The World Wide Web of Human Pain: SSSS.Gridman

If you were to ask me what my favorite Power Rangers-type show was as a child, it would undoubtedly be Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. I distinctly recall running around the house yelling “SUPERHUMAN SAMURAI!!!!” mimicking both the theme song and the TV commercial jingle. So while I’ve never seen the original Gridman the Hyper Agent in Japanese that provided the source material, SSSS.Gridman was an instant must-watch—especially because it was being made by Studio Trigger (Little Witch AcademiaKill la Kill).

SSSS.Gridman is ostensibly about a boy named Yuuta who can merge with a computer entity called Gridman the Hyper Agent and use his abilities to fight off giant monsters attacking their city. However, it quickly feels more like a bizarre paranormal mystery that seems eager to deal out the truth piecemeal. Often times the show is seemingly less concerned with personal character development and more about pulling back the curtain. One of the biggest questions is how the monsters and even Gridman himself, who were previously confined to the computer realm, are manifesting in the real world.

The result of SSSS.Gridman‘s peculiar mixture of ingredients is that it can feel like a never-ending ocean of information to explore in both profound and frivolous ways. Somehow, it simultaneously presents itself as both a shallow case of “geek-info/reference overcharge” and an introspective look at the pain and suffering of human interaction.

The series is full of odd details that aren’t exactly vital but add to a certain meta-ness that can enhance enjoyment of SSSS.Gridman. Two side characters in the series actually come from a yuri short story by the series director. Most if not all of the characters in the anime are based on a Botcon convention-exclusive mirror-universe series called Transformers: Shattered Glass. it’s a strangely elaborate reference to make, almost purely for enjoyment’s sake (and to get the Transformers fans jumping out of their seats), or perhaps as a wink and nod to the fact that the company Takara had a hand in both Transformers and Dengeki Choujin Gridman. Even the title, SSSS.Gridman seems to be willing to play into its own American adaptation. After all, how else would a fan of Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad interpret the series?

But then the anime also makes references so as to hint at the true natures of its characters, or to foreshadow what’s to come. It’s really deep-cut stuff that generally involves using monsters and motifs of past tokusatsu works (especially from Tsubaraya Productions, the studio behind Ultraman and Gridman), and far beyond my knowledge or experience to have picked up without outside reference (thanks to Mike Dent!) However, it’s not as if one needs to get every in-joke or obscure callback to understand SSSS.Gridman and where it’s going. The series is another showcase of one of Studio Trigger’s great strengths: the ability to put in all of that under-the-surface content for hardcore fans without alienating newcomers. The references aren’t a barrier to entry so much as a reward for the faithful, and it’s as much a sign of love as the very movements of the monsters themselves, who despite being animated in 3DCG are made to behave like people in rubber suits as a way of replicating the live-action feel of the original Gridman.

Right to the end, SSSS.Gridman seems to change and shift, and it can be difficult (though not impossible) to predict where it’s truly headed. Watching the series unfold is a quiet yet boisterous joy that captures simultaneously the anxieties and wonders of both childhood and adulthood.

Advertisements

SSSS.Gridman and the Question of Genre

At a Studio Trigger panel at Anime NYC 2018, an interesting exchange occurred. During the Q&A session, the topic of Trigger’s preferred genres came up, and producer Wakabayashi Hiromi asked the audience what genre they thought the studio’s latest anime, SSSS.Gridman was about. They received various answers, but a common one was “action,” to which they responded, “Action? Really?” What this says is that, on some level, many viewers see SSSS.Gridman very differently compared to its creators.

The point here isn’t to figure out what genre SSSS.Gridman (Twin Peaks-esque paranormal mystery?). Rather, it’s to dwell on that incongruity between so many of those con attendees and Trigger itself. There are certain caveats to account for—like how this was only a handful of fans in the grand scheme of things or the way the series holds its cards close to its chest—but something has to be creating that difference in judgement.

Perhaps those viewers simply have a broader, more lenient idea of what denotes an “action series,” especially compared to creators who inevitably go in with their own values beforehand. If you asked Tomino Yoshiyuki what genre Mobile Suit Gundam is, he might not necessarily say “mecha” or “science fiction” or, indeed, “action.” Moreover, while fans might take the tokusatsu feel of the show (which it captures down to the rubber suit-like movements of the monsters) as more evidence of its “action” qualities, Studio Trigger could be seeing it as an aesthetic quality in service to a greater structure.

Adding thrilling violence to a story could just inevitably change how fans perceive it. The spectacle, on some level, can be overpowering. While I can’t say with full confidence that SSSS.Gridman is a Twin Peaks, there is an anime that takes a lot of inspiration from David Lynch and Mark Frost’s influential TV series: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable. While that series revolves around its small-town mysteries as well, the legacy of JoJo as a shounen fight series is still present in its DNA. For some fans, that battle tendency might dominate their view of Part 4.

Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that in the eyes of the creators, there’s more to SSSS.Gridman than just action. At this point, as the show moves towards its conclusion, that might very well be “obvious,” but I do wonder how many fans it pulled in under the vague pretense of strong fight scenes.

SSSS.GRIDMAN and Character Design (In)consistency

Takarada Rikka and Shinjou Akane are the two female leads of SSSS.Gridman who are grabbing the attention of fans due to their extreme attractiveness. The characters were clearly designed with the other in mind, as their proportions are more or less inverse from each other. Rikka is more bottom-heavy, with bigger thighs and a slim torso. Akane’s design emphasizes her upper body by having a large chest and skinny legs. They’re made for thirsty fans to draw lines in the sand, based on which features they’re truly drawn to.

The decision to create these contrasting designs might be a bit of a double-edged sword for the staff, however. What I’ve noticed is that the anime itself, as well as its merchandise, has trouble keeping track of the visual distinctions between Rikka and Akane. In any given image, Rikka might be portrayed as extra busty, or Akane might be drawn as voluptuous from top to bottom. If this were fanart, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise—it’s not uncommon to see fanartists give characters whatever proportions they want. But these are the show’s own artists and animators flubbing.

Anime, because it involves so many hands and a whole lot of outsourcing, is prone to inconsistencies, so this is not a criticism of the skills of any of the staff. What I am saying, then, is that Rikka’s and Akane’s designs are especially troublesome for animators and artists because they’re not how anime typically creates contrasting female characters. Usually, busty girls are thicker all over, and less chesty girls are more svelte all around. If not that, then designs will feature the same basic body type overall, even as the characters change in specific areas.

Because anime TV production is notoriously crunch-heavy, I could see a lot of artists and animators having to default to their natural instincts when drawing characters. If they’re not accustomed to drawing characters with such clearly defined proportions like Rikka and Akane, then it would be all too easy to draw what “seems right.” And because Rikka and Akane are not wildly different from each other (unless we’re talking fanart), they also can’t exaggerate to the point of caricature either. It’s a tough middle ground to strike.