The Fall 2018 Anime Preview Guide SSSS.GRIDMAN
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How was the first episode?
One of my general media rules of thumb is “plot is just details, execution is everything.” Any story, no matter how mundane or how outlandish, can be made emotionally compelling through the right scene-setting, the right pacing, the right sharpness of characterization and cohesiveness of tone. SSSS.Gridman's first episode isn't particularly novel in terms of narrative - it's a classic giant robot opening, featuring amnesia and kaiju and ending on a climactic “Grid Beam!” But the care with which this episode's pieces are put together, the beauty of its design, and the palpable atmosphere it evokes, all work together to make this one of the fall's best premieres.
I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with Trigger shows, in that I tend to love their first couple episodes and hate it when they subsequently make all the worst decisions possible. Because of that, I was pretty suspicious heading into Gridman, and things could easily collapse from here. But this episode's slow, evocative procession of everyday scenes consistently demonstrated everything that makes the studio so compelling, and marked director Akira Amemiya as a talent worth watching. Though he's mostly contributed farcical stuff like Ninja Slayer From Animation to the actual Trigger catalog, he's one of the creators who initially came over from Gainax, and the tonal hallmarks of classic Gainax shows come through clearly here.
The show opens with atmospheric pillow shots implying a cohesiveness of tone and vision that never really lets up. From the first minute, whose saturated lighting and overbearing long shots perfectly convey the sense of a stifling summer afternoon, we move to an apartment where our hero is waking, in a scene whose intimacy is equally well-captured through great storyboards and precise sound design. As the episode continues, our introduction to the amnesiac Yuta's life is grounded not through the relatability of his life circumstances, but the immediate tangibility of his lived experience. Subdued scenes at school actually reminded me of Gainax icons like Evangelion in their ability to capture stiff and quietly alienating moments, as well as their use of painfully long-held shots and radio announcements as a tonal break. Even if we weren't continuously being fed small indications of fantastical danger, these scenes all possess an inherent sense of tension and dramatic import. Moments like Yuta and his friend Rikka trudging home underneath power lines, fog, and a distant kaiju are their own reward, visual and tonal jewels that effortlessly draw us into Gridman's world.
The story's also pretty okay so far! We're basically just in introductory material at the moment, but I enjoyed the rapport between our current leads, and felt this episode built effectively and efficiently to our first battle. It currently feels like Yuta's amnesia detracts more than it adds to the production, but given we don't even know why he has amnesia yet, it seems a little premature to call that a demerit. My only real complaint with this episode was the not-entirely-convincing CG at the end, but even there, Gridman favors traditional animation wherever possible, only leaning on the CG models when absolutely necessary. On the whole, Gridman offers by far one of the most intriguing and aesthetically engaging premieres of the season. I've been burned by Trigger before, but it seems like they've found another reason for me to put my hand back on the stove.
If you're looking for unabashedly campy good fun with the added bonus of a title that sounds like the villain is hissing it under his breath when the hero defeats him, SSSS.Gridman is here for you. Although the first half of the episode feels far too slow, spending too much time on hero Yuta Hibiki wandering around trying to regain his memories with the sort-of help of friend Utsumi and unwilling classmate Rikka, the second half is exciting enough that it makes the drag worth it. The whole Gridman thing itself remains largely unexplained in this episode, but that just whets the appetite for another episode – although I'm more intrigued by a few other aspects of it.
Chief among those is the fact that the kaiju, which at first only Yuta can see, appears to have been modeled by whoever our villain is. When it lands in the city, we can clearly see bits of it flaking off, and Utsumi later identifies the neck as the source of its weakness. That certainly makes sense given the monster's design – its neck looks far too long and thin to support its head and the length means that it has minimal help from its squat body with that. Then when Yuta severs the head, we see that the inside of the monster is either wires or some sort of mechanical something – that it isn't flesh and blood, in other words. Then the fact that the school, which everyone saw destroyed, is back and in perfect repair factors in, possibly adding some sort of shielding or alternate space effect to the rest of it. That would jibe with Gridman's presence inside the clunky old desktop computer (quickly named “Junk” by Utsumi) in giving things a virtual reality aspect; the computer's exterior may be a façade.
In any event, the key to understanding the school and what's going on may very well lie with Tonkawa, who at first felt like a throwaway character. She was clearly shown at ground zero of the kaiju's attack on the school, so if she's alive and in class – and acting normally – it will definitely say something. (As will the possibility that no one remembers her, which would fit with Yuta's amnesia.)
This clearly was a set up episode, and as that it does largely work, barring the over-long introduction. The character designs are somewhat bland compared to Gridman himself and the kaiju, and I don't love the jerky animation – the scene in front of the convenience store particularly looks as if frames are missing – or the long pauses, but the story itself is fun and interesting enough that this will be worth giving another couple of episodes to see where it goes.
This newest offering from Studio Trigger is essentially a melding of two classic anime genres and one classic live-action genre: transforming hero series in the vein of Ultraman, heroic giant robot series, and giant monster (aka kaiju) titles in the vein of Godzilla. It's such a natural combination that it's a little surprising that it hasn't been done more often over the years.
Actually, a more direct inspiration for the featured action (i.e., the part where Gridman manifests in full giant robot size) would be Neon Genesis Evangelion. The sleek build and tapered waist of Gridman more resemble Eva units than most other mecha types, the way Gridman moves is reminiscent of the way the Evas moved, and the way Gridman fights the equal-sized baddies evokes memories of the Evas fighting Angels. Granted, some of this is because this series is drawing from the same traditions that Evangelion did, but it's hard to overestimate the impact that Evangelion had on the mecha genre when you see such a clear visual successor like this.
Those action scenes are what really sell the first episode, as the part leading up to that, where the protagonist is trying to sort out his memory loss, plays out casually but also too slowly. A certain amount of setup is fine if you're laying the foundation for a bigger story or more complicated character interactions, but the first episode doesn't give major signs of intrigue. The girl is clearly more interested in the boy than she lets on, so the only real mysteries here are how the boy gets associated with Gridman and what he's forgotten. Still, seeing that the protagonist is going to have a solid support team of his peers is a nice addition.
This episode also looks like most of its animation budget was reserved for the action scenes in the last few minutes. The visuals in the earlier parts sometimes look rough and the animation in that part isn't so smooth. Some of the jerkiness is standard Trigger stylistic choices, but this part also has a much heavier use of stills and sequences where characters are heard talking from off-camera. Once the action component kicks in, however, things looks much smoother and brassier, even thrilling. The creators know how to emphasize the strength of their work.
SSSS.Gridman is strong enough in its action sequences that it could survive on those alone, and it is definitely helped by not having much (any?) genre competition this season. It's also at least trying in terms of character development, but it needs more oomph in its non-action parts to stand out as a good series overall.
I'm not sure if there's an officially correct way to pronounce the quadruple-S in SSSS.Gridman, but I'm totally going to hiss like a snake every time I say that title out loud. Over-stylized name aside, this is a remarkably low-key way to kick off a series about giant monsters and Ultraman-style heroes. Instead of dropping a mountain of exposition on the audience or jumping straight into a big action scene, we begin with Yuta trying to sort out his sudden amnesia in a calm and methodical manner. It almost feels like the kind of relaxed downtime episode you'd normally see between story arcs in a mecha series, with the hero casually strolling around town with a new acquaintance. As unusual as it may be, it's kind of nice to open a show like this without anybody screaming about fate or duty.
For a teenage boy who just woke up without any memories and who has a weird robot man trying to talk to him through a computer screen, Yuta is almost eerily chill for most of this episode. Perhaps that's the point; his new circumstances are so bizarre that they go past shock and circle back around to mild confusion. In any case, while he hasn't yet developed much of a personality, I can appreciate having a protagonist who's able to roll with the punches like that. His new-new friend Rikka and old-new friend Utsumi are both good additions to the story, with Rikka acting as the unimpressed voice of reason and Utsumi supplying plenty of energy as the resident dork. Put them all together and you have a likable team of heroes.
As for the story, it's tough to say exactly where Gridman is headed with its particular mix of ideas. The notion of the kaiju being created from a handmade figurine is intriguing, as is the perfect restoration of the school building after the battle. It makes me wonder if Gridman is aiming to make some sort of commentary on the genre while working within its established framework. That certainly sounds like something an original series from the folks at Trigger might do, though for now we just have a lot of vague hints and very little concrete information. That's enough to grab my attention, but not enough to hold it over the course of a season.
In order to do that, Gridman will need to offer up some compelling answers to the questions it poses. For that matter, it needs to articulate what those questions even are. For now, I'm enjoying the kaiju battles and character interactions enough to stick around, even if I do wish that those battle scenes would rely a little less on CG animation. If you're looking for something new to puzzle over this season, it may be worth giving Gridman a couple weeks to fill in the blanks.
SSSS.GRIDMAN's premiere is an interesting introduction to TRIGGER's latest series, with the first half being more subdued than I would have expected from a show about a giant robot fighting giant monsters. The amnesiac protagonist is by no means anything new, but the way GRIDMAN handles setting up both this world and Yuta as our hero might be a bit too obtuse for some folks' liking. When Yuta first awakens in Rikka's room, the show takes its sweet time getting him from there to the episode's climactic battle. Nobody seems all that perturbed by the fact that this kid has lost all of his memories, and Yuta is the only one who can see the strange robot man coming from the Junk computer, or the giant fossilizes kaiju that stands looming above Tsutsujidai.
This setup isn't all that out of the ordinary for genre fare like GRIDMAN, especially coming from TRIGGER, but the execution of these is odd in a way that I can't put my finger on; sometimes its seems like its intentionally pulling from more cerebral inspirations, like Evangelion, and other times it just feels inconsistent. Yuta and Rikka's first major conversation is edited in a way that made me think my Crunchyroll player was bugging out, utilizing jump cuts in a manner that I couldn't quite get a handle on. Later, a girl named Tonkawa crushes Yuta's hot-dog/sandwich-thing with a volleyball, and the camera just holds on the class' shocked silence for just a bit too long; the only other time this girl is referenced again is when she seemingly dies during the kaiju attack. Why was so much emphasis placed on these scenes? Was Tonkawa introduced just so we could have a slightly deeper connection to the destruction wrought by the monster? I can't tell if the fact that SSSS.Gridman is making me ask these questions is a good sign or a bad one, but at the very least my curiosity has been piqued.
Still, this is a TRIGGER production, and one that's clearly being given a lot of resources and attention from the studio – it has a slightly more grounded aesthetic than Kill la Kill or even Kiznaiver, but the animation is fluid and expressive, the camera work is compelling, and the CG used during the Gridman/Kaiju fight is excellently done too. I like the chemistry that Yuta, Rikka, and Utsume share as a team, even if we haven't gotten to know them much yet; they fit well within the tokusatsu trappings that TRIGGER is playing with. The story is only barely coming into shape, but there are some interesting crumbs being laid out for future developments that point to a plot that's a little more complex than “A boy and his robot fight monsters”. Even taking into account some of its strange creative choices, I loved GRIDMAN's tokusatsu flavored spectacle, and the prospect of finally getting another fun and passionate TRIGGER project is enough to have me on board with this show for the foreseeable future.
Funimation is producing the Simuldub for SSSS.GRIDMAN, and it's a pretty good effort, all things considered. The script strays a bit from Crunchyroll's translation, which may rankle the purists out there – for instance, Yuta's skeptical greeting upon meeting Gridman in Japanese (“Okay…G-Gridman?”) is made a bit more relaxed-sounding in English (“Cool, I think? Nice to meet you, Gridman”). I don't mind it, personally, and I was generally very impressed with the casts' take on the main characters. Brandon McInnis makes for an appropriately bemused Yuta, and Greg Ayres perfectly captures Utsume's stereotypically “nerdy” personality, maybe even a bit better than in the Japanese dub. Jill Harris is probably the dub's standout, though, giving Rikka a naturally charming yet skeptical edge that plays well against her male counterparts. Funimation has really refined their Simuldub process over the past few years, and SSSS.GRIDMAN looks to be another excellent addition to their catalogue for this fall.
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