Breathing new life into Tsuburaya’s 1993 Gridman the Hyper Agent, SSSS.GRIDMAN serves as a love letter to the tokusatsu genre while also delivering spectacularly as a stand-alone piece. In a time when anime has stagnated substantially, with the same handful of trends being cynically wrung dry, SSSS.GRIDMAN stands out alongside titles like Devilman Crybaby and Winter 2019’s Dororo in an attempt to bring back old classics.
The series marks Akira Amemiya’s first full-length TV anime project as a director. While he has been a bit under the radar in the west, Amemiya has been referred to as Hiroyuki Imaishi’s ‘young padawan’, having co-directed both Kill la Kill and Space Patrol Luluco under Imaishi. He has also been responsible for directing both Ninja Slayer From Animations and the infamous Inferno Cop.
You would have to look no further than Amemiya’s workspace to understand why this series came about. His desk is absolutely littered with tokusatsu (and mecha) merchandise, so even just calling him a fan of the genre might be an understatement of sorts. When Amemiya originally approached Tsuburaya for a property to use for his 2015 Japan Animator Expo short film, he was actually looking to get his hands on Ultraman specifically.
Despite Tsuburaya turning down his initial request, they graciously offered him to work with the Gridman property instead. Given that Amemiya had also watched Gridman the Hyper Agent during its television run, he was more than happy to give it his best shot. Funnily enough, after Gridman the Hyper Agent finished its original 1993 TV run, Tsuburaya didn’t output a single non-Ultraman title until 2006, making it just about as close to Ultraman as he could get. Thus, the short film Denkou Choujin Gridman: Boys Invent Great Hero came into fruition.
Denkou Choujin Gridman: Boys Invent Great Hero is a lot different from what we have now in SSSS.GRIDMAN. The film briefly follows the original antagonist-turned-good Takeshi Todo (who is essentially the ‘Akane Shinjou’ of the original). During a kaiju attack, he uncovers Junk (the Gridman computer) in a heap of wreckage. This cues a montage of Gridman fighting kaiju to the tune of some cheesy music followed by Todo using ‘access flash’, hinting that he was the one in the montage.
Given that the story for SSSS.GRIDMAN was overhauled some point early into production, it wouldn’t surprise me if its early concept was built on the same idea as Boys Invent Great Hero, serving as more of a follow up to the Gridman the Hyper Agent. That being said, I’m confident the changes made were for the better, given the team’s design approach.
The way Amemiya ended up adapting Gridman for a modern audience is quite fascinating. Despite Amemiya’s love for tokusatsu, he wanted SSSS.GRIDMAN to be an ‘anime’ series first and foremost. To make the series stand on its own, his approach was to limit the number of niche references in favor of it being accessible to everyone, no matter how well versed in tokusatsu they are.
In that sense, Amemiya was quite fortunate to have a creative team that, for the most part, had little familiarity with the genre. As such, he was confident that their approach would be to ‘make an anime’ rather than feel the need to cram in all of their own favorite references as well. In spite of this, the core team was all very well versed in tokusatsu. Apart from Amemiya himself, screenwriter Hasegawa Keiichi bears mentioning as one of the well-known writers for Ultraman during the Heisei period (which marked its prime). Given how rich in inspirations and references SSSS.GRIDMAN ended up being, I wonder how overboard Amemiya would’ve gone had he not restricted himself.
To coincide with this approach, the team also opted to market the show as primarily an ‘anime’. The entire first set of visuals and promotional material for the series focused on the human characters, with Gridman himself being out-of-sight. This worked well with the show’s clever character designs, with Rikka and Akane having standout designs with wide appeal, no less. Amemiya made sure that Rikka had ‘thick thighs’ and a ‘big ass’ while specifying that Akane to be ‘cute to everyone’ (with Shigeto Koyama chipping in that it would be necessary for her to have big boobs as well). I’m almost convinced Rikka’s character design ended up being more popular in the west than the show itself, which is a bit of a shame. Fortunately, the show did pick up a lot more traction later in the season.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to bring up the character designs without talking a bit about Gridman himself, though. Amemiya was aware that the classic costume design for Gridman wouldn’t translate well into anime. To deal with this, the team consulted Masayuki Gotou, who was responsible for modernizing Ultraman’s design for the series’ sequel manga (which has since been announced for an anime).
Pivotal design changes involved making the head proportionally smaller, giving Gridman more ‘heroic’ proportions, which weren’t previously possible with just an actor in a suit. This was accompanied with a heavy addition of geometric shapes to the design, giving Gridman an almost mecha-like appeal. A lot of fans have commented that the new Gridman design feels very Transformer-like, which isn’t unprecedented given Amemiya’s prior work on the Transformers-parody episode of Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt.
To say they downplayed the number of tokusatsu references is almost a bit misleading, though. On many occasions, Amemiya forewent standard anime conventions in favor of taking things in a tokusatsu direction. For instance, in place of using a standard array of anime sound effects, Amemiya opted to make use of a more characteristic set of Ultraman sounds. This set the show apart from other kaiju and mecha anime, making the series more distinct in a way that heavily embraced its tokusatsu roots.
In a similar vein, Amemiya wanted the script to follow a structure where they would unveil new forms of Gridman at predetermined intervals. Usually, this technique is incorporated to coincide with toy releases in order to hype them up and drive sales, but for SSSS.GRIDMAN that wasn’t the case. Instead, Amemiya just wanted to embrace that kind of plot structure and formula because it’s a cool and integral tokusatsu experience, regardless of if there are toys to sell.
The team also didn’t hesitate to reuse the opening theme (‘UNION’ by OxT) as an insert track in almost every episode, which added to the corny feeling of a tokusatsu. They also went as far as to use a cover of the original Gridman the Hyper Agent opening (‘Yume no Hero’ covered by OxT) in the final episode, which was perhaps the most shameless reference in the series. Even as somebody who never watched the original, knowing what they were doing put a big grin on my face. It’s also worth mentioning that the ‘SSSS’ in the title is a nod to the westernized adaptation of Gridman the Hyper Agent, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, which is definitely a neat touch.
Perhaps the most iconic thing about SSSS.GRIDMAN is the way it addressed its fight scenes. Using 3DCG to handle large-scale fights is to be expected from modern anime, cutting down significantly on production costs while being able to deliver on arguably better results. That being said, SSSS.GRIDMAN takes it to the next level, playing with the idea that 3DCG is ‘cheap’ in the same way many tokusatsu practical effects are, synthesizing something truly unique.
All the kaiju were designed to emulate a person in a suit, with the 3D animation department being given the specific instructions to animate them in with that in mind. The end result is having something that mirrors the feeling of the cheap practical effects of live-action tokusatsu, while actually being some of the most gorgeous and well-choreographed 3DCG fight sequences that I’ve seen in a long while.
In terms of SSSS.GRIDMAN’s other visual techniques, there is no shortage of references and homages to Amemiya’s other favorites either. In fact, the series practically overflows with homages to legendary mecha animator Masami Obari. Even if you aren’t aware of his works, you will recognize the references just because of how many shows that call upon them.
That being said, Obari’s work was referenced so much that it almost caused a controversy. There were rumors of Obari accusing SSSS.GRIDMAN of flat out plagiarism, but after the waters had settled, it came down to Obari being upset that he was never contacted to consult for the series despite the heavy callbacks to his past works.
Another rich source of inspiration came from anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Apart from the Gridman support team coming from Neon Genesis Junior High, there were a number of visual techniques that came straight from the work of Hideaki Anno. The standout examples include the one uncomfortable still shot in episode one that lasted a bit too long, as well as a repeatedly used close-up shot of Akane emulating a fisheye lens to communicate her state of despair. There was also a shot of Akane in an elevator, which was definitely a throwback to one of the most infamous cuts in Evangelion where Rei and Asuka take the elevator.
It’s quite clear that SSSS.GRIDMAN comes from a clear and heartfelt place. In trying to recreate a lot of Amemiya’s favorite things, the show ends up feeling very authentic. Ironically, authenticity also happens to be a central theme of the narrative. Many of the character arcs revolve around coming to grips with their own existence and the world around them. From this point onward, the article will contain spoilers for SSSS.GRIDMAN, so be warned.
One of the things that make the world of SSSS.GRIDMAN so authentic is that a lot of the props and items were drawn ‘on-cel’ so-to-speak, rather than in the background. As such, the characters felt like they actually inhabited the same space as their surroundings, which created quite a unique sense of immersion. The use of many repeated shots and settings drove home the ‘daily routine’ aspect of life, and helped us get into the character’s shoes even further.
But SSSS.GRIDMAN was not content at keeping it there. Rather, setting up such an authentic world was just the starting point. The crux of SSSS.GRIDMAN comes to light once the series starts to tear down the notion of anything being ‘authentic’, exploring the idea through its distinct cast of characters.
The obvious example here is Rikka Takarada. As a person, Rikka is the emotionally intelligent one of the bunch. She is a fairly normal girl with not that much interesting going on in her life. Like the others, she is naturally drawn to Akane, who at first she just considers to be one of her friends. After learning that she was designed to be Akane’s friend from birth, her emotions are thrown into disarray. Even after learning that Akane was the one responsible for countless of kaiju-related fatalities, Rikka couldn’t even bring herself to hate her.
Rikka later discovers that she is not a slave to her predetermined emotions, and still has the ability to exercise free thought. She is still able to form her own opinions about Akane, regardless of how she feels about her. This leads her to understand that, just because she’s designed to be Akane’s friend, doesn’t mean the feeling of friendship is any less genuine. So even after Rikka’s foundation collapsed, she was able to build it back up by realizing the circumstances of her existence aren’t the most important thing, because that doesn’t change the authenticity of who she is.
Anti is another fascinating character, as he is aware of the nature of his existence from the very start. Destined to ‘defeat Gridman’, he is just a kaiju who cannot do anything apart from serving his creator. After he gets discarded, he has to fend for himself out, scouring his way through society for food and shelter. It is through these experiences that he eventually picks up certain human habits and is taught (somewhat condescending) about common courtesy by the Samurai Caliber.
Despite his initial subservience, Anti eventually prioritizes ‘defeating Gridman’ over serving Akane, to the point where he outright defies her in order to get any chance possible to defeat Gridman. It is through this that he evolves past being a primal kaiju, and develops an almost human-like nature.
Upon confronting Akane later in the story, she tells him she hates him because he’s a ‘kaiju turned human’, having developed too much humanity to be a kaiju. This is paired with Caliber who poses Anti with a dilemma: ‘what do you do after you eventually defeat Gridman?’ As a result, Anti then sets out to ‘find his purpose’, now feeling more responsible for his own fate.
Compared to how he was at the start of the series, Anti now has agency over his being, and has basic human capabilities and emotions. His search for his own meaning is also a struggle that is very human. Not only that, but Anti starts doing things that stray outside of what was originally his very limited goal, such as putting himself on the line to save Akane when she is turned into a kaiju. As such, Anti becomes an authentic human being (as well as a Gridman), despite his origin as anything but that.
Yuta Hibiki is a tricky character to discern in this regard, as the authenticity of his being undergoes questioning from the very beginning. The start of his arc deals with him trying to ‘be himself’ despite having undergone amnesia and not knowing who he’s supposed to be (which Utsimi says he pulls off pretty well). However, during the final stretch of the story, the character we have come to believe is Yuta is revealed to be Gridman, who exists inside a dormant Yuta Hibiki. Once again, everything that Yuta (in this case Gridman) has come to understand about himself has been thrown up in the air. However, Gridman later realizes that Yuta’s personality has affected him along the way, meaning that the Yuta everyone thought they knew wasn’t all that different from the actual Yuta after all. In the end, while Yuta isn’t himself, his actions do authentically reflect those that the actual Yuta would take.
By far the most important character to consider is Akane. From the very start, the world that she created isn’t authentic to her. Everything bends to her will and everyone is in love with her by default, so everything feels flimsical and worthless to her. This is why she becomes so impressionable to the antagonist, Alexis Kerib, as he was one of the few things she knew that wasn’t created by her.
As such, her interactions with him feel ‘authentic’ to some degree. Ironically, Alexis was manipulating her for his own ends, rendering his interactions with her as superficial, the opposite of authentic. It is Akane’s emotional detachment from the world that also drives her to kill people that mildly inconvenience her without a second thought.
Eventually, she is able to realize that the world she created has a genuine life of its own, in part because of Anti and Rikka confronting her with their own revelations at the end of their character arcs (and in part also because of Gridman’s mystical fixer beam). It is then that she decides to set the world free to play out its own course, recognizing that it is authentic and has a life of its own. In fact, she finally leaves because she feels the weight of responsibility to ensure for the well-being of her creations, which starkly contrasts the initial ‘killing them because of one minor inconvenience’.
The biggest wrench that gets thrown in the way of authenticity is in the very final moments of the show, where Akane ‘leaving the world’ is depicted with a live-action cut of a girl, that very clearly is supposed to portray Akane, waking up (her real name is hinted at being ‘Akame’, nonetheless).
That being said, the show is far too clever to resign to a ‘then she woke up’ ending. If we look closer, it is heavily inferred that the world exists without her presence. In episode 10, Akane ‘leaves’ for a while, with the interior of her house vanishing and none of the characters being able to find her. It is somewhat likely this represents the ‘real world’ Akame withdrawing from her fantasy as well, with the world continuing despite the lack of her presence. Utsumi even brings up an interesting point about continuing studying for a test (i.e. everyday life) despite their moment to moment existence being uncertain. This also happens when she leaves for the final time, where we witness Gridman’s own departure despite Akane already having left (woken up).
The world continuing to exist in spite of being a dream or fantasy raises several questions to the nature of the story Amemiya is trying to tell. Given that Akane is designed with ‘highschool Amemiya’ in mind, perhaps this is him reflecting on past events and struggling with escapism. If that’s the case, it might also be him reflecting on his creative process, letting characters ‘be people’ and act on their own accord rather than creator dictating every little facet of their story.
To wrap things up, I think it’s safe to say everything about SSSS.GRIDMAN comes back to being authentic. Akira Amemiya really wore his heart on his sleeve for this one, and it seems to have paid off. While having its own two feet to stand on as an anime series, SSSS.GRIDMAN is still a fantastic homage to the tokusatsu genre and feels very loved by its creators. To say the least, I’m really looking forward to what Amemiya brings us next.