The Skywall has come down and with it our journey to the world of Build has come to an end. The crew look back on a year’s worth of dubious science, creepy idol crushes, and of course, love & peace.
There was so much potential. That’s my major thought when I look back at this last year of Kamen Rider. I think about how ambitious and interesting Build could be at times, about when the shocking swerves worked, and when the cheesiness of the story perfectly aligned with the inherent campiness of toku to produce a fun, goofy ride. But I also think about how thoroughly everything fell apart, about how the writers fatally overreached, then overreached more and the entire plot collapsed into incomprehensibility. I think about how flat and unlikable the characters were, how bad the show was at giving them arcs, and how disposable they felt by the end. Most of all, I think about the third Kamen Rider show in a row to fail to entertain me, and what that means for the future.
What was clearly the most compelling thing about Build was the immediate complexity it seemed willing to approach its world with. Right from the beginning we were thrown into a melting pot of potentially fascinating ideas and concepts – political tension between the three parts of former Japan, the power of an ancient alien artifact brought back from Mars, an illegal underground weapons development lab carrying out human experimentation…any of these plot threads alone could have sustained the show for dozens of episodes. Build‘s fatal mistake however was not choosing to explore any of them with the depth that they deserved. Instead, the show rushed through the basic ideas it had laid down, in favour of piling on ever more complex, ludicrous plots on top of them.
This, more than anything else was the show’s biggest problem – a seeming addiction to making its story as complicated as humanly possible, never for a second taking a moment to think about what was happening or to give the audience a moment to adapt to the new status quo. In the early part of the show this worked well, the constant surprises creating an atmosphere where viewers could believe anything could happen, but gradually we realised that the questions posed were never going to be matched by meaningful answers, that the constant switching of allegiances was for no reason other than to generate shock and pad out time. What Build never seemed to understand was that twists mean nothing unless they’re accompanied by meaningful consequences. This was never better exemplified than by the endless series of confrontations with Evolt that took up the back third of the show, each one billed as an ultimate showdown and each one instead falling utterly flat.
It seems clear in hindsight that the writers were attempting to pull together their disparate plot threads into single, focused narrative that escalated from relatively small stakes to fate-of-the-universe levels, but the skill required to do so in an interesting way was totally beyond them. The most obvious example of this is the absurd tonal whiplash which permeates the entire show. Build has no gear between ‘deathly serious’ and ‘ultra-goofy comedy’ and the rate at which it pings backwards and forwards between the two is incredibly disorientating and ruins any attempt to give episodes or even individual scenes coherent atmosphere. I understand Build is a show aimed at children and therefore requires liberal helpings of slapstick comedy, and I’m not objecting at all to the inclusion of ridiculous doll segments or Gentoku dressing like an idiot. Rather, it’s the way that those elements are inserted without fail at the most inopportune moments, ruining any sort of emotional arc the show tries to construct.
The constant inability to set mood and tone also contributes to poor character writing and an inability to take any of the cast seriously as we need to (special mention to the absurdly creepy Kazumi/Misora scenes here). Again, there’s so little room for nuance in the world of Build that our heroes and villains are either 100% on or off at any point we see them on-screen, and consequently they come across as shallow and lacking layers. I’ll give the writers credit in that there are at least obvious efforts made towards season long stories – Sentou and Banjou’s testy dynamic duo, Gentoku’s move from villainy to redemption – but there’s nowhere near enough flesh put onto the bones of these supposed arcs, to the point that it sometimes feels the characters simply leap from one condition to the other because that’s what the plot demands.
Gentoku’s a prime example, as he starts the show a smooth, sly and seemingly conniving villain. His subsequent breakdown to homicidal nihilist is not totally unbelievable but could have done with a lot more screentime to explain and rationalise itself, and his shift after that to heroic redemption seeker comes entirely out of nowhere and is super unconvincing. That’s partially because we’ve seen almost no development to justify a change of heart, and partially because once it happens the show ping-pongs him between tortured soul and idiot comedy relief so fast it’s impossible to get a grip on what he’s actually meant to be. It’s then made even worse by arguing it was all a result of being influenced by the evil box, a ‘break glass in case of emergency’ escape plan if I’ve ever seen one. Bereft of direction, the actors largely struggle to bring fun and chemistry to their parts, with the exception of Yasuyuki Maekawa as Evolt, who has it a little easier by playing the villain. What’s especially irritating is that in the opening dozen or so episodes the show actually did show some aptitude for character work, such as Sentou’s encounter with ‘Katsuragi’s’ mother, or the unforgettable Black Hazard-induced murder scene which remains probably the strongest single moment in the show.
Build can’t really even fall back on the genre’s traditional strengths. The show suffers the same problem which has increasingly hurt Kamen Rider shows over the last few years, namely an overabundance of powerups. Build’s new forms come out of nowhere at an amazingly rapid rate and as a result are almost universally underwhelming, with basically no buildup or payoff other than the obvious function of hawking the newest toy. They’re not even particularly well designed or executed upon, with Genius form the only one I’m really into, and several (PirateTrain comes to mind) among the ugliest, lamest looking forms a Rider has had in some time. The show only exacerbates this problem by having four Riders plus Evolt, each with their own powerup path. Commercialism has always been an essential part of Kamen Rider – the show wouldn’t exist without it after all – but previously it’s been better at integrating the obvious toy adverts into the story, and that seems to have become increasingly difficult in the recent past. Even visually there isn’t much to praise – the fights are mostly just alright, the directing is workmanlike with little in the way of flair, and there’s a heavy reliance on ugly, extremely dated CGI, even more so than most other toku series. It’s yet another example of where Build‘s ambition outstrips the practical limits of what it’s able to achieve, though this time the problem is production rather than story.
I had high hopes for Build at the beginning, and was attracted by its ambition and seeming willingness to tackle bigger, more complex themes than most Kamen Rider shows have. More so than with pretty much any other type of series though, a 51 episode toku show is a marathon not a sprint, and Build ran out of steam embarrassingly quickly. By the end, most of the entertainment we got out of it was seeing just how off the rails the entire thing would go, and while that definitely proved entertaining it’s not a type of fun which reflects well on the show. What’s more worrying though is the continuing downward arc of the Kamen Rider series as a whole, which has now produced back to back to back mediocre to poor entries at the same time sister series Super Sentai has flourished. My hope is that with the Heisei period drawing to a close Toei will stop and look at the state of their venerable franchise, and consider if radical changes are needed to help it survive into a third consecutive decade. Build was a interesting attempt at something bigger and braver than we’ve seen in a while, but perhaps it would have been better served with its feet firmly on the ground, addressing the small problems before dreaming of the big ones.
- Thank you to everyone who’s read along, liked, or commented on the Build articles this year. Sorry it’s occasionally been a little erratic, but I hope you’ve enjoyed them.
- Against my better judgement, Kamen Rider coverage will continue! Check back here early next week for a First Look at Kamen Rider ZI-O!