Fatally, perhaps, I went into Shin Kamen Rider as a Hideaki Anno fan first and a Kamen Rider fan… not so much. I knew about it, of course: the iconography of the motorbike-riding superhero with his bug-eyed grasshopper mask is as thoroughly ingrained into Japan’s pop-cultural consciousness as any Marvel or DC character in the States, having been a staple of TV, film, manga, and young boys’ imaginations for over half a century. Consume enough Japanese pop culture, and some exposure to Kamen Rider––his bike, his mask, his kabuki-like battle poses––is inevitable. Having seen barely one of the hundreds of hours of Kamen Rider content out there, however, I could not fill you in on the finer points of its character names, relationships, or plotlines––meaning that when Anno’s latest, allegedly standalone film stopped for regular applause lines and deep-cut lore references that received whooping ovations from the theater full of fans with whom I saw it, they meant absolutely nothing to me and I began to wonder if the great pop auteur’s visions might be turning a smidge myopic.
Shin Kamen Rider is billed as the third film in Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s Shin (“New”) series of live-action films rebooting retro Japanese pop culture icons with the kind of clever postmodern twist pioneered by their work at Studio Gainax. Look further back, though––beyond 2016’s Shin Godzilla, an international success that’s still safely the best in the series––and Anno’s first feature-length project in this mold was actually 2004’s Cutie Honey. Based on the beloved ‘70s erotic superheroine manga from Go Nagai (whose dark, occult-themed Devilman was one of the major influences on Neon Genesis Evangelion), Cutie Honey is a jolt of distinctly 2000s camp delirium in a CGI-infused “live-action cartoon” style that foreign viewers might associate with other cult films like Shaolin Soccer, Spy Kids, or the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer: star Eriko Sato darts, flips, poses, and strips down to her underwear in a manically cut series of angular urban sets, luminescent supervillain lairs, anime-like shots of vivid expressionist composition, and Saturday-morning TV-superpower showdowns. The Power Rangers-tier special effects are knowingly gaudy and cheap; broad slapstick abounds; villains are so camp that their boss is introduced with a cabaret-style theme song. Anno even pushes the “live-action cartoon” thesis to its conceptual limits with startling sequences superimposing photographic actor cutout frames on moving background shots for a reproduction of anime-style action scenes so faithful it is perhaps the only cinematic project ever that can justify the label of “anime in real life.”
Beneath the giddy self-mockery and madcap formal invention, though, Cutie Honey still makes itself known as an Anno film. With the lightest touch at first, it establishes an ironic tension that undercuts the retro escapism of the film as Sato’s character, a bubbly Barbarella-like cultural artifact of free love and (sort of) female empowerment, struggles finding her place in the alienating, repressive, dehumanizing economic and gender politics of the contemporary Japanese office space. Her struggle is mirrored by that of Mikako Ichikawa, a more modern, independent woman in the local metropolitan police force who nevertheless struggles to be taken seriously by her male colleagues in an environment where any display of emotion or lapse in discipline will be perceived as feminine weakness. In spite of all the flashy superheroic shenanigans (and a flirtatious male journalist who shows up periodically to nudge the plot along), the film’s central arc is that of two seemingly opposite women recognizing their shared loneliness and developing a connection. Its climax evokes Evangelion-style surrealism: diving into a mystical subconscious realm to save her friend (represented by overlapping shots in a white void beneath an End of Eva-esque rippling water effect), Honey (Sato) confronts a godlike entity embodying the spirit of material acquisition itself and proclaims the transcendental power of love, suggested through cross-cuts to be a force beyond consciousness or mortality. The film smuggles disarming sincerity into its ironic absurdity like a Trojan horse; the impossibility of our taking it seriously paradoxically opens the door for a moment of over-the-top sincerity to slip beneath our irony-attuned defenses. It is, in other words, an exact, sophisticated expression and defense of the catharsis to be found in old-fashioned kitsch.
This is all context worth establishing because Shin Kamen Rider presents itself as a similar film with similar aims. Almost 20 years removed from Cutie Honey, and deep in a time when metamodern “poptimism” has become a standard, commercially friendly studio aesthetic rather than some bolt from the blue, here is Anno returning to the well of enthusiastic ‘70s superhero pastiche and imbuing it with his favored motifs. The film, as per its source material, follows brooding biker Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu, exuding such an air of inner torment that he seems perpetually about to implode into a sweaty black hole) after he is turned against his will into a superpowered human-grasshopper hybrid by the supervillainous organization SHOCKER. (Their acronym is explained but you wouldn’t believe what it means if I told you; I will only mention that the “H” stands for “Happiness.”) Forming an alliance with the Japanese government, Hongo also develops a relationship with SHOCKER deserter Ruriko (Minami Hamabe playing another cold-as-ice professional woman of the sort that so fascinates Anno); together they face down a host of colorful mutant cyborgs in the interest of taking down the terrorists, each of whom has a different, twisted idea of radically restructuring society for the “greater happiness” of all––and more importantly, a different vermin-themed superpower for the heroes to outwit and outmuscle. (If this premise suggests a whiff of ideological conservatism: stay tuned.)
Like Shin Ultraman––directed by Shinji Higuchi, but with a script, production, editing, cinematography, and special effects work from Anno––Shin Kamen Rider is a densely packed, frantically edited two hours of blockbuster cinema chopped up into a stop-start episodic structure, with so much fevered reverence for its TV source material that it feels in many ways like a compilation film for a show we haven’t seen. Even compared to Ultraman, story and character arcs fly by at such bewildering speed between firestorms of expository jargon and fanservice that it often feels Kamen Rider is intended for diehard fans first and everyone else a distant second. It’s an odd direction for a filmmaker who’s previously felt compelled to justify (or attack) the pleasures of the fanboy in works that are first and foremost distinctly his own. Where Anno clearly exercises the most creativity and energy here is in big action sequences bearing no shortage of visual invention: splashes of bright-red blood on desaturated grays in the shockingly gruesome battle scenes; choppy first-person digicam footage to communicate the chaos and intensity of Kamen Rider’s berserker rages; a super-speed duel in which still images of Rider and his opponent seem to teleport to different parts of the frame across Tron-like walls of neon light; an exhilarating classic tokusatsu shot in which two combatants are superimposed over a wild tracking shot across city rooftops; a battle with a perfectly synchronized outfit of Rider clones that will delight anyone who stood up for The Matrix Reloaded or Resident Evil: Afterlife leaning hard into the artifice of CGI image-making for unreal choreography unlike anything else at the movies.
Anno is certainly eager to pay homage to the idols of his youth and prod the limits of digital filmmaking with this newfound blockbuster budget, but amidst all the formal cacophony and tips of the hat, the empathetic human purpose which so heavily defined his past triumphs begins fading into the background; in its place, a cold, conservative cynicism creeps up around the margins. Shin Kamen Rider may boast a caliber of direction beyond the average studio superhero flick, but in the hunger for spectacle and deference to its audience––even its ideological underpinnings––it’s not as far off as many might like to pretend. Anno’s Godzilla and Ultraman, rather than focusing on individual-level drama, each found coherent meta-level political and philosophical theses about their pop-culture icons that became the structural spine of their respective films; Kamen Rider seems dramaturgically closer to Cutie Honey’s character-focused pastiche, but without anything resembling its open-heartedness and pathos. Unlike Cutie Honey, its periodically joyful explosions of knowing camp quickly give way to drearily self-serious lore dumps and pontifications of Superhero Themes; unlike Evangelion, its central characters are granted little interiority or complexity to earn that self-seriousness.
Kamen Rider is so eager to overstuff its narrative with fights, references, and byzantine lore it finds alarmingly little time for characters to express any plausible humanity. Hongo spends the majority of time brooding over the Japanese superhero’s classic dilemma of taking life in the name of justice, but his torment is communicated more by declaration than explanation. His Freudian motivations, once revealed to the audience, take the form of a reactionary parable about police violence (and, implicitly, Japan’s military force) that concludes a real hero is not a man of peace but the one who pulls the trigger (while feeling appropriately bad). Ruriko, meanwhile, is railroaded into an unsurprising arc revealing the caring, feminine side beneath her brusque, callous exterior. When her brother is abruptly introduced halfway through the film as its major antagonist––a gaunt, ascetic hikikomori Gendo Ikari variant (Mirai Moriyama) who wants to return humanity to a merged primal consciousness (ring a bell?)––Anno begins doubling down on shots and motifs ripped from Evangelion and trying to tug at the heartstrings.
This time it doesn’t work. More of the wordy screenplay is dedicated to explaining the comic-book metaphysics of Moriyama’s evil scheme than his character’s (dimestore anime villain) psychology; his character seems to transition offscreen in the course of a few scenes from totally indifferent to his sister to making her the emotional core of his existence, rendering Kamen Rider’s emotional climax more bewildering than affecting. In the clash of two characters Anno insists are social outcasts, a more sinister bit of messaging pops up as well: “I won’t be like you! I’m going to change myself, not the world!” shouts Hongo, tearfully, super-whaling on his nemesis in a dialogue that feels distinctly like Anno talking down to his younger self. Again, the film’s creaky, almost regretful conservatism stares up from beneath the floorboards: in a hastily dashed-off subplot, another superhero (Tasuku Emoto) introduced as an independent journalist refuses to work with the federal agents employing Hongo and Ruriko––to become an agent of the state would compromise his fealty to the truth. After Hongo’s climactic lecture about dismissing a radical rejection of society in favor of assimilating into it, Emoto’s character makes what is presented as the noble, heartwarming choice of contracting himself to the feds after all. This self-actualization through armed adherence to the nation-state is perhaps what Anno has in mind by “joining the world,” and has had in mind for some time.
Two decades into Anno’s kick of explicitly rebuilding the past, his professional star has risen, but the most unthinkable thing has started to settle in: just a trace of anonymity. Washed-out digital colors, familiar dramatic beats, tired party lines. Like the entire poptimist moment it accompanies, Anno’s retro pastiche can be said to start fraying at the seams; as the weave is dense and flashy, threads grow increasingly brittle. Beneath the patchwork something uncomfortably regressive pokes through. It’s not that Anno’s skill is waning; it’s that with each new project there is less convincing evidence to explain why this rebel artist once fascinated by pop art’s capacity to tease out thorny complexities of the human soul is continually looking to collective nostalgia, his mass-marketable visions negotiated increasingly by the philosophy of the state rather than the self. A good superhero movie is proper fun and all––though moreso if you don’t have to already own the merchandise––but is this really what we want a filmmaker of Anno’s talent for lush visual fantasies and raw human expression doing for the rest of his foreseeable career? It’s okay to love pop; but is pop all there is?
Shin Kamen Rider had its North American premiere at NYC’s Japan Society and played in the U.S. on May 31 and June 5.