You know, before I start I should probably look up what conundrum actually means.
Give me a moment.
Okay, now that THAT is out of the way, let’s talk about Kamen Rider.
As you may or may not know, sometimes I like to indulge myself in watching Japanese Superhero shows aimed at kids from ages 5 to 8. It sounds kind of worrying when I put it like that, but trust me, it is a totally healthy and normal thing for an adult like me to do with my time.
But more importantly, as any person with an internet connection and blog does, I also like to over-analyze things to the point of insanity, mostly because it is a good way to procrastinate but also because it is always entertaining to deconstruct the way the media I consume is specifically assembled to satisfy my nerdy needs.
Which brings us to Kamen Rider, one of the most popular Tokusatsu Hero franchises born in the land of the rising sun, and more specifically, to one of the most recent seasons, Kamen Rider Build AKA the third most depressing war documentary I have ever seen.
Build is a rather interesting show, it does some things right and some things wrong, as all shows with the exception of Den-O do, but this season in particular gave me a lot to think about due to how much it tries to push the envelope of what Kamen Rider is, and how some of those attempts go catastrophically wrong.
I may not be the world’s greatest word-smith, hell, I can hardly shake a spear, but I think I can shed some light on at least one of the issues this show has, but to do so I need to ask you, my young and sexy reader, a few rhetoric questions.
Sexy rhetoric questions.
Why are stories good?
This a deceptively complex question to answer because for most people, if a story is enjoyable AKA they find it entertaining, they consider it to be good. Mind you, that is not a wrong stance to take, but some stories can be genuinely atrocious and still be fun to watch.
I could spend all day talking about why that is, but for the purposes of this article I want to settle in a simple, if overly so, definition: a story is good if it can effectively engage its audience to deliver a message.
To elaborate on that a little, because that is literally my thing, stories are always purpose driven, they are essentially tools for learning, and more often than not that purpose is to deliver a message to an audience, be it a concept, an idea or even an emotion; some stories try to teach us lessons from real events, some try to test the limits of what we know and some settle with making you cry or laugh.
Whether or not a story is successful at delivering its message is all up to the storytelling, and that is where the ‘engaging’ part comes into play; if the storyteller can make you feel what the characters in a story feel, or if it can make you interested into the developments of the plot, then that story will most certainly succeed at delivering its message to the audience.
In other words, that story is effectively good.
I am sure some of you are probably thinking that whether a story is good or not is completely subjective since in the end it all comes down to the taste of the audience, and you know what? You’re actually right.
And by that, I mean that you’re only half right.
See, whether or not people can relate to the subject of a story (AKA its intended message) is indeed subjective; sometimes the audience won’t respond to a particular message regardless of medium or how it is told, but that has no actual bearing on how well the message is delivered.
Comedy is probably the perfect example for this; what people found hilarious 60 years ago might not be funny to your average millennial. The reason for this is that humor is intrinsically ingrained into a culture, so as a society becomes more complex it is natural that what they consider to be funny to change with the times.
That said, the craft of humor, the art of setting up a joke and delivering the punchline with the perfect timing, has always been the same, and it is not going to change anytime soon.
This is exactly why there’s such a thing as “classic” movies; even if they are outdated or deal with topics that could only resonate with a very specific audience, it is because they are crafted with the proper care and technique that they can still find an audience years or even decades after they were released.
The point I’m trying to get at is, when a story, regardless of medium, is good, that is not by accident. Storytelling is as much of an art as it is a science, and there’s an inordinate number of rules to follow and techniques you can apply in any genre that can all but guarantee that a story will successfully engage the audience.
These are not random rules some dude came up with, but tried and true methods that have been distilled and refined through millenniums of storytelling. Do you think it’s a coincidence that Moises, Superman and Harry potter have basically the same origin story? Or that all famous movie killers wear masks or are otherwise inhuman?
Humans are storytellers by nature, and we are pretty damn good at it, so even if you don’t hold a degree in literature you can still tell when a story is “wrong” because your human brain can easily recognize the patterns that make a story engaging, even if you’re not totally aware of it. Mind you, good storytelling won’t guarantee that your movie, comic or TV show will bring in earnings by the truck loads, but it will ensure that someone, somewhere, will be moved by your tale.
How in the name of sanity is this related to Kamen Rider Build?
First of all, EVERYTHING is related of Kamen Rider. I have compiled several volumes worth of research to support this claim.
Secondly, while I know some people will laugh at the notion that the Kamen Rider Franchise, a property that exists solely for the purpose of selling toys and creating awful CGI, can be used to tell compelling stories, I maintain that even the simplest good vs evil tale needs proper storytelling to be effective, and Japanese Super heroes are most certainly not the exception.
This shouldn’t come as a shock if you are a long-time fan; even in the Showa era, when men rode bikes and mullets reigned supreme, the Kamen Rider franchise managed to consistently tell some incredibly compelling tales regarding the human condition and the nature of heroism, often in only one or two episodes.
Modern Kamen Rider is certainly a different beast, but even in the post-Decade Rider series, or Super Heisei Rider as I call them when I want to piss people off, it is not hard to find unique and compelling stories. I do admit that modern Rider is not as consistent as the classic shows, but I’d argue that even the most divisive of Rider series brings an interesting take to the formula, narratively speaking.
Joking aside, Ghost is actually a very good example since, even thought this show has several flaws that hinder what could have been an amazing series, it still had a really good grasp on the nuances of how to handle a supporting cast. This doesn’t sound all that amazing but you’ll be surprised how many Rider series struggle to handle any non-transforming characters.
While I could spend all day talking of the ups and downs of these shows, there’s no denying that ever since Kamen Rider W captured lighting in a collectible-gimmick-shaped bottle, none of the Rider series that followed have been a massive success… until Kamen Rider Gaim.
While opinions on Gaim are so divisive that you can’t start a serious conversation about the show without sparking a hostage situation, it cannot be denied that the show’s heavy focus on drama and shock value had a lasting effect on Kamen Rider as a franchise; while there was a bit of a false start with Ghost, it is clear that Toei, Bandai and TV Asashi (the producing companies of the show) saw fit to use Gaim as a template for future Rider venues in order to revitalize the franchise.
If you’re a fellow Toku-nite then you’re probably familiar with what happened next: Ghost’s follow up, Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, became a hit for a myriad of reasons in spite of the fact that the show looks like everything they have ever warned you about the 90’s.
I could say a million, billion things about Ex-Aid as a show; it did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, and while the writing of the show has some rather serious problems, particularly during its second half, I can’t deny that it revitalized the stale formula of the Rider franchise.
If anything, Ex-Aid provided Kamen Rider with a template that could easily be improved upon to make a new Rider for a new era and that would hopefully avoid the mistakes of the past…
And make new one’s while is at it.
Okay, enough beating around the bush, what is the problem with Build?
I don’t want to come out like some sort of Build hater, I did enjoy the show as it aired and while certain aspects of it soured for me as it went on, I can’t deny that the show had an ambition and a level of quality that is seldom seen in Rider.
Still, even if my inner monkey can easily enjoy TV programming for which I am as far removed from the target audience as I can possibly be, the writer in me can’t help but to look at this show through the cold lenses of logic and point out the yes, there are some fundamental problems in the writing of this show and the people responsible for it should be burned in the stake.
Here’s a trick question for you: do you know how different stories can have different types of plots? Like maybe a plot is story driven, character driven or even action driven?
Well guess what? You are WRONG.
The truth is, all stories, regardless of genre, are character driven.
It doesn’t matter if it is action, horror or whatever premise Edgar Wright just came up with in the last five minutes, in the end all stories center around characters, what they do and how we relate to them. They are quite literally our window to the story, and by relating to them we feel what the story wants us to feel.
If you want to scare an audience, give them characters they can care about when danger looms; if you want to tell them an epic fantasy, give them characters they can relate to even in a fantastical setting; if you want to make them cry, write a character specifically tailored to be played by Will Smith.
This sounds really simple when I explain it, but like most things when it comes to writing, once you’re actually making a movie, a TV show or an audio drama (do they still make those?) it is really easy to get it wrong: a lot of action movies try too hard to make characters cool and forget to make them charismatic; too many horror movies rely on unlikeable characters that you won’t care if they die; a painful amount of attempts at comedy can’t understand the difference between laughing WITH a character and laughing AT a character.
It is the character’s job to move the story forward, any events or developments within the story must be the direct result of a character’s actions; a villain setting in motion a dastardly plot, a hero raising up to the challenge, or even something as simple as a minor character choosing the longer road over the shorter, sexier road.
Character choices are literally the engine of any plot, and when you have a well enough written character the story can practically write itself… but when you let your plot dictate your character’s choices, when they make decisions because the story needs to head into one direction and not because of their own motivations, that’s when problem arises and that brings us all the way back to Kamen Rider Build.
Watching Build as show unfold during it’s first few episodes was quite the experience; there was a lot of good ideas there, some new, some old, some abstract, and it all felt very fast paced, especially in the first four episode or so, but as the show went on it found a good balance and it actually became pretty good, I would even go as far as to say that it improved over the previous season in almost every way.
I was actually pleasantly surprised by this because years of watching Super Heisei Rider lulled me expecting nothing from the first quarter of the show; this is usually the period where characters are introduced, premises are set and toys are sold, so the plot does tend to take a back seat until at least the second quarter. This is why Build having such a strong start with a fairly elaborated plot was a very welcome change, but apparently Toei won’t let me have nice things because after episode 14/16 things took an almost devilish turn.
In a rather dramatic turn of events, it is revealed that the mentor figure of the cast, Isurugi Souichi, was in fact the master mind behind literally everything, up to an including the change in time slot for the Super Hero Time block (citation needed).
From that point onwards he would act as the main villain of the show, even if the other villains liked to pretend they were the real bad guys, he was totally on their side and was not, in fact, using them and plotting against them.
This by itself wasn’t a bad thing, in fact this might be one of the most ingenious aspects of the show as a narrative, but the real problem here was that once this plot twist came to pass, the show, which until this point had done a great job handling its main cast, started to shift focus away from the characters and relied more and more on continued revelations and plot developments to keep the show going; plot twist after plot twist came, too many new characters were introduced for no reason, status quos got shaken up every couple of episodes and I am pretty sure at some point everyone betrayed everyone else.
I once wrote a rather comprehensive piece about character writing, and while I stand by every single point I covered, I never mentioned the importance of giving characters agency; every action a character takes must affect the narrative in some way, their choices have to matter or else there is no point to them being there at all.
At first glance having a complex plot with constant developments sounds like a good thing, but as I said earlier, characters are the engine of any story, they are the key to keep the momentum going, so when you start to rely on plot devices to tell your story, there comes a point when your characters lose agency and it no longer matters what they do or why they do it.
And this is precisely the main issue with Build as a story.
Once the show starts to rely more and more on plot twists to carry the story along, it starts spending less time developing the characters until it reaches a point where it is very hard to care about them because, even when the story reaches a climactic point meant to evoke an emotional high, it doesn’t feel like the characters got there by their own merits as much they were just carried there by the motions of the plot, like mere puppets in a twisted game by some demented overlord.
Is it really that bad?
It really is, but in order for you to understand why, we need talk about Michael Keaton.
Okay, under normal circumstance I wouldn’t shut up about Batman, but in this case I actually want to talk about another character he played: Adrian Toomes AKA The Vulture, the main antagonist from the 2017 MCU movie, Spiderman Homecoming.
I am not usually one to go on unrelated tangents (I say, having done precisely that three times already), but to get to my point I really need to talk about one very specific scene from this movie:
During the traditional mid-credits scene, we see a character, who we are to surmise is the MCU version of the Scorpion, approaching Toomes with an offer he can’t refuse: tell him Spiderman’s real identity and together they can take down the wall-crawler. This would seem like a no brainer, what with both of them being in jail because of him and all, but to the Scorpion’s surprise he actually refuses, claiming that he didn’t knew who Spiderman really was.
Of course, if you watched the movie you know that not only did Vulture knew Peter Parker’s secret, but he was also on a first name basis with him.
And if you watched the film, you also knew exactly why he decided to keep this particularly valuable piece of information a secret.
Spiderman: Homecoming spent an unusual amount of time focusing on Keaton’s character, not that I blame them, and as a result we learned all about his personality, motivations and moral code, so by the end of the movie we had a pretty good understanding of him and his way of thinking.
That is why this mid-credit scene is such a brilliant example of how to do character writing; when Keaton’s character refuses the offer and lies about knowing Spiderman’s identity, you, the audience, understand exactly why he made such a choice without him having to explain his reasoning.
You just know.
As a general rule, if a character is well written, if his motivations have been properly laid out and it has been developed in a consistent way, when he/she/it makes a choice you should know immediately why without needing the character, or the narrator, to explain their reasoning.
Doing so would be bad writing, plain and simple.
The point of this educational tangent is that a well written character doesn’t need justification, much like a well written story doesn’t need to be explained, and in Build’s very specific case the overreliance on plot twists and turns forces the narrative to rely exposition dumps to develop the characters; there are several point in the show, usually around big climatic moments, where two characters sit down in a dimly lit location so that one of them can explain his motivations while the other one cries its eyes out.
Mind you, these exposition dialogues are not bad by themselves, in fact it is during these sequences that the actors got to deliver some of their best performances, but just the fact that these character-explaining sequences are even necessary is symptom of a larger problem with the narrative; because the show decided to let the story be driven by the plot instead of the characters, it is very hard to become invested in the story because we don’t have a meaningful connection to said characters.
Remember, characters are our window into the story, if we do not engage with them beyond a superficial level then it is very hard to care about the circumstances surrounding them. Sure, you can have a glorious character death with some amazing directing and a terrific performance, but if the circumstances surrounding that scene were engineered by the plot rather than developed by the character writing, then even such a poignant scene can become forgettable.
Because delivering searing hot takes and starting flame wars is my life’s calling, let’s drive this point home by talking about Eiji Akaso AKA Banjou Ryuga AKA Kamen Rider Cross-Z.
Banjou Ryuuga is such a fascinating case to study for a couple of reasons. First of all, he is a secondary Rider that is instrumental to the story, to the point that you can argue he is more important than Build himself. Secondly, of all the characters in Build, he is the one that gets screwed by the writing the most.
The problem with Banjou is simple: during the first arc of the show he is actually quite memorable, basically a go-to example of how to do a secondary Rider, but after the big shift in focus Banjou Ryuuga stops being a character and becomes a plot point.
Mind you, that doesn’t make him unlikeable or anything, but it does come with the caveat that after a certain plot twist is revealed the show keeps telling us that Banjou Ryuuga is the most important man on earth, but it never feels like anything he does actually matters.
This actually did make me a little sad because I was really rooting for Eiji Akaso on this role; before joining the Build cast, he actually appeared in the Amazon web exclusive Kamen Rider Amazons’ (pun absolutely intended) second season, where against all odds he went and became the most memorable character in the show.
Personal traumas aside, if there’s one thing you should take away from all of this is that Eiji Akaso IS a good actor, but even the greatest of performances won’t cancel out the issues with the writing, and this applies to pretty much every character in the show.
Sure, with a strong performance and skilled directing you can still evoke an emotional reaction from the audience, but if your story telling method relies on telling the audience to care about the characters rather than giving them a reason to, then your story won’t leave a lasting impact.
Does this mean that Build is actually a bad show?
This is a very good question, and as such the answers is anything but simple.
As I said a while ago, more precisely in paragraph 27, Build as a show has a level of ambition and production quality that is seldom seen in Rider, the suit and monster design feel like a breath of fresh air after whatever the hell Ex-Aid was, and most of the cast manages to deliver consistently strong performances that would give Ryoma Takeuchi a run for his money.
The problem is that Build’s story structure, which admittedly is an improved version of Ex-Aid’s, undermined its own writing, to the point that as the story reached its climax, I had long stopped caring about a lot of what was going on. It’s not that the story was bad, there was still a lot of cleverness in the script, but at that point the story was driven more by sheer inertia than anything else; it still had the same cast of characters that I enjoyed so much early on, but I simply wasn’t invested on whether they would rise above the challenge and save the world from an impending doom, or die trying.
I just wanted the story to reach a conclusion.
In the end, I can say that I enjoyed Build for what it was and I cannot deny that the show has some of the best directed episodes in the history of the franchise, but as a narrative I cannot say that I will remember the story fondly, if I remember much of it at all.