Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Gaim

Kamen Rider Gaim

That time has come once again where we say goodbye to a Kamen Rider series, only to say hello to a brand new one in the following week. So just before we start our engines and "drive the Kamen Rider", it's time to give one last hurrah to the fruity warlords of Kamen Rider Gaim we've loved and followed for the last year. Written by anime hot topic Gen Urobuchi (who's had more than a few mentions on this blog recently) and his first foray into writing both Kamen Rider and tokusatsu as a whole, Gaim has been a hotly talked about series thanks to its imaginative gimmicks, multiple riders and multi-layered story - especially on this side of the pond. But of course, the question remains - is it actually any good?

Kouta gets to grips with his new powers
Ladies and gentlemen, our hero

Gaim takes place in the fictional Zawame City, which is now largely maintained by the massive Yggdrasil Corporation. In order to escape the sense of oppression brought on by the city, the youths of Zawame have formed dance crews to help bring joy into people's lives - calling themselves Beat Riders. Coinciding with this is the rise of the popular Inves Game - where players use devices known as Lockseeds to summon monsters that battle each other. Kouta Kazuraba is a former member of the dance group Team Gaim, who is now trying to go on to find his place in the world and a proper job. But when Team Gaim's captain goes missing after telling Kouta of a strange belt known as a Sengoku Driver, Kouta discovers the truth behind the Lockseeds and the Inves - they both come from an alternate dimension known as Helheim Forest. Using the belt and an Orange Lockseed he becomes the Armoured Rider Gaim to fight off a rampaging Inves and rejoin Team Gaim as their champion. However Kouta also receives a warning from a mysterious girl that resembles his teammate Mai to be wary of the path he has chosen.

It isn't long before the leader of Gaim's biggest rivals Team Baron, Kaito Kumon, gains his own Sengoku Driver - becoming Armoured Rider Baron and challenging Kouta. Soon more Beat Riders gain their own Drivers and a power struggle begins to emerge between them. Unknown to them is that they are being monitored by Yggdrasil, the creators and distributors of the Drivers. As the Helheim Forest's influence begins to spread further in Zawame, Kouta and the rest of the Armoured Riders learn the full story behind it and Yggdrasil's plans. In Zawame City, nothing is quite as it originally seemed.

Kaito (Baron) faces off with Micchy (Ryugen)
And then they kissed

Condensing Kamen Rider Gaim's story into just two paragraphs proved to be one of the most difficult bits of writing I've done in a while, as this is a show that's full to the brim with story and it can get incredibly difficult to describe things without giving too much away. This is a show with constantly raising stakes, with the Zawame City we begin at slowly breaking down as things progress. Urobuchi has always done a wonderful thing with settings and giving them a rich mythology, and with a year-long show at his disposal he is really able to go to town with both Zawame and Helheim. It also helps that Gaim drops the 2-episode story format the franchise has been using since around 2007, instead opting for varying formats that come together to form much larger arcs within the series itself.

But as rich as the setting of Kamen Rider Gaim is, that pales in comparison to the strength of its characters. With a total of 12 main Riders (plus a further three movie exclusives and one epilogue appearance) it could have been very easy for Gaim to throw a significant portion of these to the wayside and use them just to sell toys. However while the show gives a primary focus to four Riders in particular (Gaim, Baron and the Kureshima bros Takatora and Mitsuzane/Micchy, aka Zangetsu and Ryugen), almost all of them have a significant impact on the show, great characterisation for the most part and manage to leave some sort of emotional resonance when they're gone. After all, this is a show written by the Urobutcher, so not everyone is lucky enough to be getting out alive.

Kamen Rider Bravo gets a faceful
It isn't all doom and gloom!

These characters go through so many changes throughout the course of the series that it really hammers home the theme of growing up. In a world filled with backstabbing Riders with ulterior motives, Kouta really shines as the Zawame's ray of hope. His naivety and eagerness to see the best of everything certainly gets him into a lot of trouble, but Kouta is everything you want in a main Rider - incredibly selfless and willing to sacrifice a lot in order to protect the ones he loves. This parallels nicely to the ideals of Kaito, who instead is obsessed with gaining the strength - not only to protect the weak but in order to topple those that have oppressed him throughout his life. Meanwhile Takatora is much more than his initial appearance of Yggdrasil's "white armoured Rider" suggests, with him being the character that's had to make some of the hard decisions in order to save humanity. Finally Micchy is perhaps one of the most ranged characters you'll ever see in a Kamen Rider series, playing pretty much every field that's available to him. Any love you have for the character will eventually turn to hate, and in turn that hate will turn to sympathy and pity.

Then of course there's the likes of shorts-wearing megalomaniac Professor Ryouma Sengoku, shady Lockseed dealer Sid, flamboyant ex-miliary pastry chef Oren Pierre Alfonzo and more - all with their own Rider personas and impacts on the series. Again it's a topic that's difficult to talk about without giving too much away because the show is so full of surprises, but as a show that even manages to make most of its non-Rider characters memorable you should get a good idea of how strong the extended cast of Gaim is.

Yggdrasil's Riders appear on the scene
A new challenger approaches!

There's also the subject of the fruit lock/gimmick, which sounds completely ridiculous on its own. But woven in with the Sengoku era themes and armour styles, it's surprising how much colourful padlocks that summon fruit that unfold into armour actually work. It makes for a brilliant gimmick both visually and practically, with the various fighting styles each Arms commands adding an extra kick to the show's already great fight scenes. As the show and technology progresses into the likes of Yggdrasil's New Generation Energy Riders and Gaim's various power ups, the armours become start to look a little like the fruits their supposed to as the armour inspiration becomes more apparent. Whether intentional or not, it also feels like this ties into the show's larger theme of growing up and getting "serious" - as Gaim goes from a samurai wearing a giant orange as armour to a silver Sengoku warlord with an armada of weaponry at his disposal.

Baron watches as Gridon and Kurokage make their debut
This show is nuts. And bananas.

Those familiar with Gen Urobuchi's previous works are likely to be going in to Gaim expecting more than a few similarities with some of his earlier shows, and once again he manages to throw in the same twists you'll have seen elsewhere. As a casual follower of his shows this is becoming a source of love/hate with me (love because his shows are still so good, hate because it means I start seeing twists a mile off), but Gaim is a rare case where I'm more willing to let things slide. As a live action series seeing these twists play out is a slightly different experience that proves just as equally gripping and satisfying, while the aforementioned longer episode count also gives a lot more weight to these moments and allows their resonance to be felt for much longer. Urobuchi really feels at home with a 47-episode series - he has time to do everything he wants and there's even time to sidestep for a few fun cross promotions as well.

A special episode to promote the Kikaider REBOOT movie
WATCH MY MOVIE!

In conclusion, Kamen Rider Gaim is a brilliant show and great entry point for new fans to the Kamen Rider franchise. Except maybe it isn't, because what makes it so good is how it did away with many of the tropes that had plagued it over the last few years and so jumping backward from there is going to give you a rather different experience. Some fans may be willing to proclaim Gen Urobuchi as the saviour of Kamen Rider or some sort of similar ridiculous hyperbole with desire for him to write every show from now on, but I came out of the show with a very different conclusion. THIS is what the show can be capable of when it breaks out of its yearly traditions and (more importantly) brings in some new blood as writing talent rather than relying on the same four or five names. Gaim broke the mould Kamen Rider was beginning to trap itself in, and not only did it come out as one of the best instalments yet but also gave hope that there may even be bigger and better things to come.

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