After 25 years since the original Gridman TV series debuted in 1993, Studio Trigger and Tsuburaya Productions, the company behind Gridman and Ultraman, have collaborated to produce the magnificent tokusatsu inspired reboot SSSS.Gridman. For those who are new to Gridman and tokusatsu entertainment, it is the Japanese term attached to any sci-fi/fantasy live-action series that uses an abundance of special effects. More specifically, practical effects; think people wrestling in rubber monster suits smashing through model cities and stop motion animation.
That leads us to SSSS.Gridman, the love child of first-time director Akira Amemiya and Keiichi Hasegawa, famed screenwriter of the 1990s Ultraman. Filled to the brim with references and callbacks to the live-action series, SSSS is a lovingly crafted modernized take on the original series. The new story takes a theme relevant to today’s audiences and focuses on the youth of Japan and their relationship to technology.
The show opens on Yuta Hibiki, an amnesiac first-year in high school who’s just woken up in the home of Rikka Takarada, a girl in his class. With no clue who she is, or who he is for that matter. His standard introduction no doubt had people rolling their eyes, including me, and it does detract from the story, at least until we learn why he lost his memory. Yuta sees hallucinations of a robot named Gridman in an old computer in Takarada's family store, later called ‘Junk’ in reference to its name in the original show. Afterward, he meets Sho Utsumi, his friend before getting amnesia. Sho helps him with his memory loss, which is more or less his role in the series, being Yuta's support. He's a decent character, with a minor arc and some development. Throughout the first episode, the information we’re being fed by the characters is incongruous with what we observe from Yuta’s perspective. Rikka and Utsumi easily accept Yuta’s amnesia and when he sees Kaiju looming in the distance they assume he’s joking because—like his Gridman hallucinations—he is the only one who can see them at first. In spite of the mundane reactions of people around Yuta, the directing of nearly every scene communicates dread. It constantly feels like danger is just off the frame and the next scene will change everything.
Amemiya lingers on long shots too long for them to feel normal, instead, they communicate anxiety, you constantly are waiting for something to happen that will break the mundanity. Lighting is oversaturated during the daytimes to convey the crushing heat of the summer, and at night is subdued with fog and the monsters are constantly shown looming in the distance over the heroes. In the first episode, a radio playing is placed in between scenes to shift the tone. It bears so much similarity to Neon Genesis Evangelion, it's unsurprising the director is a Gainax veteran. No doubt, SSSS.Gridman's greatest strength is the tone, it balances the mundane life of high school students with the dread of a Kaiju attack. Eventually, when the Kaiju do attack, it is equally satisfying to watch play out. The three main characters are together in Rikka’s family store when the first Kaiju begins wreaking havoc on the city, forcing Yuta to work with Gridman fight off the monsters in giant robot form. Together they create the Gridman Alliance, dedicated to defeating any Kaiju that threatens their city.
Animation is fluid, characters are incredibly expressive, the camera work is dynamic and it keeps the action exciting, even the CGI used during many of the fight scenes is superb. The sound design is especially amazing at giving audio feedback during these scenes, a vehicle being crushed, the ground crumbling under a monster, and all of the attacks sound so visceral and lifelike. From time to time the show's incredible opening is used as background music in fights, and this would typically grow tiresome but because the song is so good and relevant to the story it never bothered me. At times the monster's movements look janky, but it never feels unintentional, watching old tokusatsu series shows that this is how the monster/giant robot fights looked, they move in ways that make it seem as though someone is inside a suit navigating them. 2D animation could never have achieved the authenticity of the monsters they were aiming for here. Not every scene is exploding with action, but even when the pace slows down, the directing and intruiging storyboarding are still visually arresting. One qualm I would bring up is the overabundance of fanservice placed at awkward moments, this thankfully only happened in certain episodes around the midpoint of the show. All around, this show is incredibly faithful to the original series, visually, audibly, and narratively.
The story is at times too standard to the genre and could have used more originality rather than reliance on the source material. It delivers it's story beats confidently and plenty self-aware of the nostalgia it's evoking, but the times it updates the script to a modern audience are worthwhile. Important information is shown to us rather than told, a characters motivation is never told to us before it is shown, a twist never comes that wasn’t foreshadowed heavily. This showing rather than telling comes across the most in Akane Shinjou's scenes, a classmate of Yuta’s. She offers the most exciting writing in the show. In the first episode alone, her scenes convey more fear than any of the Kaiju scenes. She’s subtle with her dark side and when she gets her quiet moments of angry reflection you get to see how bitter she is. Her psychotic tendencies and lack of care for others are made all the more frightening by how much power she proves to have.
If I'm being entirely honest, Rikka and Akane are both better protagonists than Yuta. Rikka gets more development than Yuta and becomes a remarkably sympathetic character right away. While Yuta and Utsumi celebrate their victories against Kaiju she worries about the fallout of the city being attacked and if her friends are safe. She's the most nuanced character in the show, and it often feels like she is a normal person who was placed into the plot of a wild sci-fi kids show. Her apprehension towards conflict and her contemplation of the effects of what's occurring in the story are what makes her so believable. Yuta and Utsumi are at first, ecstatic to escape the mundane life of being a student, then the shock of the danger they’re in forces them to face reality and change their mindsets. Whereas Yuta accepts he has to overcome challenges at face value and follows through like a typical protagonist, Rikka is constantly questioning why she’s in such a dire situation and where her place is in all of it. Her development throughout the show is intertwined with Akane's and they both change in ways that are very engaging to watch play out.
The themes of Gridman are showcased throughout the story in the elaborate technology the villain has, all alone in her room, contrasted with the beat-up old computer the Gridman Alliance use. Yet even with basic technology, they prove to be formidable foes to the Kaiju, and they enjoy working together. What the screenwriter is trying to say is rather basic, but it’s nonetheless a well-reinforced theme and consistent throughout the show, you don’t need an abundance of technology to have good relationships and valued friendships.
The passionate heart at the core of SSSS.Gridman is what hooked me upon my first impression, it wears its love for the original series on its sleeve. This passion may not be as clear to western viewers who are unfamiliar to classic tokusatsu. Due to this, it will likely be underrated. Nevertheless, as a modern anime, SSSS.Gridman stands as one of the best mecha in recent memory.