SHIN KAMEN RIDER, the latest in Hideaki Anno’s “Shin” series reimagining Japanese classic television shows, is an effective action film and drama. If the film does not compare to the heights of 2016’s Shin Godzilla, it is still a cut above last year’s Shin Ultraman.
Shin Kamen Rider follows the events of the tokusatsu classic’s original series closely. College student and motorcycle enthusiast Takeshi Hongo is kidnapped by the nefarious organization SHOCKER, finding his body modified into a half-grasshopper, half-human cyborg–later termed “Kamen Rider”. Breaking free from the organization’s attempts to brainwash him, Hongo instead wages war on the organization.
In the Shin Kamen Rider version of the story, Hongo is aided by Ruriko Midorikawa. In this version of the story, Midorikawa is the daughter of the scientist that modified Hongo into cyborg form, who as his mentor hoped that he would have the power to combat the organization.
All this is well-tread territory, then. But, as updated for 2023, in Shin Kamen Rider, SHOCKER is closer to a religious cult that aims to achieve a form of universal, utilitarian human happiness through the use of cyborg technology and artificial intelligence rather than simply seeking world conquest. To this extent, Hongo is depicted as grappling with his new, monstrous, and violent form. Compared to past installations, violent blood spatters during fight scenes aim to show Kamen Rider brutally killing his enemies so as to highlight the reality of violence.
Like Shin Ultraman, Shin Kamen Rider takes an episodic approach to its story, with five segments in the film each featuring a distinct villain. However, there is still a more overarching approach, in that the film builds up to the conflict against Ruriko’s older brother, Ichiro, one of the leaders of SHOCKER.
What unifies the film and gives it strength is the dynamic between Hongo and Midorikawa, played ably by Ikematsu Sosuke and Hamabe Minami. Hongo struggles to cling to his humanity while facing off against SHOCKER, while Midorikawa gradually comes to embrace her emotions and human side after a life raised by SHOCKER.
Indeed, part of what Shin Kamen Rider seems to be grappling with is the anonymous nature of weekly televised violence in tokusatsu drama. After all, each weekly episode involves the hero facing off and killing a villain of the week, as well as their nameless minions. Shin Kamen Rider, then, grapples with the individuality of these individuals in that they are often friends, acquaintances, or loved ones of Midorikawa.
To this extent, rather than revel in the violence, Shin Kamen Rider’s Hongo is a sensitive soul that struggles with having to commit acts of violence in the name of justice, or killing his opponents. This draws comparison to other Anno protagonists, perhaps, most notably Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari. After a significant death later on in the film, Hongo is shown breaking down and weeping uncontrollably, rather than repressing his emotions as otherwise might be expected of an action film protagonist.
A weak point of the film, however, is that SHOCKER’s motivations are unclear and the organization does not seem to have any coherent ideology. Many of the SHOCKER villains have conflicting goals and it is not clear how exactly the organization has any shared aim.
Moreover, while the dynamic between Midorikawa and Hongo drives forward the film, this falls apart during the movie’s denouement. The ending of the film does not satisfactorily wrap up the emotional plot threads of the movie, particularly seeing as it is Midorikawa and Hongo’s chemistry that drives the film.
But, particularly compared to other films in the Shin series, Shin Kamen Rider proves much more competent at handling emotional beats, and a character-driven narrative. As with the other Shin films, Shin Kamen Rider aims to appeal to existing fans and new ones, and it is with this character-centered approach that the film succeeds.