I was inordinately excited for Hideaki Anno’s very long-awaited Shin Kamen Rider. Not only a 50th anniversary tribute to the 1971 original Kamen Rider series—delayed because of the darn pandemic—but another entry in the writer-producer’s reimaginings of Japanese pop culture legends. Shin Godzilla, which he co-directed with Shinji Higuchi, was the first truly singular Japanese Godzilla movie in decades. Shin Ultraman, which Higuchi solo directed, was a lovely and touching update of the 1966 original series. So a new take on the o.g. Kamen Rider, of which I’m a big fan, made me hope it would be the best yet. It isn’t. It’s not bad; but if you’re looking to get into Kamen Rider, or even see what it’s all about, this ain’t it.
The legendary mangaka Shotaro Ishinomori created Kamen Rider for TV in the early ’70s. During its initial 98-episode run, the style and tone changed pretty drastically. Starting as a dark, moody horror-inspired superhero show, it eventually lightened up considerably. The lead character changed, then changed back, and the legend of cybernetic, insect-themed motorcyclist grew. Anno tried to squeeze too much of that into a single two-hour film. The pace is about 20 mph over breakneck. As a result, the movie loses a lot of nuance, especially in the baddie department.
Shin Kamen Rider begins literally in the middle of a chase. Ruriko Midorikawa (Minami Hamabe) and Hongo Takeshi (Sôsuke Ikematsu) speed away on a motorcycle away from big semi-trucks. Only after they get away to a safehouse do we, and Hongo, get a sense of what’s going on. Ruriko is the daughter of Professor Hiroshi Midorikawa (cult filmmaker Shin’ya Tsukamoto). The professor is a scientist working for the SHOCKER organization, who had promised to help humanity but, go figure, are actually plotting to steal humanity’s life force via human cyborgs with animal themes.
Midorikawa and Ruriko have decided to thwart SHOCKER and designed the latest cyborg, Hongo, to fight them as the Masked Rider. From there, we begin a succession of Hongo and Ruriko attempting to fight the various other “Augs” with beast themes. These follow roughly the same order as the first 13 episodes of the series. A spider, bat, scorpion, chameleon, mantis, and wasp all trek through quickly. All the while, the pair get closer without ever really speaking above a low monotone.
Part-way through the movie, we meet Ichimonji Hayato (Tasuku Emoto), a second grasshopper-themed cyborg whom SHOCKER has successfully brainwashed. People who know the original series will know that he doesn’t remain brainwashed for long.
It’s entirely possible that via reading this you’ve realized one of the major problems with Shin Kamen Rider: way too much plot but almost no story. It’s just learning about the evils of SHOCKER, quick banter with the various kaijin one-by-one, a high-velocity fight sequence, rinse, repeat. On the surface, this is not entirely a bad way to do it, but this outline totally misses some of the best parts of every Kamen Rider episodes. The build up to the showdown, seeing the villain do villainous things is more than half the fun. Yes, the show hangs its hat on its hand-to-hand fight sequences, its monster designs, and the visceral thrill of seeing Kamen Rider in action. But we need to know the stakes and care about the characters for any of it to matter.
I don’t want to compare Shin Kamen Rider to Shin Godzilla or Shin Ultraman too much, but I think the other major problem is entirely down to them. This movie uses the same cinematographers as the previous two movies and has largely the same style of shooting. Government types sit around computers or talk in rooms while big monsters attack and/or a big alien hero fights them.
As a property, Kamen Rider does not lend itself to this type of depiction at all. The action sequences work decently, but are way too dependent on CGI rather than the hallmark of the franchise, which is martial arts battles heightened to a ridiculous degree. Hongo even finds himself tentatively working with anti-SHOCKER government types, which simply does not fit. The surveillance-style shooting that worked so well for Godzilla and Ultraman just doesn’t work here. We need more atmosphere, we need passion and scares. We need some kind of heart! It felt surprisingly cold.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it at all. The redesigns of the suits are excellent, the sounds and music are all spot-on. I really like the subtle way the beginning of the movie focuses on extreme violence and slowly it becomes less monstrous by the end, much the same way the show did. And moments certainly made the rabid fans I saw it with cheer. References and allusions to the classic series (and other Ishinomori creations) are fun for those who get them. Would it matter at all to anyone who doesn’t?
And maybe that’s ultimately the reason Shin Ultraman spent a year in the festival circuit before becoming a Fathom Event while Shin Kamen Rider bypassed festivals entirely. This isn’t the kind of movie that encapsulates the ethos of the show while replicating some of the best episodes. This movie is for people who know Kamen Rider already and just want to see people put on and take off helmets 500 times while punching viscera out of thugs like so many juiced memberberries.