Of Golden Knights and Changing Beetles

In every age, in every place, camping snipers remain the same.

In every age, in every place, camping snipers remain the same.

Live action is a funny place, and I mean funny-weird, not funny-ha-ha. (Perhaps it resembles reality too closely for comfort.) Despite this, fellow otakusphere members occasionally make excursions into this undiscovered country – for example, itsubun has examined a drama series, Kou Kou Kyoushi, and Bateszi recently praised a movie with the odd name of All About Lily Chou-Chou – so why shouldn’t I make an excursion of my own?

Not that this country is really wholly undiscovered: what first made a younger me aware that entertainment from another country, in a language other than English, might be worth watching – a realisation that set me on the road to this blog – was the gift of a copy of Kagemusha. We’re a long way from Akira Kurosawa and feature films in this more recent trip, though, as I’ve been watching a couple of tokusatsu shows. Perhaps this was an unconscious attempt to make up for the Power Rangers deficiency in my childhood, perhaps Tamaki had a greater impact on me than I had thought, perhaps I wanted to appreciate Blassreiter more or perhaps I was lured by tokusatsu’s intersections with anime in general (from the HiME Sentai, through things like Figure 17, Karas and The SoulTaker – it’s suddenly a bit Tatsunoko in here, isn’t it? – all the way to The Skull Man) – whatever, I’ve been to the land of suitmation and now I’m going to bend your ear on the subject.

Walking the Path of Heaven

I appreciate that ‘link it to Gundam’ is a worn-out trick around here, but I promise that in this case the comparison is a useful one. Kamen Rider and Gundam are both long-running franchises which include multiple alternate universes or canons (if we ignore the possible implications of ), tied together by a common dynamic. Gundam’s heroes pilot humanoid mecha with a shared colour scheme and a certain persistent aesthetic, while Kamen Rider’s heroes transform (via various means) into superheroes who fight evil and share a certain persistent aesthetic. Both franchises vary wildly in tone, and in their presentation of action, too: there’s as wide a gap between the action in 00 and the action in 0080 as there is between this scene from Shin Kamen Rider and this scene from Kamen Rider Kiva (which is currently airing).

Anyhow, I wasn’t sure where to start with Kamen Rider. I wanted to watch something made after advances in special effects made it possible to keep transformation scenes on screen rather than relying on ‘look away now’ editing so, thinking that the latest show would have the best CGI, I gave the first episode of Kiva a shot. The special effects were attractive and the daul-timeline device a little intriguing, but the rubber suits did look distressingly rubbery, and the fights were just slightly too silly for a newcomer. (How does the moon rise during the day? Is that building actually a dragon?) After a lengthy session of research five minutes on Wikipedia I decided that Kamen Rider Kabuto might suit me better – and it did.

Kabuto was apparently something of a ‘back to basics’ moment (thankfully not this kind) for the franchise. It’s forty-nine episodes long; essentially, it’s the story of a transforming superhero, Tendou (insufferable master chef and martial artist), mostly seen through the eyes of his ally and foil Kagami (well-meaning but bumbling young man), in the context of a war between the Worm (alien invaders) and ZECT (MIB). It’s quite challenging to provide a more detailed description, because it seems to me that Kabuto‘s story has both too much flesh on its bones, and too little.

Kabuto‘s Tokyo is crowded. There’s a plethora of different conflicts: several factions within ZECT, five – no, seven – no, eight different Riders, each of whom has his own hangers-on and his own agenda, and at least two groups of aliens. Even the Zecters (the Riders’ Transformation Trinkets) seem to have some kind of will of their own. To add to the confusion, ZECT’s leaders and the Worm both appear to be maturing big, nasty plots in the background, and for all we know Tendou has a labyrinthine plan of his own. I don’t imagine that all of the above is going to be neatly wrapped up – or even neatly left open – in the seven episodes left before I finish.

On the other hand, the (capitals) Main Story sometimes advances with all the alacrity of a paraplegic three-toed sloth. It’s true that forty-nine episodes is a lot of time to fill, and that Kabuto is hardly unique in having filler, but its excursions into meandering side stories or surreal cookery contests (the show has a culinary fetish – watching it is guaranteed to make you hungry) can seem odd, to say the least.

That said, once I realised that the show not only didn’t expect to be taken too seriously, but was capable of actively poking fun at itself, I relaxed a little – and, having relaxed, I found some of the comedy genuinely amusing. So, for example, although the transformation of spoiled-rich-boy-with-a-dark-secret Tsurugi Kamishiro into a provider of comic relief was initially hard to swallow, and although the comic subplots surrounding him are decidedly hit-and-miss, I’ve still laughed more at one or two moments in Kabuto than I did at any of the scenes in the five episodes of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei that I watched last week. (I’m sorry. I imagine SZS is quite good, but I can’t appreciate the Spirit of Random.)

Hilariously, his theme seems to be 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

Tsurugi is supposedly descended from British nobility; his musical signature is 'Land of Hope and Glory'.

I evidently don’t think Kabuto is particularly well-written. The action, however, is cool. Seriously cool. You’d better not be prepared to criticise Kabuto for being uncool unless you too can call a giant sword out of an empty sky and wear clothes that narrate your own actions (‘CHANGE HYPER BEETLE; HYPER CLOCK UP; MAXIMUM RIDER POWER; ONE, TWO, THREE: RIDER KICK!’). Otherwise, I’m not prepared to listen to what you have to say.

Narrow-minded fanboying aside, Kabuto‘s action really is very enjoyable, in a slightly G Gundam way. I’m sure the rubber suits are just as rubbery as those in Kiva, but, crucially, they don’t look as rubbery, since we see Kabuto‘s fight scenes from well-chosen angles, sometimes closing in for unsteady shots which rub your face in the violence. You rarely have the time to think ‘Wait, that’s just a stunt man in a monster costume.’ So I definitely had a good time watching Kabuto.

I’d hesitate, however, to recommend it to anyone who isn’t already interested in the genre. If you don’t appreciate AWESOMENESS, and you turn up expecting an engrossing story which will pull you from episode to episode, you will be disappointed.

I imagine that Kamen Rider is now almost a genre-unto-itself. If so, the more of it one watches, the more one will enjoy it, as one learns to ask the questions that draw out each different iteration’s essence. Questions which are similar in kind, though not in content, to ‘What motivates the masked antagonist?’, ‘How frequently do people die?’ and ‘By how much does this particular Gundam overpower the opposing grunt suits?’ Those wishing to dip a toe in the franchise without committing themselves to watching a lengthy television series might want to consider Kamen Rider THE FIRST, a recent feature film adaption (with considerable changes) of the very first Kamen Rider series. (It’s apparently available on Region 1 DVD.)

Hyper Midnight Action Drama

And then there’s Garo. How to describe Garo? To begin with, I should acknowledge Demian’s introduction to the show, which brought it to my attention in the first place. The premise is simple, and, as Demian notes, Shana-esque: Kouga Saejima (played by Ryousei Konishi, who may be familiar to you as the voice of School Rumble‘s curry-loving stoneface, Kawasuma Oji) uses martial skill, magic and the ability to transform into a heavily armoured knight to fight people-devouring demons called Horrors; Kaoru Mitsuki is accidentally caught up in one of Kouga’s battles and is splashed with a Horror’s blood, which dooms her to die an agonising death after one hundred days; normal practice for Magic Knights such as Kouga is to carry out an immediate mercy killing, but Kouga decides to keep Kaoru alive as bait for more Horrors.

Having established this in its first installment, Garo relaxes comfortably into an episodic, monster-of-the-week rhythm. In fact, it has an unambitious story (and it’s half Kabuto‘s length), which is no bad thing. What over-arching story is there is mostly composed of familiar elements, but, since it never sets out to achieve a great deal, the worst I can say is that it delivers an uncomfortably large bolus of new information to kickstart its climax and has something of a ‘Can we have a second season?’ ending. (So far a second season has not been forthcoming, and what was left open has been resolved instead by a TV special.) So the story quietly recedes into the background. Its limited aspirations help, but this fading effect still wouldn’t be possible without Garo‘s excellence in other areas.

Speaking of other areas: action. It seemed to me that Kabuto relied only on (admittedly very high) levels of AWESOMENESS. Garo certainly has this element, as Kouga transforms to deliver the finishing blow(s) with a (giant, occidental) sword. It helps that such special attacks are garnished with outstanding special effects. Usually, however, the majority of an episode’s action is the (frequently frenetic) pre-transformation sword-fighting.

It’s action which relies less on super robot-style posing and more on martial arts-style posing, with Kouga whirling his (understated, oriental) pre-transformation sword around with just the right balance of finesse and brutality. When both pre- and post-transformation elements are deployed to good effect the result is remarkable: I’ve never seen anything like the seventh episode’s crescendo of violence, which gradually escalates from a muttered exchange of insults all the way to a fantastical death-plunge. If you look ‘panache’ up you won’t see a shot from Garo, but in an ideal dictionary you would.

Everyone seems to use this screencap - because it's great.

Everyone seems to use this screencap - because it's great.

(Allow me to pause for a moment to mention a brief but very witty fight scene in the tenth episode – you’ll know it when you see it – which entirely makes up for the same episode’s rather uninspiring final showdown.)

Moving away from action, Garo also uses its monsters well. The Horrors vary wildly in type and hunting method, and the series stays more-or-less on the right side of the line between dangerous and interesting magic (unexplained, as in Darker Than Black) and safe magic (explained in detail: the Harry Potter franchise). Furthermore, the Horrors sometimes go beyond the easy supernatural menace of a monster than can suck your life out through your face and achieve the spiritual menace of monsters that prey on people’s existing flaws and obsessions. This interesting aspect isn’t always present (some of the monsters fall flat), and it’d be an exaggeration to say Garo is a subtle beast, but it is nevertheless a step beyond Kabuto.

This may because Garo was broadcast late at night and aimed at an older audience. I’d hesitate to say it’s really grown up – the occasional bloodletting or nipple don’t necessarily make your story itself mature – but on the other hand I don’t remember being exhorted to buy toys after the closing credits. Behind the broader brushstrokes there are quieter touches, too: the monsters occasionally break what must be a cardinal rule of the genre by attacking while the hero is trying to transform, for instance.

I’d say Garo might suit a wider range of tastes than Kabuto, partly because it’s not tangled up in a much larger franchise like Kabuto is, partly just because it’s shorter and partly because (for what it’s worth) I think it’s genuinely better. If you like experiencing curious things then it’d be a shame to ignore tokusatsu shows, and Garo certainly has more going for it than novelty value and AWESOMENESS.

Food For Thought

These repeated mentions of AWESOMENESS bring us to an interesting question. The super robot anime and the live action transforming superhero story are similar in (at least) this way: in both cases, the audience turns up to see the hero be cool and defeat evil. Obviously, if your audience turn up expecting the usual, you can give them Space Runaway Ideon (or whichever other play on the genre you wish to champion). So where is our Kamen Genesis Evangelion?

It’s not Garo, since Garo distinguishes itself more through being unusually dark and stylish than through outright subversion. (So, for example, the idea that Kouga’s suit of armour might itself be a danger to him is introduced, but it’s only present in one episode, and it merely raises the stakes in one battle rather than becoming a significant concept.)

The concept of first Kamen Rider was apparently darker than its predecessors: the hero isn’t given superpowers to fight evil, he’s transformed into a monster like the monsters he fights; he remains a hero because the villains don’t manage to finish the job by removing his conscience. From its write-up here and from the video clip I linked above, I’m guessing that Shin Kamen Rider might be the grittier alternative to the Rider franchise’s standard mood but that’s about as far as I can go with my limited knowledge.

There’s one other question remaining in my mind: why bother with rubber suits in the first place? Doesn’t animation handle the fantastic better?

One advantage of live action which I’ve heard brought up by others is the capacity of human actors for nuanced emotion in contrast to the limited range of expression of even the most well-animated animated characters. It is true that there’s a considerable difference between a human crying and a drawing of a human with blue streams on his cheeks. This creates a distinction similar to the one I’ve heard proposed between theatre and film: anime’s actors act with their voices, like stage actors but more so (in fact, completely so) while live action’s actors act with their faces. (Although I imagine that, with a smaller screen, television places less emphasis on the face than the cinema.)

Tokusatsu, however, doesn’t seem to me to be the kind of genre which stands or falls depending on the quality of its actors. A lot of the attraction is in the action and the characters spend a considerable amount of time in suits – indeed, a Masked Rider who doesn’t wear a mask is definitely doing it wrong.

Maybe the great attraction of portraying transforming superheroes in live action, if you can pull it off right, is that live action adds a sense of verisimilitude. Mark writes:

Realistic [live action] settings of large robots and superhero giants like Ultraman make the experience even more fascinating. You’d start thinking that if people can make these suits, then there’s the possibility in the future that they can be real.

Whether or not large robots are plausible isn’t really the issue – the point is that the audience starts thinking that the suits they see are plausible.

Well, perhaps.

* * *

I did enjoy visiting Suitmation Country, although I’m not sure I’d like to live there. I’m considering, in a detached way, watching Kamen Rider 555 at some point, if only because the presence of the Greek alphabet makes anything good. So you could say that I enjoyed my holiday and I’m planning to go again sometime.

16 responses to “Of Golden Knights and Changing Beetles

  1. Kabuto gets a lot weirder in the last few episodes, so really just try not to think about it at all and just go with the flow. The most nagging common sense question for me whenever watching kamen rider is “why are there so many empty industrial parks/bridges/parking garages/empty beaches in tokyo, and how did they get from the crowded city center to there in just one monster throw?” But because this is live action it’s best just not to ask some questions.

    As for a deconstruction of the henshin hero genre, the closest I can think of in television form is Skull Man, which tackles a very dark and complex plot and looks at the action from a side characters point of view. Other works probably exist in untranslated manga and such, like JUNK, which I haven’t read but supposedly features the “hero” accidentally killing his whole family after he gets his powers.

    And have you watched the GARO special yet? I thought it sucked when compared to the show, though there are some good special effects sequences in there. And how can you criticize live action when it gives us such great things like GARO’s final fight: little Kouga fighting a giant naked woman/demon in a thong? You can’t make that up in anime.

  2. Weirder? I’ll hang on tight, then.

    I must get round to actually watching Skull Man, as it’s been brought up several times before now.

    I haven’t watched the special, mostly because I read your post on it and it sounded lacklustre. Especially compared to things like, it’s true, the final fight of the main television series. (Though I tried not to think too hard about the number of confrontations at the story’s climax between men wielding swords and women wielding/wearing circles.)

    Fighting on a giant rotating ring flying through the skies of Tokyo has its charm, too.

  3. I can’t do live actions of robots. >.> They just don’t work for me. Imagine a live action of Macross Frontier or something.

    That’s why I think live-action should be limited to the earthly-stuffs: Sunadokei, Hana Kimi, Hana Yori Dango, and Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora.

  4. I can’t imagine giant robot-type shows working too well in live action either, although the latest Transformers movie was pretty darn good (well, I liked it, anyway).

    I’m not familiar with any of the others you mention I’m afraid, although I have seen Kagemusha. For shame, it’s the only film of Kurosawa’s I’ve actually seen to date but it’s one hell of a film. One of those rare cases where I know it’s great but can’t put my finger on exactly why. It’s just a great film.

  5. My only experience with Live Action in regards to anime related stuff was Sailor Moon, I’ll just leave it at that, but suffice to say I couldn’t stick with it.

    Most of my sci-fi related dalliances are overwhelmingly western like Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek DS9. I think that growing up at a time when Power Rangers first started colored my views on Japanese live action sentai shows and by association things like Kamen Rider in a negative tone. With live action the special effects can be down right awful where if it were animated it might just look tepid. I suspect that part of my aversion to some non-western live action shows stems from the fact that the special effects industry here is much stronger in the west than elsewhere. Even if crap coming out of Hollywood is crap it at least looks pretty for the most part.

  6. I had a friend in college who was super into tokusatsu (and its rubber-suit cousin, kaiju) stuff, but I have yet to find any big fan who doesn’t go in for something other than the camp factor.

    I mean, we can certainly argue that there is plenty of anime not meant for kids, but even as dark as you say Kamen Rider could be (and I don’t see it, but I’m totally clueless and largely ignorant), it seems difficult to make a similar argument for tokusatsu.

    All the talk of the Fall anime season has reminded me though, of Casshern, which was a 70s anime adapted into a live-action movie with all-CG scenes and backgrounds, like the recent Frank Miller adaptations (300, Sin City). It is by nature still a bit hokey, but that genre (the Koreans have done a bit of it as well) sorta seems like the more mature cousin to tokukatsu, and supports the “plausibility” theory. Then again, maybe it’s just the anime-come-to-life novelty. Who knows.

  7. Somehow Live-Action doesn’t click with me, especially for mecha, but given the advances in CGI, I may change my mind. (transformers was fckwin)

  8. @ Hoshi: Now, you see, I think Macross Frontier could look ama-bloody-mazing in live action. The robots are mostly CG nowadays in any case. I can see your point of view, though.

    @ concretebadger: I can’t really say why Kagemusha‘s great either, but I agree with you. I’ll refrain from shouting at you to watch more Kurosawa, so just imagine me doing so.

    @ Crusader: itsubun was saying something to me about watching live action Sailor Moon for laughs recently, but I don’t know if that went anywhere.

    Having grown up without a television I’ve never seen any Power Rangers and precious little occidental sf television (apart from Firefly, but then that’s kind of obligatory for geekhood).

    @ otou-san: I wouldn’t say Shin Kamen Rider has much camp factor, though it might not be a good movie. Similarly I genuinely appreciate KRK‘s action, rather than laughing at it – but then I’m not a big tokusatsu fan.

    Garo‘s definitely darker than KRK, but you may well be right. The limitations of the rubber-suit concept seem to be inherently kid-friendly. Shin may well have been made in the knowledge that there was a potential audience of people who had watched the first Kamen Rider as children.

    I’ve had my eye on Casshern myself – I think Martin wrote about one of its iterations recently.

    @ xephfyre: Yeah, the effects for Transformers worked very well, and given the pace of technological advance (at this point I’d quote the figures for the cost of doing the morphs in Terminator 2 at the time vs. the cost of doing them now, but I’ve forgotten them) that sort of thing might become more possible.

  9. I haven’t watched the LA series you’ve posted about, but I totally loved Fiveman when I was young. I think I had a crush on Fiveman Pink (she was a teacher, right?).

    It was also cutesy and filled with ‘love power will save the universe’ ideas, so I really liked it. I’m actually looking for a copy myself. ^.^

  10. @ Michael: Hah! Wikipedia says all five (wo)men were teachers, and that Pink in particular was a maths teacher.

  11. I’m not a lot versed on toku, sinde I’ve seen only two shows (well, one and a half), but I can speak about Garo.

    I think that the most remarkable thing about it is that its quality increases in almost all areas. Aside some plot and production errors (of course there are a lot, and a lot fewer in the Special) the heavyest thing for me was that the main plot moves forward too late, and the concentration of three villains (pawns aside) in the two last episodes, stealing their role from the first one, is a bit deceiving… in spite I’ve found another interpretation about it, but it is mine, and if you are interested, you should visit my blog.

  12. @ Mitra: I agree with you about the concentration of villains in the final two episodes, and the late ignition of the main plot. It’s still a good, enjoyable story, and I like your interpretation – what you wrote about Kaoru made her a more interesting character.

  13. Well, I love Garo, even with its faults. I hope I am not becoming insane!

    Thanks about Kaoru’s thing. I spent a lot of time with hers and Kouga’s article… I like their characters very much.

  14. We all have things which we love beyond reason. I think that’s what makes us fans. Writing long character studies is a pretty sane reaction, compared to some things (cosplay, fanfiction &c).

  15. What have you got against fanfiction? :P Perhaps I am lucky you have not seen them in my blog (not in English). Fanfiction may be useful when you are obsessed, because it gives an exit to you creative self (there is a moment when you can’t read anything else and must to throw out). So, my blog was born.

  16. Hmm, I don’t think fanfiction’s a bad thing, but I prefer to read fan non-fiction, if you like. As you say yourself, it sometimes serves more purpose as relief for the fan writing it rather than as storytelling for its readers.


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