Saturday 3 November 2018

Series REVIEW: Denkou Chojin Gridman

Denkou Chojin Gridman

Tsuburaya Productions may be best known for the both Ultraman and the Ultra Series, but that isn't the only tokusatsu series they've given birth to in their 55 year history. There's also been the likes of Redman, Mirrorman, Jumborg Ace, Fireman and many, many more. But to the more casual Western fan around during the Power Rangers boom, there's one definitely more recognisable than the others – Gridman, alternatively its American-adaptation counterpart Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad. Denkou Chojin Gridman (also known as Gridman the Hyper Agent) is a 39-episode series produced between 1993 and 1994, and would be Tsuburaya's last non-Ultra giant series until 2006. The series has enjoyed something of a resurgence among fans lately, thanks to English subtitles being made available legally in the US through TOKU and of course more significantly Trigger's (currently airing) anime adaptation SSSS.Gridman.

When three friends Naoto, Yuki and Ippei build their own computer out of parts they've acquired, they then use it to develop their own videogame superhero. What they didn't expect is for the hero to come to life, possessed by an interdimensional police officer identifying himself as the Hyper Agent Gridman. Gridman is on mission to track down the evil Khan Digifer, and needs the three friends help to do so.

However Gridman isn't the only one making new friends. Khan Digifer has also allied himself with social misfit Takeshi Todo, manipulating his negative emotions and giving him the power to create monsters that wreck havoc on the computer world. Bonding with Naoto, Gridman faces these monsters to maintain order – drawing on new powers and weapons developed by Yuki and Ippei.

There’s no denying that tokusatsu shows like Gridman, Ultraman and the like are aimed at children. Like any good show though, they’re able to be far more than that through intricate visuals, deeper storytelling and morals that can be applied to and valued by fans of all ages. Gridman however stands out because arguably it’s main appeal is that it’s just big dumb fun. Sure there are lessons to be learned from episodes, but each one revels on being sillier than the last - basing itself around the 90s computer boom to a borderline parody level. If you’ve ever wanted to see the likes of children’s toys, dogs, or even time itself hacked then you’ve come to the right place. Stories like these might suggest that it’s never a dull moment with Gridman, but it’s when it comes to the execution of these plots that the cracks begin to show through. Fun as it may be, Gridman is an incredibly episodic series with next to no ongoing plot that ties the whole series together. This means that outside of the general theme there’s very little variety in the way of storytelling, and the silly nature of many of the episodes means it struggles to have much in the way of stakes even when the effects of Takeshi’s plans could be potentially catastrophic. The episodes where the show is at is very best (such as the dream world episode, “Showdown! Hero’s End” two-parter and finale episodes) are able to overcome this and raise the stakes somewhat, and feel like both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it means the show is able to jump out of its overly repetitive nature every now and again, but a curse because it highlights how little the show actually does exactly that.

Arguably it’s saving grace though is its characters, who not only work fantastically as a unit but are also commendable for believably feeling like their actual ages. Separated from the others neither Naoto, Ippei or Yuka would feel like they could convincingly carry the show on their own, but together all bring something to the table even though Naoto is the only one that actually “transforms” (“merges” would be a more accurate term) into Gridman. The fact they constantly bicker and argue is refreshing, and emphasises their friendship far better than the times they’re completely in synch does. There's also the fact that despite Gridman himself being a sentient being that often communicates with the trio, he's never the one to solve the problems. The kids come up with the solutions, as well as build Gridman's various power ups themselves.

Equally enjoyable are the villains, even though threatening is the last word you'd use to describe either of them. Takeshi Todo was representing incel culture before it had even properly emerged, a social misfit who you'll more often than not pity, but also reel in disgust at just how damn creepy he can be – particularly in his romantic pursuit of Yuka. But it only takes the most minor of annoyances for Takeshi to completely go off on one and concoct the most ridiculous of schemes, and the fact that his plans revolve around stuff trivial things is undoubtedly what makes him dangerous. Giving him the power to carry out these plans is Khan Digifer, an all-powerful computer demon who spends most of the series sitting in Takeshi's PC and goading him on like a digital shoulder demon. Save for a few episodes the two just seem completely inept, but there's just something oddly charming about watching Khan Digifer tell Takeshi that all his terrible plans are great. Comedy moments like Takeshi trying to transfer the villain on a floppy disk have even more hilarity to them now, and it's definitely the antics of this pair that keep Gridman from ever becoming unbearably dull even when it's at its most generic.

Visuals are another area where Gridman seems to excel at one thing and then never really strays out of it. All of Gridman's fight sequences take place in the computer world, which is realised through Tsuburaya's high quality miniature work – but with a twist. Rather than realistic cityscapes, the computerised "cities" are arenas of towering futuristic structures with lights and neon markings illuminating the night-like setting. It's incredibly striking scenery, immediately giving Gridman a unique identity both as a tokusatsu product and a wider piece of media concerned with a digital world. Tsuburaya's craftsmanship is on usual top form, and the more unique episodic "buildings" (usually something to do with the episode's plot and/or Takeshi's scheme) have a particular sense of imagination to them. The problem however is that this is the only aesthetic Gridman ever applies to its fight scenes. Whereas Ultraman is able to freely mix it up between both urban and natural settings for variety, Gridman has to adhere to this one (albeit distinct) look – which leads to the episodes feeling even more formulaic because everything constantly looks the same. Taking the fight into the real world might not necessarily be Gridman's style, but if the show had the opportunity to change it up now and again it would have further highlighted those great visuals rather than making them feel so repetitive.

Suits on the other hand are a different matter entirely, and for many will definitely stand as one of Gridman's strongest elements. Though the Ultraman connotations may be far from subtle, Gridman's more detailed, armoured look definitely gives the character his own identity – something that was born from Ultraman but definitely not defined by it. What separates Gridman even more so from his peers though (especially back in 1993) are the Assist Weapons – mechanical components that can both function individually, combine together and combine with Gridman himself. As such the show has both giant hero and mecha components, both of which are handled extremely well. Despite taking place in a computer world this was before the days of CGI, so it's all suit and miniature work. This even goes for the combination sequences, captured in such a way that the viewer can take every little transformation in without the stock footage ever becoming too gratuitous. The bulky God Zenon, Thunder Gridman, Dyna Dragon and King Gridman suits are all tokusatsu robots at their finest, and the show does a really good job of not only selling you on how great they look in motion but also how fantastic they would be as toys (thank you Bandai for those forthcoming new Super Minipla releases). Compared to the hero suits Gridman's kaiju perhaps aren't quite as noteworthy, but still ooze all that desired Tsuburaya charm. The lack of regular sapient monsters stops these creatures from being memorable in the same way Ultraman's often are, but it perhaps has more to do with how the repetitive nature of the episodes just make them blend together all the more.

Denkou Chojin Gridman is an incredibly fun series full of great designs, a unique aesthetic and plots that always manage to bring a smile to your face, but its strict adherence to a specific formula and determination to stay within that really prevent it from being as good as it should be. Episodes are memorable for their wonderfully dumb stories but the actual specifics rarely truly stand out, and the few times the show is content to raise the stakes are a taster of just what the show could be if it just mixed it up a little more from time to time. It does however also have believable characters, fantastic suit designs and one of the greatest theme songs tokusatsu has to offer. Although SSSS.Gridman is undoubtedly opening the franchise up to a whole new generation of fans, the origin remains a flawed but loveable piece of 90s tokusatsu that's well worth a look.

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