Kamen Rider Gaim: The Best Tokusatsu in Years

Discover one of the coolest (and craziest) Japanese heroes of the past decade. We look at Kamen Rider Gaim...

Drop everything you’re doing. There’s a show that you absolutely, positively need to watch. Right now.

It’s about samurai warriors, fruit based super powers, competitive street dancing, dangerous alternate realities, growing up, and the end of the world. It may look a lot like Power Rangers, but it has a more serious storyline. It has a distinct anime flavor to it, yet little to no filler episodes that slow down the pacing in that genre. And it’s also one of the most unforgettably moving experiences I’ve had watching any TV show in the past decade.

It’s called Kamen Rider Gaim, and it’s a tokusatsu series that aired from 2013-2014 on Toei’s Super Hero Time programming block on TV Asahi. Gaim is the twenty-fourth entry in the larger Kamen Rider franchise, which, much like Super Sentai, reboots itself once a year to introduce new themes, new actors, and new merchandise.

Even the most hardcore Rider fans admit that the show is basically just a weekly twenty minute commercial for BanDai toys. But you know what? They’re surprisingly well-produced and visually stunning toy commercials. Kamen Rider series are oftentimes weird as hell, chock full of WTF moments, explosive stunt sequences and dynamic cinematography that would leave Quentin Tarantino speechless. What’s not to love?

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For those of you who don’t know, Kamen Rider actually has been adapted for American audiences before — once as Saban’s Masked Rider in 1995, then as Adness Entertainment’s Kamen Rider Dragon Knight in 2009. Both attempts were met with blank stares from the targeted demographic of 8-11 year-old boys, along with light cricket chirpings. The fact that they had peculiar theme songs didn’t help matters, either. If you’re reading this article, there’s a big chance you already knew this.

Gaim came at a time when Kamen Rider series were beginning to fall into a languid rut with repetitive, formulaic plots and anticlimactic pacing. Wizard, the series that preceded Gaim, embodied these flaws all too well. Thus, Toei studios decided to take their fifteenth Heisei era Rider program in a fresh direction, so they hired Gen Urobuchi (the mastermind behind such anime as Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Psycho-Pass, and Fate/Zero) to come up with a livelier story for the traditional Japanese hero. Using 2002’s Kamen Rider Ryuki as inspiration, Urobuchi came up with probably the most bizarre and awe-inspiring action/sci-fi series I’ll probably see in my entire lifetime.

What I love about Gaim is that its main storyline is so bizarre and complex that it can’t easily be summarized in one or two sentences. But I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

The action takes place in Zawame City, a one-time Japanese suburb converted into a flashy metropolis by the powerful (and shadowy) Yggdrasil Corporation. The organization is cloaked in mystery at all times, casting a heavy shadow of uncertainty that permeates throughout the hearts of its citizens. How do the kids of a corporate futuristic mecca deal with all this tension?

By dancing, of course. The youth of Zawame gets footloose by forming their own competitive dance teams with distinctive dress codes. But the correct term is Beat Riders, just so you know.

(Get it? Riders because of “Kamen Riders”… and “Beat” because of music…okay, yeah. You got it.)

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All Beat Rider groups compete with each other in awkwardly choreographed dance-offs at various “stages” found across the city. When a certain team beats another in competition, they take the stage for their own. It’s easy to lose track of who’s who in this multicolored turf war at first, so the main Beat Riders you need to pay attention to are Team Gaim and Team Baron. Team Gaim features our main protagonist Kouta Kazuraba and his helpful friends Micchi and Mai. Team Baron, however, are their rival gang, led by the cold and nihilistic Kaito Kumon.

There’s something else I should mention about these dance competitions: the kids don’t just dance in them — they also duel monsters (because it’s not Saturday morning in Japan without the collecting and fighting of imaginative creatures). These disturbing little critters are called Inves, and they’re summoned by the power of the most glorious magical widget ever: Lockseeds.

How can one begin to describe the mad genius of Lockseeds?

First off, they look like your average, everyday padlock, but they come in fruit and nut varieties. Also, they talk. (Not conversationally mind you.) Secondly, when their switches are flipped, giant zipper portals unzip themselves in the sky and summon the Inves. Or enormous mechanical replicas of fruit that fall on your head, transforming you into a cybernetic Samurai warrior with so much fruity, juicy power you’ll feel like you’re in an old Gushers commercial.

But you can’t morph into the fruity “Armored Rider” mode without another important piece of quirky technology – the Sengoku Driver. It’s a belt (as is the typical henshin device that Kamen Riders use) that resembles, um, a cutting board. You put the Lock Seed into the Driver and cut it open with that miniature neon yellow…knife…thing…

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Oh, screw it. Watch the video and see for yourself.

That clip happens to be the very first time Kouta transforms into the eponymous Kamen Rider Gaim in the premiere episode. As he learns how to use his strange new orange powers to protect his gang of break dancers, Kouta soon discovers that other teams are starting to use the magic belts to transform into Armored Riders, including Team Baron. Before he knows it, he’s got a full-scale battle royale on his hands and a million different questions on his mind.

Like: where do all these Lockseeds and Driver belts come from, anyway? The short answer is the Yggdrasill Corporation, as part of a world-ending global conspiracy. And where, exactly, do those zipper portals in the sky lead to? A deep, dark forest dimension called Helheim, the power of which the shadowy organization has only just begun to harness for its own sinister plans.

What I like the most about this show is that it’s built on the power of surprise. Every single episode is dead set on astonishing you at least once or twice, whether it be through the new info that expands its world, or a plot twist, or a double-cross, or brand new weapon, or even something as simple a new transformation montage. Each episode bombards us with new characters and more over-the-top power-ups and weapons than we can shake a fruit roll-up at. Plus there’s all that ass kicking that happens. And, yes, when people get hit, inexplicable sparks fly from their bodies, just like in Power Rangers. Deal with it.

The key to Gaim’s charm lies in its characters. Never before have I encountered such a diverse menagerie of misfit cast-offs in a superhero program. Despite coming from different backgrounds and different phases of life, each Armored Rider is the same on a fundamental level – they’re all outsiders, disenfranchised by the chilly corporatocracy that strangles their everyday lives.

Kouta is the most relatable, as he struggles to maintain his youthful ideals in a dark world where souls are crushed by the harshness of reality. He’s perfectly opposed by Kaito, his nemesis Kamen Rider Baron (aka the banana one), who’s all about living on the edge of a void. Kouta’s friend Micchy, Kamen Rider Ryugen (grape), is the quiet sidekick character at first, but he quickly steals the show as his character’s story becomes the most compelling of all.

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See for yourself. I’ve said enough already.

And then we have the other Armored Riders, some of which work for the Yggdrasil Corporation. Micchy’s older brother Takatora is the leader of their research and development branch and is also the melon flavored Kamen Rider Zangetsu. He works closely with Professor Ryoma who develops the drivers, seeds and other fun stuff that make funny noises and cause an apocalypse. He has his own lemon-scented super powers up his sleeve, but that’s kind of a spoiler in itself. Whoops.

Then we have Oren Pierre Alfonse, Kamen Rider Bravo. This Durian themed Armored Rider is a cross-dressing gay professional chef and deadly ex-soldier who makes gourmet crepes at his world famous patisserie Charmant. He also kicks a lot of ass and gives most main characters a run for their money with his experience in life-threatening hand-to-hand combat.

Unlike other Kamen Rider entries, Gaim’s fifty-odd episode storyline was split by Urobuchi into different arcs that serve as elegant metaphors for the stages of entering adulthood. This equips the show with a much-needed higher purpose that threads itself throughout each and every scene. As the world gets bigger and the stakes are raised higher, Gaim twists itself into a brooding meditation on the cost of sacrificing your innocence at the threshold of adulthood. It also becomes a modern day allegory for the historical Sengoku “Warring States” period of Japan to boot. How beautiful is that?

This show knows what knows what keeps its audience sit on the edge of their seats, holding their breath in anticipation. I can’t begin to tell you how thrilling it was to watch this show from week to week while it aired, with all of the possibilities running amok through my head in-between each installment. Now that all 47 episodes have aired (plus several movies, including one about an alternate universe revolving around soccer of all things), I think it’s time for the world to binge watch what I hope will eventually become a treasured cult classic. Because that’s what it’s meant to be.

Here’s the catch: Kamen Rider Gaim hasn’t been officially released by Toei here in the United States, but you can find the whole epic fruity saga fansubbed at TV-Nihon’s website – and then some.

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Follow Stephen on twitter @onlywriterever. He runs the Power Rangers Vintage gif tumblr when he has the time. Check out his website here also. #shamelessselfpromotion