Putting the “Origin” in Original: Shin Kamen Rider

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When it comes to Anno Hideaki’s Shin Japan Heroes Universe movies, the meaning of that first word, Shin, is left ambiguous. Usually, depending on how it’s written in Japanese, shin can either mean “true” (as if whatever iteration we’re seeing is either an entity in its greatest and purest form) or “new” (a reimagining, a version yet unseen). After watching Shin Kamen Rider, it’s increasingly clear to me that it’s meant to be both, and maybe more.

Based primarily on the original 1971 Kamen RIder series, Shin Kamen Rider tells the story of Hongo Takeshi, a man captured by the organization SHOCKER and made into a part-bug living weapon. However, thanks to a sympathetic scientist, he manages to escape and he decides to fight against SHOCKER using his newfound powers and his strong sense of justice.

Seeing as how I’ve never even watched a single full series, I can’t call myself a big Kamen Rider fan or expert by any means. But when Shin Kamen Rider was first announced, I remembered something Anno said in an interview: He thinks the world of the first three episodes of the original Kamen Rider due to their darker nature. I also have seen comments about how Shin Kamen Rider is unusually violent, which lends credence to the notion that this would somehow be different.

Shin Kamen Rider turns out to be even bloodier than I had expected, even with the aforementioned warning. It is brutal and visceral in a way that none of the other Shin movies are. That’s not to say the work is overly gratuitous—but rather, it’s one of many factors that make the story very human and personal. On some level, this is probably just due to the fact that Evangelion, Ultraman, and Godzilla all concern giants, giving an inherently different sense of scale. 

But even more than the violence, Shin Kamen Rider feels like it’s trying to be something that the word “fundamental” doesn’t fully describe—as if the work is tapping into the essence of its source material so deeply that it ends up bringing forth a version from within that had not seen the light of day prior to this. What we see is a Kamen Rider if the series had continued on with the energy from those earliest episodes that Anno cherishes so much.

I watched Shin Ultraman not long before this, and there are some noteworthy differences that I think speak a lot to what each franchise embodies. For example, the monsters in Shin Ultraman appear to be much more essential—who and what they are doesn’t stray far from the source material. All the monsters in Shin Kamen Rider, on the other hand, are portrayed with much greater liberties in terms of motivations. In contrast, the main human character in Shin Ultraman is a completely different person compared to the original TV series, whereas Shin Kamen Rider still maintains the character of Hongo Takeshi, even if he isn’t 100% the same. Ultraman has more memorable monsters; Kamen Rider has more memorable humans.

To skeptics, Shin Kamen Rider would very likely come across as hokey in a way that no amount of ultra-violence could make it more palatable. However, the portrayals of its characters, from their emotional pain to their sheer awkwardness really grounds the film. I think it’s no coincidence that the costumes for Shin Kamen Rider are actually pretty cheesy—the production could have easily made them sleeker and more modern. Instead, they’re weird and cumbersome, as if the bit of messiness is important. Shin Kamen Rider is, at its core, a work that is both “cool” and “uncool,” and the two sides merge together to reveal something incredibly human.

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