Previously on Ex-Aid:
In response to the Ministry of Health recalling Kamen Rider Chronicle and revealing its real stakes, Amagasaki Ren claims that beating the game will revive everyone who has lost their lives while playing it. This, in turns, draws in a fresh wave of players to risk their lives in the conflict. Unwilling to merely hang back with such a prize on the line, Nico takes up her own Rider Player gashat to fight the Bugster bosses as well. Taiga’s anger at her recklessness turns into a conviction to protect her as a doctor, no matter the consequences, and the two of them team up to continue fighting through the game.
Meanwhile, Emu still holds out hope that Poppy, now brainwashed into serving as an enforcer within the game of Chronicle, can be saved and redeemed to fight alongside the Riders once again…
Weirdly enough this section of the show parallels an earlier sequence of plot events very closely. In episode 18, Emu and the other Riders dealt with a friendly Bugster who wanted to live peacefully with his host, another Genm Corp. programmer who made his game. However, they thought this impossible, as previously it was thought that the only way Bugsters could become fully-actualized physical beings was by killing their hosts from the stress of the infection. But Emu, being the genius gamer he is, figures out that they can succeed at clearing the Bugster’s game without destroying him. All they had to do was make him happy by feeding him Burgers!
Similarly in this episode, we’re faced with the question of Poppy’s true nature as a Bugster, Parad reverts her back to what he thinks is her “basic” programming by erasing her memories of working with the Cyber Rescue division and Genm Corp. itself. Emu, in an attempt to get the old Poppy back, basically recovers that “save data” and restores her memories, and leaves her with a choice. Either she works with Parad and the Bugsters to destroy humanity, or rejoins the CR Riders to save it.
In the end, despite Parad’s insistence that Bugsters necessarily want the destruction of human beings, Poppy discovers that she also can’t bring herself to hurt others in this game, and throws away her Driver that allows her to transform into her Rider form.
Just like Burgermon, she’s from a game where being defeated by a player doesn’t involve death or destruction, she’s made happy by sharing her music with other people and seeing them dance. Emu manages to clear her game in the same way, by making her smile again in realizing that desire and the fact that she doesn’t have to fight and die against the other players. (Also, credit to Poppy’s actress here, she does a really convincing job selling Poppy’s distress and fear in this scene.)
However the question of one’s basic programming comes even further to the forefront with the end of this episode. You see, shortly after the Burgermon episode, Kuroto Dan reveals to Emu that as Patient Zero, he was the source of the Bugster Virus infection. Already suffering from symptoms of the disease following exposure to a massive viral load from activating the Mighty Bros. XX gashat, Emu succumbs, and his alternate “M” personality takes over.
With the end of this episode, Emu also is forced to come to terms with his dual natures, but instead of being overtaken by his already-latent infection, Parad forcibly takes over his body instead.
Hold on to your butts, this article is about to get crazy.
One concept I’ve always been fascinated with in science is the idea of fractal patterns, constantly-repeating structures that replicate themselves as you move further in, or further out. Stick around in any scientific field for long enough and you’ll start to see them, whether in protein folding, atomic structures, limb arrangements on plants, or even in the radiative adaptations of organisms into niches within environments themselves.
Stick around in fictional narratives and their study as well, and you’ll start to see them too. Repeating patterns, the same stories told on different levels, that reflect similar ideas on different scales. It’s fascinating stuff, and people have made some big business and academic names on this basis (you’ve likely heard of Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth”, I assume).
Any good story, one that captures your attention and sticks in your memory, will reflect, on some level, an aspect of reality that strikes one as truthful. If stories didn’t seem realistic, we’d see them as “bad” or “wrong” in some way, hitting an uncanny valley of “almost there, but not quite”. Sometimes these aspects of truth arrange themselves in a sort of fractal pattern as I described. We can see one within the structure of Ex-Aid itself, reflecting not just its own narrative structure, but also a recurring pattern that shows up in other works of fiction, and philosophy itself.
First of all, Ex-Aid reflects itself in repeating a pattern of events that we see earlier in the series. I already mentioned that they deal with the question of whether Bugsters necessarily require the death of humans in order to self-actualize, but almost immediately after that episode, we get one that then deals with Emu’s own dual natures, both his humanity and his Bugster side. Both of the episodes representing the first iteration of this pattern dealt with Kuroto Dan as the primary antagonist, and thus are dealt with in context of his schemes and manipulations. Kuroto destroyed Burgermon because he had no purpose within Chronicle. Then he turns around and attempts to destroy Emu, motivated by the sheer petty jealousy that has driven him this entire time.
Moving to our new level within the narrative, our villain focus has changed, but the sequence of events stays largely the same. Poppy in her original characterization had no purpose within Parad’s designs for Chronicle, so he destroys that in order to turn her against her friends (further physically abusing her when she refuses to fight after Emu restores her memories).
Then, also jealous at Emu’s refusal to participate in his orchestrated game of death, Parad forcibly takes over Emu’s body to force that conflict within himself.
At first I was a little annoyed to find that Ex-Aid was reusing plot points, but on further reflection, it’s a neat little spiral that shows how Emu has developed as a character. It also shows how the stakes involved have changed from simply trying to stop Kuroto’s plans, to a wider question of the nature of humanity, and the Bugsters that humanity has created.
The fractal metaphor has another use within Ex-Aid itself, and that is shown by relating fractals to their most common physical manifestation – crystals.
Yes, crystals. If you remember previously in this show, Kuroto himself used crystals as a metaphor for Emu’s character, which we could extrapolate into another useful application in showing how Emu’s dual personas complement, rather than conflict with, each other.
The use of crystals to describe personality traits also is found in the works of Carl Jung. Jung was one of the first psychoanalysts in the early 20th century, and was a contemporary of Freud. Like Sigmund Freud, Jung attempted to systematize and organize human experiences, thought and behavior into predictable patterns, although these patterns were quite different from Freud’s own hypotheses. In particular, Jung believed that instead of being born as blank slates (tabula rasa), human beings’ personalities and experiences tended to crystallize themselves around specific “archetypes”. Shared through the “collective unconscious”, these archetypes represent specific potential forms that individuals participated in unknowingly.
Now, while his theories have issues in practical application – human experiences aren’t as predictable or consistent as we’d like to more easily believe – the idea that human nature is ordered around a higher pattern is a very old one, stretching back to Greek philosophy. Plato thought of everything in existence as being patterned off of idealized “Forms” that existed a priori (as a necessary precursor) to the physical universe.
I don’t bring this up only to sound really smart (okay maybe a little, but there is a point to this, I swear), while it’s difficult to apply Jungian archetypes consistently to real-world individuals, I believe they are still useful to describe many aspects of characterization within narratives. Those narratives, as I mentioned, tend to pattern themselves in part off of reality, even if they don’t replicate it perfectly. In this case, one aspect of Jungian psychology that proves useful in analyzing Ex-Aid is the concept of the shadow archetype.
Yes, believe me, we all made the Persona 4 jokes when talking about this episode, but it’s an applicable metaphor, even if Jung did it first. In the words of Wikipedia:
“The shadow is a representation of the personal unconscious as a whole and usually embodies the compensating values to those held by the conscious personality. Thus, the shadow often represents one’s dark side, those aspects of oneself that exist, but which one does not acknowledge or with which one does not identify.”
Emu has already had to come to terms with his own Shadow persona in the previous narrative layer, when M came to dominate his conscious personality. Growing and developing in parallel with each other, and with Emu eventually becoming aware of his own alternate persona as M, Emu had to acknowledge the strengths of his Shadow in order to effectively work as both a Doctor, and as a Rider.
Now he’s forced to confront what his Shadow would be like stripped of that complementary, mediating influence. Parad isn’t just obsessed with victory and proving himself stronger than his challengers, he is incapable of seeing those challenges as anything other than an outright life-or-death struggle. When Poppy doesn’t fit that worldview, he erases her memories and indoctrinates in her the same struggle he desires. When Emu succeeds in clearing Poppy’s game without anyone dying in the process, he throws a hissy fit and demands to see that bloodsport, by taking over Emu’s body and forcing him to fight himself as we see for the preview of the next episode.
After seeing this episode, here’s my working theory of Parad’s origins: I think Parad was M in the time between his original infection through Kuroto’s schemes, and the Dr. Pac-Man incident (still can’t believe that’s an actual thing). We already knew that the Bugsters were patterned off of Emu’s own game designs as a kid, when he made Mighty Brothers XX in his loneliness, of course he also would’ve imagined a friend to play it with. That friend would then become the other half of MBXX, or M. As his infection progressed while growing up, eventually that competitive side, the part of him that lived for playing against others in video game challenges, grew and controlled his personality to drive him to become the accomplished professional gamer he was. But then the surgery that removed the virus from Emu occurred, and when the virus was released, so was M, which developed in isolation to become the Parad we see today.
But what about Emu’s current ability to use Mighty Bros. XX? That’s relatively easy to explain, obviously some of the virus was left in Emu’s system as a subclinical infection, it’s what lets him use the Gamer Driver system in the first place. The more he used the gashats and the Driver system, the more virus he was exposed to, which increased the viral load in his body until it essentially “regenerated” M to manifest as the other half of Mighty Brothers XX. Like I said, this M developed in tandem with Emu’s own self, it went wild when his infection hit critical levels thanks to Kuroto inflicting a huge amount of stress on him, but now the two personas have balanced out.
Parad on the other hand, is what M would’ve become if Emu wasn‘t able to reassert himself back during episode 20. In fact, removed from what is essentially his own purpose as a being, to compete against Emu in games, he’s actually become something of an unreliable narrator when it comes to judging the basic motivations and desires of not just the Bugsters, but also humanity in general. He assumes that basic nature is one that only wants conflict, and not just any conflict, but violent conflict that necessitates the destruction of one side over the other. In abusing and indoctrinating Poppy, he shows that what he thinks all Bugsters desire is really only what he himself desires – the extinction of humanity.
This inability to see individuals as, well, individuals rather than utilities to be used, or cogs that fit into one’s wider world-view, is a common trait in villains in stories like this. In fact, it’s often used in a narrative that Kamen Rider exploits in almost every season – one where the hero and the villain are closely connected, either through shared origins or powers. (I discuss it at length in a previous article in dealing with Western comic book superheroes). Emu had to rein in M by taking that competitive spirit and tempering it with an understanding of the value of individual beings – both Bugsters and humans – to fight to protect them instead of fighting only to win. Parad starts with that same competitive spirit, but without any brakes on this crazy train, has spiraled far further away into villainy than I think anyone watching this show expected.