Ex-Aid #30: Debugging

Previously on Ex-Aid:

Ex-Aid #29: Fearful Symmetry

The last episode of Ex-Aid that I felt somewhat disappointed in was Episode 24, and that was understandable since it was mostly setup for Chronicle’s advent, not to mention dealing with the requirement of having to fit the annual Sentai crossover in with its run-time. Despite that, it managed to deliver a cute little episodic plot that gave all the characters a chance to play off of each other in fun ways. In addition, it also ended on a big cliffhanger where Poppy becomes brainwashed over to the Bugster’s faction, and Chronicle is finished.

I felt a little let down by the hype in this episode, because while it delivers on some really cool moments, overall it treats its material with a level of severity and drama that is, frankly, a little exhausting at this point. It’s tough to build yourself up as the “final” showdown when you’re only 30 episodes into a 48-50 episode season, and we haven’t even gotten the main Rider’s final form yet.

Don’t get me wrong, Ex-Aid on a bad day is still leagues better than some other disappointing Rider seasons I’ve sat through. But at this point in the season, a few flaws of the show are becoming more apparent. Ex-Aid is also by no means the only Rider show that has begun to flounder at this point (Fourze had the same problem in my opinion, where it switched focus entirely over to clearing out the Horoscope Zodiarts before the finale), but with about 15-20 episodes to go until the finish line, it’s getting more difficult to predict how the show can maintain its momentum going into the endgame.

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I can hear the Parad/Emu shippers squealing from over here.

The main conflict that drives this week’s episode deals with how to counter Parad’s complete control of the playing field right now. With Emu under his control, the remaining Riders have no way of fighting against him, the maximum level between Hiiro and Taiga only being 50. Even that level involves a Dual Gashat that can only be used by one of them at a time. To try and give them a fighting chance again, Poppy, despite Taiga’s warnings about possible dangers, uses the Level 0 gashat she found last week to try and investigate a way to suppress the infectiousness and virulence of the Bugster virus.

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Completely expectedly, she also finds a back-up file that Kuroto laid down in the event of his demise, hidden away in the game’s programming. One has to wonder just how many back-up plans Kuroto has in place at this point, we already saw one of them in Kamen Sentai Gorider, although thankfully this one doesn’t involve feeding on the eternal despair of dead Kamen Riders. We can also assume the presence of this back-up save is the reason why he hid away the Level 0 gashat in the first place. With Parad snooping around his base of operations, he didn’t want a trump card against the Bugsters being discovered or destroyed.

Speaking of Bugsters, Emu is still suffering from the effects of the virus, but Parad figures out how to provoke him back into fighting at his top level – by threatening his friends. This motivates Emu to shrug off the symptoms and fight normally again.

Note to Parad: pissing off “nice guy” main Riders is ALWAYS A TERRIBLE IDEA.

The bad news, he’s still fighting as Emu. Without his M persona (now that it’s been totally absorbed and subsumed by Parad), Emu may have the determination to fight, and is still the best fighter out of all three of the CR Riders, but he’s not quite good enough to beat Parad.

The good news, Poppy finds a way to cheat this fight though. Within the Level 0 gashat, using the data stored in the game, and the virus itself, Poppy allows Kuroto to revive as a Bugster copy.

When he arrives on the scene where all the other Riders lay defeated, Kuroto sets about beating the crap out of Parad in revenge. With the use of Genm Level 0, he can prevent Parad from using some of his Bugster abilities, such as possessing Emu, and gets a few good hits in before Parad retreats from the game area. Now, as long as Kuroto is around, Parad is unable to hijack Emu’s body as before.

Kuroto’s new Bugster form also provides another unexpected benefit – to the heroes, that is. Despite his completely unchanged (and unhinged) personality, Kuroto’s body is now made of viral data. Poppy keeps him on a short leash when he starts getting out of line, since she can now trap him in the Bugvisor device, the same way Kuroto collected the data from the other Bugsters when he was compiling the programming for Chronicle.

Interestingly, this follows up my commentary on conscience formation from last week. I had assumed there was still a connection between Parad and Emu that might allow Parad a chance at redemption later on in the series. However, now with that connection severed due to the Level 0 function, Parad is well and truly on his own. This might drive him to further extremes in his quest to fight Emu to the death, the same way that his initial severance during the Dr. Pac-Man incident provoked his development into the genocidal psychopath we see already.

However, Kuroto, now that he’s brought back to life, also has an incentive to behave morally, or at least in a more moral fashion than before, with the threat of punishment hanging over his head. He’s definitely not a good person though and can’t be trusted on his own in the slightest. At least, not yet. As I noted last week, there are many cases of evil or antagonistic characters who change over time, either through the example of other heroes around them, or in imitation of their behavior. Being forced to work with Emu might start that process.

I complained when Kuroto’s return was originally revealed in magazine scans, because I felt that it cheapened a great moment that led to significant development for both Parad and Emu’s characters, but I really do enjoy seeing Kuroto Dan back. And to Ex-Aid’s credit, it handled it within the plot in pretty much the best way possible.

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This episode has some good points to it, such as the return of KAMI DA to bring with him absurd amounts of ham slathered across the camera lens in every featured scene. But it also illustrates several of the problems with the show overall.

First of all, the victim of the week is a complete afterthought, so much so that his infection is resolved off-screen by Hiiro. He’s really only there to make Hiiro feel bad about Emu and to persuade him to help his intern, since he’s still trying to fight on his own while handicapped by the viral infection. It’s even more frustrating because Hiiro is set to use his Level 50 Taddle Fantasy form – one of my absolute favorite forms in this series – and again, only is allowed to do cool things with it while OFF SCREEN.

RIP CGI effects budget, I guess.

Ex-Aid is a unique Rider show in that it has routinely avoided episodic Victim-Of-The-Week plots. At first this was a nice change of pace, considering how many post-Decade Rider series stick so heavily to that formula, but it became a formula first for a reason. It allows the character development for the Riders and other supporting cast members to develop at a more measured pace, and then saves the big plot-relevant conflicts for times when that development is established and we can see the full measure of its growth in context with the main plot. If the characters are strong enough, and the individual episodes well-written, the smaller scale stories can be just as interesting as big status-quo changing reveals. Ex-Aid has spent so much time making EVERY battle and EVERY episode so crucial to the plot that it gets exhausting after awhile, and at this point, it’s impossible for every showdown to live up to that hype anymore.

Take for example the main crux of this episode, which marginalized the victim subplot and Hiiro’s role within it – the fight between Emu and Parad. This episode spends a lot of time building this up as a showdown with serious consequences, Emu even sounds like he expects to die as he bequeaths his final requests to the other Riders and says his goodbyes. There’s also a lot of lines before, during, and after the fight about how this is the “final” conflict to decide the fate of all humanity and Bugsters.

Now, the characters may see it in that way, definitely, but the audience knows this can’t possibly by the ultimate showdown of ultimate destiny, because we’re still only at episode 30. It saps a lot of the dramatic tension out of the fight. In the end, it’s only a set-up to show that Emu now lacks the edge his Genius Gamer M persona granted him, and also to allow Kuroto to make his flashy return appearance to save his butt.

Speaking of fights, the overall structure of those fights in Ex-Aid has been falling into expected patterns that make them a little boring to watch at times. I’ve noted this elsewhere (I think most recently in one of my Mebius articles), but good fights in any medium should have a story-line of their own. That is, apparent strategies, deliberate actions and reactions, that help the audience to stay invested in what’s going on. Ex-Aid too often disregards that and shoots for pure spectacle, but there’s only so many times you can make stuff explode, or fill up the screen with colorful CGI effects before a viewer starts tuning out.

This fight between Emu and Parad has some really striking visual moments to it (Maximum Mighty’s aerial meteor smash that plants Parad literally two feet into the dirt, for example), but it just is too familiar to so many other fights in this show. Trading a few blows, one or two flashy special moves, then everyone charges up for their finishing move to duel against the other. Just like with explosions, there’s only so many times you can hear Kageyama yell CRITICAL STRIKE before the excitement wears thin.

I would give my left kidney to see a Rider show that goes back to mostly hand-to-hand fight choreography and loses the emphasis on effects-heavy finishing moves and form changes, but that will remain a pipe dream so long as Toei and Bandai need to make money from selling noisy, plastic toys to children.

I also wish the show would sit down and explain the mechanics of the virus and its infection a bit more explicitly. The lack of victim-of-the-week plots here hurts it as well, since we don’t get a clear idea of what the normal course of infection looks like, except for one flashback case with Hiiro’s girlfriend, Saki. The show barely establishes this before it moves on to show how the virus changes, evolves, and how other characters like Kuroto exploit the virus in other deviant ways. In other words, without a clear idea of its basis or normal characteristics, it’s tough for the audience to recognize how significant the exceptions actually are. Especially since the show has concerned itself almost entirely with Emu’s condition ever since he created Mighty Bros. XX, and that’s probably the most notable exception from anything that might be considered “normal” in regards to the function of the virus.

As a result, all these later additions to try and counter the virus – Maximum Mighty and now Level 0 GENM – feel artificially stapled onto the script to correct plot holes.

I’m inclined to agree with you there, buddy.

If the basic mechanics of the virus and its mode of infection were established better at the start, the mechanics of how these tools can be used to modify or cure it would also develop more naturally and consistently from the show’s writing. I’ve heard a lot of complaints from other viewers questioning why Emu doesn’t just constantly use Maximum Mighty’s reprogramming ability to defeat all the Bugsters and cure people, and you know what, that’s a damn good question.

But, despite all these complaints I’ve aired out, I still want to reiterate that I’m immensely enjoying Ex-Aid from week to week, probably the most of any TV show I’ve tuned into. A large reason why is due to the consistently strong acting from everyone in the main cast. I can’t think of any recurring actors who feel wooden or stiff at this point, everyone’s grown so well into their characters that the scenes with everyone interacting together feel very natural and are a lot of fun to watch.

I also want to give special note to Emu’s actor the past couple weeks for doing a great job of imitating Parad’s mannerisms.

A neat detail of continuity, what gives Parad away in this scene is the fact he slips and uses “ore” to refer to himself, instead of “boku”, which was also how we used to tell the difference between Emu and M earlier in the show.

Most actors that they recruit for main Rider roles nowadays are relatively inexperienced and young, but they cast a good one this year, and I hope he goes on to a successful career after this.

A few times, I’ve said that if Ex-Aid managed to keep up its momentum into the end-game, then it might wind up being my favorite Rider series of all time. At this point, I’m not sure if it’ll live up to that expectation, but it’s almost certainly sealed a place very close to the top five, if not within that list already. (I’ll have to decide what to knock off in its favor, Gaim? Agito? Drive?) Not to mention, we haven’t gotten to the finale arc itself yet, and many Rider series are made or broken by the last 5 or 10 episodes. The character and thematic development of OOO past about episode 31 is what made it my favorite Rider season, the last three or four episodes of Gaim are what kept it from that top slot in comparison.  Right now, Ex-Aid might feel like it’s blown its steam off too early because of its initial frantic pace, but there’s still enough time left before the finale to build it back up, and end on a high note.

We will just have to wait and see.

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