The latest in Anno Hideaki’s reimagining of classic Japanese tokusatsu stories, following Shin Godzilla, Shin Ultraman, and — depending on how you look at it — Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (“Shin Evangelion” being in its Japanese title), Shin Kamen Rider dispenses with the bureaucratic focus of Godzilla and Ultraman for a more introspective look at a trio of heroes as they battle an evil corporation of secret operatives. This organization, called SHOCKER, is led by an AI gone astray: it believes the best way for humans to achieve happiness is to be killed, so that their souls, called “prana,” can travel to another realm. To this end, SHOCKER has developed a number of animal/human hybrids. One such hybrid, with the power of a grasshopper, is freed by the program’s head scientist, who, with his cyborg daughter Ruriko, is now leading the resistance against SHOCKER. Ruriko gives the man a red scarf and a motorcycle, and he dubs himself the Kamen Rider (or “Masked Rider,” in Amazon’s unnecessary translation).
Kamen Rider and Ruriko work their way episodically through a number of SHOCKER’s hybrid killers, each of whom is either homicidally psychotic or deeply depressed, or both. There’s a Spider guy, a Scorpion lady, a Wasp woman, a Mantis/Chameleon combo, a Butterfly dude, and more. All of these assailants are extremely cool-looking, and their fights, taking place in a variety of environments, are a genuine joy to watch. As he did with the previous two live-action Shin films, Anno adopts the aesthetic approach of the original material — in this case, television serials which began in the early 1970s. The action is disconnected from shot to shot, in a way resembling comic book or manga panels which emphasize dramatic compositions rather than fluidity or realism of movement. Aside from the basic nostalgic pleasure this inspires, the approach directs our focus not toward athleticism or choreography, but toward the design of environments, costumes, and movement. Shin Kamen Rider is not so much an action movie as it is a deeply sad and aesthetically pleasing exploration of what it’s like to be alienated from a world someone else made.
For as much as the plot resembles classic adventure serials — one mission after another with clearly defined goals, i.e., “You distract the Wasp while I find the server she uses to control the minds of everyone for miles around” — its forward movement is, in fact, all inward, as Ruriko and the Kamen Rider come to understand the lives they’ve been given. In this sense, Shin Kamen Rider is much closer to Evangelion (in all its many variations) than to either Godzilla or Ultraman. It’s probably significant, then, that Anno is here working without Higuchi Shinji, who (co-)directed the two earlier films. Many of the distinctive flourishes of those movies — from oddball camera placements to mountains of on-screen text explaining organizations, locations, and characters, to the satirical depiction of the layers of government agencies involved in coping with their supernatural phenomena — are missing from Shin Kamen Rider. Instead, Anno limits his world to the three heroes (there’s a second Kamen Rider added along the way, as per the original series) and their struggle. There are nods to the wider world, both of Japan and of the series, with appearances by Saito Takumi (star of Shin Ultraman) and Takenouchi Yutaka (star of Shin Godzilla) as government suits covertly helping and lurking around behind the scenes of Ruriko and her team. But as with Evangelion, the story is more about both hero and villain coming to terms with life, death, and rebirth than anything else. It’s a wildly unstable pairing: ‘70s sci-fi played straight, never as kitsch, mixed with long speeches about loss and regret, all filtered through nigh impenetrable exposition about computers and the afterlife. No one but Anno has ever been able to pull it off, nor to make it look like so much fun.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2023 — Dispatch 2.