Review: Shin Kamen Rider is a Fun Step Down for “Shin” Series

Review: Shin Kamen Rider is a Fun Step Down for “Shin” Series

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Shin Kamen Rider in red katakana on front of an image of Kamen Rider
Director Anno Hideaki is back again for his third live-action retelling of a classic Tokusatsu franchise. How does Shin Kamen Rider fare?

In 2013, representatives from film production giant Toho reached out to director Anno Hideaki, legendary creator of the Evangelion anime series. They had a stunning offer in hand; they wanted Anno to helm the first new live-action Godzilla film in a decade, one which would relaunch the famed kaiju series for a new generation.

Anno, in a deep depression following the release of his third Evangelion rebuild film, initially refused. However, the encouragement of friend (and co-creator of Evangelion) Higuchi Shinji helped win Anno over. The two threw themselves into the creation of their new Godzilla film as co-directors.

The resulting film was a smash hit on such a scale that it allowed for a series of modern tokusatsu (special effect beat-em-up) adaptations to come into existence. Now, the third such movie in their “Shin” series has released: Shin Kamen Rider. Does it maintain the high quality of its predecessors?

Well, not quite. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – what is it that’s made the Shin series so successful, and makes us happy with its continued existence even in the lesser form of Shin Kamen Rider?

Shin Kamen Rider posts at Tokyo movie theater.

Kamen Rider poster at a local Tokyo theater. Photo by author.

It’s All About Shin-cerity

Shin Godzilla (2016), Shin Ultraman (2022, directed by Higuchi), and now, Shin Kamen Rider (2023); all three films in the Shin series manage to faithfully modernize the beloved tokusatsu franchises they originate from. (All while maintaining a patina of nostalgia in the form of era-accurate sound effects, camera shots, and soundtracks.) At the same time, they’re distinctly Anno-Higuchi creations. Shin Godzilla went as far as to directly use part of Sagisu Shiro’s soundtrack for Evangelion; all three movies contain Anno’s themes of apocalyptic existentialism, government overreach, bureaucracy, personal struggles for identity, the hardships of self-sacrifice, and more. How seriously these themes are treated has degraded in descending order; compared to the dark and poignant Fukushima Daiichi disaster theming of Godzilla, Shin Kamen Rider‘s superhero morality posturing seems a bit tacked on.

Anno and Higuchi have been ideal stewards of the Shin franchise as both lifelong obsessors of tokusatsu and revolutionary genre disruptors. Anno’s Neon Genisis Evangelion was highly influenced by giant monster beat-em-ups, and went on to be one of the most influential works in anime and Japanese genre culture following its 1995 television debut. For his part, Higuchi is one of the most successful tokusatsu film directors working today.

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In all three Shin films, Anno and Higuchi have brought a level of sincerity (or, dare I say, Shin-cerity) in their love for the franchises they’ve been hired to re-tool. That sincerity helps allow a flawed movie like Shin Kamen Rider to still be a fun romp. It’s enjoyable watching it play straightforward tribute to its source television series, the 1971 Kamen Rider (仮面ライダー), the first of a series of shows featuring the exploits of a grasshopper-masked cyborg motorcyclist hero. (Such was the original Kamen Rider’s popularity that it’s often noted as the catalyst for Japan’s “second kaiju boom.”)

Shin Kamen Rider is the most straightforward of the Shin films, essentially being a series of monster-of-the-week confrontations mostly propped up by a strong core relationship between its two protagonists. Its story, true to its 1970s television origins, is mostly perfunctory set dressing. And that story is…

Kamen Rider Redux

Shin Kamen Rider opens in medias res, with a high-speed chase through the mountains of Japan between the eponymous “rider,” a befuddled university student named Hongo Takeshi, and two massive semi-trucks. Along for the ride on Hongo’s bike is ally Midorikawa Ruriko (a strong turn by actress Hamabe Minami). Hongo transforms into the masked Kamen Rider, violently dispatching the faceless creeps chasing him and Ruriko. The two make their way to a hideout, where Ruriko’s father, Dr. Midorikawa Hiroshi, explains to Hongo that he has been transformed into the ultimate insect-human augment as part of Midorikawa’s quest to defeat the evil organization, SHOCKER. The world-domination-bent secret society makes use of the same technology as Midorikawa; now, Hongo’s destiny has been irrevocably bound to that of both SHOCKER and the Midorikawas – all without his consent.

What follows is a series of battles between Hongo and SHOCKER thugs and fellow augments. Some are more engaging than others, with the deciding factor being how interesting the monster in each segment is. (Also figuring into the enjoyability of each segment is how much CG is used – this film, more than the other Shin movies, doesn’t quite hit the mark in the special effects department.) Interspersed throughout are scenes demonstrating Hongo’s torment over being forced into violence, tempered by his growing dedication to Ruriko. (In this way, Hongo resembles Evangelion‘s troubled Ikari Shinji, Anno’s most famous protagonist.)

Protagonists Hongo and Ruriko.

Along for the Ride

Hongo is portrayed by prolific actor Ikematsu Sosuke, perhaps most recognizable to English-speaking audiences in his first role as the young Higen in 2003’s Last Samurai. Ikematsu fits the conflicted role of the eponymous Kamen Rider well enough, but in truth, there isn’t all that much more to his character. More memorable is Hamabe as Ruriko. Here we have a classic Anno hyper-competent female character whose taciturn facade hides something more intriguing. Nominally a damsel-in-distress for Hongo to save, she emerges as the real driving force behind much of the movie. She feels like more of a protagonist than the often silent Kamen Rider himself.

It’s the relationship between Hongo and Ruriko that makes the movie interesting to a non-Tokusatsu fan. It endows the not-overly-well-staged action with a degree of emotional stakes. The characters in both Shin Godzilla and Ultraman were mostly static placeholders, good enough for the highly interesting events transpiring around them. What surrounds Hongo and Ruriko isn’t nearly so interesting, so it’s on their strength as characters that much of the film manages to hold our attention.

An issue here is that the action, a major selling point of the film, just doesn’t look that great. Part of the fun of tokusatsu is (sometimes silly-looking) fight choreography, but quick cuts and poor CGI fail to capture the shlocky thrill of classic toku shows. One of Kamen Rider’s augment enemies, a bat monster, looks embarrassingly bad in motion; it makes watching his entire segment a chore. Meanwhile, a bee-themed villainess from a later segment ups the schlock factor with minimal CGI, making for a much more enjoyable mini-arc. (It helps that Ruriko is so involved in her part of the story.) Shin Ultraman managed to make questionable CGI part of its retro identity, capitalizing on the inherent fun of redoing campy monster battle classics. Kamen Rider doesn’t manage this most important of tasks.

Shin Kamen Rider advertisement at Tokyo convenience store.

Shin Kamen Rider poster at FamilyMart. Such advertisements currently blanket much of Tokyo.

Low-Level Joy Ride

It’s maybe not high praise that one of the more notable aspects of Shin Kamen Rider is its location scouting; the film is filled with desolate settings amid decaying infrastructure. Sometimes, questionable CG is mapped onto beautifully composed shots of old factories and power stations. Anno’s trademark blocking and framing are also back at it again, displaying characters isolated at the extremes of the camera lens. Empty, sterile space sequesters characters from one another. Such camerawork helps separate these films from rote director-for-hire affairs.

The great cinematography is something all the Shin movies have in question. It’s still the initial entry in this thematically-linked series, Shin Godzilla, that emerges as the best of the lot. It succeeds in being both a reboot and a thematically rich successor to the original Godzilla’s themes of nuclear horror. Shin Ultraman holds onto some interesting theming, but mostly goes all in on being campy, ridiculous fun, and finds some real success in the endeavor. Meanwhile, Shin Kamen Rider is sort of stuck in between, not being thematically rich enough to emerge as a great film nor knowingly silly enough to be all that fun. For me, it comes off as markedly the least of the series.

Still, I have to admit that I’m happy it exists. Not in that it’s really that good of a movie, but more in that it still fulfills the general premise that the Shin series seems to hang on; extremely Anno-ified retellings of nostalgic tokusatsu classics. It has enough of that 1971 spirit to be an enjoyable novelty and enough of those classic Evangelion-esque camera angles and tropes to scratch that Eva itch. I can’t really recommend it on its own strengths, but if you enjoyed what came before, I’d say it’s certainly worthy of a watch. It’s hard not to get a little thrill when a classic Showa-era battle theme starts playing, and you get to see a modern film earnestly recreate the budget-limited battles of TV broadcasts of a long-bygone era.

So, Shin Himitsu Sentai Goranger next, right?

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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