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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Kamen Rider Gaim.

Kamen Rider Gaim.

When I saw the first pictures – shot on someone's phone from behind and afar – of Gaim, I assumed he was a local hero, not a Kamen Rider, in large part because I couldn't quite imagine Kamen Rider doing fruits as a theme, and also partly because it was that time of year where you usually get rumours like 'Double will be water themed and have a transparent dolphin suit.'

I was, as we know, mistaken, and that's all that's really worth saying about the theme: That he isn't a transparent dolphin costume.

Let's move on.

Kamen Rider Gaim, penned by fan-beloved anime writer and Kamen Rider Ryuki fanboy Gen Urobuchi, is the story of Kazuraba Kouta, a young man who has quit his hobby of dancing in order to grow up, citing a need to 'transform' and a more pressing need to not starve. When his best friend vanishes, leaving behind only a mysterious belt and one of the padlock gadgets used by the local teen dance teams for their wacky Pokemon battles, he becomes Kamen (or Armoured, whatevs) Rider Gaim and is drawn back into the dance world. Also, the world of conspiracies, parasitic megaflora, and deities. That world too. He's drawn into it.

Joining him are a host of other riders, including traitorous grape enthusiast Kureshima Micchy, Objectivism dancer Kumon Kaito, and, operating from the shadows, stoic businessman Kureshima Takatora, as they attempt to discover why this giant plant world is trying to kill them.

Pictured: Team Evil, Mark Something-or-Other.

It's a curious one, Gaim. Breaking from a formula that's been in place since Kamen Rider Den-O, the show eschews episodic storytelling almost entirely, instead having a wholly serialised format with a massive ensemble cast of characters, including the most Riders of any Kamen Rider series (the final number, including films, comes to eighteen or nineteen) and no shortage of non-Rider characters as well. Which is refreshing: Ensemble casts are always fun when done well, and not every series can pull off the monster-of-the-fortnight thing. Gaim's immediate predecessor certainly couldn't.

Another noteworthy thing about Gaim is that it's comparatively more mature next to Wizard. Not dark, or grim, or heaven forbid Miller-esque, although there has been no shortage of people breathlessly rhapsodising on how it's just like The Wire and should air on HBO alongside Game of Thrones and reruns of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. This isn't, despite what people might say, a dark show, even by the standards of children's programming.

Kaito, why do you only have the red Inves, seriously.

I say mature because there's a depth of theme here that, while not unheard of in Kamen Rider, with shows like Double and (someone is going to stab me for writing this) Fourze having a similar depth in different ways, is still fairly uncommon. Urobuchi knows what message he wants to send, and he's fairly single-minded about sending it, and the result is a show which had people flooding to forums to discuss character motivation, motifs, and speculations for the future.

One character motivation often discussed was Micchy. I'm not sure there's ever been quite a controversial character in Kamen Rider, as the character progressed from somewhat creepy Nice Guy (with fandom divided between 'how suspicious' and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing') to treacherous toerag (with fandom divided between 'Micchy take off the Christmas sweaters' and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing') to delusional lunatic (with fandom divided between 'Are you okay, Micchy' and 'Micchy has never done anything wrong') and finally to semi-redeemed functional human being who really needs therapy (with fandom divided between 'He should still just die', 'Poor Micchy', 'Zack should ask him out', and 'Mai owes him, heavy breathing').

I could be cynical and say that a large part of why so many people leapt to Micchy's defence even at his most evil was because they somewhat identified with a boy being silently but dangerously obsessed with a girl, and I am cynical, so I am going to say exactly that. Another large part of it, though, is probably that Micchy is a very human character. He is deeply flawed, and not heroic, and kind of deluded, and sometimes he tries his best and sometimes he's just spiteful and manipulative and controlling. That kind of less than ideal humanity isn't often seen on television in general, let alone in tokusatsu, and while not everyone is like Micchy, probably everybody has met people who have shades of him.

Either way, I'm not sure any other character in the franchise has generated quite so much debate. In general, I think it's been a while since any series in the franchise has generated so much interest, debate and new fans. Some of that is that having Gen Urobuchi's name attached – and given the man's increasing and public irritation over his fans, it's really only a matter of time before he vanishes mysteriously at the same time that a mysterious new anime writer called Homura Ichuboru appears. A lot of that is the aforementioned depth of theme and serialised nature.

Some of it is that everyone likes seeing Kouta cry.

But a fair amount, too, is that it's a good series, and those almost always prompt discussion, just because people are enthused. It's not perfect, but it's tightly written, well-acted (the Gaim cast is one of the most consistently good casts I've seen, with some particular standout performances from Mahiro Takasugi, Aoki Tsunenori, Yuki Kubota and Tomomitsu Yamaguchi. That's no mean feat for a show which also has a very large cast), and usually (although not always) very well-directed.

I'm kind of sitting here staring at this document, because there's so much I could talk about, and we would be here forever if I did. I could talk about how I liked Kouta as a protagonist, and that his do-gooder-y ness endeared him to me rather than being grating. Or I could talk about how annoyed I was that people kept breathlessly gushing over the Kouta/Mai/Kaito/Micchy love quadrilateral, when I could see nothing to remotely suggest that Kouta and Mai were interested in each other at all, save that they're main characters and that's apparently just what you do, and nothing to suggest Mai was interested in Micchy. I could definitely talk about how Oren made me very uncomfortable at points, and how relieved I was when he evolved into a mentor role. I could talk for a very long time about how the treatment of women and LGBT people in this show compares with Gen Urobuchi's record in those regards, and I probably will in an editorial. I could talk about how, by and large, I hated the Rider suit designs, every last one of them bar about three, one of which only appeared in the finale.

If I talked about everything I want to talk about, though, this would be ten thousand words long and large chunks of it would just be devoted to personal crack theories, like 'God Mode Kouta was the one who opened the portal for Regular Kouta to travel to Wizard Crossover Monster World at the end of the last series' and 'Sagara was created by the Presenters from Fourze, and/or the Presenters from Fourze are literally Kouta and Mai'. That will probably be an editorial too. There's going to be a few Gaim related editorials coming up, believe me.

You don't have to look so upset about that.

What I'll do instead, then, is give my recommendation: You should watch this series. If you've never watched a Kamen Rider series before, watch this one, and stick at it past the first twelve episodes or so (which I personally really like, but some people didn't). I won't say I haven't met anybody who didn't like it, but I will say that I excised those people's details from my memory because I did not find them to be beautiful, so there's that. I personally adored it.

From next week onwards we have Kamen Rider Drive, which will also be my next ongoing, alongside Doctor Who. So that'll be – interesting, if only because I've never done an ongoing series of reviews that's longer than twelve posts before.

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