There’s a Thin Line Between Kind and Weak: Shin Kamen Rider (2023) - Reviewed


Shin Kamen Rider (2023) drops its audience directly into the action with a thrilling car chase as Kamen Rider zooms through hairpin turns on his motorcycle as SHOCKER agents chase him. After the hunt, his fists start flying as he punches the enemies to death, and they explode into a bloody crimson mist. Kamen Rider, AKA Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu), looks at his hands, covered in guts and viscera, and wonders, "What am I killing for?" This question ends up being the thesis for Hideaki Anno's reboot of the 1971 version of the beloved franchise. 

This is the third entry in the "Shin" series of reboots following Shin Godzilla (2016) and Shin Ultraman (2022). Out of these tokusatsu properties, Kamen Rider has always been the more abstract and experimental one, with surreal villains and an artsier style of directing. The 1971 series, especially, is heavily steeped in nightmare logic with strange asides, some of which were implemented due to a limited budget. Subsequently, this is the hardest to translate to film format as it relies on many high concepts and vibes over tight scripting. The film's first half suffers a bit from feeling disjointed, and a lot of connective tissue is missing. Fans of the series will be able to fill in these gaps, but those without that context will be left bewildered. Some of the tone switching doesn't feel organic, and the film cannot decide if it wants to go full camp or be taken seriously.

Much of the film's first act is reserved for rapid-fire exposition dumping and Anno's penchant for technobabble. Hongo's situation is quickly glossed over, and he is sent to fight SHOCKER with his emotionally cold partner Ruriko Midorikawa (Minami Hamabe). As far as Kamen Riders go, Hongo is melancholy and wracked with guilt, uncomfortable with his cyborg body and the damage it can do to others. He reluctantly dons the helmet and gear, forced into a war he didn't start, and Ikematsu does an excellent job portraying his deep sorrow. 

Anno is no stranger to exploring themes of isolation and loneliness; the story shines when it focuses on these concepts. Later on, when Hayato Ichimonji (Tasuku Emoto), a second Rider, enters the fray, the audience is shown what it could be like with a balanced individual who embraces his powers instead of fearing them. These dual Riders are like two sides of the same coin, enforcing justice in their separate ways. It's fascinating that Anno took something that happened in real life outside of the show (a Kamen Rider actor getting hurt and the producers bringing in a replacement actor midway) and made it literal in the movie.

The film fares better as an homage, as it's full of fan service. The sound effects and jazzy soundtrack are perfectly emulated, and the fight scenes are choreographed just like the original series, with shaky handheld cam shots, quick zooms, and low-angle shots of people doing flips. A few breathtaking action sequences use modern techniques that skew closer to modern anime style, and as much as they don't mesh with the classic fights, they are still exhilarating to watch. The film finds its footing in the third act, breaking down the character's motivations and the entire concept of Kamen Rider. It distills it down to the costumed fighters desperately dueling to the death, not only for themselves but for all humanity.

Aesthetically, Shin Kamen Rider looks terrific, and the Rider suits have been modernized and tweaked. The most significant improvement is the monsters (called Augments in this reboot), the costume designers went all out on their makeup and costumes, and they look great. Some of the CGI effects are shaky, but that's always been the case with even the modern iterations of the franchise, and it is part of the charm.

Of the three Shin movies, Shin Kamen Rider is the least focused, but it is still entertaining and touching. Fans will likely get more out of it, and it's an enjoyable modern interpretation of the story, even with the technical problems with the script and pacing.

--Michelle Kisner