Kamen Rider Gaim is a very different beast to the previous series in the franchise I had watched and enjoyed; perhaps the closest comparison is 2018’s Kamen Rider Build in terms of tone, storyline and general feel, with heroes on all factions trying to get ahead of each other and eventually realising this is playing into a greater threat’s hands. But even so it is quite different, and the purpose of this review is not really to compare the series directly but to talk about what makes Gaim so compelling to watch.
Gaim’s screenplay was worked on by Gen Urobuchi, and a lot of the DNA of the other series of his I have seen shows through in it. It feels, at times, like Madoka, often extremely like Fate/Zero and sometimes even like Thunderbolt Fantasy. Obviously the target audience of a Kamen Rider series is going to be very different to that of a Fate series or Madoka, but it definitely is a credit to Urobuchi’s writing that the same stylistic flourishes can show clearly through. A friend of mine sold me on Gaim initially by saying it was, in essence, a story about several people who all are given power over the world, but who rarely have the power they want over the people they want. I like that description of it; it absolutely sums up the petulant family resentment and unrequited love of Mitsuzane, the hubristic desire for political domination and scientific control that Takatora and Sengoku chase after and the ruthlessness of Baron set against the raw idealism of Kouta. That sounds like a lot of main characters. It is. And I think it is that, that set of people who all have grossly incompatible approaches to pursuing the same wish-granting power that is where the series reminds me of Fate/Zero. Indeed, the Golden Fruit is not so far removed from the Holy Grail.
To be absolutely clear, Gaim is a series where the protagonists and the first round of villains seem as surprised as the audience when the real villains appear, and the leader of the apparent true enemy faction can be killed with six episodes left and his death does not make the situation any better for anyone. In fact quite a lot of Gaim is about how beating your enemies might be the long-term best option for yourself, your friends or the entire world, but there aren’t short-term solutions or, as it becomes increasingly clear, truly good solutions for the problems that a few stupid people have created at all. There’s a very Yoshiyuki Tomino-esque contempt for hubristic and self-absorbed adults in Gaim, as the series’ core conflict ends up being, for much of the story, young people trying to prove to the adult world they are aware of the bigger issues and should be taken seriously. Even joke villains like Durian and his henchmen, played almost entirely for stupid (and sometimes awkwardly camp) comedy end up being threatening because they are saying what people want to hear, not what is true.
I mentioned in my review of Kamen Rider Kuuga that you could almost read its strange, semi-literate villains with punkish disguises as embodiments of fear of nonconformism and feral youth (which would fit with its hero being a good-hearted type who believes in the importance of learning skills, working hard and aiding the police in their enquiries). Gaim is less subtle in painting its theme as youth versus controlling seniority. It begins with gang fighting (sanitised for the target audience by dressing it up as dance-offs and summoned monster fighting straight out of Pokemon) and then continues to run with this theme of the heroes being rebellious youth gangs by making its first villains a heady double-feature of the corporation selling counterculture paraphenalia to the youth (in the form of the Lockseeds that let the teenagers play at gang warfare) and also the Establishment in all its uncaring nature. The Yggdrasil corporation enables the gangs while it suits them (while they are profitable and assisting in research into the aliens, and the locks) and then washes its hands of them when it looks like they know too much (framing them for the Inves attacks when in fact Team Gaim has already worked out Yggdrasil’s culpability). This creates an almost easily-readable power dynamic; while Mitchy, Baron and Kouta might have different approaches to dealing with the betrayal of the authority figures, they are neatly set against Durian (representing populist scapegoating) and Yggdrasil (the Establishment trying to suppress whistleblowers and awkward questions). This does not last long.
It is when things start developing, and the factions begin to shatter out of self-interest, self-preservation and selflessness, that Gaim properly convinces. Members of Yggdrasil get cold feet at the atrocities it is prepared to carry out and start listening to its critics. Mitchy wants to outdo his brother and become popular and influential and so repeatedly sells out to whoever is buying – immediately turning him into the series’ most realistically loathsome character. Durian eventually realises the story he’s selling doesn’t add up and comes round to common sense. And so by the last third of the series, when there’s an alien invasion going on, an attempted nuclear strike, there is the most fascinating tension between personal ideology differences and the need to do the right thing. Even the token “rules of nature” strength-is-all figurehead, Baron, is handled with some deftness. His stance is not necessarily that might being right is the best way to run the world, or a desirable one, but it is how he perceives the truth of the world and he believes following that line of thought is the only way to survive. If the strong will win, he would prefer it be himself in charge and so he must become strong.
Eventually all of these ideologies – dominance, collaboration, idealism, pragmatism, populism – are tested against the true threat, the alien Overlords. They must work together, as much as possible. No single ideology is strong enough – save, apparently, Kouta’s. It is the most selfless, the least conquest-minded character who is granted enough power to really win this battle of philosophies through self-sacrifice. You can perhaps see why I’m reminded here of Fate/Zero which set (in somewhat more overly violent and extreme fashion) characters with somewhat more flawed ideologies and tragic backstories against each other. Is it overreaching to compare Kouta with Kiritsugu, someone who is prepared to commit their life to fighting a pointless and unwinnable battle in the name of doing the right thing for a world that doesn’t always care? Someone who is given the ultimate power – be it Saber or the Zenith Arms – and still solidly uses it for a perceived greater good when personal gain would be within reach?
I feel like every Kamen Rider series I watch ends up being one I would recommend to people as their first but for a different reason, and equally ends up being quite fundamentally different to the others. I said I found Kuuga compelling because it was a muted, draining story of someone destroying their body to help the authorities hunt powerful mutants and learn not to fear superheroes. I found W compelling because it was a neat series of increasingly bizarre mysteries that played with themes of addiction. Were I to write about them I would say Build was a good starting people because it was completely over-the-top science-fiction superhero stuff with planet-destroying stakes and crazed star gods. Faiz is perhaps not a good starting point but somehow manages to be even more emotionally exhausting than Kuuga in how damn much of its tragedy is avoidable. Gaim, on the other hand, takes a simple theme and runs with it far past the usual expected endpoint, and that’s really quite something.