Kamen Rider Agito is a show overflowing with mysteries, with most of them either being totally resolved or leaving enough for the viewer to make their own conclusions. However, one of the more mysterious aspects is the character of Ryou Ashihara/Kamen Rider Gills. And a lot of that is by design; we're pretty much sharing Ryou's journey, thrown into the mix. If the point of Shouichi's storyline is that he's such a genuinely good person that he remains that person even with amnesia -- he's someone who knows himself that well, on a spiritual and emotional level if not on a memory level -- then Ryou is someone who has to find himself, his place, his meaning, throughout the show. (Duh, his theme song is even called "Searching For Myself.")
Series creator and writer Toshiki Inoue has often said that he's a fan of mysteries -- Agatha Christie being a favorite writer of his -- and that he often likes to leave certain things mysterious. And does he ever with Ashihara and Gills! But I think there's enough there that you can either come to your own conclusion or come away from the show with a decent understanding. I've seen a lot of criticism against the character, with people feeling like he's out of place or pointless, but those people aren't getting what Inoue's saying with this character.
We're first introduced to Ashihara as he's trying to bounce back from a nasty accident -- from the flashback, his motorcycle appears to have collided with a truck head-on. He's a talented swimmer for his college team, or was -- he's facing difficulty getting back in his old shape after recovering. We learn in several episodes that Ryou, prior to his accident, wasn't the nicest, most caring guy. His ex-girlfriend, Mayumi, talks of how poorly he treated her, putting his swimming before her, pretty much leaving her to focus on his sport. His dad talked about what a rude punk his son was. His accident upends things for him, but he apparently thinks he can continue with his swimming, and his attitude probably hasn't changed much...
And then it happens. For his first race back, he comes to a painful stop in the middle of a lap, eventually needing hospitalized. His body is transforming, as he'll soon discover. Why does it hit out of nowhere? I think it's in reaction to Shouichi's Agito power awakening and the appearance of the Jaguar Lords and the Oparts. For the first few episodes, like many werewolves before him, all Ryou knows is that his body's transforming and he doesn't like it. It hurts him. It mutates him. It frightens him. It breaks him.
Ashihara begins to really isolate himself. In the past, it sounds like he was a bridge-burning loner, but this is different behavior -- he's scared. He hides in his apartment, he dodges phone calls. His persistent coach finally gets Ashihara to open up, and the truth terrifies the coach so much that he cuts ties with Ashihara. Ashihara reaches out to his ex, Mayumi, for support. Still stinging over his past behavior, Mayumi is also targeted by the Unknown, who successfully killed her dad, putting her next on their kill list. She witnesses Ashihara's first full transformation into Gills, and it frightens her; she fears that Ashihara is no different than the monsters who are after her, and she leaves town, abandoning HIM this time.
This transformation is painful for Ryou. It physically marks him -- often times looking like it ages him -- and he often falls into unconsciousness. At one point, a passed-out Ryou is saved by the black-clad Mysterious Youth, who heals him. Ryou awakens and finds he has an instinctual reaction of fear to the Mysterious Youth, and attempts to attack him. The Youth notes that Ryou is not becoming an Agito, but "Gills," calling the form a "rarity." If you want to believe the story that Toei came up with for the tapestry that's shown in the opening credits, it says that the very first Gills was the offspring of the white-clad Mysterious Youth and a human woman. So, I guess that means Ashihara's a descendant of a demigod. BUT I remember fans at the time trying to guess what Gills could mean, and a lot of theories at the time was that the Gills power was the opposite of Agito's -- Agito's came from the white-clad Youth of Light, while this theory floated that Gills could have been the result of the black-clad Youth of Darkness trying to create his own army once upon a time, and is the reason why he goes to the trouble of saving and healing Ryou.
Shortly afterward, Ryou receives news of his father's death. His father, who we'll see later on, is the complete opposite of the way his son has been described. The elder Ashihara is warm, kind, eager to help out when something's going wrong. After the passengers of the Akatsuki-gou became traumatized from their experience, the elder Ashihara seems to become a vagrant, dying on a park bench with few possessions. One of the possessions is an address book, with the name of everyone who was aboard that ship. This begins Ryou's journey to find out more about what happened and what he's becoming. Most importantly for the character, this sets him on the path to meeting Shouichi Tsugami...
At this point, Ryou retains some of his old attitude. He's gruff, he's quick to get violent. But he's afraid, he wants answers, he wants to understand, he wants to break down his walls and find company with others. His first real meeting with Shouichi isn't that great; Shouichi wants to push his hippy philosophy on the severely depressed Saeko character, whose brother perpetuates a fantasy for her to live in so she can find SOME comfort in her shattered life, after she broke down from the trauma of the Akatsuki-gou. Ashihara relates to her and knows too well the need for a distraction, an escape plan, that reality can be too ugly to face. His viewpoint totally clashes with Shouichi's, and it earns Shouichi a punch.
After Saeko's death-by-drowning, Ashihara continues to seek out the names in his father's notebook. He attempts to meet with a certain Kino, but when he can't be found, he moves on to Aki Sakaki. Aki, who's feared being found by monsters since the events of the Akatsuki-gou, initially seeks Shouichi (knowing he's Agito) for protection, before settling for Ryou once she finds out he's able to transform, as well. They're two broken, frightened people, and they make a connection, the first real connection Ryou's made since his transformation. But before they can go anywhere, Gills is gunned down by Hojo's police squad and presumed dead by Aki. After this brutal attack by the police, including a rough fight with G3, Ashihara's physically worse off than ever before; he's often unconscious, but he begins to hear voices calling for him to do harm. (The voices he hears is a BIG thing that I think the show should have attempted to answer, but they don't. But it certainly lines up with the fan theory that the Gills powers came from darkness.)
Ryou eventually recuperates, finding Aki when it's too late and she now has blood on her hands, killing the police officers she thought had killed Ryou. When Agito is seen holding the corpse of Aki, who had been killed by an Unknown, a heartbroken and furious Gills attacks Agito, believing him responsible. (Hey, if the cops thought Agito was an Unknown early on, then there's a chance Ryou would, too. This is the first time he's seen Agito.) After an intense battle with both Agito and G3, an inconsolable Ryou resumes his search for the people who knew his father. He eventually contacts Masumi, who's seen to be close to fellow Akatsuki-gou passenger Katsuhiko, and they both are in contact with Kino. Masumi seems paranoid and claims that Kino orders the death of Ashihara, but we eventually learn that she's possessed by the El of Water, a high-ranking Lord. After attempting to kill Ryou, Ryou strikes back in self-defense, seemingly injuring Masumi, angering Katsuhiko, who eventually kills Ryou with his newly-enchanced super-powers.
And here's where I need to talk about episode 28. The sore-thumb episode. The episode filmed in full-screen, setting off the tug-o-war between the show's aspect ratio. The only episode of the series not WRITTEN by Inoue, although he's credited as overseeing it. There's a lot of criticism against the so-called randomness of this episode. I, personally, thinks it kinda slows the momentum of the show a bit, but I wouldn't say it's a bad episode. Taken at face value, it's about an incident a few weeks back when Ryou saves a kid from the Unknown who killed his parents and teaches him how to take responsibility and face death. Now...
Ryou's still on a path of growth and coming to accept his own situation. If this episode takes place a few weeks ago, then this just doesn't really jibe with where the Ryou character's at. He's not at a place himself to be dispensing this learned knowledge -- but he gets there. Just not yet. So I've always taken this kinda reading of the episode in that...we see Ryou dying in the river. He's flashing to events the series has shown us, yes. But we're getting this new adventure, one that's meant to stick out as being something different and special in the way they're filming it and presenting it. So, my reading of this episode is...
This episode is a journey of Ryou's spirit. Ryou's joyful, open and happy in this episode. This is a Ryou unlike any other time we've seen him in the series, because he's free. Free of his pain, free of his sadness, free of his burden. The boy he encounters, who's run away from his parents' funeral, he's actually dead, too. Ryou encounters this spirit and saves him -- not only from the Unknown, but from the suited guys who pursue him. The suited guys are trying to get the kid back to the funeral, but look at the way they behave for most of the episode -- they don't act like guys just trying to find the kid and help him return to a service, no. The way they act is highly unusual; they're rough, they're fierce. They CHASE him throughout the city. I think they're entities trying to convince the kid's spirit to accept his death, that his soul needs to join his family in the afterlife to rest. The Unknown we see chase him represents, of course, The Bad Place. The suited guys seem unnecessarily rough, but see their demeanor once the kid willingly returns to the "funeral." They're smiling. They're happy to see the kid, they offer him calming words. He's made the right choice in joining his parents. When the kid says he doesn't know Ryou's name, one of them tells him that he'll be seeing him again...
It doesn't all fit -- hello, random appearance by Shouichi, to remind us all of whose show we're watching! -- but the best way for me to make sense of episode 28 is to view it as an afterlife tale. Ryou helps a kid's spirit and finds some peace as he dies, especially once that kid moves him by crying for Ryou's unhappy life. Ashihara's a guy who would probably have been happy to die, but Tetsuya Sawaki has other plans for him. (Sawaki actually apologizes to the lifeless body of Ryou for this reason.) Sawaki seeks to build an army of Agitos for war, wanting to resurrect Ashihara. He first recruits Katsuhiko, who fails, and then Mana, who ends up succeeding, despite it initially seeming to fail. (That this takes a toll on Mana and her arms age the way Ashihara's does makes me wonder if Mana would end up being a Gills instead of an Agito.) As Ryou regains life, he keeps getting vague images of Mana and is soothed by the light she shines. Once revived, Ryou feels indebted to Mana, wanting to help her at any cost. (I love that she enlists Ryou to help protect Shouichi when he breaks down at seeing the El of Water again.)
Ryou is resurrected and has a new outlook on life. (Also: after he revives, he no longer suffers any side-effects of being Gills.) Ryou is more open to people and their help, he sees everyone who's seemingly happy with a place of their own -- especially Shouichi, the life he's made with the Misugi family, and their love for him -- and he aspires to find his own place of peace. He's spent so long in solitude and pain -- some of that solitude out of his own behavior and attitude. And then when Kino arrives, with false promises of using his power to protect people with supernatural and/or Agito powers, Ryou eventually takes on Kino's false promise, but makes it a truth. Kino ends up severely injuring Ryou, but he's saved by Akatsuki-gou member Majima's sacrificing his Light of Agito for his sake. This results in the nearly dead Ryou becoming Exceed Gills. (So, if you want to follow the story that the designer of the tapestry came up with, then...Gills is already a direct descendant of the Power of Light. But now that he has an Agito seed within him, shouldn't that make him even more powerful?)
As Exceed Gills, Ryou's first action is to defeat Another Agito -- he looks to nearly kill him until stopped by Majima. This leads Ryou to instead save Kino, and later tell him that Kino's initial words, although Kino didn't mean them, inspired Ryou and gave him a new purpose. I think this act of mercy by Ryou is crucial to getting Kino to abandon his power-hungry rampage and turn him into an ally, one who ends up responsible for saving Shouichi's life. Ryou gives Kino the help that he desperately sought for most of the show. Through his mercy and telling him that he had been an inspiration, Ryou helps Kino push past his trauma and become more like the good, decent man he used to be.
And I also like that Ryou's the one who gets through to Mana, when she comes to dislike the Agito power, telling her that she can't blame Shouichi, the Agito power or Yukina on her dad's death, because Yukina was probably scared like he was when his powers started to wake. This results in another important moment in that it spurs Mana to plead for Shouichi to reclaim his power and fight the Youth of Darkness. (And that's one of my favorite moments of the show, man. Especially when Shouichi charges and G3-X breaks through the Mysterious Youth's barrier in order for Shouichi to land a punch.)
Before I get to Ryou's final arc in those weird feeling, time-jumping final five episodes, I'd like to point out a moment that goes right in Agito, but wrong with Inoue in Faiz. After Ryou is resurrected and learns that Agito -- who, remember, he's kicked the ass of a couple of times -- is Shouichi, the guy he's sworn to look out for, Ryou has some questions. He asks Shouichi what the hell happened with Aki way back. And Shouichi tells him. And Ryou believes him; Ryou knows what type of person Shouichi is and that he was incapable of hurting, much less killing Aki. And that's that! A big complaint of mine with Faiz were all of these forced clashes that, if the characters were behaving as actual human beings, would be easily brushed aside with a simple chat. Now...
A lot of confusion, a lot of characters fighting and being antagonistic with Takumi is just the type of person he is; the gruff exterior he's putting up. So, fine, some scenarios there can fly, like his clashing with Kusaka. I can even get why Takumi would feel so let down by his failure to protect Mari that he goes along with being accused by Kiba, whatever. The character's young, it fits with how bottled up he keeps himself and his emotions. But then there's silly shit like Kusaka running around and pretending to be Faiz and beat up Kiba and then pretend to attack Takumi as Kiba and that kicks off a frustrating 17-parter where the two friends hate each other, when it should have been resolved quickly, easily, with WORDS between the two. "Hey, man. Did you henshin and beat me up yesterday? I thought we were pals, that didn't seem like you." "Well, actually...hey, this sounds like a Kusaka plot!" Kiba was certainly mature and wise enough to have seen through this, but, no, we get this forced scenario that's just time-wasting and makes your characters seem dumb.
Ryou's supposed to be 20/21 in Agito, so he's not that much older than Takumi, and he's even actually younger than Kiba. But he's written like a person who thinks and uses judgment and character assessment and...look at the difference! So, I basically think Inoue approached writing Agito as if he was writing a prime time series for adults, and he approached Faiz as if he was writing an afternoon teen soap. Anyway...I need to move on from this.
The final arc focuses heavily on Shouichi and Ryou, to an almost shocking degree. Nearly every other main character -- Mana, Hikawa -- is pushed aside as we follow Shouichi and Ryou a couple of months after chasing off the Mysterious Youth. (Hikawa's absence is sort of explainable; I've read that Jun Kaname had begun to film another show at this point, which is why Hikawa goes completely missing for two episodes, being injured. But WHY ignore Mana?!) Ryou's started to work for Showa Rider suit actor Tetsuya Nakayashiki -- the ORIGINAL Mr. Kamen Rider, not you, Seiji Takaiwa, not YOU -- at his motorcycle garage and crosses paths with a female biker, Risa. Ashihara's experience as Gills has not only toughened him up, but has kind of aged him, giving him new viewpoints on life that he didn't have previously. He recognizes the reckless punk he used to be in Risa and they're drawn to each other, with him trying to guide her to a better path -- providing the guidance that he himself could have used in the past.
Ryou's more open to Risa, less short with her, when he first meets her. I think this is because he finally feels a chance to make a connection, look for love, in this period where the Unknown have been absent, maybe even defeated. Remember, the Mysterious Youth has gone into hiding and the Unknown haven't been seen for a couple of months. But soon after, the bubble is burst, and Ryou faces the first Unknown in all that time, an El at that. He gets beat up and soon after that, he starts to act shorter and colder to Risa. I know some people question his attitude here, why he seems to treat her so badly, but to me it's obvious that he realizes that he tends to lose anyone close to him when the Unknown are around. (This guy went from mistreating and flat out abandoning Wendinu to focus on his own thing, his swimming, to willingly separate himself from someone like Risa for her own good. He's willing to sacrifice his own happiness and reputation for her safety. He's on a path more Shouichi-like: selfless.) He thought maybe he was beyond that, but he was wrong, and so he's worried. But Risa's tough, she's not going anywhere. And Ryou was right to be worried, as she ends up being one of the sacrifices the Mysterious Youth makes to set in motion his attack on humanity.
It's a shame these final episodes are so rushed, specifically what happens to Ryou at this point. He's, of course, enraged and shattered to find Risa dead, directly taking on the El responsible, pretty much with a death wish. The El looks to mortally wound Gills, stabbing him through the throat and throwing him off the bridge. We're shown Ryou sinking, we're shown Ryou wash ashore (in a style most likely to intentionally evoke Shouichi's washing ashore) and then he shows up for the final battle with the Els. The way it plays makes it seem like it's there for shock value only -- just to make you think Ryou was dead and went out in a dramatic fashion typical of his character, but surprise, he's not dead, and...it's a bit of a mistake, especially when they end up trying to pull the same "Is he dead?!" thing with Shouichi just a few minutes later. I think we needed another scene with Ryou pulling himself together. It's just too sudden, and makes the whole thing with Risa, the time devoted to it, seem unimportant.
But I imagine Ryou woke up ashore and just took stock of everything. The last time we see him in the show, he's relaxing, taking in a sunset, going on a journey. Looking for peace. He wants to live a life like Shouichi, but that's not who he is, that's not the cards that have been dealt him, but he's going to try his best to look for his place, for that peace, and persevere. He went into that fight with the El after it killed Risa, urging the El to kill him; he woke up to find he's still alive, showing up to that final battle saying he's immortal. And maybe that's true. As Shouichi keeps evolving his Agito abilities -- the Mysterious Youth being scared of his ability to "endlessly evolve," maybe Ryou's reached a point where that's the same for Gills. Maybe he could one day become closer to an Agito.
I remember Inoue once saying of Shouichi that he's the type that, even if he knows the world is ending tomorrow, he's still going to plant his vegetables and hope for their future. So I think Ryou reaches a point where he knows that he's going to be dumped on, but he's got to hold out hope for his future, for his peace. I think the mutated and monstrous form of Gills is an indication of what type of person is wielding the power; if Agito is the highest, purest form, a holy power, the power of light, and someone like Shouichi -- pure, selfless, caring, worthy -- is the type to best wield that power, then I think the Gills form is a mutation that happens to people with darkness in them. That doesn't necessarily mean they're bad or evil people, but that could just mean perhaps selfish, depressed, traumatized, unbalanced, or someone not at peace. I think what we see with Ryou over the course of the show is this power -- which comes from a higher place -- being used as a way to humble a person, maybe even make them pay a penance.
And I think that's why Kino, despite being called an Agito, is as monstrous looking as he is. He's caught between being an Agito and being a Gills. Kino didn't start out as a cruel man, but he is in a profession that's accused of playing God, so there's probably always been an ego on him. But he becomes warped and traumatized after the incident on the mountains where he loses his little brother, and then that's further compounded by the terrifying ordeal on the Akatsuki-gou. That pushed him over the edge to where he wanted to take care of and save everybody, in his mind to make up for failing Masato. So when his powers manifest, he's caught between the two powers, and is deformed.
Ryou Ashihara has a character journey. One that relies on drama, conflict, characterization, and NOT Bandai toys or stupid gimmicks. (It must yet again be said: damn, I miss when Toei took Kamen Rider seriously.)
Ryou Ashihara fits the classic Kamen Rider mold. Being a Kamen Rider isn't supposed to be fun. It's not a blessing, it's damnation. It's tragic. It's a curse. But some folks have the strength of character to use that curse to their advantage, using it to fight to protect people from evildoers who are too much for the law to handle. And for the Riders in Agito, the powers don't just come with setbacks, but for the Agitos and Gillses of the world, it's a target for which the Unknown will seek you.
And G3 certainly faces his own form of suffering, tragedy in the show. I've mentioned before that superheroes are needed for superthreats that ordinary folks and cops can't handle. And, well, I'd like to say...I'm fed up with the way the G3 Unit gets criticized by viewers for "not doing anything." I know this is a Gills post, not a G3 one, but it's my blog. Hikawa's struggle was the point. He didn't have superpowers, but he was going to put his ass on the line to fight the monsters and save people. People always wonder about the lack of law enforcement or military in toku when there's a crazy threat, but...what the heck are they supposed to do?! That's why we need a Sentai team or a Kamen Rider in the first place. Sometimes shit happens, and who you gonna call? Kuuga gets kudos for having "competent" police characters, but all of Enokida's inventions were basically stall tactics to hold back the monster until Kuuga could hit the scene. I don't see Kuuga's cops as being any more effective than Agito's, because they're after the same thing -- they're going to hold up their end until the superhero can step in.
The three Riders of Agito -- who Inoue says represent past (Gills), present (Agito) and future (G3) -- could each hold their own show. Agito's richer for having the three share the story, share the screen, but I do think any one of them could have been their own show, and it would still have been a great show and a worthy entry of Ishinomori's franchise.