Guest contributor Adam Arter discusses tokusatsu villain redemption arcs and what makes them work.
Disclaimer: this article contains spoilers for Kamen Rider Zero-One, Kamen Rider Drive, and Ressha Sentai ToQger
The ‘redemption’ arc; it’s an age-old storytelling convention – one that has seen a great deal of use in popular culture. It relies on the simple notion that if characters can be considered to be a few steps away from evil at any given time along a moral axis, then they’re equally a few steps away from ‘good’, allowing conventionally evil characters to act out of kindness in order to redeem themselves of their sins. In the right hands, a redemption arc can be heart-rending and beautiful, and in the wrong hands, it can become absolute nonsense. All kinds of popular stories have shown us redemption arcs, from Shakespeare’s canon to the sci-fi melodrama of Star Wars. The tokusatsu genre seems to have a particular affection for this storytelling device, showing stories that have redeemed characters in all kinds of different ways, to varying results.
If you’ve been keeping up with the currently airing Kamen Rider Zero-One, you may have witnessed fervent discussion of the idea of ‘redemption’ recently. In my own corner of the web, I’ve seen a lot of vigorous discussion of what the smirking tyrant CEO Gai ‘Thouser’ Amatsu would need to do in order to ‘redeem’ themselves, both in the eyes of the audience, and the eyes of the many characters he’s wronged. In the opinion of many, Amatsu is simply too villainous to redeem, and I’m certainly not here to disagree with this perspective. Gai’s mustache-twirling tomfoolery throughout much of the middle portion of Zero-One’s run has already firmly shaped his identity, to the point where his fairly sudden switch episode 39 came as a shock to many, including myself. In my own column about the show, I described this move as unjustified, citing a lack of foreshadowing about Gai’s ‘true’ nature. But why did I – and so many others – have this reaction? The idea of Kamen Rider having a villain become an anti-villain is certainly not an unfamiliar one.
When I think of satisfying ‘redemption arcs’ in tokusatsu, there are a few characters that spring immediately to mind. It may be an odd choice, but I usually think of Chase from Kamen Rider Drive, who throughout the middle of his story in the show represents something key to the idea of the redemption arc: moral conflict. Chase, who later becomes known as Kamen Rider Chaser, is something of a pillar for the conflict that drives Drive’s plot. Chase is aligned with the Roidmudes, and after breaking free from intense brainwashing, quickly becomes aligned against them. Chase’s identity is very much a blank slate after their deprogramming, which makes it a lot easier for them to pivot towards a general idea of goodness, but it also causes them to question their own identity and position within the conflict, at first denying their ability to be a hero. Chase’s established moral conflict makes his move towards being heroic feel a lot more satisfying, and feels like the basic first step that all redemption arcs should take.
Another more recent example that I’m sure many of you might have thought of while reading is Gentoku’s redemption in Kamen Rider Build. This one works for me for a few reasons, but I also know that lots of people despise Gentoku’s redemption. There’s a few things that split the opinion on if Gentoku’s redemption arc ‘works’ or not. In particular, there is much derision aimed squarely at what the show chooses to do with Gentoku after he makes the decision to ‘redeem’ himself and join Team Build – the infamous ‘shirt gag’. I think it might be fair to say that this weird set of jokes doesn’t add a whole deal to the character, and certainly undermines the serious conflict at the core of Gentoku, but I also don’t think it completely ruins the strong foundations of Gentoku’s character, which once again stems from an essential moral conflict. Gentoku is rather interestingly positioned as a victim of his circumstances, which certainly don’t justify any of his villainous actions, but they do contextualise them. I think what I find particularly impressive about Gentoku’s turn to heroism is that even in spite of the pointless comic relief, I have a clear impression of him at the beginning of the series and a distinctly different impression of him by the end. This is something that is reflected not only in the writing but also through a myriad of satisfying visual and thematic signifiers, such as the ‘cracked’ effect on Gentoku’s new Rogue armour, which we could suggest connotes his shattered worldview after his own personal redemption quest. If establishing a moral conflict is step one, then making a character naturally shift into a different persona is step two, and how this is achieved goes a long way to making the redemption feel coherent.
In Sentai, we often have less clearly definable ‘redemption arcs’, but that doesn’t mean there are none. More often, characters with a tormented, unseen past join the team as an additional ranger or temporary ally. A good example of this kind of redemption can be seen in ToQger, where our sixth ranger, Akira Nijino, works towards heroism after their past as the villainous shadow Zaram. This plays out with a slightly different structure to how we’d normally see a redemption arc unfold, as we’re introduced to Akira when they’re already on a journey to redemption, rather than seeing them as a villain first, which really changes the initial impression of the character. His dark past is rather hilariously externalised with a literal cloud that hangs over his head, with permanent radius of dramatic rainfall. Through this character, ToQger slightly probes the inherent melodrama of redemption, whilst still delivering a fairly satisfying character arc, through the aforementioned ideas of duality and meaningful distinctions, which meshes fantastically with the series’ own playful tone.
Structurally, however, ToQger’s approach to the idea of redemption teaches an important lesson about how it could be depicted in other toku stories, through the way in which we are introduced to Akira during their quest for redemption rather than before it. The order in which we experience the redeeming character’s actions gives us perspective on the conflict in their heart, and it’s a lot easier to grow attached to a character who we see as hero first, than it is to grow attached to someone we’ve been seeing setting fire to orphanages for the past 30 episodes.
Of course, it’s important for a character who seeks redemption to actually do something good to redeem themselves, too. This may seem like an obvious point, but I think many examples of dissatisfying redemption arcs within tokusatsu as a whole can point to an absence of goodness as the reason it felt weird. At the very least, the three previous character examples I’ve highlighted make sure to do something good at least, but it’s surprising how often characters in toku are merely fine with the absence of evil as a means for redemption.
But it’s also important to not swing too far in the opposite direction and force the character to sacrifice their own life merely for the sake of redemption. If there’s one issue I have with the majority of redemption arcs within toku, it’s that this is treated as the default. I often see this as a cowardly writing decision, because it allows the character to escape in a moment of heroic sacrifice, rather than confronting the mistakes they have made. It can be used effectively, but often it’s done out of convenience. I’m sure it’s the last move anyone wants to see Gai Amatsu make right now.
Acknowledging these many facets of the redemption arc, I think it sheds some light on why we’ve seen backlash on the Gai Amatsu turn. It’s hard to see any duality in Gai up until recently, and the distinctions between ‘villain’ Gai and current Gai are a bit too abstract to appreciate, especially as they doubled down on the idea of Gai’s villainy not long before the beginning of his supposed redemption. If nothing else, it highlights how incredibly difficult it can be to make the redemption arc work, especially as we’ve seen many variations of it within tokusatsu already. The circumstances for a redemption arc to work now in tokusatsu are probably quite different from what they were in the past, as audiences don’t want a repeat of the way it’s been done before. It’s also important to note, however, that there’s still some episodes of Zero-One to go. I would say that it’s never too late to add detail, and as many have pointed out, it could be an elaborate ruse. That would certainly feel quite fresh if it were the case, but I don’t think a ‘good’ traditional redemption for Gai is even impossible at this point, it just has a lot more work to do.
I think that people are particularly passionate about this issue because obviously, we want plot swerves like this to work. When the redemption arc succeeds, it can be particularly cathartic. Part of the reason people fall in love with toku is that it often depicts virtues of kindness and heroism succeeding over evil and darkness. In the real world where insincere apologies and empty gestures of such virtues make up the daily news, it makes sense that people want to see their fictional villains make the right call and redeem themselves properly – we want to see goodness triumph.