by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 9 of
After an episode that felt like an explosive culmination of all the plot twists and turns SSSS.Gridman has built up to this point, this week's episode takes us all the way back to the beginning, by almost perfectly replicating the opening segments of the first episode, only with Yuta waking up to see Akane instead of Rikka. This immediately lets us know that things are wrong somehow, and it soon becomes clear that virtually everything that follows is happening inside the main characters' dreams.
Episodes dealing with dreams tend to have the privilege of playing with abstraction more than usual, and this outing for SSSS.Gridman is no exception, trading in weighty symbolism and heavy-handed direction. The unleashed art direction of Kai Ikarashi will likely be the most discussed element of this episode. The looser feel of the character animation this week perfectly suits the dreamy qualities the episode strives to impart, as Akane's illusion begins to come apart at the seams. It's a treat to see SSSS.Gridman's trademark visual splendor applied to more unique elements in this episode. The show's previous predilection for achingly lived-in settings also pays off, since skewing that aesthetic so effectively communicates how ‘off’ the dream-world feels by comparison.
Reflections and contrasts are a major recurring motif in this episode. Yuta's portions feature Gridman appearing on various reflective surfaces, ostensibly trying to wake Yuta up and break him out. It's intentionally conspicuous in some cases but utterly innocuous in others; in one shot with a picture frame, Gridman is only seen for a couple frames. The contrasts between the various dream worlds of the Gridman Alliance are immediately discernible, literally signaled by the crossing light and tone that plays each time we change between them. Utsumi recreates his date with Akane from episode 6, while Rikka seems to have wound up in a world where she and Akane are wearing the uniform jackets from the show's ending theme. In each case, the characters are happy during the time they spend with Akane, but recalling their obligations from the real world signals the fleeting nature of the dreams they occupy.
And what about Akane? What does it mean for her that this latest plan to take Gridman out of the picture hinges on fostering false friendships with these people she claims to have created? It's an interesting plotline, especially if you're familiar with the original Gridman series. Akane's analogue, the outcast nerd villain Takeshi, switched sides and redeemed himself by virtue of making friends with the heroic main cast, something he'd never even attempted to do until near the end. In SSSS.Gridman, Akane has taken the concept of ‘making’ friends quite literally, but even programming the entire town to be enamored with her hasn't brought her happiness. This episode notably features a visual of Yuta, Takeshi, and Rikka running away from the dream-world, contrasted with a shot of Akane running the opposite direction, as the dialogue demands that she ‘wake up’.
That whole segment where the Alliance realizes their situation and runs out of their dreams is another example of this episode's masterful direction. It starts with some brilliant audio cutting, switching between different vocal sound qualities inside the dreamworld and out of it. Then each of the three have their definitive conversations with Akane sans any background music, giving way to that running scene with too many cool artistic tricks to list. This whole episode is an effective exercise in pure artistic expression, and the climactic segment in particular gave me chills.
It's not all serious character introspection and dense animated symbolism though. This episode does find time for some levity, including a delightful scene where the increasingly-conflicted Anti leaps around trying to fight an intangible Kaiju. And they of course make time for mecha action as well, with the Neon Genesis Junior High Students going into battle on their own, combining to form Powered Zenon. This rad robot is an upgrade of God Zenon, Gridman's helper mecha from the original series, but as ecstatic as I was to see Zenon again, he provides the solitary weak point of this episode, as his battle with the Kaiju is simply too short and abrupt to be satisfying.
But I can't be too hard on that point, given how much time was given to the brilliantly-directed core cast dream sequences. I definitely feel I was unfair in one of my main complaints about the show several weeks ago, that it wasn't using all its characters effectively, because by now they're all being juggled near-perfectly. Like Gridman, we can have faith that they've grown enough to discover the false nature of Akane's constructed world for themselves. It almost feels like this is the proper climax of Yuta, Rikka, and Utsumi's development, leading us to focus on the remaining member of the main cast, its villain.
It's been pointed out how irredeemable the series seemed to be making Akane in her pettiness and deeds. However, the script and presentation continue to leverage her appeal, and this episode in particular works overtime to sell her as a sympathetic and even tragic figure. The redemption of Takeshi via friendship was the key turning point in the original Gridman, and the revelation of Akane's god-like abilities indicates that she may actually be able to undo her murderous acts. The adage goes that a hero show is only as interesting as its villain, and the question of what SSSS.Gridman chooses to do with Akane has become the greatest driving force for the series.
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