Kamen Sentai Gorider #2 – The Next Stage

(Author’s note: HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS. IF YOU WANT TO READ THIS ARTICLE, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND CATCHING UP TO THIS EPISODE WITH TV-NIHON’S RELEASE BEFORE CONTINUING)

Previously on Gorider:

Kamen Sentai Gorider – Episode 1 Impressions

I wasn’t expecting much from this miniseries when I watched the first episode originally, other than maybe a couple good character moments. As a side-story spinoff, written by a creator not involved with the main Ex-Aid series, I didn’t think I’d find much consistency with established characterization or plot points from Ex-Aid itself, or really any of the other Rider series that it involves with its expanded cast.

Boy was I mistaken. It turned out to be a really solid episode that showed surprising thoughtfulness put into how the characters were written, although how those characters would contribute to a larger storyline was still unknown As was the purpose of the deserted amusement park that all of them had been thrown into in the first place. Would the mystery come to a satisfying climax? Or would it crash and burn, wasting its promising start?

Episode Maze 2

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In which we start immediately with Emu getting beat up by Another Agito. Can’t say I’m surprised, that seems to be a running theme of every spin-off thing involved with Ex-Aid. I can just imagine a conference room of writers and producers sitting around, with a large heading on a wall-mounted whiteboard reading: “How much more can we make Emu Hojo suffer this time?”

Regardless though, the first half of this episode continued to impress me with how all the characters were handled. I noted in the last article that they’re pretty much bang-on consistent with how they were portrayed in their own series, or with understandable distinctions given their current predicaments. That’s further emphasized here as their tempers flare on edge, with the crushing anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s going on, and having no other outlet to fight back, except against Emu – regardless of whether he’s actually the mastermind or not. Luckily, Kenzaki and Kiriya’s intervention helps to get everyone to back down, but not before Emu runs off to escape from them. They regroup back in the meeting hall from before to consider their situation more calmly.

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One thing I want to comment on is Kaito’s behavior. I noted that he was oddly (but understandably) passive in this scenario, but one thing I didn’t realize is that this scenario is probably the closest thing to Hell for him. Stuck being constantly reminded of his failure through his very reanimated existence in this illusory world, unable to leave or change anything about his situation, and with no control of what’s going on at all. It’s pretty much everything he hates or fears most wrapped up into a single package.

Kenzaki tracks down Emu to try and talk him into coming back, by helping him to empathize more with this dilemma from the other dead Riders.

Kenzaki’s monologue to Emu about hope is perfect (and perfectly heartbreaking). Kenzaki in his own series had a lot of similarities to Emu, and draws from that experience in this scene when talking to him about the others’ reluctance to believe in him.

Like Emu, he had to deal with a wide cast of Riders who were all massive jerkfaces, and it took a while for them all to come together to work effectively as a team. But he never stopped believing in those characters and held out hope that they could solve the conflict of the Battle Royale without further casualties. It was through that steadfast belief in the goodness of others that Kenzaki could win over the other Riders, and eventually found the strength to sacrifice himself to prevent the destruction of the world.

Emu is very similar in terms of how his own heroic example helps to make the other Riders in Ex-Aid better people themselves, although whether he’ll be called to make that kind of sacrifice at the end of his own series is anyone’s guess.

Speaking of sacrifices, even though Yoko was willing to stay by Kaito’s side until her death in the main Gaim series, here her empathy for Emu causes her to strike out on her own, even without Kaito leading. It’s a pretty uniquely poignant scene, actually. Yoko hitched her hopes onto Kaito’s stubborn will to power before, but now that his will has fallen by the wayside, she’s finding a new hope in Emu’s honest example.

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Likewise, Kino finally warms up to the idea of being properly heroic again. When he became Agito in the original series, his idealism that we saw in the Akatsuki flashback was subsumed by his pride. In Goriders, it was also suppressed, but again by the same paranoia and fear that motivated the others to lash out against each other. Immediately before this scene, we see him staring down his lack of a reflection in the mirror in the main room, coming to terms with not just his current state, but I assume also the decisions that led him to sacrifice himself in the first place in the Agito series.

As he said himself in that series, people should try to live so they have no regrets.

Their story is done, but now both Kino and Yoko want to at least see Emu’s continue. Where they started the episode fighting amongst themselves, now they stand united against the waves of enemies that threaten them, determined to fight their way to the truth.

After beating up on Toei’s prop department for a bit, all the Riders find their way back to the meeting place to come together as comrades to address the mystery for real this time. Now with everyone supporting him, Emu finally puts the pieces of the puzzle together – their surroundings are actually an artificially-constructed game world.

With this revelation also comes a new challenge, and the fake, robotic Poppy drops her illusion to reveal a fancy boss monster for everyone to fight against, and hopefully overcome. The assumption being, as with any game, that their problems can be solved just by finding the right bad guy and beating the tar out of it.

However, Poppy’s appearance isn’t the only illusion that falls away at this point.

When I first watched this episode I spent a bit of time gushing through live-tweets about how much I loved watching everyone come together to fight together as a team. As I’ve said repeatedly, the series does a terrific job of developing these character interactions.

So of course the main purpose of that character writing was to make us emotionally connected to everyone, enabling our sympathetic suffering as we watch them pitted against a hopeless, futile battle against an enemy that is literally programmed to be invincible.

Ordinarily such a speech from the bad guys would be met with some sort of power-up gained by everyone working together and believing in each other, or something equally as formulaic for a typical superhero show. But here? Nothing. They just get trashed.

And believe it or not, it gets worse.

This especially hits hard with Kenzaki. This scene where he’s revealed to be the real manipulator behind this strange game world was almost unbearable to watch.

No, seriously, I mean hands over my eyes, watching through cracked fingers, unbearable. It hurt so badly to see such horrifying sadism come from the character, even if it is a façade.

Kenzaki, who literally gave his life and soul to protect others, who was unfailingly open and honest in everything he did for the other characters in Blade, who never stopped believing in his teammates even when things seemed bleakest. Here though, he’s revealed to be an impostor who is using the game world to generate despair from the Riders trapped within it. Despair that Emu is unwittingly feeding into by creating hope that then is shattered in the process of fighting an unwinnable battle.

We can only guess at his true identity (a pretty darn good guess considering his mannerisms and a certain shot during this scene) since the true face of the fake-Kenzaki player is purposefully hidden from the audience. However, one mystery we started with that has been made obviously clear now, is the purpose of the labyrinth. After Emu “dies”, he’s booted out of the game back into the real world and we’re introduced to the real scope of the threat in this storyline. The mysterious game of suffering he was trapped inside is drawing energy from that despair to reanimate dead Bugsters that are beginning to overwhelm the other Riders – Taiga and Hiiro.

Now Emu has to face the challenge of going back into the game, but with the added dilemma that every time he attempts to do so to change the fate of the players still trapped, he loses his own memory in the transition and will almost certainly fall into the same trap.

It’s a brilliantly sadistic set-up. In first building up such a sense of hope and teamwork between this rag-tag group of Riders who have literally lost everything in the course of being a Rider, and then crushing it utterly, the as-yet-unknown mastermind creates not just despair in the Riders themselves, but also in the audience. The Riders in the first episode had no hope for themselves and no purpose in interacting with each other or their surroundings, it was Emu that brought them together and united them in the hope of beating this challenge and uncovering the mystery of why they were brought together.

….But if we think about it more carefully, we should realize that it wasn’t really Emu who was responsible for finally uniting everyone. The other Riders were dead-set against him at first and refused to hear him out. Instead, the manipulation that brought everyone together to find hope again, to get Emu to come back and have everyone work together, came from Kenzaki.

Setting Kenzaki up as this bait-and-switch is remarkably obvious in retrospect. As some other people I’ve discussed this special with have noted, his character actually diverges a bit from Kenzaki in the main Blade series, and also from spin-off sequel material that shows events 10 years after the show’s finale. In that supplementary material, he’s still unfailingly friendly and open, but trying to keep a low profile given his new identity and cursed immortality.

Kenzaki in this series, on the other hand, is withdrawn and taciturn, but the audience (like me) was first inclined to attribute that to either having to endure such an anonymous existence for so long, or just simply a consequence of having a different writer on board with a different idea of the character’s direction. Now that we can see the events of the past two episodes through the hindsight of his betrayal, we know that what was initially thought to be kind mentorship and well-meaning guidance, was outright manipulation to raise the Riders’ spirits before crushing them totally.

As for Kenzaki’s true identity, well we haven’t gotten explicit confirmation yet, but the show sets it up pretty obviously to be Kuroto Dan in some form. Especially considering this is what we briefly see after Emu is defeated and fake-Kenzaki drops his appearance to reveal himself as a final bit of gloating.

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I’d recognize those stylish dress shoes anywhere

My guess? He created backup data of his consciousness in a game, and it’s now attempting to generate this evil energy with the labyrinth in order to revive himself. But given how the show has already pulled off this HUGE plot twist, I’m half-expecting another shoe to drop for the third and final episode that will shock everyone yet again.

I was pleasantly surprised with the last episode, that something ostensibly intended to only serve as a tie-in for the spring crossover movie, wound up being almost as exciting and interesting as the main series itself. Not to mention, the added bonus of including such well-done extensions of older Rider characters that are entirely faithful to their original appearances, and have a meaningful impact within the story itself and their interactions with each other. Regardless of how Chou Super Hero Taisen turns out (we won’t get subs for it until, like, December), this is well worth watching so far and I’m happy that such effort went into writing and producing it.

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