The show is packaged as a Japanese Superhero show where Super Hero Cop Gridman fights the city against giant Kaiju monsters. There is however much more to this show and the Ultraman and Kaiju part of the show is just a layer to a much bigger picture.
Even though I feel I can't say too much about the show itself, I do believe that most people will have made up their mind about the show before they even really get into it which is also why many people will probably never end up finishing the show.
I personally have never never been a fan of these Japanese Superhero shows and it took me a few episodes to pick up what the show was really about. I am however a huge fan of the Transformers universe and due to that knowledge it really helped me understand what the show was really about.
I feel I can't really write too much about the show itself because I feel you just have to experience it.
Great execution, stunning art and even though the characters will feel a bit goofy at times you will come to appreciate them. SSSS.Gridman is filled with great references to other shows like Ultraman, Gridman, Evangelion, Transformers and many more.
Really, just give it a try... It's Studio Trigger, you know you'll love it.
SSSS.Gridman is a truly bizarre title. After the monumentally disappointing “successor” to Evangelion and Gurren Lagann that was Darling in the FranXX, and the actually worthwhile Gurren Lagann successor Planet With, it only makes sense that this show completed the holy trinity of super robot anime this year. Bafflingly enough, it does so by being a confusing mixed bag and a nightmare to discuss, especially with those unfamiliar to it. While it doesn’t go full Evangelion, there are still references, as well as stylistic similarities between the two. However, there’s certainly more to the core of this peculiar beast than that.
First and foremost, this is a tokusatsu super robot anime. Sparing you the totally obligatory history and summary of both concepts, it’s clear that the trappings of both genres aren’t easy to deal with gracefully in an anime of today’s time, or any anime in the case of tokusatsu. Case in point, while reused animation is common for super robot shows, and even several mecha anime in general, that’s mainly in the form of robot transformations and specific attacks. Not only does SSSS.Gridman have this in spades, but there are several moments where non-combat footage is replayed for seemingly no reason. On the tokusatsu side, given that you cannot simply take a man in a rubber monster suit and directly insert that into an anime, the people over at Studio Trigger decided to make Gridman and the Kaiju CG, generally in a way in which their designs allow them to cross this uncanny valley between 2D and 3D. I’ve no idea if there is a perfect way to replicate this feel in an anime, let alone a predominantly 2D one, but this isn’t necessarily an elegant solution. Not helping matters is how these hulking titans actually swap between 2D and 3D, and how suddenly everything they interact with --i.e. the road, the cars, the debris, etc.-- becomes a tossed salad of ugly CG models. Certain kaiju tend to look nice in spite of this, but this issue certainly makes the combat a little harder to get immersed in. It’s a shame given the fun choreography and sakuga moments present within the fighting itself, which help makes the fights feel exciting.
The visual shortcomings do not stop there. The art style the team at Trigger chose is not exactly one I consider appealing. It feels incredibly flat and not drawn very well, and that’s when it’s at its best given how painfully unstable and inconsistent the drawings of the faces are. At its worst, these faces look like deformed potatoes, and this is further accentuated by several of the character designs. The designs often feel incredibly plain apart from their eyes, and even the more well-designed characters such as Anti and Rikka aren’t as appealing as they could be, thanks to the art style. Another problem even the more well-designed characters share is how awkward their movement can be, specifically when trying to do expressive hand and arm movements. This is all on top of other visual oddities that I can’t adequately describe.
To get to the inevitable Evangelion comparison and lighten the mood, the direction is striking. There are several moments meant to highlight a sense of discomfort and eerie quietness between the main characters of both series, most of which are as long as the infamous pauses in Evangelion. It adds this sense of discomfort that many of the characters share around each other, which is rarely presented this way in anime, let alone super robot shows. Admittedly, the abundance of these scenes can make episodes drain on the viewer at times, but coupled with the clever framing of several shots that show off the barriers and emotional distance of most of the characters, I found it more engrossing than not. It’s certainly the most visually stimulating aspect about this show, as the directing envelops the viewer in this whirlwind of bizarre uncertainty whenever there aren’t any kaiju-related fight scenes taking place. Film buffs might find this directing standard fare, but it is certainly noteworthy in the anime landscape. The dream sequences in episode 9 are particularly fun to witness, as they are the biggest triumphs of director Akira Amemiya’s work here.
Adding to the aforementioned sense of eerie discomfort would be how the show heavily restrains its music. Throughout most of the scenes not pertaining to action, there isn’t a single piece of music to be found, leaving only the sound effects and voice acting to be heard. Thanks to the absence of music throughout a large portion of these episodes, you’d think it would give the music more impact when it does appear. Sadly, this isn’t the case, as apart from the opening theme which often gets replayed during the climax of a kaiju battle, the music Shirou Sagisu composed often doesn’t stick. This is due to some of the tracks feeling simply decent yet unmemorable, made worse by the fact that nearly every track is only played once. With the possible exception of a few tracks in episodes 10 and 11, they’re never for any scenes that could help give them a real identity along the lines of Aimer’s “Last Stardust” playing in the scene where a broken and battered Shirou stands up to Archer in Unlimited Blade Works Season 2. Fortunately, later on, the tracks do start hitting more consistently, and it’s not like the music was bad to begin with. However, the point still stands.
There is one track that stood out, that being the opening theme: “Union” by OxT. As a song, it works at being a riveting push into action, an uplifting song meant to hype you up and get ready for the battle ahead. This feeling is cemented whenever it plays at the climax of a battle, just as Gridman and co. are starting to get the upper hand against whatever kaiju they’re fighting. It’s a catchy song in its own right, and while the song isn’t always mixed properly with the action due to sometimes being too quiet, when they get it right, it’s as epic as watching the finishing move in a tokusatsu show itself. Sadly, the ED theme isn’t anywhere near as pleasant to listen to, so let’s move on.
In terms of personality and quirks, few of Gridman’s characters are memorable. For every character like Calibur, whose quirkiness comes from how much of a silent dork he is, we have someone as boring as Yuta, the main character. We have his friend Utsumi who is a major Ultra series nerd, but most of the protagonists are rather dull, including the titular Gridman himself. The most interesting aspects of them are the interactions they share, which feel refreshingly genuine. The majority of the entertainment comes from the three major antagonists of the series: Akane, Anti, and Alexis. Akane is like a child trapped in her own sandbox video game world, twisted by her influence, loneliness, and creations. One of her creations, Anti, makes for a fun rival character to Gridman. He’s a self-serious edgelord so hell-bent on destroying Gridman that he ends up being incredibly awkward when conversing with anyone, and even starts fighting other kaiju because only he is allowed to kill Gridman. As for Alexis, his voice and demeanor make him seem incredibly humorous and lackadaisical, even when he takes a buzzsaw to a character’s eye and ends up being the clear big bad in the show.
One irksome trait several of the characters share is how they’ll arbitrarily restrict themselves for no reason other than contrivance. For example, in episode 3, Yuta, Calibur, and Gridman worry everyone by not showing up after they’ve been defeated, only for it to turn out that they could have returned or gone back to fight at any time given that they were on standby this entire time, but chose not to. This was the crux of the main plotline of the episode. One could make the argument that rushing back into battle or retreating immediately would have tipped the kaiju off that they’re alive, but they could have retreated after it left, given how all that happens is them warping back to the shop.
This segues perfectly into the narrative, which is honestly where a large chunk of the unease this show oozes comes into play. The mystery regarding the show’s existentially horrifying world is unnerving in the sense that the integrity of the narrative would self-destruct the more it gets revealed, a la FranXX. While I personally don’t feel the show quite crosses that line enough to destroy any investment I could possibly have --at least until episode 10-- there’s a fundamental aspect of the world-building that’s dodgy.
Tiptoeing around spoilers here, one of the major mechanics of the world is how every day, when a character dies at the hands of a kaiju, or a kaiju gets destroyed, everyone’s memories of the dead are altered apart from the memories of the surviving combatants, as the world contorts itself to make sure they never existed. It isn’t quite on the level of Re:Zero, where characters acknowledge a character may have existed but they just can’t quite put their finger on it cuz they never existed in the first place now, but it’s still a frustrating mechanic that cannot entirely make sense. It’s like with time travel, where even the safest, least narrative-destroying method would still likely cause a time paradox and possibly even an aneurysm for the viewer. As such, it makes discussing the show’s narrative distressingly convoluted, and the show difficult to ultimately recommend despite how interesting the directing and some of the twisted reveals can be. The asspulls in the second half certainly don’t help matters either
It’s a shame this show is so awkward to discuss and recommend, as despite its shortcomings and how much of a headache it is to dissect, this was still a generally entertaining mecha anime. It’s fun to witness the banter and the fight scenes, and it was generally fascinating to explore this twisted hellhole of a world. Perhaps more experience with the tokusatsu field would make me enjoy this even more than before, but I doubt it would be any less difficult to unpack, nor would it make me accept the visual shortcomings and other weird audiovisual hiccups present here. It’s an enigmatic mixed bag that I am glad to have watched, even if you’d best proceed with caution if you wish to attempt having the best experience.
Oh, and on top of the Eva references, this show makes a Gurren Lagann reference, so there’s another link between the Gridman Planet With FranXX trio.
Written/Edited by: CodeBlazeFate
Proofread by: Peregrine and Skittles
Watching SSSS.Gridman is like biting into an okay sandwich. You’re sure there’s filling inside – that’s what everyone who’s tried it says – but then it turns out you’ll have to bite through a lot of the boring bread first before getting to it. And what bland, stale stuff the bun is, so even after you get to the promised filling and find it isn’t so bad after all, you’ll end up wondering why you had to go through so much flour before getting to it.
There’s a substantial story here that's packed with teaching moments about the dangers of isolation, the importance of having friends, and the perils of strange worlds and selfish indulgences. But a lot of these got buried in what the show probably felt was subtle direction and gradual exposition, that it was really hard to give a proper shit when things actually started to happen. As this was my first-ever shot at the Gridman franchise, I’m aware there are a lot of callbacks I missed out on. So it’s a credit to the show that, despite the rich lore of the franchise, I was never really lost throughout the whole thing. But I did nod off at several points and a lot of that’s got to do with how slow-going each episode was.
For an action series, Gridman isn’t very exciting. And that might have been the point anyway, since this offers a more character-centered treatment of the classic mecha genre. But between long, deliberate moments of quiet and characters I didn’t know what to do with, it was hard getting myself to care about anything that was going on. While the awkward silences were meant to draw out uncomfortable instances and ramp up the humor, these long pauses didn’t always work in every scene. Meanwhile, the characters were people you could neatly divide into three categories: the just theres, the “I don’t even know what this show wants to do with you, fam, honestly” types, and Akane Shinjou.
And then, you get to the animation, which looked clunky and stilted, even if you could tell a lot of love went into the robo-kaiju showdowns. Set these fight scenes to a recycled soundtrack, and it gets easy to tune out altogether, even if all the rich background details really helped Gridman’s world come alive.
So, you know, okay sandwich. It’s the best-seller everyone’s tried and liked, but like the special dog Gridman’s characters like to eat so much, I wasn’t able to find much by way of presentation or style. It’s clear what the show wanted to do with itself, the same way the special dog makes itself known with the huge sausage sticking out in the middle. But like the special dog’s unremarkable appearance, it was Gridman’s technical aspects and directing choices that took some attention away from the stuff that really mattered.
[This review was made for the Anime-Planet Bingo Challenge: Winter 2019 event. Is it weird that I couldn’t take big bad Alexis Kerib seriously, because I kept expecting him to say, “Justice is over!” at some point?]