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January 4, 2018

Let’s discuss Kamen Rider Ex-Aid (Part 1).

Okay, I know this is a post about Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, but I’m seriously just biding my time until I can start watching Kamen Rider Build.

Setting aside the main Rider’s design (which, as a reminder, is infinitely superior to Ex-Aid’s), I had a hunch that it would turn out to be pretty interesting.  I mean, come on.  How often do you get a genius scientist as a lead hero?  That’s worth some brownie points right there.  At most I’ve only seen a handful of clips and previews, but apparently the story’s about to take a turn into some bold new territory I can’t wait to get the context behind.  Also, they’re bringing back a Kamen Rider alum for a new role, and that’s got me pretty hyped.  “Oh!  It’s that guy!” I cheered.  “Wait, who’s that guy again?  Let me check…OH!  IT’S THAT GUY!”

I guess if KR has taught me anything, it’s that I should trust my instincts a bit more.  It’s optimal to act on solid evidence and knowledge, but there are times when it’s fine to listen to your gut.  I say as much, because prior to Ex-Aid’s release I had a hunch that it was going to be good.  Lo and behold, I was right.  More importantly, I was right in the best way possible.  Ex-Aid had the perfect setup for the most impactful, in-depth exploration of its themes in a KR installment yet, so they just needed to pounce on the chance.  They did exactly that.

…Well, mostly.  But “mostly” is better than “not at all”.  So let’s get to it.


As a friendly reminder: no, Ex-Aid is not about brave men and women who harness the power of Super Soakers to become plastic-clad crime fighters.  Pared down to basics, it combines two elements into one: video games and doctors.  The four main Riders are all professionals in the medical field (except main character Emu because he’s still an intern, and technically a radiologist who “lost his license”).  By using the Gamer Drivers and the assorted Gashats -- i.e. game cartridges -- they transform into Riders and battle the Bugster virus to save patients and victims, as per their recruitment by the Cyber Rescue branch of Seito University Hospital.

At a glance, you would think that these are concepts much too disparate to ever come together.  Doctors save lives in the real world.  Gamers end lives in the virtual world.  One is tied to reality; one is tied to fantasy.  One of them is one of the most respected professions on the planet; the other is…not.  One has earned its legitimacy ages ago; the other can’t even be properly referenced on an episode of The Big Bang Theory.  What I’m getting at here is that super fighting gaming doctors shouldn’t work -- at least not on paper.  But the crew behind Ex-Aid found a way.

It’s not a show about doctors and games.  It’s a show about control.

In the real world, the patient’s life is in the doctor’s hands.  We put our trust in professionals in myriad fields to keep people alive -- whether it’s a friend, a family member, an innocent person we’ve never met, or ourselves.  They have full reign, so if they screw up, the onus is on them.  They have to have control of a situation to prevent the dreaded BAD END.  In fiction, we -- in our world, but also in the world laid out before us -- count on heroes to save the day.  It’s no different with KR.  One series after another has tasked the Rider with saving the victim of the week from whatever malady has been induced by the monster of the week.  They need to control a situation too, or else they’ll betray what it means to be a Rider and get someone killed through their incompetence.

And really, gamers aren’t too different in that respect, either.  You literally can’t play a game (a good one, at least) unless you have control over your avatar.  By exerting power and skill, you command a virtual world and bend it to your will so you can clear a stage, or match, or map, or whatever.  It’s purely for selfish reasons -- fun, bragging rights, some imaginary trinkets, what have you -- but again, the desire for control is shared among doctors and gamers.  And it’s shared among heroes as well, Rider or otherwise.  Given that, why wouldn’t you make Emu a member of CR and the implied team leader, considering that he’s a doctor-to-be, a Rider candidate, and the “Genius Gamer” M?

Well, being the breeding ground for a race of psychopathic AI given life might disqualify him.  Emphasis on might.  But we’ll get to that.

Like I said before, Emu starts off as a solid, if bog-standard, lead.  He’s a nice guy who always tries to do the right thing!  He’s a loser that’s constantly getting dunked on, but that won’t stop him from doing his best for others!  Pratfalls!  Pratfalls!  Pratfalls!  Normal stuff.  And true to form, there’s a pretty strong argument that he follows the usual character progression -- i.e. he goes from being nobody to a messiah figure well before the last episode starts to roll.  You could argue that, but I wouldn’t.  For various reasons.

In any case, what I like about Emu as a character is that he’s not without his weaknesses.  His arc ties into the theme of control, and in a satisfying way.  It’s revealed fairly early on that Emu wanted to become a doctor because of the care and love a doctor showed him back when he was eight (naturally), and cemented his love of games by passing him a handheld for free.  That piece of his backstory pushes Emu to save his patients no matter what, but the problem is that he took the worst lessons possible from it.  Emu wants control over any given Bugster-related situation, and he wants control single-handedly.  It’s not about CR saving the patient from an infection; it’s about him, and only him, saving the patient from an infection.  He’s not a team player…so yeah, I wouldn’t say he’s a good fit for an Overwatch session.

It takes a while for Emu to finally put the pieces together, and not just because he realizes that he can’t use the 4-player, Monster Hunter-themed Gashat by himself.  He ends up having to save the doctor who saved him as a kid, and it puts a ton of pressure on him to succeed no matter what -- and quickly.  That doctor calls him an idiot for trying to do everything alone; saving a patient means working with a team of medical professionals, who each use their specialties to lend aid and cure a malady.  Whether he likes it or not, he has to play co-op with others.  And he does.

Well, sort of.  Emu gets better about it, but his foibles are pronounced.  On more than one occasion he comes up with risky plans and plays that end up working out in the end -- to great effect -- but the problem is that he doesn’t clue in anyone else to what he’s got in mind until he goes through with it.  It wouldn’t be a problem by itself (and the show does have to try and maintain dramatic tension), but Emu’s comrades act on their own to try and fix things themselves or stall for time, and end up fighting vastly more powerful opponents because Emu doesn’t clue them in beforehand.  Like, even an off-screen conversation could have kept them from risking their lives, but nope.  No time for that.

Don’t worry.  It’s not as if anyone ever dies in Ex-Aid.

The irony of the situation is that even though Emu wants control of the situation (for a good cause, unlike each of the villains) he’s never had it throughout his life.  Each time the audience gets to hear more about Emu’s backstory, it’s revealed just how much his life has sucked merely by existing -- and more importantly, how much he’s been a pawn for the pettiest of reasons.  Remember how I said Emu wanted to be a doctor because he was saved as a kid?  That’s technically true, but it’s only because he was infected with -- and became Patient Zero for -- the Bugster virus, which in turn put him in the dire straits needed for an operation.

The Bugsters developed inside of Emu, one of which warped his mind and actions enough to create the “M” persona -- which is treated in-universe as effectively a split personality -- and help Emu become a tourney-smashing legend.  After one tournament six years prior to the start of the story, Emu collapsed and had to be operated on.  He assumed that it was because of his all-nighter training regimen, but the truth is that it was so the Bugsters could be harvested from his body and begin to spread.  After that?  That’s when Emu’s natural personality shone through, and he stepped away from pro gaming to focus on becoming a doctor.  So basically, only about 25% of Emu’s life and actions have been under his complete control.  He is still M at the start of the show, and it’s pointed out that he’s only succeeded at anything because he was a Bugster pawn that could further their cause.

Ouch.  That’s not good for the self-esteem.  Luckily, Emu’s Protagonist Powers kick in and -- true to KR form -- he gets power-ups that make him the strongest of the heroes.  Notably, one of these power-ups gives him the power to be invincible.

I’m not kidding.  Its name literally means invincible.

I can’t help but respect that.  Not Hyper Muteki in itself, of course, because -- like most of Ex-Aid’s aesthetic -- I think it looks pretty substandard.  (I can’t look at him without imagining a fusion between Goldust and Ultimate Warrior.)  But in order to reach that power level, Emu and the gang decide to break the rules of the “game” to create a purposely-overpowered character, solely to beat a different purposely-overpowered character.  That’s basically how upgrades work in this series: escalate and escalate and escalate by finding exploits and pushing parameters as far as they’ll go.  That means that the good guys will do anything to level up (literally), whether it involves forcibly reprogramming their targets to negate their broken abilities, or purposely infecting themselves with the Bugster virus to fight on even footing with the villain du jour.  You can’t stay in control of a situation if you don’t have power, after all. So Emu does get power, and plenty of it.  He’s actually given the choice between living without M/the Bugster influence and fighting at full strength as a Rider.  Guess which one he forcibly goes for?

I’m tempted to say the power doesn’t go to his head, but it kind of does.  It never reaches a point where he becomes an all-out villain, but between the weight of his responsibilities, the revelations he discovers firsthand about his past and present, and the overall disrespect he has to endure on a regular basis from foes and friends alike, there’s never been a Rider with more justification to say “Screw it” and kill everyone.  Hell, he actually does kill someone as part of one plan -- “plan” being in the largest of quotes, because he did it mostly (?) to teach one of the villains a lesson about respecting the sanctity of life.  So while Emu stays a nice guy, it becomes plainly obvious by the halfway point (at the latest) that you don’t want to mess with him.  Dude’s cray-cray.

Emu makes conscious decisions to gain power and maintain control, with some instances linking to his character arc of learning to accept help from others.  He doesn’t come out of the series as the same cheery intern he started as, but it’s not as if he loses the “heart of crystal” that some of the other characters praise him for.  He may not be able to control every element of the world, but by fighting for what he believes in, and how he believes, our hero does find a way to decide his fate -- independent of the forces that would wield him like a battle axe.  Even so, that doesn’t mean other characters handle the desire for control quite so elegantly.

The crux of the second half of the show is Kamen Rider Chronicle, an in-universe game -- contained in mass-produced Gashats -- that lets any given person become a knockoff Rider (a Ride Player) and fight just like Emu and the rest against the Bugsters.  There are caveats, though.  For starters, Kamen Rider Chronicle is the endgame plan of the villains (for varied reasons, but I’ll get to them).  You know going in that activating even a single Gashat is going to be bad news, but then you learn about the actual circumstances.  If you enter the game even once, you get infected with the Bugster virus.  The only way to cure yourself is to go after your Bugster and kill it -- which wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t effectively locked at Level 1.  And the Bugsters are up to the 20s and 30s.  And there are Level 50 Riders slinking around acting as exterminators.

The easiest way to win KR Chronicle is to not play at all.  But for some of the Ride Players, that’s not an option.  If you die as a Ride Player, you die for real -- and your data, alongside your entire existence, goes into storage in the villains’ clutches.  That in turn becomes a bargaining chip to recruit more Ride Players.  Want to save your son who died just because he tried a new game?  Become a Ride Player, and you can bring him back to life!  Want to avenge your missing and presumably dead friend?  Become a Ride Player!  Want to stop being a regular shmuck and become a world-renowned hero who saved the KIA Ride Players?  Become a Ride Player!  The others may have died, but surely you won’t meet the same fate!

I’ll be honest: the KR Chronicle arc is among one of my favorites in the entire franchise.  It’s a game-changer (ha) that fits in perfectly with the themes of the show while sprinkling in a heaping helping of horror.  The prospect of gaining control -- of gaining the power to command one’s fate -- is such an enticing prospect that innocent civilians willingly put their lives at risk.  A single game nearly threatens to collapse the norms of society -- or if not, then at the very least it’ll take gamification to a whole new level.  The divide between allies and enemies becomes both starker and darker; the Ride Players are conned into thinking that Emu and the other CR Riders are just rare characters that’ll drop epic loot if they’re defeated.  So guess who becomes public enemy number one?

I don’t know what’ll cause the extinction of the human race.  I mean, I can hazard a guess, but I can’t do much more besides that.  Still, if ever there was a way to go, then…yeah, it’d probably be with something like this.

The onscreen body count isn’t as high as I would have liked, but the story arc -- and the story as a whole -- still manages to shine.  The overarching lesson is that sometimes, you need to be willing to relinquish control and rely on steady cooperation instead of absolute power.  Granted that’s on top of the general theme of “the weight of life” -- and to be clear, that’s a good theme to have when you’re dealing with doctors -- but Ex-Aid seems to take a pretty firm stance on its premise.  Be a control freak, and you’ll bite it hard.

Emu manages to overcome it, so he makes it to the end.  His comrades have to wrestle with it, too, but it’s thanks to Emu’s shining example that they each manage to get over their foibles and fight for what’s right.  Notably, Emu manages to reform two out of the three main villains of the story.  Okay, arguably it’s 1.5 villains because one still stays an asshole from start to finish, but the point still stands.  He gets them to abandon their genocidal tendencies (direct and indirect) so that they, too, can respect the sanctity of human lives.  The villain that doesn’t learn his lesson more or less ends up getting erased from reality -- partially because he was a butthurt sore loser who didn’t get his way.

Crucially, the victims of the Bugster virus -- be they Ride Players or simply casualties along the way -- don’t instantly come back to life once the baddies are beaten and KR Chronicle is cleared.  It helps the show end on a bittersweet note; yes, people are dead, and some of them only have themselves to blame.  But on the plus side, their data still remains -- and with enough effort, it might be possible to bring them back to life someday.  Hope springs eternal.  But next time, they’ll be wiser, and take some valuable lessons to heart.  All told, Ex-Aid is a thoughtful, well-made series.

…Except when it isn’t.

Tune in next time.  For you see, fair reader, the time has come to do what I should have done a long time ago: take a massive dump all over Kamen Rider.  And I can’t think of a better series to do it with than Ex-Aid.

See you soon.  And remember: don’t play KR Chronicle.  It’ll suck out your soul faster than the average EA game.

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