Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Fourze

Kamen Rider Fourze States

When Kamen Rider OOO was drawing to close, fans became divided on images of a space-themed Kamen Rider with a rocket-shaped cone head which did its rounds on the internet. Shortly afterward Kamen Rider Fourze, the 22nd Kamen Rider series, was announced with these images proving to indeed be the look of the new rider. While some were instantly put off, others were interested in the talent behind the show - head writer Kazuki Nakashima (Gurren Lagann) and director Koichi Sakamoto (Power Rangers, Gokaiger), or the promising monster designs. Kamen Rider Fourze began airing in September 2011, running for a total of 48 episodes, with two movies (three if you include Super Hero Taisen) and various specials. The final episode aired just last weekend, and the show has been my first weekly Kamen Rider experience.

Kamen Rider Fourze Gentaro Kisaragi
Gentaro Kisaragi will befriend you no matter what

Fourze sees new student Gentaro Kisaragi transfer to Amanogawa High School, which has recently become the centre of mysterious events. Vowing that he will befriend everyone at the school, Gentaro reunites with his childhood friend, space-otaku Yuuki Jojimi, as well as the ire the cold Kengo Utahoshi and various other cliques of the school. Stumbling upon Kengo and Yuuki's investigation of the monsters suddenly appearing at AGHS (which are known as Zodiarts) and their secret moon base the Rabbit Hatch, Gentaro interferes in battle following Kengo's inability to handle the "Fourze Driver", which is powered by various Astro switches left to Kengo. Becoming Kamen Rider Fourze, Gentaro battles the Zodiarts alongside the newly formed Kamen Rider Club, which gains new members as students are moved by Gentaro's attempts at friendship. Eventually another transfer student, Ryusei Sakuta, joins the school undercover as Kamen Rider Meteor. Meanwhile the highest ranking Zodiarts, known as the Horoscopes, are setting their plans in motion to truly achieve the next step in human evolution.

Kamen Rider Fourze KR Club
The Kamen Rider Club

On face value, its easy to pass off Fourze as just another goofy series. Comedy levels are usually high, and any real seriousness isn't helped by Fourze's unorthodox look and his 40 astro switches - which include powers such as board, pogo, stamper and giant foot. But scratch off the surface and you realise that there's much more to this series than simply over the top characters and bizarre powers. When coming up with the concept for the series, the creators have revealed that their intentions were to create a hero that would make the children of Japan smile again, helping them forget the devastating earthquake that the country had suffered just before. The show was never meant to get bogged down with dark story lines, keeping fun at the forefront. This might have put off some viewers who weren't used to a goofy Kamen Rider, but the creators succeeded in their admirable ideals and Fourze never once stopped being fun. Yes there are over the top jokes and heavy moments of slapstick - but even then the story remained gripping and as it geared into its final quarter was filled with plot twists abound.

Kamen Rider Fourze Uchuu Kita
The club joins in Fourze's catchphrase of "Uchuuu Kitaaaaa!"

This success was mostly achieved by the strength of the main cast, particularly Gentaro. His often naive view on friendship and forgiveness was unlike other protagonists and helped shape both the extended cast and often the villains too. In the early episodes, Kengo is a difficult character to sympathise with and other members of the Kamen Rider club - highschool queen Miu, football jock Shu, socialite JK and goth Tomoko, are extremely unlikeable (with the exception of Tomoko). But following their interactions with Gentaro and realising what their actions do to the people around them, they change as characters as they are brought into the Kamen Rider club and come out of the shells predetermined by their respective cliques. Ryusei/Meteor's initial differences with Gentaro also make for a very interesting dynamic between the two riders, cultivating into a showdown which became on the series' biggest highlights.

Of course heroes can only be as good as the villains that challenge them, and the Zodiarts delivered in more ways than one. Among the best looking monster designs I've ever seen in a tokusatsu series, each Zodiart was a work of art - blending the constellation theme in with each one's respective powers. This high standard is then exceeded by the twelve Horoscopes, particularly Sagittarius, Libra, Virgo, Cancer and Leo. The Zodiarts greatness can also often (but admittedly not always) be attributed to the great characters behind them. As the Horoscopes spread Zodiart switches throughout the school to locate and awaken all twelve Horoscopes, we see a variety of different motives behind the students' actions. Some are out for revenge against their peers, while others are simply overcome by greed and a lust for power. Its not a new concept to the franchise, but keeping it strictly to a high school setting does put a new spin on it and suddenly make it all the more relatable.

Kamen Rider Fourze Gamou Horoscopes
Gamou and the Horoscopes

The Horoscopes themselves all also come from different backgrounds with different motives, though unfortunately characterisation is far from a perfect balance. Early appearers like Scorpio, Libra, Cancer and Virgo get ample time to develop (or have mysteries develop around them), but this leaves less and less time for the others. As the number of remaining episodes grow shorter, Horoscopes like Taurus, Aries and Aquarius are reduced to monster of the week roles, even if they still pose more of a threat to our heroes. Gamou, the school chairman and main villain of the show, remains a complete mystery for the first half of the show. We see him plotting sinisterly and giving orders to his underlings, but his motives, back story and Horoscope identity are held off until the right moment - making them all the sweeter to see unfold. The story surrounding Virgo is one of Fourze's strongest subplots, and rakugo-club student Natsuji Kijima is the perfect villain as Cancer.

As has become the norm with Heisei era Kamen Riders, Fourze has a number of different forms which can be activated by various astro switches. These include Elec States, Fire States, Magnet States and the ultimate Cosmic States. The movie war exclusive Rocket States (powered by the S-1 switch rather than a numbered one) also makes numerous appearances by the shows and the second movie (still in Japanese cinemas) also features its own exclusive in the form of Meteor Fusion states. While Elec and Fire are more or less coloured versions of the original Base States (albeit with new decoration or gold fabric in the place of the spacesuit material), Magnet States is a thicker, tank-like form and Cosmic a fusion of the power of all 40 switches (complete with a Saturn-V rocket sword!). Admittedly I'm not a huge fan of Fourze's multiple states outside of Magnet and Cosmic, but onscreen they have a certain charm about them that makes you forget about their flaws while in action.

Kamen Rider Fourze Kamen Rider Meteor
Kamen Rider Meteor: "Your fate is mine to decide." WA-CHA!

The same can be said for Kamen Rider Meteor's powered up form, Meteor Storm. While the standard Meteor form feels "safer" than Fourze, it is a visually striking design with its constellation pattern, and brilliant blue comet-trail headpiece. Having a disco-style transformation and being the Kamen Rider equivalent of Bruce Lee also cemented Meteor one to watch. But then Meteor Storm went and seemingly spoilt things, changing up the colour palette and giving a fist fighting rider a staff/spinning top as a weapon. But once again, as much as I dislike the design of Meteor Storm its one that works when you're watching it on screen. You might not like it, but you won't be shouting at the screen wishing it would go away either.

I can't consider myself to be an expert on Kamen Rider given that at the moment I've only seen one and a half other series, but what I will say is that the others are going to be hard pressed to capture my heart the way Fourze. Yes it's light, yes its goofy, but by god does it have heart. Its main goal may have been to make children smile, but that doesn't mean it doesn't tug at the heartstrings and provide a tearjerker or two a long the way. With a cast of unforgettable characters, a memorable story, brilliant choreography and a finale full of emotion, Kamen Rider Fourze is an absolute triumph. Poor ratings be damned, Fourze came and reminded us not just how awesome space is, but how powerful friendship can be.

2 comments:

G.G. C.Y. said...

Will you do an individual review of the Fourze Movies(Movie War Megamax and Space Is Here)?

Alex said...

At some point I'd definitely like to yes! Same goes for all the other Rider movies I haven't done separately. That said, I don't actually know WHEN it'll happen, but if they're in demand I can certainly look into doing them sooner!