Friday 19 October 2018

First Impressions: SSSS.Gridman

SSSS.Gridman is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

2018-2019 is proving to be a rather busy time for Studio Trigger. They collaborated earlier in the year with A-1 Pictures on Darling in the Franxx, hit the big screen the beginning of next year with Promare and even have a Kill la Kill video game in the works. But for tokusatsu fans, there's one particular Trigger project that stands out from them all. The studio have teamed up with Ultraman creators Tsuburaya Productions to create SSSS.Gridman - a brand new anime adaptation of the TsuPro's 1994 series Denkou Chojin Gridman (adapted in the US as Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad). This isn't the first time Trigger have dabbled with Gridman either, having previously brought its cancelled sequel hero Gridman Sigma to life in their Japan Animator Expo short boys invent great hero. Sandwiched between the GARO series and the forthcoming Ultraman manga Netflix series, it's a pretty great time for tokusatsu anime adaptations.

Yūta Hibiki has lost his memory. Waking up in the company of his classmate Rikka Takarada, he finds an old computer in mother's store with a strange being staring back at him. The being identifies himself as the Hyper Agent Gridman, and reminds Yūta to remember what his calling is. Yūta also shares this information with his friend Shō Utsumi, who along with Rikka is initially unable to see or hear Gridman. But when a kaiju attacks, Yūta is able to merge with Gridman to bring him into the real world - putting a stop to the monster's attack. With no one seemingly having any memories of the attack, the trio form the "Gridman alliance" and aim to get to both the bottom of both the attacks and the source of Yūta's amnesia.

With the original Gridman having recently been made legally available with English subtitles (sadly in the US only) on the TOKU streaming service, the arrival of SSSS.Gridman comes at a time where English-speaking fans have finally had a chance to get properly acquainted with the source material outside of its American adaptation. A full review of the series will be coming to this blog at a later date, but to quickly summarise it Gridman is a pretty off the wall series that emphasises ridiculous plots but is a bit lacking when it comes to stakes or an ongoing narrative. Not necessarily a bad thing depending on how you like to digest your tokusatsu, but maybe not the best format for an anime series which is going to potentially reach a far bigger crowd. And it's only taken SSSS.Gridman two episodes to prove that it plans to strengthen itself on those areas that the original may have fallen short. An amnesiac protagonist may not be the most original of plot lines to build your story on, but it's a tokusatsu staple and gives the series a pretty solid starting point. What follows is a fairly similar setup to the original series with three kids teaming up with the titular hero to take on monsters created by a petulant classmate corrupted by a digital being, but its the subtler differences that set the two shows apart. Whereas Gridman's kaiju battles took place inside the "digital world", SSSS.Gridman's bring a great sense of urgency by having them occur in our world. Akane Shinjō has also established herself well as a frightening villain - a human that will casually resort to killing simply to appease the smallest of transgressions.

There isn't a whole lot to say about the characters just yet, but like the original's cast it seems like all three members of the Gridman Alliance will bring something to the table despite only Yūta being the one to "transform" as such. As a blank slate it's Yūta himself that's probably the weakest member of the cast so far, with Shō and Rikka making up for what he currently lacks in personality. However with the series being written by veteran Ultraman writer Keiichi Hasegawa (perhaps most notable for being the chief writer on both Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Nexus), I have every faith that Yūta's backstory will build up to something great. Akane is definitely stealing the show so far though, who as previously mentioned is completely murderous in her pettiness - a quality that shouldn't be admired or at all relatable but still manages to make her pretty captivating as a villain.

Surely many will lament the fact that the action scenes rely on CGI models for both Gridman and the kaiju, but really this couldn't be a much better fit for a show based around computer created heroes and villains. With the series lacking the original's unique depiction of cyberspace through its miniature landscaping, this is the perfect way to get the point across. The CGI models do an excellent job of blending in with the 2D backgrounds, and any feeling that they shouldn't be there actually (though likely unintentionally) highlights how these are bodies that feasibly shouldn't be part of our world. The use of CGI also allows for more fluidity when it comes to body motion, particularly when it comes to Gridman himself - whose long limbs and movement have been compared to the Eva Units of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While there's certainly comparisons to be drawn between the two, the fact that Hideaki Anno created Evangelion from his love of Ultraman and similar tokusatsu series shows how this inspiration has come full circle.

A similar setup isn't the only way the anime pays tribute to Gridman's legacy though, with the show paying homage in so many other ways as well. If the addition of the "SSSS" (which of course refers to Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad) to the series' title wasn't enough to show that Trigger are willing to dig deep when it comes to references, there are plenty of other finer homages peppered within these episodes for older fans to spot. Not just to Gridman either, as there's already been much talk about how the cast of the series all reference Transformers characters (many of which are are Shattered Glass versions of all things) in some way. There even feels like some self-referencing going on from the studio, as digital villain Alexis looks like an unholy cross between an Eva unit, Space Patrol Luluco's Chief Over Justice and original Gridman villain Khan Digifer. In addition to creating a great looking series it's clear Trigger are having a blast just completely nerding out on this show and this is by no means a bad thing. Because if you're working on something that you love, you're inevitably going to get a better end product.

Many have said that Trigger and tokusatsu would be a match made in heaven for some time now, and these early episodes of SSSS.Gridman have certainly proved that to be the case. If the series can keep up the momentum when it comes to both the story and visuals, what we may have is a more streamlined version of the Gridman story that can not only appeal to a wider audience, but also hopefully steer more fans towards the original and tokusatsu in general. There's already been a resurgence in new classic Gridman toys following the show's announcement and release, so let's just see what else this show can pull out of the bag while it's airing.

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