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December 22, 2014

RE: Kamen Rider Gaim

(Cross-Up ison 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!)

I don’t do this very often -- or at all -- but I’m going to have to put a little strain on the rules.

What I post here tends to NOT be a straight-up review -- of TV shows, games, movies, or anything that pops up.  I’m more concerned with determining why something is good or bad instead of just outright saying “this is good” or “this is bad”.  There’s some overlap, sure, but as I’ve said in the past, this isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for a score on the latest game, or any sort of ranking system.

That in mind, I have to make an exception just this once for Kamen Rider Gaim.  Two reasons for that: first, I’d vastly prefer talking about it if I can point someone toward watching it -- but seeing as how that’d demand a fifty-ish episode marathon run, I think it’d be best if I at least put the suggestion in a reader’s head.  More importantly, Gaim is the sort of show that’s hard to talk about without tripping all over spoilers -- SO, I’m going to use THIS post as a sort of all-purpose primer.  It’ll superficially tell you what’s good and what isn’t (even if that means hinting towards spoilers); in the posts to follow, we’ll go into full-on discussion mode so I can talk about the good and the bad.  Watching Gaim in its entirety won’t be required, though, so you can rest easy.  Just read what I’ve got so you can walk away with a fresh perspective.

Okay?  Okay.  Let’s get started then.  First…

That’s a baller theme song, yo.

So here’s the setup.  The show stars Kouta Kazuraba, a young member of the dance troupe Team Gaim.  Said troupe is known in-universe as Beat Riders, just one of several teams in Zawame City competing for top honors and the right to own/use the designated dance venues.  The problem is that Team Gaim is scraping the barrel in the rankings, mostly because the Beat Riders don’t just do battle via dance; they play the Inves Game -- think Pokémon, only with ridiculously-ugly monsters -- using trinkets called Lock Seeds that have been seeing higher distribution throughout the city.  So it’s pretty common for Team Gaim to get curb-stomped, because they don’t have the weapons needed to fight off tougher troupes.

On top of all that, Kouta’s pretty much dropped out of the Beat Rider struggle.  In an effort to help his older sister with living expenses, he’s decided to give up dancing and become an adult, up to and including finding a stable job (rather than the slew of oddjobs he undertakes throughout the show’s run).  But as these things tend to go, he gets dragged into the Beat Rider conflict yet again.  A message from his friend and teammate Yuuya -- who goes missing soon after -- leads to Kouta discovering a mysterious forest…and with it, a strange belt and Lock Seed.  Using them in tandem, Kouta discovers that he can become an Armored Rider (the franchise-standard Kamen Rider), and can fight off the Inves that threaten to run wild in Zawame City. 

Or something to that effect.

One of the things that separates Gaim from some of the more recent Rider installments -- going as far back as 2007’s Den-O, at least -- is that it ditches the two-episode monster of the week format.  That is, instead of having the Rider of the year and his pals try to deal with the monster across a two-week (in our time) span, it’s not uncommon for Gaim to ditch the Inves completely.  And it does; for the most part, the monsters aren’t the major enemy in the series.  It’s the other Armored Riders that pop up, several of which are tied to the sprawling Yggdrasil Corporation -- because as you know, all fictional corporations are inherently evil.

What this means is that Gaim isn’t quite as regimented as installments past, which is both a good thing and a bad thing.  The best part about the new format is that the progression of each episode feels more natural; there’s more flow, more connection, and more opportunities for the story to go in its desired direction without being forced to toss in some random monster just ‘cause.  This was, in my eyes, a major problem with Kamen Rider Kiva; it felt like a show that got held back by the MotW style, or at the very least had its progression slowed to the pace of a crippled turtle.  So in a way, you can think of Gaim as an evolved form of Kiva -- both shows juggle a lot, but one of them is more successful with it than the other.

On the other hand, I can’t stay mad at Kiva.  It’s pretty much what happens when you cross Twilight with Kamen Rider -- and it’s a surprisingly good combination.   

In any case, you can’t help but respect Gaim for what it tries to do -- because one of the things it does implicitly is put trust in its audience.  Yes, Kamen Rider at large is ostensibly what Transformers was once upon a time, but you wouldn’t know that based on some of its content.  This installment is no exception; the show has a Sengoku warfare theme established as soon as you look at some promo art, but start the series proper and you find a show that’s (at its outset) not even trying to mask its obvious allusions to gang warfare.  Kouta gets a belt first, but ends up escalating the fight and the arms race woven into it.

Team Baron’s leader Kaito gets a belt next, and uses it to gain an upper hand in the Inves games.  Then Micchy, another Team Gaim member, gets his belt -- and then other Beat Riders from other teams get their belts, and then it gets into the hands of a mercenary, and then you start to realize that, hey, maybe giving everybody who asks for it a super-suit isn’t the best idea.  And by that point, the real plot starts to kick in, wherein lead writer Gen Urobuchi (of Madoka Magica fame, and affectionately called “Urobutcher”) makes sure to bring a healthy dose of despair to everyone.

Still, the important thing about this show is that even if (when) things get serious, it’s not exactly just doom and gloom and darkness all around.  The cast is constantly moving toward some certain goal, and even if it’s not a joke-laden environment, there’s still enough levity and heart to keep things from getting caked in grit for grittiness’ sake.  You can chalk a lot of that up to leading man Kouta; he goes through highs and lows, but no matter the situation his character manages to keep things moving, engaging, and entertaining.  The show wouldn’t be what it is without him.

I wish I could say the same about the rest of the cast, though.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some standout characters -- Micchy well among them -- but Gaim’s biggest weak point is that its villains aren’t nearly as entertaining.  More often than not, they come off as interchangeable, and only come into their own when they’re about to die, or are about to be replaced by new villains.  So on that note, you could say that the show is a little too fast and loose with the ideas it’s trying to juggle -- and that’s why I say the MotW format isn’t quite a death knell.  I don’t even need to go into spoilers to prove that; the core concept behind these riders is “Sengoku-era fruit-based dancing bikers.”  And it only gets worse from there.

Nearly all of Gaim’s story issues come from its villains, though there are some under-the-hood things that lead me to believe that Urobutcher and crew wanted to tackle some of the big stuff before getting down the basics.  Still, the story does end up mostly positive; nearly all of the action takes place in Zawame City, but you still get the sense that said city has weight and impact on the story.  It changes as time progresses, giving it a character as well as showing the end result of the Beat Riders’ warfare.  There’s some pretty harrowing stuff in there that belies the goofiness of the opening arc, and I’ve got some serious respect for that.

In terms of presentation, though, Gaim can really sing.  The soundtrack is uniformly excellent, to the point where I’ll listen to a forty-second clip whenever I get the chance.  Some of the fights are absolutely fantastic, mixing fancy moves with a real sense of motion and weight (story-based or otherwise).  And I think the production team is finally getting there with the CG; granted there are times when things tend to look like a PS3 game from 2009, but I guess budgetary limits keep things from getting too ornate. 

Speaking of which, if I had to take issue with the feel of the show, then it’d have to be the suits.  I was into them at first, but the dangling armor pieces tend to shake at times, and it strikes me as something that looks fake.  Gaim isn’t the first series to have a problem with dangly bits, but it just reminds me how much more I prefer the compact, streamlined designs of Riders like OOO, Double, and the recent Drive.  On the other hand, the Armored Riders in still shots still look pretty cool.

All told, I’m happy with Gaim -- more or less.  There are some aspects about it that I love, and some aspects that I absolutely hate, but take them together and it’s hard for me to feel too negative about it.  So while Gaim isn’t my favorite series, I can see why people would claim that it is -- which, as far as I can tell, is quite a few.  There’s a lot to like, and at the end of the day, I’m glad I went through it.  Check out what you can, when you can, however you can; hopefully you’ll buy into what Gaim is selling.

And that’s about all I’ve got for now -- at least all I can say without going into spoilers.  So let’s save that for next time, yeah?  Yeah, let’s do that.

That’ll give you plenty of time to stock up on grapes.  DOHOHOHOHOHO CLEVER HINT TOWARD INCOMING CONTENT

And now you guys have context for that JPEG.

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