With Season 2 freshly begun, I figured now was a good time to air out my thoughts on the first season of Amazons. It was met with a lot of head-scratching and cautious hype when first announced, but was pretty widely praised across the fandom as it aired for being a breath of fresh air in the midst of a particularly disappointing run of the main Kamen Rider series. However, looking back on it has provoked some more divisive takes on the characters, plot, and overall tone of the show. In this write-up, I’ll address my general reflection on it in the wake of its ending, and also provide some of my expectations for the second season.
I love toku shows written by Kobayashi. I also love Rider series that aren’t afraid to tackle darker subject matter, and even get a little scary at times. (I’m a firm believer in Steven Spielberg’s principle that kids need to have the crap scared out of them occasionally). I also really, really enjoy the thoughtful, more character-driven, and at times, more somber tone of the early Heisei-era Rider series such as Kuuga, Agito, Blade and (for all its admitted flaws), Faiz. So all things being equal, you would think I would immensely enjoy the short Amazons series that Toei produced for Amazon Prime Japan’s streaming service, right?
Well, yes and no.
There are some things that this series did very, very well, and it provides a unique iteration of classic tropes within the Kamen Rider franchise. Because of that, I want to applaud it for trying something new, especially compared to the toyetic, toothless, hot mess that the main Rider series was at that time – Ghost. However, there are some very real problems with the series, that in retrospect, prevented me from enjoying it as much as I hoped I would.
Amazons only has a passing resemblance to the original Amazon series during the Showa-era Rider run. It was pretty unique itself, going from a purely tech-based origin for its main Rider, to a weird organic ancient Aztec techno-magic basis for why he turns into a brightly colored bug-lizard man to fight evil monsters. To fight real monsters very messily, mind you. The brutality of the fights – even with cheesy-looking foam rubber and fake blood effects – combined with low ratings, led to the abrupt cancellation of the season before it even got to 30 episodes. The modern Amazons revival borrows influences from the visual design of the show, as well as its penchant for gouts of fake blood and dismemberment in its fights, but the very soul of the show, how it treats its “heroes”, is so vastly different from the original, that they make for a pretty interesting contrast to each other.
Despite the brutal fights, the old Amazon series was one with a lot of heart, particularly for its main titular Rider. Although Daisuke Yamamoto is Japanese by birth, he is an outsider in Japan because of his isolation from modern society (having been essentially raised by wolves in the Amazon jungle he was named for), as well as his role as a Rider. He wants nothing more than to find a place where he can belong, with friends who trust him and he can connect with, and fights to create that place, and protect those who he does eventually befriend. That always lent the series a more optimistic and family-friendly angle, even amidst the Daisetsudan slicing finishing moves being tossed around.
In the modern series, instead of fighting against the typical evil organization hell-bent on world domination via the schemes of its mutant enemy generals, the Riders fight against other “Amazons”, or creatures born from a new type of rapidly evolving, artificially created cell. Two years before the events of the series itself, these creatures escaped in a lab accident, and spread across the country. Now the Amazons can appear as human, and live unnoticed by other humans within their society, but their monstrous nature is slowly starting to assert itself, as they individually start going berserk and hunt to feed on humans. Most Amazons don’t want this fate, having been adopted unknowingly into human society and just want to live quietly, but the show never presents an alternative way of curing this eventual breakdown into a bestial state.
Haruka, the first protagonist we meet in this series, is also an Amazon himself, although we come to find out by the end of the first season, that he’s actually a unique hybrid of Amazon and human DNA.
The secondary protagonist, Jin, was formerly the research scientist who first discovered the Amazon cells, and had such guilt over their weaponization, and eventual release, that he engineered himself into an Amazon by an injection of the cells, in order to hunt down and kill all of them (Yes, all of them, eventually including destroying himself at the end of his mission).
There’s another faction of heroes involved in the story as well. To try and contain the threat, the pharmaceutical company that created the cells, Nozama (har har har), recruits an “extermination” squad, that hunts down rabid Amazons to kill them. Underfunded, unprofessional, and backed up by a “tame” Amazon (named Mamoru, literally in Japanese “to protect”), they nevertheless are tasked with tracking and eliminating threats as they arise.
Haruka and Jin both embrace some aspects of classic Rider characters. They’re both kin to the monsters that they fight, obviously. In addition to that though, they have unique angles to their character motivation that provide an interesting juxtaposition to other elements.
Just like the original Amazon, most of Haruka’s character motivation is based around a desire to create a place of belonging, not just for himself, but for the other Amazons that are still peaceful as well. However, because the show never provides us an alternative for curbing the eventual degradation into predatory instinct for the other Amazons (Haruka himself being immune to it because he also is part human), that willingness to shepherd the other Amazons and protect their existence, will inevitably lead to some humans’ deaths as those Amazons go rabid. Haruka wants to protect both sides by putting down the rabid Amazons, but has no ideal options to pursue in order to match this high-minded ideal. He can’t possibly save everyone. Either he values humans as most important and thus will join Jin’s mission to exterminate the threat entirely, or he values the existence of Amazons over humans and is okay with some of them dying to protect that. Even if he doesn’t want to see Amazons flat-out dominate the world, the very fact that he sees a few innocent casualties as an acceptable sacrifice to maintain an illusory peace means that he values that peace and continued existence more than human lives.
That’s radically different from pretty much every other Kamen Rider protagonist in the franchise’s history. “Acceptable sacrifices for a common good” is usually the motivation of the villains in most of these series. It’s also one of the biggest issues I had with the first season in general. I felt that with this set-up, the show was trying to plead for a moral equivalence that it did not earn. Sure, the Amazons themselves never asked for this fate, and are not to blame for their predatory nature reasserting itself. It would be a tragedy to drive them to extinction. But I see it as necessary to protect human lives.
Does that make me species-ist? I dunno, but it’s where my moral convictions would come down in this case.
Because of that, I was much more sympathetic to Jin’s side of the story through most of the season. However, Jin also has several issues that keep him from fully living up to his title of Rider. In many ways, his backstory is right at home alongside origins of other Showa-era Riders. Scientist regretful over the misuse of his discovery? Turns himself into a monster in order to fight back against a secret threat to humanity, in spite of evil bureaucrats and shady governmental dealings barring real action? Hell yes, that’s perfectly in line with a lot of classic Rider stories. However, what also characterizes many of those classic Riders is, despite the fact that they are decidedly inhuman physically, they still maintain their human spirit, and exhibit a distinctive warmth and empathy towards other humans that motivates their continued struggle. In turning himself into an Amazon, Jin killed something fundamental about his own humanity, not just in the physical sense, but also in terms of deadening that empathy. Jin is harsh, cruel, and begins to take pleasure in the sport of hunting Amazons towards the end of the first season. By that point, he acts more like a monster than the other Amazons themselves. Even if his original mission is intact, it becomes subsumed into the bloodlust that seems to characterize all the Amazons eventually. But instead of suppressing it, Jin embraced it, assuming that the correct ends would justify his means.
So with both of our heroes representing corruptions of the platonic Rider archetype, you may be wondering who exactly the audience can root for in this conflict? Nozama is shady and run by bureaucrats who all seek to exploit the Amazons for their own ends, whether as weapons, mad science projects, or just a wish to live out a megalomaniacal god complex. Haruka tries and fails to have his cake and eat it too. Jin has completely killed his humanity and in the process becomes more of a monster than the Amazons themselves.
But as it turns out, the most heroic side in this story – and really, some of the most heroic characters in Rider stories in general – turns out to be the Extermination Squad themselves. A ragtag bunch of opportunistic outcasts, who bicker, complain, drink, and occasionally manage to succeed at saving people in the process of not getting killed themselves, wind up being the most likeable bunch in the first season. They are strictly human (with the exception of Mamoru, but he factors into this as well as we’ll see), but what really sets them apart from the other two Rider protagonists is that in the process of achieving seemingly-selfish goals, they’re willing to sacrifice far more personally to save those who are close personally to them.
I mentioned this a bit in my article dealing with the finale of Agito, the characters who wind up behaving in the most heroic fashion in that show are the ones who create personal connections, and see the Agitos as individual persons, rather than threats. The same thing happens here. Even though they fight against Amazons who become direct threats to human beings, the squad also winds up becoming attached to one Amazon they’ve grown to unite around. Mamoru starts off as something like a pet puppy, but winds up being someone that they throw themselves into a suicide mission to try and save in the season finale. They are aware equally of both the human casualties on their side of the conflict, and how awful the violence they visit on the Amazons is.
Haruka is a sympathetic protagonist, but I empathized more with the Squad because they managed to hold on to heroic actions within their means while having a more acute awareness of the stakes involved. Haruka starts off as isolated and sheltered in a sterile facsimile of a home life, and never seems to shake that illusory ideal, even as his methods of enforcing it necessarily become more hardened.
The Extermination squad were never under such illusions, they all had lives that consisted equally of positive aspects and challenges (some more than others), and when given an opportunity to return to those small lives, they instead chose to return back to their soldiers’ lives in order to try and rescue someone they cared about, Mamoru. Foolhardy? Maybe, but those actions seem to me simultaneously simpler, yet more admirable morally than either Haruka or Jin. The former quietly accepts collateral damage as a consequence of maintaining a tenuous peace, the latter abandons peace and humanity entirely, but the Extermination squad doesn’t need a pretense of their ends justifying their means to keep up the illusion of heroism.
The reason why I enjoy a lot of Kobayashi’s work within toku (OOO is my single favorite Rider series, and ToQ, similarly, is my favorite Sentai), is because a lot of the finales for character and plot arcs in her shows deal with the protagonists choosing a third, more challenging path, alternative to a false dichotomy dilemma presented. Although this third way may be difficult and require a great deal of sacrifice, the main hero who has the courage to face it is eventually successful because of the friendships and allies that they’ve made along the way. They usually create these friends and allies by holding consistently to those ideals, and that backup allows them an option that they couldn’t take advantage of alone otherwise. In this series, where the ideals for every other faction are corrupted as the show progresses further, the Extermination Squad represents that third way BECAUSE they fight for the sake of personal connections, rather than using high-minded hypocritical ideals to justify their shortcomings.
Major character conflicts and development aside, there are a few other issues I have with this first season. The first one is the relentlessly greenish-grey, monochromatic color palette that the series exhibits. The suits for the Amazons, including the Alpha and Omega Rider forms, are gorgeous and have some neat design details. Details that are unfortunately muddied up by the filters used in the series. I can understand wanting to use such a direction for the cinematography to emphasize the darker tones of the writing itself, but the show would be a lot easier to watch if it just lightened up those filters a bit.
Secondly, the pacing is glacial, particularly in the first few episodes. It might read a bit better going through and marathoning the series in a shorter period of time, but there were multiple points where I was just bored by everyone standing around and moping. The series has a great talent for building dramatic tension and emotion when it wants to, so it’s frustrating when so much of an episode feels padded out by vacantly-extended, lingering shots.
Despite these issues, I still very much recommend watching through the series at least once. Even if it doesn’t always work as I hoped, I appreciate Toei at least trying something unique in explicitly aiming for a mature audience with the series. Not to mention, as I said, the general art design in terms of the suits is fantastic, and the fight choreography is notably spectacular in most places in the first season’s run. I’m looking forward a lot to the second season, even if I won’t be writing about it weekly, like my Ex-Aid recaps. (As much as I’d love to spend all my days just watching toku shows and writing about them, I do have a full-time job I’m responsible for).
Already from just seeing the first episode of season 2, I empathize with the main character, Chihiro, a bit more than I did with Haruka off the bat, and think he might be a bit more of a grounded protagonist. Especially with the apparent loss of the Extermination Squad (to be replaced by two opposing groups who fight Amazons, one coldly professional, and the other a band of teenaged adrenaline junkies), the second season will need someone immediately for the audience to root for in order to keep their attention on the plot. But, as I said, I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes, and at the very least, there’s just as much fake blood spurting from limbs dismembered in the most radical fashion this time around too.