Ex-Aid #33: Dichotomies and Dilemmas

Previously on Ex-Aid:

Ex-Aid #32: The Bad RNG Seed

Putting aside their personal issues and conflicting personalities, the four-man Rider team of Emu, Hiiro, Taiga, and now Shin Kuroto Dan unites together to try and defeat the final three Bugsters of Chronicle. However, Kuroto reveals that in order to clear the game, they must also defeat “Gemdeus”, the final boss of the game…. which he has programmed to be literally unbeatable. Thanks, Kuroto.

Unbeatable, that is, without the absurd power of Kamen Rider Cronus – a special Rider form that can only be unlocked by the “ultimate” antibody that grants immunity to all strains of the Bugster virus. But before they can worry about that step, the Riders first must all defeat Parad, Graphite and Lovelica in order to trigger the endgame.

With the combined power of their newly-forged teamwork, the Riders all have the final line of Bugsters on the ropes. Just then however, Masamune Dan, freshly released from prison, appears with the Cronus Gashat in hand. To everyone’s shock – even his own son – Masamune has the antibody that allows him to use the form, after infecting himself 16 years ago. Within his domain of frozen time, using the Pause function, Masamune effortlessly destroys not only the Riders, but also the Bugsters, including permanently killing Lovelica.

Now, with the only chance at ending Chronicle for good in the hands of a man who wishes just to exploit the game for maximum profit value, how will Riders fight back against Masamune’s complete control of the conflict?

Episode #33

Now cured of his brief jaunt as a Ride Player last week, Hiiro’s father, Director Kagami is back at the CR, but just as lost now that everyone is puzzling over how to possibly counter the awesome power that Masamune wields.

Masamune himself keeps busy by trying to bring the Bugsters to heel. However, with this encounter we see a stark contrast between the mode of conflict the Bugsters wish to compete within, and the vision Masamune himself has for the game of Chronicle.

Parad isn’t exactly the most reliable narrator when it comes to dealing with the overall aims of the Bugsters. Since we know that the Bugsters don’t necessarily require bloodsport for fulfillment, he doesn’t speak for all of the possible personality variations that have shown up in the series, most notably with Poppy a few weeks ago. That being said, all the Bugsters who follow him willingly do so because they share in his goal of an eternal game where the Bugsters hunt human players within Chronicle.

And the game itself continues still. Even though the Ministry has effectively banned the game within the country and the doctors of the CR monitor its use for new players, there are still people willing to brave the challenge against warnings in order to gain fame or bring back loved ones lost to the game already. We have another case with a Ride Player this week as well, but it’s such an afterthought I feel like I’ve wasted your time just mentioning it. The guy doesn’t even get a name. 

Anyways, my point being that before Masamune showed up with Cronus, the game itself was at a weird sort of impasse, where the Bugsters were effectively immortal within the structure of Chronicle, and the data of the game’s victims were stored on the proto Gashats of the Bugsters who killed them. The game then became a war of attrition, the Riders accumulating small victories. Taiga and Nico steadily working in the background to clear the other Bugsters, while the other heroes geared up to try and defeat the top-ranked bosses with the hope of restoring the victims’ lives. The Bugsters themselves had very little to lose in the immediate fight though, since through Chronicle they could always be revived by their comrades at the end of the day.

However, in this scene where Masamune delivers a fruit basket and an ultimatum, we see his motivation for entering the game as Cronus, and that is purely his business sense to oversee his company’s assets.

Masamune’s reveal tips the balance in a new direction, one that seeks to prolong the game, but not because he enjoys the fight itself, as Parad does, but because he just wants his product to be popular and spread to the widest market possible. I noted last week that Masamune’s character was chilling and we can see more clearly why here. While Kuroto and Parad were both cruelly utilitarian in how they dealt with others around them, that utilitarianism was a sort of hedonism that just sought to derive their own pleasure from using others around them. Kuroto only wanted to show off how special and talented he was, and Parad just wants to have fun within the game. Masamune shares a lot of Kuroto’s arrogant god-complex, but he takes it one step further in seeing everyone else as not just tools to be used for his plans, but products of the company, and thus his rightful duty to manipulate and control them based on their worth to the company.

Because of this manipulative connection, in the long stretches of monologue that Masamune gets in this episode, we see him contrasted most immediately with Kuroto, his son. His whole motivation for opposing his dad at this juncture is just because he’s mad that Masamune has upstaged his creation, and he doesn’t like being considered “property” of anyone as a result of it.

Well, I say that, but there is almost an undercurrent of genuine pain here. This deepens the mystery that I mentioned last week as to what exactly was going on behind the scenes of Genm Corp. Kuroto seems actually betrayed by Masamune’s coldness, and it appears that the reveal of his manipulation from the last episode was a surprise, he had no knowledge that Masamune was allowing all of this to occur under his watch and approval.

There’s another important sub-plot running in addition to this ultimate Father-Son showdown though. While Masamune unquestionably has control of the conflict because of his use of Cronus, he seeks out Hiiro to be his “right-hand man”, or a moderator within Chronicle to help maintain the balance of the game. While Hiiro refuses at first, Masamune dangles a carrot-on-a-stick in front of him that is carefully calculated to be irresistible, and that is Saki’s data on the proto-Dragon Knight Hunter Z Gashat.

We’ve seen Hiiro struggle with reconciling his duties as both a Doctor and a Rider in previous episodes, but now we have another layer added to that dilemma. In this plot, we see him also struggle with his personal emotions, against his professional duties. Remarkable, considering he warned against Emu falling into the same problem early on in the show.

The theme of dual personas and masks was one that was developed very early on in Ex-Aid alongside that element of his character, but seemed to get pushed to the side in favor of other themes such as dealing with mortality, the value of individual lives, and the ability of individuals to change said lives from predetermined paths. But in this episode we see it return with a vengeance, mostly dealing with characters who were previously thought to be simply one-dimensional and hardened, show unexpected emotion as that facade cracks.

Hiiro is the most prominent example. When Masamune antes up with Saki’s life on the line, Hiiro finds himself unable to risk the possibility of any harm coming to her, and accedes to the offer. Just as Taiga said in a previous episode, there’s the guy “underneath that doctor’s coat”, who still sees Saki’s death as his greatest failure. All the acclaim he’s gained as a genius surgeon and a strong Rider doesn’t mean anything as long as he’s plagued by that guilt. In this case, his betrayal is one borne mostly out of despair – seeing no better options other than going along with Masamune’s demands.

The other case within this archetype is Parad. Previously flippant and oblivious to the realities of death, being a Bugster himself, his character was entirely focused on being able to fight Emu forever within the game of Chronicle. Now that real, permanent death is a possibility for the Bugsters though, he falls into despair himself, terrified of losing his own life or the lives of his comrades around him.

Luckily, Graphite is around to talk some sense into him, and we see that the motivation of only desiring to “play” with Emu is still there. But now instead of fighting against him, Parad sees an opportunity to fight alongside him in order to combat Masamune and his new ally, Hiiro.

Within this episode, we also see a couple cases of characters who previously had hidden emotional sides, or shadows, who have now dispensed with the facades. One of them is Masamune, previously leading a double hidden life as the main manipulator behind Chronicle and the virus itself. His cold professionalism and fixation on market value of the company’s products doesn’t seem to be a mask, it seems to be his actual, true self revealed.

And yes, it’s horrifying.

The other character that fits this mold seems to be Emu.

Emu previously had his klutzy, awkward and unsure self – an overcompensation after losing the bulk of his M persona to form Parad six years ago – and the M persona which was brash, confrontational and boasting. Now that he’s dealt with severing Parad’s control over him and has grown through the challenges of the show, his character is neither the Emu we saw at the start of the show, or the M persona that he slipped into when playing games. Instead, we see someone who is optimistic and deeply concerned about protecting lives, but also is determined, and straightforward with challenges. While Emu may have doubted his own ability at times, he has never doubted the righteousness of his morals, and that belief in what he fights to protect has helped shape him into the main protagonist hero that chooses to confront Masamune despite knowing the sheer power he represents.

This is also what sets him apart from Hiiro. At the beginning of the show, Emu was unsure of himself, and Hiiro was supremely confident in his mission and ability to carry out his duties. Now the roles have been completely reversed.

I WOULD talk also about Taiga’s character in relation to all this but he didn’t do shit this episode, soooooooo….

All of these varying character personas and motivations come to a head in the final scenes of this episode, where Kuroto and the other CR Riders attempt to counter Masamune’s Pause ability by exploiting Kuroto’s own unique Bugster abilities. By infecting the Bugvisor Zwei before Masamune uses Pause, they try to use Kuroto as a sort of Trojan Horse virus to disable the function long enough for Emu to get a Critical Strike off. Ideally, this would be able to reprogram Cronus’ functions and prevent him from using Pause again.

But Hiiro’s despair drives him to strike away the final blow before it can land, and then walks off to serve under Masamune, all to protect Saki’s data and potentially bring her back from the dead.

While previous dilemmas with Hiiro’s character resolved with him following Emu’s example, this is a personal case where the stakes cause him to turn against the others.

_________________________________________________

We all made a LOT of Tachibana jokes when this episode first aired. Mostly because Blade the series is already meme-tastic and Tachibana jokes write themselves, with his weird penchant for spaghetti and meatballs, eating puzzle pieces, and just generally spending the first dozen-odd episodes of Kamen Rider Blade being an unlikable idiot who was manipulated easily by the villains.

Hiiro’s character and the decisions he makes in this episode really do remind me a lot of Tachibana from Blade. But not from early-game Tachibana, this instead reminds me quite a bit of what happened to his character later in the show, after the writing team changed, at about this same point in its run. At this point, we find out that Kenzaki, the main Rider of the show, is able to use the Rouzer system that creates the suit and weapons the Riders use so effectively because he has a stupidly high “sync” rate with the device. This is mostly due to his stupidly high reserves of Heroic Willpower and a willingness to put himself on the line to protect others, but then we also find out that the high sync rate puts his own life at risk, and could potentially lead to him losing his humanity and becoming like the Undead they fight if he overuses it.

Tachibana, upon learning this information, temporarily sides with a shady organization that is trying to exploit and study the Undead for their own purposes, and tries to stop Kenzaki from continuing to fight during the events of this arc. Like with Hiiro, it’s a choice primarily made out of despair. It’s not that he bears any ill-will towards Kenzaki, who has saved his life multiple times and fought alongside him through tough challenges. But Tachibana doesn’t see a better way out of this dilemma, or to protect those that he cares about. It’s not until Tachibana realizes that Kenzaki also will never stop fighting to protect others, and that they are far, far stronger to overcome these challenges when working together than apart, that he relents and rejoins the main heroes against this conspiracy.

Hiiro has lost faith in his own ability to protect others, unlike Emu, and now that he sees himself as alone against this challenge, is forced into compromising his ideals and making awful decisions. When his hand is forced, instead of putting his trust in himself or his teammates, he succumbs to the control that Masamune wields.

Hopefully he’ll learn from his mistake before things get much worse, but judging from the next episode’s preview, he’s going to suffer a lot in the meantime.

Ah who am I kidding. This is Ex-Aid. Everyone suffers regardless.

Another thing I’d like to address with this episode is some controversy I’ve seen spark up in discussions, and that’s how to deal with the question of immortality within the series. Some people see Emu as a bit of a hypocrite in not treating the ability to bring people back from their deaths as a uniformly good thing and working to use it for its full aims. However, you also need to keep in mind the mechanism of immortality in this series revolves around Chronicle. As I noted in a previous article, the main issue here is that such a set-up necessarily ties people’s lives to this death game, one that only benefits Bugsters, or the most skilled and gifted games. The rest serve as cannon fodder.

This is taken one step further with Masamune’s introduction into the fight, in that he sees everything related to the virus and the Gashats as property of the company, and thus his property, seeing the company as an extension of himself. He has control over Saki’s life because her data is on the proto-Gashat, so even if she is given a physical body once again, that body and existence are still under Masamune’s complete control. He’s already perfectly willing to destroy Bugsters and Riders alike with this control – even if he does offer immortality, it’s immortality as a thing to be used, rather than a person with full agency of life.

I don’t know about you guys, but to me, that doesn’t sound like an admirable goal for a doctor, or a Rider.

 

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