❉ Fred McNamara on an intriguing entry in Toei’s superhero series.
Taking into account the depth and scale of stories Kamen Rider has told in its 50-year career, Kamen Rider ZO is an intimate, stripped back, almost inconspicuous affair. The long-running Japanese superhero franchise has focused on countless insect-themed superhero fighting to protect the smiles of tomorrow (or some such similar trope in Japanese superhero story-telling), thus making it difficult for the heroes themselves to leave a unique, individualistic mark, something that Kamen Rider ZO manages to quietly succeed in doing so. Released in 1993 to both celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Kamen Rider and to reignite fresh interest in the franchise during its limbo years when the most recent entry in the TV franchise was 1989’s Kamen Rider BLACK RX and no new TV show would come until 2000’s Kamen Rider Kuuga, the film had an almighty amount of pressure placed onto it, and a somewhat fractured origin.
Toei were either reeling from the relative disaster of their previous Kamen Rider venture or lapping up its success, depending on which source you read. English sources tend to go with the story that Shin: Kamen Rider Prologue’s gratuitous violence and presentation of the film’s protagonist, Kamen Rider Shin, as a monster rather than a clothed-costumed, motorcycle-riding, scar-wearing champion of justice was a step too far. However, according to the Japanese-language Wikipedia entry for Kamen Rider ZO (Google’s auto-translate function is rather rough around the edges, but you get the gist), Shin: Kamen Rider Prologue had enjoyed strong home video sales, so much so that a sequel was being considered. However, the choice was made to surge along with a new hero and take things back to basics for the twentieth anniversary of Toei’s superhero series.
Keita Amemiya, who cut his teeth as a director on various Super Sentai TV entries and as a character designer/special effects man on Kamen Rider BLACK and Kamen Rider BLACK RX, was brought into direct the film, combining his previously disparate skills. Amemiya gives Kamen Rider ZO a characteristically Gothic flavour, where mood and atmosphere take priority in the action set pieces above truly engaging story-telling. Scriptwriter Noboru Sugimura, head writer on the likes of Uchuu Keiji Gavan, Zyuranger, Dairanger and Kakuranger, doesn’t sprain any creative muscle in conjuring up the film’s slick if simple story that complements Amemiya’s robust, haunting visual stamp.
The film’s story is thoroughly uncomplicated. Kamen Rider had previously been defined as tales of masked men fighting against some form of international terrorist organisation, with Kamen Rider BLACK and BLACK RX taking this a step further via intergalactic outfits. Kamen Rider ZO scales this science fantasy back down to Earth with a story of a scientist whose experiments go wrong. Horridly wrong. Crazed scientist Doctor Mochizuki is obsessed with creating the perfect lifeform, to the point where he forcibly experiments on his assistant Masaru Aso (ably performed by Kou Domon), transforming him into the biological warrior ZO. Tormented by the doctor’s experiments, Aso escapes his captor’s clutch but becomes lost, escaping into a woodland to be lost for some time. Eventually, he awakens, compelled by mysterious forces to save the doctor’s son Horisho, who is being hunted by the monstrous creature Doras, another of the doctor’s experiments. Using his newfound powers to transform into Kamen Rider ZO, Masaru embarks on a mission to battle against the villainous Doras in an attempt to rescue the doctor and his son.
With a running time just shy of 50 minutes, Kamen Rider ZO doesn’t give us a huge amount of space to invest in its characters, to the point where Masaru doesn’t have his name mentioned by anyone in the film – at all. A deleted scene sees the doctor refer to his former assistant by name, but what a scene to delete. Masaru ultimately fills the role of the generic hero figure of a Tokusatsu production. He fights to protect life, above all else. There’s nothing overly complex about him and thus, nothing engrossing.
His modification into ZO however translates as the core aspect of Kamen Rider ZO’s biopunk themes. The ZO suit design is slick, minimalist and naturalist, lying somewhere between the monstrous form of Kamen Rider Shin and the more traditional appearance of your average Kamen Rider. Doras’ constant grotesque deaths and rebirths functions as the key difference between how the heroes and the villains of this film regard the idea of life. The protagonists of this film define life as something to be protected, to be valued at all costs. The villains of the film, with Doras at its centre, along with a small handful of other animal-themed monsters that ZO engages in battle with, define life as something to be destroyed, to be moulded into something new, symbolised in Doras’ shapeshifting capabilities and his ability to reanimate severed parts of their body. This is taken furthest in the film’s final and most powerful villain, the Neo Organism, a metamorphic pool of sickly, sentient liquid that stands as the Doctor’s most radical attempt at creating the perfect lifeform.
When watching a Tokusatsu production, you expect a high level of sophistication in the special effects department, which Kamen Rider ZO delivers with enthusiasm. A mixture of martial arts, practical effects, miniature sets and stop-motion animation come together to create a visually entertaining package that’s glued together by the aforementioned Gothic-tinged biopunk aesthetic. The film’s monster designs are a treat in gut-wrenching spectacle, oozing unidentifiable fluids and bodies that creak and squelch in sound as if they’re in a state of flux, a further reflection on their attitude towards life as something to be continually and forcibly reshaped.
A possible reason for the film’s brief running time is because Kamen Rider ZO was released as part of a triple feature alongside cinematic adaptations of Gosei Sentai Dairanger and Janperson, 1993’s entries in Toei’s Super Sentai and Metal Hero franchises. There was some talk as to whether or not it was worth the risk of releasing the film separately to mark Kamen Rider’s anniversary and with a more traditional running time of 90 minutes, but this was ultimately scrapped. Public awareness of Kamen Rider perhaps wasn’t as high in the early 1990s as the ever-popular Super Sentai and the growing demand for more Metal Heroes. Another factor could be the quirk of the film being released in 1993, when the 20th anniversary of Kamen Rider took place back in 1991.
There’s also the idea that Kamen Rider ZO doesn’t quite know which audience to shoot for. Where older audiences had seemingly responded well to the darker moods of Shin: Kamen Rider Prologue, Kamen Rider ZO marked an attempt to reconnect with a younger audience who likely weren’t aware of Kamen Rider at all. The film’s often violent action scenes and unhinged monster designs conflict with the overall story of ZO’s mission to rescue Hiroshi, the young boy who was clearly meant to represent Kamen Rider’s core fandom. Budgeted at 300 million Yen and only bringing back 500 million Yen during its box office run, Kamen Rider ZO clearly didn’t make the commercial impact Toei were hoping for. History would repeat itself as plans for a follow-up were scuppered by the option of forging ahead with a new hero, Kamen Rider J. Amemiya returned to directorial duties, and seemed intent on making a Kamen Rider ZO sequel in all but name. J bore a striking similarity in the titular Rider’s suit design to ZO, with further biological vibes engrained in the film’s ecological themes and imaginative monster designs.
Kamen Rider ZO positions itself as an intriguing entry in the vast canon of Kamen Rider. Whilst its story is undoubtedly lacking and it struggles to spark into life, its relatively tight themes and artful, horror-esque visual design make it a fun, well-produced, action-packed romp to enjoy and an easy introduction to the Kamen Rider concept thanks to its one-off nature. In 2017, Amemiya revealed in an interview with The Tokusatsu Network that Kamen Rider ZO’s sole cinematic outing was intended to lead into a full-blown TV series, “Unfortunately, it was a bit opposite to our expectations”, he recalls. Other sources have suggested that ZO was meant to be followed up by a cinematic sequel, with concept art revealed that ZO would have gained at least one new, more powerful form and the inclusion of another character, Kamen Rider Gay. Whichever form more adventures for ZO were true, the fact remains that everyone involved believed there was more life in the character and concept than a single film. Manga and novel adaptations of the film also duly expand on the film’s various concepts.
The ongoing success of his own Tokusatsu franchise, GARO, perhaps does little to placate him. Since 2005, Garo has provided older Tokusatsu fans with a franchise geared to their tastes. Kamen Rider ZO himself continues to appear in crossovers and team-up movies in the Kamen Rider franchise, though in costume only. Kou has yet to reprise the role. Whilst Kamen Rider continues to increase in the amount of television and cinematic content it pumps out, year after year, Kamen Rider ZO remains a graceful, heartfelt, visually disturbing yet thrilling entry in Toei’s never-ending franchise.
❉ ‘Kamen Rider ZO’ (1993) is available on Region Free DVD-R with English Subtitles.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Fred McNamara is a contributing writer for a variety of digital and print publications, covering comic books, films, TV and more. His work has appeared on such websites as PopMatters, WhatCulture, Flickering Myth, Grovel, the Official Gerry Anderson Blog, ScreenRelish, and in such publications as Starburst Magazine, Andersonic and Comic Scene. His work has also appeared in anthologies published by Watching Books and Who Dares Publishing.