Fourth instalment of a new ImaginAtlas series looking beyond the Anglo and Francospheres to spotlight underappreciated and exciting works of speculative fiction from all around the world!
When you let Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame) make a Kamen Rider film, you should be prepared for the consequences. Bear in mind that this is already a famously weird franchise, even by Japanese tokusatsu standards—not only supremely campy but also containing a distinct undercurrent of body horror that sets it apart from the likes of Super Sentai. It is, after all, a story about a guy who gets turned into an insectoid warrior against his will—and then proceeds to fight a bunch of other Dr. Moreau-like hybrids while looking incredibly cool on his custom motorbike. Yet Anno manages to make it all seem oddly Shakespearean.
No, really, I swear.
First of all, you should know that Shin Kamen Rider is the third entry in Anno’s Shin trilogy, a loose film series connected only by Anno-esque dark reimaginings of iconic Japanese cultural properties. Here’s the thing, though: the first one was Shin Godzilla, starring possibly everyone’s favourite giant monster, and hard on its heels was Shin Ultraman, starring the alien hero that most people think of when pressed to name ‘a hundred-foot-tall Japanese superhero’. Kamen Rider, is, by contrast… a bug? On a motorbike? Okay, he’s popular in his home country, but his global name recognition is negligible, and Anno was surely aware of that. Yet instead of, I don’t know, Shin Astro Boy (imagine!), he went ahead and capped his blockbuster trilogy with an unapologetic love letter to a rather obscure ‘70s show that he clearly loves. Good for him.
Turns out, this stubborn specificity is exactly what I love about Shin Kamen Rider. It doesn’t want to be everything to everyone. It just wants to be precisely what it is: a cheesy, nostalgic, and occasionally inexplicably horrifying examination of the ethics of splicing humans and insects together to make badass warriors. With some truly great production design. In fact, I’ll say it: Shin Kamen Rider puts all those Hollywood nostalgia cash-ins—from The Force Awakens to Dial of Destiny—to shame. Here is a film that is obviously made from the ground up by those who care about the material—and consequently succeeds in getting every detail spot on, without just slavishly remaking the original. Kamen Rider’s look here is clearly derived from his very first incarnation but sports just enough tweaks to still look cool and contemporary. Wow, it’s almost as if good design ages well by itself or something!
There are times, it’s true, when Shin is a little too dedicated to replicating the feel of the original series. That extends to the structure, which is unabashedly episodic; we might as well be seeing five or so episodes of a remake series since the segments share nothing but the overarching plot. They’re also rather repetitive, as befits a deliberately formulaic TV series format. Kamen Rider faces the evil minions of SHOCKER (the nebulous organization that transformed him), each in turn, from a dastardly bat hybrid to a hammy chameleon hybrid to an evil copy of himself who has a slightly different colour scheme. It does build a bit, but Anno doesn’t take that much advantage of the feature-length form, which feels like a missed opportunity.
Where the film does diverge from the series in a good way is in the treatment of Minami Hanabe’s Ruriko, Kamen Rider’s plucky sidekick. A character that would normally be a superfluous love interest instead gets a compelling arc about coming to terms with her brother’s apocalyptic plans for humanity, an arc arguably more fleshed out than the protagonist’s own. Now, this may be because Hanabe is one of the biggest stars in Japan right now (see her recent turn in the excellent Godzilla Minus One), but it’s also a testament to how emotionally textured the film is in general. Even one-off villains, like Ruriko’s childhood friend-turned-evil-wasp-hybrid, get poignant moments. Not even our hero is spared the angst. Following Kamen Rider’s first fight scene in his transformed state—a bloody, sickening affair that almost makes you feel bad for those poor, likely underpaid SHOCKER goons—the film immediately cuts to him freaking out in front of a mirror, disgusted by his own existence. Not exactly what you’d expect from ostensibly kid-friendly tokusatsu, but perhaps Anno’s involvement was warning enough.
Now, from the way I’ve described it, this might not seem terribly appealing to you, especially if you have no idea who or what Kamen Rider is. And that’s okay! I’m not sure I like Shin Kamen Rider that much either, and I’ve seen some of the original shows (there’s a lot less angst). What I admire most about the film is that it doesn’t care if I like it. This isn’t a product of the commodified, standardized Japanese culture industry that’s had such success in the West lately. It’s a very Japanese film, alright, but one unabashedly made for local audiences, unafraid to revel in the strange, the camp, and the niche without fear of ruining its global mass-market appeal. How much of that do bike-riding, hell-raising insect mutants have anyway? At the end of the day, I just love that Anno, a very talented creator and truly diehard fan who allegedly cosplayed as Kamen Rider at his own wedding, got to make this movie. And the world of cinema is a tiny bit weirder and more wonderful for it.