Thursday, 14 July 2016

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Amazons (Season One)

Kamen Rider Amazons

Given that both Kamen Rider and Super Sentai are in the midst of celebrating big anniversaries, it’s no surprise that Toei have decided to declare 2016 “Super Hero Year”. A name like that also brings with it some big projects to mark the occasion properly, with Kamen Rider especially throwing out some rather nice surprises. First came a grand return for Hiroshi Fujioka, playing a newly updated Takeshi Hongo in the Kamen Rider 1 movie. But following that was an even bigger surprise – initially streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime, Kamen Rider Amazons is an extremely loose reboot of 1974’s Kamen Rider Amazon and another attempt at another adult Kamen Rider production. Previous offerings Kamen Rider Shin, Kamen Rider the First and Kamen Rider the Next may not have fared too well, but could Amazon at last be a success? 

Season one of this series is comprised of 13 episodes, with a further 13 due to follow later this year.

Kamen Rider Amazon Alpha
Out for blood

Following an accident at the Nozama Pharmacy’s secret testing facility, 4000 test subjects imbued with the “Amazon Cell” escaped and are now living in secret amongst the people of Japan. They might seem like normal people, however when left uncontrolled the Amazon Cell transforms them into monsters (Amazons) with a taste for human flesh. Eager to keep the outbreak quiet, Nozama have hired a team of hunters to take out the Amazons – covering themselves up as a pest control service to the public.

However it isn’t long before the Nozama Peston Service discover they aren’t the only ones hunting the Amazons down. Also on their trail is Jin Takayama, a former Nozama biologist who injected himself with the cells to become Kamen Rider Amazon Alpha. His appearance is further complicated with the arrival of Haruka Mizusawa, a meek young test subject able to transform into Kamen Rider Amazon Omega. As the previously shut-in Haruka joins the Peston Service and steps out into the wider world, his human and Amazon sides come into conflict as they encounter more subjects trying to survive. 

Haruka & Jin
The Alpha & The Omega

When it comes to rebooting a classic Kamen Rider series with a more adult flavour, Kamen Rider Amazon seems like a pretty logical choice. After all, it’s already a series renowned among the franchise for its violently savage fight sequences and excessive blood. Visual effects have changed quite a bit in 42 years though, and now there’s also gallons of CGI blood to go along with all that spurting paint. Make no mistake Amazons still very much follows Toei’s obvious mindset of “excessive = dark”, but the B-movie quality of watching rubber suited monsters tear each others’ limbs off is never something that can be taken completely seriously. The show for the most part tries to stay relatively grounded in its fantasy, but still has the odd spark of Kamen Rider silliness – whether it be the Driver voices, weapons being pulled out of thin air or just the campiness of Omega’s bike (a modern, sleeker version of Amazon’s own Jungler). The intended darker atmosphere is further exemplified by a filter placed over the entire series, muddying the colours and giving it some literal grit visually. While it does result in a loss of some of the finer colour detail, it gives Amazons a more unique feel that harkens back to some of the earlier Heisei Kamen Rider entries.

Whereas most Kamen Rider stories can be ultimately boiled down to a costumed superhero fighting against an evil force that threatens humanity, Amazons isn’t quite that simple. Amazons is a story of evolution and survival, and constantly calls into question who the real monster is in all of this. This is hardly a new premise and comparisons can instantly be drawn (Nozama Pharmacy closely parallels the research facility in Elfen Lied for example – right down to the hesitant director and suspicious President), but within the realms of Kamen Rider it still makes for interesting viewing. On the surface many of the episodes follow a standard monster of the week formula, but often there’ll be a bit more to it than that. Episode nine is a particular highlight in this regard, featuring a restaurant that specifically caters to Amazons – meaning there’s one thing on the menu.

The Nozama Peston Service
The (In)Expendables

But the core of Kamen Rider Amazons is its characters, a compliment which rarely extends to the entire supporting cast but definitely does here. It isn’t all about the conflict between Haruka and Jin here, if anything the almost family aspect of the Nozama Peston Service is what really counts. The heart of all of this is of course Mamoru, the childlike Mole Amazon whose pure innocence makes his inevitable downfall all the more heart wrenching. Meanwhile the human members of the Peston Service make their disdain for the Amazon ‘vermin’ constantly heard, but their loyalty to Mamoru is unwavering. On the other side of the coin the various machinations and motives of the Nozama pharmacy keep them interesting even when they air on side of a generic shady corporation. The other layer to these characters is that morality is far from straightforward. As mentioned earlier Amazons isn’t a simple story of good versus evil, it really is a food chain where both sides are just looking to survive. The three lead Amazons are actually the wildcards in all of this, with Jin coming out particularly interesting. As well as being one of the most charismatic cast members, his position as an Amazon determined to wipe out the rest means sympathies are constantly fluctuating. A scientist determined to put his mistakes right might seem like a noble cause, but in the face of Amazons who aren’t inherently malicious he doesn’t seem like quite a nice guy after all. This is the problem that Haruka and Mamoru face in all of this, Haruka especially since he is able to properly comprehend the situation.

And of course, it wouldn't be a successful Kamen Rider series without great suit design as well. Some of the brighter colours may be lost due to the aforementioned filter but each of the Amazons costumes is oozing with detail, taking that classic kaijin look one step further to come up with something suitably monstrous. Many of these suits are also updated versions of the various Beastmen that appeared in the original Amazon, adding an extra level of interest for anyone whose seen that series as well. With such strong suit design, it seems especially odd that the only weak link is in fact the main Amazon of the show – Kamen Rider Amazon Omega. While Omega’s suit certainly isn’t bad, it just doesn’t jive well with the rest of the show’s aesthetic – coming across more like a modern tech-based Rider than an organic one. This mostly comes down to the helmet, which due to the lack of mouth looks like exactly that – a helmet. Thankfully Amazon Alpha feels like a much more natural update of the classic Amazon suit, even throwing a bit of S.I.C. toy line inspiration into the mix as well. With Haruka teased as something more than just a standard Amazon there may be a bit more to this in future episodes (and for now the addition of the Driver arguably covers some explanation), but for now Omega just seems like an odd blip in an otherwise coherent look.

Mamoru
Protect

One final aspect of Amazons worthy of discussion is its pacing. Thanks to its status as an online exclusive, the episodes have no set runtime and vary from an average 25 minutes or so all the way up to the 40 minute mark. A formula that often seems overlooked by critics when it comes to web series, but benefits these shows brilliantly as they aren’t scrambling to fit everything into their run time. Amazons is free to trundle along each episode, taking the time to slow things down and allow the audience to really soak in the atmosphere when a fight scene isn’t an immediate concern. If the horrifically out of character made for TV opening is anything to go by, Amazons is a show that could really suffer from a broadcast edit. It has really embraced the style of a web series, and with Amazon Prime looking to bring it over the West as well it could hopefully be a start on getting more Kamen Rider imported here too.

Kamen Rider Amazon Sigma
DEADly killers

Kamen Rider Amazons may be a show that carries all the hallmarks of Toei’s previous “adult Kamen Rider” offerings, but what sets it apart is direction. Unlike the others this is a show with a good story behind it, the time to develop that story, great characters that stretch far beyond the Riders themselves and, most importantly, some real heart. Despite a seemingly abrupt ending this first season has left the show in a really interesting place for the coming episodes, which will hopefully be able to continue the high quality it has already set for itself. If this is what Kamen Rider can look like free from its core demographic and endless toy shilling, then there’s most definitely room for more.

No comments: