Sunday 6 January 2019

Anime REVIEW: SSSS.Gridman

SSSS.Gridman is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll

As completely different mediums the worlds of tokusatsu and animation rarely properly collide, but whenever they have in the past it's usually turned out to be something special. Whether it's the anime adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori's original Kikaider manga, the recent expansion of the GARO mythos, the wonderfully weird Kamen Rider SD or even the various Ultraman animated attempts you're usually in for an interesting ride. 2018 saw Tsuburaya Productions announce a number of new animated projects, including an adaptation of the ongoing Ultraman manga due for release on Netflix later this year. But much bigger news was their plans with studio Trigger, as they prepared to bring back the Hyper Agent himself - Denkou Chojin Gridman. Directed by Akira Amemiya and written by tokusatsu veteran Keiichi Hasegawa (head writer on Ultraman Dyna and Ultraman Nexus, among many other works), SSSS.Gridman breathed new life in the 1993 hero as well as introducing him to a brand new audience.

High-school student Yūta Hibiki wakes up with no idea who he is, found outside the house of his classmate Rikka Takarada. The only clue to his memories are a being inside of an old computer in Rikka's mother's store - who identifies himself as the Hyper Agent Gridman and reminds Yūta not to forget about his mission. Though they are skeptical of Yūta at first, both Rikka and Yūta's friend Shō Utsumi are also able to see Gridman when a giant monster begins to attack the city. Merging with Yuta, Gridman is able grow to giant size and defeat the creature. Forming the "Gridman Alliance", the three students agree to get to the bottom of both the monster attacks and Yūta's lost memories.

What they don't know however is that the attacks are coming from the last person they'd expect. Akane Shinjo, the most popular girl in class, has also been visited by a digital being - one that goes by the name of Alexis Kerib. Using his powers, Akane is able to bring her monsters to life and reshape the world as she sees fit.

The great thing about SSSS.Gridman is that you don't need prior knowledge of either the original Gridman or it's American adaptation Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, but even a cursory knowledge of either won't just mean you can pick up on all the callbacks and references the series contains - it'll also give you a greater appreciation of just how much it does right. From the outset SSSS.Gridman looks like it's pretty much following in the footsteps of its predecessor with only a few minor changes. Three high school students with one merging with the titular character to call him into battle, a high school antagonist being manipulated by an evil entity to create kaiju - it's a very staple tokusatsu formula that the original Gridman did very well but never strived to break out from. The big takeaway from this was that the show didn't offer much in the way of stakes - with even some of the more serious plot lines presented in a fairly low-threat episodic manner. The same can't be said of SSSS.Gridman however, which is very quick to now only show off the importance of continuity even amongst its many "resets", but also that the stakes are very much life and death. Unlike her original series parallel Takeshi, Akane's resolve to kill for the pettiest of offences is very real. But even knowledge of the original series won't help you in certain areas, as SSSS.Gridman skews a key aspect of the format that makes it a mystery to both existing fans and newcomers alike. Whereas the original Gridman fought in an obviously cyberspace world, in this series the Kaiju battles take place in the human world. All is eventually revealed with key elements from the original series proving to be important plot points, but its the atmospheric lead up to these revelations that make the pay off so successful.

These high stakes place far more emphasis on the characters themselves, which are often the driving force behind the show far more than the giant monster battles viewers have more likely tuned in for. Setting Yūta up as an amnesiac protagonist was a bold move on Hasegawa's part, given that it's a pretty cliche main character set up and immediately pigeon holes development in a certain direction. But as generic as he may seem there's purpose behind Yūta's lack of character, which doesn't reveal itself until the very end of the show along with some of the much bigger reveals. As the "hero" of the story he serves his purpose, with the emotional side of things coming from the supporting cast - just another way in which they act as his back up. Shō is the fun one that also often mirrors the thoughts and feelings of the tokusatsu fans watching, while Rikka is the glue that holds the team together. It's certainly true that some actively contribute to the plot more than others, but it's the combination of three of them - as was the case with the original Gridman, that makes it work. 

But ultimately the truth is that SSSS.Gridman is actually Akane's story. Yūta and co might be the ones you route for while Akane commits some truly reprehensible acts, but the series itself is a picture of her insecurities, subsequent mental breakdown and the chance of redemption. It's interesting that many initially drew parallels to Neon Genesis Evangelion from the giant sequences (which was in turn inspired by Ultraman in the first place, bringing it full circle), when the show's presentation of emotional states feels like an equally strong connection. It takes a strong writer to make the villain of the show the most captivating character even during her most deplorable moments, but Akane manages it. Her delusions of godhood are an engaging story to follow, but her deeper thoughts and feelings of isolation are far more relatable on a personal level. The parallels between her and Rikka are particularly interesting aspect of the series, especially in the later episodes when the big twist comes around. Being a Trigger series there is a heavy element of fan service to the both Rikka and Akane, and though this might seem off-putting to some at first as far as content within the series itself goes it does peak quite early on in the series - feeling much less prominent as the story moves along. However fuelling Akane's worst qualities is Alexis Kerib - a wonderfully over the top super villain sporting a brilliant (if very Trigger in origin) design. Because Akane has so much depth to her Alexis is free to just chew the scenery, and what he lacks in depth he makes up for in sheer presence as well as a wonderful dynamic with Akane herself.

SSSS.Gridman's strong message of change and acceptance doesn't just come from its core cast members though, as it also rings true for a key supporting character. Born as simply one of Akane's throwaway kaiju whose only purpose is to defeat Gridman, Anti's constant defeats and evolution to find a purpose beyond that is one of the show's finest moments in character development. Kaiju that have hearts or develop a purpose beyond their primal instincts isn't a concept unique to SSSS.Gridman, but unlike in something like Ultraman where it would usually be covered over the space of a few episodes Anti's story is given the opportunity to breath across the whole of the show here - not getting in the way of the main story but supplementing and enhancing it. Other supporting cast members, such as the "Neon Genesis Junior High Students" are extremely fun and have their own insightful moments, but Anti's story really is second to none.

That isn't to say SSSS.Gridman completely dispels its tokusatsu heritage though, because the medium's spirit and energy is very much alive here. Trigger draw upon their Gainax roots to present some truly epic monster battles, delivered at a pace and scale that would be difficult to replicate in live-action. However the interest use of CGI models for both the kaiju and Gridman himself, set against a more traditional 2D backdrop, offer a similar but not quite identical feeling that bridges the two mediums nicely. The choreography draws heavily from the back catalogue of famed mecha designer/animator/director Masami Ōbari to add that classic Super Robot touch, with the kind of designs that many anime fans have been clamouring to see Trigger tackle since the studio formed back in 2011. SSSS.Gridman offers a new version of the titular hero, modernised in a way doesn't lose the charm of the original suit but streamlines and details it in a way that's fitting for a more modern iteration of a cyberspace-based hero. Of course it wouldn't be Gridman without his army of combining assist vehicles, not only newly designed and imbued with sentience (and human forms no less) but also the ability to individually combine with Gridman for even more alternate forms. Being based on a tokusatsu series there was no way that SSSS.Gridman wasn't going to be toyetic in one way or another, but the introduction of each mode - eventually leading to them coming all together to form the titanic Full Powered Gridman, is a suitably high-octane moment that allow Trigger to go all out on the visuals.

Then finally there's the references and homages packed into this show, that stretch far beyond both the original Gridman and the Ultra Series it effectively spun off from. From obscure tokusatu references to Super Robot homages and obscure Transformers trivia, SSSS.Gridman is a real love letter to the creators' favourite shows and properties. Nowhere else will you find characters whose designs aren't just inspired by Transformers, but Transformers characters from an originally convention-exclusive parallel world story no less. But it isn't just the existence of these homages that lifts SSSS.Gridman to another level, it's also just how they're used that shows the sheer depth of this show. While many of the more obvious homages are mostly visual in nature and thus superfluous, others directly foreshadow events that are yet to come. Knowledge of the specific Ultraman episodes or kaiju that are name dropped may provide vital clues about just where certain things are headed, as direct parallels are created between the two. Again knowledge of any of these things isn't at all necessary to fully understand or appreciate SSSS.Gridman, but it highlights just how many levels the show can be enjoyed on. One viewing could be used to simply absorb all of the plot detail, but then future watches can offer an even richer experience.

After the much malaligned Darling in the Franxx earlier in the year Trigger were very much in need of a win, and in both Tsuburaya Productions and Denkou Chojin Gridman they've found the perfect partnership. SSSS.Gridman takes all the best elements of the original tokusatsu series and condenses it down into 12 brilliant episodes - a number that seems all too brief but at the same is able to tell the story both elegantly and succinctly. The Gridman designs and giant monster fights are undoubtedly what will draw you into the series and remain a consistent highlight, but beyond that lies an engaging story of loneliness, isolation and the powers of love and friendship. Whether you're a tokusatsu fan or not, rarely does a show about giant monsters get this good.


Humam East said...


Somehow i do think the fanservice of Rikka and Akane kinda has a deep meaning. Probably the real Akane that we knew the twist doesn't like her thicc thighs and consider it ugly. Maybe she saw the cute, short hair, glasses, big breast classmate of her or someone she saw on her daily life is what she thinks the ideal person and deny her physical self.

Rocky Jin said...

I loved the review! Can’t wait to see more of you!

jethroelfman said...

I can see that getting thorough reviews of this movie will be difficult. For so many people it seems that the SSSS shows were a slog through the high-school drivel until the great mecha battles. For me the shows were wonderful stories of teenagers struggling through their depression while occasionally having to fight monsters. Depending on which side you are looking for, your enjoyment may differ.