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Never underestimate toy company Bandai’s ability to turn a mundane inanimate object into an uber-powerful super-weapon. You’ll lose every bet you make against them. And so, we continue our hike through the tense valley of story that is the Kamen Rider Build television series. In what has got to be the most well-written opening act of any incarnation in the Kamen Rider franchise, we’re treated to a funny, surprising, character-driven yet action-packed experience that punches you in the gut seconds after it uplifts. This is a master-class in how to produce special effects TV, and somehow, we’re still just getting started.

Last time, our smartypants hero Kiryuu Sento had some truth bombs dropped on his head as the villainous Blood Stalk was finally unmasked, and his identity has sent the dejected freedom fighter reeling. He chases his eccentric mentor into the night as Soichi attempts to make off with a sack full of Sento’s battle gear, the Full Bottles, along with the mysterious Martian Pandora Box. In typical Soichi fashion, the unassuming cafe owner just stops running to take a breather, leaving room for Sento to finally ask why in seven hells this man would manipulate them the whole time like this. And even at this point, Soichi keeps up that smile, which suddenly reads as sarcastic rather than obliviously silly. A sharp departure from a small army of mentors and friends in the recent Kamen Rider franchise that, while fun to watch, sometimes seem permanently stuck in slapstick mode. Here, Soichi reveals that this old Rider trope was more of a gas – a self-aware affectation – than the total sum of his personality. Another reason to love the Build series, which seems to quietly take well-worn elements of the franchise and tweak them enough that they achieve something totally fresh while still keeping that familiar aroma in the air.

He quickly stands, as if to suggest that even his “desperate escape” from the cafe was just to get some leg room while he fights Sento. Thus, we finally witness the first on-screen transformation sequence of Blood Stalk, with Soichi, of all people, cheesing away as he is engulfed in steam, lightning crackling as the armor reveals itself… Class.

Using the only two Full Bottles left in his arsenal, Sento’s henshin goes straight to the new OctopusLight armor, which Blood Stalk remarks is an annoyance. Apparently, he’s not a fan of the fug octopus either. I feel you, Stalk. Despite having seemingly outmatched him last time, Sento’s attack is quickly dismantled by the impressive skill of his old boss, and Soichi manages to swipe the last Full Bottles and disappear. An immensely frustrated Sento pounds the asphalt and screams into the darkness as we launch into the movie ad opening credits.

Later, Sento fills in Ryuuga and Sawa about the old man’s treachery and they wonder if it’s a good idea to tell Misora. It’s curious that no one considers the possibility of Misora already being aware the whole time, since it was honestly my first thought, but knowing this show, that could be the big reveal of episode 16 or whatever. For now, they decide it may be best to keep it on the downlow. Meanwhile, Sento has to work on a new way to counter Faust. To Ryuuga and Sawa’s surprise, Sento explains that Soichi had briefly activated the Pandora Box to deflect OctopusLight from him, and one of Build’s empty Bottles absorbed some of the residual energy, as they were designed to do with the Smash monsters attacking the city. It seems, at the moment, this may be the only weapon Sento personally has left. Until we get to the next scene anyway.

I suppose Blood Stalk’s days of holding full conversations with ordinary people while in full costume are over, as Soichi casually hangs around Nanba’s office like it’s no big deal. The head of Nanba Heavy Industries is pleased that his new partnership has borne so much fruit, as their secret plans as members of the terroristic Faust are going swimmingly so far. When asked, Nanba suggests he’s going to use the substantial power they’ve cultivated to create weapons even more horrifying than nuclear power could birth. A proposition that Soichi, in his own lovably downplaying style, reacts to with chilly fear. Sadly, they’ll have to put the apocalypse on hold for a bit, as Nanba fiddles with the stolen Full Bottles enough to discover that they’re all fakes. They don’t call him a genius for nothing, folks!

Sento knows he has little time before Stalk & Friends realize his deception, still hard at work on figuring out his latest invention. He asks Ryuuga to help, calmly asking him to use a new device to divine the compatibility of two Full Bottles (because it’s apparently a gift that only Ryuuga possesses). What amuses me about this is that, even after the first attempted pairing literally blows up in Ryuuga’s face, launching him halfway across the room with a face full of soot, he just casually walks back over and tries again while Sento scribbles notes. Another attempt uses the Diamond Full Bottle, causing actual diamonds to spontaneously scatter from the device all over the floor. Which I suppose puts to rest all speculation that they’ll be shutting down the cafe anytime soon, since they have never once had a single customer walk through the doors even to use the bathroom or the wifi. (Although, now that I think about it, if I had an extremely cunning, murdery gaggle of villains after me, I might think about relocating sooner than later, but that’s just me.)

Rarely afraid to mix tragedy with humor, the show brings the laughs roaring back when Misora follows Sawa down into the basement lab after being locked out for ages, wondering what the others are up to. Their solution: Tell her that Ryuuga wants to take her on a date! As Sawa keeps her away from the chaotic lab, Sento and Ryuuga engage in an interesting form of sign language that would baffle the most learned linguists of our generation. Taken without the giant, colorful subtitles, one can only imagine the obscene things their hand-motions may suggest! In any case, Ryuuga silently agrees to take her out, and he carts her off before she can ask any more awkward questions.

In the meantime, Sawa’s back with more info on their former ally, much of which was already known to us. Soichi was one of the astronauts on the famous Mars expedition. A well-liked man with a strong sense of justice, until he returned and his erratic action lead to him attacking the return ceremony, where he activated the Pandora Box, seemingly causing the Sky Wall to rise up and separate Japan into three distinct territories. He was admitted to the same hospital as Misora, who had fallen into a coma when she came into the box’s vicinity as a child, and remained so for years. Sento postulates he had been part of Faust even before hospitalization, from which both Soichi and Misora were brought in to work on Faust’s world-conquering agenda, using her unique ability to purify the Full Bottles into weapons. What they can’t figure out is: Why would Soichi rescue Misora from Faust if he himself agreed with their goals?

As if to keep up the wonderful anti-Poppy personality that Misora is working with, she’s also bad at karaoke. So, she’s not bright and bubbly, and she’s not a secret pop singer waiting to burst into song like her female lead counterpart in Kamen Rider Ex-Aid. It’s like they’re systematically checking off a list. Intentional or not, I’m still tickled by the idea that every defining characteristic of the real Poppy is just fake stuff that Misora would casually make up. (Though, to be fair, we weren’t ever told Misora or her internet sensation alter-ego Miitan were good singers.)

And, while it’s still not my favorite aspect to her story, Misora’s “first dates” with Ryuuga continue to be revealing about the inner layers of her character after you peel back the moody exterior. She’s never had the chance to be a normal girl, or a normal anything, because the Pandora Box and Faust stole away her chances. Not just chances to be a regular person, but to even decide, in the first place, what kind of person she even would be. Misora explains that Faust eventually couldn’t force her to purify the Full Bottles anymore, because she froze up as her fear of what they would do with these advancements began to grow. She was useless to them. That’s when Soichi busted her out.

After having hashed out that the Rabbit and Tank Full Bottles are the optimal combo for his new invention, Sento gets a call from Soichi, who wants to meet after learning of his trick with the fake items. They decide it will take place where they first encountered each other, on that fateful rainy day, when Sento found himself confused, with no memory of who he was or what had happened to him. The place where it all started for this hero whose very name was given to him by the man he must now raise hands against.

As if to commemorate the occasion, rain pours over their heads as they meet again in that alley. And, though that smile remains fixed on Soichi’s face, one can sense an underlying sadness to the whole thing. Even if it was mostly a lie, as their conversation suggests, he was genuinely moved by the determined actions of those kids that he shepherded to victory time and again. Sento can’t stand to hear any more of his slanted half-speak. You know he’s pissed when he only shakes the Bottles once before flipping their switches and transforming. Dude means business.

It’s very likely to have happened before, but off the top of my head, I can’t remember witnessing a completely silent henshin before, as the two combatants suit up and all we hear is rainfall. And, as they take their conflict into a nearby warehouse, the battle intensifies. Build’s drill sword never looked so cool as when it’s powered up by the Ninja Full Bottle, creating that beautiful after-image effect, slashing Blood Stalk before he can land a decisive blow. Nevertheless, Sento’s memories get the best of him, and he finds himself unable to defeat his once-lovable mentor.

And what an impressive character he is, that Soichi. An eccentric weirdo by day, and a manipulative, sadistic snake of a villain by night. Even now, his loyalties are uncertain, and the question still lingers if we’re witnessing the true personality of this man, or if he was changed dramatically by his experiences, either as a Mars explorer or a Faust member, or some combination of the two. He’s Takenaka Naoto’s “Old Man” character from Kamen Rider Ghost on steroids. The wacky loon of a mentor with all the answers and few to share, whose connection to the show’s villains is greater than first imagined, whose true level of menace is unknowable. But unlike Ghost’s dubious bossman, Soichi brings an added sense of threat, ups the intrigue like nobody’s business, and is a formidable match for our heroes both in and out of costume from the first few episodes. These. villains. are. EVERYTHING.

Stalk is about to finish things, until Ryuuga intervenes, quickly injecting some extra feels into the mix as he becomes Kamen Rider Cross-Z and attacks, claiming that he’s not enraged over Soichi’s plan to frame him for murder, but rather that Soichi has hurt Sento and Misora. Oh, Ryuuga. He loves you! He really loves you! Stalk proves he’s no dummy, immediately targeting Cross-Z’s belt, disabling the power source that ultimately reverts him back to human form.

It’s then that Stalk confirms what some might have guessed a few scenes earlier: That Soichi took Misora away from Faust simply because their methods weren’t working anymore. They needed Misora to feel like she was doing something good with her mysterious power, helping a poor, lonely hero like Sento to fight the wicked Smash and protect the innocent. With this noble cause in mind, she was able to keep purifying the Full Bottles. This whole time, all their heartwarming adventures were the result of an elaborate con.

And it’s really the con that we keep coming back to, isn’t it? Like the Full Bottles Soichi took to Nanba, and the fabricated reality Misora creates whenever she goes on the internet to get the attention of Miitan’s adoring fans, Kamen Rider Build’s entire journey as a hero was constructed from lies. Even Ryuuga’s legal troubles all stem from things that never happened, stories told to cover up the underlying truth, all the while screwing over the righteous, innocent ones who have been chosen by uncaring men to suffer for the crimes of others.

But Sento finds a way to pick himself back up, stating that Soichi’s guiding hand might have been a festival of lies, but their motivation to keep fighting and help others was a genuine effort. So, perhaps the person Sawa mentions their patriarch used to be long ago can now carry on his sense of justice through Sento. Soichi certainly doesn’t seem to be using it anymore. And now, Sento reveals the object he will use to defeat his old mentor, a weapon of incredible power… A soda can!

Sento pops the ridonculous, oversized, blue-and-red device like opening a can of Pepsi, causing two little Full Bottle slots to appear below where he can insert the item into his belt, activating a new henshin. In a flurry of literal bubbles, like from the fizzy remnants of a fresh soft drink, Sento becomes RabbitTank Sparkling: the carbonated version of his classic form! You were expecting something else?

Sparkling counters all of Stalk’s moves with ease, a creation born from Sento’s truth to tear down Soichi’s deception. Ole Bloody even has to break out the CG cobra to fight him off. Two of them, in fact. But even this isn’t enough to stop Sparkling, who bursts through the roof with these creatures and defeats them both in an explosive Rider Kick that almost defies explanation. It’s certainly a more impressive finisher than his base RabbitTank form could muster, I’ll give it that. The ensuing bubble shockwave is enough to toss Stalk back, canceling his transformation (finally!) as his two Rider pupils find him back in the alley where they started.

The near-unfazable Soichi still has a smile on his face but just barely, as he stumbles back to his feet to commend Sento on a job well done. He hints that Sento might be able to accomplish something even greater some day, though exactly what that “something” is will stay under the heat lamp for now. Soichi does warn him to stay frosty when it comes to Acting Prime Minister Himuro Gentoku, who he just outright reveals is actually the villainous Night Rogue. Which makes the deception regarding Utsumi, who had just told the world that he was Night Rogue before Gentoku promptly shot him, look even more tragically pointless for those involved. The rain, it seems, is washing away everybody’s secrets today.

After parting words that effectively frame him as the proud father of two promising sons (and generously letting them keep the box, which I suspect he doesn’t like leaving in the hands of Faust), Soichi leaps straight up into the sky without the use of performance-enhancing devices, further adding to the mystery of who and what he really is.

We close the episode on the two Riders alone in the alley, with the box and a whole host of new questions waiting to be picked up. What happens now?

As always with Kamen Rider Build, I can’t wait to dive into the next episode and find out.

Next: Episode 15

 

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