Anno Hideaki, creator of the anime franchise Evangelion, has been on a mission to reboot practically every major Japanese pop culture export, yielding an unofficial cinematic trilogy that has finally concluded. In 2016, he co-directed Shin Godzilla with Evangelion storyboard artist Higuchi Shinji, a film that modernized the famous monster’s nuclear origins in the form of a post-Fukushima satire. Last year, he wrote the Higuchi-helmed Shin Ultraman, which rebooted the long-running superhero series with an existential bent. Now, he takes the reins of Shin Kamen Rider all on his own, writing and directing a throwback to the tokusatsu series and its 1970s origins, with a more vicious and more stylized approach. While it ends up occasionally scattered, it also filters elements of the original TV series through a distinctly modern, post-COVID lens that grapples—as both his Godzilla and Ultraman movies did—with heady ideas surrounding violence and the worth of human beings. The film opened in Japan in March, and while there are currently no immediate plans for a streaming release or a stateside theatrical rollout, it had a one-day nationwide engagement in the United States on May 31, with encore screenings set for June 5 via Fathom Events.
In the grand scheme of Anno’s work, Shin Kamen Rider skews closest to the Evangelion “rebuild” films, feature adaptations that retold (and re-tooled) the events of the original anime. The broad plot of Shin Kamen Rider is essentially a condensed version of the first eight episodes of the original live-action 1971 TV series (to which this film was meant to have served as a 50th anniversary celebration, before pandemic-related delays). It’s the “Shin” movie most concerned with fidelity, rife with numerous references that long-time fans will recognize, as well as lo-fi aesthetic hallmarks reminiscent of the show’s restricted budget. But where it departs from the original is in just how far it leans into some of its thematic concepts. The broad strokes remain intact: the evil terrorist organization SHOCKER creates cybernetic insect-human hybrids, one of whom—the grasshopper-themed Kamen Rider (or “masked rider”), with his iconic red scarf and bulging eyes—escapes their grasp and vows to destroy them. The film wastes no time in re-establishing this premise, but it does so in particularly gnarly fashion, with the characters’ violent struggles for survival resulting in smashed body parts and cartoonish bloodshed galore.
Anno also brings the darker implications of the show’s quaint, insect-themed designs to the surface. Protagonist Hongo Takeshi (Ikematsu Sōsuke), having been experimented on by SHOCKER, doesn’t just become Kamen Rider by donning his classic outfit, but rather, his transformation also involves a form of transmutation, wherein his hands and face take on disturbing, insect-like features. The character still rides his Cyclone motorbike, which features numerous rocket booster enhancements, but this piece of technology is now imbued with a life and intelligence of its own—a consciousness tethered to Kamen Rider’s, as if to fully externalize the show’s biomechanical musings, which were previously subtext at best.
The film sees Hongo teaming up with secret agent Midorikawa Ruriko (Hamabe Minami) to defeat various SHOCKER experiments. Each one is taken directly from the series—a bat-themed scientist, a wasp-themed gangster, a scorpion-themed celebrity, and so on—but each one’s place in the story represents a larger, existential human idea, as if the experiments weren’t random, but each animal theme had been chosen with the express purpose of ensuring either humanity’s survival or destruction. The wasp-themed villain, for instance, runs a human colony designed like a subservient hornet’s nest, as a blueprint for a potential human future that sees the masses subjugated, while the bat-themed villain seeks to spread a virus to wipe out humanity. That latter subplot was part of the original series, but here, it arrives with renewed and discomforting implications surrounding the recent COVID outbreak—thought to have bat-related origins—leading to conversations, between hero and villain, about the ways in which pandemics lay bare humanity’s propensity for selfishness.
These questions of survival and extinction are ultimately rooted in character drama, which Ikematsu sells in quiet, conflicted moments. Hongo, whose past is revealed slowly over the course of the film’s 121 minutes, wrestles with his own potential for violence—the very reason he was chosen by SHOCKER—while also frequently expressing his desire for altruism and empathy. Granted, this desire often clashes with the movie’s own genre expectations, as an action-heavy romp with fight-scenes at every turn (there are only so many times an action hero can turn his back on violence before it becomes visually uninteresting). But despite this thematic paradox, the way the movie’s violence manifests is often intriguing. There are plenty of diving, one-legged kicks to be found (Kamen Rider’s signature move, presented here with bone-crunching impact), but there’s also something pathetic about the movie’s climactic battle. It’s less of a choreographed fight with graceful editing, and more of a desperate, haphazard scrape, between characters for whom violence isn’t so much a choice as it is a mandatory impulse, thanks to SHOCKER’s brainwashing. It’s risky for an action movie to conclude with what is essentially an “anti-action” scene, but Anno’s thematic fixations make this payoff worthwhile. If Shin Ultraman was about whether humanity, in the abstract, deserved to be saved, Shin Kamen Rider magnifies that question and applies it to specific individuals, and ponders whether their actions are enough to make them irredeemable.
Anno also proves to be a strange and idiosyncratic live-action filmmaker when left entirely to his own devices. The movie’s cheap production value can be hard to digest at first, but it comes wrapped in some particularly esoteric decisions. Anno’s individual shots are always impeccably staged, often appearing from unexpected angles. Though when they’re strung together, the result often feels disconnected, as if time and space cease to exist. This doesn’t really work in, say, chase scenes where details and physical geography are of utmost importance. But in moments where the film steps outside the literal, and its fights unfold in isolated realms that feel composed less of physical materials and more from light and darkness, the result is a distinctly impressionistic translation of anime to live action (Anno brings several design elements from Evangelion forward to Shin Kamen Rider, along with several concerns about human loneliness).
The way Anno uses his camera is often compelling, even when the result is a flash-bang series of images that aren’t given enough time to register. He often captures fights and even dialogue scenes on extremely wide lenses. These are often called fisheye lenses, but here, they may as well be the eyes of insects, as if Anno were further placing us within the perspective of these numerous insect experiments, and forcing us to see the world from their perspective. It’s an aesthetic expression of the film’s transhumanist ideas, which Anno cherry-picks from the original series’ minor details and turns into major thematic concerns.
The film is, at times, overstuffed with exposition—the kind that was played for laughs in Shin Godzilla, but is delivered completely seriously here—and it has an excess of secondary characters, each meant to represent a litany of interesting ideas that are seldom given room to breathe. However, being this packed to the gills with brain-tickling concepts means at least some of them are bound to stick (and even if they don’t, the resultant ’70s throwback has enough nostalgic charm to get by). However, in Anno’s hands, the sum total of the movie’s existential themes also results in a particularly anxious film, whose impatient momentum (whether intentionally or otherwise) feels rooted in a compelling search for meaning in the COVID-era, when the film was first written, at a time when death and despair practically linger in the air. It’s this ability of Anno’s, to take terrifying ideas and inject them into flashy, memorable images in familiar genres, that make his movies work—often despite themselves. Shin Kamen Rider is no exception.
Shin Kamen Rider will be available on Amazon Prime beginning July 21.
Published on June 2, 2023