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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Showa vs Heisei: Kamen Rider Wars feat. Super Sentai.

Showa vs Heisei: Kamen Rider Wars feat. Super Sentai.

I don't often watch the Kamen Rider crossover films, to be honest. I still haven't seen Wizard vs Gaim. There are a lot of reasons for this: Time constraints, a lack of interest, and the fact that they are all without fail nonsensical, soulless cash-grabs that aren't even trying to hide it, and it's really grating watching a company that often produces very strong pieces of television work lob all semblance of good storytelling out the window for an hour and a half of recycled plot points, flashy but ultimately uninspiring light shows, and characters acting like entirely different people.

So we've probably established by now that I did not go into watching this film expecting something worthwhile. Really, I didn't, I expected something genuinely quite bad.

Did it live up to those expectations?

… Er. No, to be honest. I actually think this is a really good film. We have character arcs, that are true to the characters involved, guys. We have maturely written content – by which I do not mean 'dark grittiness, such Frank Miller' but 'difficult subject matter dealt with in a thoughtful and mature way.' We have a frankly remarkable degree of sincerity in the writing, and a surprising amount of fidelity to the series this film ties into. We have some good fight scenes – and some flashy light shows.

(Not that it's perfect. We'll get onto the flaws in a bit.)

Pictured: A flaw.

Showa vs Heisei: Kamen Rider Wars feat. Super Sentai drops us into a crisis with most recent Kamen Rider protagonist, dancing fruit samurai Kazuraba Kouta. Some construction workers have discovered a world inside the world, it turns out, and that world is actually the evil Underground Empire Badan, which intends to take over the surface world. As Kouta investigates, he discovers a young boy named Shu with an important, personal task, and an ideological struggle between the Showa Riders – those Riders from the first era of Kamen Rider – and the Heisei Riders – from the second era.

Which is a summary, but not one that really accurately portrays the film. Kouta doesn't have much part in this film. Instead, three earlier riders: Tsukasa, Shotaro and Takumi take the bulk of the storyline. Takumi in particular shines here, as he has a surprisingly well-written arc of character development that stretches over the whole film (and involves a prolonged section in which he's the central character), in which he struggles with his survivor's guilt, but Shotaro and Tsukasa are also a joy to watch. 

Especially together with a dog.

(They're not the only Heisei Riders to show up out of suit, incidentally. Haruto, of last year's series Kamen Rider Wizard, puts in a small but substantive appearance, as does Kusaka, a secondary Rider from Takumi's series, Kamen Rider 555.)

The Heisei Riders who are seen out of suit are all written remarkably faithfully – except some of the Riders from the most recent series, Kamen Rider Gaim. I literally snorted my tea up my nose and had to take a five minute break when Kureshima 'Micchy' Mitsuzane, backstabber and traitorous toerag extraordinaire, lovingly remarked to his brother 'I know I can win, so long as you're with me.' Kouta, Gaim's central character, is characterised well but in a slightly lacklustre fashion too, but Kaito, his rival, is written perfectly and hilariously. The film takes the unintentional comedy of Kaito's insistence on proving his strength and power and makes it gloriously intentional, as he screams at a turtle that he will show how strong he is (and is seen in the end credits staring longingly at a turtle tank). 

Yeah, you show that turtle, Kaito.

The Showa Riders don't get off so lucky. Individually, they're well-written and well-acted: Kamen Rider X features into Takumi's subplot as a wise mentor figure and small town doctor, and fits that role excellently, being alternately gruff and gentle. As a group, they feel like villains until the very end, showing up at random intervals to obstruct the Heisei Riders while yelling about how they're too kind, and how they should abandon kindness and devote themselves fully to strength, which is entirely inconsistent with how these people were characterised in their own series. While their characterisation appears to be briefly saved with the revelation that it was all an overly convoluted plan, it is then tossed into the gutter then when, plan enacted and crisis vanquished, they decide to resume the eponymous war, much to the confusion of a) the audience, and b) every other character present.

The film has some other writing problems, too. For the most part, it's really good – it's coherent, it's well-paced, and it deals very maturely with themes of grief and regret, especially in regards to the death of a child, which is not light subject matter by any means. It's gentle in how it deals with those themes, but it doesn't shy away from them, and that's a fairly difficult balance to strike. Where most of the issues come in is towards the end where, variously, Kouta randomly nearly kills himself protecting what appears to be a daffodil, despite the fact that killing plantlife is kind of his thing; random Super Sentai characters show up and then vanish as soon as the story's climax is over (I admit, I actually quite liked that, but it's not great writing); and the story starts delving into having characters loudly remark on the moral themes of the story, despite the fact that they were shown clearly but subtly before. 

I did tear up a little here.

There's an air of sincerity to this film, too. Most of the Movie Wars films in Kamen Rider feel almost like the writer haven't ever seen the series they're writing about, don't really care about them, and are just ticking off points on a list – and they feel like that even when you know for a fact that that isn't the case. This film pins down what Kamen Rider has been trying to achieve since All-Riders vs Dai-Shocker five or six years ago: Feeling like a true crossover. Some of that is because they have a startlingly amount of out-of-suit actors returning (a good seven of them, not including the five Gaim cast members), and some of that is that little references to the previous series are sprinkled liberally throughout, and a lot of that is that the crossover elements are involved throughout. This is not a film in which all the Riders show up at the end for a big battle, but aren't seen at all otherwise except maybe in a brief cameo, it's a film in which you have about eight Riders showing up throughout, interacting with each other and working together, and then a bunch more show up for the final battle. 

One of these things is not like others. Hint: It's Kiva.

Some parts of the film, like Takumi's being drawn into the life of Keisuke Jin (Kamen Rider X), even feel like they would have worked well as in-series episodes – and I think in-series crossovers are something everybody wants to see at this point.

As for everything else: Well, the music is alright, and the fight scenes are, on the whole, pretty good. Nothing to really write home about, but they're entertaining to watch and they get the job done. The villains are ridiculous, as usual, but the most prominent villain, Fifteen, is actually very effective. Also, the villains include a giant flaming T-Rex whose skull splits open to reveal a human skull, and you can't ask fairer than that. 

Also, a rider who can wear other riders. Fashion.

All in all, a remarkably good film, and well worth watching. I'd go as far to say that like Ultraman Zero: Revenge of Belial, it's a film that can be watched even if you aren't familiar with the franchise in question, and works pretty well as an introduction to it.  

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