Saturday, 18 January 2014

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Blade

Kamen Rider Blade Title Card

With my tokusatsu viewing habits now seemingly influenced by whatever Figuart is due out next, my latest Kamen Rider watch is one whose figure caused quite the storm both in Japan and with fans across the globe. Kamen Rider Blade is the fifth entry into Kamen Rider's Heisei era, and the 14th show in the franchise overall. It ran for 49 episodes between 2004 and 2005, along with a theatrical film titled Missing Ace, which served as an alternate ending to the series itself.

Ten thousand years ago, there was a great Battle Fight between 52 creatures known as the Undead - each representing a different species that walks the Earth. The victor of this fight would gain dominance over the others, shaping the way the planet progressed. The winner of this Battle Fight was the Human Undead, resulting in humans evolving to become the lead species of the planet Earth. The remaining Undead were sealed away in cards, locked away until scientists accidentally set them free in the present day. With all the Undead loose again, a new Battle Fight commences.

Kamen Rider Blade
This review needs some sort of "Ace of Spades" joke

BOARD (Board of Archeological Research Department) develop two Rider systems with allow human users to borrow the powers of the sealed Category Ace Undead, with the lower rank playing cards granting the additional abilities. Kazuma Kenzaki and Sakuya Tachibana fight as Kamen Rider Blade and Kamen Rider Garren against the Undead, however they are not the only players in this game. Also sealing the Undead is a mysterious man named Hajime Aikawa (aka Kamen Rider Chalice), who in reality plays a much darker purpose in the Battle Fight. The three are eventually joined by Kamen Rider Leangle, who uses a new Rider system designed to create the "Ultimate Rider". However this leads to its user, Mutsuki Kamijo, entering a long-lasting struggle against his own powers.

Right from the very first episode its clear that Kamen Rider Blade is a little different from other Rider shows. Rather than the usual tactic of starting the story right where the protagonist first receives their powers, Blade circumvents it to throw the audience right into the action. Kenzaki and Tachibana have already been fighting Undead for a while in the guises of Blade and Garren, and the story opens with the apparent destruction of BOARD. It is only as the plot progresses that we learn more about about the characters' pasts and how the new Battle Fight has come into play. This introduction to the world of Blade is a lot less confusing than people make it out to be, and actually helps the show preserve some of its bigger mysteries to be unveiled at a time of greater dramatic impact.

Kamen Rider Garren
What Libra from Fourze was doing in a past life

Less so is the overall look of the show. This could partly be due to the fact the subbed copies I watched weren't of the greatest quality, but even ignoring that there's certainly a grungier (for want of a better word) feel to Blade. The Rider costumes aren't brightly coloured and all feature quite intricate detail moulded into them, while the cards they utilise are far more decorative than the "obviously for kids" gimmicks you see in the Rider shows of today. Meanwhile the Undead are mostly all leather-clad monsters that look like something out of an adult S&M-inspired tokusatsu than a kids show. Love it or hate it, it all adds up to Blade feeling somewhat unique and that is something the show is all the better for having. While the bondage-gear Undead did grow rather staler as the show progresses, Blade is also responsible for some absolutely fantastic designs - the Joker and Spider Undead just to name a few.

Kamen Rider Chalice
Despite being heart themed, Chalice sadly makes no beheading quips

While the action isn't exactly weak, personally I found Blade lacked the flashiness of the shows that proceeded it or the flare of older shows that couldn't rely on CGI. But to counterbalance this Blade undoubtedly has some of the strongest character moments and developments I've seen in Kamen Rider. Each of the four Riders struggle with their own issues and none of them feel forced or rushed, each problem resolving itself (or not) over the course of the story. Tachibana is initially a pretty unlikeable character, but personal tragedy shapes him and while never losing his flaw of being easily influenced becomes a valued fighter. Mutsuki is a weak-willed schoolboy who has amazing power thrust on him, only for it then to result in being possessed by the Category Ace that's fuelling his Leangle powers. While other series' might have made this a temporary thing, Mutsuki's struggle is something that lasts over pretty much the entirety of Blade - making his story less predictable and far more interesting to watch.

Kamen Rider Leangle
What even is a Leangle anyway?

The stars of the show are Kenzaki and Hajime, the latter of whom almost shapes the entire show. While Hajime can also be annoying at times, you really feel for the fact that he's meant to be this relentless creature that will cause the end of the world but all he wants is to live among the humans in peace. Kenzaki is someone who's full role in the whole situation doesn't become clear until near the very end, but even before the show hits that "Oh shit" moment he is a pleasure to watch and an excellent example of how a main Rider should be. And that ending - even if you know what's coming, it's still an amazing finale and will most likely forever stand firm as one of Kamen Rider's best ever conclusions.

And its just as well that the main characters are so good, because the permanent side characters are either annoying or awful. There are a few exceptions to the rule and some the minor side characters whose presence stays known are fantastic, but the likes of aspiring writer Kotaro and his nine-year-old Amane can prove rather grating. Admittedly the latter is rather integral to Hajime's story, but I'm sure there could have been a less annoying way to go about it.

Kamen Rider Blade Joker Undead
This is one Joker than doesn't need a Batman

Kamen Rider Blade certainly isn't the flashiest Kamen Rider series around, but its brilliance lies in its simply yet effective story line and extremely rich cast of main characters. Even if the fight scenes largely bore you its hard not to get invested in the Battle Fight and the Riders' struggles against the Undead, and there are some absolutely superb designs in there that are just dying to get made (or be released) as figures. Blade isn't a series I feel gets talked about often, but those who do usually have nothing but praise for it - and with good reason too.

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