Well, that was fast.
It seems like it was just yesterday that I was whining about how I’ll have to spend the next year with the costumes from Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, wondering if maybe the franchise was finally about to lose me. Fast-forwarding to the end of that particular race, my thoughts on both Ex-Aid and the Kamen Rider franchise have gone through a transformation about as drastic as any costumed do-gooder. If only every show we watched had this speedy a turnaround.
In Kamen Rider Build, our new story commences in what appears almost to be the beginnings of a kind of post-apocalypse. A nation divided into three distinct sectors after a startling event in the aftermath of a fateful Mars exploration mission that brought back the mysterious Pandora Box, an item speculated to hold great power. Thirty seconds in and I’m already salivating.
Gone are the radioactive colors and bulging cartoon eyes of the previous series. This show immediately grabs my attention with a deep, dramatic tone and a universe that already feels layered, just waiting for you to jump in and have a look around.
The towering wall that rises, as if summoned by the Pandora Box, physically separating the three parts of the country, remains a striking image throughout the episode. It stands ominously, a constant reminder of the crisis this future world lives in. To say that this is eerily relevant may be an understatement. Not just the wall itself, but the whole society laid out before us.
Uniformed men harassing the seemingly innocent, performing previously unlawful acts that have now suddenly become acceptable (or, at the very least, impossible to prevent), sleazy government officials who wield their sexuality with the grace of a machete on a birthday cake. I mean, I know it’s a kids show, and coincidences happen, and sometimes you see what you’ve already got on your mind, but damn. Every ten seconds of this thing confronted me with some fresh mind-nuggets to chew on. And I’m not mad at it.
Really, what delights me more than anything is how amazingly nostalgic this whole thing feels. Kamen Rider wasn’t always the show that wore clown shoes to work, favoring slapstick and manic editing like Super Sentai sometimes does (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). There was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to witness monsters violently killing humans by the dozen (not exaggerating) and it was a serious quest by the heroes to put a stop to it or die trying. The show never lost its sense of childlike whimsy, but it was a drama first. Death and destruction don’t make a show good – it’s strong stories and characters to see you through it all which do that – but we’ve come a long way from the envelope-pusher Kamen Rider occasionally liked to be.
Kamen Rider Build seeks to split the difference, starting first with a biting edge, then swiftly reassuring us that it’s not all doom and gloom in this world by introducing us to the show’s main lead, Kiryu Sento, whose love of toast would give even Bridge of Power Rangers SPD a run for his money. Actually, given they’re both genius toku heroes with a habit of changing outfits, these two could be the best of friends. They even have foreboding dreamscapes in common!
I like Sento’s casual attitude about the crazy messes he finds himself in, practically shrugging off danger and smiling through the critical moments. We first glimpse this attitude when he pulls off a slick rescue for the beautiful reporter who just happens to get attacked by the very monster she just told Prime Minster’s Aide Himuro Gentoku (AKA Doucheface McGee) all about a couple hours earlier. Eagle-eyed toku fiends may recognize her as the badass thief in the Kamen Rider Accel movie. Or the badass thief in that one story arc on Kamen Rider Ghost. She just really likes stealing, I guess. I came to know her best as Arisa, the UPG Agent (not a thief, still a badass) from Ultraman Ginga S.
We can speculate about whether Miss Takigawa Sawa’s run-in with our first monster was truly random, or if she asked the wrong hombre too many questions. But it lets her get a good look at that sweet red and blue battle-suit Kamen Rider Build is wearing.
Later, it’s revealed that Sento lives in some kind of lab, where he participates in the creation of cool monster-fighting gadgets. Naturally, the lab’s entrance is in the fridge of a cafe where the owner likes to speak exclamations in various western languages. Because what else would a toku character involved in food service do? Isurugi Soichi reminds the amnesiac Sento that he’s not staying there for free, and he’d better start earning his keep.
Memories seem to play a pretty significant part in the story so far. Whenever Sento or another character tries to recall the past, there’s this effect laid over the image where parts of the frame are momentarily blurred, then cleared up, then blurred again. As we learn, it’s not exactly a coincidence that so many people are having problems remembering, but I love how the show has chosen to render these hazy recollections. The past and the future appear equally hard to see without losing your way, and that accursed wall doesn’t make it any easier.
So, Sento seeks employment with the “Touto Institute of Advanced Matter Physics”, impressing Doucheface by passing the entrance exam with a perfect score. He’s immediately assigned to the project covering the Pandora Box, causing his hair to stiffen up with pent-up excitement, just positively spurting with joy all over the place.
Meanwhile, a fugitive is on the run. Former professional fighter Banjou Ryuuga has escaped custody and taken out several Guardians, the Touto authority’s faceless goon squad, and it’s up to Sento to put an end to these shenanigans.
I could be dead wrong here, but I like the sense I’m getting that Ryuuga, for all his scrappy resourcefulness, seems to be kind of dumb compared to everyone else. I don’t expect this is an accident, but rather, a really amazing choice to pair up people on opposite ends of the intellectual scale. Sento’s the somewhat arrogant brainiac, calm and collected under pressure, while Ryuuga’s the shouty, hot-blooded type, all fists and heart. I was loving their dynamic within a minute, and if it continues down this path, it’ll be a pretty legendary pairing.
Ryuuga tells the story of his abduction (from prison! by a guard!) and forced experiments, which sound crazy-familiar to Sento, who himself is haunted by memories of a similar encounter. All presided over by the mysterious, armored figure with a bat insignia. Some devotees of the Rider franchise may see that its tradition of often beginning with a bat-themed adversary is still being upheld.
Our second monster of the episode appears, apparently targeting Ryuuga as Sento explains that these creatures, called Smash, are humans who have been transformed, and it’s Kamen Rider Build’s job to handle them. And, while the battle is nice, and his form changes are cool, I have to express how surprised I am that the most exciting part of the episode did not involve finishing the monster (though that Rider Kick was… an experience).
Continuing on its mission to massage every nostalgic muscle left in my body, Build spends a good portion of the episode showing how essential Sento’s bike is to him. He rides it to work. He rides it to find Ryuuga. He rides it while firing his amazingly silly-looking blaster. And he rides it to escape the Guardians when Doucheface threatens to capture, and quite possibly murder, our confused new buddy Ryuuga.
There’s something refreshing about how Build has been framed in this story. Like a rebellious freedom fighter working against an oppressive power. We know him to be the hero, but you might get the sense that Mr. McGee and his pals don’t want others to see it that way. To them, Build is the villain, and they’re just doing their job to preserve whatever passes for peace in this fractured society. When Build performs these insane bike stunts, deflecting cannon-blasts with his “rabbit” feet and racing up onto the Skywall, he’s fighting back against a villain desperate to maintain control. Resisting.
So, now that we’re done overanalyzing the chase scene, let’s celebrate the craziness of this event. Dropping from the top of the wall, riding down its side, ramming enemies into its deadly forcefield, and finally halting the fall with a big honkin’ drill-sword. Jeepers! This is not a typical climax for Kamen Rider. But then, this is the premiere. Hopefully, that doesn’t mean we won’t see much more of this kind of thing later on. Because it really is cool, and the occasional change of pace can keep us on our toes.
First episodes can sometimes lead to false conclusions. Sometimes, a hopeful mind can fill in the blanks with all sorts of things the show never intended. Or a series will just shoot its wad on one or two spectacular feats of awesome, convincing you that you’ll be taken on the same entertaining ride every week, only to prove you wrong shortly after. But the vibe I’m getting from Build is so positive right now that I have to hope that this is not one of those times. It still maintains some of the quirky hallmarks of the recent era, but its spirit feels deeply rooted in the stories that made me fall in love with this franchise. A pleasing compromise between two enjoyable sides.
A build, if you will.
I’ll see myself out.