Sunday, 3 August 2014

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Hibiki

Kamen Rider Hibiki

If there's any Kamen Rider series you're going to hear long and conflicting opinions about, it's more than likely going to be Kamen Rider Hibiki. Based on an early concept by original Kamen Rider creator Shotaro Ishinomori, this troubled series had its producer and writers replaced 29 episodes in - leading to a very significant change in tone and direction. Toei have never issued an official statement as to why the changes were made, but many fans have chalked it down to the main reason being low toy sales (which as we know, is the lifeblood of any Rider series these days). As such, the sixth Heisei era Rider series (fifteenth overall) is the point of much discussion and I thought it was time for me to find out why.

Asumu, our main non-Rider protagonist
Asumu Adachi. Stalker levels: high.

Asumu Adachi is a seemingly normal young boy, unsure of the direction his life is heading in as he is about to transfer into high school.  When travelling to an island for a family reunion, he meets a cheerful man named Hibiki who saves a child from falling overboard. Later on the island Asumu is attacked by strange monsters and Hibiki stands before him again. Only this time Hibiki transforms into an armoured creature known as an Oni to fight off the attackers.

As Asumu becomes more interested in Hibiki, he is drawn into the world of the Takeshi Organisation, their Oni warriors and the monsters they fight against - the Makamou. As he starts high school and his path to adult life, he closely follows the exploits of Hibiki, Ibuki, Todoroki and many other Oni as they train and battle the never-ending Makamou threat.

Just look at that beautiful suit
Here come the drums, here come the drums

When a Kamen Rider series opens with a musical number, that's a pretty good indication that the one you're watching isn't the norm. In fact, even early on it's quite easy to understand why many people mistakenly believe Hibiki was never meant to be a Kamen Rider show. There's no mention of those two words (with the Riders being referred to as Oni throughout), no secret identities or superhero names, no cry out of "henshin!". The action is taken far away from the cityscapes of a usual Rider show, with the Oni battling against very un-Rider like enemies in beautiful natural settings. Hibiki is also steeped in Japanese mythology, with most (if not all) of the supernatural elements drawing from the stories Japanese culture has developed over the years.

The plot is a very simple one - mysterious creatures create/feed even bigger monsters across Japan, and its up to the Oni to travel to these locations and put a stop to them. However as simplistic as it is there's an element of charm to the whole monster hunter aspect of it, and enough mystery to keep it interesting. Just who are the Hime and the Douji, and why do different versions of them appear everywhere to raise new Makamou? Of course, this story coincides with Asumu's story of personal growth as he moves into high school and experiences the highs and lows of life. His "will he/won't he become Hibiki's apprentice" works well in tandem with Ibuki's own apprentice Akira - a girl whose parents were murdered by Makamou and has vowed to become an Oni, but struggles with school life due to her repeated absence.

Definitely one of the best Riders ever
To be honest, I kinda want to be Hibiki too

Hibiki is also a show that places its characters at the forefront of everything. Each one has their own development and none of them ever feel like background noise. The show may be named Kamen Rider Hibiki, but it does not centre around Hibiki's exploits as an Oni. His abilities are obviously a step above the other two main Oni, but this is presented in a very subtle way which allows Ibuki and Todoroki to have their own story threads where Hibiki does not show up at all. And as well as each Oni bringing something different in terms of their musical instrument based weaponry, they all have their own distinct personalities with mesh fantastically well together. Todoroki is a loveable goof that never gives up, Ibuki is quiet and collected and Hibiki....Hibiki is just the coolest guy ever.

Ibuki, our second main Oni
Ibuki heads up the brass in the Oni ska band

Sure the CGI is incredibly bad and Asumu's stalker-like obsession with Hibiki gets a little much at time, but Hibiki is a really tightly woven show. Even if it doesn't quite click at first, it draws you in with beautiful designs and even more beautiful camera work. Its a Kamen Rider show quite unlike any other, with its own very distinct flavour which it plays to its advantage.

That is up until episode 30, where all of that is swiftly flushed down the drain. Obviously the lavish locations and constant giant CGI monsters was proving too much of a budgetary strain on the show, as the action is quickly relocated to normal city streets and the Makamou replaced with typical "Monster of the Week" costumes. A greater effort is made to push Hibiki as the main star of the show, giving him a slightly ill-fitting (but undeniably cool) power up and making Ibuki and Todoroki seem inept by comparison. A brand new character named Kiriya Kyosuke is brought in, an arrogant transfer student who sets his own sights on becoming Hibiki's apprentice. And let me tell you now - if you thought Asumu's stalker like qualities were bad Kiriya is a whole new ball game. Character assassinations happen left right and centre, with Akira slowly getting phased out of the show by a half-hearted revelation which is only there to mask the blatantly obvious real reason that the writers couldn't handle a main female character becoming an Oni/Rider. The whole second half is an absolute joke and insult to the first, offering only one satisfying arc in its entire run - the conclusion of the relationship between Todoroki and his mentor Zanki, a retired Oni who now assists him in battle from the sidelines.

And Todoroki makes three!
While Todoroki adds those slick guitar licks

And if that wasn't enough to convince you on the follies of Hibiki's second half, did you know that the final episode was rewritten ON THE DAY OF FILMING? And even then, that was apparently the sixth rewrite of the show's ending. It really shows, with Hibiki ending on a slapdash note that glosses over all the build up the previous episodes had set up for an unsatisfying time skip episode that launches Asumu in a satisfying, if somewhat questionable, position. With all these problems, its no wonder that even the actors themselves spoke out about the changes.

The CGI guys were working overtime on this show
No giant CGI crabs were harmed in the making of this feature

I don't think I've ever felt as conflicted about a series as I do about Kamen Rider Hibiki. What started out as something I didn't quite understand became a show I couldn't put down, and then that became a show I just wanted to be put out of its misery. If you decide to give it a shot, be prepared to be won over by amazing characters, a simple yet compelling story steeped in mythology, beautiful suit designs and gorgeous filming locations. And then, be prepared to have that all taken away from you just as you begin to appreciate it the most - leaving you with an empty husk of what was once a truly unique Kamen Rider experience.

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