Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Kuuga

Kamen Rider Kuuga

With the way the Kamen Rider franchise now constantly renews itself year after year, it’s hard to believe that there was once a time where it was off the air in Japan. Following the end of Kamen Rider Black RX in 1989 the franchise was completely absent from television throughout the 90s, kept alive through a trilogy of standalone movies from 1992-1994. Following that things went quiet as the Super Sentai and Metal Heroes franchises led the way for Toei, until Kamen Rider made its grand return in 2000. Dubbed with the tagline “A New Hero. A New Legend”, Kamen Rider Kuuga was a lot of firsts. It was the first Kamen Rider show since the death of creator Shotaro Ishinomori two years earlier, it was the first one to be broadcast in widescreen format and, most importantly, it is officially the start of the Heisei era for the franchise.

The various forms of Kamen Rider Kuuga
Now in a range of flavours!

When an archaeological excavation inadvertently awakens an ancient tribe known as the Grongi, humanity finds themselves under threat as the Grongi assume monstrous forms and slaughter the populace en masse as part of their “Geguru” – a ruthless game set to bring out the ultimate darkness”. In the past, they were defeated by Kuuga – a warrior defending humanity's ancestors, the Linto tribe.

When the multi-talented and ever cheery Yusuke Godai dons an excavated stone belt during an attack, he becomes the new Kuuga and humanity’s defender. Together with police inspector Kaoru Ichijou, researcher Sakurako Sawatari and an assembled team of police and researchers, Godai fights back to protect everyone’s smiles. However as more of the Linto's struggle against the Grongi is deciphered, there lies a dark secret behind the powers of humanity's only hope.

Yusuke Godai
A smile you just can't hate

As the first in a new generation of Kamen Riders, Kuuga naturally marks the beginning of many of the more common elements seen in the Kamen Rider shows of today. It continues the departure built-up evil organisations and cyborg heroes seen in the final few Showa productions, with both the Riders and the villains often featuring more supernatural or mythological backgrounds. In addition to this form changes and toy advertising become far more prevalent, although arguably the earliest of the Heisei shows don’t fall victim to the latter in such a blatant fashion. However while Kuuga does serve as something of a benchmark, at the same time it’s also a far cry from most modern Kamen Rider in terms of style and tone. It's primarily character driven and often slow at times, encouraging viewers to truly immerse themselves in its rich atmosphere.

Take the fight scenes as just one example. Despite Kuuga’s varied abilities and constantly growing powers, in general there’s very little emphasis on the fights themselves. Of course there are always exceptions (most of which are crucial to the story’s progression), but in general only a few punches will be thrown before someone stands victorious. The choreography is equally rough and perhaps more thematic in its nature – being less about flashy powers and more about these two brutal forces clashing head to head. That isn’t to say the show isn’t graceful in it’s handling of Kuuga’s multiple forms though, in fact quite the opposite. Each of his four forms serve a different purpose, and all carry obvious advantages and disadvantages. Rather than have Godai suddenly defeat a monster with his new found abilities, the show first has him acclimatise to these new abilities and occasionally take a beating because of them too. Elements like the various weapons transforming from similar shaped items (for example, a standard pistol transforms into Pegasus Form’s bowgun) are also a very nice touch, adding that extra little bit of depth that, while not entirely necessary, is certainly appreciated.

Kaoru Ichijou
Detective Badass
But what Kuuga really thrives on are its characters, which are the core of both its story and its morals. Godai himself is particularly interesting because on the surface he doesn’t seem to change all that much throughout the series. From his very introduction he’s immediately likeable, highly skilled in a number of different areas (2000 to be precise) and ready to help in any way he can. He doesn’t ever show regret at becoming Kuuga, even when it becomes clear what the powers are for and what he may be destined to become. That isn’t to say Godai doesn’t change throughout the series though, as episode 35 (possibly the single best episode in the whole series) is quick to point out. It’s a rare glimpse of seeing the character outside of his usual demeanour, leaving you to ponder just how much of his cheeriness is genuine and how much is a façade put up for the sake of those around him. As the only one really capable of stopping the Grongi, Godai is carrying the whole weight of the world on his shoulders yet he seemingly never falters. One of Kuuga's key themes is about how power can corrupt - we see it visually as the Grongi take on monstrous forms and murder thousands, but how that applies to Godai is a far more subtle and poignant matter.

So although Godai does act as a sort of constant, his representation as the pinnacle of humanity's good side allows for the excellent supporting cast to grow around him. Ichijou works perfectly as the straight man foil to Godai – a selfless cop who’s ready to throw himself into danger even though he’s woefully outmatched. He feels like just as much the hero as the title character does, with his growth and victories equally as satisfying. Then both Godai and Ichijou are propped up by a whole host of researches, scientists and police officers – all contributing to things in their own specific way. While some of these are there to provide the odd moment of comic relief, it’s nothing too obtrusive that gets in the way of the often-grave nature of the plot.

The Spider Gurongi
You know it's homage time when a spider and bat are the first monsters to show up

However the handling of the Grongi is perhaps one of Kuuga’s more controversial aspects. Adding an extra dash of realism, for the most part the Grongi all speak in their own language, which itself is a cipher of Japanese. A translation eventually became available, but at the time audiences were meant to be just in the dark about their plans as the people fighting against them. An interesting tactic no doubt, but one that leaves the show with large sections of dialogue rendered completely incomprehensible. As a child it perhaps might not have gone over as well, but watching as an adult has proven fascinating. Little bits of the language begin to unravel as the series progresses (and the Grongi themselves also begin to talk in Japanese), but for the most part it’s about paying attention to the other things in the scene – the tone of voice, facial expressions, props etc. You may not still get a whole lot out of the scenes, but if you can get behind the set up it really adds to the mysterious atmosphere of the show. The opportunity to then go back and re-watch it with the Grongi language translated also gives Kuuga the rare quality of perhaps being able to get a whole new understanding out of the show the second time around.

The ending is another element likely to divide viewers, with the climactic battle between Kuuga and the Grongi leader N-Daguva-Zeba largely occurring off-screen as the final episode covers the aftermath instead. Many may initially see this as a cop-out as it once again denies viewers the action, but on reflection it’s very in-keeping with the themes and symbolism the show is conveying all along. It’s less about the battles themselves, and more about the bigger picture. So while Kuuga’s ending is a little unsatisfying in some respects, ultimately the show wouldn’t (and possibly couldn’t) have it done any other way.

The coming of N-Daguva-Zeba
Pure evil never looked so pretty

Kamen Rider Kuuga is a little bit of an oddity. It features several elements that when you analyse individually may not sound especially appealing, but when brought together with the show’s distinct sense of style and wonderful cast the end result is truly magnificent. Those expecting the same feel and format of modern Kamen Rider will likely be disappointed, however if you wish to experience some of the most engaging and thought-provoking material the franchise has to offer then this is exactly what you are looking for.

17 comments:

Andrew said...

Hello! I'm trying to imagine what the Grongi scenes are like with regards to the language: would it be similar to what was later done in Kamen Rider Gaim with the Overlords? Was this an approach that wasn't used in any of the other Kamen Rider series?

Alex said...

Hi there! Yes the Grongi language is exactly like the Overlords on Gaim, only on a far bigger scale. As for whether this was ever done in any other series, not to my knowledge no. Admittedly I haven't seen all of them yet, but Gaim is the only parallel I've ever seen drawn to it so I assume Kuuga was the first.

Andrew said...

Ah, interesting. Thanks, Alex!

And not just for the quick response but for being my go-to blog when it comes to Japanese entertainment. Your tastes match mine, it seems! More than that, your reviews of both shows and toys tell me what I need to know when making my viewing and buying decisions.

Alex said...

You're welcome! Thanks for the kind words and reading the blog so frequently :)

Nova said...

A really nice review; I'm glad you managed to finally watch it all the way through and make a detailed review out of it. I think you highlight in an efficient manner why this is such a beloved entry in the franchise for many fans.

Max said...

Watch the original Ultraman next!

Alex said...

Preferably I'd like to pick up the DVD for that beforehand, but soon I promise. I've already locked in Agito as my next toku review as a follow-up to this but I'm probably going to open things up to suggestions. Will keep Ultraman in mind!

ISMOTU said...

I loved Kuuga and I'm glad you enjoyed it too. I was just going to suggest you watch Agito next. I wasn't sure it could live up to how great Kuuga is but I definitely enjoyed it about the same amount.

I enjoy reading your blog and as someone who's only recently delved into the world(s) of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai your reviews have definitely influenced my viewing order and I've never been let down by a show you've recommended.

Alex said...

Thanks for the kind words! As I said above, Agito is definitely next on my watching list :) I've heard nothing but good things about it, so I'm really excited to get started on it.

putu gede budiartha said...

Yeah nice review as always, and I look forward for Agito review from you hhe

Peter Schaaff said...

Thanks for the rich inside views on this part of the Kamen Rider Universe. As a real newbie to all this sentai stuff that is quite unknown over here in Germany I am very pleased to find this blog with relevant information on such an important matter >smile<. Thanks again & I will keep reading - henshin!

Gestalt said...

Hi, I love reading all your reviews and I look forward to reading your take on Agito someday!

Agito stands as one of my favourite shows thus far. My current ranking of my top five is below:

1. Ryuki
2. Gaim (very close second)
3. Agito
4. OOO
5. Kuuga

Ranked mostly in terms of story, themes explored, and character development.

Maybe you could have a ranking blogpost, which updates as new series are watched? :D

Alex said...

Thank you! Agito will be coming up soon I promise :)
A ranking post is an interesting idea, will consider doing that once I've got through Agito. In the meantime if you'd like to know how I rank what I've seen so far it's as follows:

1) Gaim
2) Kuuga
3) Fourze
4) W
5) V3
6) Ryuki
7) OOO
8) Blade
9) Amazon
10) Black
11) Drive
12) Hibiki
13) Decade
14) Wizard
15) Kabuto

As you get lower down those probably could be flipped around a bit, but I'm pretty confident about the top 5-6 :D

Gestalt said...

Wow! I don't think I could go so far as to rank all the rider shows I've watched. You actually ranked Wizard and Kabuto below Decade?? I look forward to your future ranking blogpost to explain your rationale! (: (Tho I note your caveat about flipping around the last few)

However, I can certainly agree with Gaim taking the top spot! Simply marvellous show on several fronts.

Alex said...

I actually love Decade a lot - it's got a ton of flaws and story wise is pretty unsatisfying, but I'm a massive sucker for parallel worlds (it's probably my favourite scifi trope) so seeing all those alternate spins on the Heisei Riders was a joy for me. Plus I have a lot of love for both Tsukasa and Kaito. I wish I could rank it higher because I really do love it, but I try not to be too biased in my ranking ;)

Wizard got better as time went on, but I was pretty let down with it. It was a lot of flash with very little bang. The action was great (playing Battride War has also given me a new fondness for his various forms) but the episode structure was really tedious. Plus I couldn't buy Koyomi as such a huge character when she appeared so little in the show.

Kabuto I just really didn't like much at all apart from Drake. It had a lot of cool concepts and great rider designs, but the cast were so thoroughly unlikable it was a major turn off.

Gestalt said...

I agree with your comments, and I can't wait for your other toku reviews!

I guess while Decade came with a mountain of flaws, it is fondly remembered for pulling off its central gimmick and themes well. You'd think a pinkish rider with his predecessors' powers wouldn't float, but it just did. And it probably led to many other brands tapping on this concept too.

Rizky Gumilar said...

great review!
kuuga is still the greatest kamen rider show of the new generation hibiki comes second before ep 30 and the staff changes. looking back kamen rider show has gone down hill since then