Saturday, 7 March 2020

Series REVIEW: Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger

Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger

Super Sentai isn't in the best of states right now. Though through all the speculation about falling ratings and declining toy sales the only ones who really know what it means are Bandai, Toei and TV-Asahi, it's at least fair to say it's place in the tokusatsu pecking order has changed somewhat. But it's been long since thought that when the franchise is trouble it always has the sure fire success of dinosaurs to fall back on, rolling the motif out for a fourth time might not bode a whole lot of confidence. Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger is the 43rd entry in the Super Sentai franchise, with the dinosaur theme having last been used back in 2013 with Zyuden Sentai Kyoryuger. The production side of things also saw a something of a shake-up too, with plenty of faces new to Sentai brought on board to give it a fresh new feel. This series marks the tokusatsu debut of J-drama writer Junpei Yamaoka, and was directed by Kazuya Kamihoriuchi – a man who particularly caught the attention of viewers for his work on Kamen Rider Build.


The five RyusolgersArrival of the Druidons

65 million years ago, the Ryusoul Tribe waged war against the evil Druidon Tribe – with the conflict eventually ended by the meteor that ended the age of the dinosaurs. As the Druidons fled into space, the Ryusoul Tribe prepared for the eventuality that they may one day return – sealing away the power of the Kishiryu as the mantle of the Ryusoulgers was passed down through the generations.

When the Druidons return to reclaim the Earth, the chosen knights must come together to defeat them once and for all. Able to call upon a wide variety of powers from mystical RyuSouls as well as the guardian Kishiryu, the Ryusoulgers fight back against the Druidons and their army of Minosaurs – creatures created from and powered by the negative emotions of human hosts.

Six Knights unitedCanalo, Ryusoul Gold

First episodes are very rarely representative of a Super Sentai series as a whole, but with all the stops Toei pulled out for the Ryusoulger premiere it was hard not to be excited for the "similar but different" approach they seemed to be taking. The opening episode was steeped in Gingaman-esque lore about the Ryusoul knights, the fights were flashy and the mecha introduction burst with an fast-paced energy that's seldom seen in the franchise. It seemed like the direction that Super Sentai needed to be heading it, and the focus on human despair (even branching down into darker topics like suicide) gave the stories an additional weight that kept things interesting for older fans as well. The heavier themes often counteracted with some of the show's sillier elements, but arguably Super Sentai  is at its best when it at least tries to balance these two elements. Ryusoulger had scope and it had ideas, and given the move away from the usual production staff many hoped this would lead to a more standout, less predictable show.

However things rarely turn out the way fans hope, and it didn't take long for Ryusoulger to start showing cracks in that dinosaur-themed armour. The show may have had ideas, but they certainly weren't enough to carry it through a full 48-episode run. Usually when a Sentai series ends some fan out there in the world will come up with a list of only the "core" story episodes, exclaiming that for viewers who don't want to sit through the whole thing these are the episodes you'd need to see to get the general gist of it. Personally I've never been a fan of that approach - even though Super Sentai series usually contain a lot of episodes viewers try to write off as "filler", those episodes usually have some nuance to them and are great for individual character development that the main story just doesn't allow for. Ryusoulger on the other hand I fully endorse this approach. Half of the show is absolute gold that really shouldn't be missed, while the other half is completely forgettable.

Max Ryusoul RedUi

Red-centricity is often considered a major issue for Super Sentai, but ultimately the red ranger is generally considered to be the main character so there's also going to be some bias toward him no matter what. It's only those times where it comes at the expense of the entire team and the Red Ranger is seemingly relied on for everything that it's a real problem. Ryusoulger does a pretty good job of bypassing this, so while it may show some preference toward Koh and having him directly lead the team as Ryusoul Red the series still feels like a team effort that gives everyone a distinct place. Koh is basically placed as the everyman - the happy go lucky but highly skilled warrior that can be innocent and cheery one minute but still give a hot-blooded speech about the values of truth and justice when the time is right. He gets the most power ups and is the centre of the biggest storylines, but most of the times these are the parts of Ryusoulger that are actually worth remembering. Backing him up directly are Melto/Ryusoul Blue and Asuna/Ryusoul Pink, who as the first three introduced in the series definitely feel like the core unit of the show. Melto gets the short end of the stick when it comes to specific arcs the wider development of the whole team, but as their resident smart guy he's a core component that's almost always called upon for the strategy that ends up saving the day. Asuna meanwhile is much more balanced, though her role as the unconventional strong one of the team does get a little muddied as time goes on. Asuna is another character that gets some great personal moments along the way though, and another one that delivers the more memorable speeches that reinforce the Super Sentai mantra.

One of the more interesting elements of how Ryusoulger handled its team was that despite eventually bringing six knights together, they were still broken down into three groups that would go off and do their own thing. Towa/Ryusoul Green and Banba/Ryusoul Black aren't properly introduced until the third episode of the show (despite being technically the first to appear due to their cameo in Super Sentai Strongest Battle) and they're very different to the core three - almost coming off as hostile in their early appearances. Towa treats their battle against the Druidons almost like a game, while the older Banba is both stoic and pragmatic - content with sacrificing one person in the fight against the Minosaurs in order to save thousands. Really they aren't very likeable at all when they first come into the show, which is a pretty bold move to take on two of your core characters. But in usual Super Sentai fashion they do quickly adapt to being team players - Banba being much more hesitant than Towa, but under that cool guy exterior is a big ol' softy and the times the audience is reminded of that tend to be his better moments. Finally we get the obligatory sixth member in the form of Canalo/Ryusoul Gold - a descendant from the underwater-dwelling Sea Ryusoul Tribe that has distanced itself from the land tribe. While his general schtick of searching for a wife to help "repopulate the tribe" can get a little tiresome, it does also provide some genuine laughs. Canalo coming into the conflict differently to the others also gives him a different outlook, which makes him a particularly interesting character in the penultimate episode. What these three characters all have in common though is that while the Ryusoulgers do come together, they aren't always in each others pockets and before the Druidons attack are usually off doing their own thing. It's by no means an idea original to Ryusoulger, but it does make it a little more varied.

WiserueKleon

It's a shame that the group dynamic didn't work for the villains anywhere near as well. For the most part Ryusoulger seemed to be take the Gaoranger approach of having a number of different villain generals having brief stints of being the one "in charge", which would then later work towards the big bad coming in at the very end. Sadly it doesn't ever feel like it's working toward something though, and the genuinely aimless direction the series takes with the Druidons is part of the reason half of its episodes (particularly in the middle section) are just so forgettable. The Druidons are just working off of "evil race invades Earth" motivations until the very end, and there's very little to the episodes than the stock Minosaur of the Week rinse/repeat format. Characters like the flashy Wiserue and chief Minosaur maker Kleon are incredibly fun and some of the most endearing cast members Ryusoulger has to offer, but even they aren't enough to give the show a notable sense of direction. Many of the other Druidon generals just come across as standard MOTWs by comparison, which isn't helped by the fact the Minosaurs generally tend to lack their own individual voices and/or personalities. It isn't until the introduction of Pricious toward the end of the series that the story of the Druidons begins to pick up, and while what follows is engaging it comes a little too late to save them. The potential was always there, but once again there's just not enough meat on the bones to pad out a year-long series.

Compared to those more distinct groups of heroes and villains, the side characters are a far more mixed bag in comparison. Early on the Ryusoulgers befriend budding vlogger Ui and her palaeontologist father Naohisa, who offer them refuge and any help they may need in their mission. Both characters could have had plenty to offer the show, whether it be acting as a link to the wider world, an audience surrogate or simply offering a counterpoint in times of conflict. When it comes to Ui though, the show blows its load with her far too early on and then she’s just a footnote until a rather a rule exit right before the end. Having a side character become the victim of the week and contemplate suicide is a great idea for a story, doing it at episode three before the audience has even had a chance to get to know her properly is not. Her father in comparison is just very basic comic relief even when it turns out to have greater importance later on, so there’s not really much else to say there. There’s also the Ryusoul Masters, a neat concept of the show and a great excuse to bring in some surprise actor cameos, but their appearances are largely fleeting and more a focal point to highlight their corresponding Ryusoulgers. The one real outlier is Nada, a former Ryusoul apprentice and centrepiece of the show’s excellent Gaisoulg mini-arc. Nada has everything - backstory, motivation, conflict and personality. He’s the perfect character to be introduced at such a notable part of the show. But as good as he is, the arc goes by all too quickly. And as impactful as it’s ending is, not getting to see more of him is one of the show’s biggest missteps.

NadaGaisoulg

But damn, when Ryusoulger wants to be good is it is REALLY good. Those early episodes feel like a high point, but some of the ones that are in amongst that mid-point slog stand out as some of the best in recent years. Episodes 21 and 22 deal with a Minosaur plot being tied to the reappearance of Master Pink and the resurrection of the dead. It's a really heartfelt pair of episodes that touches on some heavy subjects, and despite the silliness Ryusoulger uses to balance out its drama Yamaoka's writing really shines in those more human moments. Moving forward the Nada/Gaisoulg arc has the hallmarks of the classic “evil Ranger” trope, which may not be all that original by now but never feels out of place in a dinosaur Sentai. Because Gaisoulg is detached from the Druidon side of things it’s a much tighter and focused story, with Nada’s charisma cementing the quality even further. Though the arc isn’t as long as it should be, it gives Ryusoulger a much needed boost of energy and (for those who watched the series week by week) a reminder that it still had untapped potential. But the biggest turnaround of all came right at the end of the show, which admittedly doesn’t sound like much of a selling point but is definitely a reward for those who manage to stick with it. Wiserue’s main involvement in the story concludes with a fittingly showy episode that cements him as the one of the show’s standout characters, from there launching into a string of finale episodes that just deliver action, drama and all those revelations viewers had been waiting for. While waiting for reveals like the Druidons' leader and their overall purpose may have been to the detriment of the show, condensing it all into a handful of episodes ensures that at the very least it is able to stick its landing. The penultimate episode deserves far more credit than it's ever going to be get for being one of the best modern Super Sentai episodes in a long time, and the ending itself doesn't fall too short from that either.

Visually the show remains consistently impressive, which isn’t all that surprising given Kamhouriuchi’s previous resume when it comes to tokusatsu. But when it comes to gimmickry, Ryusoulger’s desperation for toy sales is not a pretty sight. Story-wise it might have little in common with Kyoryuger but the overall execution definitely wants to replicate its success. There are so many Ryusouls that unlock different powers and armours that it’s not only almost impossible to keep track of them all, but it means none of them feel special. A few get appropriate fanfare, but when you’re seeing the Ryusoulgers don different armour episode after episode they all begin to blend into each other very quickly. The only benefit to this is that it helps tone down that red-centricity even more, because even though he gets his own personal power-up at least there are plenty of other ones to go around as well.

KishiryuOh Five KnightsKing KishiryuOh

The mecha assortment suffer from a similar problem of there being too much to keep track of, but there’s a number of other problems that come along with this Sentai staple as well. To preface, the mecha battles do look as good as people say for the most. All the robots have being designed to be more athletic than usual, allowing them to charge at enemies and develop better choreographed battles in more open spaces. In typical fashion the show does throw the very best ones at the beginning and it’s a downward curve from there, but at least they look good. Yet again both the number and combinations just stop any of them from feeling special, and even with the great visuals the mecha fights still struggle to get out of feeling obligatory rather than necessary. And while Ryusoulger is able to create a good team dynamic on the ground level, it certainly can’t when it comes to the mecha fights. The whole point of combinations feel lost when a robot can be piloted by just one or two team members, and although it technically allows for more robots to be piloted into battle (which works especially well for the finale) that sense of unity just isn’t there.

At its very best Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger has some of the best mini-arcs and singular episodes that Super Sentai has produced in years, but at its worst it’s a painfully slow series completely lacking in overall direction. It's a series of high highs and low lows, spending the majority of its running time aimless but managing to clamour back a lot of good faith for its climax. Given how inconsequential much of it feels, it's one of the few times it feels like a Super Sentai series would genuinely benefit from being abridged down to simply its core episodes. Ryusoulger isn't quite the downward curve Lupinranger vs Patranger ended up being, but it certainly isn't the revitalisation the franchise is in desperate need of either. Will Mashin Sentai Kiramager finally be the one that does the trick?

6 comments:

M said...

I could smell Gaisoulg Identidy miles before the reveal episode

Anonymous said...

My Shiny Toys Robots (Alex). Are you gonna do a Mashin Sentai Kiramager First Impressions of Episode Zero or the First Episode?

Alex said...

I will indeed! Was waiting for the first episode to be subbed and then I’ll do them together in one piece, probably going up on Tuesday!

Stephen Cassat said...

I honestly thought Ryusoulger was pretty darn good. Characters were nice, suit designs were great, and the story was good in its own right. Koh and Canalo were my favorite characters, but suit design wise, it's a tie between Bamba and Canalo.

Unknown said...

Ryusoulger was a mistake

Chengkeng said...

The show was a great hit, the story, characters, monsters they all were good. Each episode gives every character time to shine. I would rate the show 5 out of 5.