(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!)
Like I’ve said before, Gaim has been on my mind for a good while now -- even before I started working on these posts. It’s not even close to my favorite Kamen Rider installment (that honor goes to OOO, the first one I watched to completion), but if things had gone differently Gaim would have taken the top spot. And I’m all right with that; part of the reason I check out other KR installments is because I’m waiting for the series that boots OOO from the throne -- the one show that lets me say “I don’t just like OOO because it was my first.”
That’ll happen eventually, I hope. But it hasn’t yet. That’s not to devalue Gaim, because even if I can point to problems I had with it -- and let’s be real, there ARE problems -- I can still enjoy it as a whole. There are just things that any given viewer needs to consider.
And the one thing I kept considering from the show’s start to its finish is this: We Madoka now.
Let me say this to start:
I am fairly filling this post with SPOILERS! So…you know, be wary of those. It’ll help you in the long run, I imagine.
Once more, it’s worth mentioning that the mastermind behind Kamen Rider Gaim is the famed Gen Urobuchi, otherwise known as “Urobutcher”. He’s made a name for himself, and rightfully so in a number of instances. While I can’t say I’m intimate with his work, I do know he’s pretty prolific in the anime world. Suisei no Gargantua, parts of Psycho-Pass, Aldnoah.Zero -- he’s had a hand in all of those, as well as some visual and light novels.
Still, the one thing I know him for -- even if I haven’t even seen it, outside of the cultural osmosis pushed by its popularity -- is Puella Magi Madoka Magica. That, as far as I can tell, had a HUGE impact, be it on anime fans shocked by the unlikely fusion of despair and magical girls, or by those in the industry who decided to play the “let’s do that, but worse” game. (Otherwise known as the “let’s turn everything into Call of Duty” approach.) I’m not going to pass any judgments on an anime I know nothing about; if you’re looking for that, I’d recommend looking here for a very thoughtful breakdown. I’ve only seen a couple of gifs from the actual show, and even then incidentally -- but then again, I wonder if I even have to at this point. I feel like just by spending time on the internet, I know pretty much the gist of what happens.
And unfortunately, that pours into -- and hurts -- Gaim.
Anyone who knew Urobuchi was attached to the show knew instinctively what they were in for. Apparently, a “Madoka-level twist” was touted early on, which I can understand; after all, giving an audience a big reveal to look forward to is pretty regular when it comes to modern-day stories. But I don’t agree with that move (or mindset at large), because A) it devalues everything before that plot twist, and B) the reveal is never going to be as earth-shattering as what fans dream up.
Gaim has twists in its plotline and its theme at large -- all things geared toward probing what it means to be a Rider. When it’s doing that investigation, it’s good. It’s thoughtful. But even so, there are times when it doesn’t work. It’s revealed that the installment’s monsters (the Inves) are actually the end result of people who eat one of the alien forest’s fruits raw, instead of turning the fruits into the Rider-making Lock Seeds. Kouta sees that transformation happen firsthand, and it shocks him to his core…but for me, it fell flat.
I’ve seen more than enough KR installments to know that there’s a VERY fine line between being a Rider and being a monster; typically, their power sources come from the exact same place with only the slightest tweaks. Because if that, one of the franchise’s overarching themes -- however understated -- is that it’s about how you use that power, not necessarily what it is or where it comes from.
The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether Urobuchi and crew were fighting against futility. I’m not discounting Madoka, but here’s the problem: barring the supplementary materials that came afterward (manga, movies, what have you), Madoka came and went in twelve episodes. It was a one-shot series that told the story it thought needed to be told. Compare that to KR; setting aside the fact that Gaim had nearly four times as many episodes to fill with content, you have to remember that it’s part of an esteemed franchise. I can’t help but question the lasting impact of deconstructing Riders when your work is followed immediately by a show whose theme song sounds like this.
Beyond that, I can’t shake the feeling that the similarities between Gaim and Madoka are more pronounced than I’d prefer. A shady character that promises to give youths power in exchange for even shadier gains? Check. A character that gets offed in spectacular fashion? Check. Showing how much being a
magical girl Rider can suck? Check.
Despair for pretty much everyone?
Check. And beyond all of that
(and probably more), just how similar are characters like Kouta and Kaito to
Madoka and Homura? Or anyone else, for
that matter? Could Micchy only be the
best character because Urobuchi already had practice with a wide-headed magical
girl? And most importantly, what does it
say about Gaim when its lead turns
into Super Saiyan Jesus Nobunaga to resolve the conflict?
Oh my God, it’s just so baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.
I guess the question I have to ask myself -- beyond the “is this good or bad” issue -- is “Given the chance, would I watch Gaim again?” And all things considered, I’m leaning toward no. I feel like I got everything I wanted out of it, even before I reached the finale; it certainly didn’t help that said finale led up to a final fight with high shitlord Kaito. Blemishes aside, Gaim’s got a strong plot and some really good ideas orbiting it, and when they’re allowed to occur naturally the show is at its best. That simplicity -- and the top-notch execution born from it -- is what put the show higher above a couple of others.
What I’m getting at here is that Gaim is great when it isn’t trying. That’s not to say I want its crew (past, present, or future) to just give up on quality and pander with lots of flash and spectacle. No, it’s all about being simple and natural. When it’s not force-feeding despair to the audience, it’s a stronger show. When it is, it’s the sort of thing that begets The Walking Dead-levels of apathy. Gaim never crosses that threshold, thankfully, but it did get close. And in some instances, even getting close is a bad place to be.
There’s a subplot later in the show where it’s revealed that using higher-end Lock Seeds are slowly turning Kouta into an Overlord (i.e. a super-Inves). Once other characters find out about it-- leading lady Mai chief among them -- it’s a cause for concern and cries by the dozen. Here’s the problem, though: in the context of the show, there’s no inherent drawback to becoming an Overlord, especially in Kouta’s case.
The biggest signals that he’s changing are that he stops needing food, he heals faster, and he can move Helheim’s plants on a small scale. Those all sound like good things to me. Plus, even when he does make the complete leap, it comes without consequence; he gets to keep his human form, his individuality, and his sentience. So why were people crying about it? Why the worry?
There’s no need for it. And thus, that’s bad despair.
Compare that to an example in the show’s first half. Kouta’s Rider adventures only started because of his missing friend Yuuya, who for all intents and purposes should have been the true Armored Rider Gaim. Still, Yuuya is a guy that matters to Kouta, especially with him MIA. But with the reveal that Yuuya not only became an Inves, but was the very first monster that Kouta killed in his very first fight, it’s a turn of events that affects everyone (Kouta, Micchy, and Mai) once they fully know the truth.
It’s the point where Micchy begins showing his manipulative side in full force. It’s the lynchpin of Kouta’s fall and subsequent rise vis a vis his acquisition of Kachidoki Arms. It’s a truth that gets kept from Mai to preserve her happiness, but once she does find out she presses on even harder -- even without a Rider suit to call her own. The drama around this plot point matters in the grand scheme of both the show and several characters’ arcs, creating tension during its period of relevance, as well as relief once all’s said and done.
There’s a definite need for that. And thus, that’s good despair.
As you can guess, I don’t think every story needs to be 100% happy 100% of the time (even if my distaste for dark/gritty fare says otherwise). It’s all about striking a balance -- using those elements effectively instead of skewing toward certain tastes or expectations, or even a creator’s end goals. It’s all about doing what’s best for a story, and the characters within it.
And on that note, it’s worth noting that a number of the characters in this show are worth watching. Well, maybe not the villains (Micchy aside), and I wish some of the other dancers were more than just named extras, but those who get chances to shine really do shine. Jounouchi may be the joke character of choice, considering that his suit’s based on an acorn, but that doesn’t stop his transformation to wannabe strategist to loyal (if reluctant) frontline fighter.
Oren’s the most FABULOUS pastry chef you’ll ever see, but you don’t even make it through his debut episode before seeing him prove why he was such a dangerous mercenary. And special mention has to go to Team Baron’s second leader Zack. He gets his start as some background voice who shouts “BANANA?!”, but well before the show’s end establishes himself not only as a chummy and goodhearted supporter, but also as a Total Cool Guy. If not for Micchy, he’d be my favorite character.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a little time on Mai, though. It’s a shame that she doesn’t get to be an Armored Rider, but in terms of the main series she doesn’t need to be. I wasn’t too keen on her at first, because at the start of the show she chews Kouta out for abandoning the team (without really knowing or caring about his extenuating circumstances); still, once she realizes that Kouta’s putting in a hell of a lot of work for everyone’s sake -- his sister, Team Gaim, Zawame City, and Mai herself -- she starts to lay off. That’s not to say that she spends the rest of her show sitting around, or just waiting with clasped hands for Kouta to resolve everything. If anything, she does work that’s infinitely more important than beating up the bad guys.
When it’s revealed that Yggdrasil has been using the Beat Riders as scapegoats (and furthers their ill standing with a smear campaign), Mai -- who pretty much has dancing in her blood -- campaigns with as many other dancers as she can to both reverse their standing AND bring happiness to themselves and others. In a way, you can think of her as a peacemaker in the faux-Sengoku war; with so much smashing and burning happening around her, Mai takes it upon herself to bridge the gap between the people of Zawame City -- building trust, uniting against a common enemy, etc. And beyond all that -- even when the dancing does get phased out -- she still keeps a stiff upper lip about the whole situation. She’s a real trooper, and presents a sort of “realness” to the nuttiness taking place on a daily basis. That’s cool.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand then she becomes a MacGuffin holder who ends up creating one of the most baffling plot twists I’ve ever seen -- one that, for whatever reason, introduces time travel. As if the show wasn’t complex enough already.
One thing I haven’t mentioned until now is that since episode one (and the show’s opening), there’s been a mysterious blonde girl in white who, beyond looking like Mai, appears periodically -- her most poignant appearances being when Kouta, Kaito, and Micchy first get ready to go into their Armored Rider forms. She warns them that they’re heading toward a dark path, and they have to be willing to accept the weight of that choice. BUT as it turns out, that girl wasn’t just a Mai clone; she IS Mai.
More specifically, Mai gets the Golden Fruit MacGuffin and gains the power it bestows rather than, well, dying. Almost immediately, she uses that power to travel through time and try and prevent the show’s events from happening, or at least keep the three Riders du jour from getting involved. It doesn’t work, she ends up getting trapped in another timeline or something, and the only way to save her is for Kouta and Kaito to slug it out in the show’s final fight.
It’s been a good while since I finished Gaim, and I’m STILL trying to wrap my head around what happened. I was under the impression that “get the Golden Fruit” = win, so how did everyone end up in a situation where Mai -- who I would have figured effectively became a god -- went from a proactive supporter to someone that needed to be rescued (and according to some valid interpretations, a trophy to be won by two guys butting heads over her)?
On top of that, the Golden Mai who appears before the others talks in stuffy, grandiose language, while the Normal Mai -- superimposed into the scenes near the very end of the show’s run -- pleads and even mentions that that isn’t what she wanted to say. Sooooooooooooo…uh…did another Golden Mai from a different timeline take over? If so, why? And again, how did Mai end up in a bad place if she has the key to ending the entire show’s conflict?
Gaim, I’m trying to support you here. Could you please make it a little easier on me?
I will be fair. The show gets into some sketchy territory by making a huge part of the conflict revolve around three boys pining for one girl (to different degrees and extents). On the other hand, that drama is used to get things going -- changing characters for the better, pushing them head-first into corruption, or otherwise giving them something to fight for.
Like the Devil Survivor games before it, Gaim manages to make the conflict feel bigger and give the setting some real weight -- there’s a harrowing scene near the end where there’s a wall covered in pictures of missing persons -- but what both justifies that conflict and surpasses it is the struggle on a personal level. An audience can feel the pressure on a large scale, but a small-scale skirmish shouldn’t be devalued.
And really, there are a lot of nice things added to Gaim on that personal level. You can get the sense that even if he crossed a line at some point, most of what Micchy did was to protect both his friends and his peaceful, laughter-filled days. Kouta ends up being the one standing beside Mai at the end in a plotline sense, but he was able to win her heart by doing what neither Kaito nor Micchy could: trusting her with the truth so that she wouldn’t just be living with false hope.
But interestingly, it still doesn’t make him any better at giving others peace of mind; rather than talking to Micchy himself at the end, he has Takatora try to fix things in his stead. Even the members of Team Baron (that matter) admit with gusto that they want to dance, and thus take the reins from total shitlord Kaito. S’all right with me; Zack IS the second-best character, after all.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of show Gaim would be if it kept things simple. Maybe I’d like it more for keeping focus and strengthening those interpersonal relationships. Maybe I’d like it less for trivializing the larger-scale elements. Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? I don’t have any problems pointing out issues I had with the show, but as you’ve seen, I’m more than willing to point out the positives. And there are positives -- stuff that would make me recommend a watch to anyone interested.
I’m probably not going to rank it higher than some of the other shows I’ve seen, but don’t think of that as an indictment. Rather, take that as confirmation of just how freaking good KR is on a regular basis. OOO is still my favorite, but the shows that follow that occupy some dubious haze where any one of them could take the number two slot for different reasons. And even though I’ve got issues with stuff like Kiva and Den-O, I still like them plenty. They’ve got some real juice to them, in terms of both context and subtext. So as far as I’m concerned, at this moment, I really can’t say “Don’t watch ______” or “Eh, I didn’t really like ______”. It doesn’t matter where you go for your stories; you just have to take the plunge, and be willing to learn from whatever comes your way.
…Actually, now that I think about it? Don’t watch Decade -- that is, unless you watch the nine Heisei-era Rider installments that came before it. I’d wager that’s the only way to get the full effect.
Or some such celebration.