Tuesday 22 June 2021

Anime REVIEW: SSSS.Dynazenon

SSSS.Dynazenon is available in streaming form on Funimation

After lying dormant for decades, Gridman the Hyper Agent has come a long way in the past six years. When Trigger revealed their Denkou Chojin Gridman: "boys invent great hero" short at the Japan Animator Expo back in 2015, who would have thought that a collaboration between the animation studio and Tsuburaya Productions would eventually lead to the creation of a Gridman Universe. Following the success of SSSS.Gridman in 2018, this universe continued to expand in 2021 with the release of SSSS.Dynazenon. This second animated instalment ran for a total of 12 episodes, introducing a whole new cast of characters and story despite the familiar setting. After being revealed to mean "Special Signature to Save a Soul" at the end of the previous series, here the "SSSS"-prefix takes on a whole new meaning right from the very beginning - "Scarred Souls Shine like Stars".

The cast of SSSS.DynazenonGauma

Four young people's lives are changed when they meet Gauma - a mysterious man who claims he is a "kaiju user" and has been resurrected after dying 5000 years ago. When the city is attacked by an ferocious kaiju, high school student Yomogi Asanaka, along with his classmate Yume Minami and NEET Koyomi Yamanaka, are caught up in the battle and become Gauma's co-pilots for Dynazenon - a giant robot Gauma was entrusted with in the past.

However Gauma isn't the only person to have resurrected from all that time, as the Kaiju Eugenicists have also returned to continue their goal of seeing kaiju take over the world. Gauma, Yomogi, Yume, Koyomi and Koyomi's cousin Chise Asukagawa, must battle against Gauma's former friends and teammates.

The Kaiju EugenicistsDynazenon in action

One of the most impressive elements in the growing Gridman Universe is both how each instalment builds upon the last in terms of a connecting story and its approach to also being accessible to newcomers. Dynazenon may link back to both SSSS.Gridman and the original Gridman series in a number of different ways, but newcomers certainly shouldn't be dissuaded from starting here should they choose to. Dynazenon isn't a straight sequel to either of the previous shows in the conventional sense, instead simply choosing particular plot threads from them both and bringing them forwards into a whole new setting. Nearly 30 years later the original Gridman series isn't necessarily going to be remembered by a large portion of the fanbase nor is it all that accessible worldwide (although a region-free Blu-Ray release from Mill Creek in August may change that), so using an episode-specific plot is a curious launching point. Episode 18 of the original series sees the villains resurrect a 5000 year old mummy, which in turn chases after protagonist Yuka believing it to be his deceased lover. Buried with the mummy is a dragon statue, which inspires the creation of the Dragon Cannon - a weapon that would go on to become the basis of Gridman's final support machine Dyna Dragon. This one-off storyline forms the very foundation of Gauma's originals in SSSS.Dynazenon, who is implied to be that very same character. But despite the obvious deep dive writer Keichi Hasagawa has done in connecting the two shows, SSSS.Dynazenon merely hints towards a deeper meaning - presenting enough facts to fill in newcomers and leaving the audience to ultimately draw their own conclusions for now. Even in bringing back familiar faces from SSSS.Gridman the show treats them like strangers in the same way they're strangers to cast. Of course existing fans get the added joy of seeing how they've changed and developed, but the show isn't withholding any key pieces of knowledge from anyone. If anything Dynazenon isn't a sequel to either show - it's a companion piece where elements can stroll in and out freely to build toward a larger (Gridman) universe.

What SSSS.Dynazenon does have in common with its predecessor though is a case of coming for the giant robot/kaiju fighting action, and then staying for the character drama. But where SSSS.Gridman put all of its efforts into tacking Akane's mental health and then quite literally building a whole world around that, Dynazenon is a much stronger ensemble piece. Its real strengths lie in the fact no character is left behind - each tackling their own struggles over the course of series and then, like individual vehicles forming a giant robot, how bringing them together has made them stronger. Though Yume's investigation into the death of her sister or Gauma's history with the Kaiju Eugenicists might feel more prevalent than Koyomi's childhood regrets or Chise's loneliness, no character ever feels like they're being developed at the expense of another. 

Yomogi AsanakaYume Minami

It all works because these characters are just so believable - none of them come from a place of traditional heroism. When we first meet Yomogi he's quiet and indecisive, whilst Yume tricks boys by asking them out on dates and then standing them up. Koyomi is a layabout shut-in, and Chise following in her cousin's footsteps (not the mention the opening sequence misleading with its suspect imagery). But over the course of the series, we see them able to overcome their personal problems with each other's help. Yomogi and Yume's relationship takes particular focus over the course of the show, with Koyomi and Chise's becoming more prevalent in the latter half. Each story plays out to a satisfying conclusion, but there's a careful balance between giving them both enough to drama to be interesting and a sense of normality to their resolution. It isn't drama that's comparable to them fighting against giant monsters in a transforming robot - they're personal traumas accentuated by their own insecurities. As they spend more time in each other company and working together as Dynazenon, there's a gradual but clear shift in their personalities. Even though Chise doesn't regularly pilot a component of Dynazenon, she proves just as valuable a team member and friend as the rest of them. There really isn't a single squandered moment with any of them, with all the more slice-of-moments proving just as vital to their stories as any of the action or key episode plots. Both Gridman shows ultimately worked towards saving a single person, but SSSS.Dynazenon takes the more interesting step of having the heroes effectively save each other.

But the glue that brings them all together is Gauma, who seems like your typical hot-headed classic mecha pilot but deep down inside is probably the most rational of them all. From the very beginning Gauma states there are three things its important for a human to keep - love, promises and.... Though we never directly find out what that third one is, the bonds he develops with his new friends over the course of the series are enough for fans to reasonably fill in the blank. Given how loyal and trusting he remains to each of them throughout the series, it makes his betrayal of the Kaiju Eugenicists all those years ago all the more curious. But on top of all that, Gauma is just really really fun. Whether it's his knack for coming up with memorable attack names (so much so that he'll do it on behalf of his co-pilots), his insatiable appetite or his hot-blooded rivalry with Knight, Gauma is just an absolute joy to watch whenever he's on screen. 

Koyomi YamanakaChise Asukagawa

For fans of SSSS.Gridman we also get the grand return of Gridknight, who has now discarded the name "Anti" and simply goes by "Knight" - supported by Anosillus the Second (now just "The Second") as part of the Gridknight Alliance. Judging by how much older both character appears we can assume some time has passed since the events of SSSS.Gridman, and Knight has fully developed into a role that mirrors that of his former rival - traversing the barriers between worlds to fight against the threat of kaiju. But while he might have already become a hero, that doesn't mean he still doesn't have growing up to do. Gridknight arrives in this world as a stoic figure who believes he doesn't need help from Dynazenon to get the job done, but over the course of the series also discovers what it means to be part of a larger team.

The Kaiju Eugenicists are a further example of the different kind of storytelling SSSS.Dynazenon does in comparison to Gridman. Akane wasn't just the antagonist of Gridman, she was the linchpin of its entire story. The Eugenicists on the other hand are much more conventional foils in a story where "good vs evil" is more of a backdrop. The specifics of their lives 5000 years ago and just how they were "betrayed" by Gauma remain intentionally vague, and though they aren't developed anywhere near the level of the main cast the show is still able to drop some interesting character tidbits about each individual member. Mujina especially acts as a great foil to Koyomi and is significant to his growth as a person, whilst Sizumu takes a particular interest in the growing relationship between Yomogi and Yume. Their mission to create a world for a kaiju (which in turn involves killing people) is juxtaposed with scenes of them enjoying everyday life like visiting waterparks or restaurants. While they might not be as focused as Alexis Kerib's manipulation of Akane's insecurities, they nevertheless remain interesting characters in their own right.

Gridknight ReturnsKnight and The Second

Of course, all of this doesn't change the fact that SSSS.Dynazenon is still full of all that glorious robot versus kaiju action everyone came for. This is really where the show builds upon the groundwork that Gridman laid out - taking that fast-paced blend of 2D backdrops and CGI modelling and giving it real Super Robot weight. Gridman may have always had its toes in the genre with its support machines and wonderful transformation sequences, but in Dynazenon it's all robot. Whether it's the beautifully animated stock combination sequences or the robot's onscreen arrival to angelic chanting of its name, whenever Dynazenon is onscreen you're guaranteed the kind of fantastic action sequences that Trigger constantly deliver. There's just the right balance between showing off the individual components of Dynazenon and bringing them altogether for an epic fight, and just what you think it can't get any better it transforms into a giant dragon (with a race car for a tail no less) for its finishing attacks. This is enhanced all the more when Gridknight arrives on the scene as well, which of course eventually leads to even more over the top and exciting transformations. The action sequences laden in homages to various anime and tokusatsu productions of the past (after all, what Trigger production wouldn't be?), but whether you can identify them or not it's all just about immersing yourself in the entire spectacle of it all.

Meanwhile Dynazenon's opponents are a whole swarm of colourful kaiju, all elaborately designed with their own unique abilities. Though the show only really touches on the origins and creation of kaiju, their presence is incredibly important as well as how they're often used for the characters to face certain problems. The obstacles they face fighting as Dynazenon mirror those they face as people. But more significantly, Dynazenon sets out not to show kaiju as giant monsters whose sole purpose is to wreak havoc, but more often or not innocent creatures that have been manipulated into a more destructive purpose. Like the numerous Godzilla films where the monsters are controlled by aliens, kaiju become a victim of circumstance.

The kaiju Garnix attacksGridknight Dynazenon Alliance

SSSS.Dynazenon isn't SSSS.Gridman, but that's a good thing because it was never trying to be. Trigger and Tsuburaya Productions set out to make a show that embodied exactly the same spirit, but went about doing things in a different way. There are some ways in which it arguably manages to improve upon its predecessor, and other ways in which it doesn't. But there's really no point in comparing because ultimately they are both incredible shows, building upon each other to make this 90s tokusatsu series flourish in ways none of us expected. These scarred souls really did shine like starts, and long may the Gridman Universe continue.

1 comment:

Hibiki OS said...

This was such a good follow up to Gridman. I actively looked forward to each episode. My favorite anime of the season, and a wonderful series for fans of tokusatsu and mecha. Your review is spot on and I will cherish this show for years to come.