I strive to be a well-rounded, moral person. I’ve tried to accomplish this daily goal ever since I can remember. Due, in large part, to the super heroes that I read as a kid. Spider-man, Batman, Superman, and Captain America fundamentally changed me as a human being. I tried to be like them. So much so, that I took to dressing like Zorro on trips to the local grocery store. I refused to be caught out of costume.
Super heroes, in all forms of media, made me the person I am today.
That being said, as an adult I’m constantly investigate super hero archetypes in other cultures. Partly as anthropological research, partly because I still dig super heroes. Whether it be the Italian inversion of our hero into a super criminal archetype or the heroic and noble lucha libre characters. I’m intrigued by how cultures across the globe notice and absorb our costumed fighting heroes.
And this brings us to Japan. I’ve never been to Japan. I don’t know a lot about Japanese history or culture. But what I do know a lot about is Japanese super heroes.
The Japanese, over every other culture on earth, aside from us, embrace super heroes with open arms. They have just as many as we do. And they have interesting twists on the archetypes that prove to be as long lasting as ours. Over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with a genre of Japanese live action filmmaking called Tokusatsu. Tokusatsu, or toku for sort, is a genre that is populated by sci-fi and action themes that usually involve large anthropomorphic monsters battling each other in miniature model cities.
It’s goofy and I love it. The Japanese have three main toku shows Ultraman, Kamen Rider and Super Sentai. Each one of these shows has been on the air for around fifty years. So, in that way, they’re very similar to our super heroes. The interesting twist on the way they present the stories though is the fact that they change casts and characters every year. So that means you shoot fifty-two episodes of a television show staring a specific Kamen Rider, Ultraman, or Super Sentai team, and then you completely overhaul the show, change the cast and characters and do it all again. It’s interesting. Everybody gets their one year in the spotlight and then they’re done. They’re forced out. Sure, some of the more popular characters return for guest spots or cameos but overall it’s a revolving door.
The topic of this specific article is Kamen Rider Amazon, the fourth installment of the long running Kamen Rider series. So, just give you some basics on all the Kamen Riders: they are all super powered, pseudo-vigilantes who ride motorcycles. 95 percent of them are grasshopper themed, meaning their costumes are patterned after a grasshopper. They usually fight an evil organization that produces monsters and aims to take over the world. And that’s about all you need to know to get into Kamen Rider. You just pick one and dive it. They all start from basically scratch so you can select a series that looks appealing and dig it.
The only issue is finding the material. The shows never aired here in the states, so finding subtitled, or ‘subbed’ as it’s referred to in the community, content is relatively difficult. Like many things, it’s easier now that the Internet exists because there are large communities of American fans that subtitle, or ‘fansub’, the material as a hobby. Finding those communities can be difficult as well. They’re not exclusionary but the necessary secrecy of illegally distributing copyrighted material makes finding the only gatherings slightly less than easy. However, a few quick and deft social media searches will connect you with people who are as interested in the exploits of rubber suited monsters and men as you are.
I initially started by diving into the original Ultraman show, as it aired here in the states its easier to get your hands on. I instantly fell in love. The tone, the cinematography, the thinly veiled social commentary. It was right up my alley. After bouncing around to various Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Ultraman series I made up my mind to procure a physical copy of one of these shows and watch it from beginning to end. And so came Kamen Rider Amazon.
Amazon follows the journey of a young boy, who in a plane crash in the amazon jungle, is raised by an Incan tribe. A shaman performs an ancient rite upon him and gifts him with super powers and a magician amulet. The shaman then tells our young super-powered not-Tarzan to go to Tokyo to fight Geddon, a massive criminal organization headed up, no pun intended, by a gigantic ten faced floating demon. Oh, and all this happens in the first five minutes of the first episode.
The story progresses and Amazon makes his way to Tokyo where he confronts Geddon’s spider-women henchmen. Henchwomen? I’m not sure about what the correct term is there. Amazon finds a supporting case, uses his powers for the first time (which means he transforms into a rubber suited ass-kicking machine) and defeats the foes.
The interesting thing about Kamen Rider as a franchise is that there are meta-textual echoes throughout the series. Every Kamen Rider, save a few, the Rider fights a spider themed antagonist and then every second episode he fights a bat-themed antagonist. Now, of course I, with a western point of view, think that this is the Japanese meta-textually asserting their superiority. That Spider-man and Batman, the two most globally popular super heroes, don’t even compare to what the Japanese heroes have to offer. I love this idea. I hope that it’s true, but somehow it feels slightly high reaching for a super hero show aimed at twelve-year-old boys.
Amazon, like most Kamen Rider shows, is a fairly formulaic exercise in escapism and power fantasy. Amazon, who barely speaks Japanese, must save his twelve year old boy sidekick from this monster or that monster or fight off an army of Geddon’s followers in order to blah blah blah. They’re all the same, really. But in that repetition comes a strange sense of calm. A narrative rocking sensation that lulls the view into a sense of comfortable bliss. You start paying attention in spurts. You notice what the villain this week is, you notice when they introduce a new combat move or weapon, and you get excited and chant along with Amazon when he A) transforms by yelling ‘AAA-MMAAA-ZOOOON’ B) defeats the villain by utilizing his go-to move, a downward karate chop that is accompanied by the yelling of the phrase ‘Big Chop!’
The show is pure creative cocaine injected into your brain. It’s like opening a window in your skull and seeing back to what you were like when you were twelve and you didn’t care what people thought. You needed to wear your underwear outside your clothes because that’s what Superman did. And damn it, you were going to grow up and fly and save people and wearing your underwear outside your clothes was just the first step.
The creatures that Amazon fights are amazingly inventive. They usually have a connection to some sort of animal in the real world. As in, Toad Beastman, Sea Anemone Beastman, or Bat Beastman. I have no idea if that’s actually their names, but the copy of the DVD that I have, which is apparently sanctioned by the Malaysian government, gives all the villains the surname of Beastman. Just to reiterate, yes, in fact, they are half beast and half man.
Like most Kamen Rider shows the show is actually split in half. The first half of the show is dedicated to combatting a single evil government organization. The second half of the season is dedicated to battle a different evil organization, that usually, is in someway connected to the previous evil organization. The Japanese hate secret evil organizations almost as much as we hate communism.
The show really picks up after Amazon defeats Geddon, the ten faced floating head demon. Geddon sounds awesome, and on paper seams even more awesome but they kinda suck. All of their male henchmen have these weird fringe get-ups and the monsters just aren’t very cool. More over, the floating head demon, who is the true antagonist of the first half of the season doesn’t really do anything. Sure, it/he/whatever drinks blood a couple of times but other than that and barking orders at nameless goons, it/he/whatever isn’t actually that scary.
That’s the other aspect of this show that sets it apart from the other 23 series is that it’s gory. Not Texas Chainsaw realistic gory, but gory in its own amazingly Japanese, over the top way. It’s delightful. Monsters get stabbed or maimed in some way and plumes of neon collared orange or green gore spurts all over the place. It’s phenomenal. Absolutely a delight to behold.
The second half of the series is full on crazy. There’s a Toad Beastman that takes off his head, leaving a smaller head underneath, and throws it like a boomerang. An evil Mole character is reformed and becomes a member of the supporting cast. It is a pure delight to witness.
Children’s programming should always be forced to be as inventive and ludicrous as Kamen Rider Amazon. It’s simply breathtaking in its commitment to new levels of insanity.
This being said, almost every Kamen Rider fan that I’ve come in contact with hates this series. They think it’s strange, it deviated from the formula, and it doesn’t hold true to the core tenants that make Kamen Rider good. I, however, love Kamen Rider Amazon more than any of the other tokusatsu shows that I have consumed. It’s narrative chaos and absolute disregard for tradition is it’s main strength, I think. I love every aspect of it.
In short, go out and track down a copy of this DVD or get involved in some message board in the deep dark recesses of the Internet and watch Kamen Rider Amazon. You won’t regret it.
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Tagged: comics, kamen rider, kamen rider amazon, kamen rider black, kamen rider stronger, kamen rider super-1, kamen rider v3, manga, metal heroes, super heroes, tokusatsu
Posted in: Cult Movies, Featured (Film), Film, Film Reviews, Super Hero Movies