January 7, 2023
By Shelley Pallis.
As Japan is rocked by a series of grisly murders, the Tokyo police set up a specialised task force to take down murderers that they come to believe to be super-powered aliens. The Gurongi, in fact, are antediluvian beings cast in the Predator mould, intent on advancement through a hunting ritual that requires them to collect human sacrifices. Cue a series of X-filey mysteries in modern Tokyo, as well as tensions within the task force between gung-ho, trigger-happy SWAT officers, and more thoughtful, everyday policemen.
Much as Doctor Who has endured long enough to have a multi-generational audience of fans with diverse expectations, the Kamen Rider series has original viewers old enough to be grandparents, as well as wide-eyed kids who just like watching the fights and the chases. So, it comes as no surprise that this modern-day manga adaptation by Toshiki Inoue and Hitotsu Yokoshima should both reboot and revisit the old franchise, adhering in particular to the game-changing Kuuga series from 1999.
Kuuga was the first Kamen Rider to go on-air after the death of original creator Shotaro Ishinomori, conceived as a 30th anniversary celebration. It also famously found an audience beyond the expected children, as lonely suburban mums tuned in religiously to catch the handsome Jo Odagiri in the leading role. It was this “Odagiri Effect”, and the higher ratings it gained, that has led subsequent rubber-monster shows to throw in so many metrosexual hunks that the shows can often resemble a pop video by a boy-band.
In the Kuuga manga, this is played out in the good-natured rivalry between the double leads – the no-nonsense cop Kaoru and the starry-eyed hipster Yusuke. Both are handsome heroes who can carry a story on their own, but much of the drama, and indeed humour, in Kuuga is drawn from the fact that each is the protagonist in his own story. Kaoru is pursuing a police procedural, whereas the happy-go-lucky Yusuke finds himself inadvertently acquiring Gurongi super-powers. There’s a touch of early Spider-Man in the reluctant hero as pariah, as Kaoru comes to realise that one of the insectoid aliens fighting in the streets of Tokyo oddly appears to be protecting humans instead of murdering them.
Some of the dialogue relies on some tricky concepts in kendo philosophy, which are discreetly glossed in sidebars new to the English-language edition. The translation also rather sweetly nudges the reader with asides about some of the historical allusions – the original Kamen Rider rode a wave of Fortean sf in Japanese, tied up with new archaeological revelations about the semi-mythical Japan of the Dark Ages. For Japanese readers, it’s as if modern superheroes derive their powers from entities cognate with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, revealed as alien forerunners.
Much like its Titan Comics stablemate Atom: The Beginning, Kamen Rider Kuuga is a fantastically well-judged reboot of a much loved franchise, offering the perfect jumping-on point for new readers, but also many Easter eggs for old-time fans.
Kamen Rider Kuuga is published by Titan Comics.