I’ve been an on-and-off follower of the KAMEN RIDER series of Japanese live action super hero shows going back to the mid-1980s when KAMEN RIDER BLACK was on the air. But it’s been about ten years since one really caught my fancy–and that one, KAMEN RIDER DECADE, came onto my radar because it guest-starred Kamen Rider Black in a number of episodes, bringing back the original actor for the part. DECADE was the tenth of the new iteration of Heisei Kamen Rider shows, and was designed to celebrate this fact by having the storyline and lead character interact with his nine predecessors by traveling to their respective worlds. Well, it’s ten years later, and history is repeating itself in a way.
The current show, KAMEN RIDER ZI-O, is itself the twentieth Heisei Rider series, the last in the cycle, and like DECADE before it, it is a celebration of what has come before, involving almost all of the past Riders in its storyline. Most attractive to me, Kamen Rider Decade plays a central role in the series–which was all it took to get me to seek out the episodes he was in, and from there to go back to the beginning and start watching the show in its entirety. And I’m pretty well hooked at this point.
Where DECADE was about parallel worlds, the central motif of KAMEN RIDER ZI-O is time. The main character is Sougo Tokiwa, an eighteen-year-old high school student who has a strange ambition in life, one that makes him a bit of a figure of ridicule among his classmates: he wants to be a king. But this isn’t as silly as it sounds, because in the year 2068, Sougo has become the fearsome Oma Zi-O, the King of Time, a despicable despot who has crushed the future under his heel. After their rebellion has been crushed, a pair of time travelers, Geiz and Tsukuyomi return to the year 2018 to try to prevent his rise to power. Geiz, who himself can transform into Kamen Rider Geiz, wants to straight-up kill Sougo, but Tsukuyomi realizes that the young high schooler is good-hearted, kind and brave.
Events are made more complicated by two other competing forces. There’s Woz, a disciple of Oma Zi-O who carries with him a book in which all history is recorded, and who is pulling strings from behind the scenes to insure that Sougo fulfils his destiny. He makes sure that Sougo gains possession of the Ride Watch that can transform him into Kamen Rider Zi-O and begin his progression to becoming Oma Zi-O. At the same time, there are a trio of Timejackers operating in and around Sougo’s era. They want to bring about a different future with a different king, and so they manipulate the timestream to give the powers of Kamen Riders of the past to people facing crisis in the present, transforming them into the monstrous Another Riders and wiping the original template of that rider from history.
Sougo, Geiz and Tsukuyomi find themselves as an unlikely and uneasy trio, living together with Sougo’s uncle in his clock repair shop as they both attempt to prevent the manipulations of the Timejackers while insuring that Sougo doesn’t end up becoming Oma Zi-O. One of the appeals of the series is that the three leads are all really good and fun to watch, and Sougo himself is such a lovable doofus. It’s easy to root for him, even as he steadily accrues the powers of the other Kamen Riders before him and hastens his transformation into Oma Zi-O.
As tends to be the case with these shows, the production budget doesn’t really allow them to do all of the things that they want to do–but they do them anyway, trusting to verve and the willing suspension of disbelief of the audience to carry them through. So, everybody travels through time in giant robots called Time Mazin, which are clearly CGI and don’t quite integrate properly with their surroundings. Also, for a series that’s built around the concept of a hero on a motorcycle, Zi-O spends precious little time on his bike–in the first six episodes, we see it once. This is a far cry from the origins of the property, where the motorcycle was virtually a character in and of itself.
But all of that doesn’t really matter. These are shows produced for a young audience that doesn’t really care about such things so long as they can invest their own imaginations in what’s going on. And on that level, Zi-O works perfectly. The episodes move at a good clip, there are quiet scenes, but never enough loss of momentum for a viewer to get bored. And even the complicated time travel shenanigans are laid out in as straightforward a manner as possible–when the characters move to a new year, there’s a spotlight illustrating the year projected clearly onto an element of the environment, so you always know where and when you are. Each one of these shows is silly to some degree–some of them are broader than others, some play things a bit straighter–but that’s really a part of the appeal for me.
And then there’s my man Decade. He’s working alongside one of the Timejackers for reasons that haven’t yet become apparent. What is apparent, indeed what’s baked right into the character’s make-up, is that Decade is the prophesied Destroyer of Worlds who will lay waste to the Kamen Riders and their universes (In DECADE, the different Riders all existed in parallel universes. In ZI-O, they all seem to be in the same universe but active at different times, in their years of broadcast. Just go with it.) It was eventually revealed after the close of his series that he was really the amnesiac leader of Dai-Shocker, the long-time Kamen Rider enemy organization dating back to the very first shows. But he remained true to himself, broke with Dai-Shocker and obliterated them.
So here, the fact that he’s working with the ostensible bad guys seems like an appropriate fit. And his motivations are presently shrouded in mystery. He does give Sougo a Ride Watch that allows him to access Decade’s power–like Zi-O, Decade could draw on the powers of his predecessor Riders, doing so through a series of cards inserted into his transformational Decadriver. Zi-O does it in a different manner: his Jikuu Driver can accommodate two Ride Watches at the same time, creating for him a set of armor based on the past Rider whose aspect he is emulating. Decade’s watch allows him to stack further, adding the powers of two other previous Riders to his repertoire at any given moment. But Decade also kicks the hell out of Sougo and the others on three separate occasions, and he tells Sougo straight out that he’ll never become the King of this world, because Decade will be the one to destroy it. He’s got a central role in this saga, and I could not be happier to have him back.