I first watched Agito around May of 2015, after having seen almost all of the other Heisei Rider series up to that point (I still have yet to finish Ryuki, Kabuto or Hibiki as of this writing, and have zero intention of watching Kiva for reasons). The main reason why it took me so long was because of the reputation of its head writer, Toshiki Inoue.
Kamen Rider Faiz, another Inoue-penned Rider series, was one of the first Rider series I watched when I first got into the franchise, mainly because I fell in love with the aesthetic of the suits. However, I got burned pretty hard on the J-drama heavy plot where miscommunication and terrible life choices lead to almost everyone in the series getting an unhappy or tragic ending. Remembering that, and also knowing that Agito revolved heavily around an amnesiac plot (I categorically hate amnesia plots because I think they usually rely on sloppy writing shortcuts to keep conflict or dramatic tension up), I expected the worst and put it off for a while.
But eventually, when enough people had assured me that it was really good despite my reservations, I decided to go back and try it. It moved slowly, so slowly that I dropped it around episode 30 for almost a month because I got bored with the plot being dragged out. But again, after people convinced me that it was worth it, I picked it back up, finished it, and was, surprisingly, happy with where the story and characters end up.
Now, with a friend of mine watching through the series for the first time, I decided to go back and see if the show would come off better in retrospect with a re-watch of it.
In short, the early part of the show comes off much better, and I believe actually improves the experience of watching if you have an idea of the secrets that the characters keep already. It allowed me to focus on the show and characters as they were happening within the immediate context of the show, rather than impatiently waiting for the next plot reveal to drop. On rewatch I also have noticed a lot of interesting details and overarching themes that I have been sharing through live-tweets, but I also wanted a place to compile my notes here.
This retrospect will cover multiple articles. The first here, I’d like to use to talk about major character themes and relationships, particularly in the first half of the series. Other articles will talk about other topics, such as the use of color theory and cinematography in a few interesting places during the mid-season, and some thematic connections to religion and philosophy in the endgame of the show.
The first episode does a great job of setting the major drama and hooking the audience into the events of the series.
The main thing to note here is that the O-Parts wash up from the ocean. The ocean has strong connotations of unformed, primordial chaos. i.e. the void that creation was born out of. This is usually used in reference to Judeo-Christian tradition where the ocean was what God formed the land out of, bringing order out of that formless void. At the end of times when creation is perfected, the ocean has turned to glass, signifying that chaos being tamed for eternity. The ocean, and water in general, will provide a lot of symbolic importance as the show continues.
We also see our two main characters, Shouichi and Ryou pass by each other with no recognition in the first episode – ships passing in the night. Although they incidentally pass by each other multiple times throughout the series, it isn’t until much, much later where they gain recognition of the other and fight as comrades and friends.
Speaking of water imagery (that will happen a LOT) Ryou is first introduced as a swimmer – from an underwater shot. This perspective emphasizes his isolation from others, hidden underneath the surface of the pool where he practices. This is another recurring theme for his character. It also carries a similar connotation to the ocean before – full submersion represents a conversion or change. Death and rebirth.
Again, drawing comparisons to Judeo-Christian tradition, this is the same symbolism around the ritual of baptism. It also can work as foreshadowing. Ryou starts out in a pool, but soon finds himself in over his head as he moves to deeper water investigating the Akatsuki, an ocean-going ferry involved in a mysterious disaster, which seems to have contributed to his father’s decline and eventual death after he survived said disaster.
Another set of major characters introduced early on are those within the police department. While they’re all great, I’m going to first talk about Hojo here because his character was simultaneously the most interesting and the most frustrating when I watched the show for the first time. He starts out as a skeptic, refusing to believe that the impossible murders that have begun to pile up are supernatural. As people are trapped in trees, mysteriously combust in broad daylight, and die in other gruesome ways, Hojo stubbornly refuses to admit what the evidence shows.
Hojo early on demonstrates a major recurring aspect of his character, of projecting himself on to others. He assumes the G3 team identifying the “Unknown” or the monsters that appear to be behind these attacks in the city, is playing a trick to give the G3 unit legitimacy. He only really assumes this not because it’s any more “Reasonable” than the evidence piling up behind them, but because it’s exactly what he himself would’ve done in their place, faced with obsolescence within the police department.
We see this projection again when he thinks Hikawa, the young, idealistic pilot of the experimental G3 weapon system, was chosen for this position only because the higher-ups wanted to hush up the embarrassing events of the Akatsuki incident. In fact, the incident is why Hikawa was chosen, but not as a bribe or a cover-up, but rather because his demonstrated actions in the face of a bizarre, freak storm that swamped the boat, showed that he really IS a hero. When faced with the unknown, instead of hesitating, he threw himself into danger to rescue others.
Even when Hojo accepts the fact that the Unknown exist in the following episode, he still uses the same mindset of looking at a single serial killer rather than as a new villain faction. It isn’t until later when he starts stepping out of his own mind to analyze new ideas that he becomes a good detective. The catalyst for this change in thinking in relation to looking at the circumstances of the Unknown case is his mentor, who killed a man who he thinks was responsible for his sister’s murder many years ago. By figuring out that the case they were investigating was a copycat based on the Unknown attacks, Hojo is able to put the pieces together to implicate a man he had the utmost respect for.
In many ways, Hojo could only be the one to solve this, because the other characters would’ve doubted their own conclusions, and instead put their trust in someone who once took a bullet for them.
In this case, Hojo senses the thread that unravels the case, the evidence that eventually shows that his superior officer deliberately tried to hide the murder by making it look like an Unknown case, because he assumes the worst of everyone naturally already.
We also see his characterization under fire when his vendetta against Hikawa allows him to become a new pilot for the G3 suit. Hojo cares more about glory and accolades than actually caring about others, and when things go south in a fight against the Unknown, he abandons the suit against orders, leaving a victim behind.
Hikawa in comparison is perfectly willing to take a bullet for someone without hesitation, as Ozawa, the superior commanding supervisor for the G3 unit, notes.
Speaking of Hikawa his character is fairly boiler-plate ordinary here at the start. He simply comes across as a nice guy who tries his best but is somewhat clumsy and not exactly the brightest candle in the room. Most of his development, and what made him become my favorite Secondary Rider in the franchise, comes with the introduction of the G3-X system later on.
G3-X brings a lot of major themes to light regarding power vs. the agency to wield it. This is a common theme in a lot of Rider series, naturally seeing as most Rider series deal with the heroes using the same kind of power as the monsters or the villains. The themes of the show then hinge around HOW they choose to make use of it.
Agito ties it in closely with concepts regarding identity, as to be expected of a show that revolves mainly around an amnesiac mystery. Hikawa’s main conflict is around doubt in his own abilities, but as Ozawa says, he’d take a bullet for someone with no hesitation, his sense of duty and purpose of his abilities is never in doubt. That is what causes the main conflict of G3-X’s introduction, that he would be forced to sacrifice some of that willpower and agency in order to live up to the power of the suit.
Hikawa’s identity runs counter to the suit’s AI, but there is another human being who CAN wield it with no problems, that is Shouichi Tsugami himself, the main Rider of this series, and the titular “Agito”. He has no memories or identity, but that doesn’t make him a complete blank slate or automaton. His persona has been subsumed AS Agito, with a driving compulsion to seek out and fight the Unknown who attack civilians, but he’s not a robot. It’s merely that his will already aligns with his duty and responsibilities – he naturally wants to help people and is willing to sacrifice himself for it, like Hikawa.
The G3-X suit was designed by Ozawa without taking into account the human side of the equation, as they even say in the show, and assumes that the wearer will be perfect – and thus, inhuman in that perfection.
To allow Hikawa to use the suit, Ozawa has to temper the machine side and allow Hikawa to direct it more fully. Paradoxically, this allows him even greater power. I would even say that he becomes like an Agito himself, as the fight scene immediately after Hikawa uses the modified suit is choreographed almost exactly like the one time Shouichi pilots it the episode before.
To go more into spoiler territory, in creating G3-X, Ozawa plays god. She assumed an idealized version of what humanity should be and wanted to force a pilot to fit. Agito works because Shouichi’s identity is already so perfectly in line with his responsibilities as Agito. Hikawa’s sense of duty was correct, Ozawa needed to correct the suit’s AI to follow that instead of being perfectly powerful.
Now let’s take a closer look at the main Rider – the main Agito of the series – Shouichi Tsugami. He states early on that he wants to protect a small place to call home for everyone. Mana, the niece of the professor who takes him in, says it’s “trivial”.
Early on in the series, the main scientist lady in charge of studying the O-parts (look I don’t remember her name, she gets killed off in like six episodes) helps bring Shouichi’s characterization to light by reminding Hikawa, and the audience, that we should judge the world around us by the evidence we can see for ourselves. This goes for all the characters (Hojo needed that lesson beaten into his skull as mentioned earlier), but especially for Shouichi as we have no other way of knowing his identity at the start.
We don’t know Shouichi’s past, but we can tell from his actions that he’s a good guy. Even when Mana finds out that he turns into an armored bug fighter to beat the crap out of weirdly animalistic-looking angels, Mana knows he’s still the same kind-hearted guy who does everything he can to help others. This impression is strong enough that later on, when Mana gets hints that he may have been involved with her father’s murder, she puts it aside. Even if Shouichi WAS involved somehow we know he’s a genuinely good person and she shouldn’t fear him.
Going back to the other characters, even though Hikawa and Hojo both seem pleasant outwardly, we know Hojo is awful while Hikawa is genuine because of how they behave to others around them. Or Ozawa vs. Hojo in their pride in their abilities. Ozawa can be abrasive and rude, but she really does want to help people with her own tremendous intelligence. (She literally programs the G3-X suit’s designs while drunk).
This brings up a larger point of how character is developed and reflected by social context. Ryou, who is isolated from others in his quest to discover the secrets of the Akatsuki and how it connects to his own painful condition as Kamen Rider Gills, doubts his identity constantly. Hikawa and Shouichi have it reaffirmed by the people they interact with, who care about them. The two of them have a very strong sense of self BECAUSE of that social context. On the other hand, when Ryou loses that connection to humanity, he truly loses everything.
So let’s talk more specifically about the last of the main Riders introduced in the first half (don’t worry Kino, I’ll get to you later!), Ryou Ashihara.
Tonally, Agito has a lot of charm because it flips so easily between spooky paranormal mystery and funny sit-com. This is unique because the characters and aspects of the plot can easily fit into one or the other depending on the context. The family Shouichi lives with, the G3 crew, almost all of them play both serious and comedic roles throughout the show. The main exception to this is Ryou, as he is exclusively in this show to suffer
His first main arc after forcibly transforming into Gills deals with him trying to reconnect with his on-again-off-again girlfriend, only for her to discover what’s happened to him and leaves him as a result. This sets up a distinction between the two secondary characters – Ryou has power but does not know what to use it for. Hikawa knows EXACTLY what he wishes to use it for, but doubts that he actually has any power in the first place. We’ll see these positions swap later on, as Ryou gets hurt more and more by fighting as Gills, and Hikawa has to decide whether to give up that heroic will power and agency to use the G3-X system or not.
There’s a unique sequences of episodes here, involving the scientist lady researching the O-Parts that were mentioned at the start. She was hopeful and optimistic about what would result from her research before, after she develops a DNA sequence that was displayed in the O-part when it was unlocked. But something tremendously unexpected happens, seemingly-magically creating a mysterious person who then follows her around for an as-yet-unknown mission. With these bizarre events, she instead closes down the research and retreats into denial. This produces a recurring phrase that we’ll hear throughout the series: “I don’t know anything”.
You can easily take it literally as a denial, but it is also truthful as we’ll hear it a lot from characters who get too close to the main mystery behind Agito, the Akatsuki incident, and the monster attacks. They realize just how little they know about the universe, humanity and everything else.
Later on in the series I may talk a bit about Manichaean Gnosticism and the duality associated with it, but in the first third of the series, the tone is very Lovecraftian in terms of “uncovering ancient secrets that man was not meant to know”. This is more apparent when the meet Saeko, a survivor of the Akatsuki, who has a complete break with reality as a result of what happened aboard the ferry. She crafts a whole mythology around the events to try and explain it, and even if it’s a lie, it’s a more comforting lie than the truth.
Like many other events, different reactions between the characters help to provide contrast for their motivations and primary character elements. This time, it divides both Ryou and Shouichi. Ryou understands and is sympathetic to Saeko’s denial of reality because he wishes he could hide from the truth of what’s happened to him as well. But Shouichi is naturally more carefree and doesn’t understand how someone couldn’t enjoy the world around them. He even says in another scene that he’d want to wake up each day with no memories so everything would be a fresh experience. But Shouichi also has powers that don’t slowly kill him, and a home to come back to where people love and care for him.
In fact, it isn’t until Shouichi realizes that he’d be leaving those people behind that he starts to worry about his own imminent death in one episode when he’s attacked by an Unknown that uses a deadly poison.
These themes – and more – get developed on much more later on in the series, but the first half I would describe with the overall theme of “power and responsibility”. Whether that power is knowledge, skill, or the ability to turn into an armored bugman to kick monsters until they explode, all the characters have unique ways that they can help the people around them. It’s how they choose to do so that defines their characters.
One of the main turning points past the mid-season, is the fact that the duty that comes with this power shifts into a different focus, both for the people gifted with the seed of Agito, and those who wish to protect humanity
And no, the two don’t always line up.