Our year is up and the battle for the Fruit of Fate has finally come to an end. The crew look back at an incredible journey.
Gen Urobuchi of Puella Magi Madoka Magica fame writing a Kamen Rider show was the fanbase’s Kingdom Hearts moment — a team-up so baffling it’s still sort of hard to believe it actually exists. Many fans understandibly didn’t know what to expect. Sure, Kamen Rider had always been quite a bit more mature than similar shows from the West, but would a writer known for his brutality, cynicism and philosophical pontificating really be a good fit for a franchise about men in rubber suits punching other men in rubber suits until they explode? Yet despite the changed target audience and the at first seemingly too gimmicky premise Urobuchi had to work with, Kamen Rider Gaim ends up fitting in surprisingly well with his previous works. It contains fresh new spins on his trademark ideas, and its massive length arguably allows Urobuchi to develop them to their fullest potential. Never have his complex systems of morality, the different motivations and allegiances of his characters, and his ambitious, interesting underlying themes reflecting a wide variety of philosophical traditions, subverted genre conventions and psychological savvy been so exceptionally elaborated on as they have in Gaim. The opportunity of screenwriting a story so grandiose and epic in scale must be what drove the juggernaut of ‘mature’ stories to this kids’ toy commercial in the first place, and the result is arguably for the better for both. No one expected Kamen Rider to have a level of weightiness and depth even many ‘grown-up’ stories can’t boast, but Gaim has because it can, without ever losing track of what it’s expected to be.
Oddly enough, Kamen Rider Gaim provides little focus on its characters in the traditional sense. There is a lot less backstory for some of the most important characters than there was even in the most character-deprived Kamen Rider shows, and humouristic moments, while most certainly present, are few and far between. Instead, Gaim‘s — and by extension, Urobuchi’s — characters mostly represent certain archetypes and ideals, and the core of the conflict between them is a clash of their philosophies rather than their personalities. This kind of writing can only come to its right thanks to the exceptional performances by the main cast, who provide their characters with the personality traits, quirks and charisma the script lacks. It shows that having a strong script alone does not make a great show, but a sum of talented people working together to create something phenomenal does. Kamen Rider Gaim boasts such talent not only behind the writer’s desk, but in front of the camera as well. Yutaka Kobayashi (Kaito) can make the most mannered lines of dialogue sound chillingly genuine, while Gaku Sano (Kouta) and Yuumi Shida (Mai) embrace the kindheartedness of their characters with the utmost conviction. Their dramatic performances help to not only drive their points home, but create an air of weightiness as well, invoking the scope and scale of traditional kabuki theatre or jidai geki (period drama) epics. Kamen Rider is one of the few franchises that can thrive on melodramatic overacting, and Gaim uses this privilege to its fullest advantage.
However, Gaim‘s biggest revelation is the talented Mahiro Takasugi (Mitsuzane), who grows from a generically cute idol boy into a chilling sociopath who excels at both subtle terror and melodramatic villainy, delivering a brave performance that far exceeds his usual job description. It’s a small miracle this former air freshener commercial star turned out to be the perfect fit to portray the twisted Mitsuzane in all his gradations, and it’s Takasugi’s disarming performance which peppers the character’s splendid descent from one twisted mindset into another with nuance and humanity. Sadly enough, not every character is granted the same luxury. Gaim initially breaks the mold by introducing two strong, if somewhat secondary female characters — including the franchise’s very first unique, non-movie-exclusive female Rider, Yoko, aka Kamen Rider Malika — but both rather suddenly and artificially get the short end of the stick as the story nears its end. Stripped of all advocacy, Mai sees her widely anticipated role devolve into little more than a trophy for the male heroes to fight over, while Yoko eventually ends up a submissive henchman whose death enforces a regrettable franchise tradition. Even in some of the lousiest Kamen Rider shows there have been better-written female characters, and Gen Urobuchi has even proven his aptitude at writing women well in the past. He simply remains unaware of how his love for grim storytelling often carries unfortunate implications. This general lack of levity may, even disregarding the gender politics, not be everyone’s cup of tea. In the end, however, it pays off immensely, and creates memorable characters who don’t rely on your usual methods of characterization. It’s just a bummer that they all have to be male.
Kamen Rider‘s general strong production loses none of its strength in Gaim. In spite of its limited budget, the franchise still receives a royal treatment by Toei, with a rotating roster of talented directors and the occasional cinematographic indulgence, a swell jidai geki-inspired power rock soundtrack, and epic battle scenes with cinematic flair despite the show’s overall cheap look. It simply wouldn’t be Kamen Rider without the wobbly swords and conspicuous computer animation, though, and luckily, Gaim continues the franchise’s longstanding tradition of getting its money’s worth. The set design isn’t the strongest we’ve seen in recent years, but the costumes, both fabric and rubber, remain to look excellent. Every character, Rider and monster has a unique look which reflects their personality, and especially Mitsuzane undergoes a physical transformation as splendid as his psychological one. The strong action choreography seen in Gaim is just as much a given as the loving creative design, but in a stark contrast with other more recent Kamen Rider shows, its serious tone downplays the blatant toy pitching that occasionally gets the benefit of the attention over the actual plot. Especially the lack of obtrusive robot animal companions is much appreciated, though sadly, Toei makes up for this diminished advertising space by regularly interrupting Gaim‘s strong pacing with an outrageous number of movie tie-in and crossover episodes. These range from enjoyable at best to cringeworthy at worst, but it’s especially the pathetic attempts to make them canon that are unwelcome. A bit of filler never hurt no one, but screwing over the canon ending with a cheap movie pitch? That’s a whole other pair of trousers.
In the end, however, Kamen Rider Gaim is so much more than the sum of its parts, and its flaws can’t match the sheer amount of things it does right. It’s a show that deserves to be watched and cherished not because it lifts the franchise up to all new heights, but simply because it’s such damn great television. Sure, it’s cheap, but it has more heart than most million-dollar-budget blockbusters. Sure, it’s camp, but is life ever as dead-serious as we all like to think it is? Sure, it’s for kids, but it warrants analysis and criticism that evolves beyond the dishonestly restrictive affix ‘… for a kids’ show’. It’s not just clever for a kids’ show. It’s not just complex for a kids’ show. It’s not just great for a kids’ show. It’s clever, complex and great regardless. The fact that Gaim is outwardly a show for children is a draw, not a turn-off. It’s not sugary, simplistic or sickeningly patronizing the way many ‘kids’ shows’ are. It treats its audience with integrity, regardless of age or interest. Gaim has such real value on so many levels, from an exciting adventure about breakdancing heroes saving the world to an elaborate morality play on the value of humanity and heroism, it’ll be something the children who watch it today will carry with them for the rest of their lives and discover new truths in the older they get. I wish that I, as a kid, could’ve grown up watching Kamen Rider Gaim, and that is the biggest praise I could ever give it.
There’s a lot to like about Kamen Rider Gaim. For a show about dudes beating each other up in silly costumes, it managed to craft a story that tested the human condition. While our main character Kouta supported the classic theme of perseverance over any obstacle, Micchy and Kaito also gave us an amazing example of what happens when one becomes too devoted to fulfilling their ideals. None of this would have been nearly as poignant without good acting to back it up. Thankfully that was never an issue, as actors knew how to portray their characters brilliantly. Even the total hams helped accentuate the over-the-top setting Gaim inhabited.
I am an absolute sucker for dynamic fights, so watching Gaim was truly a choreographic treat. While the explosions and some monsters used noticeably sketchy CGI, the individual fights between Riders always had a great amount of energy and focus that brought the scenes to life. Every time Kouta got a new transformation it gave me complete excitement at the potential for his new strength. The scene atop Yggdrasil’s headquarters still reigns as quite a memorable scene, watching Kouta put his words to action as he sets out to show that humanity’s destiny was not written in stone. The climactic battle between Kouta and Kaito was also a wonder for the eyes. The suits seemed to be well designed for high mobility, and thus allowed that final dramatic battle to be given all the impact it needed. Even laughably cheap swords didn’t take away from the sheer frenetic nature of that final struggle, and the dynamism of its conclusion.
Kamen Rider Gaim was my first foray into the world of Kamen Rider, and I feel truly spoiled for it. This show blew away my expectations for writing and characterization so much that I’m not sure how I’ll be able to go into future Kamen Rider series without a heavy bias. Still, I’m glad for giving something new a shot and watching this show. From week to week it was the one thing I could look forward to. What made Gaim so amazing was that, even though it had a stellar start, it continues to get better and better the more we delve into the world of the Armored Riders. As the stakes got raised with every new plot development, our characters also became more and more fleshed out. Forced into situations that tested their convictions at every turn, they succumbed to the pressure or overcame their hardship while crafting this tale. Unfortunately there were some stumbles at the very end, but they could not take away from the excellent setup that had come in the acts prior. By the end I felt I had watched a show I will come to remember for a long time.
When I started Gaim, Akibaranger was the only tokusatsu show I’d seen, and that was only because it poked fun at anime. I kind of disregarded the genre as something for kids, and while that’s not exactly untrue, I soon found there was a lot here for adults, too. But with some crazy themes like fruit, dance battles and samurai, it was incredibly hard to make the jump and just watch an episode. Urobuchi was the tipping point that let my curiosity win out, as Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Saya no Uta are two of his works that I very much enjoyed. But just what could he do? It’s a kids show, and Urobutcher is writing the script! Who wouldn’t be curious?
The fruits, dancing and sengoku-era themes were obviously a requirement from the get-go, and as much as these things are in the show to make it stand out for kids that want the merchandise, it really doesn’t harm the show in the slightest. Sure, I could have done with a little less dancing at the beginning, but once the show really gets into its stride, it becomes a lot less frequent and fits the story a lot better. The fruits are what they are, and while it is funny seeing Kaito fight with a spear that looks like a banana and hearing his belt shout ‘mango’ in fantastic engrish when he uses the mango Lock Seed, they serve to help the overall theme in the long run. In fact, during the early parts of the show while the different lock seeds are being introduced, it makes you wonder which fruit will be showing up next. And hey, there’s absolutely no qualms with the sengoku themes. As I’ve said before, it makes it really easy to just pretend that this show is a live action Sengoku Basara.
There are two main reasons why I will be recommending this show to people. The first is just how great it is at character development, as in no time at all, Gaim sets up the main cast, a stack of rivals and the bad guys. At the same time, each and every character is fleshed out and human, none of them feeling like tacked on additions, and each one prepped and ready to bowl you over should anything happen to them. That’s the second reason why I’ll be recommending this show, and perhaps the most obvious one considering the guy doing all of the writing. For a guy in orange and blue spandex running about beating up monsters, this show gets dark. Incredibly dark. Bad stuff happens. People die. Worse. Don’t let the Kamen Rider name fool you, this show is very much from the guy who’s renowned for creating horrible scenarios. However, he does have restraint, and every single time that something happened that made the collective Kamen Rider fanbase lose its shit, it was well and truly justified. Nothing felt out of place, and you couldn’t help but watch on in awe, and almost in fear of what might happen next.
Kamen Rider Gaim isn’t just a great tokusatsu show. It’s proof that even a show about dudes in rubber suits can have as much character development, suspense and genuinely mind-blowing plot twists as any other format. There are moments of this show that would even make Kyubey double-take. How it quite managed to get away with some of these adult themes, given that it’s a children’s show and airing in an early morning timeslot, I’ll never know. But whatever the case, it’s raised the bar for Kamen Rider Drive, and not just because Wizard before it just wasn’t interesting at all. Don’t hold yourself back from watching this for the same reasons I did. Take a dive and give it a shot, because honestly, what’s the worst that can happen?
I’m not surprised that Kamen Rider Gaim was good, nor that it dealt with some relatively dark topics. Kamen Rider shows have been excellent in the past, and they’ve dealt with some pretty grim territory in series gone by. What was different however, was the way in which Gaim handled both aspects of this equation. Previous Kamen Rider shows have always sort of felt good as a byproduct of what they actually are. I’ve always been sort of surprised that something made as cheaply as possible to sell toys to children has been genuinely entertaining. But Gaim was never like that. Instead Gaim always felt like a ‘real’ drama that had been forced to dress up in rubber suits and toy swords to get anywhere. Likewise, Urobuchi embraced the darkness of his ideas rather than making them a byproduct.
The result was a show that had a distinctly different feel from the standard Rider fare. A lot of this can be attributed to the junking of the standard two episode plot arc structure. Instead, Gaim‘s story twisted and turned and its own speed, forgoing the need for neat resolution every 45 minutes or so and giving its subplots room to grow and breathe. This lead to one of the most exceptionally paced show’s I’ve ever seen. Even across 40 plus episodes, Urobuchi succeeds in maintaining strong stories that keep our interest, all the while advancing the agenda of his main plot. There’s a reason for everything which happens, be it to further tease out the many mysteries that ran through the story or to build our understanding of the characters or world further. The show excels at opening and closing its plot arcs and seguing into new stories effortlessly, naturally raising new questions even as the old ones are answered. With this exceptional pacing came a genuine mystique and sense of scale. Despite the incredibly limited budget the show is extremely successful at conveying the alien nature of Helheim and the gravity of the threat it poses. Too often on Kamen Rider world domination merely seems like a by-product of the grandiose scheme of an insane baddie, but here the threat is interwoven into the very fabric of the narrative. It gives the entire story an epic scale and a global feel, despite the action mostly staying concentrated in Zawame City.
That threat would be nothing though without great characters to face it and this is where Urobuchi’s writing really shines, as he creates a magnificent cast to play out his vision. Once again, generally in Kamen Rider characters are broad archetypes who are usually distinguished by outstanding acting, but Gaim boasts both the benefit of the latter and a subversion of the former. Every recurring character is given depth and the core ones are supreme examples of how to evolve and change your characters as time goes by. There is depth in the character writing that would put purportedly far more ‘serious’ shows to shame. Even Kouta, stuck in the role of goodie-goodie hero, undergoes serious character evolution as the show goes on, and crucially it’s unafraid to sometimes cast him in a poor light, especially compared to the more aggressively proactive (and, interestingly, more traditionally heroic) Kaito. He’s allowed to make genuine mistakes and misjudgments, but they’re always reflections of his essential goodness. His accidental murder of Yuuya or his blind trust in Mitchy represent times that noble intent failed, something which television in general rarely recognises, but is a mature and important theme to consider. Kouta embodies the most traditional Kamen Rider/kids TV qualities – he wins because he is a protector after all – but his moral grandstanding feels earned, and his sacrifice at the end of the season is more meaningful because of it.
Though Kaito may seem a more liberated character, he’s actually representing an old Rider staple too – the lovable asshole. It’s just that Urobuchi turns the volume of the character up considerably. For large parts of the story he’s stronger and more capable than Kouta, and his single-minded determination is smartly contrasted with Kouta’s wishy-washy hand-wringing. The difference is though is that Kaito ultimately here is true to his base character motivation and falls to villainy, rather than the redemptive path many of these characters take. The writing is great at making his morality ambiguous however, and he’s furnished with sympathetic backstory that makes him more than a mere villain, but instead a character whose ups and downs are intriguing in their own right.
It’s the Kureshima brothers though who really showed how deep and strong the writing on the show got. Their two arcs are beautifully mirrored against each other – as Takatora regains his hope and faith in humanity, Mitchy slowly loses his. Again, believable motivation and well-rounded character morality make all of their viewpoints tenable, and so the conflict is especially interesting. There’s definitely a case to be argued for Takatora keeping knowledge of Helheim from humanity, just as you could argue for Mitchy keeping Yuuya’s death from Kouta. The intention was good, the result bad in both cases. The difference is that Takatora chooses to embrace the hope represented by Kouta, whereas Mitchy resents it, mixing it into a potent cocktail of empowerment, romantic jealousy and just plain adolescent anger. His fall from grace is such a powerful story that it’s arguably the most dominant of the plotlines, and yet it’s still parlayed so well into the overall story that it fits like a glove. I was especially taken with the ending, where Mitchy is ultimately outmaneuvered in all regards and sees his grandiose schemes collapse around him. It’s an incredible character journey, from good to bad, to broken and ultimately towards hints of good again, and yet it’s also one that’s played out slowly and methodically enough to be believable and tragic. It’s quite a feat to make a character simultaneously repulsive, pathetic and sympathetic. Though he gets way less screen time, Takatora’s is a compelling journey too, and the way his cold-hearted shell is peeled away to reveal the basically good, honest man underneath is a great example of how to turn a villain into a hero.
Gaim also benefited from many of the franchise’s trademark strengths – excellent suit and monster design, great action choreography and an almost uncanny ability to cast perfectly. Though they’re fortified by much better dialogue than usual, it’s impossible to undersell the contribution of the actors to this masterpiece. From Gaku Sano’s charming yet never irritating Kouta, through to Mahiro Takasugi superbly slimy Mitchy, everyone acts their heart out and if they occasionally cross into scenery chewing, well, that comes with the territory. There’s also the advantage of some fresh cinematography, with the show ditching some long established toku shooting spots and finding creative ways to film others to convincingly create the illusion of a single city. Urobuchi even manages to elegantly integrate the required toys into his story, and the overt shilling is way down from previous years.
In the end, it boils down to a single important fact, and that’s that Urobuchi took this story seriously. Though I love the genre to death, an essential part of tokusatsu is acknowledging the cheesiness and corniness of it all. Even in their darkest moments, previous Rider shows did that. They were garish comics splashed onto a screen, all broad strokes and big speeches aimed at the cheap seats. Gaim is not that. Sure, it’s still silly, still campy and still loves a juvenile joke…sometimes. Underneath though was a story that went deeper, built itself a stronger foundation and scaled to greater heights than merely being a caricature of itself would allow. In a sense, it barely even matters that it has the name Kamen Rider on it, because its true strength lies not in the suits, or the toys, the monsters or the explosions. It lies in the plot, the characters, the twists and the emotions they made us feel. That’s what great stories do. When he took it seriously, that made us take it seriously. And when we did, we were rewarded with a story that was truly special.
- Yes, the Kamen Rider coverage will continue into a third straight year, as we’ll be bringing you a First Look at Kamen Rider Drive in the very near future.
- The cast and crew’s final thoughts can be found, translated from the official blog, here
- Colossal thanks go to the talented team over at Aesir Subs, who gave so much of their time and skill to produce the amazing translation that we watched.
- Finally, thank you very much to everyone who read, liked and commented on any of the Gaim coverage we’ve written over the past year. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’m glad you guys came along for the ride. See you out there.