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August 4, 2016

Ranking the Kamen Rider Seasons (Part 1)

Confession time: I was tempted to go on Twitter and make a joke about the recently-revealed Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, but decided against it.  I didn’t want to risk accidentally spoiling the new Rider’s look and/or plot details for those who actually care about spoilers.  Or Kamen Rider in general, which to be fair I’m not 100% sure any of my Twitter followers actually care about.  But hey, better safe than sorry.

Then again, I’m kinda-sorta spoiling it via this post, soooooo…safety is for yellowbellies, I guess.

I’ll be honest.  I had a pretty violent reaction to Ex-Aid’s look -- i.e. the gaudiest mix of colors combined with some design choices that make me tilt my head far enough to shatter my neck.  “Oh no.  What were they thinking?” I thought.  I couldn’t help myself.  But armed with the knowledge that Ex-Aid will have different forms -- and that the true quality of the season will come from the story and action -- I’m at peace with it.  I’ll give it a fair shake when the time comes.  Until then, though?  I think it’s about time I do something personal.

I’ve seen more than my fair share of Kamen Rider over the years.  And after putting some thought into it, I’ve decided to sort each season into a list -- so without further ado, here’s my take on The Top 8 3/5ths Kamen Rider Seasons.  Because, well, that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far.  And now that there’s a fraction in there, you know you’re in for a good time.

8 3/5ths) Kamen Rider Ghost
I feel bad about starting the list off like this, because it comes off as “Grrr, this isn’t one of the classics!  So it MUST be terrible!”  If you pop over to the Kamen Rider subreddit, Ghost takes a beating from the fans on a regular basis.  I don’t think it’s as awful as some people claim it is, but I know where they’re coming from.  As painful as it is to admit, Ghost is one of the weaker seasons I’ve seen.  Well, partially seen, but I think I know enough about it at this point to say something semi-conclusive and vaguely credible.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as if everything in this season is a failure.  Others may disagree, but Ghost has some ridiculously good moments in it.  The gist of it is that our hero Takeru gets killed by invasive ghostlike creatures, and he has 99 days to reclaim his life by collecting the 15 heroic Eyecons -- as a masked, bug-eyed superhero, of course.  So by default, there’s a thematic line that demands an investigation of life and death -- and when the show plays to that, it’s arguably at its best. 

But beyond that, there are some really salient points that the average adult could stand to be reminded of every now and then.  The interplay of science and religion, the importance of conversation, and the development of mutual respect -- it’s all there, lending some weight to the story.  And I’ll argue that Takeru gets some good character development over the show’s run.  There’s a harrowing moment where he’s forced to drop onto all fours and essentially beg for mercy, and that’s a far cry from the fighter -- and messiah, basically -- that he eventually becomes.

The main failing of Ghost is that it’s just really basic.  Those great moments aren’t enough to help it establish an ironclad identity, or rise much higher than par (at best).  Characters and plots alike are fairly simple, and the arcs -- such as they are -- take way too much time to reach foregone conclusions.  Critically, the action beats aren’t nearly as memorable as seasons past; as a Rider, Takeru has access to nearly a dozen forms before the halfway point, but none of them manage to leave much of an impression.  Too many of them are just a variation of “shoot the bad guy”.  When your toku series can’t bring the hype, that’s a problem.

Guess it’s a case of “better luck next time”, since Ex-Aid will be its successor.  No joke, though: Takeru's got a pretty sick collection of jackets, and I totally want one. 

8) Kamen Rider Den-O
As it so happens, Kamen Rider Den-O was the first season I ever saw.  Not to completion, mind you, but I saw a few episodes and thought, “Hey, this is pretty solid.”  But for one reason or another, it slipped out of my rotation -- such as it was -- and I didn’t pick it back up until I started watching one franchise installment after another several years later.  And now I can say that Den-O is…made retroactively better thanks to Ghost, frustrating in hindsight, but still more or less good for what it is.  That’s kind of to be expected when your story deals with time travel.

To sum it up, the story follows Ryotaro, the world’s unluckiest wimp as he goes about his daily life.  But things suddenly go off the rails when the Imagin -- time-displaced warrior genies, to put it simply -- start forming contracts with people for a chance to wreak havoc on the timeline.  To counter them, Ryotaro teams up with Imagin of his own, becomes a passenger on the chrono-hopping DenLiner, and becomes the titular Den-O to fight across time.  Catch phrase-spouting ensues.

Despite being the main character, Ryotaro gets the show stolen by pretty much everyone else.  He’s only able to fight because of the body-snatching Imagin he recruits (at first), but even outside of combat they have a much more established presence.  Really, they help make the show feel more like an anime harem series than an action show; it’s less about stopping the bad guys -- the main villain doesn’t even show up until about 39 episodes into a 48-episode season -- and more about wacky hijinks with some OTT personas.

I’d say “it doesn’t help” that the second Rider also steals the show, but his story and the ramifications of time travel are actually pretty interesting.  It’s enough to make me suspect that Den-O’s intention was less about sick fights and more about a bunch of goofballs dealing with day-to-day shenanigans…which is what I’d like to say if not for some genuinely touching moments and statements on how important the past is to us.  Even if Ryotaro gets short-changed, I still like him, and there’s an argument to be made that the show is about learning to accept yourself while realizing how self-destructive it is to pursue idealized forms.  And also?  The Imagin antics may be blatant shilling of these characters -- who for a while would dominate the series and KR at large -- but damned if you don’t feel something for them by the season’s end.  Deneb confirmed for best girl Imagin.

7) Kamen Rider Kiva
Once upon a time, I summed up Kiva as “a beautiful goddamned mess”, and I stand by that.  I didn’t know what to expect going in, was utterly blown away by the sheer WTF-ery on tap at the start, and frustrated more times than I care to admit.  But no one can accuse the show of being unambitious.  At least, I sure hope not.  It’s more than just the story of reclusive violinist Wataru donning the bat-themed suit to fight vampires; it’s also the story of how that role came to be, as explained by following the exploits of wannabe playboy Otoya (and Wataru’s father) back in the 80s.  There’s a lot of ground to cover in each individual episode, let alone a season.

True to (absurd) form, Kiva is a monster-mash that has some striking, hard-to-forget moments -- and a pretty cool secondary Rider to boot.  But it spins too many plates, and can’t even come close to handling them all.  The early episodes are much too formulaic for my tastes, and help expose the fact that the main organization of vampire hunters -- complete with whips, guns, and whip-guns -- is one of the most bumbling organizations committed to film.  Also, KR doesn’t always have the best relationship with portraying female characters, but it hits an absolute nadir with Kiva.  The end of a major story arc is not only stunningly awful to its ladies, but doubled-down on by having it happen simultaneously in the two different eras.

Also, there’s time travel because shut up.

But when Kiva is good, man is it good.  I’d be so rash as to say that it’s the darkest installment I’ve seen to date -- and a glorious case of “dark done right”.  KR is ostensibly a kids’ show intended to shill merchandise, but it’s also a series featuring enduring, developing relationships, social anxiety, depression, filial piety, emotional (and eventually physical) affairs, and more.  Even if there are some goofy jokes and moments, it’s one of the most dramatic installments yet.

It’s also worth noting -- however briefly -- that some of the music in this show is top-notch.  That’s a given when two of the main characters are violinists, but the Japanese band Tetra-Fang (led by Wataru’s actor, as it so happens!) lends some impressive tracks to the mix.  My personal favorite in the whole soundtrack is “Fight for Justice”, a song packing power, thematic heft, and the ability to make me question my sexuality.

Oh, who am I kidding?  I’d throw it all away for Nago-san.  753 all the way, baby.

(Let’s see who’s a bad enough nerd to understand that reference.)

6) Kamen Rider Gaim
I’m under the impression that Gaim is one of the most popular installments to date, thanks to the draw of its creative mastermind Gen “The Butcher” Urobuchi (he of Madoka Magica fame).  By the same token, I wonder how many people were introduced to KR because of Gaim.  If it’s any more than a handful, then it’s a safe bet that the story of a young street dancer donning fruit-based samurai armor to push back against rival dancers and a parasitic alien forest has a special place in many a heart.

Now would be a good time to mention that KR is weird.

I already did a series of full posts on Gaim, so I won’t go for a massive rundown here.  To put it bluntly, I like the show, and I’m glad I saw it.  Like Kiva before it -- incidentally, the series I watched just before it -- Gaim is a show that’s not wanting for ambition.  Unfortunately, it also stumbles with the plate-spinning.  Its action is on-point, and the comedic moments -- while deemphasized in later episodes -- is surprisingly strong.  There’s a reason why I keep using this gif.

Speaking personally, Gaim comes off as a bit uneven.  It’s a show that features what might be the very best character I’ve seen so far, but it also features the worst character I’ve seen so far.  It’s got heroes that are full of charm, synergy, and appeal, but only one out of nearly a half-dozen villains manages to provide anything compelling.  It does a good job of being dramatic and serious at certain points, but completely botches it in others.  And for Christ’s sake, they couldn’t even commit to the fruit aesthetic before introducing pineapples and acorns.  Seriously, guys?  No pears?  No blueberries?  You went for walnuts instead of limes?  I mean, Mister Knuckleman is cool and all, but still.

If there’s one thing that’s praiseworthy about Gaim -- besides the soundtrack -- it’s that it follows through on its train of thought to the very end (for good or ill).  It’s the story of Kouta’s progression from well-meaning dance doofus to a noble and stalwart hero willing to break all the rules -- even reality’s rules -- to protect what’s precious to him.  Coupled with the perceivable degradation of their home, Zawame City, there’s a level of pressure that not a lot of KR installments can match.  Also, Kachidoki Arms is THE SICKEST, and will continue to be THE SICKEST until further notice. 

5) Kamen Rider Fourze
All right, let’s be real here.  Fourze is a dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb show.  Its main character Gentaro is an idiot.  You can’t even make it through half of the first episode before they trot out the mech.  Its whole premise and theme revolves around the power of friendship.  Nearly all of its action takes place in a high school, featuring tried-and-true tropes like cheerleaders, jocks, nerds, and goths -- almost as if they wanted to make The Breakfast Club: Japan Edition.  The suit is silly-looking, and the belt is so clunky you’d be better off trying to henshin with a cinder block.

So why am I putting it above the ostensibly-smarter shows like Gaim and the rest?  Easy.  Fourze knows it’s stupid, and revels in it.  It doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else.  Its primary goal is to have fun, using a cast of characters that are as colorful as the uniforms they wear (seriously, their jackets use a verifiably electric shade of blue).  It wants to show off sick fights, blast rock and techno music, and bring as much hype as it can.

Frankly, it’s stronger for it.  It brings more than hype; it was designed to put smiles on people’s faces, and it succeeded.

You can’t help but get swept up into the rhythm of this season.  I mean sure, there’s some subtext that crazy people like yours truly might put under the magnifying glass; the switches that the high school kids use to transform into the monstrous Zodiarts help make Fourze into one big PSA about drug abuse, for example.  And there’s some truly messed-up stuff that happens thanks to the abuse of those supernatural powers, which makes you wonder how close any of these boys and girls would come to murder.  And that helps emphasize why it’s important to make friends rather than enemies: tormenting someone physically or emotionally can have some major ramifications mere minutes down the line, as suggested constantly by the scorned students-turned-monsters.

It’s probably not worth thinking about too hard, though.  This is a series where the secondary Rider is a walking planetarium that fights like Bruce Lee -- sounds included -- and gets a Beyblade as one of his strongest weapons.  Also, no one, not even the smart members of the group, can figure out that the new kid who disappears every time there’s a fight might have some relation to the Rider that shows up every time there’s a fight.  Also, also, the secondary Rider is kind of weak.  He’s no ball of charisma like Gentaro is, but then again, not a lot of characters could be.

And that’ll just about do it for now.  We’re more than halfway through, but the next four are where things really start to get interesting.  Who will take the top spot?  Which seasons have the highest highs and the lowest lows?  Will I ever be able to look at Ex-Aid without needing to puke?  The answers will all be revealed next time, possibly!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit the bathroom.  *vomits profusely*

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