Thursday, 3 March 2016

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Agito

Kamen Rider Agito

Proving that you can't keep a good hero down for very long, after Kamen Rider Kuuga spearheaded the Heisei era revival of the Kamen Rider franchise it was immediately followed up with Kamen Rider Agito - a series that didn't just celebrate Rider's 30th anniversary, but the 50th anniversary of Toei as a whole. Kamen Rider Agito is particularly notable for not only being the first series to tackle a multi-Rider dynamic, but as an indirect sequel to Kuuga is also a rare example of continuity in the Heisei era. Finally Agito was also Toshiki Inoue's debut as a head writer for the franchise. Inoue previously had several writing credits on Super Sentai (the most notable being Chojin Sentai Jetman), with this series beginning the long (and perhaps turbulent) relationship he would go on to have with Kamen Rider.


Kamen Rider G3-X
Trying to build a better Kuuga

Some time after the events of Kamen Rider Kuuga, humanity has prepared themselves in the event of another Unidentified Lifeform attack with the G3 System - a police department powersuit based off of "No. 4" himself. However when a new monstrous threat, the Unknown, begin targeting people and killing them in a variety of horrific ways the G3 suit proves ineffective. Defending humanity is a mysterious new figure, recognised by the Unknown as simply 'Agito'.

The true identity of Agito is Shouichi Yagami, a young man who washed up on the shore one day without any memories of who he is or how he came to have these mysterious powers. Battling alongside him is Makoto Hikawa, G3's persevering user who eventually is able to hold his own against the Unknown with the G3-X upgrade. However Shouichi isn't the only man bestowed with the powers of Agito, as university star swimmer Ryo Ashihara experiences his own monstrous transformation into Kamen Rider Gills. As the police work to piece together the links between the Unknown's victims, the trio soon discover there an event from six months ago ties them and several other targets together.

Hikawa and Shouichi
The many faces of Makoto Hikawa and Shouichi Yagami

Although Kamen Rider Agito is undoubtedly set up as a sequel to Kuuga, calling it that may also result in some false impressions going into the show. The "indirect" prefix is particularly important, since other than some brief mentions of the Grongi/Unidenified Lifeforms at the beginning of the series Agito stands firmly on its own feet. There are no other callbacks to the events of Kuuga, nor do any of the cast return to lend a hand or even show up for a quick cameo. That may sound a bit disappointing to some, but keeping the continuity between the two relatively loose results in not too many questions being raised as the story progresses. As a very rare piece of continuity in the pre-Decade Heisei Kamen Rider era, it works solely as a nice little nod that ties the two together into a much larger picture.

Like Kuuga before it Kamen Rider Agito plays its mystery element very heavily, providing the viewer with enough information for an overall understanding of the story but also leaving some smaller details to be pieced together. There are even some things that were only confirmed through supplementary materials, such as the Unknowns’ true identity as the ‘Lords’ – a name that isn’t spoken once throughout the course of the series. The overarching plot is complex and attempts to perhaps be cleverer at times than it actually is – dealing with themes such god and evolution with a rather interesting spin. Mystery isn’t the only similarity Agito shares with its predecessor either – as the Unknown prove to be just as bloodthirsty as the Grongi. While the death toll might not be anywhere near as high as Kuuga’s, Agito certainly takes the prize when it comes to having its victims die in gruesomely imaginative ways. That isn't to say that Agito is dark series though - in fact far from it. The show also has plenty of (usually non-plot orientated, but still relevant) comedy that helps keep things on the straight and narrow.

The Lords/Unknown
2001: The year Rider villains did not mess around

As the first Kamen Rider series to feature more than one Rider in a prominent role, one might expect Agito to be rough in its handling of this new dynamic, but Inoue takes that multi-character experience he got from Super Sentai and amplifies it to a point where it feels like this isn't a new thing at all. Agito is another series that really thrives on characters - not just the Riders themselves but also the wonderful supporting cast. The four Riders all work really well together, each bringing their own personalities and agendas to the table. Shouichi is a fairly happy-go-lucky guy, sporting a surprisingly cheery and casual demeanour for a man in his position. That said he's not always so level-headed, and driven in his role as Agito even when he doesn't understand fully what's going on. The same can be said for Hikawa, who despite being not too bright and rather clumsy is a dedicated police officer and never gives up even when G3 is beaten time and time again. His relationship with Shouichi is one of the highlights of the series, especially given how much he admires Agito without realising they are one and the same. Elsewhere there's also Ryo, who's story as Gills is far more laden with tragedy as he seems to suffer time and time again for this power that's been thrust upon him. Despite all these hardships, Ryo still steps up to the plate time and time again, making him possibly the most endearing and engaging of Agito's quartet. Finally there's also Kaoru Kino, who appears later in the series as Another Agito (a name that makes sense in context but looks rather silly written out). Although only appearing for a fraction of the show, Kino is a shining example of how Agito can get so much out of a character is a short space of time.

Outside of the Riders special mention deservedly goes to Agito's police department, with G3 creator and monior Sumiko Ozawa undoubtedly one of the franchise's strongest extras. Even police detective Toro Hojo, who spends the entirety of the series acting as an unlikeable prick, is weirdly engaging in that he never falters from this and often actually raises a fair point. Shouichi's adoptive family play a big part in tying the characters together - particularly Mana, who's own supernatural powers are integral to unravelling some of the show's bigger mysteries as well as her murdered father being a key link in the chain that connects everyone.

Kamen Rider Gills
Being Gills is suffering: the truest of words

But Agito's biggest problem is just how long it takes to truly get going. The first few episodes do an incredible job of building up a perplexing mystery, presenting the Unknown as a legitimate threat and  creating an interesting multiple-Rider dynamic, but it doesn't take long for the show to stagnate until it hits the mid-20s range. Until G3-X makes its debut in episode 23, Hikawa is repeatedly bested in fights against the Unknown and it loses its novelty very quickly. Presumably its there to further highlight Hikawa's tenacity and the fact that despite being the only powerless Rider he never backs down, but the point could have been made quite succinctly in half the running time. The whole first half often just goes "Shouichi does something, Houjo bickers with G3 Team, Unknown kills some people, G3 is wailed on, Agito saves the day, rinse/repeat". During this time is also offers very few clues to its overall mysteries in this time either, making it difficult for the viewer to even try and piece together how everything might fit together. What the show does in this time in terms of action and character development certainly shouldn't be disregarded by any measure, but it makes that first half all the more of a slog to get through when it's barely offering you anything in terms of progression.

A more perplexing issue in Kamen Rider Agito is the finale. Not so much the final episode itself, but the fact that the last five episodes take place following a one month time-skip which sees the main characters all try to move on with their lives. It isn't so much that these episodes are bad, in fact they're some of the strongest the show has to offer - it's that the whole thing just feels weirdly disjointed from the rest of the show. The time skip itself does very little other than introduce some new forgettable characters, and the arc in general isn't long enough to develop to its desired effect. Some may also find Agito and company's final face-off with the Overlord of Darkness underwhelming, in a similar vein as to how some might receive Kuuga's ending. Both are surprisingly low-key, but the symbolism of Agito's doesn't quite have the same punch that made Kuuga's such a great talking point.

Kamen Rider Another Agito
Nice to see SIC Rider-1 getting television work

However visually Kamen Rider Agito is a delight to behold throughout. The costume design is superb, with a great deal of variety between the four Riders. Whereas the “perfect” Agito has a more standard look about him, Gills in comparison has a much more feral and organic look about him. This is further emphasised later in his Exceed Gills form, as well as with the arrival of Another Agito with his very Kamen Rider 1-inspired organic look. On the other side of the spectrum you have the bulky G3 unit, which plays up its technical origins far more in terms of design. Even the Unknown themselves look great – each inspired by animals but also sharing a twisted “angel” aesthetic that helps paint them as even more monstrous. The only bizarre link in Agito’s designs is the Machine Tornador, Agito’s bike which is inexplicably able to transform into a flying surfboard. Why is can do this other than be a more interesting toy is unclear, but at least it doesn’t happen in the show enough to be a problem.

Agito is yet another Kamen Rider series where you will be adequately rewarded if you put in your time and patience. Going into this series without any prior knowledge and no background reading will leave you in the dark perhaps longer than it should, but stick with it and the pay-off proves mostly worth it. Despite being the first show to deal with a larger number of Riders Agito handles its cast brilliantly, praise not just limited to the Riders themselves but also the wonderful (and in some cases, wonderfully frustrating) supporting cast. A series that might not be the most engaging of pieces throughout, but one that you'll look back upon when finished with some very fond memories.

1 comment:

Luke Clemens said...

Ah yes Toshiki Inoue, the love or hate writer of the Kamen Rider series. Despite Agito not being his strongest work I did enjoy it for the same reasons as you said. Funnily enough, the G3 team also cameo in the Ryuki movie which was also written by Inoue.