Play Therapy: SSSS.Dynazenon

The first thing to know about SSSS.Dynazenon is that you don’t need to have watched any of the prequels to get into SSSS.Dynazenon. Sure, its name implies a connection to 2018’s SSSS.Gridman, which is itself a sequel of sorts to the 1993 live-action Gridman the Hyper Agent. Even so, SSSS.Dynazenon is an insightful anime that stands on its own merits. 

The story of SSSS.Dynazenon follows a teenage boy named Asanaka Yomogi. After encountering an eccentric guy named Gauma claiming to be a kaiju user, his city is attacked by actual kaiju. Gauma is able to call upon a giant robot named Dynazenon, and Yomogi (as well as a few others) end up becoming Gauma’s copilots. With a different part of Dynazenon in each of their hands in the form of toys, they battle a group known as the Kaiju Eugenicists, who have the ability to control kaiju by bending them to their will. 

One question to ask when looking at many tokusatsu and mecha series is how much the characters’ primary motivations tie into the larger overarching plot and setting. In Gundam, for example, the connection is usually extremely strong—protagonists like Amuro Ray are thrust into the middle of long and painful wars whose physical and mental scars are the primary driving force of these narratives. Evangelion takes a different approach, forefronting the existing psychologies of its characters and using its science fictional setting as a means to explore their traumas. With respect to that dynamic, SSSS.Dynazenon falls a little more towards the Eva side, but goes its own direction.

SSSS.Dynazenon has a grounded feel that highlights both its characters’ personal histories and how their current circumstances as impromptu heroes impacts their views.  As Yomogi and the others battle, they’re forced to confront their own unique fears and values. Yomogi is trying to cope with his parents’ divorce and his mom’s new boyfriend. Minami Yume, one of Yomogi’s classmates, is emotionally distant ever since the mysterious death of her sister. Yamanaka Koyomi is a NEET in his 30s who constantly regrets not making certain decisions in his life (particularly a romantic one) that could have brought him down a different path. Koyomi’s younger cousin, Asukagawa Chise, refuses to attend school. Gauma searches for his past, explaining to the others that he’s actually thousands of years old.

While it can seem as if the fantastical elements are just a flimsy backdrop to the human drama at play, that’s not the case. Rather, one of the key strengths of SSSS.Dynazenon is the way that feeling both the added responsibility and thrill of fighting kaiju reshapes or reinforces their priorities and core beliefs. The fact that they carry around their respective vehicles like toys before growing them to giant size also makes me feel that there’s a link between the childish notion of “playing with toys” as a way to engage with the world and connect with others. In that respect, the antagonists of SSSS.Dynazenon, the Kaiju Eugenicists, seem to also have their own hang-ups but engage with them in less healthy ways.

SSSS.Dynazenon is also different enough from its predecessors that those who didn’t enjoy Gridman the Hyper Agent or SSSS.Gridman might resonate with this series. In particular, its characters are portrayed in a more subdued manner than SSSS.Gridman, where the central female characters, Rikka and Akane, cast a long shadow and often stole the spotlight through their sensual portrayals and powerful yuri energy.

Though I say that knowing the prequels is unnecessary to gain something from SSSS.Dynazenon, that doesn’t mean it’s pointless to have been a fan. Using my personal experience as an example, I came to the series cognizant of the fact that “Dyna” and “Zenon” are references to support robots from the original Gridman due to having watched Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad (the Power Rangers-esque adaptation of Gridman the Hyper Agent), and later found myself excited over some mid-series character arrivals that call back to SSSS.Gridman. The key is that while the series does reward those with prior knowledge, it doesn’t punish those who are new and unfamiliar. 

SSSS.Dynazenon hints at ties to the prior series in everything from the title of the show to the character Gauma himself. However, unlike with SSSS.Gridman, the mystery of what exactly is going on is less of a core element and more an added bonus for existing fans of either one or both previous series. The core story—one of friendship and growth—remains.

The Sincerity of Tokusatsu

I have watched a lot of anime, but I’m far less experienced with tokusatsu stuff. When Toei launched their official worldwide tokusatsu channel on Youtube a few months ago (despite a major hiccup where they accidentally banned themselves), I originally saw it as a way to legitimately watch more obscure giant robot anime such as Lightspeed Electroid Albegas and Space Emperor God Sigma. However, thanks to the sheer range of shows available—stuff leading back to even the black & white era of television—I thought it was high time I made a more concerted effort to watch tokusatsu and form my own opinions.

What I’ve come to notice is that I enjoy these series a lot more than the adapted tokusatsu works I’ve seen over the years in the US—Power Rangers, VR Troopers, Super-human Samurai Syber Squad, etc.—and I think I know why. When it comes to Japanese tokusatsu, there is a greater degree of earnestness that makes these shows more enjoyable overall. They might not have much of a budget, as shown by their threadbare special effects, but everything feels somehow more sincere.

Sure, the localized shows have their own merits, and there have been memorable storylines over the years that lend at least an air of seriousness and compelling storytelling to their worlds. In Power Rangers alone, there’s the original Green Ranger storyline from Mighty Morphin’ and the bond between Astronema and Ecliptor in Power Rangers in Space that revealed the two as more than just evil villains. However, they feel more like exceptions to the rule—-chances for otherwise very non-serious stories to reveal an edge.

With Japanese tokusatsu on the other hand, even the very first episodes feel like they’re working hard to get viewers emotionally invested. They’re also still ultimately kids’ shows as well, but their presentation is such that they expect the young viewers at home to enjoy drama and tension in their entertainment. When you hear the ending theme to Janperson, even if you don’t know Japanese, there’s a strange yet heartfelt sense of passion. It’s definitely cheesy, but it’s a convincing kind of cheesy. The difference is akin to the kind of pro wrestling that easily makes you suspend your disbelief versus the kind that takes you out of the magic.

Anyway, if anyone has recommendations, I’m all ears. A part of me wants to check out Space Ironmen Kyodain and Akumaizer 3 just because of Konata’s fiery karaoke from Lucky Star, but I’m down to keep exploring.

New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #1: Voltron, Megazord, and the American Soul of Chogokin

For this year’s New York Comic Con, I’m doing something a bit different with my coverage. Instead of doing a standard con report, with overviews and opinions on panels, artist alley, etc., I’m going to be writing a series of essays based on things I saw at NYCC 2016. Think of it like extended thought exercises and musings inspired by the con.

soc-voltron

As someone who loves giant robots, one of the highlights of New York Comic Con 2016 had to be the dual displays of Soul of Chogokin Voltron and Megazord. Created as high-end poseable figures with plenty of metal, show-accurate proportions and transformations, and as much articulation as their designs can allow, when something joins the Soul of Chogokin line it is like a rite of passage. It’s the pinnacle of mecha toys, and any fans of either robot likely already has them on their radars. Seeing them together, however, made me think about their significance to both American fans and the people responsible for the Soul of Chogokin line. These figures represent not only the fulfillment of childhood dreams, but are indicative of the complex interactions between nostalgia and specific cultural contexts.

Although I personally do not view Voltron or Megazord with the kind of near-religious fervor that grips so many other fans (granted Voltron was the show that introduced me to giant robots), I couldn’t help but be impressed by their designs. They’re both large, clearly very hefty, and capture well the particular quirks of both robots, perhaps even to the point that it would be jarring. For example, Voltron can look a little too squat, until you realize that it actually reflects the original design well, and the main reason we see it as being perhaps slightly lankier in proportions is because the iconic images of Voltron tend to be upward perspective shots.

Above each of the displays was a painting of the robot below, with a little information card on the side to provide some extra insight on the artist who provided them, Nonaka Tsuyoshi. Reading these, what caught my attention was that not only was Nonaka responsible for the original Megazord design, but he was also the man responsible for starting the Soul of Chogokin line in the first place! In a way, the birth of the Soul of Chogokin Megazord can be viewed as Nonaka’s homecoming.

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There was another detail that I found even more notable. When describing Nonaka’s founding of the Soul of Chogokin line, the card stated that the toys were born out of his desire to celebrate the giant robots of his own youth, such as Mazinger Z. They were what inspired him, and so he in turn has given them the star treatment. Extending this line of thought, one can view Voltron and the Megazord as essentially the “Mazinger Z’s of America.” Many countries are introduced to super robots differently, and in the case of the US these two in particular are deeply woven into the fabric of pop culture. Remember, the original Japanese version of VoltronKing of Beasts Golion, isn’t a particularly notable show. Zyuranger, the show that would become Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, is beloved among Super Sentai fans, but is considered one of many good iterations. In the United States, however, these robots are integral to introducing generations of kids to the wide world of mecha. Thus, the Soul of Chogokin line is doing what it was originally meant to, only in another cultural context.

Thinking further about the iconic aspect of Voltron and the Megazord, it’s fascinating just how lasting their presence is relative to the shows they came from. For example, because Voltron has that cool look and that place in American broadcast history, it can be remade again and again, most notably in the surprise hit Voltron: Legendary Defender. What’s even more striking about its presence, however, is that Vehicle Voltron is as absent from pop culture memory as Lion Voltron is enduring. In fact, notice how I’ve only said “Voltron” throughout this essay. I bet that, for many readers, they didn’t even notice that something was odd. There are a number of possible reasons why Lion Voltron is remembered whereas Vehicle Voltron largely is not: Lion Voltron came first, it aired on TV more often, and its colorful characters and overall design are more memorable (mouths for hands and feet!). Whatever the reason, what stands out to me is how fickle and unforgiving mass-nostalgia can be, even if there’s no real “blame” to go around.

Soul of Chogokin Voltron and Megazord are squarely aimed at the US market in a way that I’m not sure previous internationally beloved robots such as Grendizer (for much of Europe) and Voltes V (for the Philippines) previously were. In that respect, I predict this to be the start of a new relationship between Bandai and its potential consumers around the world. Given this potential, I’m rather curious as to what might come next. Perhaps we might someday see Soul of Chogokin representation for a robot that doesn’t even have its origins in Japan.

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What YOU should be WATCHing Today of All Days

JAPANESE SPIDER-MAN on the OFFICIAL MARVEL WEBSITE.

What, you thought I meant something else? Why then you’re as foolish as  Professor Monster who thinks he can stop the Invincible Man, the Emissary from Hell SPIDER-MAN.