Kamen Rider Gaim – Episode 46 Review
One year ago, I was pretty sure I was done with Kamen Rider.
After struggling through Fourze and having dropped Wizard after fourteen meandering episodes, I had little faith that I would ever be able to enjoy the series again. Fourze lacked the gravitas to ground its sense of humour, and the first quarter of Wizard was shrill and empty, with an obnoxious cast of characters and a complete lack of plot or interesting mystery.
Both of these followed OOO, a series I hold dear for so many reasons. The story is straightforward and ultimately satisfying, comfortably avoiding the pitfalls of convolution that so many of its predecessors fell prey to. The relationship between Eiji and Ankh is both complex and endearing, and remains untouched as the best character dynamic I’ve seen in Kamen Rider. The suit designs, derided as awkward and un-Rider-like at first, ended up becoming fan favourites, and are still perhaps the best manifestation of Toei’s vision of an item-swapping Rider.
None of this is to place the blame on Fourze or Wizard themselves, the former of which is hugely well-regarded and the latter of which … is regarded as a thing that happened. It was more about myself having perhaps grown tired of the two-episode arcs, of the increasingly unhinged and slapstick attempts at humour, at the decreased focus on plots that develop as a slow burn over many episodes.
So when I heard about Gaim, which at the time of its announcement, was best described as breakdancing teenagers who play Pokémon in the streets of a corporate-owned city, only to transform into samurai-fruit-bug-men, the concept seemed difficult to swallow, at best. Even knowing that the prolific Gen Urobuchi — whose work on Puella Magi Madoka Magica I enjoyed — was at the helm was not enough to convince me. I waited a few weeks after it started airing to pick it up, being relatively unimpressed with the first episode. I trudged forward regardless.
Somewhere around episode 4, when Kouta faces Takatora in the forest of Helheim and is utterly shell-shocked by the powers involved, Gaim’s fascinating machinations began to reveal themselves. I was sucked in, and haven’t wanted to leave since.
And now, the penultimate episode — and for all intents and purposes, the finale — of the show that revived my love of Kamen Rider has come and gone. The merits of Gaim as a complete work will be argued (as they should be), but it’s inarguable that Gaim’s journey, relative to most Kamen Rider entries, has an incredible scope that repeatedly transforms its world into new, unrecognizable forms. And while the journey is definitely the most important thing, it can all be undone if the destination is a garbage dump instead of the fireworks factory you’d hoped for.
And let’s be honest: in Kamen Rider, it’s very rarely ever the fireworks factory.
Thankfully, we’re in the midst of a pretty explosive moment already, as the final battle between Kouta and Kaito is reaching its climax. Kaito’s ideology has been a sore point for a lot of people who don’t understand how Kaito went from wanting to be strong in order to oppress others to hating that very same type of person. But this is completely consistent with Kaito’s worldview; he resents the world that has forced him to seek out power in order to avoid being trampled. None of this is to imply that his belief system is rational; it’s pretty pathological, but none of us should expect moderatism from the big bad of a tokusatsu epic.
Back in episode 20, when Kaito learns the truth of Helheim’s flora and falls in line with Ryouma’s party at Yggdrasil, he stakes out his rationale for letting Helheim consume the world:
A world inundated in lies and deceit deserves destruction! Those who have forgotten how to fight don’t deserve to live.
It seems clear to me now that those who are weak and those who have forgotten how to fight are not the same group of people. Kaito is referring to “those who trust only their strength and trample the weak;” the complacent, privileged sectors of society with the power to oppress. The weak are used to fighting for everything that they have. This is a struggle that Kaito identifies with and now, drunk on the power that he has been seeking for so long, his anger only lets him see a single path forward: to destroy it all, and replace it with something new.
This is, of course, something Kouta can both sympathize with but ultimately reject; his entire journey has been fighting against the iron rule that demands sacrifice in the name of hope. His fight with Kaito is one of my favourite fights in Kamen Rider; the CGI effects are used sparingly, with the focus being on the sheer struggle of it all. It’s unfortunate, then, that the momentum of the fight severely suffers by not only being split across two episodes, but having the opening sequence interrupt it. If any two-parter begged for a seamless director’s cut, it’s this one.
While Kaito handily overpowers Kouta for the majority of the fight, Kaito is undone when Kouta uses his own incredible strength against him, breaking his sword in half and using the end to stab through his body. This scene is handled about as well as it could be — there are no flashy finishers, no grandstanding, no sense of triumph. Kouta screams as he pierces the flesh of someone he considered to be his friend. In the previous episode, Kaito said, “I have nothing left to protect or lose, so I cannot be defeated.” Kouta’s last-ditch effort and his perseverance were enabled by the desire to protect something.
And as Kaito finally acknowledges Kouta’s strength, he dies in his arms. This all happens about as fast as it would seem from my writing about it, and this quick pace continues through the first half of the finale, leaving almost no space for mourning or for reflecting on its events. While Gaim’s rapid developments have often been one of its high points, the finale is exactly where it’s OK to take your time. I should’ve been crying my eyes out at Kaito’s death, but I wasn’t.
Perhaps there are other factors at blame for that, though. While I think Kaito’s actions have been completely in line with his character, I also think that the build-up to this could’ve been handled better. And perhaps nowhere is that more evident than the relationship between Kaito and Mai.
There are tons of scenes in Gaim that indicate a seismic shift in the relationship between Kaito and Mai, but it never really comes to fruition. Kaito’s relationship with Mai the person seems to come to an abrupt end as soon as she becomes Mai, the fruit bestower. While I think it’s absurd to berate a program for not matching the inflated expectations of its viewers, when you explicitly set up those expectations yourself, you’re asking for trouble.
The problems with Mai continue to an anti-climax in this episode, as she’s basically told that now that Kaito’s dead, she can go back to Kouta and give him the fruit, or whatever. Mai makes no meaningful choices on her own, nor does she ever have the opportunity to do so. She says nothing insightful or of interest — her major dialogue of the episode is reminding us that Kaito is in pain because of how the world forces the weak to be strong, mere moments after he says the exact same thing. No shit.
One interesting touch is the fact that the Fruit of Knowledge seems to literally bestow knowledge, rather than simply being a mythological throwaway reference. Having bitten it, Kouta is aware of all the cosmos, and finds a new world where he and Mai can build humanity’s next stage, rather than destroying the Earth to do so. Both Kouta and Mai seem like entirely different people than before they were blessed by the fruit. While it’s a competent enough ending, there is nothing heroic and triumphant about it. The fact that any of this even makes sense is enough to put it into the upper-echelons of Kamen Rider conclusions, but it’s still fairly anti-climactic.
What’s fascinating is that, for a show that roots a lot of motifs in Japanese traditionalism — and kabuki theatre in particular — there is precedent for such a rapid denouement. Known as jo-ha-kyū, it’s a type of structure that dictates things begin very slowly, accelerate and reach their climax, and then end swiftly. Heaven forgive me for referencing Wikipedia, but:
Zeami, in his work “Sandō" (The Three Paths), originally described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).
It’s impossible to not draw parallels with Gaim’s overall narrative structure. Of course, it’s difficult to emulate this exactly over the span of roughly fifteen hours of programming, but they seem to have taken a fair shake at it. The show is actually broken into five acts (source):
- Episodes 1 - 11: Beat Riders vs. Invess
- Episodes 12 - 23: Beat Riders vs. Yggdrasill
- Episodes 24 - 32: Beat Riders + Yggdrasill vs. Overlords
- Episodes 33 - 41: Armored Riders vs. Overlords
- Episodes 42 - 47: Kouta vs. Kaito
And while the drama does pick up rather early in the first act, its implications are fairly unclear, and Kouta interprets the power he has received as a fairly auspicious one until his clash with Takatora in episode 4. In addition to that, I would argue that the greatest climax of the show occurs not at the end, but during the third and fourth acts. None of this means that anyone should like the ending simply because of its traditionalist structure; it simply provides a potential answer to why things are structured this way.
But jo-ha-kyū sets no precedent for fatalism, an uncomfortably-recurring theme for many viewers. Unlike in Madoka Magica, where Madoka essentially becomes a God and rewrites the universe to suit her desires, Kouta’s solution is very localized — he manages to avert Earth’s cataclysmic fate, but Helheim is free to move onto the next world and compel evolution via destruction. (Though it isn’t clear how this happens — since Kouta took the forest of Helheim with him, will Cracks open between his new world and Helheim’s new target? Or is that process now broken entirely, and Helheim has found a new method?)
The idea that Kouta should fight Helheim is misguided, though (never mind that Helheim has no physical form that can be fought). At this point, Helheim has no reason to lie about anything, so I believe it when it says that its just the “medium in which fate operates,” and that the world’s destruction is inevitable. Helheim is the incarnation of the apathetic universe that surrounds us, a reminder that no matter what we do, we sometimes cannot avoid facing the most dire circumstances. But what we can do is make the best of the trials that face us, as Kouta and Mai do during Gaim’s conclusion. Helheim repeating the cycle anew in a new world may be a somewhat cynical ending, but it’s at least an honest one.
Urobuchi is known for cynicism, and while I do enjoy the somewhat grimmer slant that Gaim has taken, it would’ve been unfortunate for this to rot the core of what is ultimately a franchise about heroism and compassion. So it was with great relief that the second half of the ending dashed my fears.
The sympathetic portrayal of Mitsuzane — which, crucially, does not forgive the horrible things he has done, as the show goes out of its way to point out — has been ramping up ever since he accepted the Hell Fruit Lock Seed in episode 42. That portrayal reaches a climax in this episode, with Zack’s impassioned speech inviting him back to dance with them and keep the memories of Kouta, Mai and Kaito alive being, for me, the emotional high-point of the episode. And, as if making me feel sorrow and empathy for someone I would’ve wished death on a few months ago wasn’t enough, Gaim moves on to do the unthinkable:
It brings Takatora back, and it doesn’t feel cheap.
Despite knowing to never believe someone in Kamen Rider is dead if you don’t see the body, I had felt pretty certain about Takatora not coming back. Much like every other “certain prediction” I’ve had about Gaim, it was dashed thoroughly, because I hadn’t accounted for the scenario of Mitsuzane needing him for support. Any revival of Takatora, I felt, would be tacky fan-pandering, as he had no role left to serve after having let Mitsuzane run amok. Takatora surviving — albeit with severe brain damage — may seem implausible, but crucially, it provides a chance of salvation to a character who desperately needs it, and prevents Gaim’s finale from descending entirely into a cynical fatalism.
Of course, the thought of Mitsuzane having to look after his brother’s vegetated body is certainly more tragic than Takatora being deceased. As Mitsuzane enters the room, he replaces the flowers by Takatora’s bedside, something he’s clearly been doing for some time. With the fury of the apocalypse now cleared from Mitsuzane’s psyche, he can now see, in plain sight, the atrocity that he’s committed.
This scenario also thankfully rehumanizes Kouta, as he appears inside Takatora’s mind to ask him if he’s willing to return to the world and support Mitsuzane. The combination of kindness and passion that made up the best part of Kouta’s character was seemingly erased once he bit the fruit; to see him here, as his usual self, doing what he does best, is the perfect send-off for the character.
And much like Mitsuzane, Kouta reminds us that Takatora is also a person who needs redemption after having buckled under the weight of the oncoming threat of Helheim. But people can change. Fate is not, as it often seems, set in stone. Sure, there are parameters that we are forced to exist in, threats that we must face; but how we react to those things is our own choice. Both Mitsuzane and Takatora chose to make the wrong decisions. But crucially, Kouta is offering them both a chance to make the right ones. While the Golden Fruit cannot revive the dead, its power is otherwise near-limitless.
Takatora’s smile is the best ending that I could have hoped for.
While Gaim made many regrettable missteps in the lead-up to its finale — particularly with regards to Yoko and Mai, as I’ve covered extensively — I believe that the show has stuck its landing overall. While the next episode is the truly final one, it’s not written by Urobuchi, and has tie-ins with the summer movie. It’s a victory lap, essentially.
But this episode is everything that Gaim needs to close its story. It offers not the guarantee of Mitsuzane’s healing, but the possibility of it. It offers forgiveness, not a grand act of redemption. I don’t want nor need to know the specifics of how Mitsuzane and Takatora move forward.
Hope is enough. And Kouta, having been a beacon of hope for so long, has given it to them.