Review: Shin Kamen Rider (2023)

    Hideaki Anno’s Shin Kamen Rider left me frustrated on numerous fronts—namely as a rare instance wherein this capable director seemed aggressively determined not to showcase his considerable talent. Granted, my admiration for Anno leans toward his animation (e.g., Gunbuster and Neon Genesis Evangelion) as most of his live-action outings have been narratively inept; his script for Shinji Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (2022) ranks with the most dismal writing I’ve endured in ages. That said, I’d seldom sat through his directorial efforts unimpressed by the technique: the slashing edits, the keen visual sense, the acute blocking of actors. The man has ability begging for use on worthy projects; thus I remained cautiously optimistic for Shin Kamen Rider. Alas, the new movie is doubly and uniquely aggravating, hampered by maladroit, at times amateurish execution.

    The latest big screen venture in a Japanese media franchise stretching back to the early 1970s, Shin Kamen Rider opens with its best scene: motorcyclist Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu) and the mysterious Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) escape their would-be captors in a mountain-set chase/fight, the former—clad in a suit with an insect-like helmet—bloodily pounding his adversaries to death. A retreat to an abandoned house unites them with Ruriko’s scientist father (Shinya Tsukamoto), who informs Hongo they’re being pursued by SHOCKER (Sustainable Happiness Organization with Computational Knowledge Embedded Remodeling). Said organization has brainwashed human subjects and transformed them into part-arthropod warriors called Augs. Hongo, a former subject given grasshopper genetics, witnesses the scientist’s murder and joins Ruriko on a quest to save mankind.

    Having only seen clips of previous Kamen Rider movies and shows, I cannot discuss Shin Kamen Rider relative to its franchise—whether it opts for subverting tropes, remaking Anno’s favorite TV episodes, or some combination of the two. But in relation to its director’s career, the film immediately recalls Shin Ultraman, with an oppressive first hour structured like a TV episode compilation. Anno quickly exhausts himself on uncompelling mini-narratives: villains appear, enact routine speeches and antics, and are dispatched so the next baddie can take his place. The fights, initially energetic and fun, become increasingly dull, accompanied by unctuous dialogue as the Augs gab ad nauseam. Once again there’s a “humanity” message, emphasized in the second half and embodied through the protagonist. We’re told (more than shown) that Hongo resolved to increase his strength to protect the weak. However, taking another ill cue from Shin Ultraman, the film shies from depicting his interactions with the everyday people he’s supposedly out to save; thus Hongo’s “convictions” boil down to empty speeches; and the character’s simply not interesting (or interestingly acted) enough to make up for what’s lacking script-wise.

    Neither is anyone else. Of the entire cast, only two leave an impression and unfortunately in the worst way: Toru Tezuka—as an Aug with cartoonish bat wings—and Masami Nagasawa—a baddie with a scorpion claw—deliver the most obnoxious ham-acting of recent memory. Occasionally, Anno permits his actors to stand before gorgeous mountains and waterfronts (or inside a ramshackle house with shards of light plastered across the floor—by far the film’s best interior set) but otherwise imprisons them within depressingly gray rooms and poorly lit lairs. In addition to accepting these mediocre components, the director tosses aside his usual kinesis—dialogue scenes in particular drag with no two shots bearing any sense of relation—all the while reluctant to capitalize on interesting concepts. (In one amusing moment, the protagonist’s motorcycle follows him autonomously down the road—a trick never explained, repeated, or even acknowledged by the characters.) Even his usual slashing edits prove a detriment: overused to the point of confusion and leaving scenes feeling unfinished.

    Adding to the decrepit assembly are missing key shots. When the abandoned house is blown up, Anno ends one shot with the sky ridden with smoke and plummeting debris; cut directly to the protagonist, who (seemingly) jumped to freedom within the building, tumbling through a (suddenly) clear sky and landing in a (suddenly) clear field. In another instance: two heroes race through a tunnel; in the following shot, a gigantic explosion erupts (mid-burst—no transition, no explanation) through the corridors. Meanwhile, fourth-rate computer generated effects unroll in the manner of cut scenes from a video game, and Taku Iwasaki’s score blares distractingly in the background.

    The whole constitutes a dreadful project of the sort previously unexpected of Hideaki Anno. I walked in expecting something at least technically immersive but instead left wondering if I’d seen a rough cut, one pieced together using outtakes for scenes not fully shot. While I maintain hope this talented filmmaker will one day revitalize his skills and employ them on a worthwhile project, Shin Kamen Rider is an almost total failure in his oeuvre—murky and incoherent when not painfully dull.

    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan
    Patrick Galvan is a film journalist who specialises in Japanese and early Chinese films. In addition to Our Culture, he has contributed to such online & print publications as SYFY WIRE, Toho Kingdom, and The Lost Films Fanzine. Author of the biography Ruan Lingyu: Her Life and Career (2022).

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