The fourth installment of Hideaki Anno’s “Shin” project is brainy, moving, and marvelously idiosyncratic. It’s my favorite film of 2023 so far.
Shin Kamen Rider became my favorite movie of the year when it ripped my heart out with a one-sided conversation.
The monologue itself is well-performed. Actor Minami Hamabe plays it as much as her otherwise guarded, reserved scientist Ruriko Midorikawa learning how to let herself feel as her thanking her ally-turned-friend—Sosuke Ikematsu (The Last Samurai)’s gentle, reluctant, determined superhero Takeshi Hongo—for everything.
The sequence’s staging and design are similarly striking—in a movie set primarily in isolated and isolating rural and industrial locales, Midorikawa records the message outside a spartan but comparatively welcoming safehouse on a beautiful, sunny day. She’s wearing a borrowed hoodie and sweatpants rather than her usual trenchcoat—as much a uniform for her as Hongo’s superhero gear is for him. With the costume change comes a change in posture. It’s the only time in Shin Kamen Rider that Midorikawa is ever really relaxed—indeed, it may be the first time she’s ever relaxed.
As awkward and antisocial as Midorikawa and Hongo are, they’ve forged a bond with and care for one another. For a woman raised in a sinister conspiracy/cult built on running away from feeling anything other than empty euphoria, navigating true peace and genuine connection are not easy. And yet, she manages. The peace cannot last—Midorikawa and Hongo cannot and will not leave the cult—SHOCKER (The Sustainable Happiness Organization with Computational Knowledge Embedded Remodeling)—and their twisted mutant cyborg enforcers to do as they will. But peace’s impermanence does not make it worthless. As Modern Baseball sez, the reward for waking up that you get to wake up.
It’s compelling, thoughtful, wise filmmaking. And, in all seriousness, it goes well with Hongo kicking a fiendish, uncanny Man-Spider so hard that he evaporates.
Shin Kamen Rider is the third live-action and fourth overall entry into the Hideaki Anno-helmed Shin Japan Heroes Universe media project. Shin Evangelion/Rebuild of Evangelion saw Anno and his collaborators remake and conclude Neon Genesis Evangelion. This tremendously influential, often harrowing anime series made Anno’s career what it is. Shin Godzilla (co-directed by Shinji Higuchi) blended biting satire of bureaucracy’s fumbles in response to disaster with a brilliantly terrifying kaiju rampage and wry, bleak humor. Higuchi’s Shin Ultraman (which Anno wrote, co-edited, and did motion capture work for) combined a meditation on humanity’s place in the world with bouncy, creative giant alien v. space monster showdowns.
Shin Kamen Rider adapts both series creator Shotaro IshiNOmori’s tokusatsu superhero television show and his manga adaptation. In brief: the nefarious organization SHOCKER abducts brilliant young motorcyclist Takeshi Hongo and transforms him into a cyborg supersoldier to do their bidding. Dr. Midorikawa (Shinya Tsukamoto, director of Tetsuo: The Iron Man), a SHOCKER scientist, frees Hongo before the organization can brainwash him. While Midorikawa is soon slain, Hongo—though horrified by the loss of his humanity and his terrifying new strength—takes on the name Kamen Rider and vows to fight SHOCKER and protect the late doctor’s daughter, Ruriko.
While Shin Kamen Rider features significant alterations to its specifics (Ruriko Midorikawa is vastly more involved in Shin‘s action than she is in the original series, and SHOCKER is reimagined from a cabal of Nazis who escaped WWII into a tech cult founded by a detached-from-humanity billionaire) Anno (a lifelong, diehard Kamen Rider fan) sticks closely to IshiNOmori’s framework. By doing so, he pays homage to a work he dearly loves and continues his career-long exploration of loneliness, living with and moving through depression and the necessity—and challenges—of human connection.
Through Hongo and Ruriko Midorikawa’s battle with SHOCKER, Anno and his collaborators craft both exciting, hyperreal action (Their battle with Ruriko’s former friend Hiromi the Bee-Woman/Hachi Aug [Nanase Nishino] is a particular highlight—Hachi Aug attacking at superhuman, animated speed while Kamen Rider hunts for the opening he needs), moving drama (the scene discussed at the start of this review, for instance) and, in keeping with the other Shin Japan Heroes projects, a welcome vein of wry humor (Hamabe and Ikematsu bounce Ruriko, Hongo and their assorted clashing idiosyncracies off of each other splendidly).
It is worth noting that Shin Kamen Rider‘s opening is quite frantic—to the point that it’s dramatically wobbly. While it soon steadies itself and gets into a confident groove (much like Shin Ultraman, Shin Kamen Rider‘s structure is quite episodic), the sheer-break-neck (or, in Kamen Rider’s case, face-splattering) speed of its first 15-20 minutes works against it. But, with that said, the vast majority of the picture doesn’t just work; it sings. Ikematsu and Hamabe’s performances, and that of Tasuku Imoto’s as the eventual second Kamen Rider Hayato Ichimonji (he’s more outwardly jovial than Hongo, and he’s got a sorrow that he can’t put words to), are excellent. Taku Iwaskaki’s score is phenomenal, both his original contributions and his re-working of Hiroshi Fujioka’s theme to the original series. Though a bit heavy on shaky cam in places, the action makes space for everything from massive brawls to emotional duels.
It’s the humanity that I keep coming back to. The work Hongo and Ruriko have to do in living in a world both familiar (depression and loneliness) and strange (cybernetic conversions and battles against a sinister conspiracy). The heavy, the horrible, the astonishing, and the lovely.
Shin Kamen Rider is my favorite movie of the year so far. Seek it out.
Shin Kamen Rider plays in theaters as a Fathom event on Monday, Jun 05, 2023.