Sunday, June 4, 2023

Hopper Boy Reborn: Shin Kamen Rider (2023) Review

Director: Hideaki Anno

Notable Cast: Sosuke Ikematsu, Minami Hamabe, Tasuku Emoto, Shinya Tsukamoto, Toru Tezuka, Suzuki Matsuo, Nanase Nishino, Mirai Moriyama, Masami Nagasawa, Nao Omori, Takumi Saitoh, Kanata Hongo, Tori Matsuzaka


Hideaki Anno’s “shin universe” continues to be one of the most fascinating series in cinema. Shin Godzilla was a distinctively Japanese recreation of the iconic kaiju that works as a perfect counterweight to the American Monsterverse series and Shin Ultraman (released in the US earlier this year) was a love letter to the monster-fighting hero that weirdly managed to pack in some thematic heft while balancing silly monster fights with existential questions.


For his third film in this universe, Anno tackles another tokusatsu legend by bringing a “new” version of Kamen Rider to the silver screen. Naturally titled Shin Kamen Rider, this film serves - like the other two Shin films - as both a reboot and a love letter to the character's previous incarnations. Although both Shin Godzilla and Shin Ultraman managed to find a better balance in their respective reinventions, it’s hard not to love what this is pulling off here too. 


Shin Kamen Rider is outlandishly silly and takes each level of craziness with a stone face while leaning into the aesthetic of the original series with a modern CGI element. It is the best kind of insane, even when it leaves its audience feeling like they have to sprint to keep up. 


For those perhaps unfamiliar with the Kamen Rider mythos, don’t worry. Shin Kamen Rider serves as an origin story for the masked cyclist. Kind of. The first half of this film almost feels like a series of vignettes where the audience is essentially thrown on the back of Kamen Rider’s bike, named Cyclone for those curious, as he speeds into the action and faces off against a series of animal-themed supervillains. The curious aspect of that approach is that our surrogate for the audience, the gateway to understanding this world of evil organizations and insect/human super hybrids, is our lead character Hongo. 


Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Duh, Matt. Most movies that work as an origin story use the hero as the way into the world.” For sure, they do. Shin Kamen Rider provides us with Hongo, played with a kind of distinct sadness by Sosuke Ikematsu, and he has no idea about who he is or what the hell is going on - and he’s ALREADY Kamen Rider. Thus, we’ve given an entire world’s worth of exposition from Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) and her scientist father played by the iconic director/actor Shinya Tsukamoto while the film immediately leaps into action. 


And boy howdy is this film full of exposition throughout. Most of the dialogue is spent explaining the various silly sciences behind its science fiction creation of superheroes and supervillains or ruminating on happiness. The evil organization that makes these animal-human hybrids is known as S.H.O.C.K.E.R. which stands for Sustainable Happiness Organization with Computational Knowledge Embedded Remodeling. Its themes around finding happiness seem loftier in theming on paper than they are able to pull off in the film itself. Mad respect to Anno and company though, they are trying like hell to make the depth of the film’s philosophies work, but it’s not nearly as effective as the other Shin films. 


The film’s narrative and character arcs get better as it unfolds, particularly when it adds a more cohesive plot by revealing the big bad Butterfly Aug and his Kamen Rider doppelganger Ichimonji. Still, it’s a lot to consume and if you’re not ready to put on your grasshopper bike helmet and slam into top gear, then this film is going to leave you behind. 


Yet, despite the speed bumps that Shin Kamen Rider must endure in its pacing and narrative cohesion, it’s hard not to love the charm-soaked insanity that is erupting from the screen. The combination of practical effects and CGI is highly stylized and fun, the performances are blissfully over-the-top in so many ways, and Anno knows how to shoot some pulse-pounding action sequences. In particular, the entire final act is some impeccably executed and visually stunning action. It’s silly, like a massive biker gang of Kamen Rider doppelgangers zooming through an almost pitch-black tunnel, but it’s so entertaining that it’s easy to forgive the film it’s rocky moments. 


Like Shin Ultraman, Shin Kamen Rider is a rather intriguing origin story for modernizing the classic Japanese hero and now that they’ve established the world, I’m excited to see where they go from here. As is, this film does have significant charm throughout, from its outlandish action to its massive performances and it allows it to overcome most of its bobbled structure and narrative loop-de-loops. Shin Kamen Rider is not a perfect film, but it definitely leaps for the rafters. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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