Spoilers for Kamen Rider Blade and Rider Time: Kamen Rider Ryuki
Toei, the parent company of the massive Kamen Rider franchise, famously once described Kamen Rider Build as a “heated drama between men.” This statement probably wasn’t meant to describe the homoerotic tension between the show’s two male leads, but it has become a meme in the English-speaking Kamen Rider fandom – and for good reason. Many iterations of the show feature close emotional relationships between men. These relationships frequently verge into queer-coding that is strongly apparent to an LGBTQ+ audience.
In part, this is a result of the franchise’s severe gender disparity, which it has only recently taken steps to address; the series took 31 years to get its first female Kamen Rider. There have also been canonically gay, transgender and nonbinary characters, but the quality of representation is questionable. Regardless, many LGBTQ+ viewers have seen their own experiences reflected in the many characters of Kamen Rider, whether implicitly or explicitly.
Implicit Representation: The Coded Hero
The setup of Kamen Rider naturally lends itself to queer-coding. The crux of every series follows the same format: a man, or several men, gain the power to become a Kamen Rider, and use that power to fight evil. Occasionally a woman is given this power, but almost never as the main character. (Pretty Den-O, a 20-minute special released in 2020, is the first Kamen Rider media to feature a female protagonist.) There’s also the well-used structure of the “secondary rider,” who gets almost as much screen time as the main character, and often grows very close to them. Add in that most of these characters are young and attractive, and sparks begin to fly.
Kamen Rider Blade’s core cast of four Riders frequently veers into romantic subtext, and nowhere is this clearer than between the protagonist Kazuma Kenzaki and the Undead, Aikawa Hajime. Monster allegory has long been associated with gay characters. The idea of isolation and otherness pervades monster fiction, familiar experiences to queer readers. It reflects our fears of rejection by society, and our alienation from “normal” life.
Hajime, an Undead, feels disgusted by his appearance. He’s convinced that his nature is dangerous to others, and that his decision to take the form of a human to seek acceptance is selfish. Homosexuality framed as a danger to society has long historical roots, and flamboyant, effeminate, or explicitly gay men as villains in fiction still persist to this day – even in Kamen Rider itself, such as Kamen Rider Double’s Izumi Kyosui. It is comforting that in Kamen Rider Blade, Kenzaki vocally rejects Hajime’s self-doubts. Kenzaki refuses to accept Hajime’s beliefs, and stays by his side even when it seems like Hajime has completely lost his humanity.
The ending of Kamen Rider Blade has every trapping of a tragic romance. To save Hajime’s life, Kenzaki becomes an Undead – but despite both now having eternal life, they can never meet again, or risk the end of the world. This story of separation brings to mind Tanabata, a Japanese festival celebrating two lovers who can only meet each other once a year. In 2018, the story was revisited in the anniversary season Kamen Rider Zi-O and the characters were reunited, providing closure 14 years in the making for their relationship. This culminates in a sympathetic ending in a genre where all too often, the monster is doomed in their existence.
Kamen Rider Kuuga may not have a secondary rider, but the relationship between the protagonist Godai Yusuke and Ichijou Kaoru is similarly emblematic of Kamen Rider’s queer subtext. Alone in his ability to fight against the evil Grongi, Godai is constantly supported by policeman Ichijou. Their chemistry does not go unnoticed in the show; characters often ask how Ichijou’s ‘girlfriend’ is doing, despite his oblivious protestations that he doesn’t have one. It’s clear they enjoy each other’s company, finding solace in one another. The show goes no further than subtle hints, but for an audience of LGBTQ+ viewers well versed in censored depictions of love, there is clear romantic meaning in their relationship.
Personally, I think Kamen Rider’s implicit representation is both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s a chance to see men in close relationships without harmful gay stereotypes. On the other, the shows’ refusal to acknowledge any romantic chemistry is a sharp reminder to queer viewers that our love is still too controversial to be acknowledged on a family show. This, the occasional flamboyant villain and, of course, the sexism at the root of it all, gives a sour note to the whole ordeal.
Explicit Representation: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
In more recent years, Kamen Rider has made tentative strides in its representation. Amongst less charitable depictions of flamboyant villains, positively portrayed LGBTQ+ characters are being allowed into the limelight. These depictions, while still marred by unideal circumstances, are a wonderful thing to see from such a monolithic franchise.
The latest depiction of an LGBTQ+ character comes from Kamen Rider Zero-One’s Naki, a humagear and member of the terrorist group MetsubouJinrai.net. Played by Nakayama Satsuki, a trans actor, they are genderless, a fact confirmed by Toei producer Omori Takahito. A genderless character played by a trans actor is a refreshing sight. Naki’s portrayal does not fully escape from reductive stereotypes, unfortunately. Nonbinary characters as robots is a trend that others the idea of nonbinary identity to be a non-human attribute. Naki also begins the series as a villain – although they eventually come to work with the protagonists.
LGBTQ+ antagonists aren’t inherently a bad thing. Anyone is capable of evil, and restricting queer characters to only being virtuous is a harmful mindset. But when your only gender nonconforming character is part of a terrorist group intent on destroying humanity, there’s every reason to be cynical. This mixed portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters carries over into Kamen Rider Zi-O’s three-episode special, “Rider Time: Kamen Rider Ryuki.”
Seventeen years after the original show’s release, Kamen Rider Ryuki’s characters Tezuka Myuki (Kamen Rider Raia) and Shibaura Shun (Kamen Rider Gai) were shown in a romantic relationship together, even having sex – making them the first Kamen Rider characters to be in a same-sex relationship. Shortly afterwards, they mutually betray one another, and both die. This, coupled with the special’s exclusion of Kamen Rider Ryuki’s only female Rider, lent a morbid twist to such a momentous occasion. The continuous choices made by the franchise to only have queer characters be evil or dead – or both – undercut any attempts at progressiveness.
The Bigger Picture
Kamen Rider is slowly catching up with the times, but such lackluster representation harms both show and viewer alike. To impressionable young audiences, negative depictions of homosexual love may drive viewers further into the closet, or foster pre-existing stereotypes.
Of course, Kamen Rider doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Its hesitant and misguided representation of LGBTQ+ characters is a reflection of Japan’s struggle for gay rights. Japanese TV stations also often veto anything that may prove controversial. This results in an uphill battle for positive LGBTQ+ representation – but it is possible, and we should expect more from Toei and Kamen Rider. Especially when Toei is one of many companies trying to benefit from the PR spectacle of making its icon rainbow-themed for Pride Month while also utilizing transphobia as a tool to undercut labor negotiations.
Positive examples of representation are vital for young audiences to see, and Kamen Rider is first and foremost a family show. News like Kamen Rider Zero-One‘s Nakamaya Satsuki coming out as an asexual trans man is a great step for positive role models, but representation in fiction has a chance to reach a larger number of people than the detail’s of an actor’s personal life. Sympathetic, sensitive portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals in Kamen Rider would be seen by hundreds of thousands of children, an experience not offered to LGBTQ+ adults in their youth. I know if I had seen nonbinary characters on television earlier, I would have better understood my own apprehensions and thoughts on gender. By limiting itself to only showing one facet of the human experience, Kamen Rider limits its potential as a storytelling medium, and lets down its audience.
Despite these problems, I still see my own experiences as a nonbinary lesbian reflected in Kamen Rider’s storylines, be it implicitly through Hajime’s self doubts, or explicitly through Naki’s sensitive portrayal. Hopefully, the recent LGBTQ+ portrayals are signifiers of bigger and better things to come for the franchise.
Ultimately, despite its numerous flaws, Kamen Rider is a source of joy and connection for many LGBTQ+ fans. Its depictions of close male friendship offer unflinching depictions of platonic intimacy often absent from media. And this doesn’t have to be at the expense of women, either; with the advent of active and important female characters such as Kamen Rider Valkyrie and Kamen Rider Sabera, I’m hopeful that the series is headed in the right direction. Perhaps one day we’ll even see a show with a female protagonist, or a healthy same-sex relationship. Until that day comes, I will continue to enjoy Kamen Rider, warts and all.