Kamen Rider Black Sun (仮面ライダーBLACK SUN) is a refreshing and engaging reimagination of not just the original 1987-88 season of Kamen Rider, but of the entire franchise itself. Celebrating the franchise’s 50-year history, Black Sun is a darker, more mature version of the long-running Sunday morning series. And it draws upon that history to deliver timely and universal stories though the familiar, though more mature confines within the Kamen Rider playbook. It has a little something for everyone, whether you’re a longtime fan or someone stepping into the world of masked Riders for the very first time.
Kamen Rider Black Sun takes place in 2022 Japan where Kaijin (humanoid monsters) have been able to coexist with humans for 50 years, but continue to experience racism and discrimination. While young activist Aoi Izumi (Kokoro Hirasawa) works toward equality for humans and Kaijin, she meets Kotaro Minami (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Kotaro is a weathered gentleman who lives a somewhat secluded life, save for his trips to pick up vials of ketamine he injects into his leg or when he gets jobs as a hitman.
Though Kotaro himself was forced to become a Kaijin as a child, he no longer takes a side in the fight for equality. That is, until his long-lost best friend Nobuhiko Akizuki (Tomoya Nakamura), who himself was also forcibly turned into a Kaijin as a child, reemerges.
As the series progresses through its ten episodes, Kotaro and Nobuhiko’s past is slowly revealed. As is the truth behind their now-fractured relationship and the massive corruption and conspiracy that has led to the present xenophobic attacks on and manipulation of Kaijin.
Both Kotaro and Nobuhiko must face their shared past while taking on the various evils around them and potentially within themselves in the present day.
Different factions with different self-serving interests intersect in ways that are both predictable and unexpected. Through that bit of uncertainty, the series manages to effectively flesh out the two major characters in a way that makes them distinct and interesting to counter the moments when the story can get a bit muddled.
There are times when a narrative lull suggests that perhaps Black Sun would’ve been better suited as a feature film rather than a full series in order to tighten up the story. The series frequently (and without warning) jumps between 2022 and 1972, the year where Kotaro and Nobuhiko’s paths diverge. And while the transitions could be a bit more seamless, the scenes nonetheless give the necessary depth to our two main (anti-?)heroes. The ten episodes, however, don’t necessarily give the same treatment to the rest of the characters contrary to what ten full episodes should allow them to provide.
The story gives just enough to establish their place in the overall arc. (As well as offer up potential fodder too.) But the focus, perhaps rightly so, is always on Kotaro and Nobuhiko.
Director Kayuza Shiraishi with the help of director Shinji Higuchi deliver a muted visual style that suits the series’ heavy and more downtrodden story. They successfully set-up the needed atmosphere that itself is probably one of the series’ strongest aspects too.
It’s easy to see what they and writer Izumi Takahashi were going for with the series. They are able to balance the signature action and fight sequences with the heavier and meaningful stories. And as well-done as the action sequences are, the series’ strongest moments come in the quieter character moments. Especially those between Kotaro and Nobuhiko.
Kamen Rider Black Sun scored a casting coup with Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tomoya Nakamura as their leads. They bring a powerful gravitas to the story and definitely carry a lot of the load throughout the series.
As the series touches upon many real-world themes such as corruption, discrimination and racism, it is fascinating to see these themes in a more direct way in a Kamen Rider setting. That is, compared to the Sunday morning series which, possibly surprisingly to some, actually does touch on many similar themes, albeit in a more family friendly way. One of the things that Black Sun does is show that the Sunday morning series is just as necessary as well. Not just for younger fans, but for the young at heart too. Having both the main series and something like Black Sun (and Amazons, which I must watch soon!) co-exist is a good thing.
Black Sun is able to incorporate the hallmarks of the Kamen Rider franchise, especially its origins, in creative, but familiar ways. It reminds me a lot of Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagination of Battlestar Galactica in that Black Sun is a good modern and mature take on the franchise while respecting the original season and the franchise as a whole.
And yes, there are times when you can feel the attempts to appeal to a Western audience. Which is perfectly fine. The same is currently happening with Korean dramas as well. But the important thing is being able to maintain the distinctly Japanese aspects to the story and characters. And this series does that. You can be universal, while still being distinctly Japanese as well.
And ultimately, Kamen Rider Black Sun accomplishes that and then some. There is a lot for both old and new fans to gravitate toward in Black Sun. For longtime fans, seeing this approach to Kamen Rider should be exciting and interesting. Though it will certainly not please every fan, Black Sun is the kind of series that is able celebrate its roots while offering up something very different. And being different allows a door to open for audiences that might not have come across Kamen Rider yet in their viewing experiences.
The series pulls no punches with its gory action sequences. Timely and real world themes play out alongside realistic fantasy. And Hidetoshi Nashijima and Tomoya Nakamura bring two strong characters in Kotaro and Nobuhiko to life in captivating fashion. Kamen Rider Black Sun is far from perfect. But it is nonetheless a welcome, refreshing and accessible take on the familiar franchise.