Wednesday 4 February 2015

Movie REVIEW: Kamen Rider ZO

Kamen Rider ZO

Kamen Rider may have taken a somewhat lengthy television hiatus between 1989 and 2000, but that doesn't mean the franchise was completely forgotten in those 11 years. Following the V-cinema release of Shin Kamen Rider: Prologue, a cinematic film by the name of Kamen Rider ZO was released in 1993. Despite only having a 48-minute run time, this film is not only notable for being the first joint-production between Toei and Bandai but was also directed by Keita Amemiya - the man behind the Garo franchise and Mechanical Violator Hakaider. Not only that, but the film also received an official English dub in the form of a (critically panned) Sega CD game - released in the US as The Masked Rider: Kamen Rider ZO.

Masaru Aso/Kamen Rider ZO
Everything needs a giant creepy grasshopper friend

After spending two years in a coma in a deep forest, Masaru Aso awakens to a telepathic message telling him to "protect Hiroshi Mochizuki". With the ability to transform the grasshopper-like being Kamen Rider ZO, Masaru returns to civilisation to find Hiroshi under attack from the Neo Organism lifeform known as Doras. ZO is able to defeat Doras in battle, but Hiroshi fears this mysterious man that has sworn to protect him. As the scientific experiments of Hiroshi's father are unravelled, the truth of the Neo Organism is revealed along the origins of Masaru's mutant abilities.

Still alive from it's first encounter with ZO, Doras retaliates by sending out two monsters to once again attempt to capture Hiroshi. When the boy is kidnapped, Kamen Rider ZO must face off against Doras once again to stop it from destroying the "inferior lifeform" known as humanity.

Hiroshi under attack
The right reaction when faced with a giant monster

After the poor reception to Kamen Rider Shin, Kamen Rider ZO was originally intended to kick off a brand new generation of Kamen Riders. Though the specifics differ in a lot of key places, the overall story quite clearly pays homage to the original Kamen Rider in all the right ways. The trouble is other than hitting these right notes, there isn't a whole lot to actually say about the plot of Kamen Rider ZO. 48-minutes is already a very short time to tell a detailed story as it is, so it doesn't help that little of the plot is explained until the latter half of the film. The first 20 minutes or so especially you just have to go with the flow, because there's barely dialogue to connect all the action scenes together. Right from the get-go we have Masaru naked in the forest, waking up to a creepy giant grasshopper and immediately leaving on his "mission" to protect Hiroshi. At the same time, Doras has pretty much appeared pretty out of nowhere and we're only treated to snippets of what it is and what the hell it wants. When it all begins to piece together you'll realise that there isn't actually very much to it at all, but nearly half the length of the film is a pretty long time to keep your audience in the dark.

Doras the exploras

This wouldn't be so bad if the characters were enough to keep things interesting, but sadly there isn't a whole lot to them either. Masaru makes for a passable Kamen Rider, but as an actual character has nothing to him other than an origin story and a mission to protect a child he doesn't even know. Being an honourable hero is one thing, but when a mad scientist turns you into a grasshopper man which leads you to going into a two year coma a bit more internal conflict should be expected. Hiroshi meanwhile is your typical tokusatsu child victim, not really having any particular defining traits to him whatsoever. The bulk of the film also lacks a significant villain voice too, with Doras being of the "snarling monstrosity" type of Kamen Rider enemy rather than one of the more verbose ones. The Neo Organism isn't all teeth and growling though, showing up in the film's final act in a suitably nightmarish form and chilling child-like voice. It is Keita Amemiya after all.

The Koumari Man makes his introduction
Suddenly that Pan's Labyrinth scene isn't looking all that iconic is it?

Speaking of Amemiya, you can at the very least count on Kamen Rider ZO to be a visual spectacle. Where the plot fails, the costumes and effects are there to pick up the slack. ZO himself has a simple yet effect suit design, taking things in a more organic direction with an insect skin-like bodysuit and no belt to break things up. Meanwhile Doras takes things in the opposite direction, presenting him as the antithesis of ZO both visually and morally. Just like Kamen Rider Shin had shown off the year before, Doras is a grotesque monstrosity covered head to toe in all sorts of textures and detailing. The film itself doesn't even give you ample opportunity to take in just how much work probably went into the suit. Likewise the Koumari Man and Kumo Woman (homages to Kamen Rider's original bat and spider kaijins) costumes are typical Amemiya nightmare fuel - the latter providing some fantastic stop motion sequences that really show off what the tokusatsu medium is all about. So even if you walk away from Kamen Rider ZO with little to say about the story, the visuals are memorable enough to keep the film in your mind.

The Kumo Woman attacks
It's okay, I didn't plan on sleeping tonight anyway

The other impressive aspect to Kamen Rider ZO is the budget. The overall running time of these tokusatsu "movies" is often questionable, but when you see scenes like Doras wreck an entire street with explosions happening all around him it's clear that there's more to this that just being an extended television episode or V-cinema entry. Amemiya really knows how to savour the money shots too - it isn't until the very end we get a proper "henshin" sequence for ZO and he's arguably cemented as a proper Kamen Rider.

Though it's characters and narrative may be a bit thin on the ground, Kamen Rider ZO takes the core themes of the original Kamen Rider story and compacts it down into an easily digestible format. Keita Amemiya never fails to please in the visuals department and this film is certainly no exception - building upon the great VFX work in Kamen Rider Shin and kicking them up a notch once again. Even if it was unable to kick off a new generation on Kamen Rider works like intended, ZO remains an interesting little 90s oddity that shows the franchise was still very much alive and kicking even in its quietest period.

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