By Jerry Hrechka / October 28th, 2015
The end of Kamen Rider Drive means another year’s worth of Kamen Rider has come and gone. And that means another complete story, another rider to be added to crossover movies, and wondering whether we liked it better than this series of Kamen Rider or that one. While I’m not going to quite rank it in some pure list, I will give you my opinion on the show.
I liked it… with some caveats.
Kamen Rider Drive was notable for causing a ruckus among fans for the fact that rather than using the traditional motorcycle that all other Kamen Riders have used, our new hero drives a car, perhaps under the impression that when fighting scientific monstrosities that spit in the eye of god that it’s wiser to have a few tons of metal for protection. Regardless of the reasons for the choice, many fans took it about as well as you could expect fans to: like a vampire to garlic. I wasn’t too crazy about hearing it myself since I just find motorcycles more aesthetically dynamic and suited to the dramatic motif of superheroes, but I don’t actually consider the motorcycle to be a core aspect of the themes of Kamen Rider. I was willing to give it a shot.
Kamen Rider Drive is about Detective Tomari Shinnosuke, a rising detective whose partner became injured during an event known as the global freeze where time seemed to slow while monsters began to attack. After this event, a guilt-ridden Tomari loses his drive (oh, oh that’s clever) being pushed by his stern but lovely new partner Shijima Kiriko, who is trying to get Shinnosuke off of his ass and do some crimefighting. That’s when Shinnosuke meets Krim, a brilliant scientist who has transported his consciousness into a belt that Shinnosuke can use to become Kamen Rider Drive and to fight the mysterious Roidmudes who are responsible for the slowdowns of time that have been happening since the global freeze. Cue villains, secondary riders, and lots and lots of toys.
True to its themes, Drive takes a bit of time to get going. The opening tends to fit to the rather familiar two-episode structure that has become a standard for most modern Kamen Rider shows. (Gaim was an exception) The villains initially seem rather stock and I had trouble getting into it, at least until the second rider shows up.
Gou, Kiriko’s sister and second rider Kamen Rider Mach, is just the shot in the arm that the show needed. In contrast to Shinnosuke, Gou is someone who can’t switch off and won’t slow down. It leads to a more proactive rider, but also a sloppier rider more prone to screw-ups, failure, and emotional outbursts. It’s a good dynamic that contrasts the strengths and failures of the other riders without being painfully on the nose about it. Gou himself is a character who had the chance to easily become obnoxious but, fortunately, rivalries and misunderstandings are quickly circumvented with Gou ingratiating himself to Shinnosuke, even pushing him to pursue a relationship with Kiriko, making this the first Kamen Rider series in a long time to have an explicit romance.
The villains have a similar problem, feeling flat and generically evil in the first act. Heart, Brain, Medic, and Chase seem to be little more than a motif at first. Heart acts more emotional, Brain is the mastermind, Medic does support, and Chase is relentless in his desire to destroy Kamen Rider. They seem so archetypal that they’re even named after their roles in the team. However, through the show, they grow to be very human, sympathetic villains. Brain in particular moves through several immensely entertaining growths of character. Their initial generic evil actually serves a valuable point, putting us in the viewpoint of the heroes and making us learn their depths alongside them. The light given on the reasons for the villains’ actions does end up putting them in a new light without lessening the impact of what they’ve done. It’s a delicate balance and many Kamen Rider shows have to let the strength of either their villains or their heroes stand alone, so it’s nice to see that the two actually end up interacting together very strongly.
Drive is far from perfect, even accepting for the initially slow place. The first problem I can think of has to deal with Kiriko. It isn’t the character herself. Kiriko is actually a charming character that blends well with the entire cast. She’s a legitimately engaging character. It has more to do with how the show treats her. I’m used to the less than egalitarian way that the Kamen Rider franchise treats women, so I wasn’t too surprised at the fact that the lil’ lady wasn’t able to handle the Drive system that needed a big strong man to handle it. It’s not great but it’s par for the course.
No, what really bothered me is how often Kiriko is thrown out of conflicts that by all rights should completely involve her. Without wishing to spoil anything, a fairly heavy plot involving Gou and Kiriko’s father surfaces midway through the season. The reveal should be something to create a good deal of melodrama for both siblings, but Gou is the only one who seems to get any angst or drama about it. Kiriko seems to take everything in stride, being more focused on supporting Shinnosuke. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a supportive female character, and in fact Kiriko’s steadfast nature proves to be one of her more endearing traits. However, there needs to be proof that she, as a character, exists for herself. It’s a glaring oversight that’s made all the worse by how many opportunities the show gives itself to rectify it.
The pacing is also a problem. Beyond the rough opening, there is a lull near the middle — though if you watch enough Kamen Rider, you’re probably used to that — and the finale is broken disjointedly by a jarring cameo for the new Kamen Rider Ghost. Fortunately the needlessly obtrusive cameos never rival the number that Gaim had, but if Ghost can’t enter the show in natural manner, then he should just wait until his show starts.
There are a few other problems, a lot of comedy falls flat and a number of supporting cast members — like Shinnosuke’s old partner — never get the amount of exploration it feels like they deserve. That said, Drive is an overall successful entry into the Kamen Rider franchise. It doesn’t push as many boundaries as something like Gaim does, but that makes it something familiar while still being able to work to be its own thing.