Review

by Christopher Farris,

Gridman - The Hyper Agent

Complete Series Blu-ray

Synopsis:
Gridman - The Hyper Agent
The evil Kahn Digifer lives inside computer circuits! With the help of Takeshi Todo, he creates monstrous kaiju to attack electronic systems. Meanwhile, a freak accident turns Naoto Sho into Gridman! His friends join forces piloting their mechanized attack vehicles. Together, they assist Naoto who fights as Gridman the Hyper Agent!
Review:

Previously codified as a cult-classic curiosity, the last few years have been kind to the notoriety of Gridman The Hyper Agent. The international accessibility of its Ultra-Series forbears has increased, and the show itself was previously made officially available on English streaming platforms. And of course, it found itself spinning off its own monstrously successful anime universe with Studio Trigger's SSSS.Gridman and SSSS.Dynazenon. With all those current connections, it would seem that the timing couldn't have been more perfect for Ultra franchise rights-holders Mill Creek to grace fans with a fancy blu-ray release of the original Tokusatsu Gridman, and that's supposedly what we've been given here: Something for devoted fans to add to their collection, and for curious anime-adjacent newcomers to properly see where it all started. But sadly, as you may have already heard, that's not what we've actually ended up with.

The good news is that Gridman the show is still Gridman, and it's still some dang good tokusatsu. If you're one of those aforementioned neophytes to the genre, this show makes for an incredibly smooth easing into its conventions, particularly for the early-90's style it's representing. There's a new kaiju every week causing some sort of problem, so Naoto has to link up with Gridman and, along with support from friends Yuka and Ippei, deal with it via generous application of wrestling moves, sword slashes, and post-production laser-blast effects. This reliance on the regular formula is something that Gridman is not shy about: each episode even opens with a title that assures you that, yes, yet another kaiju is showing up this week for Gridman to fight.

Said formula doesn't shake out as love-it-or-hate-it for a given audience as you might expect, though. The Hyper Agent pretty quickly establishes its ambitions with playing with its formulaic approach on an episode-by-episode basis. The digitized nature of the kaiju and their computer-corrupting effects means that the hazards faced by the civilians of the show that Gridman must rescue them from run the gamut far beyond buildings getting smashed up. This series runs on that specifically 90's-style understanding of computer hacking, so everything from construction equipment to pillows to a 5,000-year-old mummy are targets to be taken control of to wreak havoc. It creates an earnest, engaging watchability in terms of wanting to see what wild effects will be unleashed on the unsuspecting sitcom citizens of Sakuragaoka, tying in as it might with the development of our young heroes.

Those main heroes of Gridman aren't without their own kind of appeal. The most distinctive element of Naoto, Yuka, and Ippei is the fact that they're kids, in contrast with the grown-up host humans and support crews of its older Ultra sibling shows. It means there's an earnest sort of engagement with the leads, as they really do come across like an actual group of childhood friends, following along the fun fantasy of fighting monsters on their homemade computer as much as they contend with tangential outside plots involving school, classmates, or those first pangs of young romance. There's a lot to be enjoyed in the dynamic of these kids, though they can still come off a bit boilerplate in their main-character designation, lacking much major development over the course of the whole series. Instead, as is often the case with series like this, it's the villain of the piece who proves to be the most interesting part. Takeshi is a loveable loser whose often-distressingly-familiar misanthropy is only undercut by the critical lack of success all of his absurd plans have. More than the sight of a new kaiju or shiny power-up for Gridman, the driving point of continuing through the series becomes "What petty grievance is going to set Takeshi off this time?" It helps the series preserve the lighter, childlike tone of its heroics, as we get to see Takeshi continuously owned for his antics (enhanced with especial credit to Tsuyoshi Sugawara's increasingly-unhinged performance), while the undercutting of his nature, like an encounter with his own friendly doppelganger in the formative and memorable thirty-third episode, indicate the potential path to salvation he'll find by the end.u8HwjkX877k

Shades of that journey will be familiar to anyone coming at Gridman from earlier exposure to those breakout-hit anime. The Hyper Agent isn't as dense with its analyses of tormented teenage souls and the need for nurturing companionship as those SSSS shows, but the seeds are clearly here, and the established retroactive continuity provides a different kind of fun for those looking to learn more about the franchise's roots. There's definitely an engaging novelty to getting to see the 'first appearance' of important entities like Anosillus or Gauma, or recognize how Takeshi's journey was the path a character arc like Akane's was patterned on. As well, with Gridman being a cousin to the overarching Ultra franchise, there are plenty of conventions for new exposure to its famous standby elements: The human-hosted alien setup, the particular types of finishing-move laser beams, and of course our hero ends up getting crucified at one point. It all provides just a few more points for modern audiences to glom onto, even as Gridman itself remains unapologetically a 90's kids' show.

The spectacle at the center of this specific sort of special-effects series offers its own appeal. Gridman very obviously stands apart from its contemporaries in the tokusatsu genre with the virtual-world setting of its monster fights, as opposed to quarries and miniature city sets. It's easy to revel in the eclectic detail of the computer-world set the people behind this production built, creating wild structures symbolic of all the various public utilities for the expectedly rad monster designs to thrash. But there's also a specific charm through Tsubaraya's formative use of then-cutting-edge special-effects for Gridman, as you watch the team go wild utilizing numerous post-production effects, distorted camera gimmicks, and even make decent use of some comparatively primitive CGI. And it's all viewed in its full glory with this release too, as the blu-ray quality renders all the video in Gridman looking incredibly crisp. It arguably looks sharper than some releases of tokusatsu series from latter generations, and if it does also make some of the compositing of the digital elements a bit more apparently rough and obvious, that could also be a point of appeal for any burgeoning special-effects buffs approaching this series from the standpoint of its historical status.

Everything laid out above should make apparent why this set should have been a landmark release, but while the visual and audio presentation (that seriously has to be an all-timer tokusatsu opening theme) are top-notch, we must now unfortunately address the elephant in the room: The subtitles. The English subtitles created for the original streaming release of Gridman were of famously poor quality, so there was a strong hope that an updated script would be part of the deal in the show's jump to home video. Unfortunately, that did not come to pass. What we've instead been given for this set are copies of the original subtitle scripts that seem to have received a single pass of corrections, and not much else. The translations are awkward and stilted at best, with innumerable spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors littering the script of every single episode. There are several instances of lines simply missing subtitles, with the timing and formatting of what's here often being inconsistent. It really comes off like whatever team they had on this at Mill Creek took the subtitle script that was already there and did the bare minimum with it. And I do mean minimum, as while the episode scripts themselves have the subtitles, the opening and ending songs, plus all of the episode previews, go completely unsubbed.

It's a jarring, baffling choice. These subtitles were barely passable for the old streaming release, but on a disc collection like this they're downright unacceptable. It's a procession of unprofessional production that only leads to new injury with each successive insult: They even manage to mess up the formatting, as the white color of the text makes them difficult to read against the background of several scenes. The translation is technically comprehensible, in that you'll generally be able to follow the plot of each episode from reading them. But they're so half-assed and amateurish that they actively detract from every other premium point in this set's favor. The only compliment you could possibly pay this part of the job is the inherent amusement value in the awkwardly strong word choices that were chosen for characters' exclamations. Jesus!

The subtitles on Mill Creek's Gridman the Hyper Agent set is a poorly-conceived blight that arguably single-handedly wrecks all the goodwill that had been built by them deigning to release this series in the first place. It's galling in part because they seem to understand what a quality release for the show looks like everywhere else. There are no special features (not even a clean version of that famous opener), but the packaging with its slipcover and inner disc-case is all extremely attractive, and they even packed in a little guide booklet including episode synopses and a kaiju checklist. But all the other presentational quality in the world wouldn't matter when going through the show with subtitles feels like you're watching a cruddy bootleg. A fresh, modern release for Gridman, versioned for the modern expectations of tokusatsu fans as well as the anime viewers who might be tempted by this show's connections, should have been a slam dunk. But the lack of effort put into arguably the most important part of this release means I can't in good faith recommend purchasing this product as the definitive way to get into the series. Gridman the Hyper Agent is not a perfect series, and it might not even be a great one by some people's standards. But it is an important one, with a history behind it that has only continued to be built up in the modern era. If you're interested in that history, you might as well save your money and just check out the streaming version instead. It's not like the quality is going to be that different from what's here.

Grade:
Overall (sub) : D+
Story : B+
Art : A
Music : A

+ A fun show that's built up an interesting history, eminently entertaining characters, action, and effects
Formula and special-effects may be too outdated for some, subtitle quality is unacceptable

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