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
“Tachibana! Why are you just watching?!”
“Tachibana! Did you really betray us?!”
“Weren’t the two of us friends?!”
Kamen Rider Blade begins as fast-paced as it means to go on, smashing the setting just as soon as it’s established. The organisation BOARD employs two men to fight and seal the Undead, monsters terrorising humanity, away: Kamen Rider Garren, Sakuya Tachibana, and Kamen Rider Blade, Kazuma Kenzaki. A writer researching the Kamen Riders, Kotarou Shirai, watches them fight the Bat Undead in a cave, and later offers Kenzaki a place to live. BOARD is destroyed in an attack by the Locust Undead that appears to have been instigated by Tachibana, who abducted the chief of BOARD, Karasuma, in the process.
Afterwards Shiroi Hirose, who co-ordinates the Riders’ missions, comes to stay with Kotarou too. Hajime Aikawa, the lodger staying with Kotarou’s widowed sister Haruka and niece Amane, turns out to have a connection to the Undead and the Kamen Riders too. When Amane is caught up in the Plant Undead’s attack, he rescues her in the guise of Kamen Rider Chalice, but his injuries from the fight indicate that he is not a human. When challenged by Blade, he declares himself the enemy of all.
The first showing of Blade’s opening credits sequence feels particularly lonely. There are no shots of the Riders together on bikes, which are present from the second episode on, and so Blade’s solo ride over the sands beforehand takes their place in a weighty manner. The scenes of the Riders posing between chained columns are therefore presented without distraction, intensifying the foreboding of conflict, Garren’s fight in the cave echoing with claustrophobia. Opening this way places the focus on the relationship between Kenzaki and Tachibana; a pair whose kouhai and senpai dynamic is broken right from the beginning.
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 cave shows Blade’s signature fight style - fast cutting between jerky camera shots. Obvious artificial light swings around the background of the cave, and the scene feels claustrophobic and chaotic, fitting of Garren’s struggle. The shots of Blade outside are mostly aerial or fixed, making him look tiny in the wide landscape, and are paired with shots from the entirely stable control room. While he is not in control, Blade is secure. 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; later 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.
The theme both of them embody - but Tachibana in particular - is that of the worth of labour. The problem of how much of one’s life is given up to or exploited by one’s work is critically important to Blade, since Garren and Blade are the first Riders for whom “Kamen Rider” is a primary profession. Garren’s first on-screen sealing is the Scope Bat, the 8 of Diamonds, whose Tarot equivalent is the 8 of Pentacles. It’s a card associated with hard work; upright, it encourages it, but in reverse, it warns against burnout. The card is displayed to the camera after sealing in neither of those orientations, but unreadably sideways. Accordingly, Tachibana’s loyalties and motivations are deliberately unreadable at this point. Moreover, the inability to properly balance his work and health is core to his character.
Since Tachibana has seniority over Kenzaki as a Rider, the episode posits Tachibana’s instability as partly being a matter of damaged pride and workplace jealousy. 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. It’s the ominous framing of Karasuma, the boss of both, that suggests a less straightforward truth. When Tachibana asks what Kenzaki’s motivations for working as a Rider are, the answer is a floaty and generic desire to save the earth and humanity. Tachibana chides Kenzaki for being naive. It’s clear that Kenzaki looks up to Tachibana, while Tachibana looks out for Kenzaki’s wellbeing, in a classic mentor-mentee structure. But the structure is hollow, as the audience will learn upon finding out that Kenzaki was not being completely honest in answering.
Perhaps Blade’s most well-known scene, at the end of the first episode, is the best illustration of the gulf between the two of them. The camera is wild on Blade’s fight and rock-steady on Garren. Blade screams so hard that he warps his words. Garren is silent, unmoving, unreadable through his helmeted eyes. They do not know each other. The contrast between them is so striking that they never might.
Blade wins the fight with the Locust Undead and the Rouze card he gets from it - 5 of Spades, Kick Locust - is another that’s deliberately picked. The 5 of Swords is representative of loss in tarot. He’s lost BOARD, he’s lost Tachibana, he’s lost even the strength to catch the card when it returns. The transformation effect in Blade of the projected card the buckle generates becoming a repellent barrier always feel special, since in other shows diegetic effects are 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 charge through the card to transform, emphasising his complete exhaustion. His first battle won on screen is part of a war he’s losing.
And so, what to do without BOARD? The high-tech organisation shown via busy, prop- and extra-filled sets was impressive. It gave no indication that it would be gone by the episode’s end, but its sudden loss is felt throughout the course of the show. In truth BOARD is still running and funding the Riders - Hirose says as much - but in practical sense the old structure is gone, and they are no longer really operating as part of that big organisation. Hirose’s presence as the logistical backbone of the Riders’ operation keeps its memory alive. She becomes a pillar of continuity and support for Kenzaki, condensing BOARD’s role as employer down to a single person. 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.
When she appeals to Kenzaki’s stated motive of wanting to save people in order to do that, the theme of labour rears its head again, questioning the unity of a job and a purpose. With Tachibana out for now, Kenzaki alone is capable of dealing with the Undead threat. 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, because if he doesn’t people will suffer, rather than because he is being paid to do so. It’s a tremendous pressure to bear and Kenzaki will, eventually, come to reckon with it.
Into the middle of the Riders’ fight, a curious fool descending from the edge of a cliff, comes the civilian Kotarou. The audience comes with him, into the lives of the Riders. Just as Blade bursts in to help Garren, so Kotarou appears to help Kenzaki. Kotarou is the audience surrogate, our way into understanding the world and the protagonist.
The favoured place for Kenzaki to confide personal matters to Kotarou is out on the disused tractor, and the first conversation they have out here is about Kenzaki’s betrayal complex. It 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. Either Kenzaki is a victim so often because of his own behaviour - and his interaction with the landlady might lead you to believe so - or it is because his trust in others is the equivalent of the genius qualities most riders are known for, and his goodness makes for a more acute pain when it inevitably leads him to personal tragedy.
Kotarou’s own 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. 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 actually need to in a practical sense. Haruka is 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, whom Amane much prefers to her uncle, sparking Kotarou’s lasting resentment.
The subject of Kamen Riders stirs something awful in Hajime, announced with with red filters, visual and audio noise, shots of Hajime screaming, odd angles, fast cutting in a disorienting display. 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 corresponding Ace of Chalices is a card about the home, and it is shown upright to the audience. Hajime may have his personal troubles, but fundamentally, 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 centre on the importance of this house. The card of the first Undead that he’s shown to seal - the Plant Undead, 7 of Hearts or 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; the audience has already seen that Hajime’s humanity is an illusion, and have seen his contemplation of feelings and family.
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 an 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.
There are more questions than answers prompted here, and for a long time that’s just how Hajime will be. Kenzaki and Tachibana were connected by circumstance of work, but Kenzaki and Hajime are connected by a more mysterious thread. Hajime reacted badly to the name Kamen Rider before, and the drawing of Blade shocks him, but the drawing of Garren prompted no reaction. 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 said by those who end up pulled into the hero’s group of friends, fighting by their side.
And in time it shall be, but for now the focus of the story is with the mysteries of Karasuma and BOARD, and with the absent Tachibana.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Rochester: Destiny Books, 2004.