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April 19, 2018

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

I thought of something else I like about Emu from Kamen Rider Ex-Aid: his ability to bring disparate (and routinely awful) people together for a good cause.  That’s probably not a unique trait among protagonists -- count how many of Goku’s allies once tried to kill him or his friends -- but it’s still something I appreciate here.  As part of his character arc, Emu has to learn how to work with others so that he can be more than just an MLG pro gamer; by learning how to trust others and accept his limits, he evolves as a Rider, a doctor, and a person.  The ultimate proof of his growth comes late in the series, where he makes a choice that comes off as strikingly dark in the context of Ex-Aid.  It’s for a good cause, but still.  Yikesy mikesy.

I wish that Emu had a better supporting cast along the way, because anyone not named Emu on the heroes’ side is tolerable at best (IMO, of course).  Admittedly that would take the punch out of his arc, and to be fair steal whatever good moments the others can muster, but they go a long way to make the journey to the final episode a rough one.  But even so, there is a saving grace.

If you’re just tuning in, then I’ll say it upfront: Ex-Aid is worth watching just to see its villains.

(Just tons of spoilers.)

The thing to note about Ex-Aid is that it’s not just rocking one major villain from start to finish…in a sense.  The first one does stick around till the end (for reasons I’ll get to in a bit), but by and large the show has three main villains that take on the official “Big Bad” role over the 45-episode run, and pass the baton at opportune moments.  Or have said baton stolen from them, more appropriately.  You wouldn’t expect a band of selfish murderers to show any cordiality to their foes, would you?

Granted, there are other, minor villains at play here.  The monsters this time around are the Bugsters, video game data and characters brought to life by spreading like a virus and consuming their host in the process.  (Also their true origin is from the Y2K virus of all things, which was so out of left field for me I had a hearty chuckle for minutes on end.)  Of those Bugsters, you get guys like Graphite -- a Monster Hunter-themed warrior who’s proud of his race and his skills -- and Loverica -- a heavyset Casanova built around dating simulators.  Graphite is the more developed of the two, but they’re both fun to have around before their deaths.  Loverica gets it especially bad, because he gets killed by a ZA WARUDO-infused roundhouse kick and barely even gets to process his death.    Pour one out for Katawa Shoujo, I guess.

Anyway, let’s talk about the first villain, Kuroto Dan.  And it’s impossible to talk about him without featuring this:

Don’t be fooled by his antics.  His actor has accomplished more than you ever will.

As for the character himself?  Kuroto is the head of Genm Corp., and thus oversees the spread of Gashats across the world.  For obvious reasons, it’s in his best interest to figure out why monsters based on his products are wreaking havoc in the real world, so he cooperates with Emu and the others as best he can.  It’s all a ruse, though.  Kuroto comes off as cordial and composed at first, but in private -- and later in public once his ruse is exposed -- he’s a psychotic narcissist drowning in a sea of his own hubris.

He’s a guy that buys into his own hype.  As the man who pushed out the Gashats and achieved great success with his creative talents, he thinks of himself as a genius.  And well before the show’s end, “genius” gets upgraded to “god” and/or “immortal”.  He keeps up the facade long enough to seem like he has it all together (and to be fair his facade should have broken down a lot sooner, but Team Hero couldn’t put together the obvious links between Genm Corp. and the Bugsters), but even when things are going his way he’s in dire need of a strait jacket and a rubber room welded shut.

And because this is part of the Kamen Rider franchise, it’s only natural for Kuroto to be a Rider as well -- the self-styled Kamen Rider Genm, no less.  Thanks to his resources, he has easy access to gear that the heroes don’t, be it the show’s first Level 3 Gashat (which he promptly uses to thrash the opposition) or the Dangerous Zombie Gashat that makes him effectively unbeatable -- and poised to get even stronger -- until he gets hacked.  He’s a vicious enemy who’s in it not for world domination or revenge; no, he just wants to collect data so he can make the ultimate video game.  Then he’ll have all the justification -- and triggers -- he needs for 12 eons’ worth of JO sessions.

But you know what the best part about Kuroto is?  It’s not that he’s a threat.  It’s not that he’s a genius.  It’s not even that he’s a memelord.  It’s that underneath all of that, he’s a petty, screeching child.

I am not joking here.  Kuroto got his start as a villain back when he was a kid trying to design games for the company -- and because of the even younger Emu, incidentally.  As it turns out, Emu was a fan of Kuroto’s work, so much so that he sent him fan mail with his own creations.  Kuroto saw those designs and thought that they were genius…and got so butthurt that he became intensely jealous of an eight-year-old and shipped him a disk infested with Bugsters, thereby turning Emu into Patient Zero (and ironically ensuring that he would become a Gamer Rider far stronger than Kuroto ever would) and eliminating the competition with a single trip to the mailbox.

That.  Is.  AMAZING.  Kuroto’s entire life from that moment on is about him trying to prove how talented and cool he is, but he already got beat by an elementary schooler and couldn’t handle it.  And he still can’t handle it.  Even if he’s a better game designer (by virtue of time and resources), he’s stuck in the shadow of Emu because he can’t reconcile with not being the best.  Hell, it’s even reflected in his Rider suit; instead of coming up with an original design, the best he can do is be a black offshoot of Emu’s Ex-Aid.  Everything he does isn’t in service of asserting his control over all; he just wants to get over his crippling inferiority complex in the most bombastic way possible.

Well, no, I take that back.  Apparently he really does put stock into immortality, given the nature of the Bugsters (I.e. they can get Game Over’d, but come back regardless).  Also, he created Poppy, which makes her his daughter…but she also contains data from his late mother, and was ostensibly the base for the singing Bugster.  So Kuroto is now the father of his mother.  It’s a good thing the show doesn’t address that, because it’d make Sigmund Freud spin in his grave so fast he could power the northern hemisphere.

Kuroto does eventually become one of the good guys -- even if there’s a lot of arm-wrenching to make that happen, up to and including his death/rebirth as a Bugster -- so his Big Bad status gets revoked at about the halfway point.  Masamune Dan, AKA Kuroto’s father, ends up taking the role instead and finishes out the show as such.  To be perfectly honest, I think Masamune is my least favorite of the baddies.  That’s mostly because he overstays his welcome; after a certain point he ends up getting served one decisive defeat after another, but he keeps finding ways to survive or otherwise break the system in his favor.  Like a final boss with form after form after form, I eventually started internally screaming “Oh my God, just DIE ALREADY!”

Don’t get me wrong, though.  I still like Masamune overall because of what he brings to the table.  As the man behind Genm Corp. before and after Kuroto’s rise, he both fits into the theme of control and plays to the video game affect the show pushes.  Notably, he’s like an EA or Activision exec brought to un-life; the Gashats, including the highly-lethal Kamen Rider Chronicle, are just products for him to sell and spread for the company’s sake.  Pretty much everything around him is either a product or an employee, and he refers to them as such.  He doesn’t even call his own damn son by his name; he’ll just call him Dangerous Zombie or some such.  And if he sees no commercial value in the Bugster du jour?  Well, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned ZA WARUDO-infused roundhouse kick.

As Kamen Rider Cronus, Masamune is one of the biggest threats in the entire show -- even before he fuses with the actual final boss of the Bugsters.  In many instances (as seen above) he relies on his broken time-stopping abilities to make short work of the opposition, but he proves that even without it he can still wreck anyone that gets near him.  Then there’s the fact that he, much like Emu, has Bugster juice pretty much flowing through his veins, which he eventually taps to activate BITES ZA DUSTO.  Because why have one JoJo reference when you can have two?  (And also strain credibility by making up powers to artificially extend a show’s run?)

Even without his many powers and god-tier stats -- which are only surpassed by the heroes also becoming broken -- Masamune’s thirst for and ability to assert control are what really make him an interesting villain.  He’s able to pull Hiiro over to his side by using the surgeon’s late girlfriend as the carrot on a stick, and then proceeds to revive Kiriya as a Bugster to bolster his Rider forces as well as mess with the heroes’ heads.  Neither recruitment lasts for long, because the latter double-crosses him very quickly, and the former chooses not to break the Hippocratic Oath in spite of the big boss’ orders.  But hey, it’s the thought that counts.

He doesn’t have the OTT craziness factor that his son has, but that’s not to Masamune’s detriment.  It does flare up late in the show, but for the most part he’s eerily composed -- like he’s so certain in his victory and drunk on his prestige that nothing can possibly dethrone him.  In a lot of ways, he’s right to believe that.  He’s a cold, calculating CEO with more powers than a guy who very nearly reached immortality.  I have no choice but to respect that.

But like I said, he’s my least favorite of the three villains.  Fitting, because he’s the third main one to pop up.  Kuroto is the first, but in the end, he can only take the silver medal.  So who’s on the highest podium?  Who’s the one cradling the gold medal between his fingers?  Who is, in my opinion, not only the best villain, but my favorite character in the show, a personal hall-of-famer, and proof as to why I’m still a diehard Kamen Rider fan?

Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Parado.

Don’t let that clip fool you.  Sure, Parado is one of the strongest characters in the whole show, and consistently proves how terrifying he can really be.  But beyond that?  For probably the first quarter of the show, Parado is just a grinning goofball that wants to sit around and play video games.  His childish glee is palpable, to the point where he treats his first (and only) Gashat like a spiffy new toy.  He starts off working alongside Kuroto -- and even does a substitution jutsu to keep up his act as a good guy -- but really, that generally amounts to “sit around and wait while the adults do all the work”.  He’s a total manchild.

And then you see what happens when Parado puts the games down.  He may not show it a lot of the time, but as a Bugster -- and one of the first and strongest -- he has immense pride in his people.  He’s fighting for their right to exist, and more importantly, wants to wipe out humanity because they can’t understand the weight of the lives they’ve routinely taken in games (I.e. the Bugsters pre-emergence).  To that end, he’s willing to use Kuroto’s Kamen Rider Chronicle as a means to exact his revenge, taking advantage of the designer’s hubris and killing him off when his usefulness has ended.

Basically, there’s a reason why Parado spends so much time sitting around or goofing off.  It’s because he’s already won.  And he didn’t have to lift a finger.

Parado is pretty much the anti-Hiiro in this case.  Because the latter is so intent on following his archetype to the letter, he becomes boring as a result -- like you can generally predict every move he’ll make, and when he’ll make it.  In contrast, you can never truly tell what Parado will do next, even when he eventually joins Team Hero.  True to his name, he’s a walking paradox.  He goes on and on about a fair fight, but he’ll do whatever it takes to steal a win.  He comes off as a joker, but all it takes is one word out of line to make him rush you at top speed and strangle you.  He cares about the Bugsters, but will hurt them if they step out of the bounds of whatever rules he’s set for whatever “game” he’s playing.  The guy is just making it up as he goes along, and he’s stronger for it.

But it’s not as if he’s pure randomness.  If he was, I wouldn’t hold him in such high esteem (even if, like Kuroto, his antics are a delight to watch).  Parado has an arc and through lines that maintain his consistency, and guide him from the show’s start to its finish.  The lynchpin?  If Emu is Patient Zero -- the birthplace of nearly all the Bugsters as the cast knows them -- then Parado is Bugster Zero, born from Emu and locked inside him for years.  Or, to put it in simpler terms?  Parado is Emu’s “genius gamer M” persona…which means that Parado is Emu.

The biggest paradox is that Parado wants to assert his existence as a separate entity, but he can’t.  He wouldn’t have been born without Emu, even if it was just because Kuroto decided to be a little bitch one day.  He’s chained to humanity, no matter how much he loathes them and refuses to see value in their life.  But paradoxically, Parado’s devaluation of human life makes him more human, because that makes him no different from those that devalue the Bugsters’ lives.  Essentially, the writers could have called him Hypocris, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

But you see, Parado has this magical thing called a character arc.  Once he takes over as the Big Bad, he’s responsible for carrying out his plans and helping his Bugster brethren thrive.  He has to champion their right to exist, even though as Bugsters they have a secret bonus: as game characters, they can be reborn again and again as long as their data isn’t corrupted or destroyed.  It’s a good thing that there’s nobody out there that could possibly do such a thing to -- ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Masamune gives Parado a taste of fear -- the fear of death -- as he takes the Big Bad baton and proceeds to wipe out the “products” that have gone astray.  Parado is so shaken by it that he starts physically shaking; he tries to play off his distress, but Emu manages to sniff out the fact that, yes, he’s being forced to confront mortality and the weight of life in a way he’s never had to before.  But just in case Parado’s a slow learner, Emu drills that lesson into his head…by using his super form to beat the ever-loving shit out of Parado and murder him, unfazed by his panicked, pathetic pleading for salvation.

It’s a good thing that it was all a part of Emu’s plan.  Because Parado is a part of Emu, our hero uses the Mighty Brothers XX Gashat to revive the Bugster later.  Having learned what it means to die -- and the fear and pain associated with it -- Parado has an especially ugly cry and drops to all fours as he begs for forgiveness.  After that, he becomes Emu’s tag team partner in the most literal sense, because what follows is the greatest two-on-one battle I’ve seen out of the franchise yet…which Toei refuses to let anyone out of the States see in its full glory for long.  I guess we’re not worthy.

But the important thing is that Parado’s cooperation with Emu feeds into his arc, Emu’s arc, and Ex-Aid as a whole.  The only reason why our hero can fight at all is because of his Bugster blessings; he needs Parado’s influence in order to even activate his super mode (which becomes a plot point), and shortly after it’s revealed that a dead Parado = no henshins at all.  Coupled with the fact that Emu’s gaming skills are purely the result of Parado taking over (as M), our hero is technically the weakest of the bunch.  So by accepting that he’s weak -- that he has to cooperate with others in order to change the patients’ fate -- Emu grows as a character.

The implication that he’s only useful if he cooperates with a deadly, sentient virus is a harrowing one, for sure.  But that’s pretty much where he stands by the show’s end; he has to play a dangerous game if he’s going to accomplish anything.  In some ways, you can think of it as the ultimate sacrifice -- doomed to a fate where he’s bound to the Bugsters, and possibly a threat if something went awry in his body (or if Parado decided to walk back their truce).  But in his eyes and mine, the end justifies the means.  Emu wants to be a hero, and the hero CR desperately needs.

And you know what?  I can’t argue with the results.

Like Gaim before it, I view Ex-Aid as an…uneven series.  That’s not to say that either one of them are bad.  I like them both.  I don’t regret watching either.  But those two installments are the most striking and memorable for both the right, and the wrong, reasons.  The peaks are high, certainly; in exchange, the troughs plummet to the center of the earth.  I guess it’s a testament to both that they’re so capable of getting strong reactions out of me, which is more than I can say about Ghost (besides muttering some inarticulate apology).

There are many things I would fix in Ex-Aid, if given the chance -- including the big dumb double heroic sacrifice that gets a massive runback barely an episode later -- but even at its “worst”, there was nothing there that made me see the show as irredeemable.  Given the time and effort I’ve put in to get through the real trash, Ex-Aid doesn’t rank anywhere near the bottom.  I’ve just spent so much time talking about the good and the bad because I care.  Because I want to prove that there’s plenty to love, and lessons to learn from its strengths and weaknesses.  Kamen Rider may forever exist to sell toys to children, but it’s always a hell of a ride year after year.

It’s the sort of thing that makes you realize, with each new installment, with each new episode, and with each new hero that life is beautiful.  And that’s what it’s all about.

…Too on-the-nose?

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