Kamen Rider: 7 Riders to Start Off With

Looking to delve into a Japanese superhero that's not Ultraman? Allow us to give you a few suggestions.

I should say this up front: you don’t have to like Super Sentai (aka “Power Rangers“) to like Kamen Rider.

Yes, both shows involve a lot of sparks and explosions. Yes, the two have become forever intertwined since they were scheduled together in the same Sunday morning lineup on TV-Asahi for almost twenty years. Yes, they tend to cross over a lot more than they used to. And, yes, Kamen Rider has picked up on Sentai’s flashy and bombastic style (for better or worse).

But Kamen Rider has always been written and intended for an older audience than the little tykes Super Sentai began to strictly cater to thanks to the success of its western adaptation Power Rangers. The Kamen Rider franchise deals with infinitely more complex themes than its sister show could ever handle. (In fact, some of the darkest television episodes I’ve ever watched were from Kamen Rider programs.)

Above all, what you really need to know is that Kamen Rider is a hero from the future. Each iteration feels as though it has come back in time to help us, and brings all possibilities of the what lies ahead.

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So that’s why I’m here today, writing a list of several Kamen Rider series you can watch if you feel like getting your feet wet in this colossal yet beautifully clusterfucked franchise that continues to warp minds with its surrealistic take on the super hero genre.

Before we start, I should mention that there are two separate eras to the Kamen Rider series – the classic Showa Era and the Heisei Era, which we are still in as of the time of this writing. This piece will feature contemporary Heisei Rider series, which are considerably more accessible to modern audiences than their ancestors were. I still recommend giving them a watch, but know that they’re a different experience entirely.

Okay, all that boring intro stuff you probably skimmed through is out of the way. Ready to jump in now? Good, me too.

Kamen Rider W (2009)

What’s it about?

W (or Double as they pronounce it in the show) is many things. Primarily, it’s a mystery/dramedy, a screwball send-up to film noir, Raymond Chandler, and everything hard boiled in general. Secondly, it’s a high-octane thriller stuffed with action sequences at every turn that leave you out of breath but ready for more (which is saying a lot for a Kamen Rider series). And thirdly, Kamen Rider W is a sci-fi/horror drama that’s told on a scale so large that it’d make a Wachowski gasp in awe.

Why is it good?

Why any truly great show is good: the characters.

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Double is not just a smartly written tokusatsu program – it’s a brilliantly structured television show. Its story is told in a two-part “case of the week” mini-arc format that the show still relies on to this day. But most of the time, each case of the week usually gets absorbed by the main ongoing narrative along the way – or vice versa. W emphasizes the most vital ingredient of mystery storytelling: surprise.

At its core though, the characters are what drive this series and make it such an addictive watch. Philip and Shotaro make a bang-up combo as the two hosts who share the Kamen Rider powers, and their dynamic is the heart of the show. The supporting cast is a talented bunch, never failing to evoke laughter or sympathy (or both) in the same scene. Kamen Rider series tend to have solid casts in general, but W’s remains unforgettable to this day because their unparalleled chemistry has yet to be duplicated.

Prepare yourself for…

Zany slapstick antics; lighthearted humor juxtaposed with sinister yet wacky technology; not so subtle homoerotic subtext; people being whacked on the head with shoes; giant T-Rex heads; secret societies and evil corporations; heartwarming lessons that might actually warm your own cold hearts.

Kamen Rider Ryuki (2002)

What’s it about?

Thirteen people make contracts with monsters from the Mirror World, a dimension we see into when we look at reflections, that give them access to Kamen Rider powers. In exchange for these abilities, the contractors must feed said monsters the energy from creatures they must destroy in the process. If competing over food wasn’t enough, the creator of their henshin devices (aka the Advent Decks) decrees that all Kamen Riders are kind of like Highlanders – there can only be one. So begins a battle royale (of sorts) that pits all of the Kamen Riders (from this particular entry) against each other.

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Ryuki is considered one of the most influential Kamen Rider series from the Hesei era, if not from the franchise’s entire history. It set a high standard for most Rider shows that came after it, simply due to how it handled the escalating conflicts between all of its characters. The Mirror World elements may often feel mishandled or underutilized – and the conclusion won’t satisfy everybody out there – but if you’re completely new to Kamen Rider and want a glance at its true spirit, the one that lies beneath its recent candy coated exterior – give Ryuki a shot.

Why is it good?

Speaking as a long time fan, Rider on Rider action is where the money’s at, and Ryuki has this in spades. The Rider archetype is usually portrayed a fierce individual, a fatalistic anti-hero that’s burning up with so much angst that they can’t even be in the same room with another like them. This tension permeates throughout each episode of Ryuki, figuratively churning a dramatic butter that’s so rich and dangerous because preys directly upon your binge watching tendencies.

Prepare yourself for…

Angst; a goofy protagonist; angst; a Yu-Gi-Oh meets Digimon gimmick; gravity-defying acrobatics; angst; and an irritatingly ubiquitous sound effect that will haunt your dreams. All of ’em.

Kamen Rider Fourze (2012)

What’s it about?

Space. And friendship. And random ninjas that come out of nowhere and kick you in the face.

There are times when Power Rangers likens itself to The Breakfast Club, usually when it revisits its original high school setting. The only time this homage was ever truly felt or explored in a meaningful way was in Dino Thunder (or perhaps in the upcoming reboot movie). Other than that, the comparison always felt out of line for me.

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But in all honesty, Kamen Rider Fourze is hands down the only tokusatsu show I can safely say will give anybody Breakfast Club related feels. The whole premise of the show is based on a rebellious transfer student named Gentaro Kisaragi who is determined to be friends with everyone at his new school, Armanogawa High, no matter what. The problem is, there’s weird stuff happening across campus lately – strange beasts called Zodiarts are lurking throughout the hallways, terrorizing students and obstructing the narrow hallways with their bulky costumes. So Gentaro’s new friend, a mysterious loner named Kengo, takes him to an abandoned locker in a secret part of campus that doubles as a magical doorway to The Rabbit Hutch, a secret hideout base located on the moon. Gentaro uses the Astro Switches – devices that Kengo’s father had developed long ago – to transform into Kamen Rider Fourze, the hero who will put an end the Zodiart invasion in the friendliest way possible.

Along the way, Gentaro forms the Kamen Rider Club, a secret group of friends made up of the classmates he saves as Fourze. Some get along and some don’t, but in the end, everyone gets a chance to be a hero – which is what I really enjoy about this show.

Why is it good?

It’s fun. If you’re looking for an example of a good Kamen Rider series that strikes a more accessible balance between action and comedy, look no further than Fourze. It’s obvious everyone behind and in front of the camera enjoy what they’re doing. It’s made up of three of my favorite ingredients: a sense of passion, an irreverent attitude, and a big heart. And even if the power-ups are silly and the henshin device looks like it was modeled by Fisher Price, it makes up for it by paying plenty of homage to old school Kung-Fu cinema on a regular basis.

Prepare yourself for…

Color schemes based on the NASA logo; insane karate fights; disco transformations sequences; Daft Punk-esque figures floating around in satellite stations; a hilarious female sidekick; minor characters becoming major characters; an incredible amount of space fetishism.

Kamen Rider Blade (2005)

What’s it about?

This one is kind of…complicated.

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10,000 years ago, there was a huge battle that occurred on earth between fifty-two members from different species of demon known as the Undead. The winner of this tournament (known as the Battle Royal) was the Human Undead, officially designated as Category Two of Hearts. This is what gave the human race dominion over earth.

In present day Japan (okay fine, 2005), a new Battle Royal begins after archaeologists unleash an ancient sealed Undead. The Board of Archaeological Research Department, BOARD (feel free to roll your eyes), hires two young men – Kenzaki and Tachibana – to use the Rider System they have developed based on Category Joker’s abilities to become Kamen Rider Blade and Kamen Rider Garren respectively and seal the Undead. They didn’t hire Kamen Rider Chalice though. Who is that guy, anyway?

Why is it good?

If you can’t already tell from reading that synopsis, Blade is an unusual show. Not only does it have a complex premise, it sounds downright spooky too. And it is. Blade is as close to a horror themed program as Kamen Rider got before Kiva aired – and is much more committed to being one than that particular show ever was. The mythology behind Blade is immense and Lovecraftian, supplying enough dread and menace that’s felt long after the final episode.

And yet, like any good Kamen Rider series, Blade doesn’t collapse under the weight of its suffocating universe. It grounds itself in the simplistic innocence of quiet moments spent at the Jarcanda Cafe with supporting characters Kotaro, Haruka and Amane. There’s even an episode featuring the series’ grimmest character going on a silly The Prince and The Pauper-esque side adventure that will also melt your brain a little bit, too.

Despite that, Kamen Rider Blade has what is currently the most tragic ending of any Kamen Rider series so far, which seems to me as more of a fit for the franchise anyway. But what do I know? I don’t want to sell toys. (Yet.)

Prepare yourself for…

Another Yu-Gi-Oh themed gimmick; possessed kids up to no good; milk binging; glow in the dark green oozey blood; scary caves; nauseating camerawork; organizations with weirdly redundant names; surrendering to total confusion and becoming a stronger person for it.

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Kamen Rider OOO (2010)

What’s it about?

Corporate greed, ancient alchemical super powers, and expressive camera angles.

But really, there’s so much to OOO’s backstory I don’t know where to begin.

When coin-based homunculi beings from the distant past known as the Greeed awaken from their 800 year nap, the Kougami Foundation quickly takes measure to stop them. But when a young wanderer named Eiji is given the power to transform into a legendary hero named OOO (pronounced Os – like a plural version of the letter “o” – yes I know this is weird) by a the disembodied arm of an exiled Greeed known as Ankh, the corporation is inclined to support him in order to acquire more magic coins (medals) for their own selfish interests.

By attaching his arm to the body of a police detective he finds critically injured in a car accident, Ankh seeks out the rest of his real body and his Core Medals, which he lends to Eiji to toggle through the many different animal themed powers of OOO. To complicate things even more, Eiji works a day job at a goofy cafe where he dresses up in different costumes alongside the police detective’s sister, who just so happens to have super strength for no apparent reason at all.

As OOO hunts down the Greeed and battles their monsters (which are known as Yummies), he learns about the true nature of human desire while rescuing people from their own destructive obsessions which manifest themselves as Greeeds.

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Did any of that make sense to you?

Why is it good?

OOO isn’t a Kamen Rider series, it’s a great piece of Japanese cinema. Each and every episode should be studed in film courses across the world. The music, the lighting, the framing, the pacing – everything about this show is artfully created and made with panache. So much thought was put into the making of this particular installment of the franchise, and even if it pushes the limits of being too surreal or wacky on a consistent basis, you still care about its characters and enjoy spending time with them. What more can you ask for?

Prepare yourself for…

Silly international cosplay madness; psychedelic hairstyles; loud pastel underwear; popsicle addictions; insidious colored fabric; lots and lots of birthday cakes.

Kamen Rider Den-O (2007)

What’s it about?

Since it’s about time travel and the inevitable problems that stem from it, you could consider Den-O to be kind of like the Doctor Who analogue of the Kamen Rider universe. And just like that pop culture phenomenon, Den-O rode a wave of popularity in the late ‘00s that has been unseen since. There were so many movie sequels made that they eventually spun-off into their own sub-brand. Yeah, it was that big of a deal.

The show’s story focuses on a young boy named Ryotaro who seems to have a tremendous amount of bad luck. But that’s okay, because he’s soon swept away by a strange girl on a flying bullet train that can go anywhere in time. Their mission: to stop the Imagin, ghostly beings from the future that work to change the past. To do this, Ryo becomes Den-O with the help of his own friendly Imagin guides – specifically Momotaros, the big star of the show. He changes forms and powers by being possessed by a different Imagin. So he’s basically like being saved by Linda Blair in cybernetic body armor. 

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Why is it good?

Den-O’s focus on lighthearted comedy was divisive amongst fans at the time it aired, as it was going against Kamen Rider’s more traditional image, which was intense and somber for most of its run. But now, after having sat through more bombastic shows, Den-O’s ambition shines through the most. It’s take on time travel isn’t the most lucid, but when has The Doctor’s ever been? But a warning: the quota of silly people doing things in silly costumes in this show is more than maxed out, which might prove unbearable for some of you out there. But once you look past all that, it’s a wild trip.

Prepare yourself for…

Rainbows; Lisa Frank porn; bad cosplay; awkward dancing; inexplicable references to fishing; strange actor swapping; more rainbows; never being able to look at time (or a plate of brown rice) the same way again.

Kamen Rider ZO (1993)

What’s it about?

There are over forty Kamen Rider movies floating around out there. Yes, that’s a lot. Not even Batman has that many. The thing is, though, you can’t watch 94% of them without feeling lost if you haven’t seen most (if not all) of the respective TV series each one is based on. I mean, you could if you really wanted to, but it wouldn’t make any of sense. Not that they’re going to make much sense even after you’ve seen the shows anyway, but y’know.

But Kamen Rider ZO is different. It’s a standalone feature released in 1994, another golden year for tokusatsu, and looks freaking gorgeous.

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A young man named Masaru reawakens from a two-year coma deep in the mountains. He is instantly feels the instinct to protect Hiroshi, the son of Doctor Mochizuka, the man who experimented on him  while developing the Neo-Organism. The Neo-Organism is corrupted and has taken on the form of Doras, a dark Rider-esque warrior, to hunt down Hiroshi. Masaru transorms into Kamen Rider ZO to protect the child from Doras and other monsters.

Why is it good?

Since seeing this trailer on the end of a bootleg Zyuranger VHS I ordered online was my personal introduction to Kamen Rider, I will always be partial to it. To me, ZO sums up everything you need to know about Kamen Rider into one simple movie that feels a lot longer than its running time. The cinematography, the practical special effects, and the costume design are all top notch. Everything about this film is larger than life, dark, and dancing on the edge of reality. You can think of ZO like Terminator 2 with insects instead of robots. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the original pitch for this movie. But that’s precisely why it’s so awesome – it’s, again, simple like that, with just enough complexity on the periphreal to make it engaging.

Prepare yourself for…

A giant spider woman; a flying bat creature; a fitting end; and a truly epic theme song.

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