Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Kabuto

Kamen Rider Kabuto

Continuing my journey through the extensive history of the Kamen Rider franchise, my next stop is 2006-2007 with the Heisei era's seventh series (and 16th overall) Kamen Rider Kabuto. It's also a landmark title for Kamen Rider as a whole, celebrating its 35th anniversary as well as being the first instalment to be broadcast in high definition. More recently, the titular Rider also had a brand new renewal S.H. Figuarts release, which isn't part of my reason for choosing this now to watch at all...

After a meteorite destroyed Tokyo's Shibuya district seven years ago, an alien life form known as the Worm has emerged to threaten humanity - turning into copies of people and living amongst us. An organisation known as ZECT has formed to fight the Worm, creating the Masked Rider System to allow members to use Zecters to become Kamen Riders. The series follows Souji Tendou, a man who proclaims that he walks the path of heaven and will one day rule over all. After being presented a Rider belt seven years ago, he has patiently awaited the arrival of the Kabuto Zecter to take up the mantle of Kamen Rider Kabuto.

Tendou Tendou Tendou. That's all this show is.
Are you worshipping Tendou yet? Worship that ground he walks on.

Because of his ability to become Kabuto but not being part of the organisation, Tendou quickly draws the attention of ZECT - particularly agent Arata Kagami. As Kabuto battles against the Worm, more Riders chosen by the Zecters appear - TheBee, Sasword, Drake and Gatack. As the Riders fight against the Worm (and each other), more secrets about their enemy emerge - as well as the true goal of the mysterious ZECT.

Tendou is a very difficult protagonist to like, let alone root for. Not only is he arrogant beyond belief, but the sad thing is that this arrogance is justified in that he's literally perfect. The show constantly makes a point of showing off how much better he is than everyone else, he quite literally has the ability to pull new powers out of thin air and receives next to no character growth. It pretty much says it all that the only character he comes close to meeting his match in is an evil clone of himself. And even the clone is a mass of wasted potential. And while his personal stake in fighting the Worm isn't necessarily a bad one, it does make him seem like a massive hypocrite in the context of the show and how he reacts to others in similar situations. Kabuto never ones tries to tell us WHY Tendou is special, he just is and we just apparently have to accept it as fact.

Kabuto's signature pose
Grandmother said: "This gets annoying after a while."

Kagami on the other hand receives the sort of growth you'd expect the main character to, which often makes it feel like the show is really following him as opposed to Tendou. When the story starts he's a pitiful buffoon that often makes things worse despite good intentions, but his determination to become a Rider eventually pays off - becoming by the end of it all perhaps the only character in the entire show that should be considered an actual hero. It's not without its problems - Kagami's naivety means the same ground is trod repeatedly ad nauseum, but all in all much more what you'd expect from a main Rider. The real highlight is Daisuke Kazama, aka Kamen Rider Drake. Behind the scenes conflicts means that the show suffers greatly from him coming and going as he pleases, but the handful of episodes he does appear in are always an excellent watch. His relationship with Gon, a young amnesiac girl he finds in the wreckage of a worm attack, is by far the most believeable and heartwarming relationship of ANY character in this series.

Arata Kagami, the show's real protagonist?
Why wasn't this show called Kamen Rider Gatack again?

Unfortunately, two decent characters is the best you're going to get as everyone else ranges from boring, gross caricatures to just plain unlikeable. For a show with so many Riders it's only natural for there to be a wide variety of personalities, but at the same time it's not so large that characters just come and go like they do in Ryuki. Despite an interesting back story that culminates into the show's strongest episode, rich boy Tsurugi Kamashiro/Sasword is treated as a massive (and very ill-fitting) joke out of suit. Meanwhile TheBee cycles through users like there's no tomorrow, with its main two evolving into such snivelling losers that they become the very embodiment of the terrible tropes these shows employ in their "dark and edgy" characters. The Hopper Bros start off as a joke so stupid you can't help but love them, but by the end you just want to give them a hug simply to make them go away. Oh, and there's absolutely no explanation for them even being there either. Non-rider characters aren't much better, with the main crux of the story revolving around Hiyori - a girl not only almost completely devoid of emotion, but one that disappears midway through the show thanks to magic of "space/time". Everyone else isn't overly bad, but there's nothing particularly special in the mix either.

A standard Worm in all its creepy glory
Seriously, when have grunt monsters ever looked this awesome?

Which neatly brings us to Kabuto's biggest flaw - the inability to explain anything properly. Tendou is a "love him or hate him" affair, but it's undeniable that the show outright fails to capitalise on its fantastic potential. It has villains that can mimick other humans and live secretly among us, it has beautiful Rider designs that feature impressive two-stage transformations, it features fights that take place at speeds so fast it seems like time has stopped for everything else around them (thanks to the magic of 'Clock Up'). The makings of something really great, but ruined by abysmal story telling. The complex corporate machinations of ZECT are difficult to follow on their own, without factoring each character's own personal motivations. The clock up fights are fun but thrown to the wayside in favour of Kabuto's Hyper Mode, bringing along terrible time travel elements that don't have any explanation behind them. And while there's nothing wrong with injecting a bit of comedy into things (this IS a children's show after all), Kabuto tries to combine slapstick with deadly serious plot in the most jarring way possible. And for all the plot threads and raised stakes that come together for the show's denouement, the climax is rather underwhelming.

The ZECT troopers, along with TheBee
Same goes for the ZECT Troopers, who look great for not-Riders

All that being said, the alternate universe movie God Speed Love does absolute wonders for Kabuto. After watching the series the new setting is a little bizarre, but once you're used to everything just clicks so much better. The smaller cast of core characters allows for far more streamlined focus, and while Tendou's arrogant nature is mostly unchanged there's more weight behind his self-proclaimed importance. Of course the film is by no means perfect - there are some pretty silly space battles, the worm themselves are minimal to the plot and the ending is a tad contrived. But regardless of this God Speed Love manages to do something in under 90 minutes that the series struggled to do over 49 episodes - be somewhat satisfying and, more importantly, enjoyable.

Kamen Rider Kabuto could have been brilliant. The Rider designs are absolutely beautiful, and the base plot is both interesting and rife with potential. However once things were expanded on everything just falls apart - most of the characters are either completely unlikable, fall flat or are ridiculous caricatures and the story is overcomplicated and doesn't have any explanation where it needs it the most. Tendou is a horrible protagonist, outclassed by both Kagami and Daisuke - the latter of which is barely in it. Kabuto has plenty of potential to lure you into watching, but a satisfying watch it is not. If this is truly is the path of heaven, then looking for an alternate route might not be such a bad idea.

3 comments:

TheDorkKnight said...

I've got it disagree, Kabuto I the series that convinced me to watch other kamen rider series, without it I would never have watched Blade, W, or Decade, after seeing these, Kabuto's still my favorite series.

Anonymous said...

I never liked this series since the beginning...

Anonymous said...

I actually really enjoyed Tendou's unruffled perfection. His extreme confidence rarely let him down. His hypocrisy came from love of family and was the most human thing about him. Since he was so goal oriented I liked that he was so skilled after devoting his life to preparing to use Kabuto and reunite with his sister, and he wasn't that interested in other people's desires if that got in his way.

I also thought he played the perfect straight man in the midst of all the ridiculousness and that made it a lot of fun to watch. I found Kagami to be just another overly foolish co-protaganist and was glad there was only one of him. I liked the contrast between the two. He had nearly the same amount of screen time as Kabuto.