by Ed @AsleepTurnpike
The deafening sound of summer cicadas is the first thing we hear when SSSS.Gridman starts. The opening sequence continues, and more noises appear. Inside a high school classroom, we hear the unintelligible conversation between students, as a brass band tunes their instruments in the background. Outside the school, we once again hear the cicadas, but we also hear the noises students are making while they train for some form of athletic competition. We see several students walking through the school’s entrance, going about their day. On the school rooftop, a girl observes it all. We get several seconds of atmospheric sound as she stays next to the railing, only hearing the laughs of several students, the clang of a metallic baseball bat as it presumably hits a ball, and, of course, the cicadas. This goes on for a couple of seconds, and as the title of the show appears on screen, the sound of a practicing chorus becomes audible, still unintelligible beneath the noise of the cicadas. The girl looks to the sky, where a star splits into several smaller stars, with a deafening boom, as the screen suddenly cuts to black. Thus ends the opening sequence of SSSS.Gridman, a 2018 anime series directed by Akira Amemiya, with character designs by Masaru Sakamoto, and produced by Studio TRIGGER.
SSSS.Gridman is sort of a soft reboot of the 1993 tokusatsu series “Gridman The Hyper Agent”. This series starred a group of kids who teamed up with a digital hero, the eponymous Gridman, who would fight giant monsters that threatened the lives of the town residents. This series was re-tooled for the west as Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, which is, at first sight, the inspiration for this show’s title. The original Gridman was a sort of spinoff from the Ultra series, which houses the classic toku hero Ultraman. This bears mentioning because Ultraman was a huge influence for Neon Genesis Evangelion, which in turn is the show that SSSS.Gridman references the most–both in terms of visual direction and style, but also in textual allusions (a group of secondary characters are all students from “Neon Genesis High”). This sort of ouroboros of influences gives SSSS.Gridman a very unique atmosphere, and one we can specifically pin down through the show’s use of sound and music.
Like a lot of tokusatsu shows, SSSS.Gridman is divided into two types of sequences: Battle sequences, in which the protagonist connects with Gridman through a special computer, and fights giant monsters, and sequences in which we see the main cast live their day -o-day lives. In these sequences, the show utilizes practically no background music, the show’s atmosphere is simply made out of background noise, such as the blare of the cicadas. Then, when a giant monster does appear, this changes. Bombastic drums and strings set the tone for the destruction that these kaiju wreak on the town. As our protagonist prepares to summon Gridman, the orchestra blares in the background, and horns signal the hero’s imminent arrival. Once the fight itself starts, rock guitars serve as the backdrop for the conflict. This contrast between the show’s naturalistic style of ambience and the larger-than-life fights between giants serves to give monsters, the hero, and the battles themselves a unique tone in the audience’s minds, while also emphasizing the feeling that we’ve gone from the real and common to the unreal and uncanny.
It’s a very smart and thoughtful use of a fantastic OST composed by Shirou Sagisu, who also created the original OST for Neon Genesis Evangelion and is making the music for Hideaki Anno’s upcoming Shin Ultraman movie. This naturalistic approach also extends to the character interactions themselves. While the main cast is made out of your traditional anime high school kid stereotypes, their mannerisms and attitudes are all fairly low-key. There are jokes, and there are improbable hair colors, but it all feels intentionally muted, to give you the sense that these kids are not just caricatures, but rather real people.
Why was this naturalistic approach chosen? There are several answers to this. First of all, the monster attacks in Gridman serve as an outside element that completely shatters the normality of the lives of the protagonists. By making sure that their normality feels grounded and real, the impact that these attacks cause is significantly stronger. This is also why the show’s OST mostly only kicks in during these fights. The mechanics of the kaiju attacks and the mysterious circumstances surrounding them are also a big focus of the narrative in Gridman. That mystery is core to the structure of the show, and it makes the grounded elements of the cast’s lives stand out more, in contrast to the fantastical element. Furthermore, without spoiling anything, Gridman deals with themes of escapism and ignoring reality around you. The show creates a reality that is actually feasible, kaiju attacks aside, so this message of embracing life can resonate with the audience. Finally, I think that the naturalistic approach is a consequence of the media that Gridman is pulling from, not just in Neon Genesis Evangelion, but also in Gridman: The Hyper Agent and the Ultra series in general. It’s both an homage to what has come before, but also an element of the show’s reality that connects to its core themes.
Gridman is a special anime for a lot of reasons. It came out of a short for Japan’s Animator’s Expo project and gained a life of its own. I don’t intend to spoil the plot in this article, but it tells a deeply compelling story about embracing life and empathy, and it is a fantastic-looking show in a time where the anime industry is oversaturated and projects like these are a rarity. It manages to be accessible to viewers who might not know anything about Ultraman or tokusatsu in general, while also serving as a love letter to the medium and the art the medium inspired, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion. In spite of not being nearly as popular as some of Studio TRIGGER’s other outings, such as Darling in the Franxx, it spun off its own sister show SSSS.Dynazenon (which is also a fantastic show), plus a third, upcoming project known only as Gridman x Dynazenon. SSSS.Gridman has an atmosphere like few other shows have nowadays, and I highly encourage you to seek it out and watch it.