Wednesday 2 June 2021

Movie REVIEW: Kamen Rider: The First

Kamen Rider: The First

The 50th anniversary celebration of the Kamen Rider franchise may have revealed that Hideaki Anno's Shin Kamen Rider will be releasing some time in 2023, but all the way back in 2005 there was another attempt at retelling the original 1971 series story in movie format. Kamen Rider: The First was written by Toshiki Inoue and directed by Takao Nagaishi, starring Masaya Kikawada (who would later play Kishiryu Sentai Ryusoulger's Master Red) and Hassei Takano (Kamen Rider Ryuki's Miyuki Tezuka/Kamen Rider Raia and Ultraman Gaia's Hiroya Fujimiya/Ultraman Agul) in the lead roles of Takeshi Hongo and Hayato Ichimonji respectively. The film was followed up by a sequel, Kamen Rider: The Next, in 2007 and currently remains one of the only pieces of Kamen Rider media released on home video in the US. Media Blasters released the film on DVD in 2007, although sadly the title is long since out of print.

Hongo's conversionKamen Rider 1

After being 'selected' by terrorist organisation Shocker to become their latest cyborg, college student Takeshi Hongo is converted into the insectoid operative 'Hopper'. But when he's tasked with helping to kill witnesses to Shocker's activities, Hongo's unrequited love for journalist Asuka Midorikawa is able to break Shocker's programming. Hongo is able to save Asuka, but not before her fiancé Katsuhiko Yano is killed in the struggle.

Asuka sees this and blames Hongo for Katsuhiko's death, following him to find out why he has changed. Meanwhile Shocker brands Hongo a traitor, resurrected Katsuhiko as their newest Hopper soldier to eliminate him. Now going by the name Hayato Ichimonji, he battles against Hongo both physically and for the affections of Asuka. When Shocker brand them both traitors and Asuka's life is put in danger, the two must put aside their differences and team up to defeat the evil organisation.

Asuka meets IchimonjiRider vs Rider

The original Kamen Rider origin story isn’t an especially complicated one. There is certainly a lot of nuance in Shotaro Ishinomori’s tale of a man fighting for humanity after evil attempts to strip him of his own humanity, but on the surface it’s straightforward enough to work in a condensed movie format. While Kamen Rider: The First keeps the core beats of the story mostly the same, it’s seeing these subtleties pushed that turns the origin of the double Riders into something quite different. Here Toshiki Inoue reimagines Kamen Rider in a far more conventional superhero style, creating a love interest as the focal point of both the story and the Riders’ path to justice. Though an amalgamation of characters from the original 1971 Kamen Rider series, it isn’t hard to see alternate points of inspiration in investigative journalist Asuka. As well as being torn between the two lead characters, her emotions are also divided between that of Hongo and the mysterious masked rider - which of course she doesn’t know are one and the same until much later into the story. It’s an air of familiarity that can sometimes feel a little misplaced, but overall works for the story The First is trying to tell.

Takeshi Hongo still fights for the beauty of humanity, but here that beauty is personified. The college student backstory remains intact, but while you get the sense he’s special in some way there’s nothing to indicate that he a prodigy or anything of the sort. In The First Hongo is largely presented as a somewhat meek figure, which is meant to deliberately clash with the more assertive persona he takes on as Kamen Rider 1. Hongo not only avoids Asuka out of guilt for his involvement in her fiancé’s death, but also in an attempt to protect her from the cyborgs that are hunting them both down. The First never feels like it’s about Hongo choosing to take down Shocker to save humanity at large - it’s a deeply personal story about him wanting to protect this single person that he loves.

Hongo & IchimonjiAsuka Midorikawa

Compared to this rather basic take on Hongo, Hayato Ichimonji/Rider 2 is a considerably more complex and interesting character. However it’s in realising him that The First shows off its bigger flaws - a penchant to overcomplicate. Hayato as a rival to Hongo (both in love and as Kamen Rider) works really well. Personality-wise they’re the complete opposite - Hayato is charismatic, self-assured and instantly likeable. However it’s Hongo that’s presented as the “perfect” one, something that’s mirrored in the fact that Hongo doesn’t need regular blood transfusions from Shocker to keep his cyborg body working. All of that already makes a great character, but it’s over-complicated with a bizarre dual-identity dynamic. There was no need for Ichimonji to be “Katsuhiko Yano” prior to his conversion because Katsuhiko Yano was barely a character prior to his death. Asuka recognising him as her fiancé mysteriously come back from the dead as opposed to someone who eerily looks like him (but is him nevertheless) wouldn’t change anything, in fact it’s that shared history they have that would make both the love triangle and Asuka’s eventual decision all the stronger.

Asuka is so ingrained into both the story and each of the Riders’ motivations in many ways it feels like her story most of all. As an investigative journalist one might expect her to take more of an active role in the discovery and exposure of Shocker, but despite her being a witness to their operatives’ actions she feels more like a victim of circumstance than anything else. She spends more of the time investigating Hongo, or more specifically why he changed from the kind-hearted scientist she was working with at the start of the film into a supposed murderer. The film also doesn’t really pay that much thought into her suddenly being chased romantically by a man who looks like her dead fiancé (and again, IS actually her dead fiancé but seemingly a completely different person) not all that long after his death. There’s definitely the makings of a good character in Asuka as well as a more active role for her in the film, but with how much the love triangle pushes everything in The First it’s difficult to see her beyond either a damsel in distress or just a prize to be won.

Haruhiko & MiyokoKamen Rider 2

On top of overcomplicating things, The First also has a constant habit of putting its focus in the wrong places. A sizeable chunk of its runtime is dedicated to two terminally ill hospital patients, who are given a second chance at life by Shocker and then later appear in the climax to oppose our heroes. There’s a really interesting story in here, but the interesting parts are the ones that are inferred rather than shown onscreen. The majority of the time we spend with these characters is during their stay at hospital, with male patient Haruhiko wallowing in the hopelessness of his situation and rejected the companionship of Miyoko until tragedy strikes. The time we spend with them post-conversion, and how this new lease of life has affected them, is fleeting. There’s a great story in here about how Shocker are giving people a second chance at life when transforming them into cyborgs, as well as a question of just how much sentience and free will they’re giving their soldiers, but neither are priority here. The latter is an especially interesting point when looked at in conjunction with Ichimonji, who rejects Shocker’s command in a very different way to the seemingly subservient Hongo.

Given their significance in the Riders’ origins as well as the Kamen Rider mythos as a whole, you’d also expect Shocker to establish itself better than it perhaps does. The film assumes one of three things - that the audience is familiar enough with Kamen Rider to not need further explanation, that the onscreen text at the beginning of the film is enough or that any further explanation simply isn’t necessary. How much explanation does an evil terrorist organisation need after all? But Shocker as we see it here is an eerily sparse organisation - its laboratories dingy warehouses of surgical tools and its leaders only showing themselves on giant monitors. Just how much Shocker has permeated society is left inferred through the stark difference in the presentation of these leaders. There’s an atmosphere to this version of Shocker that the film conveys brilliantly, but definitely leaves you wanting more from.

Dr ShinigamiThe Spider Man

But despite all its failings if there’s one thing Kamen Rider: The First excels at, it’s a sense of style. Giving the world of classic Rider a grungy early 00s makeover, the film has an incredible slick aesthetic that perfectly captures both the tone of the film and the era it was produced in. The suits of the double Riders are updated near-flawlessly, fully embracing the biker motif with leathery suits that still retain all those classic Rider hallmarks. The First makes a conscientious attempt to stay as grounded as any story about a augmented cyborg grasshopper man can, playing down the “henshin” elements of the Riders’ transformation and replacing it with stylish snap-on helmets. Likewise Shocker’s loyal cyborgs are also given a similar makeover - bringing them more in line with Riders themselves. Instead of tokusatsu monsters in the more traditional sense, these cyborgs are twisted fetish-like nightmares. The same goes for the infamous Shocker grunts too - that familiar “eee!” battle cry now spoken through thick black gas masks.

This clear sense of style bleeds through to the action as well. Rider 1's first heroic fight is a spectacle of motorcycle-based martial arts, something fans will know as a rarity of modern Kamen Rider all too well. Though nothing following that really matches that debut in terms of spectacle or choreography, there’s a still a certain weight to the fights that even in its simplicity displays the strength these cyborgs have. There’s no gimmicks here, no fancy power ups - just good old fashioned brawling. True to the stylings of the original Kamen Rider, who needs weapons when you can just kick your enemy into oblivion.

The film has been designed to be extremely approachable to newcomers, but as always there’s plenty of nods to the original series’ legacy for older fans to pick up on. Longtime Rider ally Tobei Tachibana may only make a fleeting appearance, but having him played by the legendary Hiroshi Miyauchi (Kamen Rider V3) is the perfect cameo piece. Equally wonderful is Hideyo Amamoto appearing posthumously as Dr Shinigami - reborn through the use of archival footage and a new voice. Even with all the changes the film makes along the way, sometimes it’s the thing that stay the same that stand out the most.

Double RidersRider Kick!

"Serviceable" would be the best way to describe Kamen Rider: The First. It does a reasonably good job of condensing the story of the original double Riders down into 90 minutes and has a lot of good ideas, but is constantly finds itself overcomplicating elements at the expense of expanding upon more important ones. That said, what it lacks in story it certainly tries to make up for in visual style - commanding a wonderfully grungy aesthetic that makes for the perfect update to this classic superhero story. Kamen Rider: The First certainly isn't a suitable substitute for the original series, there's still more to like about this rather middling remake than you might expect (or care to admit).


M said...

Nice review! I hope that you do a review of The Next. I think that it is a strange movie that don't know what it wants to be.

Alex said...

Thank you! The Next review is indeed on the way!

Felipe said...

You think this movie works well for introducing someone into Kamen Rider? Like, I want to show Kamen Rider for my wife, but I don't want to show my favorite series (Build and Den-O) because it's just too japanese, and she still doesn't like things like that. You think this movie looks too japanese or it would be a good introduction?

Alex said...

I’m sorry I completely missed this comment until now!

It’s not a bad starting place I suppose, even though the film is pretty average. The storyline is pretty universal so might appeal to your wife a little more, and at the very least it’s self contained and short compared to a series. Definitely wouldn’t hurt to give it a try!