“Kamen Rider Gaim” came at the perfect time for me as a toku fan. While I liked its predecessor, “Kamen Rider Wizard,” more than some, I had grown more than a little tired of the standard formula that the past several incarnations of this show had all adopted, to varying degrees of success. And, while I’m always looking forward to the Next Big Thing this franchise has to offer, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a look at some of the costumes for Gaim and want to run for the hills. I mean, fruits and padlocks? How do you take a toy theme like that and make anything remotely cool out of it? The answer, apparently, is that you hire an infamous anime writer like Urobuchi Gen, enough of a fan of the property to “get it” but detached enough from the usual tropes and traditions that he could produce something genuinely special.
It strikes me that Gaim represents an experimental risk on the part of the production, who were hoping to shake things up by introducing new blood and sidestepping a few common storytelling ideas that were, at this point, getting a little crusty. Chief among them was the two-parters. Oh, goodness me, the two-parters. Maybe I’m just a very impatient person, but I’ve never really loved the idea that every story automatically needed to be told over two episodes in this franchise. It’s not so much that stories take longer to tell than one episode- it’s the unrelenting sameness of it all. As if it’s not even a question. Like the actual needs of the story don’t matter, and even if it can easily be told in 20 minutes, it’s going to be told in 40, because that’s simply how we do it on Kamen Rider these days.
There are times as a western Rider fan that I feel a bit like I’m alone on an island, since I mostly watched the Heisei Rider series all in their intended order, from the very beginning. So, Kuuga (2000) was first, then Agito (2001), and so on. And, since I hadn’t been exposed to a ton of earlier Showa Era stuff until a while later, the Riders of the early 2000s were really my big introduction. They loved their multi-parters back then too. But that was because, for the most part, those characters actually kinda had stuff to do. I mean, REAL stuff, like developing as human beings, learning about themselves and each other, figuring out mysteries, and laying the groundwork for some epic material later on.
Not that you don’t get any of that in recent years. It just feels, more often than not, like it’s been sandwiched between random plots about doctors, or housewives, or pop idols, or gardeners, or whatever kind of person one can think of that needs their personal problems solved by the lead hero, even though everyone watching is painfully aware of how irrelevant all of it is. Some of that stuff can be fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not like we suspect any of it will have a lasting impact on the overall story.
You know right away that, when Haruto meets an actress girl that, even though we’re going to forget her name as soon as the episode is over (assuming we learned it to begin with), we’re going to spend 19 out of those 22 minutes watching him and his friends give the girl free counselling to keep up her self-esteem, instead of watching Haruto fight demons, or face his own fears, or explore the epic bond we assume he must have with the person he’s been watching over the whole series. That’s the part of the show we care about. And yet we’re constantly thwarted by stories about jilted brides, or missing teacups, or whatever excruciatingly mundane thing these fly-by civilians have got going on that absolutely demands our conquering heroes attention, FOR TWO STRAIGHT WEEKS!
Not that I’m advocating the removal of such stories, if that’s what the show calls for. As a fan, I’m not asking for the entire universe to be at stake every episode, or for endless dramatic revelations. Many smaller episodes bear a lot of relevance to the tone of the piece. Even if it doesn’t build up to some huge point that “changes everything,” it will add some texture that makes you think about what you’re watching in a different way. I just wish it didn’t so often take exactly two full episodes to do it, followed by two more episodes, and then two more after that, all with the same basic setup and very little serious progress in evidence.
I say all of this to demonstrate the absolute relief I felt that, after five solid years of two-parters as the expected norm, “Kamen Rider Gaim” has changed the game. If a particular plot doesn’t need to play out over two episodes, it simply won’t. If it takes more than two episodes, that’s okay too. But it’s not such a rigid system that you feel like you can predict the ending, discard a bunch of guest stars from memory, and reset for the next “part one” the following week. The story flows naturally from one episode to the next, often with unexpected ends.
Let’s talk about death!
It’s funny to say that you actually like death in stories. But in the context of an action/adventure, where the lives of characters are often on the line, you want to feel that there is weight to every moment. That when a monster shows up, or our heroes are faced with perilous odds, it’s possible that they won’t find a way out. That what they do actually matters, and it’s not just a foregone conclusion that everything turns out precisely as you assume. Not only does the unpredictability make it more exciting, it feels more like the threat they’re facing must be huge, and they’re going to look crazy-heroic if they manage to win in the end. So, no, I don’t “like” death, but I appreciate when the death of a protagonist can be presented effectively, creating a real turning point for those that survive him, and most importantly, not just getting reversed later because reasons.
Rewinding to the first few episodes, I don’t think most people watching this show, about street performer kids smiling and dancing and playing harmless video games, would have expected things to escalate to the point where one of those kids was going to eat a forbidden fruit and mutate into a creature that is then murdered by a cherry-themed Kamen Rider with woolly trousers. I don’t remember that being in the series preview! I remember Kota with the derpiest derp-smile that ever derped, so ecstatic about getting cool Rider powers that he started transforming at home and at work for no reason at all. I wasn’t aware, at the time, that I was dealing with a creative mind that was prepared to take its time, but not in the tedious way some shows had done previously. We were starting out with our heroes at their most innocent, using their powers to “fight” over childish turf wars (seriously, a handful of those first battles were about who gets to breakdance in front of the water fountain downtown, and that’s it). The genius is that this was all setting us up for a rapid descent. The games soon ended, and in their place, was a battle few of them had been prepared for. And, for others, it represented an opportunity to grab even more power.
Kota’s friend, Mitsuzane, is undoubtedly one of the most talked-about characters of the show, and it’s no surprise as to why. In a gaggle of kids in over their heads, Mitch (or however one chooses to interpret his nickname) seemed like the most easily breakable. But as things got more intense, his hyper-analytical mind only grew more troubled. I’ve thought many times that this show would be a fantastic one to marathon, and characters like this are exactly why. He goes from a loyal friend, to a bitterly jealous betrayer, to an outright supervillain before getting kicked off his self-made pedastal. Not to harp on the old stuff (and boy is it depressing to refer to it as “old stuff” at this point), but he’s the kind of guy that would have fit right into the narrative of an early Heisei Era Rider series, with moral complexity and an, often times, just outright infuriating attitude.
Not every show requires intense realism. This is a subgenre about guys in spandex who beat up rubber pig monsters that try to eat the world’s food supply (except radishes, because that’s their deadliest weakness). But every once in a while, it’s nice to see a healthy dose of truth served up along with that awesome-sauce we like so much. And that’s what Mitch is to me; a truthful account of what it might be like if such crazy things as transformation belts and lockseeds were introduced into the world we actually live in. Because not everybody who gets power is going to be like Kota and celebrate by having a one-man slumber party with them. Especially not this guy, whose spent a good portion of his life devalued or ignored by those around him. Not to let him off the hook for being the douchey little weasel he became as the show went on. Because that stuff was not even remotely cool, and homeboy is not done making up for the total devastation he contributed to. He may never be done, actually.
What’s brilliant about this is that you don’t often expect to have such a passionate reaction for a character like this. Because, standing next to the likes of Well-Meaning Happy Hero Kota and Near-Cartoonishly Broody Angry Kaito, Mitsuzane just looked like That Other Guy Who Is Also There. As time went on, it was clear that he had been the show’s secret weapon the whole time.
And thank goodness, because I really was not enthused by the possibility of having another round of “let’s help this random stranger” every couple weeks. This show knew what its story was, and did not waste time on civilian characters that had little place in it. In fact, when we did meet non-hero types, they acted as further catalysts for the main narrative. Such as the Beat Riders, their fans, their critics, and those who worked against them. The show wasn’t interested in teaching an angsty teen to appreciate her busy father or whatever- it was too busy getting Chucky attacked by an Invess and infected with the strange plant virus thing that pushed the Riders to investigate the relationship between the monsters and the corporation that gave everyone their powers. Nearly everyone who appeared in a speaking role had some part to play in expanding the world of Gaim.
That world, by Kamen Rider standards, was pretty vividly drawn for us with the various civilian costumes, set designs, and overall mood, to say nothing of backstory. The kind of world-building that I would have killed to have at the start of shows like Blade or OOO. And, while there was plenty to like about those shows, I couldn’t help but feel a bit foggy on some of the details. I mean, who the hell is BOARD anyway? Mister Kogami is lovable as all get-out, but I think I might have shown the audience just a shred of information about him before we got to the show’s summer movie, more than two thirds of the way through the whole story, but that’s just me.
It’s interesting to note that Gaim’s head writer is credited for work on every episode of the series, except for the ones connected to the summer movie. And the spring movie. And the winter movie. I got the sense that he was interested in telling his own very specific story, and the larger franchise concerns were not really taken into account. While we’ve seen examples of movie integration turn out well (Double’s Begins Night segment springs to mind), I can’t argue with the implied logic here. Kamen Rider is now part of a cycle in which we know ahead of time that the current show’s heroes will be making appearances during, after, and sometimes even before their actual series airs. It’s doubtful that the inclusion of the new Kikaider was part of Urobuchi Gen’s original plan for the show. So, instead of scrambling to find a round hole for every square peg that got thrown their way, the show decides to just bypass the whole thing. The Kikaider episode takes place at an entirely different point in time from the episodes directly before and after it. As such, you can link up the surrounding episodes and hardly feel like you missed anything. Even the first tie-in to the summer movie happens between two important ones and could be ignored, if you chose. It’s still there for everyone who’s curious, or who really loves all the crossover wackiness, but you know what needs to be skipped if you’re on a marathon and just want to see what happens to Takatora after the epic showdown between the two Kureshima brothers. The less said about Mai’s damsel treatment in the ToQger team-up the better.
The “prime episodes” of the show treated us to a solid female protagonist in Mai, among the strongest and most balanced, well-developed young women since the badass ladies of Kiva. Not that her arc was the most amazing thing ever in life. I just appreciated that, aside from some stumbling blocks outside the main narrative, she was not treated like a powerless girl with no sense of agency. She had a point of view. She had dreams of her own. She had a complete life that was precious to her and that she would fight for, regardless of whether or not the men around her would ever get their act together. There’s an irony in the fact that her story reaches the point where her being helpless to stop what’s coming, while the men in her life duke it out, is inevitable. But she’s a character of substance who makes an impact throughout the storyline.
I would have liked to see Yoko survive those final battles, if only to break tradition one more time by having a female Rider that doesn’t die tragically. But, while she was alive, she kicked a lot of ass and took names like no other. As did another fan-favorite, Pierre, among the first LGBT Riders the franchise has prominently sported, and just a hilarious powerhouse of a fighter. I can take some comfort in the knowledge that, despite his loss of powers, he’s still breathing, to make any possible return less of a headache.
Speaking of headaches, let’s have a round of applause for the show actually ending without softening any of the consequences laid out in previous episodes. There are no last-minute resurrections. No time-loops. No magic wishes that make everything perfectly okay again. The world is saved, but they weren’t just kidding when characters were placed in dangerous situations. A few people didn’t make it. Which, when done properly, can sometimes deliver a more powerful message than if everything just got reset. It’s not just to depress you or to have a “shocking ending.” These characters survived a serious ordeal and look like such total bosses for having made it to the other side. The unlucky ones were either punished for their wickedness (Sid, Ryoma) or lost tragically in a struggle that ultimately spurned the others on to greater heroic heights (Hase). And then there’s Mitch, that dirty sonuva…
Gaim represents what I hope is a turning point for the Kamen Rider franchise. It tells a deep story with strong themes, well-realized characters, and somehow makes good use of toy gimmicks that seemed almost impossible to handle with any kind of narrative finesse. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it my favorite, since there are several other shows of this type with characters or ideas that I find more charming, or action elements that more easily grab my attention. But it’s among the most well-written Kamen Rider shows I have seen in several years, with a massive cast to juggle and a ton of heart. Will the next incarnation be half as good? We should be so lucky.