Final Thoughts: Kamen Rider Zero-One

A year has passed by and Zero has become One (and briefly, Two). We look back on the first Kamen Rider of the Reiwa era, and decide whether humanity deserves extinction after all.

Zigg’s Thoughts

Zero-One. The name is important in multiple ways. Because not only was Kamen Rider Zero-One the first show of the new ‘Reiwa’ era in Japan, it also represented something of a fresh start for the series. It’s no secret that we here at Glorio have not held Rider shows of recent years in high regard, as they’ve ranged from potentially interesting but ultimately flawed (Build), to dull and nonsensical (Ghost, Ex-Aid), through to the outright catastrophe that was Zi-O. That show represented an unfortunate culmination of the series’ tendency in recent years to ladle on the powerups, extra riders, and complicated plot twists. The result was a loud, ugly and garish mess that leaned far too heavily on its nostalgic cameos and ultimately collapsed into sound and fury.

Of course, artistic integrity has never really been top of Toei’s priority list – Kamen Rider exists primarily to be a toy commercial, and I’m sure Zi-O did very well for them on that front. But it did seem like the logical conclusion of the tendencies that have been building up over the past few years, and consciously or not, Zero-One seemed set up to clear away a lot of bad old habits.

Did it ultimately manage to achieve that? Actually, now we can look back on the show as a whole, I think it mostly did. Some sins remain – there are way too many Riders, as per usual, and while the problem of excess powerups was curbed, it can’t ever really go away entirely because there’s too much money to be made. But Zero-One succeeded where the shows before it failed because it remembered the most important thing in writing a serialised story is to build your characters and give them stories and challenges.

This mantra is evident in Aruto, who from unpromising beginnings emerges as one of the more likeable Rider protagonists of recent years. At first I was afraid that his awful unfunny jokes would become a grating gimmick, but the writing is smart enough to realise that and largely reigns them in to the point they’re endearing rather than annoying. His arc, moving from wide-eyed idealist to more humble realist, and ultimately to vengeance-seeking former hero, is well executed and gives him a pleasing measure of depth. He’s flawed in a way tokusatsu protagonists often aren’t allowed to be, and his last minute ascension to villain status is one of the more memorable twists of recent years. Fumiya Takahashi brings considerable charm to his performance while still being capable of the necessary melodrama for the more emotional moments, and his easy rapport with the rest of the cast only enhances Aruto’s everyman qualities. After a few series with protagonists who were tough to root for, it’s nice to have someone you genuinely want to succeed in the driving seat.

Of course, Aruto wouldn’t be nearly the character that he is without his faithful Izu by his side. As the most prominent example of a Humagear in the cast, the character has a lot of heavy lifting to do to convince us of the essential humanity of the robotic race. Fortunately, the combination of the writing and Noa Tsurushima‘s understated but layered performance are more than up to the task. Izu is simply delightful, whether she’s puncturing Aruto’s arrogance with a well placed comment, or risking everything to help him in his battles. She adds an undercurrent of dry wit that’s rare in the bombastic world of tokusatsu, and plays off the more traditionally heroic Aruto perfectly. The script does a great job of showing the character growing in small, subtle ways across the course of the show, so it’s just as big a body blow to us as it is to Aruto when she’s abruptly destroyed shortly before the conclusion. Crucially, the show mitigates, but does not entirely undo this loss, and while I’d probably have preferred the dramatic effect of a permanent sacrifice, there’s still enough emotion to make her sacrifice meaningful and earned.

Importantly, the supporting cast behind the main players is also fleshed out and given plenty to do. Many shows have made the mistake of bringing in characters for a purpose then having them become almost totally redundant once that purpose is fulfilled. In contrast, both Isamu and Yua get fully fledged stories to themselves that link them back into the main plot in neat and interesting ways. Isamu’s ‘Your memories are all fake’ twist in particular is a memorable turning point for the character and arguably could have been used as the basis for an entire show on its own. The pair do fall by the wayside a little in the final stretch, but that’s somewhat inevitable as the focus narrows on Aruto, and I think that they’re overall much more interesting and contribute more to the story than many secondary Riders have in recent years.

If there’s a weakness in Zero-One’s character roster I think it’s mostly on the villainous side, though I must stress this is all in relative terms. Horobi spends most of the show as a single-minded fanatic whose entire personality boils down to killing all humans. It’s not awful, but it does make him rather bland, which is a shame because the transformation he undergoes in the final few episodes is one of the best parts of the show and adds fascinating layers to the character. It’s a shame it happens so late and feels so rushed, which is something we’ll touch on a little later. I think the idea of Jin is better in theory than in practice. His growth from giggling psycho to dapper young man unsure of his allegiance is an effective route for the character, but his constant flipping between allegiances makes the character feel a little directionless. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t get to win many fights and in general gets trashed a lot. 

For all that Horobi isn’t perfect, I’m pretty glad they opted to make him the final boss rather than Ark. Ark was much scarier both before and after his incarnation, as a disembodied harbinger of doom. As an actual walking talking character though he’s totally flat and mostly just a pure physical threat. Instead, the most memorable villain crown goes to Thouser in a walk. Gai Amatsu isn’t particularly scary or threatening, even at the height of his power, but he’s so deliciously slimy and over-the-top evil that it’s impossible not to love him on pure camp value alone. Nachi Sakuragi manages to walk the fine line between silly and serious perfectly, making Gai a pure pantomime villain, but one who doesn’t cause the entire story to come crashing down around him too (hi Dan Kuroto!). Even his redemption arc is silly in all the best ways and while he pretty much escapes scott free for being the cause of all the trouble in the first place, it’s hard to begrudge him his basement office and his family of robot dogs.

If Zero-One has a noticeable weakness, I think it lies in the pacing department. Like a lot of Rider shows it’s a pretty slow starter, and the focus on Humagear-of-the week episodes for the first third or so of the show can be a little grating. I think that the characters and humour are easily enough to pull it through, but it’s a touch pedestrian compared to the much more dramatic and focussed back half. That said, it also feels that the ending was a little rushed and I think there’s a lot more that could have been done with an evil Aruto and a more emotional, unhinged Horobi. Of course, there’s a simple explanation for this – COVID-19. The pandemic caused a delay in production of several weeks, and ultimately forced the show to run several episodes short, which probably accounts for that somewhat rushed finale. For what it’s worth I think that the crew did a fine job of compressing the important parts down, and although we’ll never know I still think the core essence of what they were trying to do came through intact.

There are plenty of valid criticisms that can be made of Zero-One. It never really digs deep into the nature of the Humagears relationship with humanity. Amazingly, Japan isn’t too big on delivering any comment on corporate ethics or capitalism versus individuality. It’s still a large unwieldy production with a few too many moving parts. Ultimately though, I don’t think any of these are too important. What is important is that Zero-One delivered a show that focused on a rock solid implementation of the key foundations of Kamen Rider – flashy, campy action, cool powerups, likeable characters, and a surprisingly complex, emotional arc plot that was happy to give a nod to the adults in the room now and again. It was a little messy along the way, but Zero-One succeeded in righting the ship, and making me enjoy watching Kamen Rider every week. A new era has begun indeed.

Random Observations

  • My personal apologies for the lack of week-to-week cover on Zero-One this year, I’ve been battling some continued health issues which have made it difficult for me to post regularly. I’m hoping I can do better over the next 12 months.
  • Thanks as always to the crew at Over-Time for their terrific (and rapid) translation work.
  • Check back early next week for our first look at the Reiwa era’s sophomore effort, Kamen Rider Saber.

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