Review: Shin Kamen Rider

Overview: Shin Kamen Rider

Over the past few years, Hideaki Anno has been on a bit of a tear. With the release of Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time, he not only completed his long-gestating’re-imagining’ of Evangelion, but he also found time to helm a number of live-action movies that attempted to modernize some of Japan’s most cherished cultural icons. The 2016 film Shin Godzilla was a huge smash that made a lot of money and received high praise from reviewers both in Japan and abroad for being a perceptive, cutting version of the mythical creature for the contemporary era. It was followed in 2022 by Shin Ultraman (written and produced by Anno, but directed by Shinji Higuchi), which was similarly a tremendous hit but also more controversial among critics due to its almost obsessive adherence to the original TV series.

So that gets us to the year 2023 and Anno’s most recent attempt at the reboot & reinvention concept with Shin Kamen Rider, which is notable as being his first project without co-writer/director Higuchi. The film was supposed to be a special release for the franchise’s milestone 50th anniversary in 2021, but pandemic-related production delays forced the film’s release to March of this year in Japanese theaters. A few places outside of Japan were fortunate enough to receive special screenings, but for the majority of us, the movie was just recently made available globally via Amazon Prime.

With that introduction out of the way, what exactly is a Shin Kamen Rider? Like the previous “Shin” movies, this one seeks to tell the franchise’s origin narrative from scratch by going back to the beginning and highlighting the crucial information in an effort to create a definitive origin story. That means a return for Kamen Rider to the 1971 television series and the tale of Takeshi Hongo, a man abducted by the villainous group SHOCKER and scientifically changed into a monster with a grasshopper motif. Hongo is saved before they can brainwash him into their service and decides to use his skills to fight against his creators. As a result, Kamen Rider is created, complete with a motorcycle and stylish scarf. The movie skillfully avoids dwelling too long on this famous genesis, beginning in the present as we rush away with the recently freed Hongo. After one particularly bloody confrontation, Hongo and SHOCKER defector Ruriko Midorikawa start their war against the group.

This film’s structural peculiarity is strikingly similar to that of Shin Ultraman. That is to say, it doesn’t really try to hide the fact that it is essentially a collection of TV episodes that have been taped together. Hongo and Midorikawa track down a monster, thwart its particular wicked scheme, kick it till it foams, and repeat. The shamelessness of this presentation has a certain beauty, but it also results in a bumpy progression, especially in the last hour or two when we switch to all-original stuff. This structure mostly reflects Anno’s strong loyalty to the original source material, or more specifically, the version of the source material that has been residing inside his skull since he was a young child. This steadfast adherence to a long-forgotten childhood fantasy tale serves as both the film’s greatest asset and one of its worst liabilities. You always know that you are seeing Hideaki Anno’s telling of the tale, for better or worse.

For want of a better term, the film’s tone is one of its main problems. Despite the fact that the original Kamen Rider occasionally dabbled in lofty concepts like transhumanism, fascism, and comradeship, its primary tone was nearly always schlocky children’s drama, complete with a thick veneer of 1970s cheesiness. In comparison, this reboot is so dark, gloomy, and minimalist that it almost becomes a flaw. By removing most of the camp, Anno has created a plot that works better as a contemporary character drama while simultaneously taking much of the stupid humor out of the premise. The best specimens of the type can deliver punch-the-air exhilaration, but Shin Kamen Rider rarely manages either. Even scenes that would benefit from a lighter touch, where the inherent silliness of the scenario would work best with a more wry presentation, are played dead straight, and more than occasionally come off as uncomfortable po-faced, because the movie is so determined to establish itself as Serious Business.

When it comes to the characters themselves, the same coldness is still an issue. We can definitely admit that Anno has never been a master at creating realistic characters; even in his most well-known works, his characters frequently serve as mouthpieces for viewpoints rather than having fully developed personalities. However, this can be effective in the appropriate situation. However, despite the performers’ clear best attempts, the relationship between Hongo and Midorikawa, the center of the plot in this instance, never quite gels. One of Anno’s key themes and one he has frequently returned to is the difficulty of communicating thoughts and sentiments between individuals, but it feels forced into the narrative and out of place here. Simply put, there isn’t enough chemistry between the leads to draw us into the romance, and Midorikawa in particular comes off as more of an archetype than a real person. The bond between Hayato Ichimonji and Hongo is awkward and stiff, even when he appears as Kamen Rider 2, which makes the final third of the movie less impactful than you may have hoped.

That’s especially upsetting because it deprives some of the more intriguing ideas in the film of power due to our lack of sympathy for the characters. Although the reimagining of SHOCKER as a group dedicated to a flawed notion of human pleasure is not very innovative, it works well and fits with the script’s increased emphasis on the cast members’ psychological conflicts. What Anno’s screenplay accomplishes effectively is to evoke a certain sense of insularity and isolation in its brooding characters, and it may result in great sorrow moments, especially at the very end, which is one of the better parts of the movie.

However, I believe that any Kamen Rider production needs to offer on the action front in some way, and tragically, Shin fails to do so. The beginning fights are generally passable and liberally capitalize on the increased level of brutality and gore, but as the clashes grow in size, the choreography falls behind. Many of the later confrontations rely quite heavily on CGI, which is difficult to interpret as a clear aversion for ‘corny’ practical effects. A late-stage multi-rider battle in a tunnel sticks out in especially for the wrong reasons; it is a muddled, careless, and shoddy mess of a setpiece. While the combination of odd framing, extreme angles, and creative camera moves gives a lot of visual flair to non-action moments, it can be difficult to follow chases and fights due to Anno’s distinctive cinematography, which he brought over from Godzilla and Ultraman.

What does that mean for us now? Certainly at a slightly peculiar location. Nobody could ever describe this as anything other than a loving tribute, despite the criticism I’ve leveled at the movie. Anno’s love for the original material is evident and comes across in every knowing in-joke and artistic nod to it. However, that affection eventually serves as a constraint for the film, keeping it in a space where the content is unable to bend sufficiently to meet the storytelling approach that its new director is more skilled at using. It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that Shin Kamen Rider would be a greater experience if it were given more freedom to experiment, to embrace its unique identity, and to omit the elements of the original program that didn’t work. A comparison with the other major 50th anniversary project, Kamen Rider BLACK SUN, is instructive. While BLACK SUN’s smash-mouth storytelling style was much less faithful to the text of the original Kamen Rider Black, the show managed to retain its Black identity while aggressively pruning and reshaping the mythos. On the other hand, Shin Kamen Rider is firmly rooted in the past. It’s a gorgeous, loving recounting of that past, but it doesn’t advance or add much new to the conversation. It must be remembered as a letdown just for that reason.

Random Observations

  • One of the slightly more out-there aspects of the film is the presence of another Ishinomori creation, Robot Detective K, who acts as a sort of neutral observer. There doesn’t appear to be any rationale to this inclusion beyond being a tribute to Ishinomori.
  • Despite the considerably higher budget, long-time tokusatsu fans will recognise plenty of familiar locations from the TV shows.
  • Shinya Tsukamoto, who plays Dr Midorikawa, is better known as an arthouse director whose films include the cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
  • I have to mention the scene where, after a big emotional confession, Hongo randomly does a backflip. Just a great, goofy moment the film could do with more of.

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