The Spring 2021 Preview Guide
by The Anime News Network Editorial Team,
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
One day on his way home, a first-year student of Fujiyokidai High School named Yomogi Asanaka meets a mysterious man named Gauma who claims to be a “Monster Tamer.” Suddenly, a Kaiju and a giant robot, Dynazenon, appear! Yume Minami, Koyomi Yamanaka, and Chise Asukagawa also happen to be passing by, and together with Yomogi they are caught up in a battle with the Kaiju.
How was the first episode?
Sometimes I wrestle with how fair it is to compare a series to another show for its preview guide review. After all, there are very few truly original concepts in the world, and nearly everything that comes out is guaranteed to resemble something else in one way or another. However, I think it's totally fair to compare SSSS.Dynazenon to SSSS.Gridman, not just because it's a spinoff, but because the production clearly intended to invite comparison. So, here I go.
When SSSS.Gridman premiered three years ago, it completely blew away all my expectations. I was drawn in by the constant sense that something was off that suffused the episode, driven by subtle, atmospheric choices in every aspect of the show. SSSS.Dynazenon carries a lot of similar atmospheric touches – naturalistic background effects and a rather minimalistic use of music until the kaiju appears at the episode's climax, pillow shots over naturalistic dialogue, and a slightly distorted everyday life – but it's no longer a surprise. I know what to expect.
Which is not to say that this premiere was bad or boring; quite to the contrary! While it didn't throw me off guard, it still held my attention and then some, and there was plenty that was different. In fact, it seems to play on parallels vs. differences, aware that this time around, audiences have expectations. While at the end, the SSSS of Gridman was revealed to stand for “Special Signature to Save a Soul,” one of the first shots of Dynazenon is “Scarred Souls Shine Like Stars.” While Yuta had amnesia and was seeing kaiju everywhere, the five disaffected teens here have much more mundane problems, like Yomogi's dislike of his mother's boyfriend, or Yume's unresolved grief over her sister's death.
The main exception here is Gauma, who is charmingly straightforward and stupid, especially compared to the more subtly characterized rest of the cast. He's the only one who seems to understand that this is mecha anime, damn it, which requires a lot of burning spirit and enthusiasm. It'll be interesting to see how the dynamic shapes out once this cast starts to gel.
The technical aspects of the production are, as expected, impeccable. The episode is heavy on the still shots, but they never feel like shortcuts or lazy animation, especially with the level of detail in them. Rather, they communicate a sense of malaise, highlighting the broken, the run-down, the dirty. At the episode's climax, when Dynazenon finally makes its appearance, there's an instantaneous, giddy shift in energy. There's the theme song used as an insert song (so similar in style to SSSS.Gridman's, making me feel instantly nostalgic), a hand-drawn transformation sequence, and just good old-fashioned robot vs. monster fighting.
SSSS.Gridman was one of my anime of the decade for the 2010's; SSSS.Dynazenon has a lot to live up to. And you know what? I think it just might pull it off.
I find it pretty hard to take anything meaningful away from this episode. It is a classic case of “so much happens that nothing might as well have happened.” We're introduced to five main characters who are basically all strangers to one another, except for the pair of cousins Chise and Koyomi. Because they're largely unconnected to one another, we're also introduced to their various families and friend groups, adding even more characters to the mix. And while all that's going on, we also have to grapple with both supernatural events and the giant robot versus kaiju battle that makes up the episode's climax.
To put it another way, it's a lot to take in, with absolutely nothing explained. Now, that's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to a series premiere. When it comes down to it, the point of a first episode is to make sure people come back for the second. Raising a ton of questions and then finishing things off with a flashy action set piece isn't a bad way to start.
The human drama, mainly that surrounding Yume, is also a good hook. An attractive teen, she has become infamous around school for inviting boys out on dates only to stand them up. We even see her do this to another of our leads, Yomogi. What's interesting is that she does show up—kind of, anyway, observing Yomogi from a distance as he waits. Yet, she's not making fun of him at his expense. Rather, she is largely indifferent about the whole thing even when Yomogi confronts her. She's the first to state that something must be wrong with her—something she notes both before and after she helps pilot a giant mecha in battle.
All that aside, the thing I'm most interested in currently is how Dynazenon connects to its predecessor SSSS.Gridman. Without getting too spoilery—that series ends with some pretty major revelations about the nature of the world and our heroes' place in it. Having another series in the “Gridman Universe” raises some big questions. Is this the same world as SSSS.Gridman? Are kaiju a normal thing in this world? Is Akane involved again? Or has some other unfortunate youth done something similar? Of course, all these aren't things I expect to be revealed in the first episode, but I won't pretend that I wasn't hyper-alert for any hints the episode might have dropped.
All in all, this was more than a bit of a messy episode with way too much going on for its own good. However, it does make me want to watch next week's episode. So, mission accomplished.
Beyond simply having an abundance of talented artists, a wealth of industry experience, and an immediately identifiable brand of gonzo spectacle, I think the secret sauce in Studio Trigger's recipes that keeps me coming back to their work, again and again, is a simple but powerful ingredient: Confidence. This confidence is what has allowed the studio to develop a house style that is among the most recognizable in modern anime, and what keeps their projects looking and feeling so goddamn cool. Most importantly in the case of their fledgling SSSS-iverse, though, is how well that confidence serves their storytelling instincts.
In this first episode of Dynazenon, we're treated to a series of vignettes that introduce a cast with no immediate connection to one another. Yomogi is a young man who works part-time to scrape together some spending money, though he seems to have a tenuous relationship with his mother and the new guy she's been seeing (Yomogi's response to receiving a “Welcome to High School” gift from the guy is to immediately toss it in a donation box). Meanwhile, Yume is obviously struggling to cope with the breakdown of her family in the wake of her older sister's death; there are rumors abound that she has picked up a habit of repeatedly asking boys out only to ditch them without a second thought, and Yomogi discovers that there is truth behind all of the gossip when she does the same to him. In another part of town, two cousins apparently live as shut-ins, surrounded by clutter and pop-culture detritus as the world becomes exceedingly stranger outside. Elsewhere, a trashcan suddenly decides to defy all known laws of gravity and float into the sky. Mysterious, glistening shards have been scattered all about.
Then there's Gauma, the self-proclaimed “kaiju user” slash shifty vagabond that is rescued from starvation by Yomogi's timely sandwich donation. He doesn't just insert himself into Yomogi and Yugi's affairs, but he also summons the titular Dynazenon mecha to do battle with the glowing purple-crystal turtle-thing that shows up out of nowhere to destroy the city, and three of the four protagonists we've met so far are whisked away into Dynazenon's inner workings to help Gauma do battle. If you have somehow arrived at SSSS.Dynazenon with no prior knowledge of the premise or franchise, you might be shocked to discover that this thoughtfully directed coming-of-age drama is also a fist-pumpingly badass kaiju/mecha tokusatsu blow-'em-up, but therein lies the genius of Studio Trigger's indefatigable confidence. Writer Keiichi Hasegawa is a veteran of genre staples Ultraman and Kamen Rider, and he and director Akira Amemiya already proved with the previous SSSS.Gridman that they are more than capable of crafting a story that venerates the glorious spectacle of the tokusatsu classics while maintaining a focus on smart, emotive writing. One can only hope that Dynazenon proves to be an evolution of that winning formula.
Look, I'm a simple man. I don't ask for much in this world, I don't think. If you give me a gorgeously directed and intriguing drama about the complex interpersonal lives of a likeable cast of cartoon young people, I'm a happy camper. If you give me an exquisitely executed action extravaganza where a cool-as-hell giant robot man transforms into a cool-as-hell giant robot Tyrannosaurus Rex that shoots laser beams out of its goddamn mouth, and I'm as giddy as all get out. You combine those two things into one perfect package? Well, then, you've got an anime that has catapulted its way to the top of my Spring watchlist without so much as breaking a sweat. This season looks to be loaded with incredible series, but I think only best-of-the-best are going to have a shot at competing for SSSS.Dynazenon's dinosaur skull-shaped crown.
Back in 2018, Akira Amemiya and Keiichi Hasegawa's SSSS.Gridman was one of the biggest surprises to come out of Studio Trigger to date. It was at once a love letter to the tokusatsu and super robot stories that have informed so much of Trigger's oeuvre and a strikingly atypical production for the company, managing a bizarre yet irresistible balance between its over-the-top monster-fighting action and the sober realities of its main characters and antagonist. Put simply, my expectations were high for this spiritual(?) sequel, meaning it probably couldn't get away with the same trick twice.
Yet somehow, everything about this premiere clicked with me immediately. Somewhere around the silent, understated title card set to the sounds of early-morning bird chirps, I was immediately hooked, and from there, the simmering moodiness of our main cast washed over me like a graceful wave. That's the bulk of this premiere – following Yomogi, Yume, and our as-of-yet unnamed fellow main characters through the malaise of their teenage lives. Yomogi is sociable and down to earth, but quietly struggling with the idea of his mom dating a new guy. Yume tiptoes through the tension of her home life in the wake of her sister's death, while intentionally sabotaging her social life at school for attention. The other two laze away in a room strewn with garbage, sleeping the day away or watching random viral videos and generally avoiding the outside world. These scenes are left intentionally inert and directionless, mirroring the ruts these characters seem stuck in.
And then a pink-haired punk wearing a belly shirt made of duct tape storms in and abducts them all into his giant transforming mech to fight a Kaiju.
That's the sheer magic of this nascent franchise, and despite knowing it was coming, the switch flip worked on me perfectly. From the moment Gauma, our mysterious “Kaiju User” hero, arrives, Dynazenon turns into pure joy in animated form. The music swells in a series of ridiculously catchy insert songs. The animation perfectly captures the weight and feel of big, rubber-suited Kaiju film fights. Everything about the preceding minutes vanishes into a wild, ebullient, discordant crescendo that damn near left tears in my eyes, and it made me absolutely ravenous for the next episode.
By all accounts, this looks like a pitch-perfect return for the series, and anyone who enjoyed SSSS.Gridman before it owes it to themselves to check this one out. For folks who haven't watched the previous series, it's hard to say yet just how much knowledge is necessary to get in on the ground floor of this one. Nothing in the premiere requires or assumes familiarity, but it may be worth binging the first anime, just to have a better grasp of this one's tone and scope. Either way though, this is a must-see show.
Set in the same universe as SSSS.Gridman, SSSS.Dynazenon's first episode is an experience. In part this is because rather than the four S's standing for “Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad,” it looks as if they're meant to be “Scared Souls Shine like Stars,” so there's more of an interest in keeping the characters off- balance. That mostly applies to Yomogi and Yume in this episode, two high school first years who appear to be going through some stuff. For Yomogi, the implication is that his mother's dating someone he doesn't care for, while Yume seems to have an obsession with making dates and then standing the person up. What either of these things will have to do with the fact that they've essentially been press- ganged into mecha piloting service remains to be seen.
What's impressive, however, is how well the episode practices the “show not tell” technique, at least when it comes to Yomogi and Yume. Yomogi's storyline is a bit less involved right now, so there's less work to be done – we see him dragging himself out of the house to dinner with his mom and the presumptive boyfriend, muttering about how “loud” she is, and then his non-reaction to being handed a monetary gift from said boyfriend culminates in him dumping the crumpled envelope in a donation jar, screaming his quiet disdain more than any animated temper tantrum would have. The fact that he also seems to want to spend less time at home, agreeing to meet Yume an hour after he finishes work at nine at night, also lets us know of his general dissatisfaction.
It's in Yomogi's storyline that we also get the first hint about what's going on with Yume – one of his classmates mentions that haunted houses aren't allowed anymore as school festival attractions because someone killed themselves after being “teased” at one. Later we see Yume ask to go into the room of someone named Kano to get a book, and her parents mutter something about Kano not being able to use it anymore, implying that it was Yume's sister who died in that incident. A shot of a calendar with a recital marked that Kano had asked Yume to attend lets us guess that it either never happened or Yume didn't go, with Kano's death happening somewhere around the date of the recital. This could explain Yume's fixation with making dates she never goes to – a way to keep herself feeling the guilt and pain of Kano's loss.
What all of this has to do with Gauma, the guy claiming to be a “kaiju master,” the mismatched cousins, and the giant T-Rex mecha called Dynazenon remains to be seen. All of the elements of this episode don't quite sit as comfortably together as they could, but there's definitely potential here; I love the lived-in look of the houses we see, which feels very unusual for anime homes, and the mecha and kaiju designs are neat. If you like shows that make sense right off the bat, this may not be for you, but despite that, this looks like it's going weird and fun places.
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