Sunday 16 November 2014

Series REVIEW: Kikaider 01

Kikaider 01

In a time before Super Sentai and still the early years of Kamen Rider, there was another Shotaro Ishinomori hero winning children's hearts across Japan. And with the original Android Kikaider proving a success, it's no surprise that it was immediately followed up with a sequel series. Kikaider 01 saw a brand new two-toned robotic hero take up the fight against evil, running for a total of 46 episodes between 1973 and 1974.

Picking up sometime after the original Kikaider series, Hakaider returns now hosting the brain of Professor Gill! Creating three new Hakaiders using DARK's greatest minds, the newly-formed Hakaider Squad turn their attention toward world domination. Sensing great danger, Kikaider 01 (Kikaider's older brother, also created by Doctor Kohmyoji) awakens from his hibernation inside a statue to defend Japan from the Hakaider Squad. Hakaider's main target is Akira - a young boy suffering from amnesia, but apparently holds a powerful secret.

As Kikaider 01 (who untransformed goes by the name of Ichiro) continues his battles against Hakaider, another evil organisation by the name of SHADOW emerges - also showing interest in Akira's secret. When Hakaider reluctantly joins SHADOW in the advent of his organisation's defeat, the truth behind Akira and his estranged brother Hiroshi is fully revealed! Kikaider 01's battle against SHADOW continues as he is both aided and opposed by even more androids - the fierce female robot Binjinder and the deadly samurai assassin Waruder.

Ichiro, the "human" form of 01
Robo nii-san

Kikaider 01 is a series that can rather succinctly be divided into three parts. The first third deals with 01's battles against the Hakaider Squad, the second marks the arrival of SHADOW and the effective conclusion to the Akira/Hiroshi storyline while the final third continues the fight against SHADOW while introducing Bijinder and Waruder into the mix. These three parts also vary quite drastically in quality, progressing from a rather slow start into a much more enjoyable sequel series. So if anything, Kikaider 01's biggest problem as a series is that it takes some time to decide exactly what it wants to be.

The first third (which I will refer to as the "Hakaider Squad arc" for the sake of clarity) is where 01 mostly tries to emulate the format of the original show, right down to the letter. You have the evil organisation, the monster-of-the-week, the ongoing amnesia subplot and even the comedic side character whose name is constantly said wrong (although photographer Gunta Momochi isn't a patch on Hatori Hanpei). And just like Kikaider had his weakness to Gill's flute that was shoehorned into every episode, Kikaider 01's weakness is that he's solar powered - meaning any time it just happens to get dark he's as weak as a kitten. Ignoring the fact that this seems like a very significant weakness for a robot meant to fight evil (he is meant to be an older design than Jiro I suppose), this is also shoehorned into every episode - to the point where they just give Hakaider the power to create dark clouds just to make Ichiro's life difficult. It makes for incredibly predictable viewing when its just recycling EXACTLY the same format as the original show. None of the characters are anywhere near as likeable as the original cast either, which also doesn't help things much.

The Hakaider Squad
Mechanical Sentai Hakaiger

As it turns out Ichiro is actually a pretty great lead character, it's just these early episodes have Jiro making an appearance in every episode to help 01 out when he's in a pinch. Great if you're a big fan of the original Kikaider, but having him constantly show up makes the titular hero seem kind of inept. Eventually Daisuke Ban (the actor who plays Jiro/Kikaider) would go off to star in Inazuman, giving Ichiro a chance to shine on his own. While Jiro was up as a little bit of a loner conflicted with just how human he was, Ichiro is more like everyone's loveable big brother. Lacking the problems that come with an incomplete conscience circuit, Kikaider 01 is more akin to the typical "hero of justice" protagonists.

The one character from the original series who is a mainstay of Kikaider 01 is Hakaider, who is VERY different from how he was originally portrayed. While Saburo Hakaider (the original which used Kohmyoji's brain) was more of an unstoppable force driven by his sole goal of destroying Kikaider. Gill Hakaider on the other hand is much more of a typical villain, and like the man whose brain he's taken on is prone to lots of monologues and evil laughter. This Hakaider is much more thug-like in demeanour, taking pleasure in destroying anything and everything around him for the sake of evil. By the time the Hakaider Squad has bowed out and SHADOW are the main villains of the show, Hakaider settles down comfortably into a lead henchman role. Initially he's still pretty fun to watch as he stubbornly makes life difficult for both 01 and SHADOW, but as the episodes run by there's less and less to actually enjoy about him. He certainly has his moments, but isn't quite the fascinating morally-grey character he once was.

Big Shadow & Zaram
Not particularly big, but certainly shadowy

Moving into the second section of the series we come to the arrival of SHADOW, who are truly the replacement DARK after the brief interlude that was the Hakaider Squad. At first their true leader is shrouded in mystery, so it's the cycloptic Shadow Knight who takes centre stage. Completely overwhelming the Hakaider Corps and giving 01 a run for his money (as well as his human persona being the very definition of style in his white tuxedo and top hat), it's a really strong entrance for a character who would sadly go out rather unfittingly. He and Hakaider share a great rivalry until his demise, bickering and at odds with each other even when they're working together. His eventual replacement is Zadam, who's twin-body design turns out to be a lot more underwhelming than it sounds. Even more underwhelming is the reveal of SHADOW's great leader Big Shadow, who is just some evil guy that likes to wear ridiculous clothing and just about as cliche villain as you can get.

But what makes SHADOW's plots more interesting than DARK's is that they aren't so heavily preoccupied with "monsters", with many of their robotic threats taking humanoid appearances as shaman, red indians and more. It's every bit possible that this was more of a cost-cutting method than a narrative one, as judging by the times weekly monsters did show up it was clear that the regular suits (the Kikaiders, Hakaiders, Shadow Knight, Zadam and later Bijinder and Waruder) were probably eating up the budget. Still, it makes for much more varied viewing than the usual "see new monster, fight new monster, beat new monster, rise/repeat" format these shows usually have.

This third is also where the ongoing plot with Akira is finally resolved, with him being united with his older brother Hiroshi and their secret being revealed. In turn we say goodbye to regular character Rieko, a mysterious woman and master of disguise who also helps protect Akira from SHADOW's clutches. After her rather unceremonious exit, the two children are left in the care of Misao - a pickpocket who until then has acted as Hiroshi's guardian. From here on out the three characters are still very much part of Kikaider 01, but their roles are heavily reduced to mostly being comic relief that have very little bearing on the plot itself. Which is probably for the best as their subplot seems to take forever to run its course.

Not quite the same aesthetic as the Kikaider bros. is it?

The final third of Kikaider 01 is undoubtedly it's strongest section, thanks to the arrival of Bijinder and Waruder. Bijinder is a SHADOW robot created to destroy 01, but in true Kikaider style has been built to a rather interesting blueprint. While Binjinder is a ruthless fighter driven to defeat her enemy, her human persona of Mari is a kind-hearted person who wouldn't hurt a soul (an element SHADOW planned to use to lure Ichiro in). After a few encounters Ichiro is able to install an incomplete conscience circuit (just like Jiro's) in her, giving her the ultimate decision of whether she continues to follow SHADOW or make her own decisions. She's an exceptionally well-fleshed out female character (something that's rare even now), receiving heaps of development as well as kicking some serious ass. Binjinder isn't a damsel in distress character that's for sure. She does however have a bomb fitted in her that will explode if the third button of her jacket is undone, make for some rather awkward moments.

But as strong a character as Bijinder may be, Waruder is hands down the best element in all of Kikaider 01. A wandering samurai robot that's tasked with taking down 01 once and for all, his gimmick is that he's COMPLETELY incapable of telling right from wrong. Not only is he constantly doubting himself, but in many instances he also does noble actions only for them to end up serving evil purposes (and vice versa). The only things he's able to stand by is his strict code of honour and his love for Bijinder, the latter of which he naturally doesn't understand. In many ways he's a lot like the original series' Hakaider, only with far more neuroses and complexities.

Hakaider doesn't take well to the new best character

After a such a strong stretch of episodes that rely less on SHADOW's latest plan and more about the ongoing struggles of the show's robotic cast, it's a shame to see Kikaider 01 churn out such an underwhelming final episode. Not only does Jiro make a return to fight alongside his brother, but Doctor Kohmyoji is back as well. However the final fight against Big Shadow, Hakaider and Zadam proves rather anticlimactic, with none of them really putting up a fight at all and then our three heroes happily looking toward the future.

Kikaider 01 is a show that does take some patience, especially when it's opening section is the weakest aspect of it. However if you're able to overcome that initial slog then you'll be rewarded with some excellent characters in a series that's able to stand on its own merits despite not quite reaching the bar set by its predecessor.

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