Wednesday 1 September 2021

Series REVIEW: Kamen Rider Saber

Kamen Rider Saber

Ending your series at the height of a global pandemic is difficult enough, but successfully starting a new one at the same time is another obstacle entirely. But it seems the show must go on, and this is the challenge Toei faced as the Kamen Rider franchise marched on into its second Reiwa era series (and 31st overall) - Kamen Rider Saber. As well as featuring a sizeable cast of Riders, the production staff saw a few familiar faces return to the franchise. The series was written by Takuro Fukuda and produced by Kazuhiro Takahashi, both notable for being the chief writer and producer team behind Kamen Rider Ghost. Kamen Rider Saber ran for a total of 49 episodes, a count which not only included an epilogue previewing succeeding series Kamen Rider Revice but also a special crossover with Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger.

Touma KamiyamaKamen Rider Saber Brave Dragon

The Almighty Book is a source of unparalleled power - a magical tome of history containing everything that has ever been known to man. To prevent it falling into the hands of a race of monsters known as the Megids, a secret order of swordsmen known as the Sword of Logos was established. The pages of the Almighty Book were also scattered, not just across our world but also a parallel world of fairy tales known as the. Wonder World. From these pages came the Wonder Ride Books, magical devices which give the Logos swordsmen their Kamen Rider powers.

After attempting to stop a Megid attack, novelist and bookstore owner Touma Kamiyama is thrust into the conflict - using the Brave Dragon Wonder Rider Book he mysteriously had possession of to inherit the title of Kamen Rider Saber. Through working with the Sword of Logos he makes new friends, reunites with old ones and recovers memories of a traumatic event that occurred 15 years ago. The battle sees Touma cross paths with the Megid, a rogue swordsman that betrayed the Sword of Logos, and even the organisation itself.

The MegidKamen Rider Calibur

Kamen Rider fans have been saying for years that you can't judge a series by its first few episodes. This is the time where the production team pretty much throw everything at the wall to see what sticks, go above the usual standard when it comes to visuals to entice fans to keep watching and generally just create something that isn't indicative of what the series will go on to become. With Kamen Rider Saber kicking off right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic (with Zero-One having previously had to go on hiatus, end up with a shortened episode count and have its movie delayed several months), its initial stretch of episodes are a very different beast - and one that many viewers would struggle to shake off. The premiere episode paints a very different Kamen Rider Saber - one that was very obviously held back by restrictions through its heavy use of manipulative camera angles and CGI backdrops. There are also strong elements, such as Touma's interactions with children as he read them stories in his bookshop, that were phased out entirely (a version of Saber with a heavier emphasis on actual storytelling and child involvement is I personally would have especially liked to see, but alas it was not meant to be).  

How much Saber manages to improve during its first stretch of episodes is debatable as well. A new Kamen Rider series kicking off with a sensory overload of characters and new toys to buy is nothing new, but in a series eventually featuring a grand total of 12 Riders, many of whom also had alternate forms on top of that, it was very easy for the series to get completely lost in a sea of product placement. New characters are being introduced at rapid speed along with new Ride Books and forms for Saber, the kind that will inevitably become superfluous as soon as the true mid-season power up came along. Likewise, in modern Kamen Rider fashion the bikes are forgotten just as quickly as they're introduced. With so much going on at a time when Saber has barely established a status quo, it's no surprise people were quickly turned off. The multitude of different coloured Riders working together and insertion of an end theme (complete with dance sequence) also led to plenty of Super Sentai comparisons, which for the most part are completely surface-level but still don't really do the show any favours.

Kamen Rider BladesKamen Rider Espada

But as the first 15 episodes pass and the show moves into an entirely different story arc, it's clear that Kamen Rider Saber has a much bigger plan in mind. The 49-episode series is structured with multiple story arcs – all of which offer distinct turning points in the overall narrative but at the same time flow together to maintain a bigger picture. Even seemingly odd things, like the eccentric Tassel's narration and episode introductions, end up serving a greater purpose.  While Zero-One took a similar approach arguably Saber is even clearer in marking out these distinct chapter points, and in turn makes the show feel a lot "bigger" than it actually is. This ambition is one of Saber's best qualities, and even through its many fumblings is able to create a desire to see that bigger picture and just how everything will slot together by the end. Of course it also puts it in an extremely precarious position, as it's hard to recommend something with the promise of it getting better when it kicks off on such a sour note.

This notion of everything connecting doesn't just relate to the arcs within the series either – even the supplementary media is more closely intertwined with the main story than is usually expected from the franchise. For example Bacht (Kamen Rider Falchion), the main villain of movie The Phoenix Swordsman and the Book of Ruin, goes on to properly reappear in the series whilst the "Sword of Logos Saga" Blu-Ray specials offer an expanded history that can recontextualise specific events. While the attempt to make all the supplementary media count is certainly a positive, it's a double-edged sword in that it highlights how important elements would have really benefitted from being in the main show to begin with. The course-correction of Falchion getting a better introduction and backstory than he did in his own movie is definitely a positive though, even if the role could have done far more with Masashi Taniguchi (GoGoFive, Kamen Rider Amazons)'s talents. 

Kamen Rider BusterKamen Rider Slash

Kamen Rider Saber can be broken down into four main story arcs, each of which introduce a new main antagonist as well as attempting to alter the state of play in terms of character dynamics. The storytelling and focus between these arcs really does differ wildly, which is how Saber is also to claw back a lot of good faith after such a disastrous start. Takuro Fukada might be billed as show runner, but it is also the work of several others - namely Nobuhiro Mouri, Keichii Hasegawa and Hiroki Uchida, which helped the series grow. In fact by the end of its run Keichii Hasegawa (who also had a hit with SSSS.Dynazenon this year) had actually penned more episodes of the show than Fukada himself, including both the build up to and the finale itself. This has led many fans to consider Hasegawa the "true" head writer of Kamen Rider Saber, as well as being the one chiefly responsible for the improvement it saw as time went on.

The one thing that remains consistent across all of Kamen Rider Saber though is just how uneven the characters are. Playing with such a huge cast always meant that some characters were going to end up better developed than others, but it's the way in which Saber frequently pushes characters to one side in order home in on others that's often the most frustrating. After the first arc does its job of introducing most of the Riders and creating the relationships between them and Touma, the subsequent arc immediately puts them at odds as Touma is branded a traitor and enemy of the Sword of Logos. This leads to a lengthy stretch of episodes where Touma has to effectively win the favour of his friends back one by one, whilst in turn revealing both the organisation and its leader as the next big enemy in the story. These episodes are extremely important in the development of both Rintaro (Kamen Rider Blades) and Kento (Kamen Rider Espada), who both suffer significant emotional crises. Rintaro at the potential discovery that the only life he's ever known is a lie, and Kento at his newfound knowledge at how events are supposedly going to transpire going forwards. At the same time these episodes are also introducing even more new characters in the form of Yuri (Kamen Rider Saikou), Reika (Kamen Rider Sabela) and Ryoga (Kamen Rider Durendal), as well as Master Logos and his scheme/overall place in the story. It's a lot to fit in, and in order to do so other previously established characters have to fall into the background. Tetsuo (Kamen Rider Slash) and Ryo (Kamen Rider Buster) are still around, but their presence is barely felt compared to the others. Meanwhile Ren (Kamen Rider Kenzan) goes off on a whole side story of moping about that separates him for the rest of the series and makes him feel like an afterthought a lot of the time. In turn all these newly introduced characters suffer similar fates in the subsequent (and most notably final) arcs. The metaphorical conveyor belt of characters being prominent when they're first introduced and then quickly sidelined in favour of someone else isn't a problem unique to Saber, but it is one where it feels that little bit more obvious just because there's so many of them.

Kamen Rider KenzanKamen Rider Saikou

It certainly isn't the fault of characters themselves, because for the most part Saber has an extremely likeable cast. While there is a touch of "the chosen one" to Touma that can make him seemed somewhat overpowered alongside trained swordsmen, Shuichiro Naito plays him with a youthful optimism that makes him the ideal lead for the series - both in terms of the audience and the characters around him. As well as a having a belief in doing what's right, it's Touma's unwavering belief in people that truly makes him special. His belief in the power of stories comes from his belief in the power of friendship, and even in the face of adversity will at least try to understand the reasons behind his opponents actions. These are all qualities commonly found in Kamen Rider, but given the time the series was made and the current state of the world it's a philosophy that hits that little bit harder. Plus love or hate them, Touma's wardrobe choices are always definitely something to behold.

Equally there's a lot to like about the rest of the Logos swordsmen as well. As previously mentioned Rintaro and Ren are both widely expanded upon over the course of the series, their friendships with Touma a key element in developing them both through good and bad times. Ren especially takes some interesting turns over the course of the series, even if his arc is arguably even more drawn out than all of the Logos swordsmen suddenly turning on Touma. Beyond them Ryo is a really interesting addition to the show, the first proper "Kamen Rider Dad" we've had that wasn't a bad guy tossed in during the final act. While the amount that the show actually did with him and his son Sora onscreen was limited (possibly due to COVID), it was a fresh dynamic that could definitely be expanded in future shows – the fact Buster got his own spin-off manga shows that there's potential there. There's also swordsmith Tetsuo and the ancient swordman Yuri, both of whom are also really likeable characters that add to the wider mythos of the Sword of Logos. Even Ren, brash and unlikeable as he may seem, works as a counterpoint to Touma's beliefs as to what constitutes as true strength. Not only do all these characters work well as a unit, but most of them lend themselves well to both the serious side of the story and its ample amounts of slapstick comedy. Both Yuri and Rintaro are especially good in this regard. Unfortunately, that same tonal shift doesn't quite work for everyone – Reika and Ryoga both make strong first impressions as opposition, but as they progress into more comedic roles it's clear that they don't have all that much to offer outside of a one-note joke. In fact their best offering doesn't even come directly from Saber itself, but rather the corresponding Zenkaiger crossover special the two shows had.

Kamen Rider Durendal & SabelaMei (and Yuri)

Unfortunately the same really can't be said about the villains, which is perhaps the most uneven aspect of the entire series. Kamen Rider Saber really is the point where the franchise should just be honest about the fact it clearly wants to ditch the monster fighting aspect, and become a straight "Rider vs Rider" series. Admittedly it's been this way for some time, with the monster of the week element on really mattering in the early episodes before giving way to a more central villain that's more often than not a Kamen Rider himself. But the Megid really are on another level of forgettable, feeling like a secondary threat even at the very beginning of the series. Almost all of the conflict and intrigue of the series comes from the human element - from the mystery behind the treacherous Kamen Rider Calibur in the initial arc to Reika's machinations in the second, culminating in Master Logos' madness in the third. It's only in the final arc that the Megid's leader Storious truly takes centre stage, and by that point the story has evolved so much that his villainy isn't even really tied to him being a Megid anymore. It really is a testament to both Hasegawa's writing and just how far the rest of the characters have come at that point that he's even remotely engaging as an endgame threat. As strictly monsters, the Megid are so forgettable that even more interesting attempts to use them – such as having humans transform into them to create further conflict between Touma and the Sword of Logos, fall flat.

There are a few bright spots among the mix though, even if in typical Saber fashion the show doesn't use them to their full potential. Desast is a big example of this, a unique Megid that's similarly forgettable until he breaks apart to forge an unlikely kinship with Ren. Despite the bond they develop feeling so far detached from the rest of what's going on, it's somehow oddly endearing. Credit also has to go to Keisuke Soma (who Super Sentai fans will recognise as Genta/Shinken Gold from Samurai Sentai Shinkenger) for his turn as the current Master Logos, playing the character in such an over the top maniacal way that he isn't easily forgotten.

Master LogosStorious

With so many characters in the series being Riders themselves there really isn't that much space for non-Rider supporting characters on top, but Saber still manages to throw a few in for good measure. If an example was ever needed to illustrate just how significant these characters can be, look no further than Mei Sudo. Touma's exasperated editor is an emotional linchpin of the series, helping to bring out the best in the heroes whilst delivering some of the show's best comedy moments (especially when paired with Rintaro or Yuri). Luna on the other hand is more of a plot device than a character – a key figure in Touma's history as well as the link between the Earth and Wonder World. Finally there's Sophia – the mystic leader of Logos' Northern Branch that's a bit of an oddity. A key player in the series whose importance is only cemented further as time passes, but whose origins aren't given the weight you'd quite expect them to have.

The show's key motifs of knights and stories are well-woven into both the story and aesthetic, with the Wonder Ride Books having a prominent place in the lore as well as simply being transformation trinkets. The Wonder Ride Books are a mix of both newly created and real-life stories, with the latter used to mixed effect. While admittedly it doesn't really impact on the overarching message about how stories and how they change the world, it's a little strange to see really interesting concepts like King Arthur wasted on powers like the forgettable "mecha" component Kamen Rider is forced to have these days. If anything it's that their inclusion perhaps promises more than it actually delivers, much like the use of the luminary figures as the basis of the Eyecons in Kamen Rider Ghost. The benefit of "storybooks" and "swords" being such loose terms though is that Saber is able to show a lot of variety when it comes to style and suit design. While the piling on of multiple Ride Books with some of the early forms tends to be a bit cluttered, the more straightforward designs have a lot going for them. Much like Zero-One, Saber himself sticks to a fairly similar silhouette throughout his multiple forms – the combination of knights and dragons always proving to be a winner. Saber also carries on from its predecessor in developing a different kind of final form, a more refined and/or powerful version of the base one rather than something entirely new. It may not be to everyone's taste, but you don't have to look very far to find more significant upgrades either. Blades also goes through a number of different forms in the series, many simply building upon the base suit but eventually leading to an icy wolf-like form that wouldn't look out of place in a GARO series. With "swordsman" being a much looser term than "knight", there isn't a set aesthetic the rest of the Riders follow and many interpret it in different ways. As well as fairly logical progressions like the ninja-themed Kenzan or the heavily armoured Buster, you also have wilder concepts like the comic panel-colouring of Kamen Rider Saikou. Lined up altogether it results in a bit of an eclectic display of Kamen Riders, but not so much in that they all feel like they've come from different shows.

DesastThe Swordsmen

Despite the rocky start Saber does have some pretty great action sequences on show too, with an obviously larger focus on swords and weapon-based combat. As terrible as the early episode CGI-based sequences look, there's still a level of imagination and ambition to them that would likely appeal to the target audience far more than they would an adult fan. While it's clear that those episodes probably had more filming restrictions in place, any that remained as the show moved forwards became much less obvious. The series boasts an impressive selection of directors, many of whom have worked prominently on Kamen Rider since the beginnings of the Heisei era.

Kamen Rider Saber was a series that left me with conflicting feelings. As the story arcs progressed my initial disappointment would occasionally turn to enjoyment, yet I would continuously find myself frustrated with a lot of the decisions the series made. Continuing to feel mixed about right up until the final episode, it was my plan that writing this review would help work through my thoughts and decide how I really felt about it. Reading back and reflecting, it seems as though the elements that I did enjoy often came hand-in-hand with some sort of issue. The show is better than many give it credit for and has plenty of elements worthy of praising, but even past that dire first quarter its uneven nature stops it from ever reaching full potential. That said, Kamen Rider Saber was a series with the odds stacked against it from the very beginning, so for it to even come as a complete as it did is an impressive feat in itself.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how Ghost and Saber would be if Takuro Fukuda wrote most or all Episodes of the two series.

M said...

Reika was so much interesting in the beginning.

Yousuf said...

Which of Takuro Fukuda's seasons do you like more? This or Ghost?

Dharc said...

I think this series should deserve an "Average (3/5)" even though I am also conflicted about this series. Because this season at least got some improvement it saw as time went on ever since Chapter 21. Furthermore, the endgame was also executed in a good way. So I can say this season is better than Ghost, which was also written by Takuro Fukuda.

Anonymous said...


Alex said...

I was INCREDIBLY conflicted about giving it a 2 or 3. Ultimately it came down to writing the review and putting down all the things I liked about the show and all the things I didn't. Then I read it all back and honestly the review sounded more negative to me than it did positive, which is why I settled for a 2 in the end. It's the closest I've come to dealing in halves just so I could give it a 2.5 and COMPLETELY sit on the fence about the whole thing.

I think I preferred Ghost overall. Ghost has significant problems as well but the smaller cast means its a little more consistent for me.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, I think the show's writing structure would have benefitted from halving the amount of character(and Kamen Riders!) it had.

Chengkeng said...

In my opinion, I actually like the series. It was very interesting. The first arc was good. The second arc was kind of okay. The final arc was by far the best. Sure the show was kind of off at some point, but you can't deny that saber rider's have one of the best Henshin formations. I think for this series, they're trying to go for a love triangle between Luna, Touma, Kento. Most of the characters were really good. The villains weren't really threatening. I think the worst part of the series, they wasted three riders, Falchion, Solomon, and Storious. I rate the series 3.5 out of 5

Kepin_151 said...

I kinda agree about 1st arc being better than the 2nd one. In my opinion, as long as it ends with a bang (even with so-so begining), it's still a good series.