So I've really been into Kamen Rider Fourze: if you aren't following me on Twitter (which is at this point more active than this blog), you're missing my weekly ALL-CAPS screenshot party writeups of every episode mere hours after they air. The hashtag is #FOURZEOWNS. These are becoming so frequent that I'm going to have to start blogging them, huh? Let me know in the comments if that's something you're interested in seeing.
Though I'm well aware and fond of the whole Kamen Rider idea, I've never watched an entire Rider series. It's like watching robot anime: the idea is all well and good, but can you really make it through 50 straight episodes that consist mostly of the hero defeating a different monster every week, especially if you're not watching it as it runs like with Fourze? I don't finish anime often as-is!
So I figured I would watch the first Kamen Rider series of this current era, Kamen Rider Kuuga (2000-2001). I'm aware that Fourze is extremely unorthodox as these shows go, so I picked the most orthodox series I could. Though Kuuga is certainly still a kids' show that's trying to sell toys, it's also a revival of a franchise that had been dormant for quite some time and it's clearly also gunning for adults who grew up with the character.
It's very basics-oriented: it's got the hero on a bike, it's got the monsters, and he beats them up. No fear, no pain, nothing too cartoonish and no chuckling irony either.. The show is so dead serious that the theme song is by one of the guys from Crystal King.
To that effect, I want to call the show CSI: Rubber Monsters Division, as it focuses heavily on the special police's ongoing effort to track down and kill an ancient tribe of warrior beasts (the Grongi) unleashed upon an unwitting populace. Almost every week we see tons of civilians slaughtered for sport on camera: though no main character is ever in danger, for a kids' show they really don't mess around with the human cost of the Grongi attacks (and one dog). There is a sense of immediate danger every week, particularly when some cop mentions stoically in passing that casualties for this week's monster are up to 1,207 or something.
Meanwhile, an ancient belt-shaped artifact has attached itself to this easy-going fellow (Yusuke Godai) and when it comes down to it, the transformed Kuuga the only guy who can land the killing blow on these monsters. So every episode the cops figure it out, they give it a try, it doesn't work out, they call their Kamen Rider (the name is never used in the show, only Kuuga or the police's "No. 4"), and he takes care of business. As the show goes on the cops get more competent, Kuuga gets stronger, you get the idea. Spoilers: the bad guys get beat.
The effects on this show are in that very special early 00s area with which you might be familiar: it was late enough that CG was extremely cost effective but early enough that it looked terrible in low-budget shows like these. This isn't to say that the CG in Fourze is particularly good-- it's really not, there's a reason the Power Dizer isn't used often-- but this CG hasn't aged well at all: you'll be thinking of TWELVE O' CLOCK. On the other hand, the suits and props are superb as expected from Toei and aged just fine. There are even extended bike action sequences and bikefighting at one point!
(it was hardsubbed okay)
All the stuff is really cool, and I can see why Kuuga is such a well-regarded show among genre fans. The final battle is excellent in its own way, but man, I really wish that amazing final form had longer than two minutes' screen time...
Characters are flat, though, acting is stiff. When the show ends you wonder what purpose half the cast served, and things feel just a little bit incomplete. (In an extra episode, the actors joke about an imminent movie... which, unusually for Kamen Rider, never happened.) Kind of what I expected. After playing Yuusuke, Joe Odagiri went on to be an honest to god movie star, and according to Wikipedia he had trouble playing this character. I kind of understand: there's not a lot to him aside from "he's laid-back and a really good guy!" Odagiri carries this much out with I'll-be-a-movie-star-after-this charm.
Points get belabored. Especially at the end of the show, the catchphrase "he fights to protect everyone's smile!" is absolutely hammered into the ground to the point where even a kid would want everybody to shut up about it already. The scripts spend a lot of time on stuff that is obvious and very little on the mysteries behind the Grongi and Kuuga: by the end you really don't know a thing and nobody cares because they're more relieved that they've stopped the monsters that have been going around killing hundreds of children for sport every couple of days. That's reasonable, but as a viewer...
One thing about this show: the Grongi dialogue (it's another language altogether) is left untranslated in the subs I saw. You can watch with subs for these scenes but the translators warn against it, saying the dialogue is full of spoilers. I haven't read that dialogue but I feel confident in saying to go ahead and watch the show with the Grongi translated anyway. At the end of the show you really find out very little about what was up with them or Kuuga except for things you figure out by context. I'm pretty sure they spell everything out in the Grongi dialogue, but there is nothing in this show-- the origin of Kuuga, what the Grongi are trying to accomplish-- that is an "oh my god" revelation by any means. I can't see how spoilers would be worse than watching a bunch of three-minute scenes where you don't know what the hell anybody is talking about that are never paid off on.
There are definitely shades of Kamen Rider developing the boys-love fanbase that it would eventually have in force: it is worth noting that Yuusuke and the ace detective Ichijou have a far more personal and emotional send-off at the end of the series than Yuusuke has with his long-suffering girlfriend Sakurako. All I'm saying is there was some serious subtext behind "Now, please look... at my transformation."
I would recommend this if there was some kind of super-short cut (there are some recap specials, but that doesn't really cover it) or maybe someone could put together a list of essential-viewing episodes that'd take it down to 20 episodes or so. It's fun genre fare but it didn't change my life or anything.
Kinda like the new sentai Gobusters: I'm kind of surprised they never did the Metal Gear-style special ops motif for one of these shows before. I love the shades and weapons (those voices! IT'S TIME FOR BUSTER) and it's impossible not to love the Power Rangers shoutouts-- the Gobusters fight Megazords, and the "it's Morphin' Time!" catchphrase appears in English-- but these characters aren't very likable off the bat. Of course, from watching the beginning and end of Gokaiger, I think the Gobusters have a very hard act to follow. Kinda like whatever Rider has to follow Fourze...
I don't think I'll become a major fan of Japanese superhero shows anytime soon-- simply too much to watch-- but I see myself checking in every so often. It's fun stuff. Next I'm gonna watch Garo.
Spoiler stuff after here. Nothing much because again, there is no earth-shaking unpredictable revelation in Kuuga.