Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"Don't give up!" Thoughts on Ultraman Nexus.

Of all of the major tokusatsu franchises, the one I have the least exposure to is the Ultraman series.  A while back, I bought the original series boxed set for around $5.  I found it to be a fun distraction, though it was far too much of an old, episodic, monster of the week type of show to watch in large doses.  I never quite got through it all the way (a sad tragedy that will have to be remedied), and I never really got into other Ultra shows.

I read some board suggestions for the Ultra series, and managed to snag some subs for Ultraman Nexus, one of the more recommended entries.  Sadly, these subs sat in a folder on my hard drive for quite some time, until recently, when I had burned out on Sentai and Kamen Rider enough to seek some other toku entertainment.  It only took a handful of episodes of Nexus before I was absolutely hooked.

Komon: pretty average dude.

We start the show with Komon, our main character, failing kinda hard at a rescue team mission.  Despite his failure and his thoughts of quitting his job, he is approached by the chief of a secret organization called TLT.  The chief is interested in him for some reason and wants to see if he is up to the task of being part of their special Night Raiders task force.  TLT's purpose turns out to be the extermination of space beasts while keeping the public from knowing anything about monster attacks and other incidents.  To help them with this, they even have Memory Police, who can erase people's memories Men In Black style. (Except with just their cell phones.  Nifty.)

Komon is such a likable guy.  I know I say that about most of the leads of these shows, but he is very kind and legitimately wants to help others, hence his rescue team job.  He can be a bit clumsy and awkward, but in a realistic, average guy kind of way.  He gets a lot of moral support from his girlfriend, Riko, who is very beautiful and sweet.  They always have nice conversations at the zoo, where she likes to work on her art.  His relationship with her is both believable and a bit heartwarming.  Watching them actually made me sigh and made me wish I had a Riko of my own...  She is more important to the plot than anybody realizes at first, which is interesting and also very unfortunate...

The cute couple.

While he is on his way to his training at the TLT HQ, Komon finds out firsthand the threat of the space beasts, as he is attacked by one.  He is unexpectedly saved by a silver giant, who is none other than Ultraman Nexus.  --What, the main character isn't Ultraman?  Interesting and unexpected for sure.  Anyway, we get to watch Komon struggle through Night Raider training and get acquainted with the other members, including Nagi, a harsh and experienced woman with an intense hatred of any creature from space.  Komon's interactions with her are something else.  She's always full of harsh "advice" for the newcomer and is very judging and bitter.  As the story unravels, we get to see her relationship with Komon develop quite a bit, and we find out many things about Nagi's past.  The other members are all likable in their own ways, though they are bit less developed (though not neglected).

Nagi, y u so hateful

We do meet the human form of Ultraman Nexus, a man named Jun Himeya.  This guy has quite the tragic past, and carries a heavy burden as he struggles to figure out the meaning and purpose of the powers that were bestowed upon him.  The guy is inspiring, epic, and completely badass (for Komon and viewers alike).  Of course, Komon completely trusts and believes in him and Nagi wants to blow his brains out for taking the form of a space creature.  Fun times.  As Ultraman, Himeya provides an invaluable asset to kicking space beast butt.  This unfortunately does not mean that his is treated with respect and trust from TLT, which occasionally orders the Night Raiders to shoot him.  More fun times.

Himeya's packing too.

I will note that to my joy and surprise, the Night Raiders aren't useless onlookers to Ultraman's battles.  They actually have decent fighting capability on foot and in their aircraft.  They regularly hurt the space beasts, and even destroy a few.
Anyway, the plot thickens many, many times, with quite a few twists throughout the series.  It isn't really apparent who/what is pulling the space beasts' strings until fairly late in the show.  Ultraman Nexus also has many characters who at first seem suspicious that turn out to be decent people, and it also has people that you think nothing of until they show their true colors in sudden and often devastating ways.

Without a doubt, Nexus has some great writing.  I think that I was immediately surprised by the character depth and the more realistic, adult relationships depicted in the show.  Nexus is also pretty dark and insanely epic at times.  I do know that it was aimed at more of an adult audience than previous Ultra shows, but what kills me is that the series had to be wrapped up a bit early due to low ratings.  This is quite unfortunate, as the ending seems a bit rushed.  Nexus was great, and it would have been even better if had gotten a full 50 episodes, but as criminal as it seems, that's how this industry works.  I guess it just didn't capture its intended audience, and I am pretty sure that it had a cruddy time slot.  Dayum shame.

Before I wrap things up, let me address the fighting scenes and the music.  The fighting scenes were well-choreographed.  I didn't notice any obvious and deliberate positioning or footwork that resulted in fake-looking or convenient fights.  I have seen this in some Ultra shows, and while toku is full of fun and silly fights (especially the older shows), it's nice to be able to take it seriously sometimes.

The music for Ultraman Nexus was composed by Kenji Kawai, who has worked with Mamoru Oshii on many of his films, including Ghost in the Shell.  The soundtrack for Nexus is epic and wonderful.  Many of the tracks are variations on the Nexus theme, but they are all different and great in their own ways.  Himeya's theme is incredibly touching and sad, and the Night Raider themes get the blood pumping.  This is one of those times where I immediately went out and found the OSTs.

Overall, Ultraman Nexus is a fantastic show.  Just about everything about it is well-done, including the plot, the characters and their development, the fights, and the music.  The only complaint I can come up with is that it is tragically a bit rushed toward the end, and I also found the "Second Season/Blue Nexus" portion to be a little underwhelming after becoming attached to Himeya and witnessing his amazing struggle.  The show never stops being good, though.  In my opinion it is tokusatsu at its finest, and it is definitely one of my new favorites.  Watch it.  Now.

Nexus is a cool guy.

Could it be Golgom? Thoughts on Kamen Rider Black

Aside from the stuff made available in America, Kamen Rider Black is the first toku show that I got into.  Some people suggested it as a decent starting point for getting into Kamen Rider, and I thought the designs were cool, not to mention that the title carried with it an implication that it was a bit of a darker entry in the series.

I have been picking at Black for quite some time, as Century Kings has been slowly churning out episodes throughout the span of several years.  (No hating on Pal, he did a great job.)  CK finally finished all of the subs, so after seeing all of the episodes, I feel like I can give some thoughts on the series as a whole.

The series starts out with a feeling of darkness and desperation, as we see Minami Kotaro running and hiding from three floaty priest-looking dudes.  You quickly find out that they don't want to kill him.  Rather, with the help of his foster father, Kotaro has escaped the evil organization, Golgom, and they want him back because they have modified him to be Black Sun, one of the two century kings that will battle to become Golgom's new creation king.  During this pursuit, which is full of cheesy but lovable mid-80's special effects, the Golgom priests eventually catch up with Kotaro. After getting smashed through a wall, Kotaro emerges all steamy-like as the transformed Black Sun.

Long story short, he proves to be difficult to capture in this new form, and vows to stop Golgom and rescue his friend/stepbrother, Nobuhiko, who is being transformed into the other century king, Shadow Moon.  He takes the name of Kamen Rider Black and becomes a friend of justice, stopping Golgom's crazy plots and annihilating their mutants.

Minami Kotaro is a likable guy, and he possesses many of the heroic qualities of his Kamen Rider predecessors.  One thing in particular that I love about Kotaro is his intensity.  He has that way of getting visibly angry about Golgom's latest plot, glaring, yelling something about how it is "Unforgivable!", and clenching his fists, which often begins the Black transformation.  I think that Tetsuo Kurata deserves a lot of credit for his acting as Minami Kotaro.  He is truly great.  Even the Black transformation itself is a bit intense, with the snappy arm movements, and the steam erupting from Black's armor.  The whole package is just pure badassery.


Kotaro is not alone, however.  Kyoko, Nobuhiko's younger sister, is essentially Kotaro's sister as well, and she is one of his few sources of support, even if his struggles as Kamen Rider Black are unknown for the majority of the show.  Also there for Kotaro is Katsumi, Nobuhiko's girlfriend.  She has no idea what happened to Nobuhiko at first, and the revelation of Nobuhiko's fate becomes a very important event in later episodes.

Black's fight sequences can be a lot of fun, sometimes a little silly or awkward, and sometimes surprisingly brutal.  Black himself has a very rough and tumble kind of fighting style, and he utilizes plenty of grappling and throwing.  He has a number of special attacks, many of which are only used once, unfortunately.  His Rider Punch and Rider Kick are the staple moves, and they get upgraded to more powerful, seizure-inducing versions later on.  (I'm just kidding about the seizures, though the effects are really bright and flashy.)  The fights do tend to get a little bit repetitive, though Black gets beaten up quite a bit.  When he's in a jam, he relies a lot on Battle Hopper, his bro-tier, sentient grasshopper bike.  Later in the series, he gets a second bike, Road Sector, which drives at ludicrous speed and can pretty much drive straight through anything.

It's easy to start comparing Black to both Showa and Heisei shows, simply because it's kind of that awkward middle child.  It's right at the end of the Showa era, and Black RX is the only show that separates it from Kuuga, the first Heisei series.  RX is arguably Black Season 2 anyway.  I think viewers going from mostly Heisei shows to watching Black may feel underwhelmed, especially since the show gets some hype.  The special effects are, of course, not going to be as great as modern shows, and the plot is more episodic, with less of that J-Drama type stuff that many Heisei shows exhibit.  On the other hand, viewers that have seen mostly Showa era shows may hone in on the fact that for its time, Black is a darker, more serious series with special effects that are an improvement over previous shows.

One main criticism of Kamen Rider Black that I've heard expressed is that the show pretty much hits a plot brick wall for half of the series, until Shadow Moon shows up.  This is somewhat true.  The plot is very slow, and the show is susceptible to Golgom crazy plot of the week + monster of the week kind of shenanigans, though honestly, all of the Showa Rider shows are like that, so my comments above apply here as well.  In any given episode, Kotaro will be just riding through town, and something slightly out of the ordinary will just happen to occur in front of him, prompting him to ask, "Could it be Golgom?!" or some variant of that.  And of course, it turns out to be a zany Golgom plot every time.  It's actually fairly amusing.

The show tries to change things up a bit in the first half by introducing Sword Saint Birugenia, a would-be Golgom century king who is risen after thousands of years.  The guy is really tough, and he definitely has something to prove, going way out of his way to show up the Golgom priests.  There are also a couple of kidnapping plots by the priests to use Kyoko's life force to speed up Shadow Moon's birth.  Of course, once Shadow Moon finally awakens and the Golgom priests get upgraded, the plot moves much more quickly until the end.

Sun, I am disappoint.

Now, onto the music.  The opening and ending songs for Kamen Rider Black are great.  Tetsuo Kurata wasn't exactly Japan's next singing idol, but he did a great job of making his own theme song sound epic and badass, especially when he's in the deeper portion of his range.  There are also many insert songs, all sung by Toshiya Igarashi.  Henshin! Rider Black is a favorite of mine.  It's a treat when they use it alongside the transformation sequence.  The BGM for Black is pretty good as well.  It wasn't anything that made me want to go out and immediately find the OST, but it was pretty epic and appropriate for the feel of the show.

Hmm, after I talk about the music, that usually means I've run out of things to talk about, so time to wrap it up.  I may be a little biased since Kamen Rider Black was my first Rider show, but it definitely stands out as one of my top picks.  I won't call the show itself my absolute favorite, but Kamen Rider Black is probably my favorite Rider.  That being said, go out and give it a try if you haven't already, whether you're coming from Heisei or Showa or even no Rider shows at all.