What a difference just a few months make. At the end of the spring, Studio Trigger was the cause of rampant division and confusion over its first series of 2018, Darling in the Franxx. What started out as a well-received collaboration with A-1 Pictures quickly became a scourge on the anime community. Its final episodes took the story in such a baffling direction that fans devoted hours to figuring out just what the hell happened with the series.
Now, months removed from the Franxx finale backlash, Trigger, the studio behind Kill la Kill and Little Witch Academia, is close to ending the year on a high with its latest: a 12-episode tribute to a beloved form of Japanese entertainment, based on a property that I thought like grunge, Reebok Pumps and Animaniacs (scratch that last one) would remain a relic of the 1990s.
SSSS.Gridman, based on 1993’s Denkou Choujin Gridman, which ran for one season in Japan and was repurposed in the West a year later as Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad (the four S’s in the title are a nod to that version), is the surprise hit of the 2018 fall anime season.
Akira Amemiya (Inferno Cop, Ninja Slayer From Animation) took his first crack at crafting a full season series with SSSS, but it wasn’t his first time working on a Gridman project. According to video creator NineOuh’s recently removed video on the series and Trigger as a whole, Amemiya had a meeting a few years ago with Tsuburaya Productions — the company that produced Gridman — in which he pitched a series based on the special effect company’s most iconic franchise, Ultraman. Tsuburaya refused, since they were already working on an anime series based on the character (seeing the recent trailer for it, they probably should have given it to him). Not wanting to leave the guy empty handed, they offered him two choices: another non-Ultra series or Gridman.
The result was a six-minute short titled Denkou Choujin Gridman: boys invent great hero. Presented at the Japan Animator Expo, Amemiya’s film takes place 22 years after the events of the original series and shows Takeshi Todo, one of the antagonists, now reformed, watching an extremely condensed version of the series before transforming into Gridman Sigma — which was planned to happen in a sequel series that never made it to air — and heading off to fight a giant monster.
The short was well received, and it’s not hard to see why. It has that combination of heavy on style animation, kinetic action sequences, and dashing color that we’ve come to expect from Trigger. What stands out overall, and what makes this short so appealing to me, someone who watched the U.S adaptation as a kid (and had the figures), was the care and reverence Amemiya clearly had for this mostly forgotten property. Three years removed from boys invent great hero, and with nine of the 12 episodes already aired, it’s clear that Amemiya and the team have put together something truly exceptional with SSSS.Gridman.
The series follows Yūta Hibiki, a tomato-haired high school freshman who wakes up in the home of his classmate Rikka Takarada in the series’ first episode. Rikka tells Yūta that she found him outside her mother’s shop unconscious; how did Hibiki end up in such a position? He doesn’t know, in fact, he doesn’t remember anything prior to waking up. Inside the junk shop, he sees an old computer with someone referring to himself as a “Hyper Agent” on screen calling to him; only Yūta is able to see and hear this mysterious armor clad figure.
Rikka first takes Yūta to a local hospital and then his home, with the boy freaking out as once outside, he sees giant kaiju towering, motionless, above the city. Rikka sees nothing. She, along with another classmate Shou, begin to believe that Yūta’s amnesia and visions of giant kaiju is a sign of his diminishing sanity; that is until a kaiju starts wreaking havoc in the city.
If that wasn’t enough to convince the two teens, Yūta is then sucked into an old computer, where he merges with Gridman (voiced by the original Gridman himself, Hikaru Midorikawa) to take on the kaiju. Once the monster is defeated, thanks to Shou being the resident Ultraman fanboy, and Rikka’s quick thinking, Yūta is returned to the shop. The next day, no one seems to remember the kaiju, the destruction it caused, or the armored hero who defeated it; all except for Yūta, Rikka, Shou, and one other girl, Akane Shinjō.
Akane remembers this because she’s the one who created the kaiju in the first place, an act of petty revenge against a fellow classmate who accidently knocked her still wrapped lunch out of her hand with a volleyball.
Sulking in a room filled with kaiju figures and trash bags, Akane takes out her frustrations on anyone who she feels has wronged her by sending giant monsters to exterminate them. She does this with the assistance of Alexis Kerib, who anyone with a familiarity with Gridman can tell from first glance is the series version of the original’s big bad, Khan Digifer.
Like the original series, Akane first creates the kaiju and Alexis (who looks like a Trigger version of Emperor Zurg) make them sentient. Unlike the original, where Todo would design the monsters on his computer, Akane crafts them by hand, and, as it’s revealed in the mid-point of the series, her creativity goes far beyond creating monsters.
The rest of the main cast include Rikka’s mom, Anti, a kaiju who can take the form of a small child, and a group of suit-clad teenagers who call themselves the Neon Genesis Junior High Students — a reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion. Samurai Calibur, Max, Borr and Vit — all named after the weapons in Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad — can also get sucked into the computer and pop out to assist Gridman by fighting the kaiju in their own attack vehicles, combine with him to create different forms of Gridman, and even combine together to make their own giant robot, much like the original series.
Together, the “Gridman Alliance,” both combat kaiju whenever they appear and investigate the many mysteries happening concurrently in this strange city; where people’s memories reset after every attack, others vanish without a trace, and above the clouds are strange looking towers that anyone familiar with the original series will recognize instantly.
What Amemiya and his team have set to accomplish with SSSS is to make a series that pays respect to both the tokusatsu genre, movies and television series that have an emphasis on special effects, and the work of director, animator and mecha designer, Masami Ōbari.
Ōbari got his start in anime right out of college in 1985 and has worked on a number of OVAs, TV series, films, and video games throughout his career. He’s best known as a mecha designer for series throughout the ’80s and ’90s, as well as being the animator who designed one of the most famous poses in anime, the “Sunrise Stand.” The pose, a medium shot with the character in the far right side of the frame, the rest of it being dominated by either a sword or giant gun, is something anyone who has seen anime, mecha or otherwise, is familiar with.
Gridman does the iconic pose in just the second episode and throughout the series you’ll see numerous references and almost shot-for-shot homages to Ōbari’s work and other tokusatsu series. If you know Trigger well enough, this isn’t par for the course for them; their series are always filled with references, some I can’t comprehend how anyone could be able to catch, such as how the color designs for the three main teens and Akane are all directly taken from a line of Transformers figures. Fanboying aside, what makes SSSS such a surprisingly great series is that it not only has everything the short had in spades, but also things that we don’t really associate with Trigger, mainly its handling of the story.
Now a little over a quarter left in its run, I’m confident in saying that the teleplay for SSSS, written by veteran screenwriter Keiichi Hasegawa, is the strongest script for a Trigger series ever. Hasegawa was the perfect choice, as he’s very familiar with tokusatsu, writing screenplays for many Ultraman TV shows and movies, as well as having a few anime credits to his name, such as the 2003 Astro Boy series, and the late ’90s Toonami staple The Big O.
Hasegawa is known for putting an emphasis on the drama in his tokusatsu scripts, rather than the action, and it shows in SSSS. Rikka, Shou and Akane are not just Gridman’s sidekicks and antagonist, respectively; they are fully fleshed-out characters who are all given time to interact not just with Yūta, but with each other. One of the best running storylines of this series so far, is the relationship between Rikka and Akane: There isn’t any kind of hero posturing or villain monologuing to be seen here, but rather the building of a relationship in which one character is trying to reach out to help and understand the other. All the while, not fully understanding that they might be part of some weird power dynamic that has only been hinting at so far.
Even Anti, a kaiju who resembles one of the kaiju in the original, has gone from being a unfeeling brute with just one purpose in mind — to kill Gridman — that you can initially cast off as just being an monster of the week, to becoming a sympathetic character with an emotional and surprising story arc.
While I had reservations over a CGI Gridman, seeing moments of Hyper Agent in 2D — which looks gorgeous, thanks to Tsuburaya Productions’ own Masayuki Gotou design — was a thrill, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that this is one of the rare cases where CG in an anime show works. Any worry over Amemiya outsourcing the CG animation to Studio Graphnica with orders to animate Gridman and the kaiju as if there were people inside of them, like a traditional tokusatsu (with the exception of episode 10’s, ultra creepy and wiggly creation), need not fret: the fights, while short, are entertaining.
With two episodes left, unless something drastic happens as it did earlier this year (which it seems they were unfairly blamed for), SSSS.Gridman is not only going to be the most surprisingly great anime of this season, but of all 2018. If you told me a few years ago that not only would someone bring back Gridman, but it would look better than a new Ultraman series, I would think you were messing with me.
Amemiya, Hasegawa, and the artists at Trigger resurrected a forgotten property as something unique that stands on its own. Now that he’s proven that he can handle his own series, I’m curious just what Amemiya will follow this up with, and from what I understand, SSSS is a big hit back in Japan, so he may be able to do something even Tsuburaya couldn’t do with Gridman back in ’93: Keep it going for another season.
SSSS.Gridman is currently streaming on Funimation and Crunchyroll.
Christopher Lee Inoa is a freelance critic, reporter, and video essayist based in New York City. He has written and produced videos on film and animation for The Film Stage, LAist, Syfy Wire and Fandor.