(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!)
Before I get started, let’s play a game.
I want you to think of a villain -- your favorite villain, from any story, from any medium, from any time. Take as much time as you need before going on. Then, once you have that villain in mind, think for a minute about why that villain means so much to you. (In the event that the villain is more of a concept/conflict than someone the hero can punch in the face, substitute that instead.) Don’t worry about forcing yourself to articulate it, or even mentioning it here in a comment. Just keep your answers fresh on your mind, okay?
Good. Great. Remember those answers, because I’m going to come back to them later. But for now? Open your eyes for the next Faiz.
My SPOILERS will make you cry.
…That is also the wrong Rider. Man, I’m really bad at this.
What? It's canon.
Okay. So I talked about a lot of stuff last time, but I don’t feel like I did so adequately enough -- even though the word count would suggest otherwise, but whatever. The thing that sticks out to me is that I said something along the lines of “Gaim isn’t dark enough.” And I stand by that. If the show had gone a little further in one direction, I wouldn’t have any problems ranking it higher in my personal list. As I’ve said before, Gaim is more or less Devil Survivor (1 or 2, take your pick) mixed with the DeSu2 anime…and also Kamen Rider, natch. The underlying problem with the show is that instead of focusing on and developing one thing, it decides to throw in all of the things. It’s an approach that works more often than you’d think, but when it doesn’t work, MAN does it not work.
Like I said last time, the show could have ridden the dance troupe battles straight to the very end. Given that Gaim starts off as an allegory for gang warfare (slighted and disaffected youths snatching up whatever turf they can get from the society willingly subjugated by corporations and concepts alike), and on top of that there’s a steady escalation from simple scuffles to outright threats on people’s lives -- dancers and audiences alike -- I don’t feel like the show got as much out of the so-called Beat Riders as it could.
I get it why Gaim went the way it did. The Beat Riders were the setup, and the means to get Kouta and the rest from dancing on the streets to trying to stave off a parasitic alien plant; given that you could associate the dancing part of the show with the “goofing off” part of the show, that’s a solid way to transition from peace to struggle than by phasing out what made the better part of the cast smile. Still, the problem (again, the underlying problem) is that Gaim doesn’t have focus. Cohesiveness. There’s a shocking lack of a unified concept, which you can see every time you wonder why zippers appear in the sky alongside the Armored Riders’ fruity gear.
The monsters for this installment aren’t as prominent as they are…at first. But then all of a sudden, they are! And…then they’re not. And then they are! And then they’re not. The expectation going into this show was that it would make the monsters background noise, and focus on the conflicts between the humans -- those who stumble into power via the henshin-begetting Sengoku Drivers.
When the show does that, it’s at its best; it’s what allows Micchy (the best character) to struggle with his best friend Kouta, his corporate brother Takatora, and more. Keeping the dance competition -- and its slow corruption into an all-out massacre on the streets -- would have been the perfect way to put that strength at the forefront. Developed, and delivered on a smaller scale, but an immensely-affecting one.
But Gaim -- and Gen Urobuchi and his team, by extension -- had different plans. The show that could have started and ended with Kouta and Micchy (be they friends or enemies) didn’t.
And that brings me to the fatal flaw in Gaim.
Let me say this upfront: there is no central villain in Gaim. That’s understandable to some extent, considering that the show is as much a clash of ideals as it is super-suited sword fights. On the other hand, I can’t help but think of KR installments before it, and how good they were because they had central villains. Comparatively, Gaim left me waiting for the moment when Micchy -- driven by his crumbling reason and dark passion -- would take the reins as the show’s ultimate enemy. That didn’t happen. That’s really a shame; I like Micchy as a character, but given some of the things he did it’s hard to say he’s 100% in the right 100% of the time. What better way to cap his arc than to have a head-to-head with the hero?
Now, it’s at this point that I have to make a call back to the start of this post. Hopefully you’ve put some thought into it, but if you haven’t, don’t worry. I think we can at least agree on a few things -- namely, that no matter the sort of villain a story has, no matter what they do or what they can do, there’s one unspoken rule above all others: they have to be compelling. The reason I like a character like Micchy is that even if you or I can’t agree with everything he does, his actions and persona are such that it doesn’t matter if he’s good or evil. He’s just interesting to watch, even if he’s doing a swan dive off Dead Man’s Curve.
It’s a shame that all the other villains are uniformly terrible.
The show’s setting of Zawame City is controlled by the Yggdrasil Corporation; I would say they do so subtly, but the company has logos and promos everywhere…and, well, the gigantic tree-shaped headquarters just chillin’ out downtown. The company’s presence in the story is understated at first, but as things progress you find out that -- as you’d expect -- the big corporation has a hand in pretty much everything. Yggdrasil orchestrated the Beat Rider competition, put Lock Seeds and Sengoku Drivers in the dancers’ hands, and is doing some shady stuff behind the scenes. Well, shady in the sense that they’re kinda-sorta trying to save the world.
In an effort spearheaded by Takatora, Yggdrasil aims to keep the human race alive as the alien plant Helheim encroaches upon the world. The thing is, Takatora has enough evidence to believe that Helheim can’t be stopped in the conventional way; at best, humanity will have to find ways to brave the impending invasion (one that’ll complete its infestation in ten years’ time). And how do they intend to do that?
Using the Armored Riders system; the Beat Riders are simply their guinea pigs, as well as scapegoats for when the corporation can’t cover up every Inves outbreak. On top of all that, it’s revealed that even with Yggdrasil’s efforts, there’s no way everyone can be saved. There won’t be enough belts to go around -- and because of that, according to their projections only one in seven people in the entire world have a chance at living. That’s some pretty heavy stuff…and it would be even heavier if Takatora and Yggdrasil didn’t mishandle it every step of the way.
Yggdrasil’s operation brings up so many questions that I’m fighting the urge to run through them to the tune of Groose’s theme. For example: these guys apparently had at least seven years’ worth of a head start, but the most any of them have in terms of a “third option” -- i.e. the thing that’ll keep them from sacrificing billions of people -- is a hazy photograph of some random monster? It seems plausible enough until one of the main characters finds said monster in -- at most -- a month. So what were you guys doing this whole time?
The answer to that is repeatedly saying “this is the only way.” Except it isn’t. Helheim is shown to be beatable just by taking flamethrowers to the plants that emerge in Zawame City, so why can’t they just set the whole forest ablaze? Or nuke it? I mean, this isn’t a problem that’ll only affect Japan; it’s shown that the corporation has contact with other countries, meaning that Helheim is (naturally) a global problem. So what’s stopping them from crossing over and burning everything they can?
Even beyond that, what’s stopping Yggdrasil from coming up with a new and better option in the ten-year timeframe they have until doomsday? I get that there aren’t enough special materials to give everyone Sengoku Drivers (the Rider belts), but what about turning Helheim into a food source? Sure, eating the forest’s fruits raw turns you into a monster, but you’re telling me that you can’t find any way to make them safe to eat besides relying on a finite resource? You’re telling me that in ten years you can’t figure out a way to make some nice milkshakes out of the stuff?
Even if you set those admittedly-dubious questions aside, I still don’t understand why Yggdrasil had to trick the Beat Riders into being their scapegoats in the first place. I get it, there has to be a cover for the monster attacks; my question is why they had to put weapons in the hands of rebellious youths, several of which go on to completely wreck their personnel, their equipment, their plans, and even their HQ. If the company needed a cover, it could have just had a Beat Rider team in its pocket -- hired dancers willing to abuse the Inves game and draw heat so that every Beat Rider was a suspect. Because the alternative to that -- what happens in the show -- is that Yggdrasil willingly puts weapons in the hands of people willing to slap their shit.
And that’s not even the worst of it. The plan was to have those Beat Riders take the belts so they could be guinea pigs, and pass data back to the corporation. Okay, first of all: that data couldn’t have been nearly as important as the test would suggest, because it’s not long before Yggdrasil starts deploying whole squads of mass-produced Armored Riders -- and that’s setting aside the fact that they don’t really need the tests because they show in a flashback that they ran them on Takatora. And THAT’S setting aside the fact that, again, they didn’t need to trick the Beat Riders into taking the belts; they could have asked for volunteers, or just told a choice few “Listen, the world’s in danger. Help us out and maybe we can stop it.”
They’re pissing away time and resources to create the exact circumstances needed to have their plans thwarted -- and that’s especially true, because for whatever reason, they never bothered installing a kill switch into the Drivers. Like, it turns out that there is a kill switch installed into one of the later Drivers -- one that never would have made it into the hands of non-company personnel, but whatever -- but they never thought that anyone would use those freely-offered weapons to wreak havoc? Are you kidding me? You want this guy to have a belt without consequence?
There’s even more wrong with Yggdrasil, if you can believe that, but my nitpicking is beside the point. I don’t have any problems admitting that other KR installments also had dumb villains who do dumb things, but what matters most is that the villains are compelling enough to make you look past all of that. Gaim’s villains aren’t. Not even close. Not even one of them. Well, except for Micchy (the best character), but he’s not allowed to be the central villain of the show, for whatever reason. Instead, Gaim gives us more than a half dozen.
In the Yggdrasil camp, you’ve got big boss Takatora, scientist (and belt-maker) Ryoma Sengoku, arms peddler Sid, and bodyguard Yoko Minato. Four separate Riders. Four separate jobs. Three of the four have nearly the exact same personality (and you could count all four if you’re the cynical sort): smug, self-important assholes that think they know better than everyone else. And time and time again, they’re made fools of…only the show doesn’t have the self-awareness to make them say “Gee, that didn’t go well. Maybe I need to re-evaluate the situation.”
One of the show’s big reveals is that there’s actually a forbidden fruit -- the Fruit of Knowledge, the Golden Fruit, what have you -- that’ll pretty much give anyone who gets it the power to resolve the situation…or, you know, become a god. So Ryoma wants it for science, I guess, to the point where he’s willing to hide the possibility of its existence from Takatora (even though the latter probably should have known something was up from video cameras and computer surveillance, and the former should understand that keeping that stuff hidden means he won’t have a world left to science on). Ryoma’s tune at the start is pretty much exactly the same at the end -- just some character who’s willing to spout “just according to keikaku” even when things aren’t going to keikaku. There’s a scene later in the show where he has to bail because of how badly things have gone for him, but he still acts like he’s the winner somehow. He’s like some kid who thinks he won just because he took his ball and ran home.
But that’s not all. Sid, the smuggest of the smug, only wants it because…hey, why not? So in a stark departure from his take-it-easy character, he screams “I WANT POWER! GIMME! WAAAAAAAH!” while a big boss monster is blasting him into oblivion. Yoko -- one of the franchise’s rare female Riders, and someone hyped as being as potentially powerful as Kouta -- decides early on that she only wants to see the man who’ll get the fruit, and will dutifully serve whoever marches toward it. As much as I love a character that’s all about loyalty, Yoko doesn’t have the personality to exist as more than an archetype -- which opens up a whole bunch of negative connotations. But at least she didn’t die trying to save a man who barely cared about her.
Oh wait. That’s totally what happens.
On top of all that, there’s the Overlords. You can think of them as super-duper plant-men instead of the rank-and-file seen throughout most of the show’s run. Adding them in was a baffling move to me, because as I said before, the monsters in Gaim are downplayed compared to other installments. Okay, sure, the Overlords are more or less remnants from a previously-destroyed civilization, but this conflict didn’t necessarily demand them. Even so, they’re added in anyway; the first of them to appear is Demushu, who isn’t technically anything more than a warm-up boss for all the rest, but I might as well count him anyway.
There’s Redyue as well, who’s a schemer and strategist who…schemes and strategizes, and just wants to see bad stuff happen. The leader of the Overlords and the current owner of the Golden Fruit is Roshuo, who’s desperately trying to save his lost love and beyond that couldn’t give two shits about Earth. I’m not entirely sure what he’s doing in the story, all things considered. His two major contributions are to hasten Helheim’s spread (on the grounds that humanity can’t save itself) and to hold onto the MacGuffin. Well, there’s one thing he contributes to on, but I’ll get to that. Because it’s…troubling, to say the least.
The thing that gets to me about Gaim is that it gives Helheim a face. DJ Sagara, the host/commentator/MC for the Beat Riders’ clashes, is actually the physical embodiment of the alien forest. That strikes me as a huge misstep; the show sold Helheim at the outset not as an enemy that could be beaten in a straight fight, but as a force of nature. A natural disaster -- a conflict that had to be resolved by more than just a couple of Rider Kicks.
But then it turns out that the forest can send in Sagara to talk to humans. Just like the Overlords, I didn’t need that; Helheim was much more frightening when it didn’t have a way to rationalize its methods. It was just a thing that killed and consumed. To put it a different way: imagine if Lavos from Chrono Trigger could say “I’m going to kill everyone, and here’s why.” Was anybody asking for that? No.
To be fair, Sagara doesn’t do that in a concrete way, but he still makes for a baffling presence. Case in point: he’s the one that gives Kouta all three of his super forms. That is, it’s as simple as handing over a couple of Lock Seeds -- at least after a few pep talks. Soooooooooo…does that mean Helheim is willingly handing over the means to its destruction? Sagara explains that Helheim at large does what it does partly because it wants to see humanity evolve (or die trying), but why put the world at risk like that?
If it wants to see evolution, then why would Sagara pretend to be some fast-talking announcer instead of an advocate for that evolution? I get that the people have to prove their worth, but how can they do that when they’re spending most of their days not even knowing why things have gone to hell? Why add this layer of complexity to something that could have been so simple and so much more effective?
Then again, there’s not much point in wondering about that. Because there’s a bigger problem that needs tending to.
Kaito Kumon is the show’s requisite rival character for Kouta. He’s the second to get his Sengoku Driver, the leader of Team Baron, a constant presence in the show…and by a wide margin, the worst Kamen Rider character I’ve seen yet. I don’t understand how a show that could have someone as fantastic as Micchy could have someone as terrible as Kaito -- someone who might as well be the opposite, and for all the wrong reasons.
You know the archetype -- the cold, serious jerk of a character that’s all too eager to call the well-meaning lead an idiot. It’s not a death knell, but that archetype is a jumping-off point, not the whole of a character. Apparently Kaito didn’t get the memo, because his character going in is only shifted a couple of steps by the end of the story. I’m not even joking here; seriously, even some of the side characters get more development than he does. A quick glance around reveals that Kaito actually wasn’t supposed to be the rival character, and Takatora (or Armored Rider Zangetsu…or one of them at least) would have taken that role by story’s end. But apparently, Kaito’s popularity kept him on the center stage. At which point I have to ask: “Really?”
Setting aside the fact that the story does make more sense if you consider Takatora or Micchy as the main rival, Kaito as a character doesn’t have nearly as much range. Want to know everything there is to know about him? You can do that in maybe five episodes. All he cares about is power, and getting power, and using power, and showing off his power, and talking about how others don’t have power. Power, power, power, power, power. Sure, he reveals in his backstory that he watched Zawame City turn from his hometown into a corporatized shell of its former self, and he starts respecting leading lady Mai, but he has neither the arc nor the charisma needed to justify his continued presence in the story.
If anything, you could argue that his entire character doesn’t make sense. What do I mean? Well, let’s have a quick run-through…with the proper music, of course.
No, not Groose’s theme. That’s too good for this guy. Let’s go with something a little different.
He enters the Beat Rider competition as the leader of Team Baron, but admits that the dancing was actually pointless…even though he argued that it was a way to express power in the city. He quits the team so he can go on a search for power, even if that means working with the very people he intends to overpower…even though he receives more power from them anyway. He says he hates backstabbing traitors, but seems to be missing the point that he’ll end up going traitor just so he can get out of Yggdrasil’s grasp (which he does, essentially).
For all his talk of power, he’s actually one of the weaker Riders since he gets his super mode waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay after it stops being relevant; he actually acknowledges it offhandedly late in the show, but instead of trying to find a better way to develop and harness his power, he’s A-OK with just throwing himself at whatever comes his way. He tries to fight an Overlord without transforming, which gives him an injury that (if not for the power of the plot) threatens to essentially poison him. The only reason he’s able to fight Kouta as the show’s final boss is because he stumbles ass-backwards into becoming an Overlord.
And on top of all that, there’s his final exchange before said fight begins -- where he says the people who had power previously didn’t have the compassion needed to do justice, and then WITHIN THE SAME MINUTE tells Kouta that his compassion makes him weak. And did I mention that on top of all that he’s aiming to swarm the world with Inves to kill the weak and expose the strong, even though he has no way to keep those monsters from indiscriminately killing people who -- again -- have no idea what’s going on?
Kaito, Kaito, Kaito…I’d tell you to go suck a lemon, but even that might be too good for you. So go eat a pound of licorice instead. And use a gallon of elephant piss as a chaser.
So. If you count Micchy as a villain, then you could charitably argue that Gaim has ten of them -- ten antagonistic forces out to make Kouta’s life that much harder. True, some of them are more important than others, but here’s the thing: like I said, KR tends to have a central antagonist instead of (or alongside) supporting antagonists. It’s a basic approach, but it works for a damn good reason -- because in a lot of cases, a hero is only as good as his villain.
Once he makes the turn from hero to…well, pretty much every other point on the spectrum, Micchy spends the majority of the show with Kouta entirely unaware that he’s planning some nasty stuff. Micchy is made stronger by his negative relationship with Kouta (literally, after a certain point); on the flip-side, Kouta gets to show off the best of himself when he and Micchy conclusively duke it out. And even before then, precisely because of their relationship.
You could say that Kaito gets that as well, but it’s not the same. It’s not as strong. And even if you have a positive view of the token rival, that still leaves the majority of the antagonists completely hollow. Knowing what the show can do (and what it did do), I’m struggling to see how things could go so far off the rails.
But on the other hand, there’s still --
Oh, what kind of nonsense is this? I should be done with this thing by now!
Oh hell. I guess I’d better talk about that, huh? Sigh. Maybe there’s a reason why I didn’t talk about Gaim for so long…