I have not seen many Kamen Rider series, least of all Showa-era ones; as a result, any frame of reference I have for discussing the franchise is limited to select individual series rather than the franchise as any kind of whole. Nevertheless, I am currently watching Kuuga, and it is proving highly enjoyable television and quite watchable without any foreknowledge or wider sense of what one can or should expect. Taken outside of its franchise, it is a series that does superhero origins and self-discovery very well, and creates a world that realistically adapts to the sudden arrival of supervillains. It manages to be dark and atmospheric without necessarily being graphically violent or exploitative, in part owing to the understated creature designs and simple, easily-read hero suit.
The story opens quite simply; following excavations of ancient ruins, a number of monsters with generally poor human disguises start causing mayhem, and a man, Godai, starts fighting them with newly-obtained superpowers. Over the first eight episodes something is learned of the wider conflict, and the potential stakes; the villains are gradually learning how to fit in better, and getting bolder in their attacks. Meanwhile, Godai is mutating as a result of his powers, retaining some of the extra strength and acuity that comes from his alter-ego Kuuga and feeling defeats hard. Godai’s development as a hero is nicely handled; at first, nobody understands what he is capable of and so it falls to a procession of scientists, police officers and academics to research this new mutation and help him master it. There is surprisingly good female representation in this setup, with generally relatable and well-written women in all of these expert fields (most prominently Godai’s friend, university researcher Sakurako). While Godai is ultimately the hero here, the one with the superpowers, he is reliant to an extent I have not seen so much in the other Kamen Rider I have seen on qualified, professional non-powered assistants. He does not know what he is doing, and so defers to authority.
This comparatively free relationship with the police and scientists really convinced me Kuuga was onto something good. A hero who, despite looking monstrous, actively seeks to reconcile with the authorities and help them to differentiate himself from the similarly-powered enemies he fights – and whose trademark thumbs-up serves as a humanising trait in his faceless, masked armour. The dynamic between Godai and the detective heading up the new monster investigations, Kaoru, feels natural; Kaoru proves to the police that #4 / Kuuga is not the same as the other unknown entities attacking the city, and acts as guarantor for the hero providing him with equipment and working with Sakurako and other experts to help him master his abilities. Rather than the emergence of new powers being something of self-discovery or simply adapting to new gadgets, new forms for Kuuga come from interpreting ancient texts and working together with a support staff. I really like this way the series tries to make a supernatural hero develop scientifically, and focuses on how this ability to relate to and fit in with the authorities makes him a hero rather than a villain. By contrast, the Grongi – the monsters of the piece – variously cannot or will not adapt to human society. Some do not even speak human languages, while others try to learn and adapt. Having the villains speak in their own language, which is not subtitled in comprehensible lines, obviously makes them alien and distant but shows that this is an invading empire that holds different attitudes to their enemy. Some want to learn everything about them, others just want to fight them.
And the monsters themselves are strong, primarily in their visual simplicity. They are animal- or insect-themed mutant humanoids with the abilities of their reference creature (a bee monster can shoot lethal stingers, a leopard woman with agility and strength, etcetera), and power sets mostly based around killing. Because the Grongi are quite big on killing humans, especially in ritualised, serial-killer fashion. As soon as you realised the villains each episode or two-parter in Kuuga are slasher villains with varying dangerous animal themes, it becomes quite a lot clearer what the series is aiming for. It is dark; the police are ultimately dealing with near-invincible superpowered serial killers, and it does not shy away from this. The bee-man is shown sniping people across the city, an episode with a vampiric priest ends with a fight in a burning church, and so on. This would be significantly less effective were the monster costumes gaudy and overdesigned, with slightly wobbly foam spikes or noodly tentacles. It would be less effective if their plans were more than “kill people” – I do not get the feeling Kuuga will offer episodes with villainous Blind Date or sentient hamburgers with identity crises. But instead, you have generally simplistic brown-and-black animal-themed villain suits that are generally not super-exaggerated, and look tough and big. Even the leopard-woman villain is understated (by the standards of tokusatsu female villains) and looks strong and suitably well-built to pull off the feats of strength she does.
And when the Grongi are not taking the form of monsters they disguise themselves – either well or badly – as eccentric, counterculture-looking people. Dressed not to fit in, because they do not understand the culture. The series (you could probably fairly argue from these early villain depictions) is creating outcasts that dress abnormally, behave ferally and talk funny. I don’t know if this is a reading supported by the text (and the supernatural, quasi-religious society the villains have does not really support it) but the juxtaposition of a police-aligned hero and a rebellious, underground culture of feral youths doing murders does seem to be carefully-chosen. Perhaps there are elements of fear of the young, and of cults, in this. The end result of all these crafted juxtapositions – order versus lawlessness, ruthless, methodical, quasi-religious killing versus punkish underground youth culture – is a series that feels edgy and paranoid without needing gore. People die, and die onscreen. The police are shown mystified by unnatural murders. It is not a pleasant world.
By contrast, although the police are quite powerless in the face of the Grongi (at first) they make a real try of it in a way that is a far better showing than in most superhero shows. They immediately start shooting the monsters, and when their guns do not work they seek out bigger guns until they find one that does work. It is done by the book, with sub-plots about appealing to the authorities for more resources to fight these unknown creatures, and it presents them as competent and well-organised without it feeling unnatural. The authorities are doing what they can to help the people, and end up saving lives in the process.
Any number of these small details and neat thematic choices would make Kuuga a good Kamen Rider series, one of the more enjoyable franchise entries. The fact it does so many things right in its opening section means I think more highly of it than that; it is doing a good job of being a superhero story that is dark without being gratituous, and – more importantly – dark in a way which does not feel hopeless. While the monsters are bad, and powerful, and the hero is uncertain, society is working. The police trust Godai so far and will help him. Godai has people he can rely on to help him understand his powers. The authorities are doing something.