Kamen Rider ZO is basically what happens when you ask Keita Amemiya to define Kamen Rider.
Back when I first got into toku, I used Kamen Rider ZO as easy shorthand for people who had no idea what I was suddenly talking about. Someone would ask what a Kamen Rider was, I’d show them ZO, and from there they’d be ready to wade into the deep end. Whereas Shin Kamen Rider stripped away a lot of the Kamen Rider mythos to tell its story, ZO does away with anything that isn’t Kamen Rider. Whether you enjoy it depends on how much you can buy into “grasshopper-man kicks monsters” without any added fluff.
ZO begins with a man buried within the Earth awakened by a grasshopper. His mission: to stop the Neo Organism from kidnapping the child of the mad scientist who created them both. Of course the Neo Organism has minions, including a Bat Man and Spider Woman, in accordance with the Kamen Rider tradition. Everybody fights over the annoying kid, stuff explodes, there’s some spiel about the power of humanity, then everybody goes home happy. There really isn’t much to the story here. ZO’s runtime is only 48 minutes, so the focus is less on how much content they can fit into the movie, and more on how they made what they had to work with look as cool as possible. It’s a good thing they hired Amemiya.
Doras, the Neo Organism’s combat form, is one of my favorite creature designs. His Rider-gone-wrong look is perfectly menacing and creepy. There’s just something about suit designs in the early 90s, you see it in those otherwise painful Guyver movies too. They’re made long enough after technology proceeded to where you didn’t have to see the zipper on suits and they weren’t obviously falling apart on camera, and long enough before everything started looking too clean and samey. Designs like Doras are grimy biopunk nightmares that I’d hate to run into down a dark alley. I’m a big fan of the Rider’s design too. ZO’s suit most effectively communicates the grasshopper motif, it almost looks like his armor is an insect’s exoskeleton. Spider Woman’s design is also grotesque, but by necessity it’s sometimes puppetry and sometimes stop-motion, which wouldn’t be so bad if there wasn’t an obviously off-model ZO puppet in the stop-motion segments.
For such a short movie, Kamen Rider ZO does manage to fit in just enough content to keep you engaged. The action is the movie’s high point, as it should be. While there are two other monsters, the fights between ZO and Doras make the movie what it is. Amemiya’s direction frames the two characters like larger-than-life warriors with a grudge to settle. During one of their fights there’s even a tracking shot that’s much better, both technically and dramatically, than the one in Hakaider. If you’re looking for anything else, like character development or heady themes, you’ll have to look elsewhere, but if you want a short action showcase made from the heart of Kamen Rider, look no further.
The Film Club is taking a break, and we’ll be back with Kamen Rider J on January 9th. We might also have a surprise or two for the new year, but until then, Happy Holidays!