Sunday, 22 September 2013

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Black

Kamen Rider Black

Over the past 42 years there have been 24 Kamen Rider series alongside movies, specials and more. However there are few that have a reputation like Kamen Rider Black does. This 1987 series is currently the ONLY Rider series to have had a direct sequel continuing with the same protagonist is often cited as one of the best that both the Showa era and franchise as a whole have to offer. 26 years later, does Kamen Rider Black still live up to these expectations?

Kamen Rider Black Kotaro Minami
The show that DIDN'T become Saban's Masked Rider

Just like the original Kamen Rider series, Black continues the tradition of our hero being an augmented human originally created for evil. However telling the same story all over again would be boring so there's quite a different angle to it. On the night of their 19th birthday, stepbrothers Kotaro Minami and Nobuhiko Akizuki are kidnapped by the evil Gorgom cult. The two are considered to be the "Century Kings" and subject to cybernetic surgery - with a "King Stone" housed in each of them. They are then destined to fight each other to the death, with the victor becoming Gorgom's next Creation King.

Before he can be brainwashed into becoming "Black Sun", Kotaro escapes Gorgom and vows to defeat them and rescue Nobuhiko, under the new identity of Kamen Rider Black. But despite his many battles against Gorgom, Nobuhiko one day emerges from his transformation as Shadow Moon - vowing to destroy Kamen Rider Black and become the next Creation King.

Kamen Rider Black Battle Hopper
A true bro.

Despite the many tragedies he suffers throughout the series, Kotaro Minami is a true hero and very much like his Kamen Rider predecessors. He never falters even through hardships, is eternally optimistic, a great fighter and always manages to save the day. Though this doesn't offer much in the way of character growth, he is the perfect example of a Kamen Rider as a superhero. Aiding him throughout his battles is his motorcycle Battle Hopper, who proves to be just a great a character as most of the humans that appear. Battle Hopper is a true friend to Kotaro, saving him on more than one occasion and even being involved in some of the series' more emotional moments. Kamen Rider Black also has another bike, Road Sector, however this one isn't sentient and nowhere near as interesting. You'd have to have a heart of stone for Battle Hopper not to win you over by the end of it.

The Gorgom Priests - Baraom, Darom and Bishium, don't fare quite as well as villains. Although look great and come across and powerful and imposing, their plans often don't reflect this. In fact, sometimes it's even hard to tell what their end goal is - one week they'll be trying to kill Kotaro and take back his King Stone, the next they'll simply be continuing their plans for destroying humanity or even just causing random chaos. Though their use of Gorgom cultists (over-convoluted) placed into society (such as typical evil scientists) is interesting, they don't really gain any real direction until the Gorgom warrior Bilgenia arrives on the scene. From there we have a power struggle being the two Gorgom factions, with Bilgenia taking much more a physical role - engaging Kotara in battle while the Priests just send mutant after mutant. This finally culminates in the arrival of Shadow Moon, who takes full control and becomes the main villain for the remainder of the series. As the first true evil Kamen Rider, he leaves a huge impact and it's no wonder that he is fondly remembered as one of the best villains in the franchise.

Kamen Rider Black Gorgom Priests Darom Baraom Bishium
What ridiculously complicated plan can we come up with today guys?

The action is fantastic and the suit designs are brilliant. Kamen Rider Black himself is exciting and the mutants range from impressive to downright terrifying - putting even some of the new series monster designs to shame. However there is one flaw that keeps Black from being the perfect series it is said to be. While an episodic structure with very little continuity between episodes is a common aspect of the Showa era Kamen Rider shows, the strong premise of Black turns this format into a very real problem. The series begins with Kotaro escaping the clutches of Gorgom and gaining full control over his new powers, fully aware that Nobuhiko is still their prisoner and will eventually become Shadow Moon. However for 33 episodes Kotaro does absolutely NOTHING to try and save his stepbrother, instead continuing with day to day life and only fighting Gorgom when he stumbles across their scheme of the week. It's true that Kotaro doesn't know where Gorgom's base is, but ANY effort to try and save his brother would be appreciated. There are even long stretches of episodes where the show barely acknowledges that he exists!

If you can make it through these sometimes difficult episodes (they'll be enjoyed much more individually than back to back), the final 19 episodes will show you just why Kamen Rider Black has earned such high regard over the years. Once Shadow Moon enters the fray, the plots gain a much greater sense of scale and peril, with continuity building more and more as the episodes go on. The finale is absolutely fantastic, with some of the best episodes the whole franchise has to offer. The emotional conflict between these two brothers and the build-up to the sad realisation that they MUST fight to the death is the heart of Kamen Rider Black, and it's a massive shame that the series takes so long to utilise it properly.

Kamen Rider Black Shadow Moon Nobuhiko Akizuki
With a name like Shadow Moon, you're badass just standing there.

So does Kamen Rider Black live up to the hype? The answer is both yes and no. The series as a whole can prove to be pretty difficult to get through at first, with its main plot buried beneath a ton of episodic stories. But once it manages to burst out, Kamen Rider Black deservedly earns its reputation with a relentless stream of high quality episodes that still stand out today. This is one show where your patience will really pay off.

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