Wednesday 6 September 2017

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Ex-Aid

Kamen Rider Ex-Aid

Kamen Rider is a franchise that genuinely sticks to tradition, but every so often there comes a series that just seems to completely break away from the norm be it visually or thematically. With the titular Rider’s neon pink bodysuit, moulded hair helmet and anime-like eyes, it was immediately clear that Kamen Rider Ex-Aid was going to be one of those shows. Written by Lupin III Part 4’s Yuya Takahashi (who previously worked on Drive’s Type Tokujo specials as well as the Super Sentai-inspired Eight Ranger) and directed by Toei veteran Shojiro Nakazawa (head director for Kamen Rider Wizard as well as numerous Sentai series), Ex-Aid brings video games and medicine together as it celebrates 45 years of the long-running franchise.

Emu HojoKamen Rider Ex-Aid Level 2

After having his life saved from an illness as a child, Emu Hojo’s life went in two new directions. He was inspired to practice medicine and become an intern at Seito University Hospital, and the WonderSwan console he was given by his doctor ignited an interest in video games – leading him to become the genius video gamer “M”. One day Emu discovers the game illness – a virus that infects humans and spawns creatures from the games known as Bugsters. Patients infected by the game illness are treated in secret by the CR (Cyberbrain Room), whilst the Bugsters are defeated by doctors using Gamer Drivers and Gashat cartridges to become Kamen Riders.

Emu joins CR, using the Mighty Action X Gashat to become Kamen Rider Ex-Aid. Also fighting against the Bugsters are the skilled surgeon Hiiro Kagami (Kamen Rider Brave), unlicensed radiologist Taiga Hanaya (Kamen Rider Snipe) and medical examiner Kiriya Kujo (Kamen Rider Lazer). Though sometimes at odds with each other, the four work together to collect the Gashats and prevent further spread of the Bugster virus. However at the centre of all this is games developer Genm Corporation and its president Kuroto Dan – creator of both the Gamer Driver and Gashats. As Rider and Bugster clash, the ultimate game draws ever closer to completion – Kamen Rider Chronicle.

The cast of Ex-AidKamen Riders Snipe & Brave

If an argument ever needed to be made as to why a year-long show shouldn’t be judged solely on its first few episodes, you needn’t look much further than Kamen Rider Ex-Aid. This was a show that constantly evolved as it went on, neatly flowing into distinct arcs as the stakes were raised. The quirky antics of chibi level one Riders bouncing off of poorly realised CGI monsters seems pretty far detached from the MMOPRG madness of Kamen Rider Chronicle – where the general public are the players and one life is all you’ve got. And though the difference may not be quite as drastic, Chronicle in turn feels different to the arcs sandwiched between it in which the Dan family take their turn at having their respective god complex go off the deep end. Just as video games evolve the further you progress into them, Ex-Aid shifts as the characters gain more experience, beat the mid-tier bosses and learn of much bigger threats.

Just how much of this story was planned out from the get-go is another matter entirely though, it widely speculated that Ex-Aid went through several changes as time went on. Expectations were flipped in terms of production just as much as they were onscreen, as the long-standing tradition of an actor receiving their bouquet of flowers suddenly didn’t mean that their time on the show was definitely over and done. Just as lives and death are inconsequential in video games, Ex-Aid resurrects a number of fan favourites as its video game side clashes with the idea of mortality brought about by its medical side. While certainly an interesting talking point, it also cheapens the impacts of the deaths that come about earlier in the show – particularly the whiplash-inducing tone shift of that Christmas episode.

Kiriya KujoKamen Rider Ex-Aid Level 1

The bigger problem however is the introduction of Kamen Rider Cronus as the show’s third (and essentially final) antagonist. Prior to Cronus’ debut Masamune Dan is barely even a footnote in the show, for him to suddenly come out some sort of mastermind feels incredibly forced. His motivations are flimsy even if the “evil corporate president” angle is fitting, and as the episodes go on it becomes increasingly apparent that the writers are grasping at straws to keep him relevant to the conflict. While this certainly does the character favours in portraying him as this truly detestable villain that you just can’t get rid of, it isn’t anywhere near as interesting as what came before. Additionally the dynamic during his tenure feels noticeably uneven, as all of a sudden Masamune is the sole villain where before there were still numerous Bugsters to take care of even when the spotlight was specifically on someone else. Now all of a sudden there’s anywhere between five and eight Riders against a single character. Even Gamedeus, the supposedly unbeatable final boss of Kamen Rider Chronicle, is sidelined to spotlight Masamune even further.

Whereas such late game changes can easily break a show (look no further than Hibiki or Decade for example), Ex-Aid makes it through by covering these narrative flaws with some great character development in its place. With both the medicine and gaming elements of the show raising strong debates on life and death, there’s plenty of room for the characters to really shine. The show takes care to bring an element of humanity to the Bugsters, not just brushing them off as bits of data but instead properly acknowledging them as living beings in their own right. Just as a good doctor will treat a patient regardless of their life choices villains aren’t considered completely reprehensible, prompting some surprising redemption arcs as the show pushes forward.

Kuroto DanKamen Rider Genm Level X

On the subject of casts, Ex-Aid’s is quite easily among the most enjoyable and well-developed Kamen Rider has ever produced. Ryuki, Gaim and several other entries may have toyed around with larger casts, but Ex-Aid does a much better job of striking a balance between having a sizeable number of Riders and making sure each of them feels suitably fleshed out. Placing Emu as a medical intern works because it allows for the character to grow in experience both in and out of the suit, while at the same time giving him a youthful edge as a gamer. As the somewhat naïve intern he embodies the compassion and nobility a doctor should have, yet as a gamer maintains a somewhat cocky edge in battle (which in turn is actually a pretty important plot point).

In contrast to Emu’s positivity are Hiiro, Taiga and Kiyira – all experienced Riders with their own personal demons and traumas from the initial Bugster outbreak five years prior. Hiiro maintains the composure of a no-nonsense surgeon detached from the emotional wellbeing of the patient, but behind that façade is a man emotionally broken over the loss of his girlfriend. Hiiro’s growth as a character starts off subtly, but culminates into something that’s both emotional and relatable to anyone who’s suffered a similar loss of a loved one. Meanwhile Taiga comes across as a jerk obsessed with collecting the Gashats for himself (annoyingly so in the early episodes), but that in turn masks both his past guilt and a desire to shoulder all the responsibility himself. The introduction of Nico begins to bring out the best in him and the two together make a fantastic partnership. Finally Kiriya also blames himself for causing the death of a friend, manifesting in him keeping secrets and hiding the truth at the cost of getting close to others. It isn’t until they meet Emu that all three Riders are able to properly let go of these issues, in regaining both their passion and in some ways their humanity as well. Even when Toei are being Toei are severely under-using the only two female Riders the show has, both would still be excellent characters even if they’d never transformed in the first place. Benevolent rhythm game Bugster Poppy Pipopapo might seem like a loud, colourful comedy character on face value, but is a exceedingly competent supporting character that doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition she deserves on the show itself. Similarly Nico doesn’t in any way get the dues she deserves as a Ride Player, but quickly proves herself to be one of the strongest characters in the show – not only fighting alongside the main Riders despite the significant level difference but also fending off game illness infection on multiple occasions.

ParadoKamen Rider Para-DX

With the exception of Masamune, the villains also shape up to be pretty great too. Kuroto Dan particularly as he’s more than just a character – he’s an experience. Actor Tetsuya Iwanaga hams up the role in a way that just has to be seen to be fully appreciated, cementing his meme-like status in the Kamen Rider fandom across the world. While an argument could be made for the character suffering from the law of diminishing returns, Kuroto is a pleasure to watch wherever his allegiance may lie. “Lead” Bugster Parado is another great villain produced by the show – a petulant gamer whose need to be recognised by Emu leads to a sadistic streak. Even lesser developed villains such as Graphite come off extremely well, offering an alternative viewpoint where a Bugster recognises and embraces their role as a video game villain.

Finally it also comes down to the core themes of the show, which is another element Ex-Aid seems to get spot-on. This review has already made several references to the conflicting concepts of mortality when it comes to both medicine and video games, but the blending of these two radically different elements works beyond that as well. While the stylised suits aren’t going to be to everyone’s tastes and the level one suits certainly take some getting used to, they definitely capture the aesthetic of video game Ex-Aid has in mind. Silly as some of them may seem, each suit and power-up represents a different genre or style of video game with powers befitting of it. While the games used within the series itself are all fictional (the Genm Hyper Battle Video however features some classic Namco Bandai titles), the catchy names and Gashat jingles really help give them a life of their own. Of course it also doesn’t stop inspiration and homages to real-life games cropping up every now and again, some of which are far from subtle. It also helps that the Gashats themselves are some of the better collectible trinkets to come out in some time, not only working thematically with the show but also tapping into the nostalgia of gamers from the cartridge-based days. Something like that won’t mean as much to the target audience of the show, but for older viewers it’s a nice throwback to their youth.

Kamen Rider CronusRide Player Nico

Despite moments that could have easily broken it, Kamen Rider Ex-Aid is an absolute joy. Rarely does a Kamen Rider series so brilliantly combine its differing themes into such a perfect package, and even when it’s falling victim to last minute changes it powers through with one of the most loveable casts in recent years. The series may end on a satisfying note but with further endings offered by both the summer movie and a trilogy of forthcoming V-cinema releases, there is still plenty of Ex-Aid action to still be excited about. After all, the game is forever.


Anonymous said...

Hiiro Kagami is really how you developed a character. I really can relate to Hiiro because i also lost my girlfriend 10 years ago, and sometime i still feel guilty. Seein Hiiro struggle and how he fleshed out and move on really gives me the motivation that i need to be like Hiiro.

Funny think about Ex-Aid that it really resembles one of my favorite game of all time which is Xenogears in term of the story, characters, villain and the production of the show/game.

From the source i know Ex-Aid should had less episodes and SHIN DAN KUROTO DA was supposed to be the real final boss by him becoming Cronus. Toei wants Yuya Takahashi to extend Ex-Aid into a regular season episodes. That is why we can see that The third arc really kinda feel like it's not Ex-Aid anymore with The Bike Guy Resurrection. Even tough i really appreciated they didn't cheapen the dead anymore by not bringing to live the victim of Kamen Rider Chronicles.

Same as Xenogears but with reverse, The Director of Xenogears wants to expand the story but Square told them that Disc 1 is all they need, and that's why the Disk 2 feels tack on and meh compare to Disc 1.

But even after all that i see Ex-Aid as one of my favorite season definitely my top 5. The Characters are just so amazing, All the characters can really lift up to the show because Ex-Aid is more a character drive story imho.

Vezix Haikal said...

:') i am kinda sad this show doesn't get Must Watch Rating because personally its one of the best rider show , it's up there with W,Gaim,Fourze,

Alex said...

I VERY nearly gave it a 5 but the Cronus stuff just bothered me way too much. If it wasn't for that the show would have been perfect.

Alex said...

Yeah Hiiro was a brilliantly done character. Dare I say one of the best in the whole franchise.

Never played Xenogears myself but that's an interesting comparison. While I'll never say no to more Kuroto I do think he lost his edge when he was resurrected. Without the evil edge his god complex got almost too comedic. Would have been interesting to see him become Cronus.

Ex-Aid doesn't quite break my top 5 but it's a show I'm always going to think fondly off. Casts don't get much better than they did here.

Anonymous said...

I think the moment when Ex-Aid really drop a little bit is more where Kiriya is revived. His death was the iconic moment of the show even the Tokusatsu itself. His death shows that it is a serious business. When he is kinda cheapen the theme of Ex-Aid. This also affect Emu himself also.

With Hiiro and Taiga, death is the big part of their life. Hiiro and Taiga suffers from death and has to carry their responsibility and burden of that death. They get no free pass. Especially with Hiiro.

With Emu... the problem is it seems he mostly got a free pass on his action. Like the responsibility he has to endure because he literally is the cause of Bugster outbreak, He is responsible for Parad action leading to many KRC death player. It was hinted that in the Emu and Parad focus episodes but after seems like the show did not explore that again, or just give a free pass to Emu.

Lucas said...

At least Masamune had a bigger presence and did much more than N-Daguva-Zeba from Kuuga, who reappeared out of nowhere in the third-to-last episode and barely did anything.

Anonymous said...

I kinda wish that this got a Must Watch. The suits though off putting at first started to grow on me. The Gashat game titles were just hilarious and fun. Hyper Muteki reminded me of Hyper Sonic and Super Saiyan 3 Goku rolled into one. Pure Joy.