Reviewby Christopher Farris,
Kamen Rider Kuuga
Something strange stalks the streets of Tokyo. An ancient evil has resurfaced to enact its dark designs, and Inspector Kaoru Ichijo and the police force he serves on are woefully unprepared to take it on. Ichijo's efforts to unravel this murderous monster mystery cause him to cross paths with a bright young man named Yusuke Godai, both of them eventually establishing their own connection to the mysterious entity known as Kuuga. This may provide the power needed to deal with the evil creatures, but what will Godai need to give up, what will he need to become in order to obtain that power?
Kamen Rider Kuuga is translated by Jonathan Clements, with lettering by Jessica Burton.
There's an odd sense of comparisons and contrasts in the situational timing of Titan Comics' release of the Kamen Rider Kuuga manga. We're living in a timeline where another Kamen Rider-related manga, FUUTO PI, is getting its anime adaptation officially streamed in English here. And now here's the Kuuga manga, produced more than a decade after its source show, available in English. But whereas Toei continues to withhold Kamen Rider W from full streaming access in the west, Kuuga is entirely, officially available from Shout! Factory, both streaming and in a physical Blu-ray set you can buy! And unlike FUUTO PI's direct-continuation status, the Kamen Rider Kuuga manga exists as an 'alternate' take on its source material, allowing audiences ready access to see how series scribe Toshiki Inoue re-interprets the show credited with Rider-kicking off the franchise for the Heisei era over fifteen years later.
Inoue isn't alone, of course. One of the selling points of Kuuga the manga is that this version of the story is supposedly patterned on the extremely early concepts for the series drafted by no less than Kamen Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori himself. And Inoue's also got artist Hitotsu Tomoshima on hand to craft the visual components for this, favoring a grittier style with particular attention paid to body-horror angles not uncommon in previous Rider manga treatments (itself a staple of philosophical explorations in Ishinomori's original manga). Thus we wind up with a unique hybrid of a product: something that feels like the early story that would have been loosely adapted into the Kuuga we know and love and can watch today, and at the same time, its own unique, latter-day adaptation of that same series.
It makes sense. Inoue is an old hand at writing at this point, in anime, manga, and the realm of tokusatsu, even contributing plenty for the Kuuga TV series itself. So seeing his particular, personal take on the material, even as it's incorporating those foundational elements, is a large part of the appeal. The more free pacing afforded by the manga format and decidedly adult target audience compared to a weekly superhero show stand out. It lets the focus of the story originate with police detective Ichijo, following him in his pursuit of a significantly more human monster before he's confronted by the kinds of things that could be even worse than that. Kuuga always operated on a comparatively slow peel-back of what was happening with its creepy creatures and the titular hero who opposed them. Still, Ichijo is encountering a prototypical version of that Kamen Rider in this incarnation of the story even before the suit's human host, Godai Yusuke, makes his first appearance. The procedural and back-boiling horror elements always inherent to Kuuga have been turned up as the central tonal focus. There is much fear and much pain.
Godai and Ichijo always served practical dual heroic roles in Kamen Rider Kuuga, the TV show, and when Godai does make his eventual appearance in this manga, regardless of his rather radical (and frankly adorable) redesign, he makes every bit as much of an impression as his policeman pal. That thumbs-up flinging, everybody-assisting, goodest-boy-in-the-whole-world charm sticks out alongside Ichijo's earnest but pragmatic efforts, accentuating the distinction between police practicality and true super-heroics that can oppose a threat like the monstrous Gurongi. The manga does attempt to subvert the usual uselessness with which regular police forces are depicted in stories like this. Ichijo and his fellows never shrug off the seemingly-impossible supernatural existence of the creatures and go to great lengths to investigate and try to deal with them. They are clearly outclassed, and the build-up to the more effective efforts of Kuuga himself against the monsters, how that eventually aligns with Godai's existence and working alongside Ichijo, is the story we wind up seeing by the end of this first volume.
It is not a brisk build-up, though anyone familiar with early-2000s-style tokusatsu storytelling wouldn't expect it to be. The manga structure allows Inoue to focus on atmosphere and the idiosyncratic kinds of character writing he's perhaps best known for. The slow convergence of people together and the odd little details that define them will stick out to those familiar with his work. However, that style does level off as the book continues, as the mystery and horror elements are dialed up to arrange characters to escalate the plot appropriately before a climactic cliffhanger. It might serve as an odd introduction to this different take on Rider for those inducted into the more brisk anime pacing of FUUTO PI (though even that one spaces out its transformations rather broadly compared to its live-action ilk).
Thus, it's likely a good thing that Kamen Rider Kuuga works decently well as a general horror manga. There is less emphasis on page-turn jump-scares and more utilization of Yokoshima's skills at depicting esoteric body horror, even on the part of its oddly paced-out hero's appearances, or bursting past the physical-suit limitations of the monsters and the kinds of carnage they can inflict. As I said, it's a slow-boil, background kind of disconcerting weirdness, where the extra-long police-procedural introductory chapter seems designed around goading you into lowering your guard before catching you with the point that, oh right, this is a story about an ancient, mystical hero jump-kicking grisly monsters who hunt humans for sport. It's likely not going to work for everyone coming into this for a more routine Kamen Rider manga treatment, nor will it click for those who might prefer a more distinctive, non-franchise-focused horrorshow. As with so many of Inoue's other indulgences, it is an acquired taste. But at least it has yet to be afforded the space to go entirely off the rails as of this initial volume.
Some of Titan Manga's presentational choices in this volume ring a little odd, particularly for those familiar with the franchise. Rendering the enemy monsters' group name as 'Gurongi' sticks out after so many years of defaulting to 'Grongi.' There's also a point where Ichijo derogatorily refers to Godai as a 'snowflake,' an odd choice for both the culture and time period of this story. And, of course, there's much hilarity to be had in their decision to leave Godai shouting the Japanese word 'Henshin!' for his transformation, with a translation note, at the bottom of that same panel, helpfully explaining for us that 'Henshin' means 'Transform.' It does leave an impact, especially as the big, dramatic volume-ending moment arrives. But it also sticks out with those other bits of wonkiness. However, the book generally comes off as finely readable, even with all its invocations of odd mythological names and instances of double-translated Gurongi language.
The Kamen Rider Kuuga manga can make for a compelling curiosity regardless of what level of series familiarity you're approaching it with. I feel like it will work better for those that already have some experience with Kamen Rider overall, if not Kuuga specifically. For newbies, this might prove an odd interpretation to start on. It's still a solid horror-action comic in its own right, but the product's main appeal is its novelty compared to the original. With that in mind, as one of those familiar fans, I have to concede that it's incredibly cool that we're getting this release. If odd ancillary Rider material like this can net an English release, there must be even more hope for the franchise continuing forward.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Compelling novelty for familiar fans, Art and writing pace out an effective action-horror story
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