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What makes a good Kamen Rider villain?

When tokusatsu fans talk about Kamen Rider, there is – and always has been – a certain need to categorise the characters into the strict roles they serve in the story. We hear the terms of ‘primary’ ‘secondary,’ and even ‘tertiary’ or ‘extra’ Riders to describe the formation of the heroes, the order in which they appear in the story and to some extent, an internal hierarchy of heroism. Discussions about what the heroes in Kamen Rider should be for a good Rider story often become a bit heated – after all, people develop very personal attachments to the Rider they fall in love with first, and this. However, there’s another character label that seems to have even more of a potential to set fan discussions alight, and that’s the ‘villain’ of any given Kamen Rider series.

These are sometimes a solitary figure, sometimes a more organised, systemic threat, but always very much opposed to our protagonist (at least at first). Fans of Kamen Rider always seem to have strong opinions about what makes villainous characters compelling or not compelling, because the battle of good versus evil is what propels the story of Kamen Rider forwards and makes a series fun and engaging. Without a good villain, there would be no obvious target for our heroes to kick from the sky, and nobody to stylishly explode our heroes in retaliation.

Discussion surrounding what makes a ‘good’ Kamen Rider villain mostly boils down to personal preference of course, but I do think a sort of profile of characteristics of an interesting Kamen Rider villain can be drawn up, just by looking at what appears most commonly in the show and thinking about what makes certain Kamen Rider villains seem appealing on a thematic level.

Firstly, I think there has to be some level of personal connection with – and intimate understanding of – the protagonist Rider. Even when there isn’t the most direct connection, the most compelling Rider villains seem to be the ones that are able to hold a mirror up to the main Rider’s morality, taking swift cuts to the values that the heroes claim to hold dear or present as part of their heroic nature. A good Rider villain is able to use this to get inside the head of the hero in this way, whether that’s through a detailed knowledge of the Rider’s past or just keen observation, excellent Rider villains have an incredible ability to spot weaknesses.

Good Rider villains in this way can often be seen as two sides of the same coin, and this is usually expanded upon in the finer details of the lore of each series, where we often find their powers to mirror each-other in a literal sense. This is one of the principles of the original showa era Kamen Rider, who exists as a product of the villainous organisation Shocker, returning to enact divine retribution on his former torturers, whilst still bearing the marks of the horrors he went through. This is an essential duality that signifies the wider conflict, and one that maintains some degree of resonance in how Rider positions its heroes and villains to this day.

This idea of duality is something that comes up a lot when Riders are pitted against their villainous counterparts. If you were to watch a random selection of Heisei era shows, you’ll often find Riders having to battle evil versions of themselves, or alternatively harness some sort of darkness within them.

There are many iterations of this in Rider, but to cite a few examples recent shows, Evolto from Build acts as a parallel to main Rider Sento in a lot of interesting ways, representing the destructive capabilities of scientific evolution that Sento wishes to turn away from in favour of ‘love and peace’. This is shown visually and thematically in the way that Evolto is able to assimilate the aesthetics of certain characters by possessing them, and at a crucial point, possessing our hero sento and morphing the iconic colours.  As another similar example, Ex-Aid’s Dan Kuroto, whose Rider form takes on a dark palette swap of the iconic Ex-Aid suit, contrasts with the protagonist Emu through an ego-centric philosophy that directly opposes Emu’s desire to heal others. In both of these cases however, Rider presents some crossover in the viewpoint of the heroes and villains, choosing to acknowledge some form of nuance in this area. 

The idea of the fine line between heroism and villainy was also utilised in an interesting way in Zi-O, which turned the idea of villainy on its head, at least to begin with. For all of Zi-O’s supposed flaws, I think the idea of our hero being destined to become a great evil is at least compelling for a little while, even if this was a more compelling idea than what the show was ultimately able to achieve.

Furthermore, Kamen Rider villains seem to be particularly engaging when they force the hero to continually improve upon themselves through challenge – in essence, Kamen Rider villains have to be better than the hero, at least to begin with. This is more to do with story structure and pacing than anything else, but Rider villains can’t be engaging if they’re too easy to defeat. This is essentially what differentiates Rider villains from the kaijin that we see easily defeated in single or multi episode arcs. This is done excellently in Kuuga, which gives us N-Daguva-Zeba, a bizarre but highly engaging villain who appears obsessed with Kuuga’s own growing strength as much as his own. This created such a wonderful dynamic in Kuuga, which I think ultimately proved to be key to that show’s success, re-establishing an easily replicable dynamic for the early Heisei era.

Another essential component to a good Rider villain which we see throughout the series is the idea of both mystery and omnipresence. Having our villain be at first unknowable can really escalate the tension in a satisfying way, and this is often made more obvious through the conspiratorial nature of villainous organisations that we see within Kamen Rider. A shadowy omnipresence feels crucial to the Kamen Rider villain – at least up to a certain point. After all, we need to know who they are eventually!

One final quintessential theme with Rider villains is the idea of making a turn towards heroism. This typically happens during a crucial dramatic moment, and the list of villainous characters that have changed their ways in Kamen Rider is a pretty long one. I’m personally split on the use of this idea, as I think it’s led to some amazing results and some that aren’t quite as satisfying in the history of the show. I tend to appreciate this most when the change is permanent and can build towards an emotional character moment of self-sacrifice, but only if that sacrifice feels like it was earned (this is a complicated issue in and of itself).

Discussions of the villains of the currently-airing Rider series Zero-One have been so unique because there’s been a wide array of new interpretations of these classic ideas of villainy in both positive and negative ways. Both Metsouboujinrai & Gai ‘Thouser’ Amatsu have shown us antagonists willing to challenge Aruto on a fundamental level, questioning his unfailing belief in both Humagear and the idea that humanity can be learned, whilst also challenging him to become stronger. Similarly, both Metsobojinrai and Gai have been part of wider conspiracies to define the fate of the humagear, and both have indicated that they might be willing to ‘change sides’ to help eradicate a greater threat. With some unfortunate repetition of certain villainous tropes and odd switches in power dynamics aside, the stage in Zero-One is currently set for some interesting final conflicts. I think it’s all because we’ve gotten villains that are well-suited to challenge our heroes, by giving us a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of what we’ve enjoyed and also found irritating about Rider villains before, and using this as a platform to elevate its dynamic conflict. Whether this is something you’re into, or even something you agree with conceptually is a different matter of course, but I think even when Zero-One‘s villain’s are at their worst, they’re at least moving the show forward in a way that’s suitable for the context of the show.

Of course, Rider villains won’t always adopt these traits identified here, and certainly many of these ideas can be used badly when placed in the wrong context. This profile of a ‘good’ Rider villain will undoubtedly be different for everyone, and if even in fan discussions where there is overlap on what works, people will assign different values to certain traits that could tip certain villains into being their favourites. There are some valuable criticisms of all of Kamen Rider’s most popular villains, and I think it would be silly in any case to assume that there is one way of doing that could be universally successful. However, the style & pattern of Rider villains that I’ve tried to identify here is one that is clearly working in a lot of ways; the show has produced quite a number of iconic and beloved villains, and the fact that we can even try and dissect it here is perhaps the biggest testament to their continued importance. They’re a bit more than just a target for Rider Kicks!

What are your thoughts on Kamen Rider villains? Do you agree or disagree with my summation of them? Join the conversation with me @aruphexille on Twitter, on Toku Toy Store’s social media pages or leave a comment below!