Wednesday 19 January 2022

Movie REVIEW: Saber + Zenkaiger: Super Hero Senki

Saber + Zenkaiger: Super Hero Senki

2021 was a huge year for tokusatsu anniversaries. As well as Ultraman celebrating its 55th anniversary, over on the Toei side of things their tentpole superhero shows also hit significant milestones as Kamen Rider and Super Sentai celebrated their 50th and 45th anniversaries respectively. Times like these are usually celebrated by whatever series releases that year, but of course the real way to properly mark the occasion is with a big flashy crossover film! But not only is Saber + Zenkaiger: Super Hero Senki the first time the two franchises have properly crossed paths on the silver screen since 2017's Chou Super Hero Taisen, but producer Shinichiro Shirakura has also suggested that it may be the last time as well. The film was written by Nobuhiro Mouri (a secondary writer on Kamen Rider Saber) with input from Kikai Sentai Zenkaiger writer Junko Kōmura, and directed by tokusatsu veteran Ryuta Tasaki.

Asmodeus escapes!Saber in Zenkaiger world!

At the Agastia Base which stands tall above the Sword of Logos' Southern Base, the guardian Asmodeus rebels and takes control of the forbidden books - attempting to combine the stories of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai into a single story. As Touma, Mei and Yuri suddenly find themselves in the world of the Zenkaigers, likewise Kaito, Gaon, Magine and Vroon appear in the world of Saber. While exploring this new world Touma also meets Shotaro - a young boy whose penmanship exhibits remarkable powers.

As Asmodeus puts his plan into motion, the heroes are once again transported to new worlds where they are forced to play out the stories of Journey to the West and Nansō Satomi Hakkenden. But Asmodeus gets to Shotaro, the Kamen Riders and Super Sentai begin to disappear. Can Touma convince Shotaro to help restore the worlds he created, whilst also accepting that he himself is also part of one of those stories?

Zenkaiger in Saber WorldA young Shotaro Ishinomori

As divided as fan opinion may be on the series itself, Kamen Rider Saber was the perfect choice for celebrating the legacy of Shotaro Ishinomori in the way Super Hero Senki does. While Zenkaiger's anniversary elements speak for itself, the way Saber goes about it is far more subtle - championing the importance of stories and the influence they can have for years to come. Kamen Rider and Super Sentai have both spanned multiple iterations for decades now, and while the look and style of these shows may have changed over time the spirit and core values have always remained the same. Super Hero Senki honours this in the best way possible, using Touma as a means of conveying this. As an author himself he is the one character in the film able to understand this better than anyone else, with Toei once again taking things in a very meta direction the same way they did in Kamen Rider Heisei Generations FOREVER. However what separates to the two is that the idea of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai as "stories" lends itself far better to Saber's themes and messages than it did Zi-O's time-travelling, as well as the additional poignancy Super Hero Senki has through bringing in Ishinomori himself as part of the story.

The identity of the young Shotaro as the creator of both franchises (as well as countless other manga and tokusatsu titles) doesn't come as any surprise, in fact most fans would have probably been able to work it out from the initial trailers for the film. But just how much significance he has to everything is a far more pleasant surprise. This isn't just a case of a young Ishinomori being along for the ride who's then inspired to create these works based on those adventures - this is Ishinomori seeing what his works will eventually become. The film makes no qualms about power he holds, with the villains quite literally proclaiming him as "god" and his pen truly being mightier than the sword. The fact Ishinomori doesn't see the superheroes he wanted to create in these new generations of Sentai/Riders is a brilliant piece of story-telling, not only creating conflict but offering the observation that on a purely superficial level modern Riders and Sentai do feel very different to his original creations. We as fans know that isn't necessarily the case, but recognising that evolution in a way that it can be twisted in a whole story is nothing short of genius.

Mei and ShotaroIshinomori's creations

The storybook aspect of the film also works in that it's a method to bring back a number of Kamen Rider/Super Sentai alumni in a way that's a little different from the norm. As the stories of the world become even more merged and our heroes are sucked into two greats of Asian literature, we see past characters brought back to fulfil the supporting roles in the story. A crossover special means that of course the Imagin are going to show up in some capacity, but them as the central characters in Journey to the West (with Ohma Zi-O acting as the overlord no less) is a wonderful twist on their usual brand of comedy shenanigans. Similarly while I (as well as probably many other non-Asian viewers) aren't as familiar with Nansō Satomi Hakkenden (Tale of the Eight Dogs), even from the little the film tells you can gauge the influence it had on later works. While nearly all of the returning characters are drawn from the last 15 years or so of each franchise, it wins back points for being pretty diverse in its choices and the modernity of these characters being crucial to the story. On the Super Sentai side of things there isn't a hint of red-focus at all, with characters like Shinkenger's Chiaki or Kyuranger's Shou and Raptor being highlights among old favourites and recent entries like Doggie Kruger or Kiramager's Shiguru. It's also nice to see Owner back for a brief scene, who is as much a staple of any Den-O involvement as the Imagin themselves.

Though the story has the guise of being equal parts Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, as tends to be the case with these productions things can be a little more weighted towards Kamen Rider at times. There's no denying the prominence the Zenkaigers have in the film, but ultimately its Touma who stands out as the real star of the story. As the one character that resembles Ishinomori the most, it's him who has to help him work through his issues and help restore the lost stories. The erasure of "Kamen Rider Saber" as a story also plays into Saber's own plot, as Touma is given the chance to live peacefully with Luna and Kento in a world without the Almighty Book. By comparison, we don't get to see Kaito in a world where the Tojitendo never invaded and he was never separated from his parents. From a narrative standpoint it makes sense that Touma would have more prominence in a film that's literally about stories, but in turn it would be nice to see the Super Sentai side of things propped up in different ways.

The Imagin return!Sentai Megid and Rider World

But since there's so much this film has to say on a metaphorical level, it's not surprising that some elements of the story come across as more than a little shallow - the villains being one such element. It feels wrong to call Asmodeus bad because Ayumi Tanida puts in a great performance, but there's so little substance to the character that you can't really call it good either. While his plot to destroy all heroes to create a new world is simple enough to work within the confines of a 75-minute movie, aspects like him being a former guardian and Sword of Logos member feel undercooked. Thankfully he's still got a killer design, as well as being flanked by two brilliant crossover monsters - the Sentai Megid and Rider World. 

Ultimately the film culminates in the crossover battle we've all been waiting to see, as Ishinomori brings both Kamen Rider and Himitsu Sentai Goranger to life. Kamen Rider 1 (in a newly created version of his original colours costume) and Akaranger arrive on the scene, spawning the legacies of both franchises as they are flanked by the various Riders and red rangers that have succeeded them over the years. As wonderful as these line ups are, including only the red rangers for this sequence does feel like it somewhat misses the point of Super Sentai. With the franchise having spawned so many characters it's understandable that the "legacy" aspect was limited to just the reds, but it feels amiss to have Akaranger appear without his team properly standing beside him. It makes the rest of the team just feel like supporting characters in the red ranger's story, and as a tribute the only real misstep the film really makes.

All Riders assemble!Sentai Reds assemble!

What follows is a fairly arbitrary fight where all these returning characters get a small moment in spotlight (complete with logos appearing onscreen and voices that in most cases are anything but soundalikes), which is fun but nothing these crossover films haven't really done before in terms of scale. It does however some pretty significant moments, the first of which is the acknowledgement of the Hikonin Sentai Akibaranger with the appearance of their very own Sentai Gear. This has been long overdue in an anniversary production for some time, and it's wonderful to see the (gone but never forgotten) Unofficial Sentai get the recognition they deserve in this short and wonderfully silly scene. Secondly comes the debut of Kamen Rider Revice, with Revi and Vice arriving to deliver the final blow. It's a fun debut that gives a satisfying sneak peak at the kind of relationship they have in their series proper, as well as hilariously playing up Vice's devil-like appearance and tendencies. 

The battle doesn't end there though, because of course if Super Sentai is involved the mecha have to be in there somewhere too. Visually things get a bit all over the place as the screen is swarmed by a barrage of CGI constructions, but Super Hero Senki wins points for approaching things a little differently. Rather than the usual display of 45 robot combinations, instead it's the individual red mecha (as well as the carrier vehicles for some of the older Sentai) that join the battle. But to finish the job Kamen Rider Saber gets a new powerful in the form of the "Super Hero Senki" Ride Book, combining the powers of both Saber and Zenkaizer into one. Again it feels a little more weighted toward Kamen Rider simply because Touma is the one in control, but it's an excellent combination of the two suits that serves its purpose visually and thematically. 

The Akibaranger GearIntroducing Revice

But what really sells Super Hero Senki is the moments that come after, where Kamen Rider 1 depowers to greet his creator. Hiroshi Fujioka reprises his role as Takeshi Hongo in this utterly beautiful scene, where the usually stern and paternal Hongo is like an awe-struck child at the creator/father he thought he'd never see again. It isn't just Hongo's reactions that'll get you misty-eyed, it's Ishinomori's acceptance of his death and the solace he takes in living on though his creations' legacy. Fuku Suzuki gives it all in playing Ishinomori throughout the film, but it's in these moments that he really shines. In the same way as the "Kamen Riders will be there for you" message from the end of Kamen Rider 1, this is a scene that deserves to go down in history because it's nothing short of perfect.

Kamen Rider Saber Super Hero SenkiHongo meets his maker

Saber + Zenkaiger: Super Hero Senki isn't a perfect film, but it has something far more significant that arguably all of the Super Hero Taisen entries lacked - a heart. There's nothing at all cynical about this movie, as it celebrates the legacy of Shotaro Ishinomori and his creations through a lens that plays to Kamen Rider Saber's greatest strength. What it lacks in action and balance, it certainly makes up for in recognition of these stories and exactly what they mean to people. As an anniversary movie that celebrates Kamen Rider, Super Sentai and Ishinomori alike - I couldn't think of a more fitting tribute than that.


Anonymous said...

Prior to seeing the movie, I had little to no expectation, given the track records of previous crossover attempts with Super Hero Taisen series (aka Toei's poor-man attempts for following Marvel's The Avengers film series; ironically, first Avengers movie came out in same year (2012), few weeks after Super Hero Taisen came out).

Another reason why I didn't have much fate was that, while I did enjoyed the crossover TV special that precede this movie (despite strangely not mentioning it at all, as if it NEVER happened), I wasn't fan of neither of the series that was airing at the time; Kamen Rider Saber and Zenkaiger; especially the former as WORST Rider/Tokusatsu show I've seen so far. Because of the shows I mentioned (along with other tokusatsu shows that was airing in same year (2021) on other channels), it was overall a lackluster, and quite frankly, underwhelming year for tokusatsu IMO; which was quite a shame, despite its anniversary year for franchises.

Regards to the movie however, I was quite surprised how well it was made.
The writing and directing was above the normal standards I expect from crossover movies and I though it payed the respect and tribute to great Shotaro Ishinomori quite well.
While I did have issues with leaning bit too much on Rider, especially towards the end, the Sentai had decent enough screen time, more so than, later entries of Taisen Series (*cough* Kamen Rider Taisen, GP).
I was really surprised that Toei included UNOFFICIAL Sentai team, Akibaranger, in OFFICIAL movie; especially since it took Toei 30+ years to acknowledge Takeshi Kinashi/Norider in Zi-O's Over Quartzer movie; then again, Toei/Bandai had involvements with merchandising for Akibaranger, which makes it big difference.
Another minor quiver is that while it was nice to see Hiroshi Fujioka reprising his role as Takeshi Hongo/Kamen Rider 1, I wished Naoya Makoto reprised his role as Tsuyoshi Kaijo/Akaranger (Goranger) as well.

Overall, while the movie itself had its issues with pacing, some of the actions toward the end, and issues that carried out from Super Hero Taisen series, it definitely payed tribute and respect to the franchise, much better than previous attempts Toei gave us.
It also helps that it came out during anniversary year for both franchise (which didn't happened during Super Hero Taisen runs; 2016 only had Kamen Rider 1 movie for 45th anniversary) and during still-ongoing pandemic, where people are losing hope and faith, and this movie gave us what is to be hero and cheers/hope to audience.
It's probably the best tokusatsu material I've seen in 2021.

Oar said...

I'm not super fond of Saber but I really, really enjoyed what this movie does with Touma and the general theme of the power and worth of stories, and how that's relevant to these two franchises! The action is fairly run-of-the-mill Taisen movie stuff, but having an actual emotional and thematic connection does a lot to make it stand above other movies like it.

That said, I'd still say Heisei Generations FOREVER is the best of these type of big annivesary films when it comes to being a celebration of toku history (though maybe that movie had the inherent advantage of having a small scale in comparison). Super Hero Senki is a close second for me, though!

Anonymous said...

How is it that out of all the things to come out of Saber the crossover movies, even the ones with Ghost of all things, turned out actually pretty good while the show itself was just so bad? It just boggles the mind.