Kamen Rider: The First is an exercise in arbitrary, unearned drama and flat characterization. Also snowflakes?
I’ve covered re-imaginings of the Kamen Rider mythos here before, but those were more abstract experiments with the concept. Kamen Rider: The First is a direct attempt to take the original story from 1971 and remake it for the 21st century. To do this, Toei thought it would be a good idea to bring in post-Agito Toshiki Inoue to write a movie that retold the Double Riders’ origin story. This turned out to be a terrible idea, but they get points for trying.
The story begins with Takeshi Hongo explaining his snowflake research to journalist Asuka Midorikawa. Soon after, Hongo is kidnapped by Shocker’s Bat cyborg and turned into their latest, greatest soldier, Hopper. He soon rebels against Shocker and for his troubles, ends up being framed for the murder of Asuka’s fiancee. Said fiancee’s body is recovered by Shocker, who turn him into the second Hopper, Hayato Ichimonji, in order to bring down the rogue Hongo. Meanwhile, we meet Haruhiko and Miyoko, two hospital patients who develop strong feelings for each other. Their relevance to the greater story isn’t revealed until later, and by then it’s probably too late.
I think everyone can agree that a good film needs a solid protagonist, right? The movie is really the journey of a character from one place to another, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally. In a movie like this, you’d expect the titular hero to be the protagonist. Hongo is the first Kamen Rider, so you’d expect this to be Hongo’s story. Depending on the film, you could probably fit enough of Ichimonji’s story in there too. Apparently, Inoue didn’t get the memo on that one. Hongo doesn’t have enough of an internal life prior to his transformation for us to care about him or anything that happens to him. His love of snowflakes is his only distinct characteristic and that only serves as a tether to Asuka.
It often feels like Asuka’s the real protagonist for most of the movie, which would be fine if it didn’t almost forget her when Haruhiko shows up. Conventional wisdom and Rider history say Hongo should be the protagonist, but in practice we end up with Asuka being the main character and the center of a love triangle. However, she doesn’t really do much and then the frequent detours to an entirely different story make us think maybe Haruhiko is important. This lack of focus is a huge detriment to the film.
Placing a love triangle front and center in a tokusatsu film is an interesting decision, but it doesn’t necessarily pay off. Forum member Suzu makes a great point by pointing out that the film doesn’t give the viewer a reason to care for the characters in the first place. Hongo and Ichimonji are barely people outside of their relationship to Asuka. We never learn about their hopes or dreams, which means we never know why being kidnapped by Shocker is so tragic. We never even know why Shocker kidnaps them in the first place.
The First also has a problem with order. Hongo gets a little more characterization after his transformation than before, but by then it’s too late for us to feel any sense of loss of normalcy. As for Ichimonji, I didn’t even know he was Asuka’s fiancee until he “died.” He was around her, drove her places mostly, but I thought he was her coworker because there was nothing to suggest any kind of affection until it was too late. I feel like Inoue was trying to shock the viewer, but he didn’t do enough to earn that kind of reveal.
The one relationship that’s handled semi-competently is between Haruhiko and Miyoko, which works outside the context to the entire film. In the proper context, however, the story starts way too late in the film. It interrupts what little there is going on with the main triangle, and there’s nothing in it to suggest that it’s relevant to the film’s events until the very end. I understand that Inoue was trying to play with time and the audience’s expectations, but the payoff just isn’t enough for the technique to be effective. I suspect that if The First were extended into a miniseries with a good editor, most of its issues would be solved.
It is weird to think that Toshiki Inoue has been a major creative force on my favorite Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, Jetman and Agito respectively. Of course, people are complicated things that change over time, and sometimes they get the idea that a movie without a strong central character is a good idea, and that poor communications skills make for good drama. Kamen Rider: The First is, mostly, a story told out of order with not enough time.
Some people would say I’m looking into this too much, but I do my best to judge a film not on what I want it to do, but on what I feel it’s trying to do, and how well it achieves it’s own goals. I can see what The First is getting at, in regards to the tragedy and sacrifice that comes with being kidnapped by a terrorist organization and turned into a weapon against your will. The problem is, the characters that most effectively communicate this idea are absent for the entire first act. This film just doesn’t do enough to earn the drama it’s aiming for. It’s got good action and great costume design though, for what that’s worth.