Sunday, 2 September 2012

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider W

Kamen Rider W Title Card

In terms of spectacle, following an anniversary series is always going to be a difficult thing. Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters is currently struggling to make a name for itself following the 199 hero extravaganza that was Gokaiger, and back in 2009 Kamen Rider W faced a similar problem following Decade. But while Go-Busters has taken the look and feel of Super Sentai a step forward, W is a more back to basics approach but with a few new things thrown into the mix. The show ran for a total of 49 episodes, with a number of feature length films and the usual variety of tokusatsu specials such as DVD mini episodes and net movies.

Kamen Rider W CycloneJoker
"Count up your sins."

In the windy city of Fuuto, there is underground distribution of devices known as Gaia Memories - small USB-like drives that turn the users into super powered monsters known as Dopants. Following the death of his boss, self-proclaimed "hard-boiled" detective Shotaro Hidari works with his partner Philip to solve various cases in Fuuto, usually involving Dopants in some way. Using their own Gaia Memories in a double driver, the two are able to become a single Kamen Rider - Kamen Rider Double, to battle the Dopants. They are soon aided by Ryu Terui, given the power to become Kamen Rider Accel by the mysterious Shroud. The Kamen Riders follow the Gaia Memory circulation to its source - the organisation Museum. What link do both Philip and Shroud have to Museum at its powerful heads, the Sonozaki family?

Kamen Rider W Philip Shotaro Henshin
Two detectives, one Kamen Rider: Philip and Shotaro

Our two heroes are very much the opposite of each other - Shotaro is has a heart of gold but not too bright, while Philip may have access to all the world's knowledge, he keeps himself to himself and seems to have little interest in the outside world. As these two characters work together, they both take on a little bit of each other's way of thinking and grow into more rounded characters. They're often serious, but not to the point they can't work with comedic settings. Shotaro's naivety often gets him into trouble (particularly with women) and Philip is like a child at Christmas when he discovers something new - obsessed one minute but quickly throws it away when something shiner comes along. 

Their boss, Akiko Narumi, is the series' comedic centrepiece with her loud outbursts and seemingly never ending collection of captioned slippers. Her character starts off as annoying, but becomes much more bearable once the more serious Ryu comes onto the scene. In fact, Akiko and Ryu rub off on each other just as much as Shotaro and Philip do.

Kamen Rider W Kamen Rider Accel
Kamen Rider Accel - vroom vroom!

The show's formula takes the format of two-part episodes (with a "one year later" epilogue to round things off at the very end), giving the detective elements a chance to properly come into play. It's filled with plot twists abound, but if you're anything like me you'll have them figured out way before they come into play. Thankfully, even figuring it out 20 odd episodes beforehand doesn't spoil the satisfaction of seeing the events you've predicted unfold on screen, and even then there's bound to be at least one thing that catches you unaware.

Earlier I mentioned a "back to basics" approach with the show, and this is something best shown in the Kamen Rider Double suit itself. Its a very basic yet effective design, with the two person motif only really reflected in the half and half colouring. Different power ups are reflected by alternate colours and tiny aesthetic changes (for example, Cyclone is the only one with a muffler, Trigger has the gun, Metal the staff etc). Sometimes its mixed up a little, such as FangJoker having Philip as the base body rather than Shotaro, but the iconic base design isn't compromised. Accel on the other hand has a busier design, but a solid colour. Plus he can turn into his own bike, which is damn cool even with the shaky level of CGI involved.

Kamen Rider W Sonozaki Family
One for the photograph album: The Sonozaki family

With each Gaia Memory embodying something different, there's no set aesthetic for the Dopants - something which works both as a blessing and a curse. While they might not be limited to a single look, a lack of uniformity means that some look drastically better than others. It doesn't help that the show opens with lacklustre designs like T-Rex and Money, but even higher tier ones like Terror, Claydoll and Smilodon may divide opinion. But if anything, the weaker designs only make the great ones more eye-catching - Weather, Nazca and Taboo do not disappoint. But as with other Kamen Rider series, it's not always the look that makes the monster - it's the person. The Sonozaki family, made up of Ryubee (Terror Dopant) and his daughters Saeko (Taboo) and Wakana (Claydoll) are the perfect villains because they are human. Their twisted view of Fuuto and mission in life is what makes the characters threatening, and evolve just as much throughout the show as the protagonists do. The other key antagonists that come and go, Kirikho (Nazca) and Shinkuro (Weather), are opposite ends of the spectrum - with one honourable and the other power mad. Even among the one-off Dopants the sheer variety of motives and personalities is staggering, and often paints them as villains before they've even touched a memory.

Kamen Rider W also introduces us to a potentially bigger threat, one that has played a hand in the franchise since: Foundation X. We don't see much of them, but they certainly make themselves known as something with much bigger things in mind. The seeds were sown in W and carried on into OOO and Fourze, so hopefully something bigger will come to light one day.

Kamen Rider W Kamen Rider Skull
Kamen Rider Skull

Double and Accel aren't the only Kamen Riders featured in the overall W universe though. With the movies playing a large part in the overall narrative (repeatedly referenced following where they take place in the series timeline), the total canon riders appearing in the show is bumped up to four. Movie War segment "Begins Night" not only explains the origins of Double but also introduces Sokichi Narumi - not only Shotaro's boss and Akiko's father, but also Kamen Rider Skull. Though his appearances are fleeting, Skull plays a huge part in W. Sokichi is everything Shotaro aspires to be, while also rescuing Philip from Museum and putting the two on the path to becoming Double. Shotaro's initial guilt over his death also reflects his amatuerish nature in earlier episodes, as well as his inability to tell Akiko the truth about her father. 

Kamen Rider W Kamen Rider Eternal
Kamen Rider Eternal

Meanwhile W's full length feature film "A to Z/The Gaia Memories of Fate" introduces us to NEVER - a rival project to Museum's Gaia Memories which uses undead soliders as trained mercenaries. After losing project funding from Foundation X to their rivals, NEVER return to Fuuto to take revenge using the memories themselves to take the city down. Among their ranks is Kasumi Daido - Kamen Rider Eternal. While Eternal has much less of an impact on the overall narrative than Skull, that doesn't make his presence any less worthwhile. Both Skull and Eternal would also see prequel films after the series' completion - the former within Kamen Rider OOO's Movie War Core, and Eternal one half of the "Kamen Rider W Returns" direct to DVD releases - the other half continuing the story of Accel.

Kamen Rider W isn't a flawless series, but those flaws it has are either things down to personal preference or so minute that they don't hamper the end product. What it is is a show with engaging plot lines that stick to its motif, brilliant characters, great action and themes that often veer into territory that Western children's TV probably wouldn't dream off. W comes highly recommended as a show that won't just please die hard toku fans, but one that could probably sell newcomers on it too.

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