Kamen Rider Kuuga

September 20, 2009

Following the conclusion of Kamen Rider Black RX in 1989, there was an 11 year absence of new Kamen Rider series on Japanese television. A few one-off movies and specials came out, but for the most part the franchise was dormant through the 90’s. Toward the end of the decade, series creator and renowned mangaka Ishinomori Shotaro began to move on a revival of Kamen Rider. Despite Ishinomori not living to bring the project to fruition himself, the first new Kamen Rider series in over a decade hit Japanese airwaves on January 21, 2000.

The debut of Kamen Rider Kuuga would kick off a new era of Kamen Rider series. These would be known as the Heisei Kamen Riders, due to the changeover in the traditional Japanese calendar with the ascension of Emperor Akihito in January 1989. Though technically most of Black RX aired in the Heisei era, Kuuga was the first TV series to debut under the new era.

Kamen Rider Kuuga is the story of a jack-of-all-trades named Godai Yuusuke. Among his many hobbies, Yuusuke likes to travel to remote parts of the world. Frequently, he brings some kind of odd souvenir of his travels back to his friend, archaeologist Sawatari Sakurako. As the series starts, a group of archaeologists uncovers ruins of the ancient Rinto tribe, including the mummified remains of an ancient Rinto warrior and a sealed chamber. When they open the chamber, something escapes, killing the entire excavation team. Yuusuke arrives to check out the dig, finding the police there. Though he finds himself drawn to enter the ruins, he’s repelled by detective Ichijou Kaoru. Later, Yuusuke and Sakurako are called in by Ichijou to consult on the case, and are shown blurry video of the attack. The mysterious creature attacked the mummified corpse before going after the team. They are given the strange belt worn by the mummy, and asked to decipher the writing on it.

As Yuusuke and Sakurako go to leave the police headquarters, another unidentified creature bursts in, apparently after the belt. It quickly proves immune to the police officers’ gunfire and seems unstoppable. Acting on instinct, Yuusuke puts the belt on himself, only to have it disappear into his body. As the Yuusuke and the monster fight and move out onto a side street, Yuusuke’s body changes into a white armored creature, and he is designated by the police as Unidentified Lifeform #2. In this form, Yuusuke barely drives off the monster, saving Ichijou in the process.

Yuusuke consults Sakurako to better understand his new powers. He believes that he should have a different, red colored form as he sees in visions. When attacks begin from another creature, dubbed #3, Yuusuke and Ichijou confront it in a cathedral where it had been masquerading as the priest. Yuusuke declares his resolve to fight to Ichijou and achieves his true form, the red colored Kuuga Mighty Form. Though Mighty Form is misidentified as another creature, #4, by the police, he is able to drive off #3 and defeat #1.

Soon, others are brought into sharing Yuusuke’s secret. Tsubaki Shuichi is a doctor friend of Ichijou’s that looks after Yuusuke and studies the effects of Kuuga’s powers on his body. Ichijou also introduces Enokido Hikari, a scientist at the police’s research division who helps develop new weapons to combat the Grongi. One of the interesting things about Kuuga as a superhero show is that the regular humans aren’t useless. Kuuga works in conjunction with the police (though only a few know his identity), and the police actually become more and more capable as the series moves on. Initially, they just find ways to stun the Grongi, allowing Kuuga to finish them off. By the end of the series, they have a weapon that poses a real threat to the Grongi without Kuuga’s help.

The Grongi themselves are somewhat interesting, and really set a standard for monsters throughout the Heisei Rider shows. The Grongi’s main goal is the eradication of the descendants of the Rinto tribe, humanity. This is carried out through a ritual human hunting game called the Gegeru. There are several classes of Grongi, each with different Gegeru rules by which they must abide. The lowest level Grongi can’t even speak, but higher level ones are able to speak, use weapons similar to Kuuga, and even assume human disguises. This concept of intelligent monsters that disguise themselves as humans would reappear in several Heisei shows, as would the tendency for a monster to last through multiple episodes. They also tend to rack up a pretty substantial civilian body count before Kuuga can put a stop to them. The Grongi are led by the powerful Daguba, the creature that originally escaped from the crypt and is designated #0 by the police.

Following in the footsteps laid down by Black RX, Kuuga gained a number of power-up forms defined by a signature weapon. Each weapon is summoned by finding an object with a similar shape, and transmuting it. The blue Dragon Form sacrifices strength and armor for enhanced speed, agility and jumping power. Dragon Form’s signature weapon is the staff weapon Dragon Rod. Clad in green, Pegasus Form enhances all of Kuuga’s senses to extreme levels and features the Pegasus Bowgun for highly accurate ranged attacks. Pegasus Form strains Yuusuke’s nervous system however, and can’t be held for more than 50 seconds. Finally, the purple and silver Titan Form sacrifices mobility for thick armor. Titan is able to steadily walk through enemy attacks to strike at close range with the Titan Sword. Later, Yuusuke is able to access a “golden power” to upgrade his various forms to their Rising variant (Rising Mighty, Rising Dragon, etc), but only for 30 seconds. Finally, he becomes able to access Amazing Mighty Form and what may be Kuuga’s true form, Ultimate Form. This tradition of power up forms would persist through the Heisei era, as each main title Rider since has had at least one power up form.

Since Kuuga was somewhat experimental, one may find that the special effects and overall production values of the show may pale even to Agito which came immediately following. Despite this, the various costumes including Kuuga’s forms and the various Grongi all look pretty good. The special effects for the attacks may not be as flashy as some of the other Heisei Riders, but this is more in keeping with the way the older shows were. Once you’re sucked into the mysteries of Kuuga’s world though, none of this will matter much.

It’s often said that Kuuga is more like the Showa Riders than the Heisei ones. This mostly refers to the fact that Yuusuke is a pretty typical hero role model. He doesn’t have any inner demons to tackle, nor does he have any issues with his own confidence. He’s a classic hero archetype through and through. Kind, brave and strong. The overall story structure for Kuuga with its intricate plotting, mysteries to be revealed, and complex villains is pure Heisei. Kuuga is definitely the prototype for what came after.

Anyone who has been interested in the more recent Kamen Rider shows should really seek Kuuga out and try to see it. It really is a good series that doesn’t get a lot of attention due to being a bit older now. It may not be super flashy, but it’s a good, solid series full of great characters.

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Snow Leopard Server

September 2, 2009

Well, the Internets are ablaze with people’s thoughts regarding Snow Leopard, Apple’s desktop OS. Mostly in debate regarding whether it’s worthy of being a paid upgrade. Personally, I think it will, but it’s a chicken or the egg problem at present. End users will get value when apps start taking advantage of its underlying technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL and QuickTime X. However, developers aren’t going to make their code dependent on those technologies until Snow Leopard reaches a certain level of penetration, so it’s up to the Apple hype machine to help things hit critical mass.

That’s not what I want to talk about though. Plenty of other places discuss it at length. If you want the super-techy breakdown, Ars Technica has their typically superb article up. What I want to discuss is a version of OS X not as many people play around with, OS X Server. Snow Leopard Server, like its predecessors, contains everything the desktop version does, and also has some of its own server oriented enhancements.

Some of the biggest improvements to Snow Leopard server happen before you ever get to the first login screen. The first is pricing. Traditionally, OS X Server has come in two licensing varieties. There was 10-Client Server for $499 and Unlimited Client Server for $999, the latter of which came standard on all Xserves. The client limit always seemed kind of random and pointless to me, since unlike Windows CALs, the only thing this affected was the number of concurrent AFP connections. Not exactly a big deal, and if the particular server in question wasn’t going to be providing file sharing services, the Unlimited Client version was entirely pointless. Apple, in their usual vein of wanting to keep things simple, has changed the pricing for Snow Leopard Server to just a single Unlimited Client version. What’s more surprising is that this version comes in at the $499 price point of the previous 10 client version. This easily shaves $500 of a lot of the pitches I get to make for installing a workgroup server in situations where an Xserve would be overkill.

Another welcome install related feature is Migration Assistant. Huh? Didn’t they invent that during Panther when the G5 first came out? Yes indeed, but the feature was never present on OS X Server. The logical assumption was that servers are much more complex beasts than a desktop system, and attempting to migrate one’s entire config automatically was asking for trouble. Naturally, I was skeptical when I saw this feature in Apple’s upgrading and migration documentation. At home, I was moving up from a Dual 867mhz Mirrored Door G4 to a brand new Mac Mini. I had every reason to expect this to go to hell in a handbasket, but imagine my surprise, then joy when each and every service I had installed came up, running, and configured just as they were. Even bitchy Kerberos was humming along happily in its new home. I was practically beside myself, this is going to save me a hell of a lot of time.

Apple continues its steady march toward a full-featured competitor to Microsoft Exchange by updating iCal Server and adding the last major piece, Address Book Server. Both of them use open source WebDAV-based systems to provide, respectively, network based calendaring and contacts. These are backed up by the new Push Notification service to deliver the “push” experience many customers are familiar with when using the iPhone with MobileMe or Exchange. While it’s nice to have these services included with the system, and they are easier to configure than the previous iteration of iCal Server, they are still nascent and not well supported outside the Mac and iPhone. Presently, Kerio MailServer is still a much more mature, easy to use and fully featured groupware solution for the Mac, but I am eager to see how far Apple takes these baked in services. I have not been able to test the Mobile Access service since I don’t have the infrastructure for it. It isn’t quite what I was expecting, and is basically a specialized HTTP proxy for iCal, Address Book and Mail. I was expecting it to be a MobileMe like web interface for those services as well as shared folders (like the web version of iDisk). Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking on my part.

It’s difficult for me to directly compare speed to Leopard, as the speed boosts in my home network are most likely due to the swap out of hardware. Snow Leopard Server does seem to run smoothly in the Mini with 4GB of RAM. My typical behavior of having it running torrents while simultaneously allowing me to play back video files over AFP is noticeably less trouble than it was previously. I’ll have a better grasp of the performance differences between the two once I start upgrading Xserves and Mac Pros from one OS to the other.

That about does it for my early thoughts on Snow Leopard Server. As with the desktop OS, it’s a lot of back end speed enhancements and little tweaks that will become more important as we move forward. The new pricing is very attractive though, and I am genuinely happy to have that Migration Assistant (and that it actually works).