by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 3 of
One hard-to-deny advantage that technology has brought our world is ease of communication. The internet and cell phones connect us to our friends, family, and others in a manner so simple and instantaneous that it's difficult to imagine going back to a time without them. It could be argued that we take for granted how easy it is to contact others. So it's interesting that SSSS.Gridman hasn't dealt directly with the realms of cyberspace to the same degree as the original series that inspired it so far. Rather, the series seems to be reckoning with how our interactions play out in this densely-connected always-online future we're living in.
This episode of Gridman seems focused on telling you not to hesitate in calling your friends and to pick up your damn phone if they call you. In many anime and tokusatsu shows, conflict and plot progression can be facilitated through a lack of communication. Various situations may only crop up when characters refuse to directly speak with their allies and discuss what's going on. That's the central thread running through the first half of this episode. Rikka doesn't answer Yuta's call at the beginning, then delays in apologizing to him for it. Utsumi doesn't explain to Rikka that Yuta's worried the Kaiju he's fighting might be a human. Various non-communications like that pile up in this episode's suspiciously early monster fight, and the result is the first defeat handed to our huge hero and his socially-awkward sword.
We're barely three episodes in, but SSSS.Gridman's initial commitment to genre status quo lets a huge upset like this land. Yuta and Calibur quickly jump into battle when the fight starts, practically going through the motions in a way that telegraphs a big shake-up like their defeat coming. Post-fight, the point seems to be selling what a real shock a loss on this scale in these Saturday-morning battles would be. Gridman and Yuta are only gone for a few minutes of the episode, but their absence is felt in the hopelessness of Rikka and Utsumi's reactions. They can't even bring themselves to check his apartment or ask their friends about them, fueling their sad spiral even further.
That turns out to be the whole point, demonstrated by the rest of Gridman's power-up pals in their snappy suits arriving. The 'Neon Genesis Junior High Students' (now that has to be an Evangelion reference, right?) already make a great quirky group of heroic allies (my favorite is Borr, the tiny twin-tailed girl voiced by Aoi Yuuki), but their outsider context also allows them to dispense some anime-atypical advice to Rikka: you've got a phone. Just try calling your friend if you want to talk to him. From there, everything comes together for the Gridman Alliance. Yuta's fears about fighting another human are quelled by simply asking the kaiju if it's a human, in a brilliantly simple solution that lines up with the themes of this episode. While Gridman seemingly winning by just getting a new power-up in the form of giant arms made from Max's mechanized fist truck comes off a bit contrived, it still fits within that framework of happily calling on your friends for help when you need it. Just look at what these kids can learn from Gridman and his pals!
Much of the information that's imparted to the audience in all this pro-communication storytelling does admittedly come off as clumsy. The whole “are the Kaiju people?” question at the heart of Yuta's dilemma is only floated by Utsumi as a joke before becoming relevant a few minutes later. It might have worked better had this possibility been presented to the heroes in one of the previous episodes. And when we do finally get around to explaining all the details of the Kaiju, a boy named Anti created by Akane, it feels somewhat circuitous. Some audience members might enjoy speculating on what Anti is before the reveal is properly explained, but with all the other complications this episode works into its plotting, it might be more obtuse at some moments than necessary.
Storytelling quibbles like that would be more of an issue if this show weren't still so darn fun to watch. This episode gives us the most giant-size battle so far, deftly mixing CGI and traditional animation through some of the most effective direction yet. The 3D models get surprisingly evocative animation, especially effective given that Anti's the first Kaiju with some semblance of a personality. And I love how this series commits to showing how much city-wide destruction these giant fights wreak. I could honestly gush forever about various little touches of animation and direction in this show. There are the terrific moody elements of the rain at the beginning of the episode, sudden cuts like Anti's transformation that let the shock hit hard, or Utsumi and Rikka's emotional distance in the wake of their defeat being literally reflected through two separate mirrors.
But just describing a Studio Trigger production like this doesn't do justice to what you get out of actually watching it. SSSS.Gridman successfully marries storytelling based around the solid theme of open communication to great atmospheric direction and killer giant fight scenes. It succeeds as a ‘third-episode twist’ that illustrates how it's not committed to a structural status quo, while also enforcing why we root for these characters. Yuta and Utsumi's relationship deepens with their discussions of the Kaiju and humans, and Rikka further cements herself as the emotional core of the show. It all adds to that sense of the series' high ambitions for concept and entertainment, not just checking off what power-ups Gridman is going to get next. (Though I'm pretty excited to see those new toys in action too.)
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