For an entire year now the whole world has had Drive. Zigg looks back at what’s been a hell of a journey.
Writing a summary of Kamen Rider Drive is incredibly difficult because the only thing consistent about the show has been its maddening inconsistency. From week to week and arc to arc, Drive has lurched from drama to comedy to farce and back to drama again. It’s been both exhilaratingly unpredictable and maddeningly unfocused, and ultimately that’s been its greatest charm and its most serious downfall.
Let’s focus on what the show does well first though. It succeeds in the most important thing a Kamen Rider show can do – creating an interesting cast of characters whom we don’t mind spending time with. When the cast is a pleasure to just hang out with, then no matter how bad the episode or story we can get some enjoyment from just being in the moment with them. Shinnosuke is very much a white-meat main Kamen Rider character, but he’s afforded considerable charm and charisma by Ryoma Takeuchi’s excellent performance. While his motivation and characterisation don’t deviate too far from the norm, they’re believable and work well to add some depth to the character. He’s likable and you can root for him without feeling he’s too much of a goody two-shoes, which stops him falling into boring default protagonist syndrome.
Shinnosuke’s helped by a really strong cast of supporting characters who work well together to reinforce the team aspect that’s so critical to the police procedural setup. Kiriko is perhaps the strongest female Rider character in years and just a constant pleasure whenever she’s on screen. It’s disappointing that the scripts still so often fall back on kidnapping or threatening her as a crutch or as motivation for Shinnosuke, but she does get moments to genuinely kick ass, and she’s fleshed out in an interesting and affectionate way that makes her the emotional core of the group without falling into the ‘women are the emotional ones!’ trap which often perpetrates media in general.
The two secondary Riders also work well to complement each other and Shinnosuke, and they both have relatively in depth stories which helps sustain their appeal beyond the initial novelty of their first appearances. Gou and Chase work well as a pair because they’re actually extremely interesting parallels – whereas Chase’s story is all about him gradually regaining his emotions and his attachment to humanity, Gou gradually becomes more and more detached from his feelings aside from his desire for revenge. In fact, I’d say Gou comes close to being a subversion of the typical goofball toku character, as when he’s introduced he’s a flashy show-off and he gradually gets broken down into a dirty, angry, depressed battler. It’s only through his association with Chase that he comes back to his senses. It’s a great arc in summary but I often found myself wishing throughout the show that they’d make it more explicit, or at least give it more screentime. The actors do their very best and Yu Inaba screams his heart out, bless him, but there’s just not enough substantive dialogue to really sell me on the idea of a personal journey. I’d have welcomed more character development for both of these guys, though Chase is already solid gold whenever he appears. I’m torn how well he works for the structure, since he’s much more entertaining as the deadpan straight man than as the cold executioner, but it still feels like his turn happens too early in the story progression. Another victim of having to run yearlong arcs I suppose.
Tough the rest of the supporting team don’t get anywhere near as much focus as the core characters, they’re all enjoyable to watch as well, and do a great job providing exposition and comic relief. Naturally, the standout is Gen, whose bombastic performance and delightfully foolhardy attitude lift him above the pack in sheer entertainment value. Kyu is also great though and does a surprisingly good job of carrying the couple of focus episodes that he’s placed in. The Chief is actually fascinating and I kind of wish we’d gotten more of him, especially given his past with Mr Belt and his unexpected role as a form of puppetmaster. There’s a great tale to be told of a hidden badass there, though I can appreciate that this might not have been the place to tell it. Rinna is definitely the weak link in this lot, but she’s boosted a lot by her association with Gen and the two make a delightfully at-odds couple.
If the crew is excellently written, I’m not sure I can say the same for the villains unfortunately. Of the core three, only Heart is really fleshed out to the extent I’d like. He’s a wonderfully complex villain, with relatable motivation and a backstory which may be a little convoluted but is well told and explains his motivations clearly. I appreciate that the show mostly keeps him in the background for large parts of the story since it makes his appearances more dramatic. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for Brain and Medic. Brain works well as a comic relief character, but really that’s not enough for such a high ranking bad guy, and his constant ping-ponging between positions and factions makes it feel as if he has no agency. He’s never really much of a palpable threat, and while he’s great for laughs I’d have appreciated a harder edge to the character. Medic barely registers much with me to be honest. She’s pretty much a non-character, devoid of much personality beyond some generic bitchiness, and never really plot important until she’s thrust into the role of a superpowered plaything. Banno is unbelievably over the top, but he does add some much needed unambiguous cackling villainy to the home stretch, and he’s used sparingly enough that he’s enjoyably outlandish rather than wearisome.
Where Drive really let itself down for me though was in its pacing and overall structure. Put simply, this did not feel like a show that was particularly well planned out, and it often lurched alarmingly between different plotlines, styles and even characterisations almost at will. Probably the most notable example of this is the Freeze plotline, which initially feels like it’s going to be the introduction of a big, season defining arc for the show, then ends abruptly without much fanfare. This happens time and time again – 004 being a clone of Krim is another notable example – and lends the show’s writing a very slapdash, off the wall style. This sometimes works to its advantage, as the unpredictability is exciting and certainly makes for a fair share of unexpected turns. But it’s also frustrating because there’s a lot of underdeveloped potential in some of the abandoned plotlines, and a maddening lack of clarity through much of the series.
Ultimately, I think Drive is a fine and exciting adventure. It’s not more than that, but, crucially, it’s not less either. It was always going to be a tough act to follow the genre-defying Kamen Rider Gaim but the crew have done a great job at crafting a funny, entertaining and affecting story. It’s not everything that it could have been, and that’s a shame at some points, but for the most part Drive plays to its strengths and the traditional strengths of the franchise – goofy action, great slapstick comedy, fine acting and some nice old fashioned good versus evil. Not a game changer then, but a NICE DRIVE all the same.
- A huge thank you everyone who’s read and commented on the Drive posts over the past year. I hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage.
- Thanks also to the ever-wonderful Over-Time Subs, who so generously gave their time and skill to let us all experience Drive.
- We’ll do our best to cover any stuff from the Drive crew in the future, including the inevitable Movie Wars crossover and upcoming Chase-centric DVD special.
- Yes, the Kamen Rider coverage will continue! Join us later this week as we get spooky with Kamen Rider Ghost.