Friday, 10 February 2017

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider 555

Kamen Rider 555

The early Heisei era was a pretty grim time for Kamen Rider. Not in the sense of the franchise’s popularity, but in terms of the amount of death and destruction going on in them. Kuuga had the Grongi racking up enormous body counts on a weekly basis, Agito saw the Lords come up with new and grotesque ways to kill their victims and every Ryuki rider was at constant risk of being eaten by their own contact monster. This then continued in 2003-2004 with Kamen Rider 555, the fourth entry in the show’s Heisei era and 13th series overall. It was written by tokusatsu veteran Toshiki Inoue, his second time as a Kamen Rider showrunner following his work on Kamen Rider Agito.

Takumi & MariKamen Rider Faiz

The next stage in humanity’s evolution has arrived – the Orphnoch, monsters born from the deaths of select humans. Using the mysterious Smart Brain Corporation as a front, a group of Orphnochs have dedicated themselves to overthrowing humanity. To reach this goal, Smart Brain built three Rider Gears – armours intended to find and protect the Orphnoch King. However these Gears are also the only thing capable of defeating the Orphnoch, and are subsequently stolen by the company’s former chief Hanagata. 

A young loner is unwittingly pulled into the battle against the Orphnoch when he defends Hanagata’s foster child Mari Sonoda from an attack, using the Faiz Gear to become Kamen Rider Faiz. In his fight against Smart Brain he also meets the rest of Hanagata’s foster children, butting heads with Masato Kusaka – who fights against the Orphnochs as Kamen Rider Kaixa. However the Riders aren’t Smart Brain’s only problem, with many Orphnochs resisting the group in a bid to co-exist with humanity instead of destroying them. Three particular renegades – Yuji Kiba, Yuka Osada and Naoya Kaidou, are also targeted by Smart Brain, their struggle overlapping with the Riders’ own battle against them.

Kamen Rider KaixaKamen Rider Delta

From the very first episode it’s immediately clear that there’s something different about Kamen Rider 555. Revolving mostly around the awakening of Kiba as an Orphnoch rather than properly introducing Takumi or even the Faiz Gear, it’s an excellent but odd opener that sets the tone for both the show’s parallel plotlines and particularly bleak overtones. It even momentarily entertains the idea that it’s in fact Mari that’ll become Faiz, something that was previously teased in the run-up to the show’s premiere. The fact that the story is split 50/50 between the Riders and the “renegade” Orphnochs is also a brilliant concept, making the show just as much about Kiba’s struggles as it is about Takumi. 

Unfortunately this strong opening quickly gives way to a series ridden with problems, at the centre of which is a story that just isn’t told very well at all. Like many early Heisei-era Rider shows 555 has a strong mystery element throughout, leading to some particularly great revelations as time goes on. But it’s also vague in its explanations and introduces key plot points only to either do nothing with them or immediately drop them altogether. For example, during the initial introduction of the Delta belt it’s outright stated that using it results in the wearer gaining powers even they aren’t wearing it, however this is completely forgotten about a few episodes later. The fact that the show doesn’t even have a proper ending, leaving fans in the lurch until the Kamen Rider 4 miniseries 11 years later, speaks for itself. The “Orphnoch King” – an element that’s mentioned since the show’s very beginning, is tacked on right at the end as all the recurring villains are offed or sidelined unceremoniously to make way for him. 

Masato KusakaYuna, Kaidou and Kiba

It also doesn’t help that the entire cast isn’t particularly likeable. Having a lead Rider with a blunt, standoffish personality (that obviously hides a heart of gold) is certainly refreshing, but it does begin to wear a bit thin as Takumi proves to not only be as argumentative as everyone else, but the cause of numerous misunderstandings and conflicts. Meanwhile Kusaka/Kaixa is only well-rounded in the sense that he’s MEANT to be completely unlikeable (which funnily enough ends up also making him the most likeable one there), and Mihara/Delta is barely even a character. The show also has a wide supporting cast but in terms of humans the only ones that really matter are Mari and Keitarou, with the former acting mostly as the object of everyone’s affections and the latter a relatively poor attempt to add someone with a bit of cheer into the proceedings. Running parallel to the threesome of Takumi, Mari and Keitarou are the Orphnoch trio, whose roles and character traits are almost identical as well. 

The villains are a little better, though barely developed. Smart Brain’s influence as a conglomerate is implied more than shown, and for the most part Murakami has little to offer outside a generic “evil company president who wants to take over the world” character. What are more interesting are his interactions and manipulation of Lucky Clover – an elite group of Orphnochs who act as his executioners. As the episodic Orphnochs begin to decrease as the show progresses it’s this group that put up most of the opposition, and as well as being strong opponents they’re also show off their own distinct personalities with some great interactions between them (as well as an early role for Garo’s own Rei Suzumura, Ray Fujita). The Orphnoch suits themselves are more of a mixed bag – high on detail but extremely low on colour, with every one being mostly solid grey. This means you get some great looking costumes throughout the course of the show, but fitting to the tone of the show very little to brighten things up. 

Smart Brain President MurakamiSmart Brain Lady

But everything, be it good or bad, pales in comparison to the endless frustration of the cast’s complete inability to talk to each other – something fairly ironic for a show where the transformation items are phones. If the cast all had the ability to communicate clearly and honestly, most of the show’s major conflicts would be over in half the time. The worst offender being the disagreement between Takumi and Inui, which at one point becomes so ridiculous they’re having other characters pass on messages to each other for them. While a lot of it does admittedly come down to the fact Japanese culture is far more reserved when it comes to this kind of thing, a lot of it here is just so mind-numbingly stupid that it brings the story to a crashing halt. Poor communication is a common trope in Toshiki Inoue’s works, Kamen Rider 555 marks a point where it began to seriously affect storytelling, earning the show something of a reputation for it among the Rider fandom. 

The Wolf OrphnochLucky Clover in Orphnoch form

However there are some good things to be said about Kamen Rider 555, and the most important of those is the Rider Gear. As tech-based Riders the designers really went all-out on making the equipment seem both feasible and practical, with the belts all carried around in big bulky briefcases and requiring all sorts of codes and modules to perform attacks. The attention to detail even goes so far as the giving everything both Smart Brain branding and the production of actual operator manuals. On top of that the suits themselves look marvellous, sporting smooth, simple but effective designs bolstered by their glowing eyes and photon steams running across their bodies. The show is also unique in that the belts aren’t tied to one specific person, resulting in multiple users as the belts get repeatedly stolen or passed around. There’s so much good stuff going on with the Gear that it seems bizarre that the show treats most of it like it’s nothing, with power-ups met to minimal fanfare and Riders barely batting an eyelid at how absurdly powerful some of their arsenal is (Faiz’s bike is a sentient transforming robot, and Kaixa’s is a giant missile-launching mech-walker). New toys are literally handed out via the Riders having them thrown at them. The obvious toy shilling of the newer Kamen Rider series isn’t the answer, but neither is being so blasé that the show’s supposedly show-stopping action moments fail to invoke any sort of emotion whatsoever. 

Kamen Rider Faiz Axel FormKamen Rider Faiz Blaster Form

But ultimately the biggest problem with Kamen Rider 555 is just how damn grim it is. The entire show feels like an exercise in making its cast be as miserable as possible, immediately quashing any kind of happiness that might come their way in the harshest of ways. If Kiba’s introduction in the first episode wasn’t enough to confirm this, then Yuka’s certainly is. Admittedly the same can be said about Kuuga and Agito (and to a lesser extent Ryuki) when it comes to all the deaths in the show, but the difference is those series had the endless beam of optimism that was Yusuke Godai and the dorky double act of Shouichi and Hikawa. 555 doesn’t really have a character like that outside of however the writers wanted Keitarou/Kaidou to act each week. 

Kamen Rider 555 goes to show that just because you have some of the best suits in the entire franchise doesn’t mean you’re the best show. Despite an interesting setup full of potential, the series is immediately weighed down with unlikeable characters, bad storytelling and an over-reliance on frustrating human drama that goes around in an endless circle. The human element is an important factor in any successful Kamen Rider series, but here it’s been prioritised over everything else without even being done well in the process. There’s definitely a good show in here somewhere, but you’ll have to dig pretty deep to find it.

12 comments:

Lolingstar said...

It seems that Kamen Riders with cool suits have a habit of having terrible stories, lol.

Alex said...

Ha, I can get behind that! Kabuto was pretty much the same for me too.

FireFury190 said...

It's kind of funny. The shows that have silly designs, concepts, and gimmicks have better stories. Yet shows that have cooler and badass designs, concepts and gimmicks tend to have the weaker stories. It really does come down to never judging a book by its cover.

G.G. C.Y. said...

It's really refreshing to hear someone who dislikes 555, I hear 555 is very beloved and very few people dislike it

Alex said...

Yeah Faiz is quite a weird series in that I know a lot of people personally that hate it for the same reasons I disliked it, but do a general search of reviews or fan consensus and it seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Just because of that I was kinda glad I could throw a more negative review into the mix.

putu gede budiartha said...

I agree with your review, everything's goes wrong after the introduction of delta gear and a lot of different users of it. But at least Faiz's paradise lost movie is quite good and I think its plot is far better than the series's

putu gede budiartha said...

Oh and yeah I hope you cover Den-O and Kiva to complete your heisei rider review at least hhe and I also want to know your opinion about those two series

Alex said...

The reason I didn't mention Paradise Lost in my review is because hopefully I want to go back and do a proper review sometime for it to do it justice, because it was AWESOME. Definitely one of my all time favourite Rider movies, and everything the series should have been.

As for Den-O and Kiva, they'll hopefully be coming soon. I've got a couple of Ultra shows Im going to check out first, but they'll definitely be next on the list after those.

MarsHottentot said...

I didn't hate Faiz but, I certainly don't disagree with anything you say - and you didn't even touch on how sloppy the production was - crew members in shots, primarily. And Kusaka's potleaf pendant!

So bleak!

Anyway, I can't wait for you to take on Kiva - it's the, hands down, worst Rider show (you know my thoughts!).

NovaHyou said...

I didn't hate FAIZ either, but I certainly agree with 80% of what's said in this review. It's not a good series, and only someone with either poor analytical reasoning or blinded by nostalgia can say it's good. There are certainly good things in it (the suits are amazing, Kiba's actor was one of the best ones I've seen in the franchise, the initial 10 episodes are great), but it's not a pleasant watch by the time you're done with it. The movie, however, is great!

Having said all that, at least I could FINISH Faiz....Kabuto is by far the worst rider series I've ever tried watching and the only one I dropped. Awful beyond expectations.

MarsHottentot said...

You all need to watch the Faiz Hyper Battle. Essential, especially after finishing the actual series. Needed even.

Badbufon said...

just watched it... damn, the show goes downhill after episode 25... it picks up a little around 40, and then goes down, down, down... and that open ending, are you kidding me?. what a shame.

indeep bitching :

lucky clover was awful, even if they had little characters, they are bland and boring, trying too hard to be cool, and, that's ok for 10 episodes at best, not 30 or 40, seriously the black guy had 3 lives, but everyone else was plain inmortal... kiba being the bad guy? even worse... masato has too much screen time, and delta was ... a thing... it not only goes from being a most powerful gear to a sidekick, it was hinted to being used by a girl, and then goes hand to hand until a nobody uses it... fuck that shit.