Review

by Christopher Farris,

Amazon Riders

Season 1 streaming

Synopsis:
Amazon Riders
Thousands of creatures called Amazons are loose, disguising themselves amongst humanity until their hunger overtakes them and they transform into people-eating monsters. The Nozama Peston Service is a team of mercenaries tasked with hunting down and exterminating Amazons. As the cases they encounter are suddenly increasing, two particular Amazons encounter the team: Jin Takayama, who has sworn to kill all Amazons himself, and Haruka Mizusawa, a mysterious shut-in searching for answers about whether he is truly human. These two outliers gain the ability to transform into Amazon Kamen Riders, with a battle breaking out between all sides to decide humanity's fate as a species.
Review:

The first modern Kamen Rider series made officially available in the West, Kamen Rider Amazons is a series that already sits apart from the main franchise in how experimental it is. Conceived as a darker, more adult-oriented spin-off exclusive to Amazon Prime, the series sees regular Kamen writer Yasuko Kobayashi playing with ideas that often occur in the line, but in ways outside of what would be acceptable for the Sunday-morning kids' toy commercial set. This does give the series its own identity, but how well those ideas being explored actually work varies wildly as the show goes on. It also makes the series, released here titled Amazon Riders, a disparate introduction to the Kamen Rider franchise for westerners.

The series' online-exclusivity and flexible-length time-slot format calls to mind a toku-hero equivalent of the Netflix Marvel shows. In general, the show does its best to emulate that ‘peak TV’ feeling of programming. The filming style is purposefully gritty and dark, with even the more colorful Rider super-suits captured with a desaturated filter over everything. The quality of the production in general is very careful, looking a step above the standard Sentai and Rider shows and even sharper than at least earlier ‘mature’ tokusatsu shows like GARO. The cinematography tends to favor functional shots, with only a little creativity in obvious symbolism (like framing Haruka through the aquarium) or suspense-building shots appropriately informed by the horror genre.

The effects in a special-effects show are definitely going to be a draw, however, and Amazon Riders does show off enough just to make it worth checking out to get a taste of the genre. The multiple monster suit designs are detailed in ways that mesh well with the gritty feel of the series. The practical and post-production effects of their various attacks and powers generally look cool, if pointedly artificial in some places. If you're used to the style and suspension of disbelief that goes along with other Japanese monster movies, you'll be right at home with Amazons, but don't expect anything on a full Hollywood blockbuster level. The series' geared-to-adults status lets it show off some effective violence effects well, with spatters of monster-blood and costumed limbs being torn off in viscerally creative ways. The violence honestly isn't terribly shocking by monster-movie standards, but may surprise some viewers just getting into these pseudo-Power-Rangers antics.

In fact, the colorful suits of our nominal heroic Riders might be one of the more pronounced visual incongruities of the series. Jin and Haruka's superhero forms are honestly cool suit designs in and of themselves, but the brighter, shinier nature of the suits sometimes looks out of place against all the blood and grain. This is especially true in places of Haruka's Amazon Omega form, which sometimes looks a bit too glossy and ‘heroic’ to be sold as the savage monster it's supposed to be. That is to say nothing of the multiple times we're treated to it allegedly biting and tearing into enemies despite the design's lack of a visible mouth. These are minor design issues, along with a few instances of obvious costume reuse, that don't hurt the show too much in the long run, but are notable as an element of the format.

All this is put together in service of telling a story rooted in the classic Kamen Rider formula with allotted experimental twists. Haruka may be the one who received experimental powers from an organization with nebulous morals, with Jin his eye-opening rival, but the Nozama Peston Service crew get plenty of focus as well, turning Amazons into more of an ensemble piece. It seems like all the characters are used to have concepts and information explained to them throughout the show, and if the crew of exterminators don't receive as much development as the Riders (at least until towards the end), they tend to work as the viewpoint characters through which we see all this savagery play out. And to be sure, most of the bigger twists that occur do so at the team's emotional expense, with their Mole Amazon comrade Mamoru turning out to be the surprising heart of the happenings. Jin and Haruka's progress, meanwhile, is more rooted in their changing views of each other and the world.

Those worldviews and the development thereof is where Amazon Riders' main issues all become apparent, however. Kobayashi clearly had some strong, ambitious ideas she wanted to articulate here that she hadn't been able to in the more clear-cut kids' fare of previous shows. However, that ambition is outstripped by the ability of the execution. The clearest issue is that the big questions Amazons attempts to ask keep being rooted in moral quandaries that aren't as much of conundrums as the writing seems to think they are. Just as one example: About halfway through the series, Haruka and the pest control team's investigation leads them to discover that some deaths were carried out not by a rampaging monster, but by a normal human serial killer. The idea of a whether a hero has a duty to fight and kill human monsters as well as the typical creatures is treated as some sort of challenging issue worth grappling with, putting aside the obvious danger the serial killer has already shown. It smacks of the story trying to act more challenging than it actually is.

This comes to a head in the story's final arc. Avoiding spoilers, Haruka ends up making a choice regarding the rights of a group of Amazons versus their actions against the safety of humans. On one hand, the idea of this choice is clear, and in a vacuum is a challenging concept: If confronted with a species specifically higher on the food chain than them, would humanity have an obligation to respect their survival to some degree, or does it become every race for themselves? The problem with how this is executed, however, is that it's shown several times that there are alternatives to life for the Amazons among humans other than eat-or-be-eaten, which the story and Haruka dutifully ignore at this point in the name of dialing up the supposed morally-myopic drama. It's a story point that seriously could have used another pass to at least make sure all its explanatory exits were covered.

Kobayashi's ideas coming off as half-baked hold Amazon Riders back the most as a production. There are a lot of intriguing concepts thrown around that viewers can meditate on, but the answers they come up with aren't as satisfying as you would hope for from a complete season of television. There is a lot to like in Amazons, entertainment-wise. The action and direction are very cool and enjoyable, distinct from both standard TV dramas and more typical tokusatsu fare. And many of the characters carry the story in entertainment value when the concepts falter, with Jin and Mamoru being standouts in how they appeal to the audience. But overall, the series continuously feels obvious as a first pass at its concept, and coupled with being such an unorthodox introduction to Kamen Rider in the west, comes across as simply an interesting experimental curiosity than a solid story.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C
Art : B+
Music : B

+ An intriguing experiment, gritty design and cool effects, entertaining characters
Major ideas are half-baked, some clashing suit design, uninteresting cinematography

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