Thursday 3 September 2020

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Zero-One

Kamen Rider Zero-One

2019 saw the dawning of a new era for Kamen Rider, as after 20 series we said goodbye to the Heisei era with Kamen Rider Zi-O and welcomed in the Reiwa era. Though not as monumental as the franchise returning to television screens after a long absence with Kuuga in 2000, nevertheless there was plenty of speculation on what changes Kamen Rider Zero-One may bring to the table. Written by Yuya Takahashi (Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, Kamen Rider Amazons: The Last Judgement) and directed by Teruaki Sugihara (Lupinranger vs Patranger), Zero-One ran for a total of 45 numbered episodes, with five additional clip episodes produced during a hiatus brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Aruto meets IzuIntroducing Zero-One

In a new era of technological innovation, humanity lives side by side with HumaGears - humanoid androids created by Hiden Intelligence. HumaGears have become commonplace in both the public and private sectors, but not everyone is complacent with their role in society. 12 years ago the cyberterrorist organisation caused an incident causing HumaGears to go berserk and rise up against humanity. Now they have returned - hacking innocent HumaGears and transforming them into monsters.

Aspiring comedian Aruto Hiden has suddenly found himself the new CEO of Hiden Intelligence following his grandfather’s death, becoming Kamen Rider Zero-One to help maintain a peaceful existence between humans and HumaGears. This leads him into an uneasy alliance with the Artificial Intelligence Military Service A.I.M.S., as they battle against, rival corporation ZAIA Enterprise and eventually the source of itself - the sentient satellite Ark. 

Valkyrie and VulcanJin and Horobi

When Kuuga first debuted in January 2000, Kamen Rider had been away from television screens for over a decade. It presented a whole new style for the franchise, from more serialised storytelling to a wider focus on audience demographics and how that influences casting. Over time, Rider’s increasing focus on gimmicks and toy sales would also become increasingly apparent - particularly in the “second phase” Heisei shows starting with Kamen Rider W in 2009. The evolution of modern Kamen Rider can be seen right across the Heisei era, but it all comes back to those strides originally made by Kuuga. Though Zero-One may be the beginning of a new era in the same way Kuuga once was, the fact it followed immediately on from Kamen Rider Zi-O puts it in a very different position. Zero-One may have some new tricks up its sleeve, but this isn’t some grand reimagining of Kamen Rider for a new era - it’s a natural extension of what came before with a new name slapped on it. Whether its more notable elements, such an a larger cast of Kamen Riders right from the beginning, carry through into later series is yet to be seen (although based on Kamen Rider Saber so far that looks to be a yes), but it isn’t by any means the same kind of jump you get between Black RX and Kuuga.

With five Riders straight out the door it’s immediately evident that Kamen Rider Zero-One has a big focus on characters, and much of how well it handled its cast is definitely up for debate. Starting with Aruto - our cheery protagonist armed with more than just a barrage of bad jokes. Aruto is very much the eternal optimist - cemented so much in his beliefs that when he strays away from them even a little bit, it has huge repercussions on the story. It helps that Fumiya Takahashi plays him with such earnestness, making him such a believable protagonist and titular Kamen Rider. While his growth over the series may seem small compared to other characters, that doesn’t make him any less important. In fact it’s quite the opposite - with Zero-One very clearly being about how Aruto’s beliefs influence others. The little tidbits we get into his childhood add to this, but its unfortunate that the series itself only touches upon his family briefly (with Reiwa: The First Generation instead doing most of the legwork in that regard).  But the real reason Aruto works so well is because he’s paired with Izu - the designated HumaGear assistant to Hiden’s president and link to Satellite Zea - the source of Zero-One’s powers. The pair make a loveable and extremely engaging duo, with Noa Tsurushima playing her with a similar earnestness and (in the beginning) a straight man to Aruto’s wackiness. If there’s anyone in this series who will make you believe that artificial intelligence can grow and have a heart, it’s her. 

Aruto gears up for a joke"Aruto Ja Naito!"

So if Aruto’s role in Zero-One is to help shape those around him, then Isamu Fuwa is definitely the one we see most directly affected by this. When we’re introduced to Kamen Rider Vulcan he’s brash and hot-headed, refusing to see eye-to-eye when it comes to HumaGear rights because of his vendetta. But his mindset is directly changed thanks to Aruto’s influence, and over time and various revelations he goes on to become a true hero and protector. It’s also interesting how Fuwa’s progression, particularly when it comes to toys and form upgrades, is patterned more like the titular Rider whilst’s Zero-One strays from the path a little bit. It’s a shame that one particular revelation brings Fuwa’s development to a grinding halt it never really recovers from, but the character never gets any less fun to watch. Especially when he’s trying to rip open a transformation trinket like it’s the hardest thing in the world.

Sadly Yua Yaiba, A.I.M.S. technical advisor and Kamen Rider Valkyrie, is a far more tumultuous discussion in comparison. The inclusion of Kamen Rider Valkyrie as a principle cast member was a huge step forward for Kamen Rider, and something that Zero-One will surely be remembered for in years to come. Never had a female Rider had such prominence before, nor had they debuted at the beginning and remained until the very end. However throughout the show there’s a strong sense that while the writers knew what they wanted to do with Yua, there was less idea about how to string her defining moments together. Yua makes a strong debut as a fierce warrior and talented technician, but as the story moves forwards she’s pushed back into a subservient role which feels at odds with what the audience had seen before. There’s a strong argument to made that this is the entire point of that arc, and its poor pacing only serves to make her eventual emancipation all the more cathartic. And while it certainly does that, the build up often comes across as stunted more than it does gradual. What’s even more unfortunate is how it leads to Yua taking more a more of a backseat presence, particularly as Valkyrie - her involvement is often vital, but rarely the focus. It makes those moments she truly shines all the more noticeable, as it gives a true sense of just how strong a presence she could (and should) have been. 

Isamu Fuwa, Kamen Rider VulcanYua Yaiba, Kamen Rider Valkyrie

Rounding off the five “core” Riders are Horobi and Jin - the HumaGear terrorists of Upon introduction their motivations are pretty basic - the liberation of HumaGears in a world ruled by humans. Horobi is the strong silent type, while Jin is lively and maniacal. These early episodes present them as pretty memorable villains, but nothing especially spectacular. However as the story develops and delves further into HumaGears achieving singularity, the pair become more and more interesting. Despite them continuing to work together we begin to see the divide between them, as Jin accepts this new development (shifting him more into an intermediary role rather than hero or villain) and Horobi does his best to reject it. The latter point especially has a huge bearing on how things develop during the final stretch of episodes. is also later rounded off with a further two members - Ikazuchi and Naki, both of whom are revealed through other story threads. Ikazuchi comes through the build-up of Zero-One’s “HumaGear of the week” storylines, while Naki is directly intertwined with Fuwa’s development. Both characters prove interesting during their introductions, but as members of are extremely underused - as if they are there simply to boost numbers more than anything else. This is particularly unfortunate in Naki’s case, who as one of the few non-binary characters in Kamen Rider (in addition to the actor themselves being non-binary) was a bit of representation many fans probably never expected to see here.

Zero-One as a series can be broken down into a number of distinct each of which did something slightly different with the setting. The story begins with Aruto taking over Hiden Intelligence, learning more about HumaGears place in society whilst battling the ones transformed into Magia by Here the plot is mostly centred around a HumaGear of the week, with Aruto usually trying to prove the best in HumaGears to an obstinate client. It’s also when Zero-One is at its most gimmicky, with new forms and toys being introduced nearly every episode. Given how similar it is to previous Rider shows its an obvious way to ease into a new series, and works extremely well even if it isn’t all that original. Whereas other Kamen Rider series can take a number of episodes to hit that steady groove, Zero-One is able to do it fairly early on thanks to the strengths of its cast. 

Kamen Rider

Things begin to change in the show’s second arc, which sees the introduction of ZAIA Enterprise and its CEO Gai Amatsu - Kamen Rider Thouser. The plot becomes synonymous with the various tournament arcs you see across anime, with ZAIA Enterprise battling it out against Hiden Intelligence to prove that their ZAIA Spec headgear is superior to HumaGears. There’s an increased focus on weekly HumaGears, with numerous guest appearances from tokusatsu alumni. These episodes have proved to be something of a sore point for fans, as they’re essentially the same plot recycled with a slightly different scenario each time. There’s also a huge disconnect between the action and drama scenes, with the former often feeling shoehorned in simply for the screen time. With all that in mind, it’s particularly interesting that a producer roundtable has now revealed that viewing figures actually increased during this arc. Does that mean we can expect to see more arcs like this in future Rider shows? Only time will tell.

The ZAIA vs Hiden arc is usually the source of many people’s frustrations with Zero-One - or more specifically, Gai Amatsu himself. A shrewd businessman driven by profit, Amatsu isn’t a far cry from Takahashi’s previous forays into corporate Rider villains and the writer’s bite for conglomerates certainly hasn’t lessened even if ZAIA are at odds with a similarly large business. Thouser is sly, underhanded and thoroughly despicable in almost every way - often making him incredibly difficult to watch onscreen but the kind of villain you truly love to hate. And to his credit actor Nachi Sakuragi revels in it, even going on record as saying he wanted to make Gai as unlikeable as possible. But regardless of what your thoughts on Thouser’s effectiveness as a villain may be, the fact he’s then subject to same sort of redemption arc we once saw Takahashi put Kuroto Dan through is much harder to swallow. While that wasn’t the best handled redemption arc either, Kuroto’s charisma and meme-status helped carry him through it. Meanwhile Gai is just so thoroughly remorseless in all of his actions that his redemption comes off as hollow - and the reasons behind it laughable. There’s no foreshadowing, no sense of him being a better person under those pristine white clothes - just a cliche flashback and some product placement for a robot dog. 

Amatsu GaiKamen Rider Thouser

Zero-One might have had some issues beforehand, but it was the arrival of COVID-19 that truly put the series in a difficult position. It’s an unfortunate fact that this global pandemic will always factor into discussions about the show’s failings somehow. With the world on high alert production was halted - leading a hiatus, a delayed summer movie, five clip-show episodes and ultimately half the episode count the production staff would have had to wrap everything up. Any show would in a situation like Zero-One would struggle, and while the end result may be flawed it certainly tried to deliver the best ending it could given the circumstances. Some choice proved to be a double-edged sword, like trying to make the clip-episodes relevant to story when all they really did was introduce an evil twin for Izu that had little to no explanation, but the intent was certainly there.

Following the hiatus Zero-One launched straight into a new arc, dumping Thouser in unceremonious fashion in the wake of a bigger threat. While the amped up pace of these episodes is very apparent they still work well for the most part, although coming off weekly viewing of the series it could also simply be due to fans being starved of new content for so long. The arrival of the Ark as a tangible threat seems like its taking the series in an obvious direction for its conclusion, but even when rushed Zero-One manages to pull out a last-minute swerve to keep things interesting. The idea of artificial intelligence gaining emotions (or ‘singularity’ as the show puts it) is at the show’s core and here those ideas are truly put to the test, as the subject of whether HumaGears can truly die becomes a focal point. Zero-One does its best to do this in a way that fits the tone of show and does right by its target audience (particularly in a pandemic climate), but much like the conclusion of Kamen Rider Build comes out with some pretty heavy ethical questions when you consider it on a deeper level. There’s a huge disconnect between the the idea that HumaGears can be rebooted and finality of death, seeing the finale walk back on one of the show’s strongest moments as well as having some questionable implications on how unique the HumaGear characters really are. Of course, on top of all that you also have the "watch our movie to see the REAL ending" ending as well - something that's less of an issue for people watching the show after the fact but a bit more of a cop-out for those who invested in it weekly.

Valkyrie vs ThouserZero-One vs Horobi

Although the story may have been troubled one thing Zero-One never let up on though were the visuals. One element that did feel like a fresh new beginning was Zero-One’s lean, grasshopper-themed base suit, and the premiere episode treated fans to a frantic action sequence only accentuated by the arrival of a new main Rider suit actor in the form of Yuya Nawata. This same fast-paced action continued all the way to the very end, with the final fight especially recapturing that same sense of amazement the debut episode had. There are plenty of jokes to be made about the sheer amount of tech and gimmickry the series has (especially the one about Zero-One’s collectibles being belts rather than Progrise Keys), but the variety the series has leads to a greater variance between each Rider - with different factions sporting their own unique aesthetics, yet them all clearly looking that they come from the same base tech. After years of increasingly complicated suits as the Riders got more and more powerful, Zero-One comes off as a breath of fresh-air with its more streamlined looks and less conventional power-ups. Once it sheds that early stretch of debuting swappable forms week after week, Zero-One’s approach to power-ups becomes much more entrenched in story and is all the better for it. Between the great suits, incredible choreography and catchy as hell belt jingles, Zero-One’s action sequences are a sensory overload that’ll have even the most resistant of viewers considering whether to pick up some merchandising or not.

Kamen Rider Zero-One had a bumpy ride along the way, but came out swinging as a largely enjoyable series with plenty to like about it. Though many of its shortcomings are a direct result of an unprecedented situation, it’s also true that not all of its flaws can be blamed solely on COVID-19. With that in mind, a makeshift finale might have been easier to swallow had the show had a better grip on its characters and middling story arcs earlier on. Nevertheless, with a memorable cast of characters, fantastic action sequences and slick visuals, Zero-One has presented a solid foundation that future Reiwa entries can build upon. It may not be the bold new beginning that many Kamen Rider fans were hoping for, but for better or worse it’ll be one that won’t be forgotten any time soon.


Oar said...

This show was incredibly bumpy even before the hiatus and month-long clipshow hit, but it was at least, more often than not, an exciting series with plenty of amazing action. By the end of it, I think the core themes about how anyone can or should have a strong heart in the face of malice, are pulled off pretty well.

Do you have a single favourite episode or just moment? I'm pretty sure mine will be the debut of Zero-Two, all the emotions involved between Aruto and Izu in it's creation, and then the amazing fight that followed, I found to be a perfect combination.

Alex said...

I find its really difficult to convey its strengths without also mentioning its weaknesses, since the two are so closely intertwined. It's a shame that we'll never really see how the ending was supposed to pan out, but I agree what we did get managed to pull off its core themes as good as it probably could.

As for favourite moments, there's just so many great fights to choose from! I agree with you that the creation of Zero-Two really was the stand out episode, and made everything that followed with Izu afterward hit that much harder. Fight-wise I also enjoyed Metal Cluster Hopper's "proper debut", as well Valkyrie vs Thouser. The final fight with Horobi was a really strong one to end on too.

M said...

Nice review! I hope that Zero-One gets a V-Cinema Trilogy like Ex-Aid Another Ending.

Unknown said...

My biggest sticking point for Zero-One is that we never really know Aruto's personal relationship with his grandfather and that we know shockingly very little about the latter given he's the creator of the HumaGears AND the guy Aruto inherits the company from.

Chengkeng said...

In my opinion zero-one was a success. the story was good.the characters was relatable. the first ark was good, the second was okay, the third ark was the best.the relationship between Izu and Aruto was strong.the shocking part we actually have a main rider become a villain during the series. the ending may have cliff hanger however i think the movie will finish the series. I rate this series 5 out of 5.

Stephen Cassat said...

I got to say that Zero One was a great start to the Reiwa Era. So many likable characters: Aruto: A happy-go-lucky young kid with a heart of gold. Fuwa: I hard head with strong morality. Izu: Best rider girl in a long time. Gai: A good "love to hate him" villain (though his "redemption" leaves a lot to be desired). Yaiba: A conflicted woman who WANTS to do the right thing. Horobi: A humagear with a probable cause. Jin: A naive humagear kid who went from cool to freaking amazing.

The arcs were good, though the ZAIA vs Hiden Intelligence was a bit of a drag. Great ending to the show. Overall a great start. It may not be Kuuga good in terms of how it did, but it did great nonetheless.