The evil Kilokhan lives inside computer circuits! With the help of Malcolm Frink, he creates Megavirus Monsters to attack electronic systems! Meanwhile, a freak accident turns Sam Collins into Servo! His friends join forces in their samurized attack vehicles! Together, they transform into …
Wait a minute. I am so sorry, everybody; it looks like I ended up recalling the plot to Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad—one of the many 90s shows that rode the Power Rangers copycat bandwagon—when I should really be looking at SSSS.Gridman, the fall 2018 joint collaboration between Studio Trigger and Tsuburaya Productions (the company behind the Ultraman franchise) that’s been making quite the syber-splash recently. It seems that the trigger (forgive the pun) for the trip down memory lane was the similar plot points the two shows share: a sinister computer program joining forces with a social misfit to create digitized monsters to wreak havoc on the neighborhood and the world, while a group of kids join forces with another digital being to put a stop to their plans.
These similarities are by no means accidental. Everything started in 1993, with the airing of Gridman the Hyper Agent, a live-action tokusatsu series created by Tsuburaya Productions. In it, a set of computer-savvy kids join forces with an inter-dimensional police officer, Gridman, as they fight the digitized monsters created by evil program Kahn Digifier and social misfit Takeshi Todo. This was a “Giant Hero” show that distinguished itself from the rest of its ilk by having all of the monster fights take place in cyberspace. At the time, it seemed destined to be a footnote in the tokusatsu genre, a show that ran for only 39 episodes. Meanwhile, its US adaptation, Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, tossed out the backstory of a digital policeman teaming up with human techies and replaced it with the tale of a cool band (Sam Collins and friends) battling in cyberspace the various Megavirus Monsters created by social shut-in Malcolm Frink and escaped military AI program Kilokhan (voiced by none other than Nigel Thornberry) to wreak havoc on the world. Despite these changes, it’s notable for staying surprisingly faithful to the Japanese source material.
And now, 25 years after Gridman’s debut, we find ourselves with SSSS.Gridman. Many of the familiar plot points that defined the original series are still here—a trio of school kids (the Gridman Alliance—Yuuta, Rikka, and Shou) teaming up with a strange digital being (Hyper Agent Gridman) to battle the monsters (kaiju) unleashed by the alliance of a malevolent digital being (Alexis Kerib) and a social misfit (Akane Shinjou) who has a tendency to pursue petty grudges with these monsters. But that’s where the similarities end. Now the fights are happening in the real world, and going from here, SSSS.Gridman steadily stirs up a one-of-a-kind experience, and it does so with a level of confidence you don’t normally see in anime productions, let alone ones based on shows in which people fight in goofy-looking rubber suits.
SSSS.Gridman constantly feels like a strange conversation between two genres that are completely foreign to each other. The first genre is, naturally, the kaiju fights, and the show certainly knows how to deliver on that front. Every monster mash this show puts out is an electrifying fusion of old-school live-action kaiju battles and the surreal technological hijinks we normally expect from the “Giant Robot” anime genre. The kaiju themselves have some seriously bonkers designs (many of them having their roots in actual Ultraman kaiju), and each throwdown is titanic in energy, with Gridman and the kaiju wrestling and grappling in ways that invoke the live-action showdowns of the Godzilla and Ultraman franchises, as well as the original Gridman series. Even the kaiju themselves seem to deliberately look like nothing more than actors in rubber suits. On top of this, these fights carry all of the bombastic energy and flash that Studio Trigger has become known for. It’s a perfect marriage of color and show!
But what’s really striking about SSSS.Gridman is how differently it goes about presenting everything that isn’t its already spectacular kaiju-vs.-hero climaxes. SSSS.Gridman comes up to bat not with a great physical clash, but with an environment that can best be described as being “off”: The city and the streets appear to be perfectly normal, yet shadowy monsters tower silently over everyone both day and night, but only Yuuta can see them; fog creeps throughout the cold streets from time to time; and the neighborhoods are nearly silent or nonexistent. This is not a world defined by friendship and good vibes, but instead by an unusual air of dread and mystery that would fit just fine in a horror film. This air permeates throughout the show and grips us to ask why all of this superhero stuff is happening in the first place. Even as answers slowly reveal themselves, things just seem to get tenser with each passing episode without sacrificing this odd silence.
In addition, the protracted sequences of the characters going through regular life, be they at school or on the streets—as if their world wasn’t being attacked by giant monsters half of the time—impressively reflect the real-life everyday boredom that people their age might experience. These scenes may not be particularly praiseworthy on their own, but what makes them work so well is the sound design. You can hear the dialogue of classmates, yet there’s no music to accompany it. It’s like someone was asked to follow students around 24/7 and record their talks exactly as they are without using any comical facial expressions or sound effects. Even on the streets when the shadow monsters are out, or when the characters are just sitting around at home, there’s very rarely a musical chord to be heard. It’s a bold decision to withhold music in such a deliberate manner, but here it works splendidly. The lack of music doesn’t just assist the recreation of people going through regular life, it actually helps to enhance the already-existing feelings of fear and the “calm before the storm” vibes lurking throughout the narrative, like it’s a hint that you’re about to be surprised. These scenes are beautiful in both their simplicity and banality, even if you want a few more minutes of kaiju time.
Plus, SSSS.Gridman is just great to look at from an artistic standpoint. Its cityscapes and backgrounds are fantastically detailed, and many shots do a clever job at highlighting the loneliness and fear felt within the characters. It’s another element that contributes to the show’s haunting atmosphere. And the show’s colorful cast of characters stands out more distinct because of this. Its close-up shots, in particular, do a great job at either echoing an endless supply of boredom or projecting a real sense of menace, depending on who’s taking up the screen. The right visual angle can make a pair of close friends seem far apart, a red light act like an omen of impending doom, and a minor injury feel like a murder scene (just ask Akane on that one!).
On one front, SSSS.Gridman, currently streaming on Crunchyroll, is a blast from the past and a loving homage to old tokusatsu shows. On another, it’s here to tell its own story with vibrant colors, high-level energy, and a bold atmospheric execution that keeps you speculating and on the edge even when you feel like it isn’t. Its episodes begin with solemn, coming-of-age shenanigans and go out with battle-infested bangs. While it’s very much based on the traditional tokusatsu style—ground-level hijinks from the human cast that end up building to intense special-effects-heavy confrontations—the show’s commitments to action, detail, and a shockingly well-put-together negotiation between personal drama and exhilarating giant robot spectacles are too intriguing to pass up. If the job was to pay tribute to the past while creating a fascinating dissonance that enhances its trajectory, then SSSS.Gridman is doing an amazing job, one Access Code at a time.
SSSS.Gridman is available now from Crunchyroll.