Wednesday 1 March 2023

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Black Sun

Kamen Rider Black Sun
Kamen Rider Black Sun is available to stream on Amazon Prime

The celebration of Kamen Rider's 50th anniversary came in several different forms – there was Kamen Rider Revice, the forthcoming Shin Kamen Rider movie as well as the franchise's first proper foray into animation with Fuuto P.I.. But arguably one of the most interesting projects that came out of this milestone was the announcement of Kamen Rider Black Sun – a darker, more adult-orientated reinterpretation of 1987's Kamen Rider Black. Releasing exclusively on Amazon Prime, the 10-episode series follows in the footsteps of Kamen Rider Amazons in not only being another reimagining of a classic Showa era series, but also one of the few pieces of Kamen Rider media readily available worldwide.

A Kaijin ProtestAoi Izumi

In the year 2022, humans live in co-existence with Kaijin – altered humans that came into existence around 50 years ago. The Kaijin experience racism and discrimination from humanity, causing a socio-political crisis across Japan. Aoi Izumi, a young activist seeing to end Kaijin discrimination, quickly becomes a target. It's at this point she meets Kotaro Minami – a Kaijin who protects her from an attacker after discovering a strange stone around her neck.

Kotaro's transformation into a black locust kaijin brings him to the attention of Gorgom – a political party that work with Japan's Prime Minister to use the Creation King to create new Kaijin. It also causes Kotaro to cross paths with Nobuhiko Akizuki, his former friend who possesses similar powers. As the two men clash, their history with both the Gorgom movement of the 1970s and the Creation King is revealed, with the fate of all Kaijin hanging in the balance.

Kotaro MinamiNobuhiko Akizuki

Kamen Rider is a franchise that’s always made its political leanings very clear, but arguably no previous entry has captured a particular point in worldwide politics the way Black Sun does. Splitting its main story across both 2022 and 1972, it is influenced and fuelled by real-world events. Whereas the present day setting is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s 70s side draws from something far more specific to Japan - namely the Communist movement of that era. Other elements, such as the rounding up of Japan’s homeless, minorities and LGBT+ as a food source for the Kaijin is a little less overt, but still blatant enough. Subtle is the one thing that this show isn’t, which makes it all the more hard-hitting. It’s an interesting counterpoint to the main instalments in the franchise, which naturally as to prevent its themes in a far more family-friendly manner. This darker take on the franchise core themes also brings with it a heavy dose of cynicism, taking the usual optimism an ending would usually bring and twisting it in a way that feels appropriately in line with Ishinomori’s manga version of Kamen Rider Black.

But in some ways Black Sun's penchant for real-world events and iconography can be its downfall, particularly when it comes to framing the plight of the Kaijin to that of the Black Lives Matter movement. On the surface it may seem somewhat mis-judged but largely innocuous, but as the story progresses it quickly reveals itself as an allegory that doesn't work beyond surface level. Kaijin are not born in Black Sun – they are created, and the waters are further muddied as humans are shown to wantingly become Kaijin themselves. The subject of ending the creation of Kaijin altogether also becomes a focal point of the series, and as an ideal that's shared by the titular character no less also has some concerning implications. Mileage will however vary and it does depend on how closely you want to analyse the metaphor, but Black Sun also adopts far more overt iconography that is just as questionable. Imagery such as seeing Kaijin lynched by torch-bearing mobs is enough to make the comparison crystal clear, but to accurately recreate events such as the death of George Floyd is perhaps a little too on the nose. While it's clear to see what Black Sun was trying to do with its framing of "Kaijin Lives Matter", the real-world implications are often too at odds with the Kamen Rider side of things to be properly conveyed.

The Gorgom Party, 1972The Gorgom Priests

At the forefront of the series isn’t necessarily Kotaro or Nobuhiko, but rather brand new character Aoi - a human fighting for equal rights for Kaijin. Though her activism doesn't really make her a bystander as such, the fact she's thrust into the Gorgom conspiracy and the origins of the Creation King do make her a reasonably good audience surrogate. As with any story that has activism at the heart of it the idea of what the next generation will inherit is a focal point to Black Sun, and the development Aoi goes through is tantamount to that. The fact that there's still plenty of scope to explore Aoi beyond the series speaks for itself, as even though Black Sun ends on a very conclusive note for its reimagined characters her story is one that continues - just like the battle for equality in the real world, the fighting never stops. 

While Aoi may be the lens we view the modern-day conflict through, that doesn’t make the story of Kotaro and Nobuhiko any less poignant. However this is a very different Kotaro to the one we saw in the original Black. A shell of his former-self, 2022 Kotaro is jaded - a grizzled hitman who lives a life of seclusion. It’s only in meeting Aoi that he’s thrust back into the life he left behind five decades ago and finish what he started. Though the dynamic of the hardened hero being softened by a younger character is pretty commonplace in television these days it works really well here, as we see a clear evolution in his character over the course of the ten episodes. In contrast, the Nobuhiko of the original series was a victim of Gorgom - absent from most of the series and human element almost entirely lost when he debuts as Shadow Moon. Black Sun’s Nobuhiko (whose alter ego has finally received the monicker of “Kamen Rider” after all these years) on the other hand is far more in control of his actions, and while his journey similarly sees him used by those around him here it we see it influence his own actions. It’s a great spin on their dynamic that offers a somewhat more developed take, with the pair both brought together and pulled apart of the course of the series rather than simply being diametrically opposed. It does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity that their 50 years apart is not sufficiently explored (particularly in Kotaro's case), but between the two time periods there is still more than enough to flesh them out sufficiently 

The origin of Black Sun and ShadowmoonThe locust Kaijin

Black Sun also offers a rather different take of Gorgom, reimagined here as a political movement (and later, party) for Kaijin. Much like how 2016’s Kamen Rider 1 restructured Shocker into an organisation bidding to control the world’s economy (and how Shin Kamen Rider looks to instead be turning to cult mentality for inspiration), the change works brilliantly for a more contemporary take - particularly as the elements of corruption and conspiracy become more apparent. Black Sun weaves a far more complex tale than simply Rider vs Gorgom, with the human element of Prime Ministers Shinichi and Michinosuke Dounami adding an extra layer to the conflict. That said, the sheer number of characters the show has to juggle (from both the original Gorgom Party and its 2022 equivalent) does mean the focus easily gets lost. While the intent is always clear, the characters get muddled and as such the development isn’t quite as well-defined as the main trio.

One thing Black Sun certainly shares in common with Kamen Rider Amazons is a flair for graphic violence. While its tone and subject matter are certainly enough to set Black Sun apart as a "more adult" Kamen Rider, scenes such Kotaro visibly ripping out another Kaijin's intestines or the numerous instances of dismemberment are enough to affirm that watching might require a strong stomach. This grittier tone is also echoed in the suit design for several of the Kaijin – particularly Black Sun and Shadowmoon themselves. Calling back to Ishinomori's original concept for Black's transformation, the bulk of the series sees them take on more monstrous insect forms before later properly transforming into more streamlined (but similarly organic) Kamen Riders. The shift to a more organic look for Shadowmoon (as opposed to the original's more robotic design) works well to enhance the visual dynamic between the two, truly depicting them as two sides of the same coin. While the nature of their transformation belts isn't very well defined within the narrative itself, it's a clever gimmick that sets them apart from the other Kaijin whilst remaining true to the classic Kamen Rider conventions. The Creation King is a similarly impressive feat - a giant creature that encapsulates the practical effects wizardry that helped make the Kamen Rider franchise a tokusatsu staple. That all said, not all of the Kaijin designs in the series are monstrous – that would go against the divide the show is trying to create. Naturally the key characters are the ones that have had the most thought and detail put into their designs, with many of the background Kaijin amounting to little more than animal masks. It does work well to create a wide variety of Kaijin within the series though, as well as paint the bystanders as not necessarily threatening. It adds an interesting layer to the "humans versus Kaijin" struggle, as humanity's hatred largely doesn't stem from Kaijin having potentially dangerous powers - but simply the fact that they're different.

BilgeniaThe Creation King

One last item of note is just how fantastic the soundtrack for this series is. Kenta Matsukuma's haunting score permeates throughout, whether it be its subtle piano cue or its crescendo into the full theme whenever the action ramps up. While an argument could perhaps be made for its overuse, the fact it never really loses that initial impact is more than enough justification for its continued use. When the show finally breaks into the original Kamen Rider Black theme in its final episode (complete with recreated visuals from the opening), there's a powerful sense of nostalgia that'll surely satisfy fans whether or not they feel Black Sun has truly earned this moment. 

Black Sun's transformation"Shedding tears for all our tomorrows"

Kamen Rider Black Sun is a series that certainly pulls no punches, recontextualising the timeless story that runs throughout the franchise with real-world themes in a way that hasn't been attempted in such a way before. While it can certainly be a bit too heavy-handed with this at times and the comparison of the kaijin to the Black Lives Matter movement doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, it remains a hard-hitting series with interesting characters, an engaging story and great action sequences. In spite of its flaws its accessibility alone makes it a notable entry in the long-running franchise, and while certainly not representative of it as a whole it's an interesting take that's worthy of your time.


Oar said...

Nice review! My own opinions on the show has gone back and forth a bunch but I'm ultimately leaning more towards positive than anything else in spite of some issues.

How do you think show compares to Black, by the way? Or if any of this show was enhanced by your knowledge of the oirigal?

Stephen Cassat said...

I have been watching this and I'm blown away. The violence may be a bit too much at times, but I'm loving this take on the story of Black.