Friday 2 June 2023

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider X

Kamen Rider X

Following the success of both the original Kamen Rider in 1971 and then Kamen Rider V3 in 1973, the series had easily reached franchise potential. As such a third series was put into production, with the 35-episode Kamen Rider X launching on 16th February 1974 - immediately after the conclusion of V3. With original conception once again from Kamen Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori and a screenplay from writers such as Hideka Nagasaka (Android Kikaider and Kikaider 01) and Masaru Inoue (father of Toshiki Inoue and he himself a tokusatsu writing legend), Kamen Rider X sought to further expand the concept of Kamen Rider with new innovations, new characters and a new villainous organisation.

Keisuke JinKeitaro Jin

Upon returning to Tokyo after six months away, marine scientist Keisuke Jin is targeted by operatives of G.O.D. (Government of Darkness) - a secret terrorist organisation that aims to annihilate Japan with its army of remodelled humans. After narrowly surviving their initial attack, Keisuke meets with his father Keitaro and his assistant Ryoko, Keisuke's fiancé. G.O.D. attack once again with the hopes of stealing Keitaro's knowledge, with Ryoko revealing herself as a G.O.D. agent and both Keisuke and Keitaro fatally wounded in the process.

With his last moments, Keitaro remodels Keisuke into a "kaizorg" - a cyborg specially designed for deep sea exploration, giving him the title of Kamen Rider X. Though initially struggling with his new grip on humanity, the X Rider continues to fight back against G.O.D.'s monsters whilst also trying to uncover the reasons behind Ryoko's betrayal. In his battles, Keisuke fights against high-ranking G.O.D. operatives Apollo Geist and King Dark while assisted by veteran Rider mentor Tachibana Tobei as well as the veteran Kamen Riders themselves.

Ryoko MizukiKamen Rider X

Coming off the success of both the original series and V3, Kamen Rider X naturally had big shoes to fill even if it had the pre-existing popularity of the franchise spurring it on. Its first episode does an excellent job of hitting all those classic Kamen Rider tropes whilst also setting itself apart from its predecessors. G.O.D. is a brand new organisation with (at the time anyway) no links to Shocker, while Keisuke's transformation into Kamen Rider X isn't facilitated by previous Riders in the same way V3's was. The premiere also brings with it some very strong character dynamics - not just Keisuke's strained relationship with his father but also the betrayal felt by the revelation that his fiancé is a G.O.D. agent (which is then immediately followed up by her mysterious identical twin Kiriko that's assisting him). Though the circumstances may be different Keisuke struggles with the his "loss" of humanity in the same way his predecessors did, all while being thrust into the role of a masked protector who has an underwater base that houses a copy of his father's mind at his disposal. Between all that and the levels of violence the episode has, it's an extremely strong opener that puts Kamen Rider X well on the way to becoming another classic.

But it was due to the show being crushed under the weight of its own ideas or simply not being able to measure up to the overwhelming popularity of V3, the cracks in X's armour quickly begin to show. Despite setting up all these wonderful ideas in the first episode, Kamen Rider X feels like a series constantly trying to find itself - and as such has a hard time truly committing to anything. That hi-tech underwater sea base housing the copy of his father's mind? Blown up the very next episode because Keitaro felt Keisuke was too reliant on him and needed to forge his own path. While the reasoning itself is sound (and rather fitting for this era of Kamen Riders), for the viewer it feels more than a little hasty given that we've barely been introduced to both Keisuke and his father. Along with it goes any substantial reference to the X Rider as a "Kaizorg" built specifically for anything underseas - operating primarily on land just like any other Rider. To some extent one would expect these things to be eventually phased out in favour of the more conventional Kamen Rider format (anything involving water is bound to eat up the budget even more), it's just a shock to see them gone so soon.

Set up!X's short-lived underwater base

Admittedly the Ryoko/Kiriko subplot sticks around a little longer, never really taking centre stage in episode but having them both appear frequently enough for you to never forget that it's still a thing. But even that runs out of steam by the eighth episode, with the pair meeting a predictably tragic end only to never really be referenced in the show again. Serialised continuity might not have played a big part in the Showa Kamen Rider shows, but it's hard not to see it as X quickly jettisoning its more engaging aspects to take a more established approach to storytelling. What follows is arguably far more familiar Kamen Rider territory, with Keisuke facing off against recurring G.O.D. generals in addition to the monster-of-the-week menagerie. Although one could argue that Kamen Rider X does get a little more settled after abandoning many of these early concepts, the need to tweak and/or retool it is something that remains present throughout the show - with new elements suddenly appearing while others are forgotten entirely.

Though naturally this makes Kamen Rider X a rather uneven watch at times (the luxury of not having to watch week by week makes the changes seem like they happen so much faster), the show gets by on the strength of its characters. Even with elements like his past relationships and his grappling with becoming a cyborg lost, Keisuke is still a great protagonist. Starting out as someone unsure of both themselves and the legacy they suddenly find they've stepped into, Keisuke evolves into the archetype Kamen Rider of the era - with a strong sense of justice, selfless to his core and with that little cocky streak to make his dynamic with the villains that much sweeter. And while Kamen Rider X might initially stand apart from its predecessors it's quickly absorbed back into the wider Kamen Rider universe with the return of Tobei Tachibana, who's now opened a coffee house with acts as the Keisuke's base of operations. Tachibana's initial episodes play a huge part in helping shape Keisuke's role as the X Rider, not only teaching him about the past Riders but also guiding him through his first true taste of defeat. Later he slips into a more generic role where he's either there to be captured or help others get out of capture while Keisuke fights the monster, but that doesn't make him any less enjoyable to watch (Akiji Kobayashi is always a pleasure onscreen). A later retool would also introduce Chiko and Mako, university students that work in Tachibana's coffee house and similarly are there to be in regular need of saving.

Mako, Chiko and TachibanaApollo Geist

G.O.D. are a similarly dynamic group of villains, brilliantly straddling the line between downright brutal and deliciously over the top. It's a series where plenty of one-shot characters won't make it out alive thanks to G.O.D.'s evil schemes, all while its mysterious leader is passing on his orders through chickens and exploding cassette tapes. But while it's unfortunate that this enigmatic leader is another thing the show phases out, there's plenty else to get excited about. The first of the X Rider's recurring foes is Apollo Geist - G.O.D.'s Chief of Security who appears with his own human guise. Donning a sharp white tuxedo and casually somersaulting onto his motorcycle to exit scenes, Apollo Geist immediately makes a strong impression both in and out of suit. His design is both simple and elegant, immediately making him stand out against the more grotesque monsters as a force to be reckoned with. He also develops a powerful rivalry with Keisuke, with the hero even acknowledging his talents and that it's a shame they fight on opposing sides. Apollo Geist's popularity was clearly recognised as he's revived almost immediately after his initial defeat - yet another example of X's constant course correction but not one to necessarily be criticised as you should never keep a good villain down too long. His eventual exit from the series also stands as one of X's most memorable episodes.

Apollo Geist's defeat sees Kamen Rider X enter its final phase, as the giant robot King Dark takes command and G.O.D. seems to undergo some (unreferenced) restructuring. From here on out the implication seems to be that King Dark is at the top of G.O.D.'s chain of command, particularly when the finale tries to tie everything back to Keitaro as well and fails miserably at it. But the finer details don't matter when King Dark looks as good as he does - a hulking brute that's too big to even fit in a room, so he's almost permanently stuck in a lounging position where he just looks tired of everyone around him. Kamen Rider X's final run also sees it adopt a more serialised format, something which was much rarer for Kamen Rider at the time. Now it sees both Keisuke and G.O.D. racing to collect the fragments of a blueprint for a powerful machine, with the X Rider naturally beating the evil organisation at every turn. While the more serialised run up to the finale is certainly a welcome change of pace, it's actually something of a double-edged sword as you could also argue that the show becomes more formulaic because of it. The base plot is identical each episode, and touches like the monster thinking they've escaped with a piece of the blueprint only to later find it's a fake and be scolded by King Dark don't have quite the same effect when they happen every episode. It never feels like there's much of a race because the X Rider is almost always holding all the cards. If it was still playing things more episodically that would be fine, but with tighter continuity it makes sense to raise the tension a bit. 

King DarkStarfish Hitler

But whatever shortcomings Kamen Rider X may have when it comes to story telling certainly don't trickle down into the visuals, with this being another entry that comfortably stands the test of time. The X Rider himself feels like a bold new direction for Kamen Rider aesthetics - the comfortable greens of Riders 1, 2 and V3 replaced with a dynamic silver/grey outfit and stronger-looking body armour. X's transformation is set apart by the use of items beyond that of just the belt itself, with a built-in weapon that can adopt four different modes. When put alongside the previous Riders, X really does feel like the shiny new one. 

The same can be also be said of G.O.D.'s forces, which arguably feature some of the most memorable (and notorious) monsters in the franchise's history. These can be separated into two distinct categories - while the monsters from the first half of the series draw from mythology for inspiration, King Dark's "Villain Corps" are the ones fans are perhaps more familiar with - merging animals with figures from world history. It would be remiss not to mention that this is the series the infamous Starfish Hitler hails from, but there are plenty of other great entries too - Ant Capone with his fencing sword cane, blow-dart cigar being the prime example. G.O.D.'s monsters have the right level of threat but many are just as equally silly, such as the sights of Mach Achilles and his operatives high-speed roller-skates. Kamen Rider monsters are at their best when they're able to balance the serious with the silly, and X's offerings pull it off well even when the plot is sometimes lacking.

As the series draws to a close the links to the previous shows become even tighter, with the veteran Riders themselves to help Keisuke in his fight. While all five Riders are united in the Five Riders VS King Dark theatrical feature, only Hayato (Kamen Rider 2) and Shiro (Kamen Rider V3) in the series itself. Seeing Hayato without Hongo in tow is actually a nice change of pace, since it isn't often now you'd see the two apart. Meanwhile Shiro proves pivotal to the evolution of the X Rider, powering him up for future battles in a similar way the Double Riders had once saved him. But most importantly while both characters slip back into the action seamlessly, even with their pomp and grandeur they don't steal the spotlight away from Keisuke. Whereas most series would save a team-up for the finale, here it's out of the way beforehand so the last episode can be all about X.

Ant CaponeRider 2 and V3

Kamen Rider X is a series that has all the right components and ideas, but for whatever reason just doesn't have the heart to fully act upon them. To see so much tinkering in what is (by Kamen Rider standards at least) a relatively short series is more than a little jarring, and it really could have benefitted from letting some of the more key ones grow before moving on to the next big thing. But even with its shortcomings, the strength of its characters and its sense of direction when it comes to costumes and visuals are more than enough to make it a worthwhile watch. Being sandwiched between Kamen Rider V3 and Kamen Rider Amazon isn't the easiest place to be, but Kamen Rider X still holds it steady.

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