Thursday, 27 June 2019

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Den-O

Kamen Rider Den-O

The Heisei era of Kamen Rider has produced a number of highly popular series over the years, but of all the success stories there's one that truly stands out amongst the rest. First airing back in 2007, Kamen Rider Den-O not only spawned a 49 episode series, anime spinoffs, seven direct movies (four of which released under their own "New Den-O" banner), as well as prominence in significant crossover productions like OOO, Den-O, All Riders: Let's Go Kamen Riders and the first Super Hero Taisen. Its lead actor Takeru Satoh has gone on to have the most successful acting career of all the Heisei Kamen Riders, yet the popularity of the series allowed it to endure even when he was no longer able to continue to play the role. This of course made his surprise cameo in Heisei Generations FOREVER a particularly big deal. So what is it about Den-O that's made it so well loved? The series was written by tokusatsu veteran Yasuko Kobayashi (who's key writing works include Kamen Riders Ryuki, OOO and Amazons) and served as the eighth Heisei Kamen Rider series and 17th overall.

Ryotaro NogamiThe DenLiner

Ryotaro Nogami is a kind-hearted by extremely unlucky young man, whose life gets even stranger when he finds a mysterious train pass and possessed by a hot-headed monster who agrees to grant any wish he desires. This monster is an Imagin named Momotaros, who doesn't know that Ryotaro is a Singularity Point – able to exist independently of time and unaffected by any changes made to his past. Using the pass to board the time-travelling DenLiner, Ryotaro fights alongside Momotaros as Kamen Rider Den-O – battling evil Imagin who have travelled back to alter the past.

Through their travels Ryotaro meets and forms contracts with other Imagin – the silver-tongued Urataros, the herculean Kintaros and the childish Ryutaros – all of whom unlock further abilities as Den-O. He also encounters Kamen Rider Zeronos and his Imagin partner Deneb, whose identity is a younger version of Yuto Sakurai – his sister's fiancĂ© who strangely disappeared prior to the events of the series. These mysteries are all tied to both the actions of the Imagin and the Junction Point, an unknown person who will affect the flow of time and the future it heads in.

A Momotaros-possesed RyotaroThe Imagin - Kintaros, Ryutaros, Urataros and Momotaros

Despite being the eighth in the string of Heisei era shows, Kamen Rider Den-O is interesting because its success would dictate the format of the show for several years to come. Not only did it popularise the two-part "monster of the week" structure that proceeding shows would follow, but it was also the one to properly throw large CGI vehicle battles into the mix. Kamen Rider Hibiki dabbled with these ideas, but Den-O was the one to cement them. It wouldn’t be until Kamen Rider Gaim seven years later that the episode format was eventually broken. But while future shows would often be hampered by the two-part structure, it isn't hard to see why it was adopted when Den-O simply thrives on it. The simple monster/victim of the week format allows for a variety of different stories to be told, but more importantly takes the focus away from a heavy narrative and places it on something far more integral to the heart of Den-O – its characters.

At the centre of it all you have Ryotaro, and it's no wonder that Takeru Satoh has gone on to have such a successful career when you watch him effortlessly play seven different versions of the character over the course of the series. Ryotaro journeys from becoming a meek, unlucky boy into a true hero – bringing his Imagin family over to his side, accepting his role as Den-O and eventually learning to fight using his own strength. This latter development is an interesting twist on the usual format for Rider final forms, as the significance of Liner Form is the focus rather than its strength. Kamen Rider has repeatedly shown that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s something especially relatable about Ryotaro. His luck truly is terrible and he isn’t physically that strong, but he constantly gets back up when he’s knocked down and continues to do the right thing. So moments where he heads into battle without one of the Taros supporting him prove to be especially good, as it shows just how of a hero he really is.

The many forms of Kamen Rider Den-OOwner

However Ryotaro alone isn't enough to carry the show, and the fact the Imagin were able to continue it after Satoh left the role is a testament to just how good they are. Each of them have their own distinct temperament, not only making them perfect foils for each other but also adding so much else to the flavour of the show. Ryotaro (and in turn Satoh) get to show off a range of different styles outside of the core character, which then stretches to how Den-O's various forms are also perceived. Each Imagin commands a different form, and given how different their looks and fighting styles are they're practically different Riders in their own right. Even simply giving them their own different versions of the battle music in different genres goes a long way to highlight the variety Den-O has despite technically only having two Riders. As Imagin they’re all supposed to be villains, but just as how they teach Ryotaro to become stronger they also become better people through spending time with him. Just as Liner form has special significance for Ryotaro as an individual, Climax form (where all four Imagin possess his body) symbolises the familial bond they develop. Of course above all it also helps that the Imagin are also just ridiculously fun to watch whatever they’re doing. Whether it's simply watching them bicker aboard the DenLiner or more absurd notions like Ryutaros' ability to summon a posse of breakdancers at the click of his fingers, they never fail to steal any scene that they're in.

The arrival of Kamen Rider Zeronos brings an injection of plot, as well as two new characters that fit the dynamic of the series perfectly. Yuto is everything Ryotaro initially isn’t when it comes to being a Rider - brash, confident and as he likes to remind his opponents, fairly strong. They do butt heads, but it isn’t in an off-putting “rival Riders” sort of way nor do they suddenly become best friends all of a sudden. The DenLiner is fairly crowded as it is, so having Yuto be a core part of the show but also kind of doing his own thing works well. Meanwhile Deneb is every bit as loveable as Ryotaro’s Imagin posse, maybe even more. A clumsy goofball with an absolute heart of gold, he’s the surrogate monster parent everyone wishes they had.

Deneb and Yuto SakuraiKamen Rider Zeronos

Even the side characters are extremely memorable, even if some of them are mainly there simply for the fun of it. Ryotaro's sister Airi becomes quite important to the plot later on, but before then she's a sweet kind-hearted woman much in the same vein to Ryotaro himself. Owner is important in that he provides the DenLiner and explains the minutiae of time travel, but above all he's simply a strange, enigmatic figure that supplies of brilliantly surreal comic moments. Likewise Naomi's primary function is to serve unusually coloured coffee to the cast, but doesn't ever feel out of place or wasted in such a limited role. But perhaps the most interesting case of them all is Hana, another Singularity Point from a future destroyed by the Imagin. As she travels aboard the DenLiner time fluctuations cause her body to change to that of a ten year old midway through the series, which behind the scenes was due to actress Yuriko Shiratori departing due to health issues. Despite such a huge change to the character, the combination of the story and fantastic acting of Tamaki Matsumoto absolutely convince you that she’s the same character. It’s a shame that she’s mainly relegated to an advisory role in the series and her hatred of the Imagin isn’t explored quite as much as it could be, but like the rest of the DenLiner crew the series just wouldn’t be the same without her.

There is one character that doesn't stand out the same way the others do though, and unfortunately it’s the one that highlights Den-O's most notable flaw). When Kai, the primary antagonist of the series (played by a young Hideo Ishiguro, who would go on to play Gai Kurenai in Ultraman Orb), arrives on the scene the story begins to take a more structured approach as it heads towards its endgame. However Kai simply doesn't have the charisma or screen presence to making a particularly engaging villain, and his overall scheme doesn't have urgency it perhaps should as it reaches its climax. The emotion is certainly there, but that's less because of what the villain is doing and more because of how invested you've become in the DenLiner crew by this point. It's a shame because the earlier episodes prove Den-O never needed to rely on an overarching narrative, and if it could have perhaps found a way to continue this on with just a big finale at the end it would been much better off for it.

(Adult) Hana(Child) Hana

Like any series that tries to tackle the subject, the exact working of time travel is another of Den-O's shortcomings. It works much better in the earlier episodes when the series is playing loosely with its overall plot and the Imagin's motivations are straightforward, but as Zeronos is brought in and the show begins to deal with erasing memories and junction points things begin to get convoluted. Though all the key points don't go unexplained, suddenly every detail matters and it's very easy to get loss if you miss a line or don't watch parts more than once. Tying everything back to train imagery gives it narrative consistency, but also limits exposition as well. However it's important to note that at the very least Den-O sets out its rules very clearly and sticks to them, something many other time travel shows often struggle to do. There are even times it uses this confusion to its advantage, particularly as it leads into the I'm Born movie with a number of scenes that only make sense once you've seen the film.

The action and choreography in the series is excellent, again supported by just how different they’ve made each of Den-O’s forms look and feel. The same can also be said of the Imagin, who are all mostly based on animals but display a nice variety of styles across the show. The Taros (along with Sieg and Deneb) also share similar aesthetics, but their bright colours and Japanese folklore inspiration (or in Sieg’s case, Swan Lake) put them into a class of their own. As previously mentioned some battles also end in big CGI-laden fights mutated “Gigandeath” Imagin, which are somewhat superfluous but do let loose the stranger side of the show’s merchandising. If you’ve ever wanted to see train carriages suddenly transform into heavy artillery or animals, then you’ve come to the right place.

KaiSieg

Fitting for a series involving a time-travelling train, Kamen Rider Den-O is a series where the journey is far more important than the destination. Though the combination of an underwhelming antagonist and time travel logistics steer it towards a messy conclusion, its handling and development of the cast is second to none. You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll almost certainly struggle to choose a favourite from among them. That is exactly why Den-O has continued to thrive long after the series ended – these characters bring joy to the screen every time they appear and, as several crossovers have already proved, work wonderfully with whatever cast they meet. True to the series' mantra it starts on a climax, and hasn't really stopped since.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Let me say this to start: I'm not Kyousuke Kiriya !!!"

Anonymous said...

thanks for reviewing this! Den-O is my childhood show and I cherish it because how memorable it was.