Reaper's Reviews: 'SSSS.Gridman'
Format: 12 episodes
Release: October 7, 2018 – December 23, 2018
Quick question; have you ever heard of the term "tokusatsu"?
This refers to movies or shows that make heavy use of special effects. While nowadays this term also refers to the more popular and widespread idea of computer-generated effects and editing (and indeed those are used in the modern tokusatsu industry), to most people who are familiar with the term, this will remind of the famous “people wearing giant monster suits” technique.
So you get the idea here. A lot of popular and semi-popular action, fantasy and sci-fi live-action movies and shows belong under the tokusatsu umbrella; Godzilla and its endless supply of spin-offs and related movies are among the most famous examples. Others include the Super Sentai franchise, from which the American-produced Power Rangers was born.
Now those are just the ones most familiar with the western audience. Aside from them you have stuff such as Kamen Rider, the Ultra Man franchise, Gamera and even a Spider-Man series.
So, why is all this important? Well… Firstly, I needed an introduction section. Secondly, today’s subject is somewhat unique because it’s based on a tokusatsu property and acts like one. Not a universally known one - I haven’t heard about the franchise until watching the damn series - but Gridman still had a lot of fans and even received an American reproduction called Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad.
After two decades, Gridman’s producers Tsuburaya Productions decided to bring the franchise back to life, and what is a better way than revive it through anime with one of Japan’s most well-known studios, the ones responsible for such shows such as Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia.
Today, let us review the 2018 television series based on the 1994 tokusatsu show Gridman the Hyper Agent, directed by Akira Amemiya with a screenplay by Keiichi Hasegawa and produced by studio Trigger: SSSS.Gridman.
(P.S. Please don't kill this article for having a title with all-caps. That's how the series is known officially.)
Story & Setting
Yuta Hibiki is a red-haired high-school student who wakes up one day without any recollection of his past, in a store belonging to his classmate’s family. After making acquaintances with his classmate Rikka and his best friend (before the whole amnesia deal) Utsumi, Hibiki begins to hear a mysterious voice inside of him.
At the same time, a kaiju appears in the city and begins to raise havoc. At Rikka’s family store, Hibiki is sucked into an old computer nicknamed “Junk” to become a giant humanoid known as Gridman, the very voice Hibiki kept on hearing. Now as Gridman, Hibiki fights off different kaijus while seeking to retrieve his memories.
As with most shows of this nature, SSSS.Gridman has hidden powers operating from the shadows and controlling the kaiju, although their true identity only comes out a couple of episodes in. This is truly where the series begins.
It’s not like the first episode is outright bad, but SSSS.Gridman starts off rather awkwardly. The series is oddly nonchalant in its tone at the very beginning; in spite of suffering from amnesia, neither Yuta nor his friends seem to actually care about it, and they just go along with the situation.
Yuta keeps hearing Gridman’s voice, and while Rikka is confused, they just roll with it and have a redundant conversation in an almost disinterested manner. This thing drags on with Yuta’s friend Utsumi until we finally get to have some action against the kaiju. On the way we also get Gridman talking casually about himself while Yuta’s friends just continue being confused.
In a day and age where anime get dropped after only one episode it’s strange to see a series pulling off such a bizarre and even off-putting pilot, but looking back there is a certain charm to find here. SSSS.Gridman’s mid- and late-part episodes manage to balance campy action with touching drama, and rewatching the first two episodes allow to see the seed planting for this delicate co-existence.
The majority of the episodes follow a similar structure where Yuta and his friends wander around as the new kaiju lurks before the strike, usually either getting involved in silly shenanigans such as following on Rikka’s group date or having a trip to a river. Then Yuta gets absorbed into Gridman, joins power with one of his accessory weapons and saves the day. Rinse and repeat.
The amount of emotional depth here is what surprised me the most. I expected Gridman to a pure spectacle with overly cheesy one-liners and bombastic yet simplistic plotlines, but while this is here in spades, Gridman also marries it to genuinely complex and intriguing themes.
Now don’t get me wrong - I do think that the majority of Gridman’s characters are rather shallow or basic, but we’ll reach that point later. That said, the few that are worth talking about make for some good discussion about a variety of personal issues ranging from self-confidence to identity crisis.
SSSS.Gridman is shockingly sensitive and mature when it comes to one’s struggle with insecurities. Characters go through self-doubts from perceived lack of usefulness to sometimes complete fear and hate for reality. Some discussions also delve to whether or not some people are born the capacity to love on their own, or is it “programming” done by some higher powers.
There is never sugar-coating of the deep psychological scars these problems may leave, and Gridman often treats the issue with respect.
Gridman almost becomes a case study of how much can this crippling fear and mistrust corrupt and drive its sufferers insane, and as someone who has self-confidence issues and depression, this hit me close to home. Its exploration of depression, despair and self-deprecation are all well done, especially within the existing time limit of one cour.
Of course, the series also adds outlandish sci-fi and suspense elements to the mix that go from literal god complex to reality wrapping incidents. And I would argue that Gridman does a good job at balancing its grounded themes with more over-the-top concepts, much better than any other Trigger show to date.
Gridman starts with a fairly lighthearted tone, but avoids misplacing it during more dramatic scenes, a few amusing scenes aside. Whenever the show grows serious, it keeps that way without any meaningless distractions sans a throwaway joke here and there to stop itself from getting to breathless. After Kill la Kill’s erratic narrative and Franxx’ tedious faux symbolism, it’s nice to see Trigger presenting a more focused story in spite of a rocky beginning.
However, one of the primary things that stop Gridman from becoming a truly remarkable show is its final two episodes. That said, out of the four Trigger-produced shows that I’ve watched, Gridman’s ending is slightly below the more comedic Little Witch Academia, and far above the two aforementioned shows.
Truth to be told, the beginning of the end starts off rather well, with the main villain being finally clear and series touches upon the utter destruction caused by fights between Gridman and the kaijus. The series begins to close loose ends rather competently and the drama reaches its peak as the entire cast gets involved.
...And then the series decides to throw some unexpected elements into the mix without too much build-up. Unless you have watched the original 1993 classic, that is,
See, that’s my biggest issue with the ending; it does make sense of sorts, but that somewhat depends if you’re already familiar with the terms and plot points introduced all the way back to the original live-action series. And at the time I wasn’t familiar with any of that.
Gridman did contain nods, references and even characters from the 1990s series, but the twelfth and final episode is when all of this comes crashing down. Chances are that the majority of people who watched this series didn’t even know it was based on an existing franchise, myself included, so stuff like how the final villain is defeated and the little surprise about Gridman himself come off more as a deus ex machina than an established plot point.
And this bugs me because having read about the nods to the original series, the ending made a little more sense, if still fairly convoluted and confusing. But in my opinion this is not how it should be. I’m not supposed to watch some revival/reboot that suddenly asks me to visit back a 20-years old series to get everything. Let alone a sequel that jumps into an entirely different medium than its predecessor.
This is certainly not as bad as cramming another cour of episodes into your final four episodes a la Darling, but it’s still a little jarring to have a conclusion reliant on an already obscured prequel from two decades ago.
All things considered, the amount of emotion and catharsis this finale had at least made up for some of it. While not satisfied with parts of the executions, the character writing and the conclusion of several character arcs was really good, so I’d argue that it does balance itself a little.
As I said earlier, I think that save for three or four characters, the cast of SSSS.Gridman is rather bland, or more accurately “basic”. Including the exceptions, you have your typical kind-hearted hero, his nerdy best friend, his crush, the crazy girl, the insane rival, your textbook example of an alien villain, some friends from school and the legendary warriors.
I don’t hate any of these characters - in fact, I find most of them to be very enjoyable to watch - but at the same time most of them are relatively surface-level vehicles to the plot and themes and can be summarized with less than a sentence.
Now the characters that I talked about earlier are the exception, and not only in that they have more dynamic personalities in comparison to their peers, but also how well-written they are in general.
First and foremost, we have Rikka. You’re probably familiar with her already thanks to her thighs. But Rikka is more than that. Her initially aloof and cool demeanor slowly melts away as she is confronted with the realities of her existence and the relationships she shares with our protagonist Yuta and antagonist Akane.
This development eventually makes her the key to the series’ final narrative bits, and her friendship with Akane is genuinely touching, not to mention her general dynamics with Yuta and Utsumi begin funny and organic.
Speaking of Utsumi, here is one character I didn’t expect to like as much as I did.
He fills in the role of the nerdy best friend who is a big fan of the series’ main adversaries, complete with a mundane design and a laid-back attitude. But as the series goes on he feels like the one to be most affected by the events of the kaiju attacks, to the point that he even questions the Gridman alliance and the value of his and Yuta’s friendship.
Many "best friends" in anime tend to become minor comic reliefs that disappear into obscurity, sometimes only a handful of episodes after their introduction. But Utsumi is more than that; he remains somewhat of an anchor to the rest of the main cast, and his friendship with Yuta and admiration for Gridman rise and fall through obstacles rather than remaining static affiliations.
Finally you have Akane Shinjo. She is the biggest reason why SSSS.Gridman works. She is introduced as a sweet and quirky popular girl in Yuta's high-school, generously offering food to him with amusing visual ticks. But you can already tell she is not just a one-off character, what with her unnatural (for the setting) hair and eye colors as well as her odd mannerisms.
Of course, Akane is the main antagonist for much of the series. Her pettiness and bad temper are unrivaled, and for the first few episodes she is just a deliciously evil and childish girl who enjoys creating kaijus and take revenge on people for the smallest of things. (Like the girl who accidentally ruined the sandwich Akane was giving to Yuta.)
This all changes when the repeated failures she faces against Gridman begin to take their toll on her psyche. Akane is not a very stable person, but she truly slips off the slope the more one-sided her conflict with Yuta becomes. She used to picture herself as a goddess of the city, but now her power slips away against a foe much stronger than her efforts.
Those events lead to revelations about Akane’s admittedly relatable issues, from her deep insecurities about her personal worth, to her fear of human relationships not molded with her abilities. She is a genuinely compelling antagonist and the single most important aspect of the show, and I feel that her personal arc concludes satisfyingly.
Only a somewhat glaring issue I have with Akane, however, is that the series and the characters seem to forgive her a little too easily. To her defense, there is a more vile antagonist with zero redeeming qualities alongside her, but it did make me sigh and roll my eyes when, after everything was said and done, everyone was rather okay with her. (Despite her being responsible for so much death and destruction until the final act.)
The final character I’ll talk about (not including our protagonist Yuta) is Anti. Anti is a unique kaiju with the ability to use a human form. He’s your typical hot-headed rival/enemy character with a bad temper and even worse manners.
While he’s nothing groundbreaking or archetype-defining, I do enjoy his character growth. As expected, he despises mankind and especially Gridman despite being constantly abused by Akane in different ways. But he begins to come into his own during the second half of the show, and his development is overall decent.
Now as for Yuta… He’s alright.
He’s rather bland. His design is a bit odd but I guess it serves the purpose. He is kind, righteous, has a crush on Rikka. The usual stuff. I don’t hate him, but he’s clearly just a piece of glue used to combine all of the other elements of the show.
To his credit, his own development is okay. But then near the end it feels like he was pointless when some big revelations pop up, which makes me feel like his entire development up to that point was robbed completely. And regardless of how derivative he feels, it’s still disappointing to see all that supposed development thrown away for another twist.
The rest of the cast is, like I said, pretty shallow and basic, but I don’t expect too much in that department from a single-cour anime. At the very least many of them such as the Assist Weapons, Rikka’s mother and friends have pleasant personalities and quirks to make them memorable.
Animation & Art
It’s Trigger, you need to know what to expect by now.
Vibrant aesthetics, distinguished (and occasionally eye-candy) character designs, high-octane actions, some rough edges with off-model instances, mecha-like beings and monsters. And for the most part, the series embodies the spirit of predecessor Gainax and Trigger in the most purest of forms.
Of course the “high-octane action” part is presumably the chief reason why most people picked up Gridman in first place (the other one is Akane and Rikka’s designs), and the series never fails to deliver that. Although, in a more unique manner than what people would expect.
I normally criticize balant CGI animation used in action scenes; it’s glaring, ugly and choppy in its execution. However, with Gridman being based on the tokusatsu shows of yesteryear, the action scenes manage to capture the campy charm of those productions. Slow movements, goofy attacks and clumsy clashes actually work in favor of the action rather than against it.
Gridman himself almost always uses over-the-top poses or stylish kicks while his opponents tend to move in sluggish and goofy manner, yet they still feel to have large impact and weight behind every move. Their colorful designs only help to seal the deal.
Couple this with beautifully executed cinematic shots and a dynamic camera, and Gridman brings to the table some joyous and exciting action scenes that work brilliantly against its later character drama.
Audio & Sound
While rewatching several scenes and listening to some of the tracks while writing this review, a common thought that crossed my mind often was “man, this sounds very similar to the soundtrack of Neon Genesis Evangelion”. It hits a lot of the same hallmarks, like drums, strings, horns - you get the deal.
So when I was researching the series, I found out that the composer was none-other than Shirō Sagisu, the same composer as Evangelion almost two decades ago. Aside from borrowing some classic western tracks here and there, Sagisu is one of the very best composers in the business.
It’s on my second rewatch of the series when I came to truly appreciate his work on Gridman. His work here is overflown with his trademark elements as well as usage of trumpets and heroic-sounding beats, while a few also favor a more electronic style.
As much as I enjoyed the soundtrack, the one piece of music that will remain with me from this show is the opening song, “Union” by OxT. And it’s incredible, one of the most energetic and heart-pumping openings that I’ve listened to in a long while. There is just something so… “YES” about it when the show uses the song during some of the battles.
“Youthful Beautiful” is a nice ending theme, if a little bland. I do like Maaya Uchida’s vocals, and the accompanying visuals are heartwarming.
SSSS.Gridman was one of those shows blessed with a simultaneous English dub during its original airing, and it’s a very good one. It leads with Brandon McInnis as the reluctant Yuta, Jill Harris as the headstrong Rikka, Greg Ayres as the ever-eager Utsumi and Robert McCollum as Gridman.
And they are joined by a pretty large cast of solid voice actors, with folks such as Apphia Yu, Ian Sinclair, Barry Yandell and Stephen Fu who I swear sounded almost the same Clifford Chaplin’s portrayal of Bakugo in My Hero Academia.
Of course it’s Lindsay Seidel’s phenomenal voicework as Akane that stands out the most. Her ability to change from a sweet, plucky girl to a chilling murderer all while retaining her cutesy voice is amazing and helps forming Akane into a truly unforgettable antagonist.
Between its deliciously campy action sequences and surprisingly genuine emotions, SSSS.Gridman is quite the experience. It deceives its viewers with bright, vibrant colors and a nonchalant demeanor only to slowly unravel a shockingly good character drama that mostly pays off its build-up. Yuta is a bland protagonist and the vast majority of the supporting cast is barely touched upon, but the rest of the main characters - especially Akane - more than make up for it.
The first episode sets the series off in a jarring, awkward manner, and the last two episodes are a little too rubbish. But SSSS.Gridman still remains charming in its own way. The true bulk of the series is packed with heart, fun and even a considerable amount of intellect. What initially looked like a goofy monster of the week show ended up becoming a well-written and mostly competently executed work, and Gridman is a shining example Trigger can make a series' narrative just as engaging as its high-octane set-pieces. SSSS.Gridman is deeply flawed, but it is still a great watch.
- Surprisingly touching character drama with intriguing insights into loneliness and insecurities.
- High-octane and goofy action sequences that help balancing the tone, especially later on.
- Shiro Sagisu's soundtrack and an excellent English dub.
- Starts off on the wrong foot.
- Mild case of a Gainax ending, requires previous knowledge about the franchise to truly appreciate.
- Yuta is a bland protagonist, and Akane gets off a little too easily.
& the Ugly:
- Godzilla: Planet of the Monster trilogy - Yes, my first recommendation goes to another recent anime recreation of a popular tokusatsu property. Now keep in mind that this movie trilogy is far darker and less humorous than anything presented in Gridman (which itself is already darker than its source material), so don't go expecting for another slew of campy action.
- Samurai Flamenco - This series is hard to describe. It's a deconstruction, a parody and a reconstruction of the usual tropes found in superhero-focused tokusatsu shows. It's a very bizarre show that is a rollercoaster of changing tones and plotlines, but it's still a lot of fun.
© 2019 Raziel Reaper