by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Sometimes you don't know where to start with an episode, and it's entirely a good thing. There is so much going on in this episode of SSSS.Gridman that just picking one favorite thing seems impossible. As major as the revelations from the past couple episodes were, there were also some contestable elements to how they were doled out. But just two episodes later, all that information comes into play in major ways. The status quo of the series is shifting as much as the monster-manipulated cityscape it takes place in, and the characters and their choices are being forced to adapt quickly.
So let's start by analyzing the big point this episode hinges on: Akane fully reveals herself to the Gridman Alliance, declaring her intent to attack during the school festival. It's a direct challenge that can only happen now that all the players know each other. I talked previously about other tokusatsu series that presupposed their character interactions on the secret superhero worlds they occupied, and this is the next step up from that. Beyond the obvious increase in the scope of threats, it also allows the show to proceed into uncharted territory. One central conflict in this episode is Utsumi and Rikka disagreeing on whether they should actually fight Akane now that their supposed friend is being so transparent about her goals.
Rikka directly calls out Utsumi's enthusiasm for guiding the Gridman Alliance into giant mecha/kaiju battles on a regular basis, a challenge to the enjoyable conceit of the show. Of course a bunch of adolescent kids and their robot would want to have exciting battles, and it's what the (big) kids in the audience want to see as well. But is it the best decision to make every time? The setup of this episode with Akane stands to challenge that assumption. She's revealed herself and given them several days to prepare, so does that obligate them to pursue a peaceful possibility with her? Yuta has seen how sociopathic she can be, but with Utsumi and Rikka still considering her a friend, there's attachments that won't be overcome simply by throwing big fighting machines at her.
Basically, Akane is playing the same for-kicks game Rikka calls Utsumi out for enjoying. She's set up this particular ultimatum for maximum drama, she literally shows off her new toys to try to impress the other characters, and by now she seems to revel in playing the ‘bad guy’ everyone knows her to be. As we've learned about her godhood status, the concept of her treating everything as playthings increases in scale. That's the point where her threat-level finally clicks for Rikka; when Akane claims that everything in the city was created by her, down to the characters' feelings for her. It's a hard enough shake to Rikka's core that she literally hits the ‘stop’ button on the bus the two girls are sharing.
The solution Rikka's apology lends to this heroic dilemma gives this episode its other strong twist. The absolute rule of Saturday-morning heroics is that the villains act first and the heroes react. Deploying Gridman ahead of the Kaiju's arrival to evacuate the school and head off Akane's plot is such an outside-the-box solution for this genre that it succeeds at surprising the audience as well as Akane. It's another escalation that can only be made possible by the relentless plot shake-ups SSSS.Gridman has dropped in our laps over the past few weeks.
All these storytelling tricks are fine on their own, but they wouldn't go half as far without the show's impressive presentation. The visual direction of SSSS.Gridman is on fire this week again. The expected quiet everyday scenes of the days leading up to the festival work as well as they always have, and now they get that extra oomph from Akane's direct confrontation. Various camera angles are used to enhance the surreality, especially in the Neon Genesis Junior High Students' amusing habit of lending oddness to any otherwise normal scene they occupy. The scene between Akane and Rikka on the bus does a brilliant job of playing off their interaction from episode 4, only now instead of just sitting behind Rikka as a power move, Akane is invading her personal space as a demonstration of her power. The character animation on Rikka and Yuta in the subsequent scene where she comes around is incredibly smooth, selling the casually awkward relationship they've developed. And of course, the long-awaited arrival of the fully-combined Gridman is greeted with all the visual fanfare one could hope for.
And I can't forget about the mecha fight this episode! As much as I've defaulted to regarding the Ultraman-esque Gridman as a mecha, Akane calling the Full Powered Gridman a straight-up robot is a wonderful acknowledgement of the show's escalating absurdity, as well as a great way to sell how her plans have been upended by the team's unconventional choices. The scene that follows is a marvelous media mix-up, pushing the show's usual 2D/3D juggling act to its hardest limits yet. More experienced fans will probably have a killer time just pinpointing which mecha sakuga and choreographic cuts belong to which animators or are being referenced by them. The actual process of the fight jumps between ground and sky, cutting to civilian-scale shots when necessary and just celebrating the kind of Saturday-morning excess that made us love cartoons and robots as children. If I had any complaint to make, it's that the fight ends too abruptly; of course I wanted more.
It feels like I'm calling every other episode of SSSS.Gridman its best yet, but that's because these escalating plot twists keep raising the show's own bar. This episode worked so well for me because it took the opportunity to analyze some of its heroic tropes on a meta level, which I'm an absolute sucker for. But it layered all that under increasingly strong character work, making the dynamics between characters more complex because of the dramatic reveals. It tops all this off with spectacle that understands the references it's making to its source material and action worthy of those predecessors. It's a confident show, and I'm having so much fun following it.
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