It’s been a rough few years to be a Kamen Rider fan. The franchise has found itself struggling for consistency, stability, and most of all quality across its last half-dozen or so entries, with 2020’s Kamen Rider Saber being an absolute nadir in terms of…well pretty much everything honestly. While still overall pretty bad, 2021’s Kamen Rider Revice represented a very tentative first step in putting the pieces of the franchise back together. Geats has turned out to be another significant milestone in that mission. While it has its problems, none of them are terminal and there are even signs of genuine ambition and greater storytelling nous. It strives to be entertaining and largely logical, and if it falls short sometimes, then it at the very least gets points for trying.
I think the first and most important point to note in Geats’s favour is the core cast. Both Saber and Revice were plagued by having to spend fifty episodes with a group of people who ranged from hopelessly naive to downright hatable, and often hit all the notes between the two. In contrast, I largely enjoyed the time I spent hanging out with the central crew of Geats. Our title character himself is a likably smarmy asshole who makes a pleasant change from the perpetually teflon niceness of typical lead Riders, and Hideyoshi Kan invests him with a not inconsiderable amount of charm when he’s in full flow. Kan’s performance is less convincing towards the end of the story where he’s required to affect a more histrionic set of emotions, but that’s as much the fault of the writers as anything else, and it’d be churlish to hold it against him. He’s surrounded by decent support too – hopeless idealistic Keiwa plays a solid foil with his own decent plotlines, while happy-go-lucky Neon is underused as female Riders always are, but generally makes the most of her screentime. Special mention must go to Kazuto Mokudai’s Michinaga, whose laughably edgy presentation and constantly switching allegiances threaten to undermine him, but who remains enjoyable nonetheless thanks to an arch, knowing performance that’s largely well underplayed.
There’s a problem here though, and one that’s couched in structural issues that have increasingly plagued Rider shows of recent years. Bluntly, there are just too many damn characters in this show. For several series now it’s been obvious that the number of individual Riders has been rising, and from a Doylist perspective the reason is obvious – Rider toys sell better than monster toys, so Toei mandates more Riders in an attempt to boost merchandising sales. The problem is this has catastrophic consequences to the integrity of the story, diluting the uniqueness of Rider status and generally bloating the narrative with pointless warm bodies. Geats is much better equipped to handle this than some shows, because the very nature of its Battle Royale-esque premise demands a large number of bonus Riders to fight, but it can’t escape completely. How on earth did the amazingly irritating Nadge-Sparrow get as much screentime as he does? Was anyone really chomping at the bit for the return of the (admittedly spectacularly-named) Hallelujah Ween so he could largely sit around and pontificate?
This issue of bloat also extends to the villains, who chop and change so frequently that it’s hard to really establish them as serious threats to our heroes. The bad guys are the Jyamato! Wait, no, it’s the Game Master! Hold on, now it’s the Producer! Then suddenly, it’s Buffa? Neon’s Dad? Beroba? Keiwa? Sueru? Nobody is really given enough time to establish themselves, and the result is it feels like our heroes are batting aside an endless parade of paper tigers, each one superficially bad but without substance or personal stakes. Naturally, this is a problem which only gets worse as the show goes on, resulting in the ending, where theoretically the stakes should be highest, and the audience’s partisanship at its maximum, instead coming off as totally underwhelming.
Something that’s to be commended about Geats though is its narrative ambition. It’s clear that head writer Yuya Takahashi and his team have a planned story they’re trying to tell and themes that they want to address, which is more than can be said for some recent Rider shows. Of course, this is still a kid’s toy commercial at heart, but the presence of actual ideas and motifs is always encouraging, even if the deployment of them is often sub-optimal. Unlike its immediate predecessors, Geats feels like it has a style and identity that’s distinctively its own. It’s somewhat messy and meandering but the show always has a clear idea of what it wants to be.
And what it wants to be is Kamen Rider Gaim.
That’s a little unfair, since pretty much every Rider show since has tried on some level to imitate Gen Urobuchi’s magnum opus. The similarities are more than skin-deep this time though – a show about a monster battling game that’s eventually revealed to be the front for a struggle for ultimate power, a cohort of powerful invaders from another world/time, an antihero named Michy, an ending which has our main character becoming a god…hell, even an OP by Shōnan no Kaze. Joking aside, comparing the two is illustrative. Part of the reason Gaim worked so well was that Urobuchi was exceptionally good at pacing his story and making sure that there were minimal extraneous characters or details. His plot arcs were clearly planned from beginning to end and given time to develop and rise and fall in a way which felt organic within the confines of the larger plot. He understood how to leverage the inherent melodrama of the medium to maximum effect for comedy, tragedy, or excitement depending on the circumstances. Most importantly (and likely through his ability to demand less editorial oversight than normal), he was able to inject enough darkness into his story to make the consequences feel tangible and dangerous.
By contrast, Geats is a whirlwind of interesting ideas, plots, arcs, and themes that are scattered all over the place, unable to be pulled together into a coherent whole. There are a ton of potentially fascinating and provocative concepts here, from Ace’s millennia long reincarnation cycle, to Neon’s position as the ultimate replacement goldfish, to Keiwa’s tragedy making him decide to achieve his perfect world by force. But the messiness and looseness of the writing means that all of these stories happen in isolation and entirely at the whim of the writer. If properly integrated into a strong, central narrative skeleton they could have interwoven and boosted each other to much greater effect, but as it is they lose a lot of their power due to how self-contained they are. I’m not sure how much of this is due to Takahashi et al not being as good at writing as Urobuchi (and to be clear, writing a coherent 50 episode show is incredibly hard), and how much of it is mandates from the corporate side dictating non-negotiable aspects of the overall show structure. My guess would be that it’s a bit of both.
The result of this jumbled, chaotic style of storytelling is inevitably a show which is stronger at the beginning than the end. Geats works best when the focus is kept necessarily small, operating within the strict confines of the game rules, and having the purpose and motives of the DGP’s distant runners be shrouded in mystery. As the story progresses the rules of the game begin to feel more and more disposable, and eventually it seems weird that there’s even the facade of a contest draped over the whole thing. The revelations which are made are pretty underwhelming for the most part, which again ties back to the inability to connect the disparate elements together in a way which flows well. Really, the show should have ended at episode 38, with Sueru’s initial defeat and Ace losing his mother and gaining her godlike powers. It’s a natural finishing point for his story and a conclusion of the main thematic thrust which the show has been exploring. Everything after that just feels extremely forced and underwhelming, and totally disposable. It might seem like an odd paradox that I’m criticising the show for not developing itself enough while at the same time advocating for cutting a full fifth of the runtime, but I think that speaks to how wasteful the show is with the time it does have. In an ideal world I think a couple more passes on the script from a decent editor would have worked wonders, but that was never an option in this case.
Ultimately, what we’re left with is a show which is always entertaining and often legitimately good, but also feels palpably held back from its full potential in multiple ways. That I think will be the most fascinating meta-narrative for the series going forward. As a merchandising-driven children’s show Kamen Rider has always had to operate within a very tight set of constraints as to what it can be. Terrific contributions from all corners of production pipeline has often allowed brilliant shows to be made inside of those constraints, but it seems like the screws are being tightened year upon year. Geats represents an honest and wholehearted attempt to tell the best story it could tell under those circumstances, and it’s another step upward for the franchise compared to the immediate past. In that sense it’s hard to hate and easy to like. But I do wonder if the day is coming, or maybe has already passed, when those constraints mean that a truly great show is no longer possible. Of course, I desperately hope I’m wrong. After all, a Kamen Rider show worthy of its illustrious name is nothing less than what my heart desires.