Sunday 11 January 2015

Movie REVIEW: Kikaider REBOOT

Kikaider REBOOT

While not every classic tokusatsu hero has proved to have the staying power of Kamen Rider or Super Sentai, one way or another many of them have been revived over the last few years. The Metal Heroes' Space Sheriffs received continuation in the form of a new movie and a handful of v-cinema spin-offs, while the likes of Inazuman, Space Ironmen Kyodain, Azumaizer-3 and La Belle Fille Masquée Poitrine have all found new life in recent Kamen Rider movie outings. But other than a quick cameo in OOO, Den-O, All Riders: Let's Go Kamen Riders, Kikaider and company haven't had a live-action project since 1995's Mechanical Violator Hakaider. This all changed in 2014, with the arrival of Kikaider REBOOT - a brand new cinematic reboot of the popular Shotaro Ishinomori hero. It's clear that the character's popularity hasn't wavered in Hawaii either, with Generation Kikaida officially releasing the movie on DVD in the US shortly after its home video release in Japan. So make no mistake, Kikaider is still a big deal.

Jiro, Mitsuko and Masaru
Camping with robots: A Kohmyoji holiday

In the not too distant future, the brilliant scientist Doctor Kohmyoji heads up the ARK Project - a plan to advance the field of robotics and create machines that can help resolve the problems humanity faces. Shortly after disagreement with fellow scientist Gilbert Kanzaki and Japanese Defense Minister Tsubakiya over how these robots should be used, Kohmyoji is killed in an accident and the project is taken over.

One year later Kohmyoji's children Mitsuko and Masaru are targeted by armed men, saved only by the intervention of Jiro (aka Kikaider) - the Doctor's prototype robot who inexplicably went missing following his death. Built with a Conscience Circuit to help him learn human behaviour and the difference between right and wrong, Jiro's mission is to project Kohmyoji's children - who unaware to them hold the secrets of their father's research. Hunting them down is not only this armed force, but also the deadly female android Mari and Hakaider - the ultimate vision of Professor Gill's work.

Professor Gill
Not quite the same without the beard is it?

There's always been a colourful and campy charm about tokusatsu/henshin heroes, making gritty, serious and/or realistic remakes not something tried very often (and when they are, the results are usually more miss than hit). But if the manga and anime prove anything, Kikaider is one of the few franchises that lends itself to this approach very well. REBOOT completely runs with this idea, ridding itself of some of the more improbable concepts that were a staple of the original idea. The cliché evil organisation DARK is gone, not replaced by a terrorist organisation but instead a government project twisting Kohmyoji's original ideals (ARK to DARK....get it?). This is a pretty big change that spurs the story of Kikaider in a different direction, even though its still fundamentally telling the same story. 

Likewise REBOOT and actor Jingi Irie's interpretation of Jiro/Kikaider is rather different from the original, playing up the robotic side of the character more than his human tendencies. In my eyes this makes REBOOT Kikaider feel like a less advanced version of the character, fitting in well with the attempted "realism" of the whole piece (I'll stop saying that now, because Kikaider REBOOT is still rather far from realistic). Irie is really able to capture the awkward robot side of Jiro well, but the human element leaves a bit to be desired. The Conscience Circuit, arguably the most important aspect of Kikaider as a character, is played in a very strange way - acting more as an inhibitor to stop Jiro from harming others than being a means for him to realise himself that it's wrong. It's something that could be largely ignored if not for the climactic finale, in which to defeat the far stronger Hakaider Jiro does something that Kikaider should never do. For a film that otherwise manages to capture the spirit of Kikaider in a very different way, this little fact feels like a huge misstep and didn't really need to happen at all. Hakaider's acknowledgement of the fact gives it context, but that doesn't really make it any more acceptable.

A design that never seems to age

Meanwhile, Professor Gill has undergone a similar amount of changes - coming out considerably less imposing but definitely more interesting. While the old Gill was largely a one-note tokusatsu big-bad, this Gill is more a disgruntled scientist that been brought onto the ARK Project simply to live in Kohmyoji's shadow (both in life and death). Of course it wouldn't be Gill without a superiority complex, and it isn't long before he's throwing his brain into his ultimate creation and running amuck.  Gill Hakaider has never struck me as a particularly interesting version of Hakaider (mostly because usually it's just Gill in a robot body) but seeing Gill as barely part of DARK at all really gives him a different edge. When Gill puts his brain in Hakaider, he becomes Hakaider - a perfect amalgamation of man and machine that stands above both. 

The roles of Mitsuko and Masaru remain largely unchanged, however Mitsuko is more typical of girls her age - the flare she shows for robotics in the original only surfacing at the very end of the film. Her relationship with Jiro doesn't quite reach the levels it does in other Kikaider media, which arguably works better considering the distain she shows for the cause of her father's neglect (robotics). Hattori Hanpei has gone from a private detective to web journalist, uncovering the conspiracy behind Kohmyoji's death in a role that's really mostly there just to get the film's exposition out there in a natural way. A new addition to the cast is Kohmyoji's old colleague and mentor Kyujiro Maeno, played by original Kikaider star Daisuke Ban. Other than being there to offer Kikaider's necessary dose of moral psychology, Kyujiro plays a bit of a baffling role in the film (he says himself he's not a robotics expert, yet can somehow repair a battered Jiro?). But superfluous as it may be, it certainly beats the two-minute cameo I expected the original Jiro to get.

Hanpei and Kyujiro with Jiro
Jiro...fixing Jiro...

The other main character worthy of note is Mari - better known as the "human" form of Bijinder from Kikaider 01. Sadly there's no renewed Bijinder suit in the movie, but Mari has been reborn as a deadly yet sexy fighting machine. A little cliché perhaps, but when her fight sequence manages to somehow outclass the final showdown between Kikaider and Hakaider then they've definitely done something right. Not only was it a surprise to see her included to begin with, but she was definitely the character I was left wanting more of. 

Laugh at my pink costume now why don't you?

Most importantly, Kikaider REBOOT is an INCREDIBLY stylish film. Very often tokusatsu/henshin hero movie projects can end up simply feeling like extended episodes rather than big budget outings, but REBOOT feels like a movie project from start to finish. It isn't completely void of pacing problems - the first 20 minutes feel especially rushed and the one year timeskip seems like a bit much (though it gives Jiro a bit of time to run around in Kamen Rider Gaim). The effects are a little ropey in places too, but overall the project certainly feels like a bigger budget take on things. The new Kikaider and Hakaider costumes are gorgeous, and the fight sequences suitably flashy. Kikaider may not have any fancy transformation sequence in this film, but enough flare has been packed into every other ounce of it to make up for things. While the story may have a few missteps, the visuals are a treat from start to finish.

While it doesn't quite retain the heart of the original, Kikaider REBOOT is a really enjoyable that otherwise encompasses everything that makes the Kikaider franchise so great. It genuinely feels like a spectacle to be awed at, and with such an ambiguous ending (not to mention that mid-credits sequence) it would be a massive shame for this renewed universe not to be revisited. If the Space Sheriffs can get their continuation after the mixed reception to Gavan, then this deserves the same opportunity. 

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