Monday 4 September 2017

First Impressions: Kamen Rider Build

Kamen Rider Build

Isn’t it amazing how quickly a year can fly by? Roughly this time last year Kamen Rider fans were looking forward to video games and medicine with Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, and now it’s the time of bottles, combos and equations with Kamen Rider Build. Written by franchise newcomer Shogo Muto and directed by Ryuta Tasaki (Kamen Rider Gaim, Gingaman, Akibaranger), the 19th Heisei Rider series (and 28th in total) may not only bring a close to this generation of Kamen Riders but will also mark a brand new timeslot for the show. As of October, Super Hero Time will be not only be moving 90 minutes forward to 9:00-10:00am JST but additionally Kamen Rider will begin airing before Super Sentai. While unlikely to bring about any real change, it is an interesting bit of trivia for those who still follow when these shows air in Japan.

Pandora's boxJapan divided

Ten years ago a mysterious artefact known as “Pandora’s Box” was excavated from Mars and brought to Earth. During a press conference celebrating its discovery, the box was activated and created the Skywall – a gigantic wall separating Japan into regions; Seito, Hokuto and Touto. In addition to a power struggle forming between the regions to control the power of Pandora’s Box, the aggression in humans is also being amplified – turning them into monsters known as Smash.

Sento Kiryu, a prodigy physicist who has no memory of the past ten years, now fights against the Smash as Kamen Rider Build – extracting their harmful components to purify into new forms and abilities. After getting a job at the Touto Institute of Advanced Matter Physics working on Pandora’s Box, Sento comes into contact with escaped convict Ryuga Banjou. After hearing Ryua’s claim that he was in fact framed and kidnapped by the mysterious Faust organisation, Sento believes he may be key in helping him recover his memories and bring him face to face with the one thing he can remember – a shadowy, bat-like figure.

Sento KiryuKamen Rider Build

Before we move onto Build itself, a brief history lesson. As most will already know Kamen Rider, much like many other tokusatsu franchises, can be broken up into different eras defined by the periods in Japanese history. The Showa era refers to the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989), while the Heisei era is the reign of his son Emperor Akihito (1989 – present). Whereas other franchises such as Godzilla have further split their eras defined by the content itself (e.g. the Millennium Series), Kamen Rider has consistently stuck to the Heisei era since the franchise returned from its hiatus in 2001 with Kuuga. Fans have coined the term “Neo Heisei” for the post-Decade shows, but that’s in no way an official thing. The relevance of this relates to the news that Emperor Akihito is expected to abdicate the throne in December 2018, passing sovereignty onto his son Naruhito and effectively starting a whole new period in Japanese history. This means that Build will be the last full Kamen Rider series to air within the Heisei era, with its successor premiering a few months prior to the abdication. Kamen Rider eras aren’t especially clean divides (RX and the three 90s movies were all released in the Heisei era but are considered Showa Riders), but it’s likely that Build will indeed be considered the final Heisei Rider. The fact his forthcoming Movie War is named Heisei Generations FINAL also lends some credence to this. Whether this means anything for future Kamen Rider series in terms of tone/structure is unclear (but changes seem unlikely), but it does make Build feel somewhat like the end of an era. Possibly tying in with this is the fact that the production staff have hinted the series as something of a “back to basics” approach, so it will be interesting to see how much of a bearing this has going forwards.

Either way, Kamen Rider Build’s debut has some serious early Heisei-era vibes going on in terms of set up. It’s been a good while since a Rider series has opened with some truly game-changing apocalyptic event, and the combination of a magical macguffin and amnesiac main Rider immediately draw a comparison to Kamen Rider Agito. On top of that there’s also the use of a café/restaurant as the base of operations – a long standing trend in the Heisei era shows. Calling it “darker” than more recent shows is jumping the gun a bit (because they could get pretty damn dark at times too), but there’s definitely some difference in tone going on here. Although the exposition naturally comes in pretty thick at the beginning, the episode has plenty of breathing space to make the more important elements stand out. Elements such as Japan being split into three and each region having different ideals is important context, but doesn’t specifically come into play here just yet. Similarly Pandora’s Box is established at this big plot device yet the real intrigue of this episode lies with the shady experimentation Ryuga speaks of. As an initial foray in the show’s world building it is a very promising start.

Ryuga meets SentoRyuga's flashback

Characters are also off to a pretty good start, as Sento establishes himself as both a likeable protagonist and a competent Rider straight from the get-go. The amnesiac side of his character isn’t in any way original, but his genius and confidence exudes in a way that presents him more as curious/playful than cocky. Also making a strong debut is the hot-tempered Ryuga, whose actor Eiji Akaso recently made his Kamen Rider debut as Hiroki in season two of Kamen Rider Amazons. With many fans believing Hiroki would have made a great Rider, now there’s hope that Akaso will get his chance later in the series when more Riders begin showing up. Other characters that appear in the episode are café owner Soichi Isurugi and his daughter Misora, who works alongside Sento purifying the Smash materials he collects. While neither have an especially prominent role in the episode (Soichi’s part mainly being used as background for Sento), both are in on Sento’s activities as Build so will hopefully prove vital in the future. The other big introduction here was the Touto Institute and its head Gentoku Himuro, both of which have the interesting dynamic of working with Sento but at odds with Kamen Rider Build. Initial secret identities aren’t uncommon in Kamen Rider, but it has been a while since we had one that was basically a vigilante.

And so we come to Build himself, and right from the moment that suit was first revealed the Kamen Rider W vibes weren’t hard to miss. Two transformation trinkets, two interchangeable halves to the suit – it felt almost as if Double was back for a whole new generation. After a year of Ex-Aid tearing apart the usual conventions for Kamen Rider suit Build does indeed feel very much like a back to basics approach, right down to the return of the teardrop-like indents under the compound eyes. Build also has a hell of a lot going on in terms of motifs and gimmicks too, which on paper sound pretty ridiculous when blended together yet somehow work onscreen wonderfully. You’ve got two bottles (one themed around an animate thing, the other inanimate) loaded into a Driver with a turn crank, CGI equations flying through the air as the transformation takes place followed finally by a model-kit-esque series of runners and tubes which produce and compound the suit. You can’t deny Kamen Rider Build is a perfectly fitting name, because there’s about three different interpretations of the word in just that sequence. The shaking of the bottles and obviously toy-like Drill Crusher weapon take a bit of getting used to, but there’s a nice fluidity to Build’s first in-show fight scene that compliments the fact Sento’s been at this for a while now (the first experienced Rider debut since Wizard). There isn’t a focus on form changing to the point it becomes an obvious toy shill, but enough that the viewer gets a clear understanding of the gimmickry and how it all works. Finally there’s the little touches – elements that don’t have a bearing on the show itself but add so much more character to it. Just as how Ex-Aid blew on the Gashat cartridge before his finisher, Build not only incorporates Fleming’s right-hand rule as part of his pose but also has a graph-calculated Rider Kick. It’s moments like these that not only help sell the themes of the show all the more, but also make you want to go out and learn exactly what they mean if you don’t know already.

Soichi and MisoraBuild's rider kick

But perhaps the biggest shock of this episode was a full-blown motorcycle sequence! After Ex-Aid both teased and ultimately squandered the potential of doing something different with the “Rider” element of the show Build comes along and actually has its Rider live up to his name! Despite a lot of CGI trickery going on in the sequence it’s still a really satisfying scene, especially since it comes after what would in most cases be considered the end fight of the actual episode. Of course this could easily mean the show has now filled its minimal bike quota for the year and the thing will barely appear ever again, but a reminder every now and again that this franchise is named Kamen RIDER always goes a long way.

A Smash monsterNight Rouge

All in all this was a very strong opening for Kamen Rider Build – quite possibly the strongest series premiere we’ve had in some time. With a strong back story and immediately likeable characters, this episode built up plenty of mystery for the show going forwards in a style reminiscent of the early Heisei series. The gimmick for this year is certainly odd, but in typical Kamen Rider fashion they’ve managed to make it work – embracing its absurdity while at the same time doing their homework to make it feel somewhat believable. With Kamen Rider Ex-Aid going down as a firm fan favourite Build also ready has some big shoes to fill, but if this kind of quality can be upheld throughout its run then there’s definitely potential for a “Perfect Match” for (presumably) the last Heisei Rider.


Unknown said...

So excited to see where this season goes, and weather or not this 'batman' turns out to be an anti rider or an unexpected hero.

Anonymous said...

i dont know but that pandora box topple/explode is so weird i mean they didnt secure with some lock or anything ?

Lucas said...

Ex-Aid review when?

Alex said...

Tomorrow hopefully. I'm in the midst of writing it now but it's slow going.

Anonymous said...

I really like build. I've only seen episode 1, and I can take it much more seriously. See, it feels more serious to me, think Kuuga/Ryuki. However, unlike those shows, the effects are actually good. It has stuff that should feel goofy, but with the exception of the rider kick, they aren't goofy. It's like a good middle ground between Toyetic goofiness, and seriousness. This is where Amazons failed, as much as i like it, it still feels goofy because its trying to be dark edgy and serious, but it fails at 2 of those.