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December 25, 2014

Kamen Rider Gaim: A Super Holiday Suplex Post

(Cross-Up is on hiatus, sort of, but not really!  I’m going to try and take it easy over the next few weeks, because it’s the winter holiday season and I half-expect nobody to be around on the internet.  Things will get back in gear sometime in January, but until then?  If you ARE here, then enjoy a handful of high-quality filler posts.  It’ll be fun, presumably!)

Oh man, please tell me I’m the first person on the internet to make this joke.  It would make me so very, very happy.

Well, if nothing else, I’m the first person to ever make the joke on this blog.  THAT MEANS I’VE WON!

All right, I’m about to unload a fruit basket’s worth of SPOILERS on you guys, so if you want a no-spoiler version of what I think about this show (and by extension, a trim primer on Gaim), then you’d better go read this post instead…or first.  Or you can read this one if you have no interest in ever watching it.

That would kind of make this post a moot point -- if not for the stuff I’m about to discuss.  Are you ready?  Here we gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again for posterity’s sake.  Part of the reason why I like the Kamen Rider franchise so much is because it resonates with one of my core tenets; that is, each installment from year-to-year manages to define itself not just by the new merchandise that needs to be shilled, but by the leading characters who inevitably don those flamboyant suits and dive-kick bad guys.  Those leads make each installment what it is -- and make it better, without question.

That’s not to say that every installment of the show is perfect, of course.  Kamen Rider OOO may be the first series I watched from start to finish, but circumstantially my first REAL experience with the franchise was Kamen Rider Den-O.  You’d think that I’d be pretty fond of it as a result -- and while I am glad I watched it (dem henshin sounds), I don’t have any problems admitting it’s the weakest entry I’ve seen to date.  Conversely, OOO is my favorite by a country mile, to the point where I’m surprised I haven’t done a post on that.  Still, every KR series I’ve watched since OOO has been done with a question in mind: “Is this better than OOO?”  To wit: is Gaim better than OOO?

Don’t get me wrong.  Gaim is still good…ish.  Plenty good.  Good enough.  As good as it could have been.  It’s just that, well, I have mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, I’m glad I watched it.  On the other hand, it’s personally in the bottom half of my informal KR rankings; I’d put it in the fifth slot out of seven, at best.  On the phantom hand, there are some things I really like about it -- which ends up getting counterbalanced by some things I reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally hate about it.  So I guess that’s why this post is coming in before one on OOO -- not just so you guys can take something away from it, but so I can finally sort out my feelings.  Maybe.

But enough about that.  You’re not here for one of my characteristically-endless introductions.  You’re here for…uh…I don’t know.  The off-chance that I’ll post more pictures of Christina Hendricks?  That’d be my best guess.  But I’ll deny you of improbably buxom actresses for now and move on to the meat of the discussion.  That’s right -- it’s time to focus on the main character of Gaim, Kouta Kazuraba. 

Who is he?  Well, I think I’ll let him introduce himself.

I’ve heard that there are people who consider everything before episodes 12-14 of Gaim (i.e. everything before the mood-making “reveal” of sorts) to be rough around the edges.  I can’t say I agree with that.  See, people knew going in that Gaim -- thanks to lead writer Gen Urobuchi of Madoka fame -- would be a pretty dark story, and were pretty much waiting for things to go into maximum despair overdrive.  They got their wish, by and large, but I’m not about to devalue those early episodes just because they contain the bulk of the series’ humor and lightheartedness. 

I’m not just saying that because of my bias against “dark and gritty” fare, and here’s why.  First of all, I wouldn’t have even touched Gaim if I was so repulsed by the promise of a darker story, much less finish it.  Second, for the most part I don’t have a problem with the way Gaim progressed; its darkness isn’t so crippling that it becomes an apathy-inducing slog, which is more than I can say about something like The Walking Dead.  No, the issue that I have is tied into Kouta.

But I’ll get to that in a bit.  Let’s start with the good.

Pared down to basics, you can describe Kouta solely as “a good guy”.  He just wants to do the right thing, and help as many people as he can.  That’s cool.  I don’t have a problem with that.  In fact, the thing I like about Gaim is that it takes Kouta’s good guy characterization as something serious and legitimate -- that for all the doom and gloom that encroaches before series’ end, his goodness is allowed to shine on a regular basis.  He’s a hero that fights for hope, no matter how bad things get.

But just because he’s a good guy doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an arc.  Kouta has to put in some serious work to try and resolve situations both small and large (as one would), but in order to make the world a better place, he has to make himself a better person.  There are a lot of questions that he needs to answer over the course of the show, and his struggles to answer each one are what make him worth watching.  How do you prove you’re an adult?  How do you be responsible for others?  How do you make your friends happy?  How do you use the power you’re given?  How do you stand up to adversity?  How do you choose what to sacrifice?  All those things and more play a part in his transformation.

It’s very true that you can think of Kouta as the typical hero archetype -- a rookie, no ace student, wants to do the right thing, passionate, etc.  But the thing about Kouta is that even if he’s not the show’s smartest character, he’s still no idiot hero.  He proves that pretty consistently; if he doesn’t know the answer to something, he’ll ask people who might

He’ll consult with others and try and figure out what to do -- and critically, he understands the weight of his actions even before the show’s halfway point.  (Probably as early as the fourth or fifth episode, given a near-death experience with another Armored Rider.)  There’s a point later in the show where he recognizes and admits that the road ahead is going to be long and hard, but he’ll put in that effort regardless.  That’s good.  It shows that he doesn’t just have blind faith, or trying to brute-force a solution.  He’s trying to do the right thing.  The responsible thing.

Paradoxically, this makes him technically smarter than all the villains put together.  But I’ll get into them another day.

There are some interesting things about Kouta, even beyond his changes throughout the story (including physical ones; his hair and wardrobe at the start =/= his hair and wardrobe at the end).  It’s subtle, but the thing that sticks out to me is that for all his goodwill and efforts, Kouta’s got a glaring flaw: he can only superficially fix problems.  That is, he can make the monsters go away, but he can’t put a smile on even his closest friends’ faces -- so in a way, you can think of him as an emotional klutz.  I don’t think I’m reaching on this one, because in a way it becomes a plot point and a part of his character.

Kouta spends so much his time running around trying to fix everything that he ends up losing a part of himself -- becoming more distant with his fellow dancers (the Beat Riders, and more specifically Team Gaim), and unable to take some time out to give them something to laugh about.  He was already willing to drop out of Team Gaim to support his sister, and because of that put their pure happiness -- their very esteem -- in jeopardy.  Once the plot gets in gear, that inability to raise the innocents’ esteem gets applied on a much bigger scale.  Again, it actually becomes a plot point for a chunk of the story, and resurfaces (via implication) at the very end.

That is to say, Kouta ends up becoming Super Saiyan Jesus Nobunaga and leaving Earth, meaning that it’s up to everyone else to clean up the mess left by an invasive alien plant he’s taking with him to another planet.

I didn’t make a word of that up.  This is what he becomes at the end.

I kid you not, I can’t even think about that without forcing back a laugh.

That…thing that happened up there highlights a serious problem with Gaim.  At first I was willing to say that it’s “Gaim isn’t dark enough”, which is true -- but that’s not the underlying issue.  No, the underlying issue, and the real core of all of the show’s problems, is that it tries to do WAAAAAAAAAAAY too much at one time.  It can barely stick to anything cohesively, and the overall show suffers as a result.  This is independent from the aggravating fact that there were filler episodes for 1) a Super Sentai crossover special, 2) a Kikaider movie, and 3) a Gaim movie that jettisoned the plot so that some of its cast could play soccer…despite being right in the middle of the most important story sequence yet.

But let’s back up a bit.  As I said before, Gaim is a show that features not just your usual Riders, but Riders who don fruit-themed armor and wield fruit-themed weapons, and that’s on top of the typical motorcycle shenanigans.  But things get more complicated almost immediately.  For starters, the show can’t even commit to the fruit theme, and has some of its earliest-appearing Riders don pinecone and acorn-themed armor.  It doesn’t say good things when you’re running out of fruits that early on (seriously, no pear-based Rider?  No lime Rider?)  But it goes further than that.  The show would have you believe that there would be a Sengoku warfare theme throughout -- and while that’s sort of the case if you squint your eyes, the riders that follow after Gaim are themed on such different geographic areas you’d swear they just threw darts at a map.  So what, were there Vikings versus samurai?

That’s a minor point, admittedly, but it goes further still.  They could have ridden the Sengoku train from start to finish, but the mythology and symbolism here is so scattershot it makes me have an OCD flare-up.  So the big dumb evil corporation du jour is Yggdrasil, the giant tree of Norse mythology, and the invasive plant alien comes from (and constructs) a forest called Helheim, the Norse underworld.  But then you’ve got Judeo-Christian themes via an apple that promises incredible knowledge/power, an Adam and Even allegory that I swear to God was crammed into the last three or four episodes, and one of the baddies is a snake or some such symbolic nonsense.  And for nigh-incomprehensible reasons, the portals (such as they are) to Helheim are represented by giant zippers. 

It doesn’t exactly mesh, is what I’m trying to say here. 

The worst part about it is that it’s not just confined to symbolism or ideas.  The plot keeps jumping around, and while sometimes it helps -- it keeps things fresh, and you can’t exactly accuse the show of dragging -- the fact that it won’t calm the hell down can be a major detriment.  There’s a good-ass story in Gaim just by following the Beat Riders’ struggle to take over the dance venues in their home of Zawame City.  The show was moving toward that at the outset -- slowly escalating the struggle between the Beat Riders as their members became Armored Riders.  Kouta gets his suit first (which may as well be a gun), which drives his rival to get his gun, which drives other Beat Riders to get their guns.  And before long it becomes less about dancing and more about getting their guns out -- be it by having Armored Riders to their name, or by deploying the best evil Pokémon they can get their hands on. 

To Gaim’s credit, they don’t drop the Beat Rider aspect instantly -- but it does get phased out over the course of the show’s run, to the point where you’d be forgiven for thinking the dancing ever mattered.  Or existed.  That’s a shame, because like I said, there’s a story in there that keeps things relatively personal.  Having the story focused on the interactions and clashes between the Beat Riders could have made for something truly impactful -- a story that shows what happens when people use guns power irresponsibly (only with a supernatural twist).  Instead, the story decides to focus on sticking it to a big dumb evil corporation…and then puts emphasis back on the monsters of the installment despite dropping the monster-of-the-week format so readily.

It doesn’t exactly mesh, is what I’m trying to say here. 

But the weird thing about it -- itself caused by the weird thing about Kouta -- is that Gaim actually hits a peak.  See, the thing you have to understand about KR is that even if it IS merchandise-driven, what happens in the show can still have an impact.  What happens in the story creates the context and drive needed to rush out and grab the latest action figure, or toy, or whatever.  There’s no greater proof of that than the time-honored tradition of giving each Rider a super mode of sorts; in-universe, it’s a way to signal a big turning point in their arc, if not the highest point.  It’s a reward for the struggles endured, and offers a HUGE amount of catharsis for viewers.

So let’s use this clip from Kamen Rider Wizard as an example to start us off.  It should have most of the context you need.  And, you know, spoilers.

Now then.  Let’s move on to Gaim.  Here’s a conversation that happens when Kouta is at his lowest, as per his discovery that he unknowingly killed his friend (after said friend turned into a monster):

And here’s what comes of that conversation.

I’m not even going to try to hide how much I like Kachidoki (Triumphant) Arms.  I like the design.  I like the skill set.  And a lot of that comes from the weight given to it via the story; by that point, Kouta and friends have been pushed around and jerked around by Yggdrasil’s goons, and our hero getting a super mode to thoroughly wreck their shit is one of the best moments in the entire series.  Granted other KR installments have, in my opinion, better looking super modes (like W) or have them more integral to the story/ideas (like OOO), but I’m satisfied with Kachidoki Arms as-is.

It’s just a shame that there are two problems.  The first is that Kachidoki is the second of ostensibly three super modes Kouta gets throughout the story, all three of which -- despite his character and strides -- are handed to him.  (His third form might be the strongest, but IMO it’s also the lamest, and contextually limp-wristed.)  But the bigger problem?  Right after getting Kachidoki -- barely the halfway point of Gaim -- Kouta’s arc hits its peak.  It’s done.  There’s not really anywhere else for him to go; sure, he struggles with the problems that come his way, but he doesn’t particularly change.  Hell, he might actually get worse; his resolve’s maxed out, and as a result he becomes relatively static as a hero.  To put it a different way?  He’s like Thor going from the start of the first movie to the end of the second -- both generally heroic, good-hearted characters, but in learning a lesson they lose integral parts of their essence.

Given that Zawame City turns into a ghost town vis a vis the person-mutating plants all around, it’s understandable why Kouta would stop being such a clown.  But damn, do I miss that clown.

If it seems like I’m being too down on/critical of Gaim, then let me make something clear: the problems I’ve voiced up to this point aren’t enough for me to say “This installment is terrible, and you should avoid it at all costs.”  These are just issues I have with the show, that’s all, and not even big ones.  Given the choice, there are plenty of things I would change about Gaim; still, the final product is something that I like, even if I don’t like it as much as other final products.  (You could probably take that as a signal of just how high-quality the other KR installments are; OOO, W, Wizard, and Fourze really are something else, for their own distinct reasons.)

THAT.  ALL.  SAID.  There’s one thing that takes Gaim up several notches, and the one element that I absolutely love about it -- easily the best-executed part of the show, if you ask me.  It’s one of the few things that stays consistent throughout, and remains consistently entertaining from start to finish.  As I’ve said, the main character is one of the most important parts of a story -- BUT if there’s one thing that gets me revved up, it’s a foil that’s as good as or even better than the MC.  And believe it or not, that’s in Gaim in spades.

So.  Let’s talk about Armored Rider Ryugen -- better known as Mitsuzane Kureshima.

Better known as Micchy.

Better known as the best character.

Micchy starts off as a character so far in the background that you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s an extra.  But when Kouta practically goes catatonic after a near-death experience (incidentally via a run-in with Micchy’s older brother Takatora), Micchy steps in to defend Team Gaim against the steadily-arming Beat Riders encroaching on their turf/rank.  After that, he establishes himself as a vital member of the team -- the strategist behind Kouta every step of the way, all for the sake of Team Gaim’s right to dance and be happy…though one wonders why they need special venues if they’re street dancers, but whatever.

It’s established early on that Micchy’s at his happiest when he’s dancing alongside or merely hanging out with his friends in Team Gaim, especially the show’s leading lady Mai.  At the same time, it’s shown that everything beyond that -- being a high-ranking student at a prestigious school, and in line to take a high-ranking position in the Yggdrasil Corporation -- is unfulfilling at best to him.  That in mind, there’s nothing stopping him from using his smarts and prestige to get himself and his team what he wants.  The shady arms dealer Lock Seed provider gun-giver even says that Micchy can be (and is) a real devil.

It’s at this point I have to mention that, while reading an unrelated KR thread on Reddit -- one asking about fans’ favorite villains -- somebody tossed Micchy’s name up there without context.  I hadn’t started watching the show at that point, but the name stuck out enough for me to remember it when I did.  And my thought at the outset was, “Wait, Micchy?  A villain?  Nah, there’s no way that could ever happen!  I must’ve misread it!”

Let’s see how fast I can sum this up.  Ready?  *deep breath*

Micchy is one of the first of the good guys to discover the secret of Helheim -- namely that it’s an invasive species that already claimed an entire civilization and is encroaching on Earth, though it’s localized in Zawame City.  As such, he decides to join up with big brother Takatora and Yggdrasil, believing it’s the only way to save the world -- BUT he also sticks close with the Beat Riders in the hopes that he can A) maintain their happiness and B) keep them from learning the truth, while also keeping them under (ostensibly his) control.  But Kouta constantly tries to screw everything up and finds out what’s going on regardless, jeopardizing Micchy’s efforts and putting Mai at risk of breaking emotionally.  Kouta tells Mai as much as he can despite Micchy’s FURIOUS strides, which leads to a confrontation where Mai slaps Micchy across the face. 

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s pretty much the exact point where Micchy snaps

With Zawame City’s state slowly deteriorating and everyone gathering around good guy Kouta instead of the big dumb evil corporation (even Takatora, of all people), Micchy decides to wrest control by staging an ambush on his big brother, and seizes his super-suit as his own so he can con Kouta into thinking that Takatora isn’t willing to cooperate with him anymore. 

Believing that what he’s doing is right/will save the world, Micchy decides to work with some super-evolved plant-men to gain full control of the people and Helheim, even if it means sacrificing some of its people to save the majority of them.  It reaches a point where Micchy A) tries to take Mai as his princess, B) starts spewing berserker rage in Kouta’s general direction, and C) hits his Rider-suited brother so damn hard he busts up Takatora’s mask and leaves him for dead in a harbor.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s pretty much the exact point where Micchy snaps even harder.

Micchy starts seeing the ghost of Takatora, who proceeds to shit-talk his little brother every chance he gets…which to be fair is relatively viable given that Micchy has dropped onto the floor and laughed maniacally on occasion.  In any case, for fear that Mai might be taken from him, Micchy entrusts one of the plant-men to take care of her…only for one of them to put the series’ game-winning MacGuffin inside her, which threatens to kill her.  For…some reason, I guess. 

Out of sheer desperation, Micchy entrusts her to a scumbag scientist, who pushes him to kill Kouta while giving him a suit gun which pretty much guarantees Micchy’s death.  Except it doesn’t, because Kouta destroys it while willingly taking what’s very close to a mortal blow; with Kouta apparently dead, Micchy heads back to see if Mai’s been saved via the deed…only for him to discover first-hand that trusting a scumbag scientist wasn’t his smartest move.  With the weight of his failures -- his dead friends and family, his broken home, his inability to ever dance with the Beat Riders again -- Micchy breaks into so many pieces you’d have more luck trying to recreate the Mona Lisa with specks of dust.

He gets better, though -- in the last half of the very last episode.

I’ll be frank.  If Micchy was the main character and Kouta was put in the background (or removed entirely), then Gaim would easily be my favorite KR series.  For what it’s worth, though, I appreciate the character we got and the series we got.  Micchy forces Kouta -- and the audience, even more so -- to answer some heady questions precisely because he isn’t the main character.  Example: it’s pretty much a given that Kouta and Mai are going to get together (and I mean get together, if you believe fan theories/subtext) because “LOL, protagonist powers!”  Isn’t that unfair to Micchy, who showed three times more interest/concern than Kouta ever did?  Isn’t Micchy kind of justified in being desperate to protect Team Gaim, in the sense that A) it’s the only thing he’s got in his life and B) he can’t count on Kouta to offer that emotional support?  Or any support, really?

Of course, there’s a serious elephant in the room we can’t discount: was what Micchy did throughout the series right?  I mean, think about it; Micchy was willing to sacrifice some people, but up to a certain point it was my understanding that it would definitely save the survivors.  Comparatively, Kouta’s plan -- with no guarantee of working, mind -- seems totally irresponsible, and based solely on the grounds that he could maybe save everyone.  Who’s in the right?  That’s debatable; Kouta pulls through because -- again -- “LOL, protagonist powers!”, but in a situation where that isn’t possible?  Who knows?

Still, who’s right and who’s wrong is kind of a moot point.  You can argue about the right thing to do on plenty of internet forums, but what matters most is Micchy’s execution.  He’s almost singlehandedly responsible for the darkness that weaves through Gaim -- and he does so in a meaningful way, not superficially.  He does good guy things.  He does bad guy things.  He has desires.  He struggles.  Not once did I feel like he did things just because the plot said so; in being willing to do whatever it took to get what he wanted -- be it righteous or selfish -- he did what every character should strive to do.  He took on a life of his own; the audience just had to sit there and watch.  And enjoy, ideally, but you get the idea.

I guess it just goes to show you what happens when you let a character be free to do whatever they want (or at least create the illusion of freedom).  Micchy is damn near Shakespearian in execution, and we get to see every savory bit of his transformation from silent supporter to suicidal shell.  I don’t think I need to tell you how awesome that is; as such, I have no problems declaring the grape-themed Rider the true villain of Gaim.

It’s just too bad the show didn’t agree with me.

WELP.  There goes all my goodwill.  But I’ll get into that next time.  See you next week -- and happy holidays.   

Oh, right.  Here’s your present.

There’s no one better than Alyson Hannigan.  No one.  


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