In this reimagining of 1987’s Kamen Rider Black, Japan is a state in socio-political turmoil, where discrimination of an underclass of mutated humans known as “kaijin” is commonplace. Aoi Izumi is a bright-eyed young activist waging war against this oppression, but this makes her a target for all sorts of unscrupulous actors. Only a grizzled kaijin by the name of Kotaro Minami seems to be able to protect her, but he has a traumatic past to reckon with of his own…
Aqua’s verdict: Rage Against the Machine
Kamen Rider Black Sun is something truly special. It’s yet another entry in Toei’s perennial and beloved (?) franchise about pretty boys in rubber suits punching each other while everything around them explodes, but as an Amazon Prime exclusive and a celebration of Kamen Rider‘s 50th anniversary, it is aimed at an older audience. How it addresses that audience, however, is rather interesting.
At first glance, Black Sun has all the makings of your standard creatively bankrupt “dark and edgy” reboot. The special effects are visceral and gory and the action is savage, more akin to animals tearing each other apart than to choreographed spectacle. Our main character is suffering from ketamine addiction just to show how broken and tormented he is. The world is dour and ugly — a highlights tour through Tokyo’s most dilapidated and post-apocalyptic looking urban wastelands. It’s all presented very impressively, but it’s not really what I want.
What sets Black Sun apart, however, is that it backs up all of this mature content with mature themes. It is a fundamentally political show, in which topics are addressed that Japanese popular media generally won’t even touch with a 10-foot stick, and criticisms are raised that are both topical and incredibly pressing.
In the world of Black Sun, people and kaijin (think mutants in the X-Men franchise for a close analogy) share a shaky co-existence, with kaijn being subjected to discrimination and harassment on a daily basis. Through flashbacks, we learn that in the 1970s, our main characters, who were turned into kaijin by a malicious cult, were a part of a leftist student protest movement advocating for kaijin rights. In the present, however, said movement has now grown into the dominant party in Japanese politics, but things have not gotten better for the kaijin. The chilling ending of episode 2 reveals that the kaijin in charge of the party have, instead of advocating for true equality, created a reprehensible system, in which they present themselves as liberal to the world, but in secret perpetuate a system in which the oppression of their own kind makes them a gigantic profit. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
It is not subtle. Kamen Rider Black Sun is in fact one of the least subtle pieces of fiction I have ever experienced. There are lynchings, with kaijin accused of crimes being doused in gasoline and set ablaze. There are illegal underground auctions, in which the government sells enslaved kaijin to the highest bidder. The drug kaijin need to consume on the regular in order to look presentable to the rest of the world is made from the excretions of a monstrous “Creation King”, which needs to be fed with human flesh, and you can bet your backside that the show is going to rub into your face who the lucky people the government will feed to this abomination are (“welfare recipients, elderly people living alone, LGBTQ who can’t produce children”).
It’s all so over the top, it borders on camp. Yet this is tokusatsu. Kamen Rider Black Sun is still, at its core, a show about a man who transforms into a bug-themed superhero and beats up monsters to protect the smiles of children. It cannot deny this fact, and as a result, the sheer ridiculousness of its political satire serves as an acknowledgement of its roots. Heck, the fact that Black Sun is a tokusatsu show allows it let go of any and all restraint. Subtlety is but a means to an end, and this show chooses not to use it because being subtle about its politics would be a betrayal of what its genre is all about. In tokusatsu, you go big or you go home. This makes it the ideal medium for when your message is so important metaphor and subtext simply won’t suffice.
Make no mistake — this show has an important message to share. On how racism is stoked by labyrinthine institutions hungry for power and wealth. On how governments will make deals with the devil — literally! — to serve their own agendas. On how even the most idealistic of revolutionaries can be corrupted by absolute power. On how the supposed “neutrality” of the police benefits the oppressor, never the oppressed. On how the idealism of teens and adolescents is co-opted as propaganda by politicians only concerned about their image. On how the most vulnerable people in our society are sacrificed to perpetuate a system that benefits only the people at the very top. Kamen Rider Black Sun is an unapologetic scream for help. The blatantness of it all is the point.
This is why many of the discussions I have seen online about this show eventually boil down to one question: “How were they allowed to get away with this?” What Black Sun is doing, isn’t something you often see in Japanese popular media. When anime and tokusatsu engage in social or political critique, that critique is almost never institutional. Corruption is blamed on malicious individuals, while the systems and institutions in which these “few bad apples” operate go unquestioned. This belief is one of the core tenets of conservatism, which is not coincidentally the ideology of the LDP, the right-wing party that has pretty much single-handedly dominated Japanese politics since World War II. It’s no wonder, then, that we often see this view reflected in the country’s popular media.
This doesn’t mean there is no left in Japan, however. The country is often seen, especially by a particular kind of highly unpleasant geek, as this monolithic, conservative utopia unsullied by feminism, diversity and “gender ideology”. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Japan has progressives and activists. It has socialists and feminists. It has queer people and their allies. It has people fighting for the rights of immigrants, of minority communities and of disabled people. It has people in all layers of its society who stand up against injustice and inequality. Some of them attend protests. Some of them go into politics. Some of them write, like the people writing Kamen Rider Black Sun. From its depiction of student activism to its insistence on including people of colour or characters representing marginalized communities, it is clear that these people, blatant as their messaging might be, know what they are talking about.
And listening to them is one hell of a ride.