one of the most recognizable figures on the Japanese superhero scene. Besides this show, he had roles in the first two Super Sentai, Himitsu Sentai Goranger and JAKQ Dengeki Tai (no wonder only the pink Goranger’s out of costume in the crossover), Kaiketsu Zubat, the mentor of Chouriki Sentai Ohranger, and a one-scene portrayal of Tachibana Tobei in Kamen Rider The First, an updated remake of the first show. Other Tokusatsu programming he’s appeared in include Space Sheriff Gavan, Exceedcraft, Solbrain, and as a two-time guest star in Toei’s…unique adaptation of Spider-Man.

While the personalities of henshin heroes have come a long way since the early 70’s, he manages to sell the tormented hero without seeming wangsty, soon moving from mourning his family to avenging them.

The cool thing about Shiro as V3 is he has twenty-six different powers, but because the original Riders got blown up without leaving him an instruction book he has to figure out what they are all by himself. He doesn’t even learn them all in the show. This angle isn’t really played up, but if you think about it’s an interesting touch of realism in a great but admittedly hokey show.

As for the rest of the cast, Tobei is a likable enough father figure for Shiro, if ultimately kind of goofy (you open the door to their secret base by reflecting light on a bowling ball). Except for those rare episodes where Shiro needs a kick in the ass to save the day, that is. He’s basically a slightly less serious version of Captain Mura from Ultraman.

Junko sadly wasn’t given much to do other than stand around and look pretty, and occasionally provide a handy hostage. Despite it looking like she’s going to try to bring Shiro out of his shell in the early episodes, their young love is dropped before long. All she really does besides get captured is work the radio for the Rider Scouts.

Ah yes, the Rider Scouts. A little something for the kids at home, it seems. The Rider Scouts were a group of schoolboys that would call V3 whenever they thought they found a Destron monster. Hey, it’s kids just like you, helping Kamen Rider save the world! How cool is that?! Believe it or not when we see their parents once in a blue moon, they’re totally supportive of letting their children run around looking for monsters.

As for the show itself, the characterization is kind of thin, Destron’s plots are over the top and the monsters are unconvincing. The music is kinda so-so, and more than once there’s stuff in front of the camera obscuring the action.

There's a fight happening in here somewhere...
Yet there’s a purity to this show, with its mannequins tumbling off bridges and missiles flying on strings, that the more recent Kamen Rider shows with all their digital effects lack. If you grew up on nice, safe Western children's fare, all the people the monsters kill, silly-looking or not, is just plain shocking. This show doesn't mess around.
As far as episodes go, there are a couple that are especially badass. Like…

Episodes 27-28: “Zol, Death, Hell and Black Rise From the Grave” and “The Five Commandants’ All-Out Attack!!”

A member of the Rider Scouts finds the bodies of several Shocker monsters, only for them to come back to life and menace Japan anew. They’re not the only ones; the Leader also revived Colonel Zol, Dr. Death, Hell’s Ambassador and Black Shogun, his commandants from the previous show, to help the current commandant, Doktor G, in a plan to kill everyone in Japan with poison gas.

With all the major bad guys from the original show in one place and a plan to wipe out all of Japan in one stroke, this was one of the most epic stories the show told. It’s a little disappointing that the Double Riders didn’t come back for these episodes instead of a few down the line (no, they didn’t stick with it. It was still a ballsy way to kick off the show). We could’ve had the early Kamen Rider version of Secret Wars.

This is still an awesome story, though. It’s cool seeing so many villains around the lone hero. Another nice touch was, when they find out Shiro’s been captured, Tobei and Junko come up with a plan to get captured too and save him. Once they’re in the Destron base, they find he already got away by himself. So he has to save them again, but it’s nice seeing that they’re as willing to put their lives on the line to stop Destron as V3 is.

The ending was a little disappointing; the Destron base blows up with the villains inside, but think about how awesome it would’ve been to have a battle royale with them in monster form first (the villains being able to turn into especially tough monsters in these shows). Nonetheless the numerous fights are satisfying, and it gives you an idea of just how evil Destron is if they’re willing to drag their dead members back from Hell if that’s what it takes to take over the world.

Episode 40: “Sudden Death! V3 Mach Kick!!”

The latest Destron commandant, Archbishop Wing, has lost monster after monster thanks to V3 and the Leader warns him if things don’t change, Wing is next. When V3 tries to fight the new monster, Deadman Bat, he loses hard and in the process injures one of the Rider Scouts. Maybe this is the one monster he can’t beat…

This episode is great because the hero shows his vulnerable side, then has his courage smacked back into him by Tobei. After getting his stones back V3 squeezes a fountain of blood out of his arm to lure Deadman Bat back out for a rematch. That’s what you call dedication.

Oh yeah, and V3 fights a flying monster on its home turf and wins. That’s pretty badass too.

Episodes 45-46: “Destron’s Christmas Present” and “Riderman, Where Will You Go?”

A few episodes before this two-parter we met Yuki Joji, a Destron scientist who was sentenced to death by the final Destron commandant, Marshal Armor, who was afraid Joji was a rival for promotion. He was about to be dipped in acid and lost an arm before his buddies saved him and replaced it with a bionic one they’d been working on. Joji became the lazily-named Riderman, out to get even not so much with Destron as Marshal Armor. The Leader raised him, see, and he thought what the group was doing was ultimately good.

Destron’s new monster, Rhino Tank, disguises himself as Santa to kidnap kids to enroll in Destron’s leadership program. Whether they like it or not, of course. Rhino Tank blackmails Riderman into helping him get rid of V3 to earn the kids’ safe return.

The first awesome thing about this story was V3’s first fight with Rhino Tank. The monster’s so tough all V3’s attacks just bounce off and he eventually grabs V3 by the legs and throws him into the next county.

Then there's how this is when Riderman finally realizes Destron in general, not just Marshall Armor, is rotten. It’s pitiful watching him wrestle around with Shiro, almost crying as he tries to tune out Shiro’s assurances that Destron isn’t working toward a brighter tomorrow for all mankind. It takes V3 saving him from a deathtrap to admit to himself that maybe he was backing the wrong horse. Seeing them work together to take out the seemingly invincible Rhino Tank was immensely satisfying.

 The episode had some small downsides (the kidnapped kids running around in black leotards comes to mind), but just let that be proof of how evil these Destron guys are. At least they saved the kids in time to wish them a Happy New Year which didn’t involve being forced into leotards.

And beyond…

Eventually Riderman sacrifices himself to steer Destron’s ultimate weapon, the Pluton missile, away from Tokyo. V3 fights on alone to a final confrontation with the Destron Leader, who turns out to be a fanged skeleton, and smashes him to bony bits. Par for Ishinomori’s style, the diabolical Leader leaves this world saying that as long as evil exists in men’s hearts, he’ll be back.

And return he would, and a hero would rise up against him.

But that’s another story.

Screencaps taken from the Kamen Rider V3 series set from Generation Kikaida. If you’d like to see more of this stuff available in the US please head over there and give them some business.

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