The more that time passes, the more that I look back fondly on 2018’s SSSS.GRIDMAN. At first, it was strange, but then again, a lot of the shows that I love are strange from the outset. Perhaps my threshold for weird is expanding but more likely, I just need something obtuse to keep me on my toes these days; something to truly surprise me.
Gridman was a show about Yuuta Hibiki, a boy with amnesia, finding himself embroiled in a mission to save his city from kaiju with the help of his friends. The catch was that every time the kaiju was defeated, the world was reset the next day. The buildings were rebuilt and anyone who died suddenly had their histories rewritten so that they died of unrelated causes. Only the main characters remembered anything.
There was a mystery. There was also a tangible sense of realism to the way characters talked, especially the high-school protagonists. In an interview with SakugaBlog, director Akira Amemiya confessed that schools were visited to collect data for the show’s production, yet there wasn’t much conscious thought put into making the dialogue more realistic. That almost makes it more impressive that it came off so natural.
CG robots and monsters were used to create a disparity between the character-driven story and the spectacle, similar to how miniature cities and actors in costumes are used in tokusatsu. The villain was complex and one of the best written I’ve seen in years. The reveals were shocking and the scale of the show ended up much larger than it first seemed. And little did we know all that would only be the beginning of a new universe.
From returning director Akira Amemiya and writer Keiichi Hasegawa comes the sequel to 2018’s SSSS.GRIDMAN, SSSS.DYNAZENON.
If you’re already down to read my thoughts, check out my review of 2018’s SSSS.GRIDMAN while you’re at it.
To be frank, for as much as I enjoyed Gridman, I wasn’t in love with all of the characters. Yuuta felt bland, albeit intentionally, for the sake of facilitating a more complex story centered around Akane, the villain. Of the protagonists, Rikka was the most compelling, mostly because of her bond with Akane. Finally, Anti was a great rival to Gridman and I love his arc from servant to more independent actor within the world.
The rest of the cast didn’t thrill me, however. I mentioned in my review how Shou was the weakest member of the show’s attempt at a trio. And the bizarre members of the Neon Genesis Junior High never got much development at all. Ultimately, Gridman succeeded and made up for its faults thanks to the narrative, the antagonist, and the direction.
Dynazenon‘s biggest leg up compared to Gridman is its characters. They are far more fleshed out, far more compelling, and the story feels like a team show. It’s only natural since each of the main characters has to combine into Dynazenon. In Gridman, only Yuuta could turn into the mech. The members of Neon Genesis Junior High (AKA The Gridman Alliance) turned into his support members, leaving Rikka and Shou out of the action save for emotional support.
Dynazenon feels like it has way more characters, yet feels like they make a far greater impact. When the mysterious Gauma shows up in Yomogi Asanaka’s town, the two become acquainted at the insistence of the former. When a kaiju appears, Gauma brings Yomogi and three others together to form the giant robot known as Dynazenon, but the pilots couldn’t be more different.
Yume Minami is a shy girl with an unhealthy habit of asking guys out only to ditch them. She comes from a family still broken up by the death of her older sister. Then there’s Koyomi Yamanaka, a NEET who struggles with his confidence and doesn’t know what to do with his life. He’s fixated on a time when his life could have changed completely but when he didn’t act on it.
Koyomi’s cousin Chise isn’t entrusted with any of the parts of Dynazenon as a pilot but is wrapped up in the fiasco all the same and serves as a backup in case someone else cant. However, it’s her status on the sideline that’s telling of her arc. She’s a girl who is alone and a NEET like Koyomi, even going so far as to aspire to be him (which obviously isn’t the smartest choice, despite how much I love Koyomi).
Yomogi himself has perhaps the least emotional baggage but nevertheless puts a burden on his own shoulders. His mother is dating someone who likely could become his dad. He doesn’t want to rely on a stranger and pushes himself to work so he can support himself. But he wants so badly to be independent that he overdoes it, sacrificing time from his social life to prioritize money.
Dynazenon feels like what Studio Trigger’s Kiznaiver was trying to be, but far more successful in its scope. Kiznaiver was all about unlikely fellows becoming friends through the circumstances of their unification. However, what made that show seem so myopic to some was that they were brought together for no other purpose than “being together.” The story posed whether or not peace could be achieved if everyone shared pain.
It’s not a bad concept, but without proper annunciation and narrative incentive, one could be forgiven for asking “what’s the goal of this series?” With Dynazenon, the team comes together for a much more easily understood purpose: to defeat kaiju. They are joined together to stop the Kaiju Eugenicists from killing humans.
The Eugenicists and Gauma used to be allies, but they became enemies in the past. Now, they’ve been resurrected in the present and are carrying out very different missions. So the main heroes all come together to stop them while learning more about each other and helping each other overcome what’s holding them back.
My love of the character-driven narrative can be summed up in Yume and Yomogi’s shared story throughout the 12 episodes. Yume’s sister died and while they weren’t always close, Yume wants to know how she died in hopes of understanding her. They investigate throughout the entire show, growing closer in the process.
I’ve mentioned it before, but Amemiya’s direction is something that I think makes this show truly special. Despite the zany premise and the colorful Sunday-morning-cartoon color palette, there’s something heavy about so many of these interactions. Things get far more emotional than even Gridman‘s most dramatic moments. I fell in love with these characters.
Initially, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy Dynazenon as much because of the mechanical design compared to how cool Gridman looked, but my fears were unwarranted. Any issues I had with the design were wiped away by the impressive fight choreography, CG animation, and most of all, the music by Evangelion‘s Shirou Sagisu. His music is far more varied than what you come to expect from his projects with Hideaki Anno, as I learned from rocking out to this show’s diverse score.
It’s also a scarce score. Battles feature lots of music, but those character moments I’ve gushed about thus far are grounded in silence. This show is further proof that Japan’s concept of silence and its purpose in media is much different from how we traditionally think about it in the west. It’s not simply an absence of sound, but an enhancement in its own right.
With all the mention of Gridman, it begs to question whether or not SSSS.GRIDMAN is essential viewing and while some may disagree, I think the answer is a hard yes. I mean, you could watch this show solo but there are callbacks and connections between the two that would make watching both a worthwhile journey. Watch Gridman so you can appreciate something even better in the form of Dynazenon.
Even for someone like me who’s watched both, there are some rough spots. Not every question will be answered by the end and I know how that bugs people sometimes. On one hand, the Kaiju Eugenicists, their backstory, and their motives are not entirely crystal clear but perhaps I wasn’t paying super attention. On the other hand, some unanswered questions feel intentional.
Characters never quite finding the answers they were looking for feels like a lesson in itself. One of the characters has a mantra that we never actually learn the final part of and I’m… oddly fine with that. Some of the character stories ended with characters finding closure without finding everything they were looking for. Sometimes we don’t have every answer but we do what we can with the answers we do, with the people we find them with.
How far we’ve come. For one thing, I’m amazed that I feel in love with a show that has this much CGI in it. But I suppose that after years of seeing it improve, seeing it done with heart and seeing it done on the cheap, and understanding the industry more, it was bound to happen. Plus, to anyone suggesting that the hand-drawn animation would suffer as a result of this reliance on CG, fear not.
That’s what @vanjiilost on Twitter posted that caught my eye after episode 10 dropped a few weeks ago. It got me thinking that the “weird” that draws me to anime isn’t just about premises and bizarre ideas. It’s about weird camera angles. It’s about striking artwork that emphasizes visual emotion over the cleanliness of the line art. It’s about innovation and trying new things for the hell of it.
Episode 10 had animation direction by Kei Ikarashi, a key animator who singlehandedly made one of the most eye-catching episodes of the year thus far. It doesn’t take long at all for the episode to feel different. People who’ve watched anime for a while might get a minute in and think “oh it’s one of these!” And yes, it is one of those. It’s the episode that raises the bar for the whole show in a single runtime.
As for the other “thing” eluded to before, Studio Trigger… is pretty cool. Few studios get the kind of love and hype that they got at their inception and I think the hype blinded people to the time it takes for most studios to start cranking out bangers. Now they’ve given us Kiznaiver, Space Patrol Luluco, Little Witch Academia, SSSS.GRIDMAN, Promare, and SSSS.DYNAZENON. They’ve carved an identity for themselves.
But the Gridman Universe in particular gives me a lot of hope. It isn’t a show by Hiroyuki Imaishi, nor by Yoh Yoshinari. It is inspired by the tokusatsu works that inspired young minds throughout japan and continues to inspire to this day, but it feels distinct from the styles of directors who have come to be associated with the studio naturally. This show doesn’t “feel like Trigger” because it bears much meaningful resemblance to its peers, it “feels like Trigger” because I can’t imagine any other studio giving it to me.
A lot of people like to treat Trigger like it has no soul or it’s just trying to be GAINAX. But first of all, to say a studio has no soul is just patently false when you consider its wildly creative resume from the same people who made half of the universally acclaimed stuff that GAINAX produced in their later years. Secondly, who gives a shit about GAINAX anymore?
They were so shitty by the end of their time that Hideaki Anno spent years in a legal battle with them just to retain the rights to Evangelion. The new TV airings of Eva in Japan don’t even have GAINAX’s name on them He was that salty. What does GAINAX even make now? Are you telling me you’ll take GAINAX’s FLCL sequels over everything Trigger has made since Kill la Kill? Come on, no one is that petty (I heart FLCL Alternative was decent though).
If the issue is that Imaishi and co. keep referencing Gurren Lagann and other GAINAX stuff, then I got some bad news for you. Anime is all about paying homage to past works of art. That “GAINAX pose” has existed for over 30 years and it probably dates back before Gunbuster popularized it.
And why shouldn’t Imaishi reference the anime that he made? The anime he makes is insane, colorful, and always has more below the surface than meets the eye. He crafts stories that can be enjoyed on a purely surface level or marveled at for their symbolism, messages, and subtext. He crafts all of his stories around a central theme that permeates every part of the production.
My point is that Studio Trigger is cool, basically the coldest take as of late. Maybe I’m responding to a minority but I think it needs to be said that shows like DYNAZENON show that they’re more than just one kind of show. They are a studio dedicated to keeping anime fun, colorful, exciting, and above all else, weird.
And I only want it to get weirder.