July 19, 2015

Kamen Rider W

As Poe has begun the month of celebrating the glory of superhero bug-men, I decided to toss my hat into the ring. Throw on the smooth jazz, grab a fedora, and crack open a Philip Marlowe story, because its time to take a look at the first Kamen Rider series I've seen that's sucked me into the tokusatsu world. Behold: Kamen Rider W

Kamen Rider W was the eleventh series of the Heisei era of Kamen Rider shows. I'll be giving just a brief overview of the series (spoiler free) with just some personal thoughts about different themes and elements. One key thing I found interesting was that the monster designer for this series Katsuya Terada, the character designer for Blood: The Last Vampire, designer of Monster X from Godzilla: Final Wars (the last Toei-made Godzilla movie), as well as the costume designer for the Cutie Honey and Yatterman live action films (already a good start). Now something brief I would like to state before going further.

As this is a "mystery/detective" themed series, I will not be covering spoilers (however, I will address certain plotlines that I feel need to be covered). In addition, as I am aware there are multiple movies, I will only focus on the television series due to space and time. And for this review, I'll be going over four subjects: Story Structure, Characters, Fight Scenes/Designs, General/Final Thoughts.

Story Structure:

First, a brief glance at the plot. The series takes place in the ecologically-friendly city of Futo (lit "Windy City"), a windmill powered city that lives in peace. However, the city is under the thumb of the politically powerful Sonozaki Family and their organization: Museum, who secretly distribute devices known as Gaia Memories to criminals and those willing to use them for nefarious means. When used, the users transform into terrifying monsters called Dopants and are completely unstoppable by any normal means. Then comes in our heroes: the self-proclaimed "hard-boiled" detective Shotaro Hidari and the mysterious genius Philip along with their new landlord/boss Akiko Narumi join together to solve cases while battling the Dopants. More importantly, Shotaro and Philip poses their own Gaia Memories and a Double Driver. When used, the two share a mind and become one to form: Kamen Rider Double (W, get it?).

This was my first dive into the Kamen Rider genre, and I have to say, it did not disappoint (mostly, but we'll get to that eventually). On my third Rider series right now, and I have to say I like it when TV series have arching stories instead of individual storylines and episodic styles and only dump the main plot here or there; comes across as filler. Right off the bat, the series grabbed me with the plot line of two partners fighting alongside each other to battle the Sonozaki family. As per tradition of Kamen Rider, its once again the story of a lone fighter/fighters harmed by an evil organization and using their own powers against them. I'm a fan of overwhelming odds, so these two had my support from the start.

Each episode introduces a case given to the Narumi Detective Agency involving a Dopant and finding out who that person is and stop them before they cause any more damage and worse, harm themselves with their Gaia Memory. There aren't any episodes that could really be called "filler", as each one has its place and contributes if not to the story, then at least to a character's development. Some episodes reveal a new detail of Museum and what exactly Gaia Memories are, others show a new side to our characters with a certain type of Dopant, and even throw in life lessons here or there that are really beneficial to the children watching.

The mystery of each episode essentially boils down to "which of these one-off characters are the Dopant?" Surprisingly, I was caught off guard a number of times and actually surprised who the culprit was. There are the occasional plot-relevant episode where it focuses on the duo taking on Museum directly and finding out its numerous secrets. Of course, while I can praise the story, there are a few details that I have to point out that annoy me.

One: the theme of an episode. Every episode generally has a central theme related to the Dopant and their powers and motivations. However, the majority of the episodes have the repeated issue of "revenge". I'm all for covering a subject multiple times, so long as they approach it from a different manner (personal, justice, petty, ect.). This show pulls it off, but it just gets annoying to see the villain's motivation was "REVENGE" for something. The biggest issue I have with it is that our main character's never really struggle WITH the issue of revenge despite how much they cover it. Granted, A main character goes through it, but not our central duo. Hell, Shotaro and Philip never really get affected personally with any of the issues covered in the episodes, and are more or less morally incorruptible, which makes the human aspect of them a little hard to look at (given later info that's more relevant). But, that's to be covered in the next section.

Two: it drags. This one I can be a bit forgiving on because hey, its not always easy making every single episode of a 49 episode TV series connected to the main plot without giving away all the juicy details in one go; its about spreading it out here or there with JUST enough hints that make you want to keep going and find out just what everything is all about and what the series has been building up to. So between the mandatory monster scenes, transformations, poses, ect., it is incredibly difficult getting the main course of a storyline mixed in with all of the chaos. A minor issue, but one I feel I need to point out. I can at least say that this series handles the subject of an ongoing story A LOT smoother than most TV shows I watch today.

Three: not everything is explained. I can't really dive into this too much without spoilers, but I'll simply say that a lot of plot lines the show builds up aren't really resolved well, or even at all. The biggest fails are that the Sonozaki Family's goal is never really EXPLAINED. They have hints to it all, but nothing concrete and decisive. I was lucky enough to catch on to what their plan was with my own knowledge of famous anime plots mixed with help from TV Tropes. A less spoiler-ish issue is that we don't get told really what a Gaia Memory IS. Again, hints, but not real explanation. MY best theory from the show's universe is that the planet Earth is a computer hard-drive, and everything that exists and has existed on it (physically or abstractly), is data. Gaia Memories take everything about a subject (an animal, a tool, an idea), pulls all the facts about it into a single point, and downloads it into the suspiciously USB-looking Gaia Memories, which are then uploaded to the mini-human-hard-drives and override them, becoming that data. Just my own theory, of course

Four: a minor point, a bit predictable. Realizing who is secretly aligned with who, related to who, ect, it doesn't take a genius to figure out some of the character drama elements. Then again, this is a TV show for kids, so it can slide as just avoiding going over their heads. Then again this is the country that believes philosophies of existential dilemmas based on what you're born into vs what you can become should be taught to all children. I'm looking at you, Diet Freeza.

Overall, the story is filled with enough mystery to invite you and keep you convinced to stay just to find all the strings being pulled and why they're being pulled. It does drag a bit, and some plot lines are left in the air, but overall it is an great story with plenty of twists and turns. Now, for the life of the series, the characters.

Now, for the meat of a series. A story can have elements that I've seen a dozen times in various movies, shows, books, comics, ect. (i.e. Age of Ultron), but that story can be made awesome with a great cast of characters. Luckily this series has plenty to go around. First, our heroes

Shotaro Hidari (Renn Kririyama): Shotaro, as mentioned above, is the main detective for the Narumi team and essentially our main character. Shotaro can be summed up in one word "charming". Not to say with his lady game (a running gag, if I've ever seen one), but more just his charm as a character. He's funny, charasmatic, and intelligent; if over-the-top and a drama queen. Shotaro is very much the heart of the team as he's completely dedicated to protecting Futo, his friends, and doesn't want anyone to cry or be sad. A more prominent running gag is that his very human emotions keeps him from being the "hard-boiled" detective he fancies himself to be. He's also carrying around a large amount of guilt, blaming himself for the death of his mentor and Akiko's father Sokichi Narumi, which I thought was pretty intriging. Shotaro's personality even shows in his (left)half of Double; providing the weapons Joker (CQC), Metal (Staff) and Trigger (Pistol). As a protagonist, Shotaro is very intriguing and entertaining to watch as he realizes his own flaws and weaknesses as the show progresses while everyone else around him gets stronger and better.

Philip (Masaki Suda): The brains of the operation, straight man, and deuteragonist; Philip. Philip was found by Sokichi and Shotaro years prior to the series with no memories and stuck with the latter after the former's death. Philip is extremely smart due to having access to something called the Gaia Library. Remember my theory earleir? Well Philip essentially uses Google on Earth for each Dopant case, find their identity, and the weakness of their Gaia Memories based on the "keywords" provided by Shotaro and others involved in the case. Philip is very much inhuman and is more logic-based, but that doesn't stop him from having his moments. Over the series he grows more humanized through his interaction with various characters and Dopants. Philip's running gag is getting distracted and dedicated to researching whatever new concept he discovers (such as reading up on all the various forms of takoyaki). Philip provides the right side of Double, elemental based abilities such as Cyclone (Wind), Luna (Illusion), and Heat (fire). While not as charming as Shotaro, Philip grows out of his isolated little shell and becomes entertaining as the show goes on. He's an "acquired taste" as it seems.

Akiko Narumi (Hikaru Yamamoto): One of many comic relief characters, but definitely the most important, Akiko. Akiko is...well if the word "adorable" could be given physical form, it would be her. Just don't call her a middle-schooler, otherwise you'll get a wood slipper to the face. A Japanese Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Akiko takes charge of the boys' detective agency and joins in on solving Dopant-based crimes. If Shotaro is the heart, she is the soul. But when the chips are down, Akiko can embody the same hard-boiled spirit Shotaro saw in her father Sokichi. While her character development only really comes in one episode and is mostly on the show for laughs, she is indeed funny, never annoying, and is a good way to shake up the lives of our two main characters. Her presence is always welcome, and keeps our spirits up whenever the situation seems dark.

Ryu Terui (Minehiro Kinemoto): As per tradition for any tokusatsu, there's always the extra hero with an edge of badass that makes them stand out from the main heroes and market's the hell out of them. Meet Ryu Terui, a cop who specializes in Dopant cases. He's particularly badass because I above mentioned issue with the main characters not dealing with revenge is resolved, as Ryu is hellbent on vengeance on a Dopant possessing the "W" Memory who killed his parents and little sister. To aid in his quest, he is given the Accel Memory, a bike-based memory with attacks based around the various types of engines. Ryu is especially a badass because while he is the opposite in Shotaro in every way (a tradition for Heisei Riders), they never fight unless forced to by other Dopant abilities. Through character development on Ryu, both of them are willing to talk things out. Ryu is impulsive when his revenge-boner pops up, and conflicts with Shotaro, but they never make it their shtick to fight each other (something I'm getting tired of in a certain dragon themed series...). Plus I love straight men who slowly realize just how insane everyone else is around them and it gets hilarious. Hell, he gets his own movie without the help of W. I'll be watching soon for a future review. The only downside for Ryu is that he does get subjected to the Worf Effect later down the line, but he proves how badass he is when he's able to take on the Big Bad's pet head monster (roll with it) and emerge victorious.

Shroud (Naoko Kouda): a mysterious woman with her face wrapped in bandages. She provides the weapons and gadgets our heroes use in their fight. However, it seems she's entirely focused on taking down the Sonozaki by any means necessary. And by any means, I do mean any means. She's heavily focused on kicking Shotaro to the curb and partnering up Philip with Ryu for reasons to be explained.

The Villains:

Ryubee Sonozaki (Minori Terada): The mastermind of Museum and head of the Sonozaki Family, Ryubee posses the Terror Memory and desires nothing more than for his family His initial plan is giving out Memories to weed the weak minded of humanity, but his greater plans are revealed later on. As a character, Ryubee doesn't have much. As a villain, he's pretty good. A schemer, Ryubee manipulates everything around our heroes for a greater plan down the line. His mere presence is enough to terrify others into obeying him. While he doesn't get physically involved with the fighting, his intelligence makes him a great threat.

Saeko Sonozaki (Ami Namai): Holder of the Taboo Memory, Saeko is Ryubee's oldest daughter and is helping run Museum and the Gaia Memory distribution. Not afraid to get involved, all she cares about is furthering Museum's goals. At first...it seems ambition runs in the family.

Wakana Sonozaki (Rin Asuka): The youngest daughter, Wakana is the least interested in the family business of taking over the world. She's a popular idol in Futo with her own radio show and catchy-as-hell single. Holder of the Claydoll Memory, Wakana gets the most physically invovled much to her chagrin. She's by far the most developed as she dives into the family's darker secrets and just what exactly Ryubee has hiding in his closet. She is constantly split between sticking with the "Thicker Than Water" ways of the Sonozaki or going out on her own.

Kirihiko Sonozaki (Yuki Kimisawa): Saeko's husband and user of the Nasca Memory, Kirihiko is essentially a knight to the Sonozaki family. Constantly getting into fights with W and trianing his Memory, he is dedicated to being worthy of being part of the Sonozaki family. He stands out mostly by his white scarf with a strange red splattered dot on it. Give the guy credit; not too often can a mere Gaia Memory salesman jump to being one of its main distributors.

Shinkuro Isaka (Tomoyuki Dan): I won't give too much away on this man, other than he is one of the most powerful Dopants in the entire series and hold's a helluva high position in Museum. Isaka is a doctor who specializes in Gaia Memories and their affects on the human body. This dude is creepy as hell, and his mental health ain't exactly up to par for a doctor. Dude's a big threat later on in the series is all I'll say. Just trust me when I say he is one of the three biggest threats to all of Futo.

That's all of our main characters. Others include to bumbling cops for comic relief as well as the Futo Irregulars, four people Shotaro has enlisted through the city to act as his informants. The irregulars comprise of an blogger, Santa (roll with it), and two street teenage girls. The two girls only have minor importance as they're played by two members of the Japanese idol group AKB48. Luckily it seems no one's attempted to stab either of these two yet.

Overall, wonderful cast of characters. I don't want to criticize the acting too much as I am still relatively new to Japanese live-action acting and it's certainly different. Very heavy emphasis on over-the-top emotion and rapid movement. But i never go distracted or disgusted by their various forms of acting. Everyone played their role well and tuned themselves to the situation appropriate. Special mention goes to Minori Terada who is just LOVING playing the big bad old man. Wait till you hear him shout "EXTREEEEEEMMEEEEEE!!!!". I'm still fresh off of WolfCop so over-the-top is a good place for me right now.

Fight Scenes/Designs

Production-wise, I was very impressed. The design of the Rider suit perfectly embodies the "double" aspect they were going for. Special mention should go out to Seiji Taikawa, who can pull of the suit work of two people sharing two halves whenever Shotaro and Philip come into conflict over something. The various forms and weapons are unique and incorporated for the different types of attacks and finishers. The CGI is...meh. Its understandable that TV doesn't have the same capability as movies when it comes to "good" CGI. Though I do wish some more care was taken in to it as you can obviously tell when the CGI is there and you're essentially looking at nothing. Luckily they do remedy this by providing us with brief live action cuts in between CGI scenes (close-ups mostly, but at least some sense of realism).

As per usual of a tokusatsu series, there are repeatedly used backgrounds for the fight scenes. A little jarring at first, but it gets easier if you just accept that every city in Japan saves money by repeating the same architecture since most of it gets destroyed on a regular basis. No point in making something better if it just gets destroyed, right? Kinda like my reviews!!! ....And now I'm depressed.

Anyhow, the Dopants are all very unique, distinctive, and creative in their design. Rather than JUST use a basic animal motif, the Gaia Memories can take pretty much any concept. From stones, to extinct creatures, to even abstract concepts. My personal favorite Dopant is the Arms Dopant. It's essentially an evil Kamen Rider with a left arm with various weapons, a badass giant sword broken in half, and sweet as hell motorcycle. Would've honestly liked him as a lieutenant type of villain to keep coming back.

The fight scenes are pretty well done when the CGI isn't involved. One has to wonder how many suits get damaged because of the amount of times Double has been thrown into the concrete and dirt for the amount of fights it gets in. Now we know the true killer of tokusatsu budgets: the amount of times they have to fix the suits (or when Renn accidentally throws the Joker Memory offscreen). Production-wise, I am very impressed with the series and look forward to other Kamen Riders.

General/Final Thoughts
Overall, Kamen Rider W, as Poe has said, is a great series to start out in if you want to get into Kamen Rider. The characters are amazing, the fights are badass, the story is intriguing, and is a complete warm welcome to the franchise. While the pacing can drag and the explanations are rare if you catch 'em, I fully enjoyed this series as a whole and am glad that I have added another reason to be glued to my computer screen and not have to face my dreaded enemy: the sun! 

In all seriousness, I highly recommend this series to anyone wanting to get a start in Kamen Rider. What's good about Kamen Rider is that once you've found your gateway series, you can jump anywhere else in the 44 years of history and be able to enjoy a series. The only sequel series are Black/Black RX and Kuuga/Agito (SORT of, I have been told. Poe can elaborate if you have questions). Beware of the Showa era, however. You jump in any series there you may get lost as there was a heavy reliance on continuity and the existence of the previous Riders to give rise to new ones. By all means go ahead, but just be cautious (hell, I'll be impressed if you CAN find a Showa era series that's been English-subbed).

My only true major complaint is the ending. For one, it built up a trope in Japanese story telling that I absolutely despise. When the dust settled, when all the plotlines reached their logical conclusion, when everything seemed nice and wrapped up like a Christmas package, they change everything back to the status quo. I wouldn't have minded much if they at least took time in it, but everything was done so fast in the final few episodes I felt like I needed to screw my head back on.

Too long, didn't read? Go watch Kamen Rider W, and spread the word. The tokusatsu invasion is slowly rising, and soon, we'll all be slaves to Band-I MEAN-Kamen Rider.

With that, my contribution to Kamen Rider Month has been completed. You won't be hearing from me until August, fellow freaks. Until then, hop on and enjoy the ride as Poe completes his portion of Kamen Rider Month. 'Till then, see ya!

"Now, count up your crimes!"

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