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August 8, 2016

Ranking the Kamen Rider Seasons (Part 2)

So the other day, I asked myself a question: why do I like Kamen Rider?

Call it a crisis of faith, I guess.  It’s easy to get caught up in something and follow it out of some unspoken sense of obligation -- like you’re just going through the motions, because “I did the thing once, so I might as well do the thing again.”  I’m pretty sure I’ve typecast myself as some kind of Rider fanatic, given how many times I slip allusions, images, and even secret references into my posts.  (To say nothing of the posts actually about Kamen Rider.)  In a perfect world, people would pay more attention to that stuff instead of huddling around the campfire when I upload a post on Final Fantasy/Kingdom Hearts/the madhouse that is Squeenix.  But I digress.

Pared down to basics, I like KR because I like heroes.  And not to get maudlin or pitiable, but it’s a safe bet that I needed to see heroes in my life.  After all, it’s probably not a coincidence that I started seriously getting into the franchise in the same year -- 2013 -- that I went through some major personal losses.  Beyond that, I had to deal with the frustration of having my own works -- my writing, my dreams, and my own batch of heroes -- rejected to the point where I scrapped and rebooted years of work.  Beyond that, it seemed like fiction in the western world had basically given up on heroes.  Man of Steel turned Superman into a braindead whirlwind of destruction and angst.  The Walking Dead became a hit with a cast of survivors barely a cut above the zombies they routinely shot in the head.  I…I don’t even want to talk about DmC.

I’ll argue that the world needs heroes -- even, if not especially fictional -- but I’ll also acknowledge that that’s some top-tier projecting.  I need heroes.  KR delivered, again, and again, and again.  And that’s why I’m here today once again, as a fan, and as a spokesperson.  These are my Top 4 picks of the franchise thus far.


4) Kamen Rider Wizard
For those unaware, saying Kamen Rider Wizard is a favorite or a top anything is the very definition of going against the grain.  A ton of hate gets thrown its way, and in my experience, I’ve been lucky to find people that are neutral at best.  It reached a point where I was legitimately dreading a full run through Wizard; I’d just finished watching Den-O, and I felt pretty burnt by that.  So I’d basically end up watching something even worse?

Turns out the answer is no.  I feel like talk of Wizard’s badness has been exaggerated; it’s not a perfect season, but it’s still a lot stronger than I expected.

So here’s the rub.  Every so often, a person will become a Gate -- i.e. someone with awakened magical potential, albeit temporarily.  The Phantoms want to take advantage of them in a pretty nasty way: a Gate who falls prey to their despair (usually inflicted by a Phantom) ends up becoming a Phantom -- which is to say that they Phantom can take on the Gate’s appearance while the Gate dies.  The only counter?  A Gate who manages to stave off despair becomes a wizard, and can harness magic power to fight off Phantoms.  That would include our hero Haruto, a cool-headed, donut-munching biker who becomes the hope-bringing hero, Kamen Rider Wizard…and also wears really tight pants while off-duty.  Also, the dude loves him some donuts.


In my eyes, Wizard is a bleak show thanks to its central themes of hope and despair.  And I appreciate that; dealing with the Phantoms and despairing Gates is pretty much one big allegory for suicide prevention, and it suggests that being a hero means more than punching the bad guys.  I’d also argue that Haruto is a pretty cool hero; he’s level-headed and composed by default, but his arc takes him from a guy who recklessly believes he can win (and preserve hope) just ‘cause to someone who becomes just as desperate as the victims he saves -- and ascends because of it.  Also, not to spoil anything, but I have to give HUGE props to Wizard for its ending; they could’ve used magic to run back the final episodes, but showed enough restraint to stay their hand.

With that in mind, I understand why people have a problem with this season.  The second Rider is such a jobber that even his triumphant final moment is made possible through his failure.  They severely overestimated how much the audience would care about the main girl, given that she doesn’t have as much screen time as she needs.  There’s a really interesting subplot about how the police/Japanese FBI deals with magical threats, but it gets dropped unceremoniously.  But overall, it’s a much better outing than what people had led me to believe. 

As a side note, though: if Makoto Sako is my main waifu, and Mercy is my Overwatch waifu, then Rinko Daimon is my KR waifu.  I’ve no shame in admitting it.


3) Kamen Rider W
I’ve heard that Kamen Rider W -- or Double -- is a popular season, and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s an airtight series with lots to love -- and speaking personally, I think Double’s got one of the best designs of the bunch.  Is it simple?  Yeah.  But simple is good; it’s a nice, clean form that puts emphasis on the character’s (and actor’s) fighting prowess, not shattering the suspension of disbelief with a bunch of bouncing dangly bits (sorry you had to find out like this, Gaim).  

Anyway, the story follows Shotaro, a wannabe “hard-boiled” detective in the windy city of Fuuto.  Apparently, people have been using Gaia Memories -- flash drives from the Akashic Record, basically -- to transform into the monstrous Dopants, and cause crimes for their personal gain.  Shotaro ain’t havin’ that, so alongside his partner Philip, the two of them become the titular Kamen Rider to solve cases, beat down the Dopants, and figure out who’s behind the drug Memory distribution. 


Outside of one major faux pas at the end (basically the opposite of what Wizard did), I’m hard-pressed to think of any glaring problems with W.  The mysteries are interesting, the characters are likable and dynamic, and Fuuto is one of the most pointedly-defined settings I’ve seen so far out of KR; it actually has a character, which gives it an edge over the nondescript towns/cities of other seasons.  As always, the show can get pretty goofy, but there’s often a genuine sense of melancholy in the air throughout W.  It’s almost like it’s trying to be a crime drama or something.  And as he should, Shotaro really puts in work to elevate the series; to put it simply, there’s a reason why one of the key songs is “Nobody’s Perfect”.

In theory, W should be at the top of this list, thanks in no small part to some strong themes and through lines.  In practice, I’ve got to give it to the other two.  It’s true that W doesn’t really do much wrong, and it’s a very cool series…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut in terms of bringing the hype, it’s not quite as strong.  That’s not to say it doesn’t bring the hype, but it’s not nearly as hot as some of the other installments; Fourze would be a good example in the sense that its emotional highs are nigh-impossible to beat.  What do you get when you fuse Fourze and W, though?  Well… 


2) Kamen Rider Drive
Well, Drive already gets off to a good start by having one of my favorite opening themes.  And it gets another gold star for having one of my favorite Rider designs; Drive is sleek and streamlined, but has more than enough style to stay fresh on anyone’s mind.  And I’ll say upfront that even if it’s the most recent show I’ve seen (and thus kind of cheating) some of the action beats are going to stick with me for a long-ass time.  This is a guy who, in his debut episode alone, went all ORA ORA ORA on an evil android, and did a Maximum Spider by bouncing off his car.  Smokin’.  Sick.  STYLE.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though.  The thrust of Drive is that the Roidmude -- 108 evil androids -- are on the prowl, and eager to wipe out humanity.  They have a secret weapon: Density Shifts, which let them slow down a small area to a snail’s pace…and in the months prior to the main story, they enacted that on a massive scale to slow down the planet.  Our hero Shinnosuke is a cop who got hit by the “Global Freeze” hard, in that it made him injure his partner and subsequently lose his passion for his job (and the demotion from hotshot to nobody didn’t help).  But he’s got to get back in the driver’s seat again -- as Drive -- when the Roidmude go on the attack.  And no, I will NOT apologize for the pun.


Here’s the problem with this season: it gets off to a very bad start, and it takes a while for it to get going.  Like, if you watch one episode a week, then it might take you a bare minimum of three months to get hooked.  It doesn’t have much of an identity to start with, and instead chooses to be a hodgepodge of earlier seasons (though the mystery and crime-solving of W are pretty prominent).  They seemed just as focused on shilling merch as they did on developing the story -- which is a problem its successor, Ghost, would double down on in its beginning.  KR has a certain formula by now, but Drive doesn’t do much at the outset to mask that it’s cribbing on said formula.

But once it gets started, it becomes one of the best.  Without question.  Enduring, suspenseful arcs.  Exploration of ideas and themes, including the place of law enforcement when dealing with the abnormal (i.e. the plot thread Wizard dropped).  Notably, Drive puts a TON of work into its villains, whether it’s making them complete heels, likeable, or even worthy of redemption (and respect).  Fights show off plenty of spectacle and creativity, even when there are three Riders the show needs to juggle.  And like Shotaro before him, Shinnosuke helps make the show with his arc, his antics, and his abilities in and out of the suit.  (Shame about main girl Kiriko, though…)

Also, my headcanon is that Drive’s car, Tridoron, is actually just a modified red Homermobile.

   
1) Kamen Rider OOO
I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, because it’s going to shatter what little credibility this post had.  You see, Kamen Rider OOO was the first season I watched to completion.  That means by default, I’m biased; I’m only giving it top honors because of nostalgia and the rose-tinted glasses superglued to my face.  But damn it, I’ve been trying my hardest to find the season that would top OOO, and I haven’t yet.  It’s just too strong.

So with this installment we’ve got Eiji, an underwear-loving drifter who lands in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He ends up getting entangled with the Greeed, alchemical creatures bent on finding their Core Medals to become complete (and absurdly powerful).  One of the Greeed, Ankh, is left as a disembodied monster arm when his pals break free -- and he’s out to get all of the Medals for himself.  To that end, he opts to use Eiji as a gofer and a vessel; by having him become OOO (rhymes with “crows”), the former comes one step closer to fulfilling his ambitions, while the latter can protect the innocent from the Greeed and their cronies.  Well, ideally.


If Wizard is about hope and Fourze is about friendship, then OOO is all about desire.  And even though the main baddies are called the Greeed, desire is shown to be positive as well as negative.  The victims of the week run the gamut, which leads to a lot of interesting scenarios for Eiji to explore.  Speaking of, Eiji is positively glorious.  I already spoiled it in another post, but I won’t here; his arc takes him, the themes, and the show to such interesting places that I can’t help but clap my hands.

As expected of a show with a soundtrack that’s 80% ska, this show has no problems getting goofy as hell.  But it’s also got no problems being heartfelt, suspenseful, grim, and more.  It’s the characters that help make OOO the success that it is, whether it’s leading man Eiji, his tense relationship with the still-basically-a-villain Ankh, the Greeed, or the other two Riders bumping around (one of which is my husbando in this or any other franchise).  Strong enemies, a plot that’ll leave you breathless, and the most sensible management of the merch a Rider’s skill/form set I’ve seen to date -- there’s so much to love, and I’d recommend staring here for anyone with even a passing interest in the franchise.

So with all of that in mind (and more) it’s with great pleasure that I christen Kamen Rider as fucking stupid.


They keep using CGI even when they probably don’t have the budget for it, and the quality varies from “OK, that’s fine” to “shovelware PS2 game”.  They reuse the same locations over and over again -- and when the fighting starts, they’ll constantly jump from one spot (like a plaza) to an entirely different one (like a forest) for no raisin.  The sheer number of times the monster of the week “gets away” is appalling, especially when sometimes it looks like the Rider could chase after him easily (Haruto, I like you, but you’re the MOST guilty of this).  Scores of grown men find it essential to do elaborate poses, and are given the time to do so without getting shot -- and Gaim implies that every Rider with a pose spent hours practicing first.

The franchise needs to learn that having an actor shove his face into the camera and mug for a bit isn’t comedy -- and on that note, there are some tonal shifts sharp enough to cut out a rhino’s heart.  They need to chill the hell out with shoving the merch into early episodes, because if Drive and Ghost -- at a bare-ass minimum -- are any indication, then they’re choking each new season from the get-go.  Every time a character veers into “ow the edge” territory, it ends up being a chore to see them on-screen. 

The lack of connective tissue between seasons (via the canon) means that every consecutive season has its population forget about the presence of Riders…and more importantly, the cataclysmic events that now include an attack by a hyper-evolved lifeform, a hellish ritual to demolish souls, conversion of bodies into data amidst an outbreak of time dilation, and the global invasion of a parasitic alien plant.  And for fuck’s sake, how hard is it to have a female Rider?  One that doesn’t die?


I could go on, but I won’t.  Know why?  Because it’s useless.  Yes, KR has some marked, lingering faults that’ll probably plague the franchise for at least the next decade.  Still, remember one of the golden rules: it’s the mission of every piece of fiction to succeed in spite of its flaws -- to cover up the faults with quality elements, not just “be perfect from the outset”.  And guess what?  That’s what KR always does.  Always.  Even weaker seasons like Ghost, Den-O, and Kiva still have plenty to take in and enjoy, whether you’re out for a little thematic heft or just want to see guys in bug-faced suits beat up baddies while spewing catch phrases.

Then again, I could be projecting here.  I do that sometimes.  So I’ll dial it back a bit and say that, ultimately, I can only speak for myself.  And in doing so, I’m free to be honest: I wanted heroes in my fiction, and I got it.  Whether it’s the faults, the features, or the fineries, I’ll accept them all.  I love KR.  I’m a fan of the show, and I’ll keep being a fan.  There’s a famous line that goes “Even if there is no God or Buddha, there is Kamen Rider.”  And I’m thankful for it.  If it’ll always be there, then it’ll always have at least one loyal fan ready for the next great henshin. 

Always.


Uhhhhhhhhhhh…maybe I’m just imagining things, but…is it just me, or does the intent behind these past two posts and the nature of the last few paragraphs make it sound like I’m about to die?  Like I’m using my last words to sing praises about Japanese men in flamboyant suits?

If so, don’t worry.  I’m not gonna die yet.  Not for the next 35-ish weeks or so; presumably, that’s when Kamen Rider Ex-Aid will get his super form.

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