Honored samurai, ruthless ronin, wayward vagabonds, shadowy ninja and helpless villagers... welcome.
Japanese media has a long history with body horror/biopunk themes (and not its not limited to science fiction-related media). The use of “horrifying” transformations and the “othering” of the human body to depict this, whether it be paranormal or scientific represents a fear of a loss of self (which in Japan means becoming something different and being ostracized from the group/society for it), a fear of technology taking over at an stoppable pace, and a fear of being consumed by something beyond human comprehension — the strange (if you will).
Through the two most mature and darkest entries in the Kamen Rider series (not the Masked Rider series of the US), Kamen Rider Black Sun and Shin Kamen Rider: Prologue, this issue will touch briefly these ideas.
Shin Kamen Rider: Prologue (hereafter SKR) was a direct-to-video (V-Cinema) project celebrating the 30th anniversary of the series. Meant as a reimagining of the original TV show (1971), it features many of the same elements.
The series takes place in a world plagued by Shocker, a mysterious worldwide terrorist organization formed by remaining members of the Nazis. To further its plans for world domination, Shocker recruited its agents through kidnapping, turning their victims into mutant cyborgs and, ultimately, brainwashing them.
SKR updates with doctors researching ways to strengthen the human body against diseases such as AIDS and cancer, and the antagonist works for a secret organization bent on world domination. Moreover there’s an element of serial murder in the city of Tokyo that the Metropolitan Police are helpless to stop. (Their efforts end in the bloody deaths of upwards of ten officers in one scene alone.)
The SFX are perfect (for 1994). All the bizarre appendages, facial features, gooey spine-ripping action, powers, transformations — reminiscent of my personal favorite character designer and director, Keita Amemiya (Mirai Ninja, Zeiram, Kamen Rider ZO). All that accompanied by The Howling-esque transformations and mechanical gear clicking and grinding, its truly inspired.
Shin, the protagonist, begins to suspect that not everything with the experiment is on the up-and-up, but his scientist father (one of the two doctors conducting the experiment on him) works hard to convince him everything is okay. It’s Shin’s girlfriend, a nurse on the project, who eventually spills the beans. Well, her and a female CIA agent running around with a paramilitary unit, shooting at everyone in sight (including Shin).
At the heart of the story is a young man pushed to his limits and forced to use powers he neither realizes he has nor completely understands. This film doesn’t slide into camp and there is not a single child to be seen or saved. There are a couple nude scenes (male and female), implied sex, violence at every turn, death... and “after” death*. And it all comes with the steep price of forced alienation.
Kamen Rider Black Sun (hereafter Black Sun) is a reimagining of the 1987-1989 TV series Kamen Rider Black (hereafter Black) and Kamen Rider Black RX (the direct sequel, hereafter RX). Black/RX follows the story of two step-brothers kidnapped against their wills and transformed into cyborg mutants by a secretive cult of Kaijin (strange humans, mysterious beings — there are a lot of ways to translate this phrase), who have taken on the human form to hide themselves.
Black Sun reinvents that story slightly with the boys taken at a younger age and transformed by their fathers (Ishinomori must have had father issues or something) through mystic ritualized surgery, and presents a society consisting of humans and “Kaijin” — humanoids with the power to transform into creatures (their true form) of varying kinds, from the ordinary (sparrows) to lizards, spiders and monsters. Already the concepts of the Other and alienation are not only powerful, but stinging.
Dark and gritty, introduction to the protagonist portrays him in the unkind light of "drug" addict debt collector who rolls the homeless and kills for cash. Right out of the gate, he takes a contract to kill a well-known (human) high school student, a proponent of Kaijin rights in the world. To say that she is not appreciated by everyone in Japanese society is an understatement. They are two loners on a crash course.
Enter the childhood friend and things get hot fast, but nothing like in the way you fully expect them to, because both the protagonist and his childhood friend were actually once members of the cult-cum-political party.
One friend said that he found Black Sun depressing due to the violence, death and the real world connections between cults to politicians.
With deep and undying respect, this is actually nothing new for the Kamen Rider series at all.
Black was dark show, incorporating elements of horror (granted sometimes campy — with a vampire episode), body horror (the whole idea of surgically altering your sons), cults (the world order), and more. Just because it was presented as a kids' show doesn't mean it didn't have a message. Black Sun just adds layers to this and doesn’t pander to anyone wanting a “happy” ending.
Post-war Japanese media is rife with commentary on the ills of war. Fans of Godzilla are particularly attuned to this (or should be). Black, Black Sun, SKR and other shows touch on wartime experimentation on live human subjects. Make no mistake, Ishinomori (Kamen Rider IP creator; see below) was alluding to the war crimes committed by the Nazis and the notorious Unit 731. While consensual in the case of SKR, not everything was above the board, bringing Shin’s world to a sharp crashing halt with an ending that is, for the lack of a better word, gruesome*.
We never meet without parting
Next issue: Less Rambling Man Mode???
Made in DNA
*STOP RIGHT HERE. Some readers might not enjoy what follows.
Grieving over his pregnant girlfriend being gunned down before him, Shin picks up her corpse and carries her into the vast drainage system beneath Tokyo... under the guidance of his unborn child, with which he is in mental contact!
In other words...
He's going to keep his girlfriend's corpse in the sewers until the child is born.
I really like your Ramblin' Man mode! I've been on a body horror kick recently, I'll check these movies out if I can find them online.
For the interested, more images of Black Sun (2022) here. Caution: Mild spoilers.