Review of SSSS Gridman (2018)

Moving picture, 5.0 hours

Seen in 2019.

A kid in the first year of senior high gets the opportunity to battle kaijū threatening his town of Tsutsuji-dai. This is not merely unusual. Something is deeply wrong in this town, starting with the fact that it’s got more giant monsters waiting, frozen in plain sight. Only the kid can see them, and he’s got amnesia.

Animated tokusatsu action comedy. The intertext is complicated. Most overtly, this is a spin-off of Gridman the Hyper Agent (1993) as well as its Power Rangers-style American adaptation Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad (1994) (hence “SSSS”, later retconned as “Special Signature to Save a Soul”) and “Lightning Superman Gridman” (2015). None of that matters much.

The more relevant intertext is FLCL (2000) and, to a lesser extent, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). While it arrived twenty years after the main batch, Gridman is an excellent NGE clone, combining Anno’s love of Ultraman-style foolishness with loveable characters, teen angst and some original thinking. Granted, the twists are not wholly original, taking something from RahXephon (2002) and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006), but the craftsmanship is on such a high level that I cannot object. The two female leads, in particular, are fully realized, and very little like Rei or Asuka. Their interaction is way beyond Bechdel territory, despite the fan service of the river rafting episode.

There are several direct references to NGE. For example, there’s a team of broke-ass adult “experts” who come from the “Hyper World” to assist the struggle. They call themselves Shinseiki Chūgakusei, the New Century (i.e. Neon Genesis) Junior High Students, which they are not. The first of them is hilariously awkward, a stuttering cross between a ninja, NGE’s Kaji and Heinz Zednik’s hunched 1980s portrayal of Loge in Das Rheingold (1869), carrying four long swords at once, all of them—impractically—on his back. He has trouble getting through open doors but he can fight. At times it’s the extra-everything aesthetic of Abenobashi Magical Shopping District (2002).

The main character’s best friend makes direct references to the Ultraman franchise, the main product of Tsuburaya, the production house that created the original Gridman as an independent franchise. In episode 10, the best friend scribbles on a note pad, “God’s in his heaven — All’s right with the world”, the line from Pippa Passes (1841) that also serves as the ironic motto of NGE’s NERV organization. One monster has a spherical red core like an Eva, and there is an inverted Tsutsuji-dai floating above the town like Tokyo-3 in the geofront, etc.

Unsurprisingly, the intertext is more than decorative. It drives the narrative: The monsters are hand-crafted by a model maker, a villainous antisocial Haruhi whose failure to improve the world by secretly ruling it is the emotional centre of the show. Her semi-autistic mindset is nicely done: Bored and forced to socialize, she thinks to herself 「やっぱ最悪」 but doesn’t show it. Ultimately, she goes full Nevada-tan, box cutter and all. It’s a Gainax-style interrogation of geeks by geeks and it works very well if you’re grounded in this sort of thing to start with, but the comedic use of tokusatsu tropes is limiting. Although the show does manage an episode without a new kaijū attack, it cannot refrain from lampshading this fact. Likewise, although it produces a horribly malformed kaijū in episode 10, like a Cronenberg out of Rick and Morty (2013), this is its only attempt to do something new with giant robots and monsters.

There are, predictably, no intradiegetic explanations for things like why Gridman looks like a guy in a cheap costume. The main characters are all driven by a desire to protect the town, but as the genre demands, the battle sequences are far too clean to make that threat seem genuine. Cars are thrown around like toys in cheapish cel-shaded 3D CGI but there doesn’t seem to be any people in them. Rather, it’s all about nostalgia. Episode 12 uses Gridman’s original costume (and theme song) and shows a montage of grainy black-and-white pictures in the style of very early kaijū products crowding the shelves at Mandarake.

Ultimately, Gridman is neither more open to a fresh audience than NGE, nor more able to probe its subject matter and make something new. Its very last scene, showing the goddess Shinjō Akane reincarnated in our world through live action, with a Trigger poster on the wall, is more like another NGE reference than an innovation or an allusion to live-action tokusatsu. Anno put live-action footage in The End of Evangelion (1997) for about the same reason.

moving picture Japanese production animation fiction series