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You know, I’m sure they exist, but I can’t fathom how any fan of the Kamen Rider franchise can watch this series from the beginning up till now and not be swept in by it. Kamen Rider Build is the most consistently excellent series in the franchise in many moons. And, though we predicted how certain events like those found in this gripping episode would play out, even we could not have expected it to strike us like this. It hits like a ton of bricks, then picks up the bricks in a large sack, ready to swing them all back at you a few more times. In this challenging installment, young genius Kiryuu Sento proves hazardous to his enemy’s health, and to himself, as he takes an impossible situation in the superpowered war between feuding territories and somehow makes it worse. Who he turns to in the end is the last person some might have expected, but it makes all the sense in the world when the needle finally drops. This is a show like no other, folks.

We find our not-so-fearless leader Sento wracked with worry after the surprising turns of the previous episode, in which his new friend and partner Banjou Ryuuga made the choice to attack neighboring territory Hokuto with a battalion of Touto warriors ready to tear the opposing community in half. If Ryuuga’s not careful, the Sclash Driver fueling his powers as Kamen Rider Cross-Z Charge will overwhelm him. Naturally, Sento’s response is to use the new Hazard Trigger, the power boost which threatens to do virtually the same thing. To make matters worse, the three Hazard Smash soldiers have also been roided out, to the point where any sufficiently powerful attack would not just reverse their transformation back to ordinary human form but destroy them for good. If Ryuuga goes too far, they die. If the Smash go too far, he loses himself. What’s a hero to do?

At last, Sento activates the Hazard Trigger, and Kamen Rider Build’s extremely awesome-looking Black Hazard form is born. He sweeps over the battlefield with ease, swiftly taking the fight to the tried and true Kamen Rider combat location of an abandoned warehouse. Honestly, are there any functioning warehouses in the tokusatsu multiverse? Or is it just always Sunday or something? Lunch time, perhaps? In any case, Sento’s not playing games here. Some crazy CGI is already depicting a surge of energy rushing through his system with mean intentions for the squishy bullseye that is his brain. When Build gets in the way of Cross-Z’s ass-kicking spree with the Smash, Cross-Z swings back, insisting that he’s going through with the mission, to try to bring this war to a swift end.

Big mistake. After getting hit a few times, Sento’s not doing so hot. The signal has struck his brain and he’s about to take a mental nap while the Black Hazard suit takes the wheel for a bit. And holy cinematography, Batman! The moment in which we realize Sento’s messages are going straight to voicemail is exquisitely portrayed. The suit just stands there motionless, at the back end of the room, lights flickering off as a stray blast from Cross-Z shoots out a bulb from above, scattering shadows across the suddenly atmospheric warehouse. Like something out of a horror movie. Which indeed it practically could be, as when Black Hazard finally moves again, it’s not to play hopscotch with the other kids on the playground. He’s going for the kill.

I’ve always enjoyed the action on this show, but if I’m being honest, it hasn’t often set my world on fire like some others in the SFX subgenre. Which is fine, seeing as how it’s delivered on so many other aspects that I could hardly have complained. A few awkward Rider Kicks or funny effects shots weren’t really going to ping the radar for me. But this? This is premium action here. I’m speaking most especially of the amazing sequence in which Black Hazard comes at Cross-Z full force, striking him over and over again in a single shot, never letting him fully hit the ground as he rapidly attacks. Cross-Z practically looks like he’s levitating as punches and kicks bombard his armored body. The depowered Ryuuga’s unable to keep up as Black Hazard’s assault knocks two of the attacking Smash out of their transformation, the pair just barely surviving the onslaught. The remaining Smash isn’t so lucky.

The blue dude, Ao, stands utterly helpless against a relentless Build, who coldly holds him up as he charges for a finishing blow. Ryuuga and the arriving Kazumi both seem to have the same look of impending horror on their faces as they realize Sento’s not stopping like he normally would. Kazumi’s transformation into Kamen Rider Grease and subsequent sprint to save his friend proves useless as Ao is hit by the attack and that’s all she wrote. Ominous black vapor rises out of Build as he kicks Ao, silently watching him hit the ground. And I have to wonder what would happen to Ryuuga, who rushes in without armor to stop Sento before he does more damage, if Grease hadn’t quickly come in and attacked, forcing him out of the suit. It didn’t seem like Build was running out of steam, and he certainly wasn’t concerned with loss of life at the moment. Not until the Hazard Trigger was deactivated. Then comes a bunch of those bricks we talked about.

Ao dies in his leader’s arms. Shortly after handing him his dog tag, he’s reduced to a glittering dust cloud that disappears from Kazumi’s grasp. I can’t say I’m shocked. A good show doesn’t introduce the idea of a permanent killswitch on a bunch of bad guys and never flip it. There are real stakes in play here and it seemed inevitable that we’d witness a personal demonstration of this sooner or later. The most interesting aspect of this is how we’ve come to know these characters. I didn’t even like them much when they were first fully introduced, feeling perhaps that their presence was too much of a distraction from the lead hero and his journey. What works best about this is how, in the end, I barely see Ao as a bad guy, as I just described him, at all. He’s only a villain in the sense that he doesn’t represent the show’s title character or his interests. But the show could just as easily be called “Kamen Rider Grease” with Kazumi as main protagonist and his three bumbling subordinates as comic relief allies fighting the good fight to protect Hokuto and secure their families’ futures.

Which I think is a huge part of what this episode is stressing, in truly spectacular fashion. There are no bad guys on the battlefield here. And, like in real life, war is often fought by many people with many different viewpoints which are not always altogether good or evil. It’s simply people fighting for something they believe in, something they want to protect, something that drives them to dangerous action, and hey, who even asked them if they really wanted to be involved? It doesn’t seem like the Hokuto crew was exactly in a position to say no when offered such power and security for their seemingly less prosperous community. It’s not their fault their government is run by a scheming loon, five seconds away from finding a poison apple and completing her metamorphosis into an Evil Disney Queen. They’re victims of circumstance, practically shoved out into this battle, just as Build and Cross-Z have been from forces on their own side. There are no villains here. Only people.

We finally cross the five-minute mark of this epic episode as a guilt-ridden Sento looks to Ryuuga like a scared kid. Ryuuga backs up ever-so-slightly when he leans toward him. Ao’s surviving pals look ready to attack but Kazumi knows it’s over. We don’t even see them leave after he holds the screaming pair back. We simply fade to black on a wide shot of the five men, all in varied flavors of devastated after witnessing Ao’s execution.

A week later, not a ton has changed, except that Kamen Rider Build is no longer representing his home of Touto in the war, which continues to rage on in his absence. Ryuuga can only do so much on his own, and the danger continues to rise, driving more people into huddled shelters and just generally creating a sucky environment for everybody. We thought Sento was in a funk before, but this… this is something else. When next we see him, he’s sitting in the basement, staring at nothing. He looks like he could have been there for hours, and could stay for a few more. Someone get him an ice cream, for pete’s sake!

Misora looks like she almost doesn’t want to tell the crew when she learns of another attack by Team Grease, whose been making huge gains recently, gathering up Touto’s hidden Full Bottle items left and right, leaving only a few left for Touto’s defenders to use. Ryuuga, thoughts lingering with regret over not being stronger for Sento when the guy needed him, faces the quartet, now reduced to a trio, alone. All Kazumi wants to know is where the hell Sento is. Yeah, he’s busy sinking into a bottomless pit of depression right now from which there seems almost no rescue, so maybe ask again in a few days. Ryuuga’s all psyched up to fight and protect Touto but all it takes is one ill-timed flashback of Smash-murder and he’s done. They blast Ryuuga out of his armor as quickly as he slipped into it and he’s not getting up. Kazumi calls the boys back before they needlessly escalate things, leaving Ryuuga to his misery.

Of course, Ryuuga can’t leave well enough alone. The poor sap has to go and apologize like a decent human being, only stoking a fire best left untouched within Kazumi. He marches across the long stretch of hallway toward Ryuuga and kicks him across the face. On the hypothetical Grease TV series, where Kazumi is the lead, this would play out in exactly the same manner, and he’d be just as justified in doing so. From his perspective, an enemy who tried to attack their home caused a spiral of events that lead to one of Hokuto’s defenders getting needlessly killed. Though expressing remorse seems the right thing to do, no one ever said the right thing will lead to sunshine and rainbows. You don’t get merit badges for having a soul. The dead guy’s still dead and your good intentions aren’t exactly gonna bring him back (though that has been known to happen on other shows, and I pray such easy outs aren’t resorted to in this case).

Touto Prime Minister Himuro Taizan is having a hell of a time. After concluding a holographic conversation with Hokuto’s Disney Queen, declaring that the war will be decided with one fateful battle between opposing Kamen Riders, it seems like an easy outcome will be reached. Then he sees the sorry state his champion is in. Sento looks like he’s ready to go frolicking in traffic. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he can barely get out the words to explain that he won’t fight let alone actually do it. The motivation is gone, evaporated as easily as Ao’s body, swept away in the breeze.

It’s an interesting theme to play up in Kamen Rider, the permanence of death and the impact it should have on people. The truth is that, in this franchise and many others in the tokusatsu milieu, characters of one kind or another die all the time. Of course, many of them are faceless baddies who are often some form of non-human, but in many cases, they’re just people with powers, like the Kamen Riders. In recent years, it became less common for Riders to kill their enemies, even ones with openly vile objectives, though the classic series did it every damn week, rain or shine. Some were tortured mutates brainwashed and forced to fight, some were victims of circumstance, but others were zealots, power-hungry terrorists, or scheming criminals who knew full well what they were getting into and ignored the consequences. When you tally it up, there’s a lot of death in this franchise. Seldom does it have the kind of impact on a lead character as it has here with Sento, whose devout determination to preserve lives on both sides has been a huge aspect of his persona from the start. He doesn’t accept, like some others might, that death is an inevitable result of conflict. He declared, perhaps more than a little arrogantly, that he would put a stop to it all.

Except the Build series, for all its fantastical accoutrements, seems intent on being more realistic than that. Maybe you actually can’t save everyone, no matter how much you wish you could. It’s tragic and it bites, but that part wasn’t in the brochure when you were thumbing through it, homie. So what do you do when you finally learn (the hard way) that this is so?

Kazumi finds Sento a blubbering mess at the site of Ao’s death, both having brought flowers to lay at the spot. Kazumi has little time to succumb to the kind of extreme grief Sento is wrapped up in, but he’s affected all the same. He pulls forth the dog tag and it could be interpreted that he does indeed remember Ao, whose true name was Aikawa, after all, though it was implied that memories of his friends had been lost when he signed up to be Grease. Of course, even if he didn’t remember him, it’s clear he cares for his team, though his personality won’t allow the kind of “open book” gushing about it that others would have. He’s not pleased about having lost him, but he says to Sento (and maybe a little to himself) that this is what happens in war. Aikawa knew the risks involved and signed up anyway, just like Kazumi, Ryuuga, Sento, and the rest. As a Hazard Smash, we detachedly designated him a monster but he died a hero’s death, just not from Sento’s side of the wall, fighting to protect something precious.

Takeda Kouhei proves in this scene why Kamen Rider needed him, despite him already playing one amazing character in this franchise years earlier. The look on his face as he unpacks the complexities of Kazumi’s feelings before Sento. At first, almost encouraging the depressed hero by telling him it wasn’t just him who brought them to this end, but then turning, revealing a contained rage as he vows to defeat Sento, Aikawa’s dog tags clinched around his fist. That’s what we call drama, kids.

Sento finds himself back in the company of Isurugi Soichi, and the complicated history between them, built up over such a short time, could nevertheless fill an Olympic swimming pool. This is the man that named Sento in his current form, in a sense, making Soichi like his father, if a rather abusive one. He wouldn’t have had to give Sento that name if he wasn’t the one who erased his memory and filled him with false ideas about who and what he was to this world in the first place. That Sento comes to him now for help says so many things. That he can’t turn to his trustworthy friends, who would likely have rather predictable things to say, and maybe what he’s looking for is some kind of twisted release.

If nothing else, Soichi is an unpredictable element. He laughs off Aikawa’s death as if he was merely a broken toy, like all the others exposed to Nebula Gas and sacrificed to its transformative powers. He’s not here for Sento’s pity party. Though the reason is unclear, he actually wants Sento to succeed, at least to a point. Which is why it’s not a shock when he pulls out the briefcase full of recovered Full Bottles which Build uses as part of his arsenal. These things never stay in one place for more than a couple weeks, do they? Is there a Hot Potato Full Bottle laying around somewhere, I wonder? Soichi proposes that Sento train with him, perfecting his ability to use the Bottles, maybe even finding a way to resist the consuming power of Black Hazard, and accept the challenge to end the war.

Maybe it’s better than the starry-eyed idealism Sento was working with before. Preventing all loss of life everywhere, a goal worth aspiring to, but maybe not so easy to accomplish. And, while I’m sure the final solution will be that Sento can “save everyone” in keeping with a whole mess of time-honored traditions of ambitious heroes vowing to do the impossible and somehow pulling it out of the fire, I’m compelled by how this plays out. Soichi, slimy as he is, may be right. At least insofar as, his suggestion is the best option Sento has right now. If Sento declines, Ryuuga goes in to fight Kazumi and somebody definitely is getting hurt.

With great reluctance, over the course of an apparent week, Sento trains with Soichi to raise his Hazard Level. And, as a sidenote, I love that contrast between Soichi’s human voice and the distorted otherness of the voice emanating from his Blood Stalk suit, spurring his strangely-acquainted pupil on to grow stronger. We also get a taste of some truly random new powers, as Build uses the Rose & Helicopter, Turtle & Watch Full Bottles for the first time in the series. RoseCopter gets added to the list of great suit designs, though the form he takes after that is left to our imaginations for the moment as we transition to the next week.

As the glow of the distant Sky Wall pulses in the background, in a towering arena above the city, Kamen Rider Grease and Kamen Rider Build stand to face each other in a battle that will decide the fate of their two communities. So, of course, the episode ends just as the two combatants rush at each other and throw their first punch.

I almost don’t know what to say here. I remember when the show first started and I was cautious about getting too excited. The prospect of having a show like this, which takes on the fun of the modern era but recaptures the dramatic spirit of older Kamen Rider, seemed too good to be true. I kept waiting for them to realize what they had done, consider it a terrible mistake, and change their minds somewhere along the way, favoring wacky hijinks over epic story and scenes that ask a great deal of the actors involved. Every Rider series has its moments, to be sure, but this one sets itself apart in how willing it is to go there. Despite the levity seasoning nearly every episode with good times, they’re not skimping on the drama that would naturally flow out of scenarios like those often depicted in these shows but not always with such dedication to zooming in on the nitty details.

I could imagine some horrible bizarro version of this episode where Sento feels bad for a few minutes while a cute pop song plays in the background, maybe one of his friends shouts his name twice in a fight, and he suddenly just gets up and fights again, vowing outrageously to never doubt himself again. It would be fine. Indeed, we’ve seen that kind of thing a lot, even done pretty well. And the way I just described it might even sound to some readers like it’s practically the same thing that happened here. But I can only say that, if certain other shows had presented things the way this one did, I’d have had a different opinion of them. It won’t work with every story, and I don’t want it to, but I’m glad Build is going for the jugular. I won’t assume they’ll never pull their punches or try to reverse something that was seemingly final (I’ve seen too many of these things to think that automatically) but Build has yet to disappoint.

Whether Sento wins the ensuing battle or not, it seems the war (at least in its current form) is at an end. What happens afterward could usher in an entirely different status quo. The third of the country’s three divided territories, Seito, was not represented in this episode, either in the war or in the meeting of prime ministers earlier. Something tells me this won’t be the case for much longer. And there still appears to be a spy among the Touto government’s ranks, having fed Hokuto information about the Full Bottles’ secret locations.

This and much more will have to be addressed in the coming episodes of Kamen Rider Build. Bring it on.

Next: Episode 22

 

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