Friday, 2 October 2015

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Drive

Kamen Rider Drive

Give a Kamen Rider cosmically powered switches or transforming fruit armour and only a few people will bat an eyelid. Give him a car instead of a bike however and suddenly the world has been turned upside down. Although not the first Kamen Rider show to give their lead character four wheels instead of two (that would be Kamen Rider Black RX), Kamen Rider Drive is the first series to make it exclusively that Rider’s mode of transportation. With the series having just come to an end in Japan, it’s time to take a look back at the past year of Kamen Rider before things start afresh again with Kamen Rider Ghost in a few days’ time.

Tomari Shinnosuke and the Tridoron
2015: Where four wheels are better than two

Six months prior to the beginning of the series, a race of artificial lifeforms known as the Roidmudes temporarily caused time to stop. During this "Global Freeze", the Roidmudes were stopped by a mysterious Kamen Rider wielding small sentient cars known as Shift Cars. Elsewhere in the city, police officer Shinnosuke Tomari was working a case when the freeze hit - causing him to inadvertently injure his partner during a shoot out.

Following the event, Shinnosuke lost his motivation and was eventually demoted to working within the Special Crimes Unit, partnered with the stoic and determined officer Kiriko Shinjima. When the Roidmudes return, Shinnosuke is selected by Krim Steinbelt - the co-creator of the Roimude's whose consciousness is now housed inside the Drive Driver belt, to become the new Kamen Rider Drive. With the Shift Cars providing him with a variety of tire-based power ups, Drive battles against the 108 Roidmudes as they seek to achieve the "Promised Number" and rule over humanity. During his fight Drive eventually meets Kamen Rider Mach, as well as clashing with Mashin Chaser - a Roidmude "shinigami" with a forgotten past.

The Drive Driver aka Krim Steinbelt
Ever seen a belt look this happy? I bet you haven't.

When we first meet Tomari Shinnosuke in Kamen Rider Drive he's a shell of his former self. Deflated, something of a slack-off and in desperate need of motivation to get his brain running in "top gear". As well as initially being Tomari's main character trait that eventually propels him into become a great hero, it's also something of a parallel for the progression of the series itself. After the heavily episodic and often quite dark nature of Kamen Rider Gaim, it doesn't come as that much of a surprise that Drive initially moves things back into much more familiar territory for the franchise. The two-episode format returns, which each pair covering a different case involving a different Roidmude. There's still continuity of course as certain plot threads slowly progress, but in the grand scheme of things you could miss an episode here and there and not really lose an essential part of the whole story. That isn't to say this section of Kamen Rider Drive isn't worth your time - it may seem light, but it's still rather fun viewing nonetheless.

But then all of a sudden about midway through the show's run, Kamen Rider Drive really defies previous expectations and (pun completely intended) kicks things into high gear. The story-telling becomes considerably tighter, character motivations and developments are more prevalent and the already high-octane action gets a significant boost too. For a show that felt like it was just going through the motions to begin with, the second half of Drive feels like a complete u-turn where every episode is more thrilling and emotional than the last.

Kamen Riders Mach, Drive & Chaser
The magic number

The other aspect of Kamen Rider Drive that the writers have nailed is the number of Riders included in the show. Kamen Rider Gaim should definitely be commended for the sheer amount of Riders it managed to cram into the show, but as you can expect character development was hardly even across the board. Drive on the other hand scales it back down to a far more manageable three - three Riders that are all very different from each other but come together perfectly (both as a team and when they're against each other). Firstly you have Shinnosuke - the everyman of the group. As the lead character he's perhaps the least complex of the three, but the most relatable.

Then you have Gou/Kamen Rider Mach - an initially brash and rather cocky character that gives way to a much deeper and often darker persona. Some might find Gou rather unlikeable as a character at certain points of the show, but his journey from his initial appearance to the show's climax is both turbulent and fascinating to watch. Then there's Chase - the wild card. Initially starting out as the Roidmude shinigami Mashin Chaser (a Rider-esque rival with a glorious heavy metal design), as his past is revealed he turns switches sides and finds redemption as a Kamen Rider himself (it's a little more interesting than that, but I'm trying to keep things intentionally vague). As well as injecting a new level of fun into the show with him not quite understanding human customs and emotions,  Chase is the perfect middle man to Gou and Shinnosuke.

Heart, Brain, Medic and Chase
Not the villains you initially expect

The great characterisation isn't just limited to the heroes either - the villains receive a really significant boost as the series progresses as well. Although Roidmude "leaders" Heart, Brain and Medic mostly spend the early episodes standing around plotting, looking vaguely threatening and occasionally having some sort of beatdown with the Riders - they don't feel like anything that hasn't been done better elsewhere. But as other forces come into play in the show, the three develop into incredibly sympathetic characters you're rooting for just as much as the Riders. Brain's comedy antics unfortunately remain pretty grating throughout, but Heart especially comes forward as one of the show's breakout characters.

The show's supporting cast are where milage may begin to vary. Characters like Krim and Kiriko are largely exempt from any wider complaints (although Kiriko progressively suffers from "damsel in distress" syndrome despite a really strong introduction, but the Special Crimes Unit are where one of the show's many issues lie - the comedy. Make no mistake Kamen Rider is a children's show and fans shouldn't pretend that its usually anything more, but Drive's comedy is, for want of a better word, unique. It's the sort of Japanese-style slapstick that won't appeal to everyone and will likely leave a lasting impression even if it's only a very small fraction of the show. But the characters themselves are all very fun, many having their own interesting backstories that are explored briefly in the show.

The Special Crimes Unit
The ever divisive Special Crimes Unit

The action and fight choreography is as great as ever, and Drive's tire gimmick is for the most part well implemented into the fight scenes. In typical Kamen Rider fashion some of the powers are more practical than others, with the sillier ones sinking into the background pretty quickly. Drive's various forms are quite similar, in that they only really remain practical until another comes along and then they're quickly forgotten about. Drive Dead Heat (a combination of the Drive and Mach powers that sounds awesome in concept, but not so great in execution) is almost non-existent, with the Dead Heat power up quickly becoming something of a Mach exclusive. A final special mention should also go to the Shift Cars. Sentient toy cars are something extremely hard to take seriously, and while Kamen Rider Drive never does make you take them that way there is still something ridiculously endearing about them. Just get to that one scene of one sad and alone in the rain and you'll see exactly what I mean, even if you're laughing at the sheer stupidity of it all.

Kamen Rider Drive is a series which will reward you greatly if you are prepared to be patient with it. The first half of the series offers some enjoyable, if a little unremarkable, stories before giving way to a second half which pulls no punches in terms of drama and development. The somewhat divisive comedy is a presence throughout the series, but once the story properly hits it finds much more its place as (for the most part) light relief among the ever-growing stakes. Featuring the perfect amount of Riders, great villains and a memorable extended cast, there’s much more to Drive than simply the novelty of him lacking a bike.

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