I never thought I’d compare a Kamen Rider title to Tokyo Ghoul and Attack on Titan, but here we are. The show itself contains considerable amounts of gore, especially in the second season, some of which looks rather fake and some of which looks realistic enough to potentially nauesate. Spoiler warnings for season two, which isn’t available on English-language Amazon yet.
Kamen Rider Amazons is the franchise’s first experiment with making something that aims for an audience a little older than ten to twelve. The result is very interesting, unusual for this property, and while it’s not all great there’s a lot to recommend. The first thing to address is probably that, while this is a Darker and Grittier… side-reboot?, it abstains from the usual excess of sexual assault and so forth that accompanies the idea of dark-and-grit; when your main franchise is for selling children’s toys you don’t want that associated with onscreen graphic rape. The second thing is that, okay, there’s no nice way to put it: newer Kamen Rider titles look like shit. I’ve tried to watch post-Kabuto titles and there’s no perceptible improvement in CGI between Kamen Rider Kabuto (2006-2007) and Kamen Rider Build (2017-2018). Arguably the fight choreography is worse. Certainly the actors are far, far worse. I don’t know what happened here, whether it’s a budget issue or if they just churned these out quickly with the sole intention of selling merch and assuming that children don’t know any better. I’m pretty sure ten-year-olds these days recognize and complain about bad CGI, though.
I gave Build a good ol’ go and bailed after one episode. I think I attempted to watch the one with the time travel or the train, or something. I’ve certainly made an honest effort to watch the… you know, the one with the fruit salad (no, literally, fruit salad) riders, written by Urobuchi? Man, that was trippy. The point is that I could tolerate, at most, 20 minutes of each of these shows, maybe one entire episode if I’m feeling patient. The acting is not so great, the CGI is extraordinarily horrendous, and they don’t even try to hide that they’re making these awful things just to sell toys to susceptible children: even the suits, onscreen, look like cheap plastic and flimsy vinyl. The stuntwork is apparently demanding enough a suit actor shattered their hips, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from how fake the fighting looks in the final product.
A lot can go wrong with a Darker and Grittier alternate universe, or whatever Amazons is billed as. But a lot can go right and one of them is the production value.
Oh sure, we can complain endlessly about the gray filter. It makes everything look zombie-like, washed out, and depressing. But it’s pretty good at masking the CGI, which is far superior to other KR titles but which can often be… unfortunate, and it perfectly hides that some of the suits are way too bright, rubbery, and plasticky. Things easily look grimy and horrible and, yes, depressing when you make everyone kind of gray! And, while the CGI is not so amazing, it’s just about okay for what it is. It’s watchable! That’s more than I can say about Build. The cinematography is way nicer than normal! Finally I can watch an entire episode of modern Kamen Rider without cringing!
You know what else? It’s finally a Kamen Rider title that has decent female characters! Wow. More on this later.
Based loosely on the original Kamen Rider Amazon, Amazons returns to the showa era Kamen Riders where the insectoid heroes aren’t humans who put on a gadget but human experiments and mutants, with a nice dose of body horror. This time around, these mutants are cannibals and live with ravenous hunger for human flesh (see Tokyo Ghoul), treating us to a vast quantity of scenes where people’s throats are torn out, rooms are splattered in gore, and heads go flying. Yum. Even the combat scenes are more splattery than normal and the riders frequently rip things apart with their bare hands or rip out the hearts of their enemies, though it’s mostly black ichor and shouldn’t nauseate anyone too much. There’s a lot of the usual guff in this kind of thing, like the protagonists struggling with their constant hunger for human flesh and considering the issue of being technically the same species as their enemies.
What makes this stand out is that Amazons has a large ensemble cast and, while most Kamen Rider shows focus on the riders themselves, Amazons gives a great deal of attention to the supporting cast. One of them is the Nozoma Peston Service, human shock troops who specialize in taking out the flesh-eating Amazons. I genuinely enjoyed their group dynamics, it’s excellently acted and the team chemistry is fantastic. They work together well, are fiercely protective of the childlike Mamoru (who can transform into an Amazon), and the banter’s great. They might all insist they’re just in it for the money, but you can see they genuinely care about each other. Hats off in particular to Shundo Mitsutoshi and Katsuya, who play respectively the gruff team captain Shido and the jokester Kazuya.
And yes, that’s a woman. Who isn’t anyone’s love interest. Usually women in Kamen Rider are some kind of pining damsel, or emotionless traumatized damsels, or at most non-combatant support personnel. This is Nozomi, a close-combat specialist who gets up close with Amazons and kick them to death. She’s competent, she’s never rescued (even in one instance where she and another team member are surrounded and outnumbered heavily), and while there are scenes where she’s beaten bloody it’s not sexualized. She gets back up and returns to kicking and knifing things to death as normal. By season two, there are three whole women in combat roles and one has a surprisingly satisfying final scene.
The bar’s low, okay? It doesn’t even pass that flimsy Bechdel but it’s still an improvement, okay? Some of the past female Kamen Riders had names like Kamen Rider Femme and some of them wore pink, and commanded a total screentime of perhaps 10 minutes apiece. My god.
The lead actors seem to suffer the most from either a bad script or acting chops that just aren’t up to the snuff. Haruka (Amazon Omega) and Chihiro (Amazon Neo) are respectively the protagonists of season one and two, but they never quite… get anywhere. Their characters develop, sort of (Haruka went from naive pacifist to someone who yells ‘Just because we want to eat human flesh doesn’t make us evil!’), but they never have the deeply felt motivations of the Peston Service team or the screen presence of Nanaha. They’re just there and, in Chihiro’s case, to act out an unfortunate, one-sided fantasy romance. The girl pictured here is Iyu, a corpse who was injected with Amazon cells and who transforms into a crow-themed Amazon to fight for what amounts to corporate interests. She is also the girl Chihiro has decided to protect all his wishful thinking on, and is an unwilling participant in the romance he believes they’re having. It’s… uncomfortable to watch, and for the most part Iyu–who doesn’t have much emotion, being a reanimated corpse–responds to him with a blank stare and frequent attempts to put her fist through his stomach and tear out his guts. Sounds about right. I stan. The romance, like all romances in this show (all of them being hetero; Kamen Rider doesn’t want to get that progressive), is abortive and ends in blood.
Which, hey, I can live with. I thought for a second that we were going to get a sappy, and kind of misogynistic, ending where Iyu regains her emotions and lives with Chihiro happily ever after as the perfectly molded girlfriend he wanted all along. Instead he hugs her while a bunch of soldiers spray the two of them with bullets, and in the end she dies from a killswitch implanted in her arm, and he follows not long after (executed partly by his own dad; this show doesn’t really promote good parenting).
There is a subplot with Jin (Amazon Alpha) that leans a little too much on manpain–at the expense of women, in this case his wife Nanaha (who’s a fantastic character but doesn’t get her dues)–but which is still decently compelling; Jin doesn’t get a redemption, he just gets to be increasingly suicidal, miserable, and unstable. I’m even pleased that Chihiro dies, also unredeemed, because like his father, his arc depends a little too much on a woman’s suffering (Iyu’s), but while usually such plots would end with the woman dead and the man still whole if a little sad, Chihiro just dies. Violently and horribly, without being offered any kind of consolation, not even the token ‘I’ll be with Iyu now’.
Having said that, the second season’s excess of misery can go a bit overboard, like the sniper’s poor old ma being infected by the Amazon cells at the last minute and him having to shoot her in the head; that was random and seems to have been done mostly to fulfill the dark-and-grit quota. Look, we’ll kill off a little old lady to make the point that nobody survives this show unscathed, if they even survive! Bwahaha, etc.
All of this makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the show, but I actually without irony liked it. It’s succeeded in a Darker and Grittier reboot without doing the misogyny parade, it handles its ensemble cast with deftness, being a web series allows its episodes to be whatever lenght is required (30-49 minutes) to assist with pacing, all the primary female characters come off relatively well–from brawling melee fighter Nozomi to corporate devil Reika–and there’s enough god to it that that I can easily recommend this even to people who aren’t familiar with or that interested in Kamen Rider as a whole, because it’s so different from the rest of the franchise. It has the monster struggle of Tokyo Ghoul, the team dynamics (and struggle with monstrosity) of Attack on Titan, and the quality of acting is very good across the board.
You can stream the first season now through Amazon Prime.