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Kamen Rider Build is the television series we need but don’t deserve. And as we dive further into this exemplary action show, it’s got me wondering if one character will die a hero or live long enough to see himself become the villain. This is episode 19. Another week, another twist to add to the ever-mounting pile as the story rolls on.

Our last episode was all about #FAMILY, and we were left with Psycho Prime Minister Himuro Gentoku as he came face-to-face with Utsumi, his former secretary whom he had personally shot, suddenly revealing that he is very much alive. After Utsumi briefly butts into the recap narration from poor lead hero Sento (whose dialogue is getting less peppy by the second with all this war business), Gentoku’s old buddy simply pushes up his glasses and smiles at Gentoku’s incredulous reaction.

Utsumi states that after Gentoku left him for dead, it was everyone’s favorite super-frenemy, the wily Blood Stalk who came around to scoop him out of the water following his fall from the bridge. Curiouser and curiouser! At this point, I’ve stopped trying to nail down exactly what Stalk could be planning. Isurugi Soichi doesn’t seem to be doing anything in particular except making absolutely certain that none of the many sides in this expanding conflict gets too much power for long. Constantly reshuffling the deck while keeping an ace firmly tucked up his own armored sleeve, playing with people’s lives but also helping them out at what could almost look like random times of coincidental convenience. But he’s so ridiculously brilliant that you have to think there’s a design to it all that just hasn’t fully revealed itself yet. In any case, Utsumi is now acting as the go-between for Gentoku and Nanba Heavy Industries, who had previously colluded with Gentoku to take over the Touto government.

Gentoku is still shook, and I couldn’t be more amused by it. He starts shouting loudly when he doesn’t get answers fast enough, questioning whether Utsumi restarted the Faust organization without him, producing Smash monsters and continuing the twisted experimental work started by him and Katsuragi Takumi. Utsumi, on the other hand, is cool as ice, unfazed by his old boss having a meltdown right in front of him. It must feel good to see the guy who completely undervalued him, who always acted like everything was under his control, suddenly left on the outside. After all, Gentoku orchestrated the entire war situation alongside Utsumi, at the insistence of Nanba, and with Stalk’s help to boot. Now, every single one of those people has abandoned Gentoku, who had once believed he would be in a key position, after crippling his own father and attempting murder on the right-hand man he now stares at.

How’s it taste, Gen?

I’d wager there’s a bitter flavor in quite a few people’s mouths this week, as we find Sento and Ryuuga recovering after their last battle with the recent Kamen Rider Grease and the Hard Smash trio from enemy territory Hokuto. Sawa and Misora are not in my favorite position to find them in, playing nurse to the two boys, bandaging them up. Give me a penny for every time I’ve seen that sort of image, I’d be a wealthy man. The ladies ask how Grease is so strong with the same Sclash Driver transformation device that Ryuuga used, and the answer’s about what one might guess. That the experience of the user increases its effectiveness. Challenge accepted, says Ryuuga, but Sento categorically forbids it. The Sclash Driver screws him up every time he uses it, and the effect may only get worse.

And here were are again with another little disagreement that I suspect, as I guessed last week, may eventually spiral into a much bigger conflict. Sento wants to stress the distinction between fighting to defeat Hokuto and fighting to protect Touto. The two aren’t interchangeable but Ryuuga stresses that with both ideas, you’re still gonna be fighting. And more fighting means more silly band-aids all over their faces apparently, so I guess we should get used to them!

Meanwhile, there’s something funny about Mr. Grease getting a haircut at the Kiryuu Barbershop where Soichi got the made-up family name for Sento from. It’s within the Hokuto-occupied area of Touto, and I’d like to think the irony of Sento’s second birthplace (after his memory loss and a new identity was created) being the spot where the new pupil hangs his hat for a bit is intentional. It’ll be extra weird if Mr. Grease indeed turns out to be Soichi’s family, as speculated, which would give added reason for him to keep obsessing over the picture of Miitan on his phone. Misora’s internet alter-ego is sacred to the wandering Rider and I refuse to believe it’s simply because he likes random pop stars who can’t sing.

The Hard Smash guys seem extra happy to find bread sitting on the table. (And shouldn’t that stuff be covered up? It’s a barber shop, for crying out loud. I don’t wanna be picking hairs out of my teeth after every couple bites.) The trio has had no luck finding Team Build, which means Stalk still hasn’t bothered informing anyone from Hokuto where they are. Before Gentoku can tell Sento and Ryuuga about some special device Katsuragi Takumi had been working on (powerful but so dangerous that even his crazy ass wouldn’t mess with it) the Touto lab is attacked. Grease got tired of waiting, so he brought his whole crew there to blow some stuff up.

The armored Kamen Rider Grease breaks the tension by suddenly asking the two how they know Miitan, and everybody does that exaggerated anime thing where they abruptly fall over in surprise at the completely embarrassing foolishness they’ve just heard. Sento skillfully deflects his question simply by telling him that it wasn’t Miitan he saw but she gets that a lot. He seems to accept this pretty easily. In fact, he’s never seemed so similar to his goofy subordinates as he does in this scene, the four of them all just acting like hams on the battlefield, getting distracted and talking amongst themselves, our heroes transforming while Grease’s back is turned.

Sento cycles through his PirateTrain and RabbitTank Sparkling forms as Ryuuga goes straight to Cross-Z Charge, which is quickly growing strong enough to take on all three Hard Smash like it’s another day at the office. Well, except for the whole life-threatening adrenaline-spike thing. Before the battle can escalate further, Blood Stalk makes a supremely awesome entrance, slamming straight down from above like a fallen meteor, an explosion announcing his arrival on the field. Dude’s full of cool moves today. He proceeds to sweep across the ground, tagging each transformed fighter and somehow instantly reading their Hazard Level, establishing each one as a powerhouse but not quite on equal terms.

Like a judge at a singing competition, he lays out the scores for them. Grease gets a 4.2, Build is 3.9, and Cross-Z sits between them at 4.0. Of course, this is just what Stalk tells them. For all we know, his slip-n-slide act didn’t actually do anything, and he just tapped them all for nothing. Or worse, he tapped them for some other secret purpose that won’t reveal itself for another episode or two. Not that I really expect that, but Stalk’s past actions have taught us not to always take his words or actions at face value. His ulterior motives have ulterior motives, and you never quite know if you should check your calendar to see if it’s Opposite Day whenever he speaks. The only thing I would assume for sure is that Stalk isn’t quite ready for any of these combatants to be defeated just yet. He didn’t just drop out of nowhere like that by pure accident.

After Team Grease disappears with a literal giant eraser simply wiping them from visibility, Ryuuga collapses upon deactivating the Sclash Driver. Sento can barely ask before Ryuuga stubbornly brushes him off like it’s no big deal.

Mr. Grease suggests messing with his body to increase his strength, but Stalk says he’s reached his limit for now, though Ryuuga will quickly close the power gap between them. The only way for their squad to stay on top is to use Katsuragi Takumi’s forbidden device on the three Hard Stooges. When Mr. Grease hears about the deadly consequences if they’re defeated in battle, he refuses to talk them into it. But the moment he walks off, the trio comes out of their hidey-hole, having heard the entire conversation.

As Sento explains that they’ve decided to split up Touto’s Full Bottles so they can’t all be stolen at once, Sawa shows up with some much-needed info. Ah, there we go. I like Sawa much better when she’s doing this than when she’s cleaning up people’s scrapes and bruises for them. She’s learned that Mr. Grease’s actual name is Sawatari Kazumi and he’s a land owner who got screwed after the agricultural situation in Hokuto took a dramatic downturn when the Sky Wall transformed the environment. We learned about this ages ago, when Sento and Ryuuga visited Hokuto to see Katsuragi Takumi’s mother, and it was explained that Hokuto was once prosperous farm territory. Since the Sky Wall debacle, a food shortage has ravaged the territory. Which perfectly explains why Team Grease acted like hairy bread on a barber shop table was like a pot of gold. Times are tough up north.

The Hard Smash guys undergo the painful upgrade procedure as they relay the other half of the story. The three of them used to work on Kazumi’s land, but when the job went to hell, Kazumi bent over backwards to make sure their families were taken care of. So when they talked about securing their families previously, this is at least partly what they were referring to. And as we watch them suffer in the weird agony booths Stalk sticks them in, I almost forget how much I shrugged them off in their first full appearance on the show. Kamen Rider Build is very good with this. Taking characters that, on a lesser platform, may drive you up the wall, and developing them to the point where such a thing is almost impossible. These guys aren’t generic bad guys. Fodder, perhaps, but their stories are sympathetic and they don’t have overtly nefarious intentions. They just want to keep their families around and support the leader who supported them first. And they’ve just upped the stakes even higher, their new upgraded power set ensuring that any genuine defeat will mean they don’t just revert back to human form like normal but they perish. Kinda throws a wrench in Sento’s whole “nobody dies” plan from a while back.

When Sento tries to take the Sclash Driver away, Ryuuga accuses him of being jealous of his higher power level. While an upcoming scene will confirm that this isn’t the only thought in his head, I’m going to assume the fact that Stalk told them Ryuuga’s stronger than Sento really has gone to his head a bit. He takes back the driver and walks out. Misora finds him for another heart-to-heart, where we peel back a few extra layers to the dragon fighter. Ryuuga’s certain Sento would agree that it’s a shame the park they’re sitting in isn’t full of children playing while this war is on. He wants to return the smile to Sento’s face. To Misora’s delighted surprise, Ryuuga claims that he wants to end the war as soon as possible, for Sento’s sake. After rescuing Ryuuga from the bogus murder charge in the early episodes, Sento has restored his dwindling faith in humanity. So he’ll bear the extreme burden of the Sclash Driver and keep fighting. And I seriously can’t believe how well this show is still finding ways for me to love and appreciate the heroism of its lead characters.

This is it. The unexplainable missing link that’s been absent from many other recent shows of this type. The thing that I couldn’t put my finger on that felt different about several tokusatsu titles in the last few years. Though some are still quite entertaining, even moving at times, the subgenre sometimes forgets how to make their protagonists truly soar. It’s just another reason to appreciate what Build is putting out and the incredible consistency it brings to the table. This is expert-level stuff.

So, Kazumi immediately seeks out two of the supposedly hidden Full Bottles in the Touto Clean Center, and they pull off one of the more impressive effects when he punches right through a glass display case that becomes CGI the instant his hand breaks into it (with the help of cleverly editing two shots together). It’s not blowing up half a city block, but sometimes the little things can be just as awing. Sento rushes to the scene to ask how he knew where the Bottles were (that’s what I’m screaming, yo). Kazumi jokes that he’ll tell Sento if he can beat him in a fight.

Sento proves Stalk’s assertion true by keeping up with Grease despite the aforementioned power gap. Remember, kids. It’s not about who’s stronger, it’s about who’s the most pissed off! Though, in the case of the Stooges, it’s about who sits in a torture tube for an hour in order to force their power level beyond where it probably should be. They’ve leveled up to Hazard Smashes, their blackened costumes serving as a metaphor for the life that may soon be draining away from them. The possibility clearly disturbs Kazumi as they playfully leap into battle with souped-up powers.

Sento fears for Ryuuga as he enters the fray, the Sclash Driver doing a number on him, increasing his lust for power just as the ominous Pandora Box did to the warring prime ministers years ago. Fortunately, with his team’s lives at such risk, Grease is eager to snatch up the Bottles and get outta dodge. An interesting turnaround from earlier in the episode where he wasn’t pleased about leaving with Blood Stalk after the announcement of Hazard Levels. The announcement that changed things for everyone involved. One might even speculate that this was part of Stalk’s plan all along. Now, Grease has even less incentive to fight his hardest and keep going until the enemy is truly crushed. Instead, he’ll throw a few choice kicks and skedaddle before things get too serious.

Ryuuga, still roided out on Sclash juice, wants to follow. He slaps on a pair of Hawk wings (first time he’s pulled that trick) and jumps into the air to chase. I guess he got the wings he was asking for several episodes ago. And I don’t think it was RedBull but he definitely had a lot of stuff to drink before the battle. Sadly, all that energy still isn’t enough to keep him from dropping to the ground, where the ladies find him exhausted. Unexpectedly, when Misora rushes over to him, her touch has an extraordinary effect. She finds that she can heal his injuries (no more band-aids!!!), but seemingly at the cost of her own lifeforce, as she falls beside him just after he jolts back to restored health. Notice the visual similarity to when Ryuuga’s girlfriend Kasumi was lost after being turned into a Smash. Could be a simple coincidence. Or…

We end with Sento finding Stalk on the sidelines, making him an offer he may find he can’t refuse. The Hazard Trigger. The device Katsuragi Takumi actually did refuse, and possibly the only thing that can end the conflict before it escalates to a fatal plateau. The show is back in fine form after some weeks of strong but not exactly huge episodes for me. My only wish is that we could have gotten more from Utsumi than the single (albeit totally righteous) scene he dominated with Gentoku. But whether it’s sooner or later, I can trust that I’m in good hands with Kamen Rider Build.

Bring on Episode 20.

 

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