SSSS.Gridman – Putting the Present in the Past

By Matthew Li

"SSSS.Gridman" revives a dying genre with present-day themes.

These days people like to associate everything with death. They’ll say the Anime Industry is dying, even when it is evidently quite the opposite. People will say millennials are killing rom-coms, canned food, and napkins, when there’s very little to support that. “Everything old and established is dying or already dead” seems to be the general public consensus these days.

But maybe that’s not true. Maybe people still want rom-coms, but just not in the same formula it’s always been given in before. Change one part of the equation and you’ll get Crazy Rich Asians. Howabout, have a primarily Black cast for a superhero film? For Blockbuster, we can… Okay, Blockbuster’s definitely dead.

Not all things die because people don’t like them anymore. Sometimes the cause of death is just from a lack of elements that resonate with the present-day population. For a long time, the sub-genre of kaiju seemed to be more niche nostalgia circle than something commercially viable in the modern market. Guillermo Del Toro proved that wrong with Pacific Rim. The separate American and Japanese revivals of Godzilla serve as extra evidence.

Japan’s Nostalgia Trip

Hibiki and Akane in Gridman
Yuuya Hirose as Yuuta Hibiki.

Viewers outside of Japan may not realize it, but SSSS.Gridman isn’t far from what Stranger Things is for the United States. It’s a love song to the 1970s-90s in Japan, highlighting the era where tokusatsu reigned supreme in Japanese media. These pieces of media include Ultraman, Kamen Rider, and what Godzilla eventually transformed into (a fighter for justice instead of an allegory for nuclear warfare).

The story for SSSS.Gridman is rather simple, at least from the beginning. Akane is a seemingly normal girl, who is actually creating kaiju to destroy the city in order to control it. Hibike, who has amnesia for an unknown reason, finds himself as Gridman and the only one who can stop Akane. With the help of his friends, Rikka and Yuuta, and Gridman’s former acquaintances, he fights to protect what Akane is trying to destroy.

There’s a lot of narrative decisions that make its straightforward premise an interesting watch. For one, the audience knows who the villain is from the very start. So the anime plays out its dramatic irony with us, whenever we see the hero and villain sitting right next to each other (even if they don’t know it themselves yet). It helps make their interactions feel tight, keeping the audience guessing who’s going to be revealed to the other first. When the reveal finally arrives, the emotional drives of each character steers into full gear.

Unexpected Turns

Rikka in Gridman
Yume Miyamoto as Rikka Takarada.

Perhaps one of the best parts of SSSS.Gridman is that it’s hard to predict where it will ever go, and it doesn’t necessarily always go in the direction the audience may want it to. The anime is very dedicated to see how its characters will react at their most comfortable, and everyone in this series is given some sort of weakness for the narrative to exploit. This is most apparent with the show’s reluctant villain, Akane Shinjo (a girl who has the mysterious ability to bring kaiju to life, with the help of an even more mysterious ‘alien’).

Akane’s journey is one of the strongest players to SSSS.Gridman’s success. Voice actress, Reina Ueda, has a lot of fun with her role as Akane. She brings out both the seductiveness and grievances of the character in such empathetic ways. As a villain, Akane works as an unpredictable force for the heroes to constantly have to improvise against. She never does the same thing twice and always creates new challenges for the protagonists (both physically and emotionally).

Adding onto this, she’s brings further conflict to the Gridman team because of her relationships with Rikka and Utsumi. Rikka is a old friend of Akane’s, even if she doesn’t fully remember how they became friends in the first place, while Utsumi has a notable crush on her. This occasionally makes them reluctant heroes and heightens the tension between their fights. It’s hard to pick and choose who you want to win sometimes. Even if Akane performs horrible actions, she delivers the charisma and pathos that make her a sympathetic antagonist.

Directing an Ambivalent Feel

Akane running in Gridman
Reina Ueda as Akane Shinjo.

This ambivalence is pushed even further by the show’s clever use of silence and ambience. Music plays in very small and infrequent lengths, giving most of the scenes a rather quiet and ambiguous soundscape. Too many anime these days play a track even under the most tedious scenes of dialogue when the emotion of the scene doesn’t ask for it.

SSSS.Gridman’s unique quality of holding off on using any music until very specific moments makes them all the more memorable. In particular, the use of silence and small intervals of music in episode nine is the most notable. It’s the most surreal and compassionate episode in the series, and serves as a turning point for the casts’ resolve. The moments of silence are suffocating, whereas the parts with music act as a sense of relief or desire.

It’s a stunning subtle directional turn for director Akira Amemiya, who previously tackled the high-octane Inferno Cop. His signature farce comedy is still heavily within Gridman’s DNA, but with its humor always comes a highlight of each character’s personalities and how they mesh with their sometimes absurd world.

Ultimately, that is what the anime’s journey is about: coping with the world around you. Sometimes the characters can’t manage what’s being thrown at them, thus they run away. But one can only try to escape for so long; eventually reality comes with its claws and there’s nothing left to do but face the catharsis. That reality may look like a kaiju. If it does, of course that means the only way to overcome is to face it and fight.

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Matthew Li

Travelling around the world to be endlessly confused, but mostly just in Japan.

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