Watching SSSS.GRIDMAN feels a lot like a fever dream. There are long, hazy sequences in which characters walk and talk in uninterrupted camera shots for an uncomfortable period of time. The dialogue is stunted, almost businesslike, with characters speaking in tight sentences that convey exactly what they mean, nothing more. For around 90% of the show’s run, there’s absolutely no background music.
And then one of them yells and transforms into a gigantic robot that chops up a dinosaur.
SSSS.GRIDMAN is the latest show from Studio Trigger, who burst onto the scene after splitting from Studio Gainax with the sterling Kill la Kill, before recently stumbling with the initially strong but ultimately disappointing DARLING in the FRANXX. I was actually worried a lot about Trigger’s future – shows that didn’t live up to their initial hype (and possibly not selling well), increasing collaboration with other studios (A1 Pictures and X-FLAG), and reliance on Kickstarter and Patreon to keep the studio financially stable. If SSSS.GRIDMAN wasn’t a quality product, I was scared Promare, their upcoming feature film project, would be their last as a studio.
Fortunately, the show is not only the finest effort from the studio in some time, but it is also a rewarding watch with multiple layers of entertainment and appeal for its viewers. Doggy style mechs and sculpted asses on handlebars this is not.
This article contains full spoilers for SSSS.GRIDMAN. But if you aren’t sold on it, perhaps reading a bit ahead will convince you!
The show begins with Yuta Hibiki, our red-headed main character, startling awake in the room of his friend Rikka. More pressingly, he remembers absolutely nothing about his life in the city of Tsutsuji-dai prior to that, and only he seems to be able to notice the enormous kaiju standing vigil in the outskirts of the city. And there’s this robot dude who speaks to him from a computer – called Junk – in the tech shop he hangs out at. Someone called Gridman.
It quickly transpires that Akane, another classmate from the incredibly unsubtly named Neon Genesis Junior High, is secretly forging these kaiju in her bedroom, and they are brought to life to wreak havoc on the city. Those killed by these monsters are forgotten, and none of the destruction they cause seems to last with the city returning to just as it was. And Akane has a chap living in her computer herself – the sinister Alexis Kerrib.
Well, all hope’s not lost! Yuta can disappear into the computer to transform into Gridman and do battle with these foul foes! Put ’em up, villains, Gridman’s in town!
The team also encounters some more classmates, who reveal themselves to be Gridman’s “Assist Weapons”. By uniting with Gridman, they can augment his already formidable power. Samurai Calibur is a sword, Vit turns into rocket boots, Borr a ridiculous drill-spewing gun array that wouldn’t be out of place in Gurren Lagann. But my personal favourite is of course Max, who grants Gridman a pair of ENORMOUS MUSCLEY ARMS!
Ready for the punchline
This is all so far, so Power Rangers, right? Well, that’s because SSSS.GRIDMAN is a total love letter to those kind of shows, referred to in Japanese as tokusatsu or “special filming”. The original Gridman the Hyper Agent – localised in the West as Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, get it – followed much the same initial premise. Gridman is kind of like an inter-dimensional police officer who tracks down multiversal threats through the possession of tech in other worlds.
But the references and homages don’t stop there. The school they all go to is called Neon Genesis High – with a more obvious Evangelion reference above if you missed that one. All the characters are visually based on Transformers characters – Yuta is Cliffjumper, Akane and Rikka are Shattered Glass Optimus Prime and Megatron respectively. We even get a character who’s a reference to Generation 2 Thundercracker! I’m so sorry.
Alexis Kerrib is essentially Chief Over Justice from Trigger’s own Space Patrol Luluco but with none of the humour. He even has the same Japanese voice actor – and his dub voice is a pitch-perfect Tim Curry impression. The CG used to represent both Gridman and the monsters is highly reminiscent of the “just men in suits” aesthetic from yesteryear.
In short, the show is forged in the fires of every classic giant robot show you watched as a kid. And it is thoroughly aware of the mind games it’s playing on you.
Just living in the database (whoa-oh)
In Episode 6, Yuta encounters a girl wearing green who goes unnamed in the show but is identified in the credits as Anosillus II. It turns out she’s been in the background of every episode thus far, just watching…and she owes Gridman a great debt because of what he did to help out her previous incarnation. They get on a train as she explains Akane’s role in creating the kaiju, while Yuta falls asleep…
…only to wake up back in the original Tsutsuji-dai station as the train returns from the fog. All the destinations of the train become the same city, in fact. It’s not that the show is exhibiting a stylistic choice or anything. This giant empty city is all there is. And Akane is not simply a crazed antagonist opposed to this place – she’s its literal actual god. With control over everything.
The series takes on a significantly more sinister angle after this. Every interaction with Akane becomes tense, as she quite literally holds all the cards. In one particularly chilling scene, she explains to Rikka that no matter how much she hurts people, Rikka can never hate her because she was designed from the beginning to be her friend. And Rikka realises that she can’t.
Madness of the System
Even with all this, the show manages to wrap around another layer of complexity in its dense storytelling as well. As the final fight wraps up, Gridman reveals himself to have been possessing Yuta all along – this whole world has been Akane’s simulation as she wants to avoid facing reality.
Alexis has been driving her deeper and deeper into self-destructive depression, using her to create kaiju and commit atrocities simply because he’s bored, and Gridman is barely held together after being split from his original, full-powered form into this new one and his Assist Weapons.
So as Gridman casts off the CGI to reveal that he is the original character, original series theme blaring and all, the show becomes sharply clear; this is a continuation, not a reboot, a subversive entry in the series but an entry nonetheless. Alexis is torn apart not by any combative force, but by Gridman’s classic Fixer Beam – used at the end of every classic series episode to hand-wave why the city was back to normal every time.
To activate this final attack, they input the password – GRIDMAN – into Junk. Well, sorry, not a password. More like a Special Signature to Save a Soul.
Akane realises that she must wake up from her dream, and she does.
In live action.
With this, the show became profoundly resonant to me. I’ve sometimes felt like my depression – or whatever we want to I call how I felt – was a villain, driving me to self-destructive behaviour and further sadness. And how I wished that a giant robot could take that and punch the crap out of it for me. Clear the fuzz. It may even closely mirror how these shows – or anime or even fiction in general – have helped get people out of emotional ruts.
SSSS.GRIDMAN made for initally slow viewing. It has an oppressive atmosphere, and there’s a pervasive sense that there’s something not right for the majority of the first five episodes.
And as the plot layers onto itself, it unwraps into what is simultaneously a celebration of the classic tokusatsu action show – and an evolution of it.