The Mike Toole Show
Off the Grid, Man
by Mike Toole,
A couple of years back, I was a guest at Anime Next, a fun, lively event that takes place in Atlantic City each June. Anime Next is part of a rare, kinda disappointingly small group of North American events that put the priority squarely on artists from Japan—even a lot of bigger anime cons don't feature any actual Japanese animators. Just this weekend, a rainy one in November, there have been multiple anime cons in my neck of the woods-- but with no anime creators. Now, don't get me wrong, I understand why so many anime cons have lately put the focus on YouTube personalities and local voice actors—these are affable, appealing stars who connect easily with the large audiences that come to cons. I'm just an old fogey who likes to pick the brains of the people at the foundation of this silly hobby of ours.
The gang at Studio Trigger are quite fond of Anime Next, and usually make an effort to come out of the show; they've even graced the event with multiple special episodes of their debut series Inferno Cop, which can't easily be viewed anywhere else! This time, producer Hiromi Wakabayashi had brought along director Akira Amemiya, who'd helmed not just Inferno Cop but a colorful new series that melded a distinctly Japanese story with fun western tropes. I was hot to talk to Mr Amemiya not just about some of his favorite stuff to draw and animate—punches, kicks, and explosions, according to the man himself—but about Ninja Slayer From Animation!
Look, I'm gonna get to SSSS.Gridman, which was just going into production when Amemiya visited the show in 2016, but to get there, we do need to touch on Ninja Slayer first. By the time Amemiya directed that show, he was pretty seasoned—he'd handled individual episodes of Kill la Kill, Panty and Stocking, and of course, The [email protected]. But his only credit as full series director was Inferno Cop, a 3-minute action gag show that was created for the old Anime Bancho YouTube channel and co-underwritten with CoMix Wave. (Yes, the same people who got Inferno Cop into production also backed your name.!)
2015's Ninja Slayer From Animation promises something more than Inferno Cop's cheerfully violent, absurd, and minimally-animated fare—based on a set of internet novels that adroitly marry the heroic ideal of the Japanese ninja with a nutty cyberpunk setting and 80s western ninja movie nonsense, the show presents a grim hero who eats sushi and uses shuriken to defeat an increasingly powerful set of monstrous ninja adversaries. What Amemiya ultimately delivers is… an awful lot like Inferno Cop, for the most part, but dotted with raw, primal, bombastic animated action from Trigger head/mad genius Hiroyuki Imaishi. I thought it was pretty cool when I saw it, but Ninja Slayer From Animation didn't seem to connect cleanly with audiences—I know Ninja-heads in Japan who were disappointed by the show's lack of action animation, and most of my own peers just wanted it to be either an action series or an Inferno Cop-esque jokefest, rather than straddling the two approaches. About that balance, Amemiya commented in 2016, “I went back and forth, because that's just how the original novels are constructed. The stories have a very tricky sense of pacing to them-- what the characters say and do is absurd and halting, and yet at times very stylish and cool. All I was left to do was to animate out my interpretation of the novels.”
From a visual standpoint, Ninja Slayer From Animation does feel distinctive, though. The red-clad title character might look like he's lifted straight out of the book and manga illustrations, but the other characters—especially the hero's love interest/rival Nancy and fellow ninja Dragon Yukano—sport a cute, colorful look, and the series as a whole employs a fluorescent, over-bright color palette. You can see Imaishi's look in Ninja Slayer and his enemy Naraku Ninja, but designer Yusuke Yoshigaki puts his stamp on the other characters—and he also puts his stamp on the brief look we get at the hero of another 2015 directorial effort from Amemiya, the short film Lightning Hero Gridman: boys invent great hero.
It might be easy to forget or dismiss this short, which ran as part of the Japan Animator Expo not long before Ninja Slayer From Animation's debut. Looking back at it in 2016, Amemiya remarked, “I'd actually wanted to do a different series as a jumping off point, but the producer wouldn't approve it. Instead, they suggested we do Gridman. Fortunately, I'm also a big fan of Gridman!” The short is straightforward and packed with action, but if you're not up on your Gridman lore, you might be fooled; when I first saw it, I figured that the show's sole human character, who transforms into a powered-up version of Gridman, had to have been an older version of the series hero Naoto—but it's actually his enemy, Takeshi! Anyway, Takeshi was designed by Yoshigaki, too-- and the heroines of SSSS.Gridman, designed by Masaru Sakamoto, have a somewhat familiar look to Yoshigaki's work. It's not surprising—both men worked on each other's show, and both of them were supervised by Amemiya. Whether it's calculated or not, Trigger are building a house style.
Trigger's current (as of fall 2018) series, SSSS.Gridman, takes the animated styling of the short, some story hooks from the old 1993 live-action series, and starts to forge its own path. We still have a set of young heroes battling a threat that seems to somehow originate from the digital world using a patched-together computer called Junk, and they're still using a space patrolman called Gridman as their avatar in combat against giant kaiju. However, Amemiya doesn't attempt to marry two distinct visual styles here like he did in Ninja Slayer—some of the action scenes are CG-assisted, of course, but the show has a bright, consistent look throughout. The show starts off particularly well, with an uncharacteristically quiet tale of an amnesiac kid walking the streets of a world that seems completely unaware of the giant monsters that lurk, ready to attack, on the periphery of seemingly every shot. It creates a wonderful sense of foreboding; something terrible is clearly about to happen, and by the end of the episode, it does.
What I'm waiting for, at this point, is the “SSSS” in the title to get more evident. Those letters, of course, refer to Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad, the US adaptation of Tsubaraya Productions' 1993 Gridman TV series. For a brief period in the mid-1990s, it was all the rage to try to ape the success of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which reshaped super sentai series Zyuranger into something more palatable for western audiences. Kamen Rider BLACK RX was hastily retooled into Saban's Masked Rider, B-Fighters was reborn as Big Bad Beetleborgs, and perhaps most perplexingly, three separate metal hero shows were combined with the awesome power of a wacky talking, rapping dog in order to create VR Troopers. I always kinda dug the sheer cheesiness of Syber Squad, which neatly extracted Gridman's action scenes but threw out the backstory of a bunch of bored kids trying to make their own video game hero and unwittingly summoning Digital Ultraman, instead setting up the tale of a cool teen (Matt Lawrence, younger brother of then-teen idol Joey Lawrence), his cool band, and the cool video games he makes on the side. Mysterious zapping turns Sam into Servo, a mighty hero who battles the bad guys in the digital realm. His bandmates become his support team, with neat-o support vehicles and matching outfits of their own. There's some convergence here, as both the original Gridman and its US spinoff feature an antagonist who never leaves their bedroom, content to create digital monsters that a shadowy benefactor unleashes on the world.
If you're digging on SSSS.Gridman, that last bit probably sounds pretty familiar. Series antagonist Akane Shinjo is clearly descended from the same stock as Gridman's Takeshi and Syber Squad's Malcolm, a cocksure dork who quietly despises the world around her and dreams up monsters to attack it. She's also something of an Ultraman fan (though she hides this from her peers), and just like her predecessors, she has a creepy monster dude on her computer helping her turn her dark dreams into reality. That monster, Alexis, totally looks like Gridman baddie Khan Digifer, after being run through a Hiroyuki Imaishi filter. As a nice touch, in the dubbed version, actor Barry Yandell really vamps it up, which harkens back to Tim Curry's vocal performance as Kilokahn, Syber Squad's answer to Digifer. I haven't confirmed this with the ADR team, but I'm betting that's intentional. Akane, as well as her counterpart on Team Gridman, Rikka, are the current darlings of fan art nexus pixiv; she may be cute, pals, but just keep in mind that her entire bedroom is a sea of bulging trash bags. The place probably smells terrible, and I bet she totally doesn't notice the stench anymore!
As with Amemiya's prior efforts and Trigger in general, SSSS.Gridman is full of fun callbacks, and not just to other Gridman media. There are multiple easter eggs that tip the hat to legendary action and mecha animator Masami Obari (the Obari “Brave” Pose above, which you see all over robot anime, is just one of the more obvious ones!) , swipes from classic OVAs and movies, dialogue and visual references to the Ultraman canon (I totally spotted senior galactic patrolman Andro Melos in the latest episode!), and in the most Syber Squad-iffic story twist yet, a bunch of goofballs in matching suits show up to pilot Gridman's support weapons. I wonder if these mysterious assistants have a band called Team Samurai? Anyway, these weird kids (one of them is pint-sized, one has several swords, one wears a scary Ninja Slayer-esque face mask, etc.) refer to themselves as the Neon Genesis Junior High Students.
Actually, ANN house critic Theron Martin has caught some static on the site's forums and social media for comparing SSSS.Gridman's action scenes to Evangelion in his Preview Guide take— tokusatsu fans were irritated that he compared the show to Eva and not its own parent series, which does seem like a more obvious comparison to make. (I've also seen the point made that too damn many shows just get held up next to Evangelion, which is true.) Martin is right on the money here, though—Amemiya came up as an animator working at Gainax, and both Evangelion and Gridman have a common spiritual ancestor in Ultraman. And when I asked Amemiya what his favorite media was in 2016, he was quick to reply, “More than anything else, I've been most influenced by Evangelion. I don't think I've met anyone who loves Evangelion more than me; I say that with confidence!” Dubbing Gridman's support team the Neon Genesis Students is just another nod to what's clearly an important influence for the director. Or maybe it just means the kids themselves are Evangelion fans.
It's also possible that the Syber Squad influence in this series will be delayed or a bit understated, simply because production had already started on SSSS.Gridman when I met Amemiya on the Jersey shore in 2016, and he mentioned that he'd only just received a DVD copy of Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad and hadn't watched any of it yet. There is a contingent of tokusatsu fandom in Japan who are very aware of the sometimes drastically-altered versions of their favorites and appreciate them for what they are, but apparently Amemiya isn't one of them. “I don't watch a lot of old overseas films,” he remarked, when I asked him if he'd seen any of the trashy 80s ninja movies that helped serve as inspirations for Bradley Bond and Philip [email protected] Morzez's Ninja Slayer novels.
Ultimately what we have with SSSS.Gridman is an action anime director perfectly suited to the material, with a team of artists that seem primed to both augment and expand his vision. Recent episodes are hinting that this series might not just be a new version of Gridman, but a sequel! Does that mean the Japan Animator Expo segment is the bridge between the two? Are we gonna get out of this mess without seeing an aged-up cartoon version of Matthew Lawrence?! I'm not sure what Amemiya will give us as SSSS.Gridman presses forward, but I'm sure it'll be entertaining.
If you're curious about the source material, Gridman '93 is part of a pretty impressive array of Japanese sci-fi TV shows and movies on Toku, that costs just a few bucks per month in the US. Superhuman Samurai Syber Squad runs on one of the kiddie channels of free online TV service PlutoTV. And Amemiya's great influence, Evangelion? It doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere. As I wrapped up my chat with the director in that hotel suite in 2016, I was struck by his relative quiet. Some directors in this business are gregarious and energetic, but this guy was a bit taciturn. Once I turned the recorder off and we headed for the door, I idly mentioned that I'd seen a Mirai Ninja cosplayer down on the floor. Naturally, Amemiya pretty much exploded with enthusiasm, explaining that Mirai Ninja was one of the most important movies for tokusatsu fans in Japan, and him especially! I gotta remember to ask more questions next time. In the meantime, I'll be rooting for the Gridman Alliance!
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