This is it! The finale (more or less) of Masked Rider Kuuga! Forty-six episodes all leading up to this climactic struggle! So much to--

Okay, I want to talk about Jack Kirby.

Have I brought Kirby up before when it comes to Kamen Rider? I feel like I have, but I don't know where it would've been. Anyway, I was thinking about Kirby a lot as I was watching this final Kuuga story. Kirby is... well, he's the King of Comics. If there were a Mount Rushmore for American comics creators, he'd be on it. He created or co-created some of the biggest characters in superhero comics, but he also reinvented the way people drew comics. His style was a revelation in the 1960s, becoming the de facto Marvel Style. Generations of artists have grown up on his style of art, incorporating it into their own, and in turn inspiring the next generation. He's ubiquitous, infused in the DNA of comics.

But that can make it difficult for modern fans to appreciate his contributions. Looking at his art in 2019, it's like a rougher version of any Marvel comic on the stands. The things he was doing that were innovative are now expected. He created a language that everyone now speaks fluently.

That's... honestly, that's how I ended up feeling about Kuuga. It's primordial. It's not a Kamen Rider story with magic, or a Kamen Rider story in a high school, or a Kamen Rider story in a hospital. It's, for better or worse, just a Kamen Rider story. It is the archetypal Kamen Rider story.

There's things I can squint at and say that it's about, mostly from discussions characters have in the finale. The need to defend, rather than harm. Selflessness over selfishness. The dangers of endless escalation. The importance of fighting for something. I don't know how much I saw those themes play out regularly through the series, but they're likely there. It's just, those themes are the themes of nearly every Kamen Rider series. They are the backbone of Kamen Rider as a franchise. They're easy to miss because it's, like, the background noise of Kamen Rider. The almost imperceptible hum of Protect Smiles and Promote Justice. So when a show is entirely about that background hum, it's tough for me to get into. Intellectually, I know that this was where that hum originated, loud and clear and vibrant, but as someone who's experienced so many shows that smothered that hum in bigger ideas, better effects, twists and turns and subversions of expectations, it's tough to get much out of the default.

But that's just me, and that's my baggage.

As a show, as a finale, I think this was Kuuga at its... most Kuuga. I don't mean that as some dig. It's just, this was a story that was sort of everything about Kuuga to me: good, bad, fun, grim, weird, predictable. It was the best of Kuuga, it was the Jean of Kuuga.

It gets off to a great start, really. Apocalyptic imagery. Civilians in flames, Kuuga in pieces, a serene Daguva relishing in the chaos. It's, honestly, a lot of what works best for me in this finale, a suggestion of terror. I don't need to see Daguva killing thousands of people. I've mentioned it before, but the body count on this show frequently dips into the absurd, a mountain of corpses that render any victory pyrrhic. Showing me one quick flash of an unstoppable, bloodthirsty foe, then letting that hang over an episode of pensive heroes, that's perfect.

Following that massacre up with over a full episode of The Last Day Of Yusuke Godai, again, great. I really appreciated the way the show drilled into all of Godai's relationships, making that the primary story being told. It's not a story about if Godai's going to defeat Daguva. I mean, of course he is. It's about the journey these characters have been on, the hopes they've placed in Godai, the feeling that, while the end of the world may not actually be near, the end of this show is.

It's a shame the show ended without landing the Grongi story, though.

It ends, I guess. Ichijou shoots Rose Grongi to death, after not getting much in the way of answers. Godai beats Daguva to death. The final Grongi battles are just more grim, more portentous, more gory versions of what we've seen before. There's no real explanation as to what this was all for, nothing that provides more details than that I guess the Grongi show up every so often, fight each and/or Kuuga, destruction? It's nice that they kept it mysterious for so much of the series, but I really could've used something more from Rose Grongi than some vague We're Not So Different, You And I thing. And Daguva, I don't know. He's not even a character to me. He's a threat, a terrifying Final Boss, but he's not a character. It's a testament to these episodes, and how genuinely great they are, that I gave even one shit about Daguva. He looks cool, he's shot well, but there's nothing to him. He's someone I felt nothing about once Kuuga beats him. Just, okay. That part of the story is over now. I guess we're going to do an epilogue.

And, man, I really liked the epilogue. (I know there's an Episode 50 thing, but I'll watch that tomorrow or maybe later tonight.) It's super smart. It's got a clever symmetry to the start of this final story, the way the beginning is all sad people saying goodbye and fearing for the future, and the end is all happy people (bittersweet, but happy people) looking forward to a better tomorrow. It's clever. It's a great structure to this story, using the Daguva fight not as some climax, but as a fulcrum. It allows every character another scene, another way of commenting on what Godai meant to them and to the story. In the same way Daguva is more terrifying in implication, Godai is more heroic for his absence.

That's the best part of this ending to me, the thing that really nailed the emotional core of the season. Keeping Godai offscreen until the very end, having him go someplace new but still work to protect people's smiles, like, yes. He needs to go show these kids how to smile. Sure, every other Kamen Rider may be trying to protect smiles, but smiling? That's Godai's original skill.

This was a really solid finale. It didn't drastically change my journey with the show, for good or ill, but it solidified what it felt like watching this series. It was grim, it was spare, it wasn't so much about the monsters and henshins as it was about people trying to find something to cling to in times of tragedy. It was about doing your best and trusting in others to do their best. This wasn't my favorite Kamen Rider show, but I can see why this series got people excited about making more Kamen Rider shows. It's a formula and a set of themes that are endlessly mutable in the specifics, but immutable in their core. I'm glad I got a chance to experience it.

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