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Who Are You?

The Indigo Warrior (紫紺の戦士 Shikon no Senshi)

Written by Shōji Imai

Directed by Hidenori Ishida

 

The Mysterious Rider (謎のライダー Nazo no Raidā)

Written by Shōji Imai

Directed by Hidenori Ishida

 

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“Tachibana! Why are you just watching?!”

 

“…”

 

“Tachibana! Did you really betray us?!”

 

“…”

 

“Weren’t the two of us friends?!”

 

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Kamen Rider Blade begins in the midst of action and moves as quickly as it means to go on. Blade speeds over the sands, small in the scenery, directed by people in a control room far away. Garren is fighting a monster in a dark cave, struggling and alone. Into the middle of this, descending from the edge of the cliff, comes the curious civilian Kotarou. The audience comes with him, into the lives of the Riders. But even as Blade introduces its characters and sets up its world, it starts stripping things away.

 

When the opening credits sequence plays for the first time it feels particularly lonely. Just this once, the shots of the Riders together on bikes (which will be present from the second episode on) are left out, and Blade’s solo ride beforehand fills their role. The scenes of the Riders posing between chained columns are presented without distraction, intensifying the foreboding of conflict, Garren’s fight in the cave echoing with its claustrophobic air. It’s an ominous start.

 

The first two episodes set up the five relationships central to Blade. Most prominently is that of Kenzaki and Tachibana, Kamen Riders Blade and Garren. They start out as kouhai and senpai but that dynamic is immediately broken. Next are Kenzaki and the two non-Rider characters featured in the opening credits, Hirose and Kotarou.  Hirose’s relationship with Kenzaki is a pillar of stability and continuity for him in the wake of BOARD’s destruction, and she becomes the logistical centre of the Rider operation. Kotarou is the the audience surrogate, providing the reason to explain the world, and acts as Kenzaki’s best friend and confidante. Meanwhile, Hajime’s most important relationship is with the family who have taken him in; Kotarou’s older sister Haruka and her daughter, Amane. His meeting with Blade as Kamen Rider Chalice is hostile, as is his relationship with the rest of the world.

 

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Kenzaki and Tachibana’s internal mindsets are illustrated by way of the first episode’s juxtaposed stable and free cameras, contrasting their secure and insecure states. Garren’s fight in the beginning shows Blades signature fight style - fast cutting between jerky camera shots. Obvious artificial light swings around the background of the cave, and the whole scene feels claustrophobic and chaotic, to fit Garren’s struggle. The shots of Blade outside are mostly aerial or fixed, showing plenty of the landscape, and are paired with shots from the entirely stable control room. However, from the moment Blade breaks through the wall to meet Garren, the camera’s trick is set in reverse. Blade enters the fight with a steady camera, but loses it after taking a heavy hit. Garren is filmed with a more stable camera after Blade arrives to back him up, no matter his insistence that he was already coping with the situation.

 

Even when they aren’t directly interacting with each other, the contrasting camera dominates. In the farmhouse, the camera begins to float around while Kenzaki listens to Kotarou trying to convince him to move in. This scene cuts hard to one of Tachibana standing in a mysterious room of organic pods, which begin to hatch. The camera is steady here, with some slow pans; Tachibana is resolute, whatever he’s doing, in contrast to Kenzaki being indecisive over whether to trust Kotarou.

 

Despite his initial struggling, once bolstered by Blade’s presence Garren is the first Rider to seal an Undead on-screen. He presents the Rouze card (Scope Bat, the 8 of Diamonds) after the sealing neither upright nor in reverse, but sideways. Since Tarot cards have meanings specific to their orientation this is an unreadable position, but Tachibana’s loyalties and motivations are also unreadable at this point. The 8 of Pentacles is a card associated with hard work. Upright, it encourages it, but in reverse, it warns against burnout and perfectionism. Both these meanings will make themselves more apparent as the arc progresses.

 

Since Tachibana has seniority over Kenzaki as a Rider, the episode posits Tachibana’s instability as potentially being a matter of damaged pride. His complaint to Karasuma about Kenzaki’s assistance would feel natural if it were borne of shame at being shown up by a less experienced colleague. However, the ominous framing of Karasuma suggests a less straightforward truth. It’s also in this conversation with Tachibana that Kenzaki’s trust issues, central to his character, are first introduced. When Tachibana asks what Kenzaki’s motivations for being a Rider are, the answer is a floaty and generic desire to save the earth and humanity. The audience will learn that he isn’t being entirely honest, but there’s no indication that Tachibana takes this answer as anything but the truth, and he chides Kenzaki for being naive. It’s clear that Kenzaki looks up to Tachibana, while Tachibana looks out for Kenzaki’s wellbeing. However, right now they aren’t close enough to be honest.

 

Nor will they be any time soon.

 

In Blade’s most well-known scene, at the end of the first episode, the camera is wild on Blade’s fight and rock-steady on Garren. The difference between them has become a gulf. Blade screams so hard that he warps his words. Garren is silent, unmoving, unreadable through his helmeted eyes.

 

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Blade wins the fight with the Locust Undead and the Rouze card he gets from it (5 of Spades, Kick Locust) is very deliberately picked. The 5 of Swords is representative of loss - and the sealing is done with the card in reverse, accentuating the meaning to totality. He’s lost BOARD, he’s lost Tachibana, he’s lost confidence. Blade can’t even catch the card when it returns to him. The entirely diegetic henshin effects in Blade (the large card the buckle generates becoming a repellent barrier) always feel special, since in other shows instances of the sequence affecting the world are usually non-standard and used sparingly for dramatic effect. The card coming straight down to dispel Kenzaki’s armour is the extreme opposite motion of his run through the card to transform, emphasising his complete exhaustion. His first battle won on screen is part of a war he’s losing.

 

The initial establishment of BOARD as a high-tech organisation via busy, prop- and extra-filled sets was impressive. It gave no indication that it would all be gone by the episode’s end, yet established it well enough that its sudden loss is felt throughout the show. Hirose’s presence as the logistical backbone of the Riders’ operation keeps its memory alive.

 

When Kenzaki and Hirose sit huddled together in the ruins, looking over the footage of Garren attacking BOARD’s chief, it is immediately apparent that there is a level of friendship and trust between them. Even as Kenzaki loses confidence in his ability to fight due to his grief, he trusts Hirose enough to listen to her, and Hirose gets him back in the saddle. She has to do it with sharp anger, but she appeals to Kenzaki’s stated motive of wanting to save people.

 

Here a split arises between employment and purpose. The Blade Riders are not geniuses. They are among the few Heisei Riders for whom ‘Kamen Rider’ is their primary occupation. Hirose says that BOARD is still running and funding the Riders, but in all practical sense, the old structure is gone and they are no longer really operating as part of BOARD. With Tachibana gone, Kenzaki alone is capable of dealing with the threat at hand. So in this moment he must fight, he must, because it is his purpose and not his job, because Kamen Rider is a hero’s title, because he’s part of this already, because nobody else can, rather than because he is being paid to do so.

 

It’s a tremendous pressure to bear. Kenzaki will, eventually, come to reckon with it.

 

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Just as Blade bursts in to help Garren, so Kotarou appears to help Kenzaki. Kotarou is the audience surrogate, and Kenzaki confides personal matters to Kotarou as a friend. This is the first of two conversations between Kenzaki and Kotarou that take place out on the disused tractor, in which Kenzaki talks about a fundamental complex. In this case, betrayal. The betrayal is not just a matter of Tachibana and the moment - it is something that Kenzaki says has characterised his entire life. Which begs the question: What kind of a person is betrayed a hundred times? There’s a common element to the cases, after all.

 

Is his altercation with the landlady in the first episode a betrayal? Kenzaki expected to be able to come back to his room easily, having told the landlady he would be away. The landlady, understandably, expected to be paid rent for use of the room. Being two months in arrears will get you evicted almost anywhere- it shouldn’t be a surprise to Kenzaki, and he’s not without means, modest though they are. Calling it naivety or ignorance of social norms almost feels like a stretch, especially since he compounds it with crocodile tears and insults. Idiotic and rude feels like a more accurate description. But from his words about betrayal, he seems determined to cast himself as a pure victim.

 

Kenzaki is nice and pleasant most of the time, but the idea that he’ll be a perfect, pure boy has already been knocked on the head. Blade’s characters are complex and weighty and human, they get frustrated and fail constantly, and Kenzaki isn’t the voice of objective truth. There will be no simple, bright platitudes about trusting in your friends here.

 

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Kotarou’s personality is introduced not by way of Kenzaki, but in relation the third Rider, Hajime. He’s regarded as something of a fool by his sister and niece, Haruka and Amane, having quit a stable job in order to write about Kamen Riders, and having a general dreamy manner. With Haruka’s husband having died, Kotarou makes some overtures as to filling the empty ‘man of the house’ position. He isn’t capable of it, but nor does he really need to in a practical sense. Haruka comes across as every bit the responsible older sister. But Haruka makes a joke about her husband’s passing, the sort of joke one makes to cope with loss, saying he left his wife and child behind. It’s a line that introduces an important idea - that in Blade, going off into danger by oneself is a bad thing - but more importantly, it shows that there is an emotional void in the family that Kotarou is incapable of filling.

 

Enter Hajime the lodger, shy and awkward but considerate, deliberately waiting at the door for a break in the conversation so as not to interrupt the flow. Amane much prefers Hajime to her uncle, sparking Kotarou’s resentment. It will last.

 

The subject of Kamen Riders stirs something in Hajime. The first two episodes use similar scenes to establish a particular tendency to cinematographic flourish - wild, usually, and full of effects - that will be be used for to Hajime throughout the show. In the first episode, it comes with red filters, visual and audio noise, shots of Hajime screaming, odd angles, disorienting fast cutting in a display of chaos. He escapes into the darkroom, filled with red light, and Hajime’s primary Rouze card, Change Mantis - the Ace of Hearts - falls onto the floor. The Ace of Chalices is a card about the home, and it is shown upright to the audience. Hajime may have his troubles, but this is a happy home with him in it. We see his Rider form for the first time here, instead of in the heat of battle, because his battles will fundamentally centre on the importance of this house.

 

In the second episode, he does use his Rider form to protect Amane, and seals the Plant Undead into 7 of Hearts card. The correlated 7 of Cups is a card connected to sentiment, reflection and illusion. The camera makes no prominence of it, but it is hardly necessary to linger on it anyway; the audience has already seen that Hajime’s humanity is an illusion, and his contemplation of feelings and family.

 

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Within that contemplation is the second episode’s flourish shared by Hajime and Kenzaki, consisting of bright white light backgrounds, which removes the characters from physical space and puts them into a psychological one for them to determine their resolve. For Kenzaki it comes twice: once when Hirose is shouting at him to go and save people, and the light from outside through the curtains turns into a blooming white backdrop while he makes up his mind to go; the second time, it comes as he faces down the Undead, the snow providing the backdrop while flashbacks to his parents’ deaths and Hirose’s words push him into acting. By eliminating the physical space, time is also dilated. The focus is entirely on Kenzaki’s mental process.

 

For Hajime, it comes in a remarkable 50-second sequence, during which he reflects on why he took the injury he’s bandaging defending Amane. It’s a standout encapsulation of of Blade’s bold editing. The scene begins framed from the top, with the ceiling beams cutting through and reducing the space in the neat room, making it cagelike*. As it moves through shots hajime is crowded into the edges, white walls and bright basement window providing negative space, then for a moment crowded in the opposite direction by the objects and photographs left by Amane’s father. Then come more cuts between the blank space and objects, between Hajime’s mind and Amane’s father’s life, with the composition of shots utilising dutch angles and narrowing to perspective points, all increasing the sense of confusion. The ticking of a clock that runs throughout the scene would normally regulate time, but here becomes a factor in destabilising it, because the cuts are paced irregularly and skip through action. Suddenly he is shirtless, and asking himself why he saved Amane, and he is bleeding green- and even more suddenly he hears a call, and tenses for a fight.

 

The scene explains little. It provides questions- who, and what, and why.

 

Kenzaki and Tachibana were connected by circumstance of work, but Kenzaki and Hajime are connected by a deeper, more mysterious thread. Hajime reacted badly to the name Kamen Rider before, but the drawing of Blade shocks him when the drawing of Garren prompted no reaction. Even in the first episode, Kenzaki’s nightmare feels like a parallel to Hajime’s scene in the darkroom, using a similar palette of effects.

 

When they meet as people, it is by circumstance of mutual acquaintances. When they meet as Riders, it is because they are chasing the same enemy. Once the Undead is sealed, Blade reaches out in the hope he’ll find a new ally to help shoulder his burden. But: “Everyone is my enemy, and that includes you!” Chalice insists. It’s the sort of thing normally said by those who end up pulled into the hero’s group of friends, fighting by their side.

 

But what is it we’re watching? Would Blade really meet such straightforward expectations? Can the two of them become friends?

 

Hajime will, for a long time, prompt more questions than answers. For now the focus of the story is with the mysteries of Karasuma and BOARD, and with the absent Tachibana.

 

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*The room also features, in the top left, the soccer ball he kicks in the opening credits.

 

Bibliography:

Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Rochester: Destiny Books, 2004.

 

19/08/2018

 

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