ZO opens up to our hero, Masaru, who by the way is never actually called that in the movie, in some sort of hibernation in the forest when he is awake with a start. A disembodied voice calls the name “Rider” and telepathically delivers a mission to Masaru – protect Hiroshi Mochizuki. Masaru stands from his butt naked slumber and quietly transforms into Kamen Rider ZO. We see a pretty nifty title sequence here, the words “Kamen Rider” appearing on screen with ZO walking straight through the text, it definitely shows its age, but it’s a nice touch.
Like I mentioned a paragraph or two ago, you can totally see where this movie could break into episodes. The first two minutes alone can serve as an entire episode. You have a lost and confused Masaru being awakened as ZO as he searches for the kid, unsure of the world around him as he’s been asleep for many years by this point. You could end that first episode by having ZO finally accept his fate and transform. But I digress.
Elsewhere there’s a small orb flying around a junkyard in the middle of the night. The thing gathers up random pieces of trash and forms a bit of spinning vortex out of it before it all merges into the body of our main adversary, Doras. This is another one of those scenes that shows its age, probably more so than any other in the film. The CGI here is…what you would expect of a film from the early 90s. Though I gotta point out that there’s still that great CGI to physical prop transition. Beyond the texture of the CGI, there’s nothing too jarring watch it take a humanoid form and then become Doras. This feels like tokusatsu to me, taking the latest effects and using them in a practical manner to try and create one coherent picture. Feels like tokusatsu lost this element in subsequent years.
Anywho. Doras is born/formed and he’s got a pretty cool look to himself. The dark lightning gets across that sense of organic being with him. You don’t see the suit so much as you see a monstrous creator. That said, this illusion only works well in dimly lit scenes. When we get scenes with plenty of lighting, you can clearly tell it’s a suit, but it’s still a kick butt suit. There’s this odd…slime factor on Doras that can sort of push the illusion of organicness (is that even a word?) in those scenes when you see the suit is a suit. This is another one of those things that, even if it isn’t perfect, absolutely sends the message that the people working on this thing were contributed everything they could to make this movie look as great as it does.
Now aware of his mission and the impending danger, Masaru races off on his bike that he got out of thin air to the lab of Hiroshi’s father. Finding no one home, he lets himself in and happens up an eccentric fellow in the backyard – and he happens to notice a picture of Hiroshi. Speaking of the kid, what’s up with him? Well, he’s being stalked by Doras, who has video in its memory banks of Hiroshi talking to it as a fetus. A chase ensues. The kid screams and this seems to cause Masaru pain, alerting him to the danger Hiroshi must be in and he’s off to do some good ol’ fashioned rescuing.
Doras basically takes out an entire city block just trying to get its hands on Hiroshi, who high tails it out of there and into an abandoned building as fast as he can. The monster morphs into a ball and races after his target with incredible speed as Hiroshi tries to find a place to hide in the building. Of course it’s not too long before Doras finds the kid and this would be a good time for our hero to show up.
Seriously. Doras is massive. Its scale is huge compared to the adults it terrorizes out in the city, but with Hiroshi? The difference is gigantic. Here’s a monster really exuding a sense of enormity and terror. If there was anything that could put a fright into a kid, it would have to be facing down a seven foot tall giant monster that looks like it came out of your worst nightmare. The creature walks up to the kid and picks him up by the shoulder and just as everything looks helpless…well, this would be a good time for our hero to show up don’t you think?
And show up he does! ZO comes busting in through the walls on his bike and rams into Doras, ripping his arm off while miraculously not harming a hair on Hiroshi’s body. This is the first real look we get at ZO in a heroic sense and you gotta love it. He comes off his bike and even though we’ve already had a slight bit of interaction with Masaru, he’s still a mystery. From head to toe, this guy is all Rider, but in a very modern sense. Gone is the spandex, now we see is a hard body suit, even forgoing a Rider Belt in favor of a red stone on his waist. I absolutely love this design and while people often get J and ZO confused, I think it’s fairly easy to tell them apart, though I can see where the confusion comes from. Despite their similarities, ZO has this mature sensibility to his look. Subdued hues of green and gold with a nice crimson red stone actually do go a long way in making me feel like this guy is a Kamen Rider stripped down to the core elements. I love it.
So Doras recognizes ZO from its memory banks as Professor Mochizuki’s, Hiroshi’s father, first cyborg creation. Of course daddy Mochizuki tells Doras that ZO is no match for it because it uses a human body. Doras reforms its arm and on you better believe it’s time for a fight. By the way, the scariest moment in this scene? Doras flexing its fingers to reveal that one of them is a mini saw blade. Yikes.
Anyway, the two begin their battle and ZO is…getting his ass kicked. When Doras notices Hiroshi is on the run, he tosses ZO out a window. A chase ensues. The two catch up with each other fairly fast here and thanks to some random electrical wire that ZO shoves up Doras’s leg, he gets an edge and is able to ram Doras with his bike. (he loves this move) The two go flying off a building, ZO having a more graceful landing than our monster buddy who gets impaled by a random iron spike. Oh this movie is off to a great start. Less than ten minutes in and we’ve already seen a fast paced and very well shot action sequence between our two main forces. Jiro Okamoto as the suit actor for ZO is able to pull off some impressive jump kicks while Doras always feels like this…thing. It isn’t quite human, but it’s not a monster, somewhere in the middle.
Keita Amemiya said he designed Doras as what he thought an evil Kamen Rider would look like. (this is such an amusing comment in retrospect) When you look at Doras and the way it fights and carries itself, you can’t help but think Amemiya got it spot on. Doras feels like the personification of the pain and sheer ferociousness that goes with having your humanity taken away from you. Or as we’ll find out in a while, never having had that humanity at all.
Hiroshi having no idea as to what the hell just happen hoofs it home, all he knows is that there’s a monster trying to kill him for some reason. He gets home and runs into his grandfather’s arms, crying. We see Masaru looking on from a distance and smiling.
It’s not long before we find out that Hiroshi’s grandfather doesn’t believe his grandson. He tells him what happened, even tells him that there was a second monster that looked like a grasshopper, but the grandfather doesn’t bite. We then see Masaru listening on from the outside to the conversation in a neat showcase of his new found super hearing. This is a great way to show off what being transformed into a cyborg does for the guy. It’s pretty subtle and drives the point home that this guy isn’t your average human. Thanks to these powers, Masaru overhears the grandfather saying that Hiroshi’s father has disappeared and something about that seems strange to him.
Hiroshi runs off when his grandfather still doesn’t believe him and heads to his father’s office. In the office Hiroshi digs out a golden stop watch that plays a charming melody (you know the one) for the boy. Back at his lab, grandpa’s remembered that Hiroshi mentioned something about a grasshopper and pulls out a file from his missing son’s work. The file contains a ton of research on grasshoppers and other notes…as well as a picture of our hero in a lab coat.
Oh and Doras isn’t dead yet. It has the ability to heal at incredible speeds and wakes from its metal spike induced slumber. It creates two orbs of red light forming into a spider and a bat who scatter off into the distance. I sort of love this about Doras, it doesn’t seem like your traditional big bad enemy, it actively joins the fight and creates its own beasts on the field.
Masaru tries to talk to Hiroshi, but the boy high tails it out of there, not wanting to deal with another monster. The grandfather sees Masaru and then recognizes him from the picture in the file from his son’s folder. A chase ensues.
What follows next is my absolute favorite segment of the movie, if only for the Metal Heroes.
Hiroshi runs to his sister, who happens to be training at a dojo. His sister, Reiko, and her two training partners and teacher all suspect Masaru of being a really creepy guy. I mean, here’s a guy chasing after a little kid, anyone would be suspicious. Masaru tells them that he’s protecting Hiroshi from monsters and the others laugh at the proclamation. And then a bat comes by and transforms into a monster you can’t help but love the design for.
But before we move on, I’ve gotta talk about these four new characters, who sadly won’t be around for long. Every last one of them is a Metal Hero. First up we have the instructor, played by none other than Kenji “Gavan” Ohba, then there’s the leads from Winspector and Solbrain, Masaru Yamashita and Iori Sakakibara followed by Hiroshi’s sister, Reiko, played by Morinaga Naomi and known for her roles as Annie in Shaider and Helen in Spielban. Can I just say how much I love these guys in their cameo roles? It’s great seeing all of them together on screen, especially Yamashita and Ohba, two of my favorite Metal Hero actors.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem like everyone was happy to be here. Since her days on Shaider and Spielban, Morinaga has had trouble finding work outside of tokusatsu. She had famously said that being in a tokusatsu series sort of killed her career as she became typecast. Unfortunately, this is the last time we’re ever going to see her in tokusatsu. After ZO she started a career in porn just to get as far away from the field as she could.
It’s actually a bit of a shame that this is the only time we see Ohba and Yamashita in a Kamen Rider production. I’ve always thought those two would have fit the roles amazingly well – Ohba could definitely play an Ichimonji type while I can see Yamashita playing one of those silent but caring guys. Ah well, maybe there’s an alternate world out there somewhere that has these two guys transforming into Riders. I know people like to move on with their careers, but this always seems like the biggest shame to me.
Also, what up with no one from Rider’s past cameoing? You can get a bunch of Metal Heroes but no one from Kamen Rider history? Maybe it goes in line with the idea that this is starting the Kamen Riders over from zero. (that’s right, Kuuga, you weren’t nearly the first to do it, okay neither was ZO but we’ll ignore that here)
Back to the movie! All hell breaks loose when the bat monster separates the group and Reiko and Hiroshi are soon caught up to by another monster, a spider woman. The monster sends the siblings off to a strange dimension she seems to have created. What follows is a really interesting mix of puppet work and stop motion animation that you might think looks awkward, but it just…works.
Elsewhere Masaru is taking on the bat monster…who flies off as soon as he transforms. So what does Masaru do? Somehow makes it to the spider woman’s dimension and beats the ever living crap out of here. Well, okay, there’s a period of him getting his butt kicked, but he doesn’t stay down too long! There’s a lot of stop motion here involving both ZO and the monster and it looks …well about as good as a humanoid can look with that technique. Needless to say, it’s a very creative battle.
Oh and then the bat swipes Hiroshi and flies off with the kid. A chase ensues.
ZO manages to get the kid back and the monster flies off into the distance. The kid’s grandfather comes running out of nowhere and is shocked, to say the least, that the creature from his son’s files is standing before him.
After things cool down, everyone returns to not!Kenji Ohba’s dojo. The Metal Heroes stand guard outside while Masaru and gramps discuss Hiroshi’s father. Masaru looks over the file from Professor Mochizuki that gramps found and realizes that everything that’s happened thus far is the fault of Hiroshi’s father. He also regains some of his memories and remembers the horrible surgery that he was forced into by the good doctor. Professor Mochizuki was attempting to create a super power being unhindered by emotions. What he ended up creating was a very distraught man. Masaru ran out into the rain after the surgery and was hit by a bolt of lightning, disorienting him as he wandered into a forest and began his five year slumber.
Gotta say, I really enjoyed this scene. It’s graphic but not overly so. You see some of the surgery in the form of shadows and you kinda cringe every now and then from what happens to poor Masaru. This was a great way of showing off just how freaking crazy the professor has become at this stage. It also creates a sense of absurdity in the professor. As we see the surgery taking place and here what he says to Masaru, it really feels like this guy is a mad scientist. Another random thing that I enjoyed in this scene is that it sort of mimics the way the Riders look as humans in the various manga. They tend to have these scars running across their faces, some that are supposed to vaguely represent tears and I think this is the first time we actually get a visual representation of that in a live action production. Go team Amemiya.
Masaru tells gramps that someone contacted him in his slumber and told him to protect Hiroshi from something called the Neo Lifeform, a perfect being of evil created by the professor. Masaru believes that the professor is using the Neo Lifeform to attack his very own son, something that doesn’t go over very well with either gramps or the kid as Hiroshi runs out after overhearing the conversation. A chase ensues.
Over a bridge, Hiroshi recalls memories of his father buying him a golden pocket watch that plays a beautiful melody. He also recalls playing this music to the Neo Lifeform in its earliest state – a brain in a tube. Amused that the thing seems react well to music, Hiroshi tells his father, who pretty much shoves his kid out of the way and tells him not to mess with his creations any longer. Yeah. The old man has completely lost it at this point.
With Hiroshi still being a very young kid, I wanna say maybe younger than 12, a weird thought entered my mind. Masaru was operated on five years ago and the doctor was clearly out of his mind by this point. Hiroshi might have been seven years old at his point and I think the good doctor was probably just a tad bit crazy for years before that event. Basically my point is, what if the professor only had a son so he could operate on him when he got older? It would be a pretty dark twist for Kamen Rider, but I think it would be the ultimate play on having a person be operated on. Okay, so X-Rider was operated on by his father, but that was in an attempt to save Jin’s life, here it would have been because papa Mochizuki is just crazy.
Masaru catches up to Hiroshi, who is about to throw away his golden pocket watch and in an act of super powered something or other, he fixes the watch and allows it to play its melody again. What follows is a…really weird montage of nature scenery and the song playing.
Masaru tells Hiroshi that listening to the song makes him see how much the guy really did care for his son, but Hiroshi isn’t buying it. After everything that the professor has done, Hiroshi thinks his father is beyond saving. some kind words from Masaru really help drive the point home that the guy probably isn’t as crazy as things might seem.
This is where I love Kou Domon in the role of Masaru. The guy definitely has that older brother look that they were looking for in casting. When you see him talking to Hiroshi, it just feels like he’s assured in everything he’s saying, like you can really trust this guy. Definitely great hero material and another one of the reasons I’ll always be a little upset that Domon never got to lead a Kamen Rider series.
So Hiroshi thinks he sees his father and runs after him, but of course it’s not the good professor. A chase ensues.
The professor that Hiroshi saw? Turns out it was the bat monster in a disguise. After running into the building he saw Hiroshi run into, Masaru meets up with Doras. Who easily sends him flying through a window and crashing into a car.
After awakening, a giant grasshopper appears out of nowhere and mentally communicates with Masaru, telling him where the bat monster has taken Hiroshi. Um. This part is awkward, to say the least. We never actually find out just what the heck is up with that grasshopper, though I guess we’re supposed to assume that…um…man I really do not know. This part makes me scratch my head whenever I watch this movie. Can anyone shed some light? Anywho. It’s Masaru to the rescue! He speeds off on his bike and this leads to a pretty cool bike transformation that I would love to see mimicked with today’s technology.
So our hero is off to the scene! He races into what looks like an abandoned building and finds his way into a secret room that reveals a giant industrial looking laboratory. Hiroshi appears and attacks ZO…turns out it was the bat! One quick punch is enough to fell this villain. A voice calling “Rider” is heard and is soon revealed to be professor Mochizuki, who has been encased in wire or something. It turns out he was the one calling Masaru at the start of the movie.
Masaru demands to know why the professor created the Neo Lifeform, but the professor tells him that the thing has been acting on its own and is basically in control now. We then see the very creepy Neo Lifeform. …it’s…well, take a look. The story here is…well, the Neo Lifeform thinks that its the professor’s son. It even refers to Hiroshi as its brother. Basically while the thing was in the test tube, the professor filled its mind with gunk about how humans have become corrupt and dangerous and now the thing wants to destroy all humans because it thinks this will please its father.
And then Doras appears! This leads to a short stand off between the two powers before a fight breaks out. You know, just from a technical stand point, this was a really impressive fight. Not for all the crazy stunts they managed to pull off, though there were some really interesting ones, but for the filming used in it. The first two or three minutes of the fight are all a single shot. What this means is that they did all of these complicated routines in one go rather than filming part of the fighting, cutting, filming another part of the fight, cutting, and so on. What you see is a great idea of what martial arts can be when its at its best in tokusatsu. This scene felt raw and organic, something you would see out of a Hong Kong martial arts film rather than tokusatsu.
The fight continues and after some really impressive jumps and dodges, Masaru is knocked out of his transformation and beaten around in human form by Doras for a bit. The professor tells his son to destroy a pool of green slime that happens to be feeding Doras energy. (as well as the Neo Lifeform) Hiroshi does this and this pisses off Doras. Masaru intercepts an energy blast meant for the kid. Masaru is pissed.
What follows next is a pretty cool transformation scene and the only time we actually hear Masaru utter the word “henshin” to trigger his transformation. I have a crazy little theory that, as this movie was trying to mimic aspects of the original show, ZO’s transformation did as well. We originally start out with ZO needing no word to transform, just the will. Eventually we see him transform on his bike when he picks up enough speed, and then, finally, we’re seeing him transform in a traditional manner. This very much feels like they were trying to mimic the different methods the original Kamen Rider went about transforming.
For those not in the know, it wasn’t always a straight cry of “Henshin!” that would transform Hongo/Rider 1. Initially Hongo had to be on his bike and generate enough wind energy throughout his belt to actually allow his transformation. After a while this was removed and he could just transform. And a little later Rider 2 comes along with the trademark transformation that has become so iconic of Kamen Rider. I dunno if this is me pulling things out of a hat, but it feels like a very subtle way of paying homage to Kamen Rider’s past.
So Masaru transforms and…well this scene fell a little flat on me. We’ve already seen ZO numerous times throughout the film. We know what he looks like, but this scene makes it seem like a grand thing. I suppose you can argue that it’s for the final battle, but still, it was lost on me. The close up of ZO at this point didn’t make too much sense because, again, we’ve already seen him in action plenty. Either way, it’s not a major gripe, but something that I think the movie format, and the time constraints, weren’t too forgiving with. Maybe a movie that ran 90 minutes might have been able to play this scene out in a different order and actually manage to have it bring the impact to the viewer that I’m sure they wanted to have. At this point, ZO already looks pretty awesome, we don’t need to see him posing around to prove that, just show the guy kicking some butt.
So ZO runs up to Doras and punches right into him. This causes…er, the Neo Lifeform to speak and say that it’s going to be using ZO now. ZO is absorbed into the body of Doras. The creature now finds itself transformed into this red, fleshy, and freakier looking version of itself. As much as the base form of Doras screams Amemiya, this feels like the place he really got to go to town with and create a truly frightening creature. Come on, we all know the Neo Lifeform is just a bratty kid, nothing scary about that at all.
With no Rider around, everything seems hopeless as the Neo Lifeform proclaims Kamen Rider is dead. The creature demands that the professor free it from its lair or else it’ll rip Hiroshi to pieces. Professor Mochizuki tries to intervene, but being glued to a wall by wires makes it sort of difficult to and he gets tossed across the room. The creature picks up Hiroshi and his pocket watch falls out, causing its melody to play. This melody triggers a memory and gives Hiroshi just enough time to call out Rider’s name. Elsewhere, the professor manages to rip apart the source of power a little more. This leads to a pretty cool scene that shows Doras flailing around in pain as it reverts to and from its base form over and over.
And guess what? Rider is back! Zo shoots out of Doras/the Neo Lifeform, now reverted back to its base form and delivers its Rider Kick. The iconic attack here is…not very iconic. Probably part of the whole stripping Rider down thing, it’s just a drop kick delivered from a distance. It’s not very impressive for the finishing move. While I can see what they might have been trying to go for, it wasn’t the way I think this fight should have ended – especially not when the opponent was the freaking powerful and scary as heck Doras.
The professor dies and the building is about to blow up, time to escape! The kid’s pocket watch is left behind and there’s an epic scene that involves Hiroshi and ZO on his bike trying to outrace the explosion. This scene carries some very powerful music that makes everything feel as impactful as it should be. Another stand out point in ZO is that soundtrack, it is amazing. If you ever get the chance to listen to it, go for it, you won’t be disappointed.
So all is well and Hiroshi is delivered back to his grandfather, with Masaru leaving behind his jacket for the kid. As he rides off into the distance, Hiroshi calls for him one last time and the bike stops with Masaru doesn’t turn his back, but there’s a serious sense of melancholy emanating from him. When the kid calls out “Rider!” Masaru looks back and smiles before riding off into the distance on his unending journey.