What is it that lies ahead?
Is it hope or dark despair?
Ready now, Round Zero will begin…
Kamen Rider Blade has an unusual reputation. It was an unpopular entry in the Kamen Rider franchise during its airing. It’s infamous for memes deriving from clumsily enunciated lines, and events that stick out oddly. The first third is often called weird or confusing. The head writer Shoji Imai had no prior experience with tokusatsu, and was replaced partway through by Sho Aikawa (who later went on to leave the head writer position for Kamen Rider Decade). In many ways, it feels like a show that clung together out of sheer luck.
Nevertheless, Blade also has a reputation as a cult classic. Even though it clips along at a remarkably fast pace, the underlying rhythm and grounded characters keep it from spiralling out of control. The show’s unconventional camerawork is always bold, with obvious care put into the visual direction, unafraid of being melodramatic. The music is top-notch, with excellent use of insert songs in particular. The rider suits are beautiful and distinctive. The monster design and villain cast is fantastically memorable. Its tragic ending is famed among tokusatsu fans for the tears it inspires.
Most of all, there’s a wonderful, earnest love that pours forth from the show even now. Nearly fifteen years later, the lead actors are still close friends who talk proudly about Blade, and all have returned to Kamen Rider to play their characters in crossovers. Takayuki Tsubaki (Kenzaki/Blade) and Ryoji Morimoto (Hajime/Chalice) have released multiple jewellery pieces directly referencing their characters. Both they and Kousei Amano (Tachibana/Garren) still do Blade themed meet-and-greet events. Takahiro Hojo (Mutsuki/Leangle) retired from acting, but still talks about Blade on social media and in videogame streams. It’s rare to find any set of actors so in love with a particular piece of work they’ve done, especially after so long, and the Blade cast’s loud love is infectious.
Part of what fuels Blade’s reputation as having a confusing start, at least in Anglophone tokusatsu fandom, is likely down to the the available translations. It was first translated by ear into English by TV-Nihon. That translation was later revised by Turn Up Scrubs, resulting in the best known version. It’s a complete sub, but leaves some things to be desired. Unsatisfied with what was currently available, Australian group EXCITE!Subs decided to produce a new translation of Blade over the course of 2018. They’ve been putting out episodes week by week, creating the experience of a currently-airing show for those following having never seen it before - like me. It’s been an absolutely wonderful experience.
My analysis is based off EXCITE’s translation, with episode titles taken from the Rider Wiki. These essays are being written with an expectation that readers will have watched the episodes under discussion before reading. I will try to limit spoilers for events past that, though I may allude to points being important later on. (For the time being, my ability to spoil things is limited - I am only as far along as EXCITE’s release, and I have not looked up the plot of future episodes in advance.) My aim is not to write reviews of episodes to judge them good or bad, but to analyse their themes and characters with the hope that I can help others appreciate the details of this rather special show.
Blade’s first opening title sequence makes for an intriguing introduction.
Characters pose in monochrome clothes on a harshly-lit, bare stage in a studio. It frames the whole thing with an acknowledgement of artificiality; these are players, about to act out a story for you. Suited Riders spar with nothing but the air, circling each other between tall chained columns, foreboding conflict in an inescapable, claustrophobic space. The bikes, as important to Blade’s Riders as their suits, are placed prominently. As the episodes go on there’s some changes made to the visuals, and it begins to feel less lonely, with shots of the Riders out on their bikes together cut in to the sequence.
The lyrics of Round ZERO~BLADE BRAVE are about finding self-confidence, acting despite fear, about defying a ruinous fate - solid heroic themes. EXCITE’s translation is phrased elegantly; never forced into awkward English, but nevertheless emulating the Japanese lyrics’ rhymes and stresses with poetic consideration. The standout line is “Beware the snare of knowing all too much, and the sin of ignorance” (“shiranai to iu tsumi to shirisugiru wana”), with the beware/snare internal rhyme balancing the weight of the idiomatic phrasing of “sin of ignorance”. This will come to bear upon the main characters significantly throughout the show. It introduces a key franchise concept: A Kamen Rider cannot live blissfully in ignorance of danger threatening the world, because they are a Kamen Rider, and have already been touched by it. Knowledge is ignorance’s opposite, but it’s presented as painful, inescapable and constricting. The following line is a call to action - “You must move ahead, take the step before you can no longer move” (“ugokenaku naru mae ni ugokidasou”) - a Rider must act in opposition to the evil, and here it is crucial to do so not before the enemy can move, but before oneself becomes tangled and paralysed in the anxiety knowledge can inspire. In these two lines Blade’s cards are succinctly laid out; it will now turn them up one by one, and see which win and lose.
Blade’s major motif is playing cards, using the standard 52-card deck with suits of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds and Clubs. But the Latin words flashing across the scene, too quick to properly read but just enough to half-remember, reveal that Blade is drawing from a related form of symbolism: Tarot. The century-old Rider-Waite tarot is the most common meaning system today, and the one Blade appears to use as a literary device. In the opening, each Rider has a character descriptor shown when they’re on the stage, then over their suited Rider shots comes their representative tarot suit and its corresponding Pythagorean element, and one or two thematic words besides.
Hajime’s words are the easiest to read. SACERDOS, meaning sacred, invokes divinity to set apart from the others. CALIX is Chalice, his rider name and the suit of cups, aligned with the suit of Hearts. It is traditionally regarded as a feminine suit, with a focus on emotions. AQUA is water, his corresponding element. He makes use of it as a motif more comprehensively than the other Riders do, with his henshin using water effects, and with a number of his important scenes taking place in the rain and snow. AMOR and FAMILIA, love and family, are his main preoccupations.
Tachibana is MERCATOR - a merchant, or a mercenary. The tarot suit corresponding to Diamonds is pentacles or coins, rendered here as NUMMI. It is the most material suit, with a focus on money and work. There’s the possibility that Tachibana himself may be bought and sold, immediately setting him up as a possible turncoat. Yet TERRA, earth, is his element, with connotations of being steadfast and nurturing. It fits his Rider name, Garren, which has the meaning of guardian. STATUS is a fitting theme for Tachibana, as someone who is actively seeking help managing his anxiety in relation to his work.
OPERATOR hides his face, unknown for now.
Finally, to protagonist Kenzaki, Kamen Rider Blade. he is introduced with PATRICIUS - fatherly, or perhaps, a ruler - but Kenzaki is not in the least patrician in his manner. It makes more sense in the context of his suit. GLADIUS underlines the correlation of the suits of Spades and swords. The swords suit is associated with masculinity, and the ace is a distillation of its power, associated with the virtue of justice, with authority and truth. AURA is the element of air (wind is a common motif for lead Kamen Riders) and ACTIO, action. Though he is not patrician or authoritarian at the beginning, TRIUMPH is there, implying success. It may well turn out that some change happens to Kenzaki during the show, to square this all away. Not necessarily good change, either; Kamen Riders are tragic figures, and the suit of swords is beset with images of pain. Even in standard playing cards the Ace of Spades in a card privileged above others, with a meaning of death to it.
Over the first third of Blade I saw a story in which characters struggled with crippling anxiety, having varying levels of success and failure with their coping strategies. I heard the same words of suicidal ideation that fell from my mouth in the past coming from Kenzaki and Tachibana. I got the push to finally get into therapy from watching the visions of their bodies breaking down because of fear. I watched Kenzaki kindly reach out to Hajime, divided from the people around him by his atypical body and mind, trying to find a way to fit in. I took them immediately to my heart.
At the same time I read Tsubaki’s blog posts, via secondary reports and broken machine translation, talking about how he watched Kamen Rider Ex-Aid (my own introduction to Rider) while recovering from serious injury and endured medical treatment. And I thought, if Kamen Rider is fighting, I can fight too. If Kamen Rider is struggling, then it’s fine if I’m struggling.
It’s helping me. Every day, it’s helping.
One more word of thanks: I started watching Blade because it’s EXCITE’s passion project. I loved their work on Ex-Aid, my first encounter with tokusatsu. By the start of Blade I had come to be very good friends with two members of the team, and wanted to support their efforts. Then Blade unexpectedly hit me in a very personal way and I began to adore it for that. I know that EXCITE are a team who carefully consider the audience’s experience when choosing how to translate. The love in their translation matches the love obviously present a decade and a half ago when the show was being made. Thank you so much, EXCITE, for bringing Blade to me.
Huson, Paul. Mystical Origins of the Tarot: From Ancient Roots to Modern Usage. Rochester: Destiny Books, 2004.