Tuesday 8 September 2020

First Impressions: Kamen Rider Saber

Kamen Rider Saber

With Kamen Rider gearing up to celebrate its 50th anniversary next year and seemingly a harder push to bring previous shows and merchandise to North America (there'll be none of that "the West" business here), now seems to be a particularly pivotal time for the franchise as a whole. Although Kamen Rider Zero-One faced some difficulties during its final stretch thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the wheels at Toei keep on turning and now it's time to introduce the second Kamen Rider of the Reiwa era. Kamen Rider Saber is the 31st series in the franchise overall, joining Mashin Sentai Kiramager in the current Super Hero Time line up. The show is being written by Takuro Fukuda (Kamen Rider Ghost), and directed by longtime Rider director Takayuki Shibasaki. Saber also sees a changeover in the lead suit actor once again, with the mantle now being passed on to Kosuke Asai - whose credits include Zyuoh Eagle, Ninnin Red, Lupin Red, Kamen Rider Cronus and most recently Kamen Rider Vulcan.

A magical landThe Wonder Ride Books

Long ago, the world we live in was created from an extraordinary book that contained myths, legends and the whole of human history. The book was protected by swordsmen, and when in danger was split and scattered across the world as the swordsmen fought back against the evil forces that wished to control it.

In modern day, novelist and bookstore owner Touma Kamiya woes children with the wonders of books - all whilst holding onto a strange red book he’s had since childhood but can’t quite remember getting. When a monster attacks the city and entraps it’s people in a strange world, he’s able to use the power of the book to call upon a sword - drawing its power to become the missing swordsman, Kamen Rider Saber. How will his appearance change the tide of battle? And will Touma find the answer behind the dream he keeps on having?

Introducing Touma KamiyamaIntroducing Kamen Rider Saber

A Kamen Rider series premiere is a chance for the production staff to throw everything they have at an episode, often overloading audiences with exposition but at the same time dazzling them with impressive visuals, action and choreography in the hope that they’ll continue to tune in for the following weeks. That much is certainly true of Kamen Rider Saber, but in a COVID-19 landscape it’s also looking a little different. Though much of it has been realised to work with Saber’s fantasy premise, this is a premiere full of manipulative camera angles, heavy CGI use and footage that’ll inevitably be recycled in future episodes. Not all of it is completely detrimental to the episode, but immediately it gives off a slightly different feel to previous shows.

After a brief but effective introduction to the lore of Kamen Rider Saber and its Wonder Ride Books we’re introduced to Touma - our hero of the series. Immediately it seems as though this may be particularly child-heavy series, with Touma actively engaging with the kids that come to his shop and reading them stories. It’s awfully sweet (especially with the little scenes of them imagining themselves in the story) and immediately gives him this status as a hero children can look up to. Many people are often put off by an overabundance of children in Kamen Rider but at the end of the day it’s a children’s show for children, so an anchor like this for younger fans is good. Especially since Saber seems to be aiming for the Super Sentai crowd as well, which we’ll look at a little further down in the review. His forgotten past is another interesting angle the series has decided to play, as it not only relates to a forgotten connection with the chosen swordsmen but also a lost friend. 

The magic of readingA forgotten past

From there we quickly meet Touma’s editor Mei, who seems pretty exasperated at his overall work ethic. It’s a good chance for Touma to deliver some great dialogue though, talking the importance of promises as well as his desire to help children grow with the experiences they can get from books. Plotting elsewhere are our villains of the show - a group of leather-clad men led by a mysterious purple Rider. Not really a lot to say about them other than their choice of decor - particularly the disembodied hands that start writing when a scheme is afoot. Given that
Saber looks to be a Rider-heavy series I half-expect all of them to become Kamen Riders eventually, but there’s no indication of that just yet.

With most Kamen Rider shows these days ending in Rider vs Rider fights it’s always nice to go back to the beginning of a series and see weekly monsters, and the golem is a pretty strong opener -  a generic monster yes, but one that fits nice into the show’s fantasy themes. From here on out the pacing gets rather rapid, and it isn’t long before Touma is on the scene as Kamen Rider Saber! This is a series where the lead character doesn’t have any trouble getting to grips with his new powers, and right from the get go Touma is looking pretty hot (pun intended) as Kamen Rider Saber. The fight gets off to an exciting staff, with Asai showing off some great swordplay skills. At times it can be a little obvious that the two suit actors aren't meant to be in direct contact for too long, but the energy of the fight is enough to overlook it until you begin to analyse the scene a little more closely. It's just unfortunate that it all begins to go downhill when the Golem activates his book for a second time, prompting a number of CGI backgrounds as well as a cutscene that looks like it jumped straight out of the forthcoming Kamen Rider: Memory of Heroez game. Toei's CGI has been egregious at the best of times, but it's been much easier to overlook in the past because it's been blended in with real actors and/or backdrops. When it's entirely CGI, you get a disconnect that's bad enough that it can take you out of the entire episode.

Mysterious VillainsA Golem appears

Eventually the monster is beaten and the day is saved, but Touma's journey has only just begun. The evil forces are now watching him, he's resolved to keep fighting and on top of all that - someone shows up at his door riding a blue lion and demanding his Brave Dragon Wonder RideBook. What's next for Kamen Rider Saber? Tune in next week and find out!

So is Kamen Rider becoming too much like Super Sentai? Surface comparisons could be drawn from the monster growing in the battle's climax, but there’s more to it than that as well. With Sentai’s sales on the decline we’ve seen Bandai creeping staple elements of the franchise into other shows, and multiple Riders is increasingly becoming a staple of modern Kamen Rider. On top of that Saber also has that monster growth, a transformation sequence far more reliant on stock footage and perhaps most bizarrely of all - an ED dance sequence. Despite being a fan of both franchises it would be a shame to each of them lose their uniqueness, and Toei tokusatsu become even more of a Bandai-led blob that it is now. That said, one episode of Saber is probably too early to start ringing alarm bells - and so is one series like this for that matter. It’s an experiment that could easily go wrong, but it’ll be interesting to see how Saber fares both on its own and in terms of influencing the franchise going forward.

CGI aplentyThe adventure continues!

All in all this felt like a pretty middling premiere for Kamen Rider Saber. It makes big promises with a likeable protagonist and interesting setup, but the limitations of the visuals and distracting CGI failed to make it as flashy as it perhaps could have been. However there’s still potential here, and if Saber is eventually able to break free of its current limitations then the story it’s gearing up for could really have the chance to shine.

Did you enjoy the premiere of Kamen Rider Saber? Let me know in the comment section below!


Oar said...

I don't think Kosuke Asai was Geiz, wasn't that Nawata?

Anyhow this first episode was pretty fun, though I don't think there's anything about it that particularly stands out from any other toku's first episode. Looks like we are in for a nice and entertaining show though

Alex said...

I pulled it off his acting credits, but looking into it further he was only Geiz for the last two episodes of the series. Honestly I’ve only started paying closer attention to suit actors more recently, so thanks for pulling me up on that - I’ll amend it now.

Unknown said...

What are you hoping so far out of Saber?

Alex said...

Honestly can't say I have many specific hopes - but based on this episode less CGI and more physical choreography may be?

M said...

I hope that they adapt the Unlimited Blade Works route.

Anonymous said...

Too much CGI, it is really like Super Sentai rather than a Kamen Rider Series. Hope it can be improved. I only watched until episode 2 as it was really not impressed, no urge to watch subsequent episodes...

MarsHottentot said...

A bit too Sentai for me but, c'mon, the circumstances pretty much ensured that this season was going to be rough. Tbh, I'm shocked they were able to pull this off at all.

That said, not really my bag but, if kids in Japan dig it - awesome, the brand lives on and that's what's important!

Thadeus said...

Zero-One was the first KR that I enjoyed since Gaim, kids show but done with nice characters, variety, enjoyable stories and a functional internal logic, funny to watch and not a dumbifying show. Saber is again a more childish and flashy show (as ugly as shit as Aid) and I dropped after the first chapters. Hope the franchise goes on and have new cool seasons...

Alex said...

100% agree on that one!

Stephen Cassat said...

I gotta say that Saber is heading in the right direction. Maybe Takuro Fukudo is learning from his Ghost mistakes.