Image via Vintage Henshin
Whenever you hear about the creation of Kamen Rider, you usually hear the same story: the series was based on a manga by Shotaro Ishinomori and adapted for television by Toru Hirayama and his team at Toei. Sometimes you hear about how they first pitched a hero based on Ishinomori’s Skull Man manga but it was rejected due to being too violent. I myself am guilty of simplifying the story to such a degree when discussing the creation of one of Japan’s most iconic superheroes. What most people don’t know is that Kamen Rider was the result of a long and troubled pre-production cycle consisting of 10 months of constantly shifting ideas marred by disputes over budgetary constraints and industry politics. This is the origin of Kamen Rider seldom spoken of, the secrets from behind the scenes and behind the mask.
It’s spring of 1970 and Mainichi Broadcasting System (MBS) has a half-hour time slot on Saturdays between 7:30 and 8:00 pm that continues to be a money sink. No matter what they air, regardless of genre or demographic, nothing seems to stick. This was because at the same time the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), was airing their hit comedy series Comedy Brain Exercises. The TBS hit had an average viewership rating of 30.9%, which in Japanese broadcasting metrics meant that of all the TVs in Japan watching a show at that time, just under 1/3rd of those TVs were watching TBS. MBS was unable to compete and the time slot became a dumping ground for reruns of American shows like I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. After a year of losing, MBS had enough.
MBS approached Toei’s television department in June of 1970 requesting a new television program to draw more viewers to the channel. The channel’s general manager, Tetsu Shouno, said that he needed a hit show no matter how much money it cost and Toei producers Yoshinori Watanabe and Toru Hirayama got to work planning the series. Watanabe, Hirayama’s senior, suggested they do a masked hero like the classic Japanese hero series Moonlight Mask but with a gutsy sports theme inspired by the success of Toei’s Tiger Mask anime series. This was a risky proposition as hero series had fallen out of popularity in the late ’60s with Tsuburaya putting their popular Ultra series on hiatus following the finale of Ultraseven in 1968. Even in the world of anime, superheroes were lagging in popularity behind drama and sports titles. Hirayama wasn’t very optimistic but Watanabe said that a lack of competition would be a huge benefit to them and could potentially lead to a revival of the TV special effects industry.
The first draft was titled Maskman K and focused on a gym teacher named Tsuyoshi Kujo who moonlights as the titular hero. Maskman K would fight against the forces of Shocker, an evil syndicate hellbent on taking over Japan. The story aimed to deliver action and drama while inspiring kids with the main character having gained his powers through hard work and training. The proposal was never submitted to MBS. Instead, Hirayama grabbed writers Masaru Igami, Shinichi Ichikawa, and Shozo Uehara to form a three-man writing team to meet throughout the summer and make adjustments to the proposal, turning it into what would become known as Kamen Tenshi: Masked Angel. That new version changed the lead character’s name to Takeshi Hongo, now a wanted man suspected of killing his former teacher, Professor Midorikawa. Uehara and Ichikawa were more familiar with writing science fiction, having previously worked with Tsuburaya writing episodes of Ultra Q and Ultraman, and this iteration noticeably reduced the athletic vibe of the first draft by introducing sci-fi elements like the main character receiving his powers after being electrocuted with 300,000 volts of electricity.
Watanabe and Hirayama had been working alongside Noboru Kato, the manager of manga author Shotaro Ishinomori (known professionally as Shotaro Ishimori at that time), whom Hirayama had hoped to collaborate with after meeting him at a Kondansha party. In September of 1970, Hirayama reached out to Ishinomori to design the hero for the series. Noboru Kato approved the meeting but said Ishinomori was busy and would only allow Hirayama 30 minutes to pitch his proposal. Despite Hirayama feeling pressured by Kato staring at his watch for the duration of this meeting, Ishinomori liked the pitch and designed a hero he named “Cross Fire.” Due to a studio mandate that the hero must ride a motorcycle, Cross Fire rode a motorcycle and wore a motorcycle helmet with a cross-shaped visor that he would lower to hide the scars from the electrical shock that gave him his powers which appeared when he became angry. This aspect of Cross Fire was obviously taken from the character Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, a sci-fi novel where the main character’s tiger stripe tattoos show on his face when angered. This detail wouldn’t make it into the final show but did become a recurring plot point in Ishinomori’s serialized manga adaptation. The Cross Fire proposal also added in the character Ruriko Midorikawa, the daughter of the murdered professor who joins forces with the hero to avenge her father. Included in the proposal were Masaru Igami’s scripts for the first two episodes, “The Eerie Spider Man” and “Mysterious House of Horrors,” as well as Ishinomori’s proposed titles: Cross Fire, Cross Mask, and Cross Fire Mask. With Ishinomori working on the project, MBS requested a serialized manga to run consecutively with the television broadcast. Noboru Kato met with the Editor in Chief of Weekly Shonen Magazine, and a manga project was approved by the end of the year. In November of 1970, Ishinomori’s designs for Cross Fire were submitted to Toei and MBS who loved them, immediately approved the project, and requested a budget proposal.
The budget would turn out to be one of the most contentious and defining aspects of Kamen Rider’s production. Hirayama claimed that Toei was initially told to produce a hit show regardless of the expense, but before filming began, he learned that the budget per episode would only be four million yen (~$100,000). Four million yen was less than most dramas at the time and less than half of what it cost Tsuburaya to produce an episode of Ultraman. Hirayama called the bureau director at MBS who compared Toei to bandits, skimping on production costs to embezzle money for themselves. Hirayama considered himself level-headed and often worked to defuse situations like this, but from his perspective, such allegations couldn’t be met with anything but dissent, or else it might appear as an admission of guilt. Hirayama called the allegations slander and told the director that he was out of line to accuse people he should consider partners of such an act. Hirayama continued to argue that the allegations were ridiculous considering that their budget was so low that there was nowhere to embezzle money from. MBS’s Tetsu Shouno intervened to put the argument to rest, and it’s believed that the accusation was a bluff to scare Toei from potentially embezzling funds, but bluff or not, the situation had many at Toei concerned that the project would be canceled before they could film the first episode.
By December, the title had changed to Cross Mask: Kamen Rider, and actor and martial artist Hiroshi Fujioka was cast in the role of protagonist Takeshi Hongo. The premiere was set for April 3, 1971, but at the same time, Toei learned that Tsuburaya was planning to revive the Ultra series with Return of Ultraman, also premiering in April of 1971. Hirayama didn’t get along with writer Shinichi Ichikawa from the start of production and since Ichikawa had past experience writing on Ultraman, it didn’t surprise anyone when he jumped ship taking fellow writer Shozo Uehara with him to write for Tsuburaya’s new TV project. Toru Hirayama saw this as a personal betrayal, though in Ichikawa’s defense, budget issues guaranteed that he would make more money working for Tsuburaya. With the preproduction constantly changing ideas combined with the war of business politics occurring between Toei and MBS, he also likely assumed the series would never even start filming. Ichikawa even brought in replacement writers Masayuki Shimada and Hidetoshi Kitamura to fill his and Uehara’s roles before his departure.
Despite losing two writers, the production was making headway and though it may just be lingering spite, Hirayama claimed that none of the writing in the finished version belonged to either Ichikawa or Uehara outside a brief scene at the beginning of what would become the fourth episode. Toei had their hero and his cool design was sure to be popular with children. Then, one January night just after finishing his dinner, Hirayama received an unexpected phone call. “It’s Mr. Ishimori.” said Hirayama’s wife as she handed him the phone. Ishinomori told him that he didn’t like the current portrayal of the hero and wanted to do something different. Cross Fire was too conventional and Ishinomori wanted to create something “realistic and grotesque.” Ishinonmori presented a new proposal titled Kamen Rider: Skull Man where the design of the hero was changed to a man wearing a helmet with a skull motif. The design and tone were inspired by Ishinomori’s one-shot manga The Skull Man published a year prior in Weekly Shonen Magazine for their New Years’ One-Shot special. This rendition of the character saw Takeshi Hongo gain his powers by becoming a cyborg in a similar process to the antagonist monsters of the series and also introduced Tobei Tachibana as the hero’s personal trainer.
Hirayama presented this new pitch to Watanabe. He hated it. Watanabe wanted an original hero and Skull Man had already existed for a full year at that point. MBS also disliked the proposal as they felt a character with a skull motif wouldn’t be appealing because it was too scary and would hinder sales. The 7:30 pm timeslot was popular with families since it was common for families to watch TV while eating dinner and MBS said that showing a skull during dinner would make people sick. Ishinomori was disheartened that the proposal wasn’t accepted and began drawing designs sporadically. His frustration would lead Ishinomori to create over 50 possible designs for the character. Of the designs, Ishinomori gravitated to a design based on a grasshopper motif as he felt the grasshopper’s face was eerie and skull-like. Reflecting on the grasshopper design, Ishinomori became attached to it as he felt an insect design was perfect for a hero who fights against an enemy who destroys nature.
At the time, Japan was experiencing rising concerns over rapid industrialization, with lawsuits brought against the Mitsui Mining and Smelting Company who were found to be dumping cadmium in the Jinzu river leading to an outbreak of the Itai-Itai virus1. Minamata disease was also a hot-button issue, with demonstrations and protests being held in front of factories across Japan throughout the late ’60s and ’70s. Minamata disease is a type of methylmercury poisoning caused by frequent ingesting of contaminated seafood. The disease received its name from Minamata City where the chemical company Chisso had been dumping factory waste including mercury into a nearby river which ran into the Yatsushiro sea. Despite identification of the mercury poisoning in the late 1950s, the issue was more or less swept under the rug. Chiiso compensated victims, paid for a water treatment facility, and politicians suggested fishermen not fish in the polluted waters (though this was a suggestion, not a restriction). In 1966 a second outbreak occurred. It was later revealed that the water treatment plant was mostly for show and the water it produced only looked clean on sight, but still contained traces of chemicals. Also, opening a water treatment plant doesn’t suddenly make the already contaminated fish uncontaminated, and residents were still eating contaminated fish daily. The second outbreak led to a rise in public concern about the environmental damage of industrialization leading to the creation of the Basic Laws of Environmental Pollution Control in 1967, one of Japan’s earliest environmental protection groups. Ishinomori envisioned Kamen Rider as a hero who protects not just people, but the Earth itself.
MBS and Toei still weren’t sold on the grasshopper motif and thought that children might find the design frightening. Ishinomori asked his son Joe, who was in kindergarten at the time, to choose his favorite drawing from the array of different designs. To Ishinomori’s delight, his son chose the grasshopper design. When the grasshopper design was brought to MBS’s office in Tokyo, Tetsu Shouno said he was relieved the design was not a skull but objected to the use of an insect design. Shono said that kids crush insects, which will make the hero appear weak, but Hirayama argued that insects are strong and only appear weak because of their size and that if a bug was human-sized, it would be incredibly powerful. The next day Hirayama and Ishinomori’s manager Kato visited MBS’s Osaka headquarters to deliver their pitch. Hirayama pitched the series as a hero project about an “insect-man” intentionally neglecting to specify that he was a grasshopper since that aspect of the character seemed controversial. Kato then drew the mask on a blackboard and said that it was so easy to remember a child could draw it from memory and that was enough for MBS to give their final approval to begin production.
The helmet for the hero was created by Ekisu Productions, whose most notable prior work was creating the cyclops monsters in the 1968 film The Green Slime. Toei was immensely satisfied with their work and their ability to perfectly recreate Ishinomori’s illustrations and so a photo session was held to get a better sense of how to film the costume and to get photos to use in early promotional material. Still concerned that the grasshopper design might frighten small children, Hirayama showed the helmet to a little girl who was passing by. “She ran away with a face as if she was about to cry, and all the staff stopped moving,” Hirayama recalled. “I too felt a chill run down my spine as my face turned pale, but there was neither the time nor the budget to redo it now.” Hirayama’s response was to have the photographer try to capture the helmet from a more appealing angle, one that didn’t make the hero appear monstrous.
Now going under the title Kamen Rider: Hopper King, the story was an amalgamation of elements from previous proposals. Takeshi Hongo is an amazing athlete with an IQ of 600 but because of these outstanding traits, he’s captured by the evil organization Shocker and turned into a cyborg monster. Hongo manages to escape before Shocker can erase his memory and uses his newfound power to fight against Shocker and their army of cyborg monsters. Having a superhero who forcibly received his powers from the villains and who struggled to adjust to these changes wasn’t typical in superhero programs but Ishinomori felt it was necessary in creating a character who viewers could relate to. Likewise, Hirayama wanted the show to contain character drama that could create interest and tension to hold viewers throughout the entire episode’s runtime. According to Hirayama, most special effects shows had a similar formula where episodes mostly consisted of characters talking or investigating with all the action and budget thrown into the final three minutes where the hero finally fights the bad guy. Hirayama’s push for character drama was to circumvent this pitfall and make viewers want to watch episodes all the way through which was achieved through Ishinomori’s presentation of a tragic hero along with a heavy incorporation of mystery elements to spur intrigue and keep viewers invested.
Budget was always an issue with the production, with many on staff noting that the special effects and costumes were of noticeably lower quality than what viewers would find when tuning in to reruns of Tsuburaya’s Ultra series. The main character’s transformation sequence was achieved using jump cuts and streaks of light drawn onto the film which gave the sequence an amateurish look. It was clear that Toei’s hero wouldn’t be able to perform amazing attacks like Ultraman’s specium beam, but Toei’s Yusaku Uchida realized they could use the hero’s grasshopper motif to their advantage. Instead of shooting a beam, the hero could jump high into the air and deliver a powerful kick, a move that would be relatively easy to pull off with their limited resources. This would be the birth of Kamen Rider’s signature move, the Rider Kick! Hirayama reflected on the technique stating that the low budget inadvertently helped the series become more popular. He recalled always seeing children play riders and many of the letters Toei received from fans were from children who loved playing riders with their friends and classmates whereas Hirayama hardly ever saw children imitating Ultraman. Hirayama’s explanation for this is that Kamen Rider’s abilities were easier and more fun for children to imitate. If children were to play Ultraman, they would do the hand motion and pretend to fire a Specium beam but that isn’t as fun or immersive as actually doing a jump, kick, or chop like Rider.
The show began filming its first few episodes in February of 1971. Around the same time, MBS expressed concern that the title might be too long and called Kodansha, who was about to print the magazine featuring the first advertisement for the series, to stop the presses. At the last minute, the title was shortened from Kamen Rider: Hopper King to simply Kamen Rider.
Kamen Rider’s first two episodes still used most of the material from Igami’s original scripts from the Cross Fire proposal with episode one even retaining the name “The Eerie Spider Man” while episode two, “Mysterious House of Horrors’,’ was retitled “The Terrifying Bat Man.” There was a lot of uncertainty among the crew because despite being an entry in the tokusatsu (special effects) genre, the series used very few special effects. Hiroshi Fujioka referred to the series as a “no-money-body-intensive action film” due to a lack of miniatures or sets with most battles consisting of choreographed fights mixed with low-angle shots of trampoline jumps usually filmed in a vacant quarry. Before the series even started airing, the bureau director at MBS was furious when he saw an early cut of episode seven. The episode ended with a scene of Takeshi Hongo running when he discovers two puppies, stops and begins playing with them and asking if they are lonely like him. The bureau director at MBS was furious as he felt a superhero needed to be strong and cheerful, unconcerned with sentimentality. Hirayama drove to the office the next day and told them why the scene was important for establishing Hongo’s character and in a very anti-climatic fashion, MBS agreed. What Hirayama doesn’t mention in his book is that Hongo asking the puppies if they are lonely too is completely inaudible in the final version of the episode, instead featuring the narrator delivering a voice-over about how Hongo will always fight the evil forces of Shocker. The sentiment remains though as it was the image of Hongo playing with puppies that the bureau director said made him look weak.
Shortly after the puppy incident, a new issue arose, one that would change the trajectory of the Rider series before the first episode could even hit television airwaves. While filming a scene for episode 10, Hiroshi Fujioka fell off his motorcycle and suffered a severe injury that made him unable to work for six months. A meeting was called between Toei and MBS to discuss a new direction for the series with MBS advocating to kill off Takeshi Hongo and replace him with a new actor. Hirayama protested that killing the hero would destroy the dreams of children. It was around this time that the series made its television debut with the first episode pulling in 8.1%. This was better than reruns of Bewitched but not the ratings blowout the network was hoping for. While trying to determine the new direction of the series, episodes 12 and 13 were created by limiting Takeshi Hongo’s appearances in the episodes and mixing stock footage of Hiroshi Fujioka with new shots of actors wearing the same outfits but with their faces obscured and voice lines dubbed in by voice actor Rokuro Naya. Because scenes and episodes were often filmed out of order, the final scene of episode nine was yet to be filmed and this scene was to feature Takeshi Hongo presenting flowers and crying over the grave of a dog. However, because of the accident, the scene was filmed with a stuntman in costume which many staff disliked since you couldn’t discern Hongo’s grief with his face obscured by a mask. Hirayama said that with the right lighting you could portray a sad expression, recounting a trip to a museum where he saw an array of Noh masks which seemed to portray different emotions when light hit them from different angles. Though Hirayama was satisfied with the scene, the staff at MBS were not. It seemed like there was only one path the staff could take in order to move forward, they had to do what all the forces of Shocker couldn’t: kill Takeshi Hongo.
Despite MBS’s insistence that killing off Takeshi Hongo would solve all their problems, Hirayama’s persistence kept Hongo alive and it was decided that instead Hongo would leave to fight Shocker overseas and a new Rider would take his place. This gave the staff the opportunity to fix a lot of issues they found while filming earlier episodes. For example, the dark green used for Kamen Rider’s chest, helmet, and gloves made it difficult to film at night so a new suit was designed with a brighter colored chest and helmet. White streaks were also added, running down the arms and legs which were previously all black. Shocker’s combatmen were also revamped. For the first 13 episodes, Shocker’s nameless henchmen wore black suits with berets, but episode 14 introduced new combatmen wearing black suits with black luchador masks. The luchador masks would become an iconic symbol of shocker’s minions and also helped hide the fact that many of the combatmen were played by the same recurring cast of stunt actors.
The new Rider was named Hayato Ichimonji and played by actor Takeshi Sasaki, who had a more youthful and down-to-earth demeanor than the stoic loner that was Takeshi Hongo. Hayato was also given a partner, a new character introduced in episode 11 named Kazuya Taki, an FBI agent investigating Shocker. Taki was played by actor and martial artist Jiro Chiba, brother of Sonny Chiba, and who was originally considered for the part of Takeshi Hongo. Sasaki had seemed like the perfect choice for Kamen Rider except for one thing: he didn’t have a motorcycle license. With no time to spare, the production team decided to avoid obtaining a license for Sasaki in general as it would take too much time and they had already learned a valuable lesson about allowing your lead actor to do his own stunts. This meant that Sasaki’s Kamen Rider couldn’t transform by way of collecting wind energy in his belt, as it would require shots of him riding his motorcycle. Kazuoshi Takahashi with the Ono Kendo Club, the group that provided most of the stunt men and suit actors for the series, suggested he could do a maneuver similar to those done by sumo wrestlers at the start of a fight.
Despite the hilariously jarring transition, the lighter tone and cast changes proved successful as Kamen Rider’s rating climbed following the introduction of Takeshi Sasaki’s Kamen Rider 2. In fact, Sasaki proved so popular that he remained the main character even after Hiroshi Fujioka’s leg healed so Fujioka could pursue other roles in the meantime. Fujioka wasn’t out of the show for good though as he would return for episodes 40 and 41 before returning to the series permanently in episode 51 and remaining until the series ended after two years of broadcasting with 98 total episodes. Following Fujioka’s return, episodes maintained a steady viewer rating in the low 20s.
One of the most notable episodes following Fujioka’s return would be episode 84, which was directed by Shotaro Ishinomori himself. Ishinomori loved film and had been trying to convince Toei to allow him to direct an episode for months. Ishinomori’s manager wouldn’t allow it as his manga obligations called for him to produce nearly 300 pages a month. Ishinomori bypassed his manager entirely and approached Yoshinori Watanabe with the request and Watanabe agreed. Kato was strict and made sure that when Ishinomori wasn’t filming, he was in his hotel room working on his manuscripts. Kato even told Toru Hirayama not to compliment his work because if he moved his focus to live-action it would be the end of Ishimori Productions. The crew was overall impressed with Ishinomori’s directing, though he had directed animated works for Toei and Studio Zero, it wasn’t clear how well his talent would translate to live-action. In the end, everyone was quite happy with how the episode turned out.
Though the series technically ended after 98 episodes, its success spurred MBS to renew its contract with Toei. To follow up on what would be the finale, Ishinomori and Toei created a new Kamen Rider who would fight alongside Fujioka and Sasaki’s Kamen Rider 1 and 2. Portrayed by actor Hiroshi Miyauchi, this new Kamen Rider series would be known as Kamen Rider V3. Though V3 is considered a sequel to the original Kamen Rider series, internally, many at Toei considered it a continuation and so following the completion of the second episode, Toei held a party to celebrate Kamen Rider’s 100th episode. Hirayama thanked everyone who helped make the series possible, offering a special hand of gratitude to the Ohno Kendo Club, who he said were indispensable and underappreciated for their work bringing the series to life. Toei’s CEO Shigeru Okada appeared and offered his congratulations announcing that Kamen Rider had surpassed Comedy Brain Exercises and surpassed everyone’s expectations.
The series would turn Hiroshi Fujioka into a household name and lead to a television phenomenon known as the “henshin boom,” a period between 1971 and 1975 where Japanese children’s television was dominated by superheroes with a variety of transformation gimmicks. Many of these shows were created by Shotaro Ishinomori and Toru Hirayama who would continue to collaborate for years following the end of the henshin boom creating everything from superhero to magical girl shows. Across two years only a single episode of Kamen Rider surpassed a 30% viewer rating, but with an average viewer rating of 21.2% and later episodes occasionally surpassing Comedy Brain Exercises, Hirayama called the series a miracle spawning a franchise that still inspires children to this day.
- The Men Who Made Kamen Rider 1971-2011
- Toru Hirayama 50 Years Walked with Wills / Crybaby Producer of TV Heroes [pages 122-139]
- Shotaro Ishinomori Before 1975
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