Friday 3 November 2023

Movie REVIEW: Gridman Universe

Gridman Universe

In addition to the worldwide exposure they've given the Ultraman franchise, one of the best things Tsuburaya Productions have done in the past few years is taken Gridman the Hyper Agent and turned it from a fondly-remembered (but still fairly niche) 90s tokusatsu series and turned it into a fully-fledged franchise. Together with renowned animation studio Trigger they produced both SSSS.Gridman in 2019 and SSSS.Dynazenon in 2021 - each one expanding upon concepts from the original series. After both series were met with resounding praise, the only logical next step was to bring the two together - and what better name for it than the very thing these shows have helped to create? Gridman Universe was released in Japanese cinemas in March 2023, following the release of two recap films to give viewers a refresher (or alternatively bring new ones up to speed) prior to the crossover.

Rikka, Utsumi and YūtaGauma, aka Rex

A whole year has passed since the events of SSSS.Gridman, with no one other than Rikka and Utsumi remembering Gridman, the kaiju attacks or Akane Shinjou. Yūta continues to adjust to having lost two months of his life whilst possessed by Gridman, whilst trying to work up the courage to confess his feelings to Rikka. Whilst working on a play for their summer festival retelling their experiences, a new kaiju attacks the city. The trio are saved by the Neon Genesis Junior High students, with Gridman calling out to Yūta to bond with him once more. Since leaving them, the Gridman Alliance have also welcomed a new member into their ranks as well - Rex, a 5000-year-old resurrected mummy who in another world once went by the name Gauma.

Gridman explains that the kaiju attacks are caused by parallel worlds beginning to overlap into one another, an event that is further signalled by the arrival of Guama's former allies Yomogi, Yume, Koyomi and Chise. As the two groups of heroes continue to bond, the universal "Big Crunch" begins to worsen. When it's revealed that Gridman himself is in danger from the forces at play, Yūta must make the decision to be a hero once more - even if it could cost him everything.

The two casts meetThe Gridman Alliance

Although the draw of both SSSS.Gridman and Dynazenon might have been giant superheroes, robots and kaiju, one particular element that both series excelled in character drama - providing surprisingly deep dives into topics like depression, isolation, trauma and other aspects of adolescence. Through these they were able to create layered and memorable characters even without the aid of the superhero element. So the revelation that Gridman Universe follows suit and story-wise is more weighted toward character development and interpersonal drama shouldn't come as a shock, but is very welcome nonetheless. These are two groups of characters that worked extremely well on their own to begin with, and together somehow manage to be even better. There's just as much joy in seeing how these characters have grown since the last time we saw then and seeing them all enjoy school life as there is seeing Gridman and co tussle with giant monsters, and it's that element that's the true force behind the Gridman Universe's staying power.

As both series feature ensemble casts there are a lot of characters for even a two-hour film to draw from, but above all there is no question that Gridman Universe is Yūta's story. Of course this isn't the same Yūta that we knew from SSSS.Gridman, that so much is abundantly clear from the film's opening scenes. Right from the beginning we're treated to a far more lively and emotional Yūta, with the entire story being grounded by the blossoming feelings between him and Rikka. In addition to the usual anxieties of confessing to your high school crush, Yūta's position is rather unique. He's been in love with Rikka for years, but the two months in which they became close friends is completely lost to him. Yūta questions whether Rikka is friends with him or the Gridman version of him, and in turn almost worries that he's now an "inferior" version of himself. As much as he tries to help them this isn't helped by the fact Rikka and Utsumi are putting together a play on their adventures - something he was an integral part of by has absolutely no memory of it. It's an interesting angle that allows for some great emotional development for Yūta, who is quick to step up to being Gridman again just so he no longer has to live in his other self's shadow. But as these new battles continue, Yūta is given the opportunity to truly step up and be the selfless hero he always was. Not to mention that the awkward flirtation scenes between the pair are nothing short of adorable.

Rikka and YūtaYume and Yomogi

Whereas both Gridman and Dynazenon ended fairly conclusively, the big difference between the two is that the Dynazenon cast were properly able to get through their respective traumas over the course of the series - coming out at the end of it as far more adjusted people ready to live out the rest of their lives. This makes them the perfect foil to the Gridman kids, with it especially interesting to see a now happily in a relationship Yomogi and Yume play off against the more reserved Yūta and Rikka. Koyomi might not still have a job, but it's great to see them all again so happy. Even more so as they are able to finally reunite with Gauma, the force that brought them all together but they weren't able to properly say goodbye to. While touches like Yomogi's kaiju user powers are showcased in the film, the cast of Dynazenon are very much in the supporting role here. Not that it should by any means be considered a bad thing, as having the "younger" team act as support in this way to the more senior one is a rather unique spin on the crossover dynamic.

The most important part of a crossover is that (nearly) everyone's here, and even if they don't factor in to the main crux of the story Gridman Universe ensures that everybody has some part to play. Gauma fits in perfectly as the new guy in the Neon Genesis Junior High unit, and along with resolving his unsaid goodbyes with his former team also gets a touching moment with the Princess he thought he'd never get to see again. Gridknight appears in the various forms he's taken across both series, his role in revealing the true nature of the plot mirroring how the character acts as a bridge between the two shows. Gridman himself has some depth beyond being the hero that everyone aspires towards, showing clear guilt at how his actions in SSSS.Gridmam led to Yūta losing two months of his life. The film even finds a way to bring both Akane and Alexis Kerib back into the fold despite the former's story in SSSS.Gridman being the most conclusive as all, giving the fan-favourite a chance to atone for her actions by helping to make things right in the universe she created. The only major characters who feel genuinely shafted in the film are Dynazenon's Kaiju Eugencists, who only make a very brief cameo rather than having any actual bearing on the plot.

Anti and The 2ndAkane Shinjo

Of course it wouldn't be a Gridman production if things weren't multi-layered, and as it's revealed that Gridman Universe is a title the film takes quite literally things become quite a bit meta. Admittedly the hints at this start quite early on, particularly with the whole play sub-plot. The play goes through a number of rewrites over the course of the film, the story particularly picking up on Akane's part in the story being dropped in favour of Dynazenon. Rikka's originally felt that Akane's inclusion was an important aspect of the story, but removes after being told that no one understood. Yūta protests that in turn it loses its focus, but is rebutted with the notions like "it's better with more characters" and "a little chaos makes it more fun". Not only does it feel like a fun dig at how overcrowded crossovers like this can sometimes get, but a reminder of how Akane really was the linchpin in SSSS.Gridman's story. Similarly the notion of multiverse is met with a tongue-in-cheek remark about how much it's become a "common series plot line". But these little jabs pale in comparison to the truth behind the imminent universal crunch, entirely based on the expansion Gridman has received as a franchise in the past few years. The idea works on both a story level and a more high concept one, pulling from the various versions of Gridman there's been to correlate them into a true "Gridman Universe". 

One might argue that this is where Gridman Universe gets a little bit confusing, but if there's one thing Trigger can do it's pull off concepts like this in the most bombastic way possible. The climax of the film takes the form of an extended fight sequence, bringing together everything we've seen from both series and so much more. Gridman gets a brand new form as a well as a new combination with Dynazenon, with plenty of other surprises thrown in along the way too. From the upbeat chanting of Masayoshi Ōishi's "Uni-Verse" to Gridman beating up embodiment of chaos Mad Origin in the midst of a transformation sequence, Trigger are firing on all cylinders to make the finale as action-packed as possible. It's everything a fan of these two series should want from a crossover, with every character making an appearance and having some important role to play. Akane's involvement also sees the film flutter into live-action segments, breaking down the barriers between the various worlds all the more as well as acting as a nice throwback to the original Gridman series. Despite it being primarily about the animated incarnations the show that started it all certainly isn't forgotten, with Gridman's original form naturally making a reappearance on top of a surprise and rather special cameo.

The original GridmanAkane in the real world

As breathtaking as the finale may be, that isn't to say Trigger were slouching on the (admittedly much shorter) fight sequences that come before it. By this point they've become quite the experts when it comes to giant monster skirmishes, with some fantastically choreographed fight scenes that capture both the scale and weight of these colossal titans. In addition to being a far more cost-effective way to animate these sequences the CGI models are right at home in Gridman's digital world, standing out from the backdrops like the aberrations they are whilst acting as a reminder of the film's blurry sense of reality. While the CG models allow for more fluidity and faster-paced fight scenes, there are still plenty of glorious 2D shots of the various characters and combos for all the classic super robot fans in the audience. The influence of Tsuburaya's tokusatsu work is also very clear in the framing and composition of the action, with it successfully capturing the same sense of scale the physical suit and miniature work has.

Gridman battles a kaijuRogue Kaiser Gridman

Coming off the back of two highly successful series it's fair to say there was a lot of expectation for Gridman Universe, which the film certainly delivers along with so much more. Gridman Universe acts as the perfect culmination from both series' stories, retaining their flare for great character drama while allowing both casts to learn and grow from one another. On the more fantastical side of things, it amps up its story tenfold for a celebration of what the Gridman franchise has become, and potentially where it could go next. Throw in some unforgettable action sequences on top of that, and you have the perfect distillate of what everything made SSSS.Gridman and SSSS.Dynazenon so great in one two-hour movie. This may be the end of the Gridman Universe for now, but it's a hell of a note to go out on.


Corrupto said...

Hey, completely unrelated but are you thinking of watching Macross Delta Zettai Live someday? Is my favorite installment in macross franchise.

Alex said...

Yes, and I'll try and get that done soon in fact. I've been meaning to watch it for ages and I either keep forgetting or other things get in the way!

Manpig said...

This film was legit a perfect masterpiece conclusion to the entire Gridman saga today. It's amazing how it just tied up all loose ends while making such a finale that harkened to every single bit of the franchise. Genuinely the only thing that could've made this film better was if the villain was Khan Digifer or something cuz the fanservice ran deep with this one.