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April 5, 2018

Let’s discuss Kamen Rider Ex-Aid (Part 3).

Here’s a friendly PSA for any anime fans reading this: Gundam Build Divers is out and about online, and you can watch it for free either on Crunchyroll or via the GundamInfo channel on YouTube.  The same goes for Gundam Build Fighters -- the first season -- Build Fighters Try -- the second season -- and all sorts of bonus, post-season content.  The Battlogue episodes are as non-canon as it gets, but each one is a sight to behold.  Least of all because the budget for each 11-minute segment seems to have gone Trans-Aa.  YIKESY MIKESY, some of those moments are slobberknockers.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen anything Build Fighters related, but having taken the plunge with the supplementary stuff -- in preparation for Divers’ drop -- I’m reminded of how much I freaking love this installment to the Gundam franchise.  Granted I’ll gladly admit that Try is a step down from the first season, but seeing these guys in isolated instances shows what a deep appreciation I have for the overall cast and affect.  We’re a decade out from Gurren Lagann (feeling old yet?), but GBF is holding the hot-blooded mecha action down.  All hail Tryon-3.

If you’re wondering why I’m talking about Gundam in a Kamen Rider post, it’s because I need a release valve for the scorn and disdain I feel for a not-insignificant chunk of the cast.  So let’s start off this post with a few words on tone.


I’m not even going to pretend like Kamen Rider is some bastion of artistry.  I’ll argue for years to come that it’s surprisingly good -- top shelf stuff -- but it’s also insanely, inherently goofy.  This is a franchise built on karate bug-men riding motorcycles so over-designed that it’d make any given G.I. Joe red in the face.  Then you get down to individual installments which feature (but aren’t limited to) mayonnaise-loving archaeologists enslaved by ancient and perpetually-hungry beasts encased in belt buckles, potentially all-seeing owners of time-travelling trains who flip their lids whenever their food shifts out of place, and killer androids who see the merit in humanity after a night of binging anime with his would-be victim.

Kamen Rider is consistently good, but it’s also consistently weird.  I’ve seen enough of it and other tokusatsu fare (like this one) to shrug off most of those oddities.  Why?  Because even if there are some spit-take worthy moments and concepts, it’s in service of a strong cast and an intriguing story -- one that’s constantly full of drama, tension, and deeper themes than you would expect from a franchise built around selling toys to children.  And for the most part, KR handles its tone pretty well.  When it’s goofy, it’s goofy.  When it’s hype, it’s hype.  When it’s serious, it’s serious.  The show, and the people behind it, know what they’re doing.

And then there’s Ex-Aid.  While I wouldn’t say it’s a tonal catastrophe 24/7, there are instances where…well…here.  Here are three clips.  And bear in mind that this all happens in the same episode.

That’s a lot to digest all at once.  And it’d be easier to digest if the costumes in Ex-Aid weren’t so appalling they make me want to bury my head in a vat of ghost pepper juice; seriously, try taking a tense moment seriously when you’re looking an an overgrown SD Gundam.  But that’s this show for you.  If it’s not the costumes, it’s Poppy shrieking in her helium-laced voice.  If it’s not Poppy, it’s wildly-oscillating scenes jammed together.  If it’s not the scenes, it’s the henshin/belt sounds that overstay their welcome (which to be fair has been a problem since the days of Wizard).  If it’s not the sounds, it’s the actual content.

And that’s the real issue here.  Even if there’s plenty of good stuff in Ex-Aid, it’s hard to overlook the stuff that genuinely drives me up a wall.  In this case, the show commits a cardinal sin: outside of our hero Emu -- someone who starts off decent, but becomes better and stronger as the show goes on -- I can’t say I like anyone on the heroes’ side in this installment.  Not especially.  And for those who actually have seen Ex-Aid, I know that what I’m going to say next is controversial, but I’ll stand by it for now: that includes the fan favorite, the coroner Kujo Kiriya, AKA Kamen Rider Lazer.  Why?  Because he’s a victim of one of the content missteps in this series.

To put it simply: killing off Kiriya was a mistake.

Oh, sure, he ends up coming back (first in a movie, and then later in the show proper).  But it was still a bad move -- a cynical one, even, at least in the hands of the crew.  It’s much too easy to assume that Kiriya was killed because “that’s how you show the stakes are real!”  Or “anyone can die at any moment, so you’d better hold on to your butts!”  The problem is that it has the opposite effect, and it comes off as a cheap attempt at trying to mimic the successes of Gaim.  Gaim killed off a cast member too -- possibly at the very same point in the episode count -- but there’s a key difference.  At least then, Urobutcher had the sense to axe a second- or third-stringer.  Here, we’re talking about one of the core four Riders.

He doesn’t even get to go out in a blaze of glory.  He’s just a jobber used to show off how big and strong Dangerous Zombie is -- and it’s a power that’s matched, if not surpassed, in a few episodes’ time.  Prior to that?  Kiriya’s death was entirely preventable, whether it’s from running the instant he was in danger (which he could, because his alternate form is a motorcycle) or just not ending up in that position anyway by virtue of not sticking random, Bugster-laced Gashats into your Driver.  

Prior to that?  He only fought Kamen Rider Gemn alone because no one believed him -- I.e. a compulsive liar -- even though he had multiple chances to offer substantial proof.  So he’s a little on the thick side…though to be fair, everyone was being kind of thick because they didn’t bother to connect the dots between obvious threat X and obvious producer of said threat Y.

What’s really irritating is that even with his faults, Kiriya’s still the best hero not named Emu.  That only means so much, granted; he only has so much time pre-death to flesh himself out, and how good of a job he does is debatable.  He gets better treatment post-death, using his coroner knowledge to make a crucial offense against the Bugster virus.  Before then?  He’s kind of coasting on charisma and coolness alone -- and that doesn’t exactly carry over or last long when you’re literally dead for half of the series.  (I’m not even joking; he’s gone for about 20 episodes.)

But hell, I’ll take Kiriya over Hiiro and Taiga any day.  Who are they, you ask?  Well, they’re…



They’re…not great.  I’ll be the first to admit that that’s an entirely subjective statement -- something based solely on my opinion.  And it’s probably a bizarre opinion, as usual; KR fans seem to love Kaito and hate Micchy from Gaim, but for me it’s the complete opposite.  I don’t hate anyone as much as Kaito in this show, which is good.  I just have an extreme dislike for them.  Which is not so good.

In the blue corner, you’ve got Hiiro, an ace surgeon who returns from America to help take out the Bugster virus -- and the man who dons the mantle, and armor, of Kamen Rider Brave.  In the red corner, you’ve got Taiga, a disgraced radiologist out to claim all the Gashats for himself; he turns into Kamen Rider Snipe.  Incidentally, the two of them have a rough history together.  Hiiro’s girlfriend Saki succumbed to the virus and was erased, which was the result of Taiga (one of the earliest gamer Riders) failing to beat the associated Bugster.  It takes dozens of episodes before the two can reconcile, so until then, the sparks fly and Emu has to do his best to rein Hiiro and Taiga (and Kiriya) in to form a cohesive team.

Here’s the first problem: Hiiro and Taiga are way too similar.

Remember Boruto’s Dad Naruto?  Remember how Team 7 had Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura, with Kakashi acting as a teacher/rounding out the group?  Say what you will about that team -- and the story at large -- but at least it tried to have character dynamics throughout.  Group composition is important, as is the synergy between members.  Given that, imagine what it would be like if Team 7 had Naruto, Sasuke, Sasuke, and [REDACTED].  People would drop that shit like a bowling ball down the gutter.

That’s what I felt like with Ex-Aid.  Hiiro and Taiga are both cold, standoffish jerks -- experts and veterans, sure, but their utter inability to play along makes me think that CR brought them in as a last resort.  Without Kiriya sticking around to balance things out, Emu has to do all the work when it comes to being likable.  Sometimes he has to do all the work in general -- like saving a patient from falling to her death, even though Hiiro’s standing right there.  Because apparently, his work begins and ends with surgery/Bugster excision, and thus he shouldn’t have to care any longer.  What a hero.

To be fair, I’ll give Hiiro the slight edge between the two “too cool for school” jerkwads.  He does get a little better as the story goes on, to the point where some scenes have him acting as the Dr. Cox to Emu’s JD.  But it’s a long-ass road to get from the start of Hiiro’s arc to the end of it.  He’s cold and standoffish to the point of parody; he has a point when he mentions that doctors shouldn’t get too emotionally attached to patients, but the lengths he goes to to alienate everyone are extreme.  For the longest time, it’s like the only time he can show emotion is when it’s time to slam a desk or grab someone by the collar to get in their face and yell.  (You could make a very lethal drinking game out of that.)

I have a hard time explaining away his faults.  Sure, I get it -- losing Saki messed him up badly, and he’s following through on her last words (“Become the world’s greatest doctor”) to a fault.  But again, we’re talking about a guy who’s willing to let patients ostensibly under his care fall to their death.  He wants nothing to do with anyone, even the coworkers who he needs to stop a pandemic from breaking out.  Also, given that we see he was just as frigid to Saki as he was to everyone else -- not even looking at her when they meet up or go on dates -- it begs the question of what the hell she ever saw in him.

I don’t think my problem with him is that he’s horribly written.  It’s just that he’s so boring and repetitive.  And really, the same could be said about Taiga.

Taiga is just as cold and standoffish as Hiiro, but he adds an extra layer of antagonism into the mix.  Whereas the man who would be Brave just stands around while people are at risk, Taiga actively goes out of his way to hurt Emu and jeopardize lives just so he can get his hands on Gashats.  As in, he’ll open fire with missiles and Gatling guns, even if he puts victims in harm’s way.  He mellows out over the course of the show, but first impressions are important, and when one of your earliest scenes has you firing a Macross-style salvo at anyone who gets in your way, you’ve gotta do a hell of a lot of clawing to get back up to “respectable”.

Taiga’s arc is one that has him dealing with the grief (such as it is) of failing to beat Saki’s Bugster.  His motivation is to make up for what he couldn’t do, and in his eyes, his best shot at redemption is to gather up all the Gashats (thereby stripping other Riders of their transformations), gain power, and wipe out all the Bugsters single-handed.  All well and good, relatively speaking, but Taiga as a whole ends up taking a hit when you realize he’s just being a tsundere to everyone.  It’s obvious when Nico starts palling around with him, and it’s right around the point when she starts parroting his lines that you realize he’s an anti-hero that’s a parody of himself.  Like, if you’re gonna make a rival who’s willing to go to extremes, go all the way.  Either make him a more dedicated part of the team over time, or make him jump off the slippery slope until he becomes an enemy even worse than the Bugsters.  Don’t half-ass it.

Credit where credit’s due, though: Taiga does get punched so hard he starts coughing up blood and viscera.  He took that hit like a champ…even though he only took that hit because he decided to fight a high-level Bugster without his Rider suit on.  

If there’s one good thing about Hiiro, Taiga, and Kiriya, it’s that they all manage to make Emu look better by comparison.  It’s up to our hero to not only fight against the Bugsters, but to work his hardest to bring his team together, knowing full well (and learning, as per his arc) that he can’t do it alone.  The strides and lengths he goes to are appreciable, even if he has to pull some dirty tricks along the way.

But what’s it in service of?  Kiriya’s out for half the season, and Hiiro and Taiga are such assholes that it actively forms a plot point.  Using a higher-level Gashat infects Emu with a strain of the Bugster virus, which causes him to become anemic, get headaches, or even pass out.  As with all virus victims, the greater his stress, the more the Bugster in him can thwart his immune system, emerge in the real world, and kill the host.  Hiiro and Taiga know this, so you would think that they would find ways to help Emu.  Perform a preemptive surgery, or prepare him for the moment when the virus gets too active.  Let him down easy, like a doctor explaining that his/her patient has a tumor.  Talk to him.

But instead, they think that they can’t tell Emu because doing so would trigger a viral reaction.  And because of that, they think that the only option -- the only one -- is to kill Emu right out in the open without even a hint of an explanation.  Seriously.  Emu justifiably asks “Why are you trying to kill me?” and Hiiro’s answer is “Shut up and die,” even though you’d think that aggression on that level would only boost Emu’s stress and make a bad situation worse.  (Also, casual murder much?)  But I can’t even blame Emu for eventually having his virus run rampant.  Removing it means he has to count on Hiiro and Taiga to help him in his time of need -- and because they’re such assholes (especially at that point in the story), they can barely have a conversation with each other.

But you know what?  You know what the worst part is?  Of the four main Riders, Emu is the only one that cares about video games.  In a video game-themed show.  

Hiiro doesn’t know how to play an RPG or a rhythm game, despite both of those being his initial forms.  Taiga only touches games when they’re in Gashat form.  Kiriya only bothers when it’s time to create Emu’s next power-up (which implies that he’s got programming skills…even though he’s a coroner…?)  Like I said last time, it’s a huge missed opportunity that sheds light on Ex-Aid’s missed opportunities -- an inability, if not outright refusal, to get the most out of one of the show’s core elements.

There’s an easy fix for this.  You don’t have to rewrite each character so that they’re gaming nerds like Emu.  Just have them, over the course of the story, take an interest in games so that they become introspective as a result -- wiling to understand more, able to cooperate more, the works.  Hiiro can’t be the world’s greatest doctor as long as the Bugsters are bumping around, yet he’s handicapped because all of his medical knowledge is worthless in the face of the gaming world they hail from.  So have him come out of his shell -- or at the very least, understand his work -- by getting him into games and the culture.  He has the perfect guide for it.

Imagine Hiiro and Emu working together and trading knowledge as they go.  Emu teaches him about games so that they can bond and he can get a different perspective; Hiiro teaches him about surgery so he can become more than an intern he can deride day in and day out.  But because Emu’s an expert -- and someone who has a natural edge against the Bugsters -- Hiiro can have feelings of inferiority that make him lash out, partly because he has to be mentored by his subordinate.  It’s something that would force him to face his limits, yet make him come face-to-face with the ugliest parts of himself.

There.  Done.  Easy.  See?  That’s literally all it takes to get more out of a theme and a character.  Use what you have to generate storytelling opportunities -- so that in turn, the characters can create opportunities.  As they are?  Hiiro, Taiga, and even Kiriya all feel incomplete because they’ve only got a tangential, incidental relationship to the show’s core affect.  And what’s it replaced by?  Excuses.  “Oh, Hiiro’s cold to others because his girlfriend died!”  “Oh, Taiga doesn’t want to work with others because he let someone die five years ago!”  “Oh, Kiriya’s a liar because he told the truth and it got his friend killed!”  

It’s weak justification for their vices that depends on a level of sympathy they’re incapable of earning -- partly because, instead of acknowledging their faults and taking at least token steps to get better, they all double down and become even bigger assholes.

…Dear God, please deliver unto me a DVD full of subtitled KR Build episodes.  I would be eternally grateful.

As it stands, I have no love for anyone on the heroes’ side not named Emu.  The end goal is to get an emotional reaction out of me for each of their plights, but I felt nothing for almost the entirety of their arcs.  Hiiro gets it the best because a whole story arc has him betraying the group to (possibly) revive his girlfriend, followed by Kiriya and his (fake) betrayal post-revival.  But even that’s not enough to salvage them.

Compare that to Emu.  There’s a sequence where, after getting overtaken by his virus, he wakes up right as rain…on the surface.  Once he starts moving around, though?  He’s not himself.  He’s locked in his M persona, and makes it plainly clear that he doesn’t want to do anything besides play video games.  It’s a stark contrast to Emu’s earnest desire to help people, and it’s actually kind of heartbreaking to see that his noble ambition is potentially in danger -- if not utterly erased -- if he continues to live.  I can’t even begin to imagine having that reaction towards those other chucklefucks.  That’s a problem.

But I guess it’s fine.  Even if the heroes didn’t do much for me, it’s the villains who really steal the show.

See you next time.

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