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December 14, 2017

RE: Kamen Rider Ex-Aid

“We Madoka now.”

I remember using that line to describe Kamen Rider Gaim a few years back, and with good reason.  For those unaware, Gaim -- a tokusatsu series carrying the Kamen Rider torch -- was spearheaded by Gen “The Butcher” Urobuchi, who by then had long since stolen the spotlight with his now-infamous magical girl anime, Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  Confession time: I haven’t seen the latter series, but I have seen the former.  And cultural osmosis has made me suspect that there are more than a few parallels between Gaim and Madoka…which I’ll spare you of here, because spoilers are involved.

Parallels or not, Gaim went on to become a fan favorite with plenty of spinoffs to its name.  I’m mostly okay with that; I like Gaim, and I can see why people would absolutely love it, but to me it’s not the be-all and end-all.  Good, but not outstanding; strong, but not without flaw.  It did give us Micchy, one of KR’s best characters (IMO), but it also gave us Kaito, one of KR’s worst characters (IMO).  My thoughts aside, it’s not hard to imagine the showrunners wanting to reproduce the success and fame that Gaim brought in -- especially as a follow-up to the less-than-stellar KR Ghost.

Enter Kamen Rider Ex-Aid -- which at a base level is “We Madoka Now: Revengeance.”  But if you cut even an inch deeper, it’s Gaim 2.0.  But if you cut two inches deeper, then you might have the same opinion I do: Ex-Aid is the bizarro-Gaim.  It’s good for the reasons that Gaim was bad…and bad for the reasons that Gaim was good.

…In my humble opinion, of course.



The story follows Emu Hojo (no relation), an intern at Seito University Hospital.  While he may be a klutz and constantly dunked on by others -- including the children that are supposed to be his patients -- he’s still a good guy who always tries his best.  But he also happens to be an avid gamer -- so much so that his “alter ego” of sorts is the so called Genius Gamer, M.  Normally that wouldn’t be something you’d add to a resume, but in Emu’s case the circumstances pretty much demand it. 

The “Bugster Virus” has started to run rampant, infecting people with the lethal Game Disease.  Victims of it suffer from extreme pain and AV glitches you’d expect from a video game.  More importantly, a victim who suffers from it for too long -- or has their symptons intensified by stress -- ends up becoming a host so that the Bugster can manifest in the real world, killing the host in the process.  To combat the Bugsters, Seito University Hospital sets up the Cyber Rescue branch, and arms its members with Gamer Drivers so that they -- with the help of game-themed Gashats -- can turn into Kamen Riders.  The catch, of course, is that CR is significantly understaffed (for plot-related reasons).  Luckily, as the Genius Gamer, Emu proves to be a perfect Rider candidate -- and thus becomes Kamen Rider Ex-Aid.


Uhhhhhhhhhhh…wait, let me try that again.


Okay, there we go.

In case it wasn’t glaringly obvious, Ex-Aid is a weird series, even among KR installments.  It’s a medical drama built around video games; you’d think that wouldn’t work in the slightest.  But you’d be wrong, because the show manages to have some of the most thematic heft and command of its underlying ideas I’ve seen yet out of KR.  I’ve seen more than my fair share of installments (this is my 10th, though I tapped out on Ghost), but some of the events and story beats here are among the best I’ve witnessed.  Grisly stuff happens, but it’s so in sync with the theme this time around that I had to fight the urge to pump my fists -- so I just made do with a big stupid grin.

A lot of that entertainment value comes from Emu (as it should), but not for the standard reasons.  Yes, I think he’s a good character worthy of the leading role, but he comes with a caveat -- and helps prove why his show is the bizarro-Gaim.  My thoughts on the predecessor included the belief that Kouta was interesting at the start, but became less interesting as the show went on.  Now in Ex-Aid, Emu is less interesting at the start, but more interesting by the show’s end.  That’s not to say that he’s bad; it’s just that he’s a basic, standard good guy without much going for him.  The higher the episode count, though, the more you learn about and appreciate him.  I won’t spoil what happens, but let’s just say that in an alternate universe, Emu becomes the villain midway instead of staying the hero.



Speaking of villains?  As good as Emu is (or becomes), it’s the baddies this time around that nearly steal the show.  KR is no stranger to sympathetic villains -- Drive is a good example -- but the guys in Ex-Aid aren’t inherently people you want to root for or see succeed, or even like by standard definitions.  While Gaim struggled on this front, Ex-Aid shines with a tighter focus on its troublemakers and gives them some standout characteristics.  They’re petty, childish, hypocritical control freaks with a loose grasp on reality, and the uncanny ability to ham it up when the time calls for it…and, you know, when it doesn’t.  That doesn’t stop any of them from being major threats -- though to be fair, the last of the baddies does overstay his welcome.  He at least made a good showing, though.

It should go without saying, but overall Ex-Aid is a fun show to watch and listen to.  The soundtrack has some real standouts in the mix -- so much so that the songs keep getting pulled from YouTube (thanks, Toei!).  True to the video game theme, you get to see all sorts of special effects and flourishes, and some pretty creative integration with the plot.  And some of the fights here are nothing short of spectacular, including a late-game one I can’t help but watch repeatedly.  It’s definitely a step up from Ghost, least of all because the power-ups this time around are much more varied instead of “shoot gun”, “shoot gun differently”, “shoot gun but now there’s two”, and “shoot gun even more”.


But I’d be a damn liar if I said that the show didn’t have its problems (irrespective of Ex-Aid’s default costume).  Tonally, the show is all over the place -- which if I remember right wasn’t a problem I had with Gaim or virtually any other KR series.  And that’s saying something.   Ex-Aid is technically a medical drama, but there’s not only goofy stuff that happens throughout; there’s a clash of moods and airs so that one episode can have the feel of three different episodes jammed together.  Even in serious moments, the design and writing choices hamstring the effect they’re going for; imagine how it feels to have po-faced characters in life-or-death situations repeatedly say “Poppy Pipopapo”, and you understand about 50% of my pain whenever it happened.  And while the visuals are there -- barring KR’s consistently unimpressive CGI monsters -- the aesthetics from start to finish are…regrettable.  Ex-Aid is one (bad) thing, but I don’t understand why the villains had to be palette swaps of one of the least-threatening Riders in history.

The bigger issue is, once again, the reverse of what Gaim dealt with.  Gaim had a healthy cast of likable, enjoyable heroes, even if its villains weren’t up to snuff.  Conversely, Ex-Aid has Emu and…that’s pretty much it.  No one ever gets to be as grating as Kaito (shut up, he’s stupid and I hate him), but they sure try their hardest to reach that lofty plateau.  Rather than learning from their mistakes -- elements from their backstories or arcs that would develop their characters -- the “good guys” somehow manage to double down on their vices.  Even when they become moderately more tolerable, they’re still sorely lacking in charisma.  And before you ask?  Yes, I’m mostly talking about the other Riders, but the supporting cast doesn’t do that much to endear.


And that brings up two personal pet peeves I can’t ignore.  First off: Ex-Aid pulls the same trick that Gaim did (and thus the same trick that Madoka did), but with vastly diminishing returns because they give the boot to one of the more likable characters.  It just feels like a cheap ploy and a way to show that “things are serious now” -- among other faults, but I’ll get to them another day.  It’s also worth noting that, once again, a KR series has problems with its female characters.  Okay, sure, you don’t necessarily have to have them suit up and fight evil to be good characters -- which was one of the things Ghost did well -- but they stumbled here by making its girls just kind of there at best.  I’d go into more detail, but that’s spoiler territory.  And it would force me to type out Poppy Pipopapo again, so I’m in no mood to risk an aneurysm.

I can think of more negative things to say about Ex-Aid (and I will), but at the same time, I can think of more positive things to say.  When it’s on point, it’s on point.  When it stumbles, it stumbles.  Does that make it an uneven show?  Arguably.  But the general story -- kept steady and afloat by Emu’s hand -- is definitely something worth experiencing.  There are rough spots and missed opportunities, and as a would-be writing hero I’ve already thought of ways to smooth them over.  Still, you should accept a story for what it is, and as it is.  To that end?  Ex-Aid may be reminiscent of Gaim to me, but it manages to have its own identity well before the last episode’s credits roll.


I went into this show thinking -- and hoping -- that it would be the one to dethrone KR OOO as my favorite installment (partially because OOO was my first, so the bias factor is real).  It isn’t the one.  Maybe it’ll be Build.  Maybe it’ll be whatever comes after Build.  But for what it’s worth, Ex-Aid is still a good show in its own right.  The same applies to Gaim, of course, but I’d personally rank Ex-Aid above Gaim.  Putting it lower would be an absolute insult to the positives on display.

It’s a fun show that’s interesting, thoughtful, and touching.  It’s hard to walk away from until you’ve seen all 45 episodes.  It’s bizarre, frustrating, and flawed, but never so much that it becomes intolerable.  Ex-Aid has a very specific story it wants to tell, and it does so even if it occasionally drops its proverbial paintbrushes and canvas into a dirty puddle and scribbles in crayons to try and make up for it.  I can’t help but respect the hustle.  And I hope that at some point, you get a chance to respect the hustle, too.

…I still think Ex-Aid looks like shit, though.  I just can’t get over the hotpants. 


And that’ll just about do it for now.  Tune in soon…ish…for more, because I’ve got plenty more (spoiler-filled) thoughts on Ex-Aid to dish out.  Hope to see you again.  But before that?  I don’t know.  We’ll see what happens.

I’m kind of in a SWITCH-y mood, you know?


It’s gonna be great.  That’s gonna be great.

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