Welcome to a new feature I’m starting this week, have a seat right over there, will you?
On Twitter I had gotten into the habit of doing weekly discussions of Ex-Aid, usually because each week brings a new plot reveal or interesting character insight that I’d to expand on further. This week is no different, but now that I have space on the blog, I figured I’d start doing those posts here to create a more coherent article in which I can summarize my thoughts.
Now, on twitter I could also just launch straight into my commentary without much exposition because I could assume that most everyone who follows me had seen the episode and was familiar with the names I was throwing around. Obviously, I can’t assume that with this blog, so first I’m going to have to do a quick introduction to get new readers up to speed:
Ex-Aid is a show where doctors transform into brightly colored spandex-and-plastic armor-wearing karatemen to kick virus monsters in the face until they explode.
Oh, er, I guess I should go a bit more into detail about said doctors and the virus monsters they fight.
However, now at about twenty episodes into the show, it turns out there’s a lot of intrigue and mystery behind the events of the show, the monsters the main Riders face, and how their (sort of) creator is manipulating them. So let’s strap on that lead apron and fire up the diagnostics for this odd series.
Emu Hojo (aka. Kamen Rider Ex-Aid, aka. Genius Gamer M)
A former star professional gamer, he was driven to become a doctor in part through looking up to the talented doctor who saved his life after he suffered an accident about 16 years ago. Now as a med student, he was recruited into the Cyber Rescue (CR) division of the Ministry of Health in order to fight against the Bugster virus.
Since the first episode there have been multiple mysteries around his character, such as the question of why he seems to have a personality split that appears between when he plays games (and fights as a Rider) and when he acts as a doctor. In addition to this he is able to fight as a Rider without undergoing a “compatibility operation”, or sort of inoculation against the virus, that the other Riders needed to have performed.
We learn that the answer to both these questions is the same – Emu was Patient Zero in regards to the original Bugster Virus outbreak five years ago. As I mentioned in my last Ex-Aid post about Virology, the current infectious form of the virus occurred after a rogue mad scientist attempted to use Emu to create more Bugster monsters. Now Emu himself carries the virus, although his symptoms and the effects of the infection on his body are highly unusual. There’s likely much more to his story than what we’ve heard so far.
Emu has two different personas that manifest depending on his role at any one time. As a doctor dealing with patients, he’s kind, generous, and self-sacrificing, expressing a desire to not just see them cured of their infection, but also happy. This reflects on his own experience from being treated in a hospital as a kid, where a game system given to him as a get-well present by his own doctor led to his interest in gaming. It also provided a bright spot of happiness for what otherwise seems like a very lonely childhood; Emu described the fact that he was frequently alone and created video game ideas to keep himself amused.
As Genius Gamer M, when he’s playing games or fighting against the Bugsters, Emu is brash, impulsive, and abrasive. He’s not outright cruel or sadistic, but he’s tactless and ignores the needs of others, just happy to fight his own battles. He enjoys the challenge that comes with the fights, sometimes a little too much.
While he’s not the most experienced of the Riders, he has the most passion, both as Emu and M, and that drives him to keep fighting for his patients.
Hiiro Kagami (aka. Kamen Rider Brave)
A brilliant and accomplished surgeon, Hiiro is outwardly cold and brusque. Frequently claims “There is nothing I cannot cut” and proves it over, and over again.
Although he takes a lot of pride in his skills as a surgeon, he never cared much for his patients’ personal lives, and simply performs the tasks set in front of him to the best of his ability. It’s Emu that helps push Hiiro to be a more well-rounded person, to care about the patients they treat, and rise to a challenge that he otherwise would brush off as beneath his stature as an respected professional.
A lot of this brusqueness is the result of guilt regarding the death of his girlfriend, Saki. While in med school she pushed him to be the best doctor possible, but he frequently ignored her to bury himself in his studies, to the point where he didn’t realize she was sick with the Bugster virus until she succumbed to it.
He’s driven himself afterwards to live up to her hopes of being the best doctor in terms of raw skill, but is oddly lacking in ambition and direction in terms of guiding that talent as a Rider.
Taiga Hanaya (aka. Kamen Rider Snipe)
A former doctor for the CR, and a formerly-recognized Radiologist, Taiga had his license stripped after botching an operation to save a patient from a Bugster during Zero Day – the original outbreak of the virus. (In another twist, it turns out the patient he failed to save was Hiiro’s girlfriend, Saki.)
As a result, he continued to practice, but as an unlicensed, black market doctor. When the Bugsters resurface in the pilot episode and the CR starts involving Kamen Riders, Taiga buys a Gamer Driver (what allows them to transform) from the head of Genm Corp (the game company that makes the tools they use to become Riders), Kuroto Dan, and begins fighting again.
If you’ve seen my Agito posts, then I’ll just say that Taiga’s character is strikingly similar to Kino, Another Agito, from that series.
Both are doctors who have been stripped of their ability to legally practice medicine, both carry a lot of guilt as a result of their perceived failures, and both are convinced that they can prevent further suffering by being the only Rider to fight. Whereas Kino was outright hostile, trying to murder the other Agitos in his own series, Taiga isn’t quite as villainous, instead trying to take the “gashats” or the game cartridges that the others use to transform, to use for himself.
We later find out that Taiga used a prototype version of these gashats when he was originally a Rider during the original outbreak, and that they have dramatic consequences on one’s health when used. We can even see this hinted at from a preview for a prequel series that deals with his time as the first Rider the CR division employs. At the start of the previews for that series, and in other flashbacks, his hair was solid black at the beginning of his career.
Taiga is weary, jaded and antagonistic, but he ultimately just wants to protect the others from falling to the same fate he was unable to avoid. Out of all three of the Riders associated with the CR, he’s the one most familiar with the suffering that being a Rider inevitably brings.
Kiriya Kujo (Aka. Kamen Rider Lazer)
A coroner who has been secretly investigating the circumstances of the Bugster virus and the Zero Day outbreak. Like Taiga and Hiiro, he is also driven by guilt over failing to save someone, in this case a co-worker and friend. When his friend gets sick, Kiriya actually steals information from the Ministry of Health in order to find out the cause, stumbling across the knowledge of the Bugster virus’ existence. When he reveals this information to his friend, but with no treatment available for a new, bizarre disease, his friend becomes terminally distraught and is implied to have killed himself as a result.
Because of this Kiriya becomes fixated on the ideas of truth and honesty and how manipulating information can help or hurt others.
Since then, he’s continued his investigation, first by blackmailing Kuroto Dan into getting him the system to become a Rider himself. Later he manipulates Emu multiple times into helping him get closer to the Bugsters and the information the Ministry of Health and CR holds on them. Because of his willingness to do shady, underhanded dealings like this, he gets closer to the truth than anyone else, but also as a result of his manipulations, nobody trusts him enough to either believe the information he uncovers, or to back him up when his investigations get him in over his head.
Ultimately, Kiriya is killed when he finds out the truth behind Emu’s condition and the Bugster virus’ origins. To make matters worse, he dies in vain, unable to avenge his friend’s death, and without being able to communication his information to the others. Kiriya tried to do everything on his own to keep the others from the harm of learning the truth, but it also leads to him falling short of his goal to eliminate the Bugsters and prevent anyone else from suffering the same fate as his friend.
The least he can do is make sure that Emu and the others can take up the fight in his stead.
Kuroto Dan (Aka. Kamen Rider Genm, DANGEROUS DAN THE ZOMBIE MAN WITH A PLAN)
The (now disgraced) CEO of Genm Corp, the game development company that produces the Gamer Drivers and gashats that all the Riders use to fight. The Bugster monsters that the Riders fight ALSO appear to originate from his games, and the Zero Day outbreak happened as a result of people being exposed to the infected games. In short, the main mastermind and villain behind the major events of the series to this point.
At first, he’s introduced to us as a partner with the Ministry of Health, providing tech and advice to help Hiiro and Emu fight against the Bugsters. However, shortly it’s revealed that he’s actually using the Bugsters for his own goals, and is actively fighting the Riders in secret as Kamen Rider Genm, a dark prototype version of Emu’s own “Mighty Action X” form.
Kiriya first tries to reveal him as Genm early on, but isn’t believed because of his previous lies to the other Riders. When Kuroto reveals himself for real, he also reveals that he had been using the data gathered from the Bugsters and the Riders’ fights to create a mysterious “ultimate game”.
He then manages to cheat death by uing data from his own Game Over as Genm to create the “Dangerous Zombie” gashat, one that allows him to recover from lethal damage. When Kiriya attempts to uncover his real plans and eliminate him alone, Kuroto kills him.
On Christmas (Thanks, Toei!).
In this state, hiding in a secret base, manipulating the Bugster viruses, and working on furthering his own plans, he has been the main antagonist of the series since the beginning, but the true extent of his insanity only goes deeper and deeper with each week.
Whereas Emu in his Genius Gamer M persona enjoys playing games and the challenge that comes with them, Kuroto has one goal and that is to dominate and destroy the others who face him. He doesn’t just want to win, he wants to see his enemies driven before him and hear the lamentations of their women – to borrow a phrase. He has actual delusions of godhood and sees the technology that his video games use as a way of elevating him to that divine rule above all others.
The case so far:
At this point in the series, very close to the half-way mark of the season, we have a few pressing mysteries that are still around. We know that Emu was first infected by the Bugster virus about 6 years ago, an event which directly led to the Zero Day outbreak shortly afterwards. However, we don’t know what specifically about his individual case led the virus to mutate and became infectious to humans. We also don’t know much about the nature of the virus itself.
The Bugsters all have separate personalities and aims, some want to just wreak havoc, some, like Poppy, want to help the Riders fight against Bugsters that threaten humanity. Others want to dominate and rule the world, and some – like Parad, a recurring antagonist – just want to have fun and fight with the other characters for entertainment.
Kuroto has been using the Bugsters to gather combat data to build his “ultimate game”, but the real nature and origin of the virus itself is still mysterious. Generally, the Bugsters infect individuals who come into contact with bugged copies of Genm Corp.’s games, and attain a “perfect” physical existence when the infected host disappears, consumed by the stress of the virus.
However, apparently not all the Bugsters are inherently villainous, and in fact it is possible for one to achieve “complete” physical existence WITHOUT killing their infected host. We see this happen in an earlier episode with a Bugster that originates from a game created, not by Kuroto, but by another developer working with Genm Corp after Kuroto leaves the company to pursue his villainous plans in secret.
The developer, Tsukuru, basically codes Burger Time, where players have to create and serve hamburgers to placate a giant burger monster. The game somehow becomes contaminated by the virus, in turn infecting Tsukuru himself and bringing the monster, Burgermon, to life. During the episode though, the players find that in successfully clearing the game that the Bugster represents, they don’t need to kill the monster, just… feed him burgers. Just as in the game programming itself.
Yeah, it’s a silly episode. But when when it’s cleared, the infection cures itself for the host AND the Bugster is still around.
Or at least it WAS until Kuroto got pissy that someone produced a game – and a Bugster with it – that doesn’t factor into his own plans for Kamen Rider Chronicle, his ultimate “game”. So he destroys the Bugster for no other reason than to be a petty jerk.
This isn’t the only case of a friendly Bugster in the series though, the mascot and assistant to Hiiro and Emu at the CR is Poppy, a brightly colored pop music idol who is later revealed (anti-climatically) to be a Bugster herself. We don’t know her story or how she came to gain a physical existence and the ability to travel between her game and the real world freely though.
Speaking of mysterious origins, we also don’t know Emu and Kuroto’s full story. Kiriya was killed by Kuroto in part because he discovered that Emu was Patient Zero, but he also uncovered a connection between Kuroto and Emu that occurred about 16 years ago, in 2000.
None of the other characters knew about this detail, and the audience has been left in the dark as to what this connection was as well. We do know that Kuroto Dan is the son of Masamune Dan, who was president of the game company before him. When Zero Day struck, Dan Sr. was implicated behind the outbreak and imprisoned. The secret as to what actually happened to unleash the virus is still unknown, as well as how both Dans factor into that event.
The last few episodes of Ex-Aid have dealt heavily with Emu’s own character and his infection with the virus. If you’ve been paying attention to the series up to this point, the idea that he was infected, and that his personality shifts are due to the virus being expressed, is a fairly obvious one. However, with continued use of Mighty Bros. XX (a gashat that was not intended to be used by a human, and delivered a HUGE dose of the virus when used), and the reveal that he was Patient Zero, Emu loses his grip on the symptoms and reverts to his “M” personality full-time. It’s not until Hiiro steps up to care for patients in his place that Emu is reminded of his original desire to help patients, and the two personalities stabilize again.
However, during that time, in order to fight when everyone else’s gashats have been stolen by Kuroto, and Emu is not in any state to be operating to save patients, Hiiro has to steal a high-level gashat to use that also severely impacts his health. Taiga steps in and treats him after the fight is over, but also convinces Hiiro to hand the Level 50 gashat over to him to use in his place. Taiga sees himself as more expendable, but also better able to handle the side effects of such a transformation device due to his experience using the prototype gashats originally.
At the same time, Kuroto’s main plan of attack for the past six or seven episodes has been to allow the Riders to fight against the Bugsters that appear in the population, and when the Bugster is defeated, he collects the data from it to use to further the creation of Kamen Rider Chronicle, his “ultimate game”.
In the process the Riders have been repeatedly mopping the floor with him in the last few episodes, since his own gashat, Dangerous Zombie, is considered Level 10 (X). While it prevents him from actually hitting a Game Over state regardless of how much damage he eats, he’s not been able to fight effectively against the other Riders with their continued power creep, and the gashats that he had reclaimed from them in previous episodes, have been taken back.
Now with a newfound resolve, and almost everyone’s gashats reclaimed, the characters all start looking forward to long-term plans to further their own goals…
And now, Episode 21:
The episode opens up with a jail cell that we’ve seen before, but it was back before Christmas, when Kiriya was investigating this mystery. He’s not the only one on the case, say hello to Detective Uesugi on the right. That is, Suwa Taro, an actor who’s been in what seems like every toku series for the last twenty years.
Seriously, watch through most Sentai or Kamen Rider series made since about 2000, chances are you’ll find him in at least one episode. Hell, he showed up in Agito as I’ve been re-watching it.
As it turns out, Kiriya and Kuroto’s disappearance did not go unnoticed, and other people are starting to ask questions. Backtracking to discover the cause of all these shenanigans, the detective goes to interview Masamune Dan, the former president of Genm Corp. Just as he’s following in Kiriya’s footsteps with this investigation, he’s also driven by guilt over the death of a loved one – his son, who was killed by the virus during the Zero Day outbreak. During this scene, he starts showing symptoms of the virus and collapses, which is when the CR Riders get involved.
Something else interesting we find out early in this episode, the other Riders didn’t know that Kuroto Dan was the one who originally wanted to recruit Emu. The audience knew this from the first episode – we see him send out Poppy, his assistant, to deliver the Gamer Driver to Emu (or at least, to Genius Gamer M).
Evidently, she didn’t think it was important enough a detail to tell the others. What it DOES tell the characters in the show, is that Kuroto had knowledge of Emu’s condition beforehand, and that he would be able to use it without the compatibility operation. This new detail, combined with hearing about the private investigation from Uesugi, leads Emu to want to go interview Masamune Dan himself. Hiiro objects, concerned that Emu’s going to get himself killed by investigating the same path that Kiriya did.
One thing I’ve found remarkable in these last few episodes is how much Hiiro’s character has subtly changed. He previously didn’t care about Emu, considered him useless, and refused to work with him.
Now, he’s frustrated with his lack of skill when it comes to doctorly things – Emu is really bad at the surgery rotations, it seems – but has begun to really care about his condition. Hiiro showed a lot of concern for his health when it was discovered he was infected, and now is worried about Emu getting over his head by investigating the origins of the Bugster virus.
Of course, Hiiro still shows that through acting tough and haughty, but at least he’s trying, even if he’s bad at outward displays of empathy.
Meanwhile, Taiga and his newfound sidekick, Nico (one-time rival of Genius Gamer M, now assistant in the fight against the Bugsters for a new challenge), hatch a plan to try and put Kuroto’s threat away for good. They go to the developers that have been running Genm Corp in Kuroto’s absence and throw fat stacks of cash at them to request a new game to use against Dangerous Zombie.
Specifically, a game where you kill zombies. Of course, it’s a simple solution, but it’s nice to see one of the characters take some initiative to solve what’s been a problem for almost ten episodes.
This scene, combined with Uesugi’s backstory, gives us a general shape of this episode’s recurring theme – Kuroto’s screwed over a lot of people for the pursuit of megalomaniacal aims, and now they’re starting to find the means to fight back against him. Uesugi lost his son, Hiiro lost his girlfriend, and thus his direction and driving passion as a doctor. Taiga lost his license and is mostly likely slowly losing his life. Tsukuru, the developer at Genm that Taiga commissions, had the game he poured his passion and care into destroyed, along with the Bugster that became his friend.
As Emu and Poppy (in her alternate persona as Asuna, Ministry of Health professional) go to interview Masamune, we see something interesting about the information he conveys here. First of all, remember Kiriya found something from his original interview that connected Kuroto Dan to Emu. And we see here that Masamune does in fact know of Emu, but when questioned, quickly changes the subject.
He’s then informed by Poppy and Emu that Kuroto was responsible for killing Kiriya, and his expression barely changes. He figured as much, he knows what kind of person he son is at this point, as we find out that Kuroto was the one behind the Zero Day outbreak, and falsely implicated his own dad in the disaster to take the fall for him. Masamune Dan also reveals that the Bugster virus first appeared 17 years ago, shortly after the Y2k scare.
Now whether the Bugster virus is ACTUALLY supposed to be the Y2k bug, or the timing is coincidental, we don’t know.
I really hope it’s not just supposed to be the Y2k bug. Because that would be silly, even for this show.
Either way, Kuroto is the one who first discovers the virus on a computer at the company.
What’s interesting about this is that we don’t hear anything about how this event relates to Emu. I can only assume that Masamune Dan is deliberately withholding this information, for what purpose we don’t know. Is he doing it to protect Emu like the others have done? Or did the apple not fall as far from the tree as we thought when it comes to Kuroto’s more malicious manipulations?
Meanwhile, Hiiro has been left behind to look after the detective at the CR’s main clinic. They have a very nice heart-to-heart about how to carry on after the grief of losing a loved one. While Hiiro is a very good doctor, as I said before, he’s oddly directionless about his purpose as a Rider. He first sought revenge against the Bugster that killed Saki, but didn’t find any fulfillment after killing him. Now he questions why someone would want to investigate the truth behind these mysteries, as all it has accomplished so far for the Riders is get Kiriya murdered.
We get an answer to this dilemma later in the episode.
While the other CR Riders are busy moving their own goals forward (or remain stalled in second gear like Hiiro), Kuroto’s up to his own schemes as well. We knew previously that Kuroto used the death state programming from his own Game Over back in episode 11 to create Dangerous Zombie, but what we didn’t know until this episode, is that each time he tanks lethal damage with that form, the effect becomes cumulative. He’s been collecting repeated instances of his death in order to power it up to what he calls “Level X” or “Unknown”.
Up to this point, the forms have followed a pretty standard level progression, with higher level forms being able to shrug off damage and deliver more powerful beatings than lower-leveled forms. Some smart thinking can get around this to a degree, but with Dangerous Zombie remaining at a Level 10 rating, he’s been struggling to get any hits in against the other Rider’s higher-leveled forms.
Kuroto is about to bypass the concept of levels entirely though.
As Emu and Poppy hurry to bring their new information back to the hospital the CR operates out of, they are confronted by Kuroto, who draws them into the game stage to fight, along with the Bugster that infected Uesugi.
The taunt that Kuroto gives here is similar to what he said to the Riders as a group after creating Dangerous Zombie in Episode 11, questioning whether they can save the people in the city. What’s interesting here is that regardless of what happens, Kuroto has set up events so that he still gets what he wants.
The doctors need to cure the Bugster infections in order to prevent their patients from dying and being erased. Now, we know that’s not the case for every Bugster, as we saw with Burgermon a few weeks ago, but for the ones that they’ve been fighting from the Genm Corp gashats that Kuroto designed, it’s held true.
However, when the Bugsters get defeated, we also know that Kuroto’s been using their data to continue developing his ultimate game, Kamen Rider Chronicle. Last week, and now in this week’s episode, we get more insight as to what it actually is – a self-described “survival game” where civilians are forced to become Riders in order to fight for their lives. It’s a horrific scenario, but Kuroto sees it as his apotheosis, where he’ll rule as a godlike being, an admin in control over the life and death of everyone trapped in a world of his own making.
So even if the Riders succeed in saving the victim-of-the-week, everyone’s still screwed when he completes Chronicle eventually.
After a brief skirmish where the Bugster that was infecting the detective gets killed, and Emu delivers a lethal finishing move to put Kuroto down, he collects the Bugster data AND gets the last bit of fatal damage to complete his upgrade of Dangerous Zombie. He then spends the rest of the scene absolutely masticating the scenery around him, gloating about his glorious divine talents, and how he’s soooooo awesome for providing such excellent entertainment for people through his games.
Emu has had quite enough of his crap though, and we see a new side to his character motivation come through. Previously, Emu had been focused on making the patients he deals with each week smile again after they recover, but at this point in the series, there’s a long trail of bodies and broken lives left behind by Kuroto’s schemes. Therefore, he resolves to stop Kuroto, not so much for the sake of the patients they deal with now, but for the people they’ve failed to save in the past.
For the first time, Emu seeks justice.
This provides a resolution to Hiiro’s dilemma from earlier too. Even if solving the mystery and stopping Kuroto doesn’t bring his girlfriend back, they can make sure that no one else dies in the same way.
However, this new resolve will have to be saved for next week, when Emu launches straight into a fully-powered up finishing move to try and put down Kuroto, he merely teleports away with his new power.
So where are we left now?
- We still don’t know the true origins of the Bugster virus, or how Emu ties into it, merely that Kuroto was the first to discover it, and seemingly has been obsessed with it ever since.
- Kamen Rider Chronicle is a real, urgent threat, and given some leaked on-set photos, is about to become a reality in time for the mid-season.
- Kuroto Dan gets arrested next week, and winds up in the CR for treatment.
However he still has the upgraded Dangerous Zombie gashat and it looks like using it gives him an active infection, that the CR then tries to treat. My bet is that in addition to his obviously-lost sanity, he’s going to go full Kaijin – that is, also completely lose his humanity and gain a monster form as a result of this.
Each week I’ve been predicting Kuroto to destroy himself when his schemes backfire on himself, but I keep getting proven wrong as his insane god complex and sadism only deepens. As that ratcheted up several hundred notches with the past few episodes, so has a sense of urgency and direction that the show has really been lacking since Kiriya’s death some 10 episodes earlier.
We are quickly ramping up to Kuroto’s endgame now with Kamen Rider Chronicle, and it highlights the looming threat of innocent civilians being dragged into the fight in which the Riders sacrifice themselves already.
I still have a few issues with the show’s pacing, but I’m completely on board with where it’s going at the moment, and I’m also looking forward to next week’s episode. Watch this space for continued recaps, hopefully in light of some big upheavals in the show’s status quo in the near future.