Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Agito: A Sprawling, Ambitious Tapestry

I just finished rewatching Agito for the first time in a while. It's refreshing to watch a good Kamen Rider show after all this time. Agito's still my favorite Kamen Rider series, one of my favorite tokusatsu of all, and I think it's the most ambitious tokusatsu series ever made.

Kuuga producer Shigenori Takatera wanted to change the face of tokusatsu with Kuuga. He certainly altered the format for Kamen Rider -- for better or worse -- but I always thought that the show had a whole array of flaws. Too many characters, too many undifferentiated characters, a limiting set-up, narrative straying. It's a good show, but doesn't hold up to a lot of rewatching or scrutiny. Maybe it's a case of playing it safe -- Toei was counting on it to bring the Kamen Rider franchise back in a big way...

And it did. Kuuga was a success. Agito could ride that success and put it to its use. Agito could take what Kuuga did, but learn from its mistakes. Agito could put on a better show than Kuuga. And I think Agito succeeds in all of those endeavors. While I certainly appreciate what Kuuga did -- its approach to realism, how a weird "henshining" power would affect a person, how society would react to a hero and toku monsters rampaging -- I think Agito is miles above and beyond Kuuga. It's a much more interesting show. It's jam-packed -- it does so much, has such scope, and tells so much story. It's filled with distinct, memorable characters, who all serve a purpose. It's filled with symbolism. It's not a wannabe anime, and it's not shoving toys down your throat. Agito is a pretty well-oiled machine, with a layered plot, twists and turns. Even early on, trying to have ties to Kuuga, it knew what it wanted to be and what it wanted to do. It laid out numerous -- numerous -- mysteries and storylines and didn't brush aside a single one and trusted the audience to keep up. It resolved every questioned it raised, while also leaving developments open to viewer interpretation. For that, Agito is a rewarding experience upon rewatching. I've often said that you can rewatch Agito and still spot something new, something you didn't notice in previous viewings. Kuuga was 99% police procedural, but in a superhero take. Agito was 30% police procedural, but covers a variety of other genres: paranormal, drama, mystery...

He might be a punching bag now, but Agito is really Toshiki Inoue's baby. Like Naruhisa Arakawa with Kuuga, Inoue is given the rare "series composer" credit for Agito. It's a rare credit for a writer in tokusatsu to have, as it means the writers have way more clout and leeway than is the norm. (Kuuga and Agito are probably the only two Toei tokusatsu shows I can think that have that credit. It's not uncommon for a main writer to have that credit in the Ultraman franchise, for example, but Toei's shows are usually committee, where the chief producer is the loudest voice.)

Agito was the first series produced by the now reviled Shinichiro Shirakura, but you know what? I think he was kind of careful in his first go-round. I think, if you look at Agito and look at the other shows Shirakura was chief producer on, it's clear that he kind of stood out of Inoue's way. I think the further he had success, the more he let it go to his head, and the more hands-on and weaker the shows under his watch became. Certainly with Agito's monster success, I think he felt more emboldened, and you can see more Shirakura come through in Ryuki and (especially) Faiz. You can probably blame a lot of Faiz's shortcomings on Shirakura more than Inoue, but that's a whole other mess to get into.

The only real weakness in Agito is the last several episodes. They aren't bad, but they're a step down in that...up until that point, Agito had taken its time. It successfully shuffled a wide range of characters, and each character got a decent amount of time per episode. But those last few episodes seem to have 37 episodes' worth of ideas crammed into them, with a drastically reduced cast. My theory? Inoue had so many ideas for Agito, he could have filled another series. So, he tried to work in his biggest ideas into those final episodes. But? The last episodes of every toku series suffer from Toei's mindset of "Sorry, pal, but we're giving the new show all the money. The final ten episodes of your show can make do with the budget of a new-wave music video."

(A real quick sidenote: why does Kamen Rider Blade, from its very first episode, look like its entire budget was that of a new-wave music video? It's such a damn cheap, shoddy production, it really does reek of those "final episodes when Toei gives us no money," but FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES.)

Anyway, it's not like those final episodes are *bad*, but they're rushed, not given the budget it requires, and cut out too many cast members in favor of some new cast members whose stories don't have a complete impact because everything's so rushed. But it all goes back to Agito's ambition. Inoue treated this show like an American production, a show that could go on for years. Agito's just too big and ambitious for a single-year production to contain.

A lot of people have complained about the tediousness of Heisei Riders having two-parters, and while Agito CAN be broken down into two-part installments, there's so much going on, so many little clues and building blocks being tossed at you, that it never does feel like it's a two-parter or three-parter or whatever; it's truly serialized, just unsprawling itself.

Now, onto some of the characters, the heroes. Shouichi Tsugami is one of my favorite tokusatsu leads, and usually this kind of character can be grating, but Inoue's smart enough to give Shouichi some shades and have characters react to him differently. I've long said that Shouichi is Godai done right. For as realistic as Kuuga wanted to be -- and it did a lot well -- one great, big, huge blunder, IMO, was how Godai was handled. Godai was a big old child-like goofball who could do no wrong, but my big problem was...nobody had a problem with him. Ichijou grumbled a couple of times early on, but let's face it -- Godai's personality would rub a lot of people the wrong way. When I think of Godai, one scene comes immediately to mind -- he's in the meeting room with the police, who are all serious business, giving the latest reports, and Godai just busts in with a "Daijobu!" and thumbs-up and stupid, stupid expression on his face...and they all just laugh. Like, "Oh, that Godai!" In real life, Godai would get a couple of punches.

Shouichi is similar in goofy demeanor, marching to his own beat, but I feel like he's more of a person. For being an amnesiac, he and the show and the audience know who he is more than we ever know about Godai. But Shouichi showed moments of doubt. He showed moments of fear. Shouichi went through the wringer a couple of times. Godai will take a hit and wave it off with a thumbs-up. Furthermore, Shouichi marches to his own beat and has that very hippie/optimistic look on life that he'll try to force onto others, like Godai, but people will call him on it. They don't just chuckle and go "Oh, that Shouichi!"

Initially, Hikawa thinks Shouichi's head is in the clouds. Ashihara actually punches him out when he's about to force his philosophy onto a character who it wouldn't help. But, gradually, people become swept up into Shouichi's world, and the things they experience in battle with the Unknown start changing them and their perception. It helps that actor Toshiki Kashuu is just perfect casting -- like Kamen Rider Black's Tetsuo Kurata, it's hard to believe it was his first acting job. (Toei threw both Kurata and Kashuu into acting lessons before and during their show, which is probably more than they do now.) Kasshu is also said to be a lot like Shouichi in real life.

The G3 portion of the show is a bit Metal Hero influenced, but takes the idea of those Winspector-y types of shows and improves upon them. For all of the cracks made by fans about how G3's constantly beat up, he at least does more than the Rescue Police heroes did in three shows combined. Hikawa's really underrated, when...look at some of the cool stuff he does. He dives into the center of a storm to save the Akatsuki ship. He dives into the center of danger to save people from Unknown attacks, time after time, while waiting for his armor. He's the first one to pick up on the Unknown attacking people with supernatural abilities. He's a normal guy, but doesn't hesitate to put himself in jeopardy for others. Hikawa's a hero through and through, he's selfless, he's always even polite to everyone -- even Houjou, until it reaches a boiling point. (And the fact that Hikawa does have his limits makes him more realistic.) When all of the other Riders have lost their powers, who's the one still fighting? A severely injured, half-blind Hikawa.

One of my favorite moments is when he's beating up one of the elemental Lords in the finale, and they're surprised, saying "Who are you? How can you cause such damage," and G3-X responds "I'm just a plain human!" I feel like G3 could have had his own show, but the fact that he's just one third of Agito speaks to just how much ground this show was covering.

While I'm talking about the G3 side of the show, I'd like to say that there's really only one thing that I think can be tedious upon Agito rewatches: Houjou's antics. It's really depressing to find out that Inoue considered Houjou his favorite character in the series, but I guess not all that surprising since he does favor asshole characters like Kusaka and Kiriya. (Some would say Gai, but those people should shut up.) Houjou has his moments, and he's a necessary source of conflict for the police side, a source of conflict completely missing from Kuuga, but he's mainly just a pain in the ass, and I think the character is beyond actor Jun Yamasaki's abilities.

Yamasaki's mostly just stiff, and you can never get a real bead on what the character's really after. The worst is his moronic "Protect the Unknown" scheme from the final episodes. If you were meant to take into account the way Aki and Gills attacked him, and Houjou's concerns were genuine, then Yamasaki never lets you know it, with his monotonous line-reading and plastered on shit-eating grin. I mean, I do think Houjou is meant to be unreadable, to a certain extent, but I think a better actor would have made his intentions SOMEWHAT more visible.

Ashihara makes up one portion of the show that leaves some things in the air, there's more room for interpretation with his side of things. I remember some early, early information that said that maybe Ashihara's powers came from the Unknown. I know some people think Gills is a half Unknown/half Agito power. I think, if you look at Ryou and Kino and take into account that the Sawakis were Agitos because of what good, selfless people they were, then the more monstrous powers of Gills and Another Agito were because of the type of people they were, or that they had some darkness in them. If Ashihara's Gills powers HAD been from the Unknown, that would have been an interesting tie to the original Riders by Ishinomori, but I think the story still has the same effect -- the Rider powers are a curse to our hero, but they'll use that power for good.

So, Ashihara is kind of a classic Rider type. The powers cause him pain, cause him to be constantly on the brink of life and death, and nearly everything he loves is taken away, but the journey he's placed on ends up making him a better person. When we first see him, he's cold, stand-offish. His ex-girlfriend and father talk about what an unreliable punk he used to be. But after his experiences and after being swept up in Shouichi's world, he becomes warmer, more caring, more open-minded.

I like my Rider designs monstrous and ugly. And you can't get more monstrous and ugly than Another Agito! (Designed by Yutaka Izubuchi.)

Kino was an interesting character to throw into the mix, and it was certainly nice to have an older Rider. While he might have been a sign of bad things to come in terms of rival Riders who "want to be the best!!!" at least Kino's given more dimension than those guys, at least he has a plausible reasoning. Unlike nearly every Rider show afterwards, the initial rivalries and Rider VS Rider fights came about with logic. With Gills, they all thought he was an Unknown, and he thought Agito killed Aki, attacking in a blind rage. With Another Agito, it's not "You're a better make-up artist than I am, you must pay," it's that Kino's psychologically damaged; he's traumatized. He has a complex, he wants to save everyone he can because he wants to make amends for failing to save his brother. Add on top of that that he's given god-like powers when he's in a profession that's accused of playing God, you can see where he's coming from.

There seems to be a lot of Christian imagery in Agito. Burning Form is reminiscent of the Sacred Heart: note the vein-y heart muscle look to the chest armor as well as, of course, the flames.

Agito's also probably one of the only Rider shows to feature interesting female characters. Mana's kind of the heart of the show, and I like how she steps up and puts her powers to use for little things like, oh, I don't know, helping Shouichi beat a murder rap, helping the police find Miura's killer (the Mysterious Youth), helping the police solve some murders, resurrecting Ashihara and deciphering Yukina's letter. I like the way the show had people gradually finding out about her abilities. I can picture some later shows really dragging it out.

Not only is Mana the backbone of the show, but she's a source of encouragement for Shouichi -- but the writing is good enough to let her act her own age at times. In a typical X-Men fashion, she has moments where she doubts her place or fears her powers. So, to me, it's believable later in the series when she's upset about her dad and the Agito powers and she's one of the reasons Shouichi gives up the power. It's easy to imagine how that scenario would play out in a later Rider show -- one deprived of any logic -- but she's also the one who gets Shouichi to fight again and reclaim his power. For her age, Rina Akiyama does a great job, she hits all the right notes with the character, and I *still* think it was sad to see her so wasted in Den-O.

I think something that would have helped those off-seeming final episodes would be to replace the Kana character with Mana (only drop the romantic interest part of it). Kana's a weak character, she spends most of her time in the show being completely unlikable. It's hard to feel for her and get why Shouichi cares so much. With some reshuffling, it could have easily been Mana -- she started to go Agito and it scared her and they could have still done the recreation of The Real Shouichi and Yukina, while The Real Shouichi could have still earned his (awesome) redemption by helping Shouichi save her.

Another key character is Ozawa. Another case of spot-on casting, because Touko Fujita brings the perfect amount of quirkiness to the offbeat genius, when it could have been easy to just play her as stuck-up or unlikable. Ozawa's a bit cynical, a realist who speaks her mind, but she's often right in her assessments of characters or situations, one-step ahead of everyone else. She's tough, competent, and can hold her own. Her G3 creation is awesome, and she's hilarious on top of it.

The "Deep Breath" album cover. Not only an awesome song, but also a kickass homage to the classic Ishinomori eyecatch. Serious or curious?

And I feel like I should stop there. There's just too much to get into with this show. I'll have to follow up in a subsequent post. Great supporting characters (how have I not mentioned "Sawaki"?). Near perfect casting. Strong action sequences by Kazuyoshi Yamada, with some of the best suit-actor performances you'll see by those guys. (Agito gets criticized for being too talky, but pay attention to the action sequences. They aren't loud, CGI effects-heavy commercials but well staged pieces. Even when it's not a fight scene, the suit actors are treating the scene like a samurai drama. Suit scenes with suit ACTING, not action scenes with Bandai acting. Yamada gets to the heart and drama of a scene.)

A great soundtrack (not counting the awful, awful 24.7 version of the OP), killer monster designs by the talented Yutaka Izubuchi. Too much! It's overstuffed! And even if Toei shot down some of those ambitions, it still probably does more than the past ten Rider shows combined. Every series afterward wanted to be Agito, but they didn't come close. When Gaim is considered to be a "deep" series with good writing and characters, it's depressing and makes you realize how many people either haven't seen Agito or didn't appreciate it. When I was just rewatching it, I was kind of surprised that Toei even had the balls to make it in the first place. And I can't imagine Toei ever finding the balls to make something like Agito again.


  1. This post really made my day. Lately, I've kinda been surrounded by Agito hate. Cause hurr durr, Inoue wrote it. So it's BAAAAAD -__-

    And this post made me realize how starved I've been in terms of actual meaningful Agito talk. It's been a long time since I last though about Agito in new and interesting ways. So thanks dude! ^__^

    I think you're rather harsh on Kuuga though. While Agito is also my favorite, I disagree that it's miles above Kuuga. I think they're both very good at what they set out to do. I wouldn't say Kuuga was playing it safe. Nor does it lack certain rewatch value. I think Kuuga deserves much more credit than that.

    I find it interesting you put more of the blame on Shirakura, rather than Inoue with Faiz. All this time, I just imagined Shirakura to be this lazy dude who never did anything. But this is making me rethink Shirakura's influence on these shows. It's interesting since Faiz's production is VERY similar to Agito's, that it's very interesting how Agito manages to succeed, whereas Faiz fails instead.

    I don't think Shouichi is Godai done right. While both characters are similar, I feel they both do well in their respective shows. Sure, Shouichi is in a more realistic and cynical setting. Whereas Godai's character is much more stylized. But I think that's fine. I think it works that Godai is written as such an aspirational character, even if it does come off as silly. In fact, fiction in general, a lot of things are pretty ridiculous. At least both characters put friggin Shinji to shame. =P

    I am glad you manage to make a lot of good points about Shouichi though. He's a character I've noticed rarely ever gets talked about.

    Glad to see Hikawa getting more love. The guy more than deserves it.

    "(Some would say Gai, but those people should shut up.)" THANK YOU

    I don't think Kuuga needed internal police conflict. xD

    I'm surprised you poked at Hojo. I can see what you mean. Though I didn't think the actor was all that bad. I thought he was good enough to make me happy to see him show up in Faiz again (where he's sadly wasted). But yeah, I can see how Inoue's writing is kinda outperforming the actor's talents. But I still found Hojo to be one of the best things about Agito. I find the character so fascinating and fun to watch. Also, another bright part of the show imo: the constant bickering between Hojo and Ozawa. Love their dialogue. I could watch them argue all day long~ hehehehehehe x)

    I love your interpretation of what Gills is.

    I agree that Ryo very much is indeed very Showa-like in execution. I do feel like Ryo and Shouichi are kinda like then modern interpretations of Hongo and Ichimonji. With Hikawa as a then modern Taki.

    "There seems to be a lot of Christian imagery in Agito. Burning Form is reminiscent of the Sacred Heart: note the vein-y heart muscle look to the chest armor as well as, of course, the flames." Huh, I actually never made the connection 0__o

    Glad to see Mana getting some praise.

    Omg that Agito album cover looks wonderful! =D

    Speaking of Inoue having so many ideas for Agito, to the point where he crammed so much in the last few eps... do you think Faiz might've been a hint at what Agito could've been like, if it had gotten a 2nd season? Cause I noticed Faiz has a setting similar to Agito's, but with a more focus on the whole human evolution stuff.

    Great post overall Shougo! Thanks for the wonderful read! =D Really putting me back into an Agito mood again!

    1. Hi Fantasy Leader. Here's some things I can raise where I disagree with you:

      1.) I am mixed on Hojo. Sorry to say but he tends to annoy me. I'm pretty mixed on him so currently, I think he's only on the dislike list. He has redeemable points comparedt o Masato Kusaka (who I consider to be a villain).

      On the other hand, here's my other views:

      1.) Gills feels like a Kamen Rider Amazon tribute. Only if we can get one protagonist like Amazon for Heisei.

      2.) I like Mana's role in the story. Her character really adds a lot of importance to uncovering what's hidden in Agito.

      3.) So there's Agito hatred? Oh my. I wonder if Jetman hatred is happening too. =P

    2. A protagonist like Amazon.... well, it's possible. I'll just be taking inspiration from Berserk's protagonist, Guts.

  2. I remember liking Agito a lot when I first watched it but recently I've found myself not remembering parts of the sotry. Well, I think it is time for a rewatch.

    Its so surprising to me that the fandom has dumbed down so much to the point that they say Fourze was one of the best. While I have got used to the recent style of rider I see Kuuga and Agito as the shows that Toei SHOULD try to outdo. They have new tech, new writers and a whole fanbase that would love the return of the serious series but the gimmicks and blatant commercialism make that impossible. And yeah Gaim is nowhere near as good as Agito but is probably the closest we are gonna get to a "deep" series in the post Den-O era, so sad.

    And BTW, I hope you are wrong about Blade! Im only 15 episodes in and the show so far is just so dull but shows potential for improvement. But if you are right, then Im doomed.

    1. Even though I did enjoy Fourze, I would not say it's one of the best. (Gaim is better than Fourze and Wizard combined)

      //but the gimmicks and blatant commercialism make that impossible//

      Actually, I think Gaim did a good job of working with the gimmicks (Lockseeds) and make them a meaty part of the story instead of "THIS IS A TOY PROMOTION".

      But that's just me.

    2. I agree. After Fourze and Wizard the gimmicks felt a lot more natural in Gaim even though it had some slips (Flower bikes, Jam). But after making the gimmicks bareable they come back in full gear (pun intended) in Drive, where literally EVERY episode has a new toy. I hope they tone it down later on but after such a huge Gaim toyline ( which made sense because of the multiple riders) I dont think Bandai is willing to do so.

    3. The Shift Cars I understand because it's a new ability to take on the MOTW (they did something unique with the Crash Roimude and how it needed Type Wild to do it).

      I think after Mach makes his appearance, it will be toned down more.

    4. I just looked at the toy catalogs for Drive, they are sadly not slowing down. New forms, new cars and..... a truck cannon. Wow. Very imaginative guys.

      @Sean Akizuki
      So far I like it but I do see a LOT of problems. Then again Im only on ep 18 (Leangle´s introduction) so the show can still get better.

    5. I'll give him that for Type Formula. So we're retreading the Hinawa DJ Gun territory again?

      Type Formula - makes sense.

  3. For Agito, I would agree this series really was interesting especially with the Light/Darkness conflict and the Lords. So it had me thinking that the show is unique in a way with its mysteries. Not everything is so revealed and you want to find out more together with the mysteries behind the Lords and Agito. Why are people with Agito seeds getting killed? It really built up a mystery that worked itself through.

    On Hojo I tend to treat him in a mixed way. He's a competent guy who cares about others but the fact he's always rivaling G3 Unit, he reminds me of Naoto Takizawa/Time Fire of Timeranger. I kind of thought that Hojo gets annoying for me, maybe because I sympathize with the G3 System.

    On the other hand Kuuga is for me, the framework of Agito. So Agito won't be what it is without Kuuga.

  4. I just finished this show and...

    ...I need a lot more time to think about it. But you raise some good points (even if I have a higher opinion of Kuuga, but maybe that's just because I've only seen it once).

    Although I actually hold that the after-the-fact attempts to try and separate Kuuga and Agito are kind of silly and that Agito in fact complements, even completes, Kuuga's thematic arc.

  5. I'm just actually finishing watching Agito this 2017. While I find Gaim one of the best in story (mainly because of Kota's journey becoming a god and Micchy's face-heel-face turning), I realize why others consider Agito the best, or even better, in story. Its treatment using mystery-solving is engaging, especially how they went about the Akatsuki Incident and the lore on the Overlords and Unknowns. I love the painting showing the whole story in a nutshell. Agito Burning is still one of the best-looking costume designs.

    I'd say the makers still had leeway with story on this one, after reintroducing the franchise through Kuuga. The moment toy franchising became a major thing, that's when it all went downhill.

    About Kuuga's success... could it be spoken in terms of the Odagiri effect? hehe