EPISODES 18 - 21
Battle Royale was a hot property for Toei in the early '00s. It was a best-selling novel, made into a movie that became infamous and controversial worldwide. You couldn't escape the buzz for that movie, and Toei even milked its shitty sequel for what little it was worth. (There was a point where every cast member from BR2 ended up in a toku, too.) So, a lot of people in '02 made the Battle Royale connection with Ryuki, and you really can't deny it. The biggest piece of evidence is in the character of Takeshi Asakura, who's a TV-14 version of Kazuo Kiriyama. However...as blasphemous as it may be to most, I think what Takashi Hagino does with Asakura blows anything actor Masanobu Ando did with Kiriyama out of the water. I think Asakura would kick Kiriyama's ass.
I was so excited for Asakura's debut in '02. I had really wanted for a character like him in Ryuki -- an all out villainous, homicidal, psychotic, formidable opponent. I basically wanted a Yutaka Hirose Rider. Even though I like the villains with a surprising shade of grey, I feel like Ryuki really needed a Rider who just didn't give a shit. One who played by his own rules. One who really stirred things up and wouldn't care about alliances or magic wishes or feeding his Tamagotchi; a Rider who wouldn't be afraid to push a fight past the time limit in the Mirror World. Somebody who walked the talk and can do serious harm. That was all promised with Asakura and I thought he delivered.
I couldn't wait for the episodes with him. Nowadays you can download the latest episode (for free!) the very day it airs, which is still crazy to me. But at the time of Ryuki, you had to wait for slow-ass tape sellers to get the four episodes they'd sell per volume. So, that's wait around for four episodes to air, wait for the sellers to put it on their site, and then pay the outrageous price they wanted for four frucking episodes (which oftentimes was iffy quality) and wait then for ages for the seller to get it out to you. This was the horror of the fandom back in the day, and it was a farce. I was suspicious of the goofy guy from Changerion being cast in such a part, but he at least looked cool in pictures, and I freaking loved the Ouja design, and that Jiro Okamoto was playing him in-suit. (Not just because of the Changerion connection, but because I was happy for Okamoto to be playing a Rider again, and I thought he was really cool and made a great villainous Rider as G4.) Sidenote: after Ouja transforms, Okamoto will do a little slither-y flicking of his wrist. Seiji Takaiwa totally stole this for his portrayal of Faiz, and became better known for it, and it's unjust.
It's a rare thing for a wait like that to be worth it, but it was. The character delivered, the episodes delivered. 18 & 19 are treated with importance -- the stakes are high, and 19 has an "event" feel to it. (Watch the preview for it at the end of 18 and try not to feel the Chills of Epicness.) I like that 19 was such a Rider free-for-all that it's the only time in the series that the credits will list the Rider name along with the character's name. (A weird detail for me to notice and point out, but...still. The Heisei Riders were trying to be so much cooler than the standard Rider shows that they rarely credit the character as the hero like they used to always do.)
We had Sudou/Scissors, who was a sickie, but didn't hang around long enough to make a full impression. We have Kitaoka, who the show wants you to sympathize with at times. We have Shibaura, who's hard to take completely seriously because he looks 10 years old and that shaky game introduction did him no favors. So here's Asakura, and it's a kind of shocking character to have in a superhero show. A violent prisoner, one who obviously has a lot of mental issues. But what's great about Hagino is he gives a pretty grounded performance. You could get very flashy with this kind of role, give a mannered performance -- which is how I feel Ando is in Battle Royale. He's just about seeming cool and having tics. Hagino can convey the character's delight in the mayhem he causes without seeming artificial or over-the-top. Similarly, he is really good at displaying the character's simmering rage and frustration. He's just SO good in the part and ends up saving a lot of the show when it stumbles in its second half and will manage to be good even when they start to put Asakura in more outrageous situations.
There are so many villainous characters like Asakura in TV and movies that you just don't buy because the performance will be overly quirky or the writing will try too hard to make the person a cold bad-ass. And on the other hand, there are depictions of madmen who take it the other direction and are almost robotic and uninteresting. When Asakura's just passing time by banging his head on the nearest hard object or punching a wall, Hagino sells it. You're just like, "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" Hagino knows something about the character and his motivations we don't; he believes in the character. It's such a good performance and Hagino is such a good actor that I don't understand why there have been so many less talented people in Kamen Rider who are rewarded with great, mainstream careers, but someone like Hagino -- who did good work in his show, who has range and is committed -- can't escape genre works. He's better than Joe Odagiri. (Besides, Japan already had Tadanobu Asano, they didn't need the knockoff with Odagiri.) People like dweeby Den-O or pipsqueak Philip and the flop-sweating Fourze dork and personality-free Drive twerp get big...what?! Makes me want to go smack my noggin against the wall, Asakura-style. Fame doesn't reward talent.
These are the first episodes we see Shiro Kanzaki OUTSIDE of a mirror. When I first saw the show, I always assumed he was trapped in the Mirror World, and that's what one of his motivations was. But in these episodes, he's out and about and meeting with people and moving Kitaoka's chess pieces, so...there went that theory! There's obviously still limitations in how long he can be in the real world, but...Kanzaki beginning to just pop up as he pleases makes him seem a little too powerful. What was stopping him from interfering with real world stuff prior to this? What was stopping him from escalating the Rider battle before now? (And it's still several episodes away from him doing stuff like messing with Eri to light a fire under Ren's ass. So...why the delay?) The show starts to act like KANZAKI IS EVERYWHERE! Yeah? Well, why doesn't he stop the Alternative stuff from happening? That would save him A LOT of trouble, but I'm getting ahead of myself here.
But, as Kitaoka notes, Kanzaki is one nasty guy. I love that he chooses Asakura just to help get things moving, knowing that Asakura has ties to two of the Riders and will probably leave guys like Shinji and Ren as stains on a road in the Mirror World. Kenzaburo Kikuchi is so creepy in the scenes when he recruits Asakura and then, later, when he stops by Kitaoka's to threaten him, and I have to once again mention how much he reminds me of Mitsuo Ando, classic toku villain creep.
I love the jailbreak scene, with Ouja kicking down the barred doors. But I have to mention that I've always been confused how it works. I've always been under the impression that Asakura just transforms in the real world and uses the Ouja power suit to break out. But when I just rewatched it, the way it's filmed -- Ouja breaking down the door, proceeding down the hall, with guards just rounding the corner -- seems to suggest that he's in the Mirror World. His escape is supposed to be a mystery -- when Reiko later goes through security cam footage, she doesn't see Ouja (just Kanzaki), which suggests Mirror World shenanigans. How's that work, when he needs to get out of the Mirror World from the point he entered, which could only be his cell? (The show forgets the little detail of the Riders needing to exit from the point they entered the Mirror World.) Unless Kanzaki was holding a reflective surface for him and was like "See ya outside!" I hate to poke holes in such a cool scene, so let's overlook all that. Sometimes, a show or movie has to just throw logic aside in favor of the cool factor...
I'd similarly like to know just how Asakura was able to afford to hire Kitaoka, but I'll let that slide, too. Kitaoka lets himself be exchanged for hostages in an attempt to clean up his image, so...maybe he took Asakura's case for some egotistical reason? Like, he intended to get this nasty criminal freed just to prove his talents, but that's how much Asakura creeped Kitaoka out -- he decided to drop him rather than spend any more time helping him. And it's a mystery just the level of crimes committed by Asakura -- the vagueness certainly hints that he's done all of the worst things you can think of. Instead of facing off against some Ex-Aid rando in a special, he needed to face W and be forced to count up his crimes! (Or, better yet, Skull.)
Asakura quickly gets to work once freed, immediately heading to a thrift shop for new clothes and the phone book in order to find Kitaoka. (He tears the page out. "Public property...private property." Billy Caulfield style!) He then goes directly to Kitaoka's to attack, in a coolly-directed scene, a swift little exchange from him attacking Reiko, attempting to strike Kitaoka, but being intercepted by Goro. He eventually winds up taking a girl hostage and holding a restaurant full of people hostage, and where does our hapless hero happen to be? In that restaurant. I LOVE that Shinji gets a big hero moment here, and that he FINALLY is seen in a better light by his co-workers for his actions. This is one of my favorite Shinji moments of the series. He also puts a mark on himself in Asakura's eyes; when Shinji says he's going to stay as long as the girl is still held hostage, Asakura waves him off. But when he later finds out that Shinji is Ryuki? That pisses Asakura off. I think it's that he doesn't like the "idiot from the restaurant" twice now being so defiant and standing up to him. Everyone treats Asakura like plague-covered evil incarnate, but here's a regular guy like Shinji stepping up to him and talking back -- fighting back, even, as Knight and Raia are frozen by Ouja's killing of Gai. And Asakura don't like that one bit. He recognizes a threat in Ryuki, and it's something the show sadly doesn't pursue.
So, Shibaura gets what's coming to him. It's funny how hard he tried to set everything up to be perfect (in his mind), and he really got in over his head. I like how he just has the balls to pull up to Asakura and spill everything about the Rider fight -- including that Kitaoka is a Rider, before then just driving off! He underestimated Asakura and paid for it. The character's so weaselly, it's an awesome moment when you discover that Ouja uses him as a human body shield. (It initially looks like Gai's the only one unscathed from End of World, but he took it hardest!) But that doesn't kill him! It's crazy that little Shibaura's still in the fight, pissed at Ouja, but is too weak, so he gets Veno Crash'd -- he tastes two Final Vents! A weird subplot, though, is his apparent kidnapping of Yui to lure Ren and Tetzuka into the fight. It all happens off screen because it's just hard to buy any scenario where Shibaura's overpowering Yui -- they're in the same weight division. And it's a little too much after Sudou already kidnapped her. (Poor Yui.) It makes more sense for Shibaura here than it did Sudou, but that was an early episode trying to amp up some drama, what can ya do?
Ren begins these episodes still in a bit of a trance, barely speaking, wandering and withdrawn into himself. If he was still himself, Ren would probably send Tetzuka swimming with Evildiver in the river they were near after their talk, but he just gives him a look and, I guess, things turn out OK, because we next see 'em just heading to the Atori. Ren finally gets to speaking again when he finds out Yui's been taken. Despite all of Tetzuka's pleas and calling it as he sees it, Ren insists on fighting. Ren has a cryptic line in 19 that says that maybe, at this point, he has a bit of a death wish. Like, it would just be easier to be killed than worry about any of the stuff he's worried about. And Tetzuka's spent all of this time trying to keep him alive! To avoid that vision he saw. And I think the death wish is kind of one of the reasons Ren decides to help Asakura escape. Tetzuka says that he thinks Ren's trying to "get back his mask," hoping to pick up something from Asakura, but I feel like a death wish is part of it. Hanging out with a volatile, unpredictable guy like Asakura. And it all ends up making Shinji extra worried, not only for Ren putting himself in danger, but now ORE Journal wants to know about the guy aiding Asakura. Shinji don't want his bud to be cheesed by the fuzz! Seriously, when Ren's off with Asakura, Shinji's burning up Ren's cellphone by calling as much as a worried grandmother.
And then Tetzuka blabs Ren's secret and motivation in front of Shinji, so now he knows about Eri. This scene's good because Ren pretty much just opens up, putting all of his Advent Cards on the table -- including the fact that he blames himself for Eri. And he's aware of what Eri would want, that she would want him to do the right thing -- that the best way to honor her would be to be the good man she thinks he can be. But his love for her is wrapped with guilt and so many other feelings that he can't just move on that easily, so it's a believable component to the character and keeps his motivation from being frustrating to the viewer. There's so much forced drama in later Rider shows that you're like "These stupid characters could resolve this with one conversation!" Ren's story had the risk of being like that, but it's not. He's a little more complicated. And so then he's back to Asakura's side, trying to learn how to be cold.
Shinji's uncertain what to make of the news, feeling like Ren's fighting for a pretty selfless reason and that he's no longer in any position to try to stop him. Tetzuka points out that all Riders are fighting for something personal. It's supposed to be a tell about Tetzuka, but it seems like it flies over Shinji's head. Although Shinji is written to be super altruistic, to the point where he is pissed about someone like Shibaura being killed senselessly by Ouja, these episodes are a glimpse of things to come in terms of Shinji's just total blind faith in Ren. He gets a little too obsessed with Ren. And, sure, he knows Ren's decent deep down, and he certainly has more heroic qualities than mostly every other Rider here, and he feels sorry for him, but...like I said many a time during my Liveman coverage, there's a fine line between our heroes being good and caring and just being chumps. Shinji ends up taking quite a few visits to Chumptown later on. (I'll mention here that I remember on the making of Episode Final, Takamasa Suga was kind of grumbling that he had to be like "Hey, Ren!" and chase after him for the umpteenth time.)
There's a lot of little subtleties happening to Ren here that...I used to blame on Matsuda's performance, but he's not totally to blame, even though he still delivers some lines in a bemused way that doesn't make the character seem like he's really in such a serious situation. Ren here is trying to bottle up his feelings and trying to see Shinji as a villain; he's trying to make himself believe that, but when Matsuda's saying lines in that sing-songy way, it gives everything a falseness. You feel like he's just putting up a ruse, not having this tug-of-war with himself. He's not exactly smarmy, but it's in the neighborhood. The situation seems more like he's trying to pull one over on Asakura, when he's supposed to be pulling one over on himself!
But the bigger problem is I feel like they don't let a lot of this internal strife within Ren breathe, so at times he seems like he has multiple personalities, other times he just seems wishy-washy. It doesn't come across like the big crisis of the soul it should. He tries this "learn from Asakura" thing for an episode and a half -- trying to urge Asakura to take Ryuki out -- before then just going back to bailing Ryuki out. It's nowhere near as bad as some of the character "changes" that go on to happen in Faiz -- remember when Takumi betrayed his pals to join Lucky Clover then betrayed Lucky Clover to join his pals and then betrayed his pals to join Smart Brain and then betrayed Smart Brain to join his pals and then betrayed his pals to join his pals? -- it just would be so much stronger, have the full impact it's supposed to, if it just took it a little slower.
Look at this: Ren was trying to get Asakura to kill Shinji for him, basically, so he wouldn't have to worry about doing it himself. That's very fucked up! That's a crazy plan to have the main hero of the show consider. He knows it's wrong and steps in to save Ryuki, but it's still quickly just waved off, like the show is Asakura and we're the idiot in the restaurant. But Shinji shows up to Asakura's hideout and challenges Ren to a fight first; the implication, I feel, being that he knows Knight wouldn't end up harming him, and he'd come to his senses in time.
I do like that moment when Ren's watching Ouja battle Ryuki, and he just knows it's not right, so then enters the battle and prevents Ouja's Final Vent. He gets in a line about wanting to kill Ryuki himself, and you're like "Son of a bitch! Don't do it, Ren, don't take a page out of the Crisis Playbook of Villain Cop-outs, don't!" But then he follows that up with telling Ouja he'll take (Ouja) out first, and that saves it for me.
Ouja, proving what a tough bastard he is, makes a Contract with Gai's Monster. Ouja was already a threat enough, but it's great that they overpower him on top of it -- Kanzaki's stacking his deck on purpose by giving him extra Contract cards. You feel like the axe is right above everyone else's heads. I wonder, though -- why does Gai's Monster, of all Monsters, seem to show loyalty to Gai? He goes on a full-on vendetta against anyone who he thinks looks like Asakura! It's crazy. But it's interesting that Ouja performs Gai's Final Vent, and Knight takes the hit in the exact way he does in Tetzuka's vision. I always figured that Knight only ended up getting killed in that vision because it was at his low point and when he was doubting himself. Now that he's regained some sense and is doing the right thing again, he's strong enough to survive what should have been an even more powerful attack since it's coming from Ouja rather than Gai.
Kanzaki meets up with Shinji for a scene, going into the spiel he does when recruiting Riders, knowing Shinji's never really been given the proper introduction to things. When Shinji refuses to give Kanzaki a reason to fight, Kanzaki drops the chilling parting shot that Shinji's wish must be to die in the Rider battle. Oh, what a bastard...and this is after he's like "You're the accidental Rider. I'm surprised you've made it this far."
Yui begins to investigate things in this batch of episodes, and...these episodes are made around the time of Episode Final, they're leading up to Episode Final and...it's a bad indication of things to come in the series. She gets a vision of drawing brightly colored monsters! Uh-oh...
BTW, in the episode when Asakura's holding the restaurant hostage, the actor who plays the head cop on the scene is Masahiro Sudou...aka Spielban's Youki! You've done messed up when they're sending Youki to be the hostage negotiator.
|Officer Youki reporting for duty. AAAHH!!!|
One last thing. Asakura's often repeated line ("irairasurundayo") is frequently translated as "vexed." What is he, in Downton Abbey? It means to be irritated, to be pushed to the brink of annoyance. It's supposed to be kinda funny that this insane guy will just snap at a moment's notice, kill a dude and be like "Well, I was irritated." It's cutesy, but considering his Pokemon is a rattlesnake, I always said I'd make the line "I'm getting rattled."