Posted: Oct 30 2013
The first episode of Kamen Rider Gaim is crazy.
Now let me be clear, I don't mean "crazy" in the uncomfortable, borderline xenophobic, "ha ha Japan is so weird, am I right?" way that the (western) Internet seems to love. Chances are "Transform! The Orange From the Sky!?" wasn't any more confusing to me than, say, the Sleepy Hollow pilot would've been to a Japanese person with an OK understanding of American pop culture who, uh, found it fan-subbed. If that happens in the other direction.
Both Sleepy Hollow and Gaim have first episodes that nearly trip over themselves in attempts to create entire alternate worlds full of complicated mysteries and backstory right away. They keep throwing mythology and paranormal phenomena at you, making the central premises (time-travel magic cop/fruit-based samurai) look different and interesting, but not unaccountably bizarre when contrasted with the surroundings. Cultural differences might enhance the strangeness of Gaim's choices to me, but probably no more than my lack of familiarity with the Kamen Rider franchise does.
Now, I've pretty much run out of good synonyms for "weird" at this point, so let's back-track and look at what Kamen Rider is, and why I'm going through the trouble of watching a foreign show that isn't being officially released in English.
Kamen Rider is a Japanese superhero TV show that was originally based on a (great) comic, but has long since removed itself from the source material. The show's been running since the 1970s, with one big break in the '90s, and generally features a new, entirely unconnected, Kamen Rider each season. The huge gap in the show's run, the goofy monsters fought, and the way each Rider is markedly different from the others while keeping some intrinsic Kamen Rider quality actually puts a Doctor Who vibe into my head, but I already ran that Sleepy Hollow comparison into the ground so I'll leave it be.
Back in the dark days of the mid '90s, when random Japanese imports could be found without any explanation of what they actually were, (I remember poring over Dragon Ball figures and art with no concept of what the series could possibly be about) I was vaguely aware of Kamen Rider as a thing that one could find represented in big-headed plastic dolls and posters. Every few years I'd remember that this thing existed and get curious, but the growing popularity of Japanese pop culture in this country never quite lead to live-action tokusatsu costumed superheroes being imported, except in bowdlerised Power Rangers (and, uh, Masked Rider) form. So it was a neat-looking thing that I wouldn't ever get to watch, and had forgotten about by the time All Things became available on the Internet.
Until Chris Sims kept talking up 2011's Kamen Rider Fourze on Twitter recently, and I subsequently got addicted to it. (He also wrote an article about Fourze that's probably very good, but I haven't read it yet because there's supposedly a big spoiler and I need to finish the show.) So, since my wife and I have been enjoying Fourze so much, we decided to give Gaim, which only just started airing in Japan on October 6, a shot.
Thing is, while Fourze is deeply cartoonish, and features a superhero who looks like a rocket and has a headquarters on the moon, it's also pretty grounded in something that resembles the real world. It riffs on classic high school archetypes (albeit in a high school whose mission statement involves... something about astronauts?) and then throws a superhero in with them, which isn't exactly an unprecedented idea.
Gaim, on the other hand, is set in a corporate-owned dystopia, in which dance crews battle for performance spaces using small interdimensional beings who pop through portals in the air that are opened by little plastic locks, all beneath a tree-like superstructure that dominates the skyline. This is the normal world, before an orange-themed (the fruit, not the color) samurai shows up to fight monsters. (Orange-themed samurai is also pretty far from the original Kamen Rider's "bug-themed guy who rides a motorcycle and fights monsters" concept, although I assume a motorcycle will come into the picture eventually.)
As fun as it is to just talk about how out there this all is, the concepts do end up having a nice sort of cohesion to them, mostly shown by which things the characters find normal, and which things even they think are a little off. The ubiquitous Yggdrasil Corporation, the dance crews, and all fruit-themed everything don't seem to bother anybody, for example. While our blue collar, ex-dance crew-member hero Kota Kazuraba is definitely unnerved by the Invess, ugly little gladiatorial monsters who fight to decide squabbles between dance crews, and the Lock Seeds which summon the Invess from their dimension -- sold by a sort of drug dealer who looks like Firefly's Badger.
Now, given how insane that all sounds when I write it out, and how Kota just kinda mentions that he finds them troubling over lunch with a friend, maybe he isn't quite bothered enough. Then again, depending on just how shady and weird Yggdrasil Corporation will turn out to be -- and I assume that will be "a lot," judging by all other science fiction ever -- the readiness to accept interdimensional battling creatures may be an indicator of just how fucked any concept of "normal" actually is in a corporate dance-battle dystopia.
We have been promised more Kamen Riders.
I've only really covered the ideas behind Gaim because really at this early point the characters haven't made much of an impact on me. Kota's a nice guy, with what could be a good personal conflict in "Should I be an adult?" vs. "Should I help out my old dance crew?" and the evil dance crew, the Barons, are amazing because they are rich kids called the Barons who dress like 19th century admirals. But whereas Fourze -- my only real point of reference, for now -- front-loaded its characters by starting with the hero's (amazing) mission to befriend everyone in his high school, Gaim puts its ideas first before moving to what we really want from a Japanese superhero show: a guy in armor with plastic weapons fighting another guy in a monster suit. At this early point, seeing this new Kamen Rider blow up monsters with actual fruit-themed weapons and attacks (there was even orange juice involved) in a really weird setting is enough for me, but I still don't know yet if there will be any good emotional hooks when orange juice attacks aren't enough anymore. (I also don't know if this show about dance crews will feature better dancing further on, 'cause right now it's iffy).
But it's early yet. I mean, there are apparently at least three other Riders in this series, none of whom have shown up yet past the utterly confusing cold open that I probably should've mentioned earlier. So we'll see where it all goes. Maybe Gaim isn't the best place to start if you're relatively new to the franchise and the genre, but then again there's something to be said for just jumping in.
Oh, also a lot of stuff is narrated by a The Warriors/Do the Right Thing-esque omnipotent DJ who looks like this:
[NOTE: Since writing this, I've seen the second and third episodes of Gaim, which introduce his pineapple armor/weapon set, his banana-themed rival, Kamen Rider Baron, and (finally) some motorcycles. Also: a gleeful disregard of "secret identity" as a concept. When Kota gets super powers, he can't wait to show everyone.]
Elijah Kinch Spector writes fiction that hasn't been published yet. He also has a pretty O.K. Tumblr and a seldom-used website where he once compared Downton Abbey to Power Rangers.