SSSS.GRIDMAN has maintained its fascinating identity even when handed to other directors and different studios altogether, still combining all the nostalgic factors with some new ingredients. Let’s continue examining its production to see how they’ve brought back lost arts while at the same time also advancing certain techniques!
Storyboard: Geso Ikuo (Hisaaki Okui)
Episode Direction: Hiroyuki Takashima
Animation Direction: Naoki Takeda, Kai Ikarashi, Masaru Sakamoto
Heroic Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Shunsuke Shida
Key Animation: Taisho Yoshikawa, Yusuke Kawakami, Reo Itoyama, Masamichi Ishiyama, Hiroki Arai, Hideki Nakagawa, hanyw, Naoto Uchida, Yuho Onishi, Ken Obata, Mayuko Umigishi, Gen Asano, Yoshitake Nakakoji, Toshiyuki Sato
Naoki Takeda, Kai Ikarashi, Hiroyuki Takashima, Akira Amemiya
─ The first two episodes of SSSS.GRIDMAN left such a strong impression because they combined tokusatsu and mecha tradition with the atmospheric, highly sensorial Anno school of direction that Akira Amemiya adores. As we mentioned in the first post about the series, that balancing act is noteworthy because even though all those aspects share a similar genome, they don’t naturally fit together when taken to the extremes we see here; while you can trace it all back to similar origins, lingering shots of summer heat and bombastic Masami Obari animation homages are tonally as far apart as it comes. The show’s first major success comes in accepting all those dissonant parts and threading them together with less visible but tremendously important aspects, like the crafting of a world that’s completely drawn by the animation team (全セル) when possible to increase the cohesiveness. Rather than breaking the spell, this is the kind of series that becomes more impressive once you learn about the mechanics behind the magic trick.
─ And the reason why that bears repeating, besides being an impressive feat on its own, is that the next episodes of the show have managed to keep that tricky identity intact even as Amemiya has been forced to take a step back because he’s too busy. Titles that rely so much on a director’s very specific vision often struggle to maintain their charm when the project leader isn’t directly in control, but in this case it seems like he was able to convey exactly what he wants the show to be to the rest of the team, and ensure an advantageous situation in the first place. For starters, he handed the third episode to Hisaaki Okui, best known for his pen name Geso Ikuo. To call him a bit of a troublemaker would be quite the understatement, but while he might have trouble securing work (he’s seriously considering ditching the pen name he’s always worked with since it’ carries heavy baggage), Amemiya didn’t hesitate to trust someone he knows admires his work and thus was likely to have a solid grasp on what made this show so strong to begin with. He even made sure to set some time aside to coach him, making corrections to the storyboards and still managing to get his hands on action and animation excerpts. Geso‘s work was rather fantastic, but once again props to Amemiya for creating this situation where other artists are allowed to flourish.
─ The result to all of that was very Gridman-like, to the joy of us who loved the first two episodes. We’ve got our crew of awkward teenagers figuring out interpersonal relationships and also dealing with another kaiju – a sentient one at that, the most notable nod to the live action series this time as he also mirrors a member of the original cast like the main characters do. That’s only one of many textual but especially visual references to the tokusatsu and mecha franchises that defined the childhood of the people making the show and much of its audience, from very Yuusha series-like poses to glorious renditions of Obari staples. The energy this conveys doesn’t actually rely on your knowledge of the exact things that get referenced, since it’s all imagery that captures the coolness of giant heroes and robots in and of itself. And to give some pause to those frenetic action moments, the whole thing is enveloped with the same highly atmospheric cloth. Many shows tie their weather to the mood, but few allow it to seep as deeply as SSSS.GRIDMAN does, to the point that the moodiness of this episode is intrinsically tied to a rainfall you can pretty much taste.
─ Though it hasn’t been one of this show’s fortes beyond all those neat nods, this time I’m dying to jump into more animation-specific talk. Again, the team of animators regularly knocks it out of the park with the drawn world that envelops the characters and gives the visuals a feeling of continuity, but this episode earned a more sakuga-focused lens too. Things start off on the right foot with the supervision of Gridman regular Naoki Takeda, but it’s when TRIGGER’s young star Kai Ikarashi literally bursts through the window that episode 3 reaches a new level. Ikarashi is a rarity, a new Kanada-style gem uncovered at a time where those were thought to be depleted. It’s not as if this kind of snappy animation that heavily relies on extreme poses and exaggerated anatomy has actually disappeared – Ikarashi clearly follows the steps of the studio’s leader Hiroyuki Imaishi in the first place – but stylistic trends change, and as anime moved away from that one, newcomers with that specific flair became more scarce. The last major batch of Kanada followers was arguably the one that included people like Amemiya himself and other important Gridman animation figures like Toshiyuki Sato, so it’s nice to see them all gathered in a project like this. Even though SSSS.GRIDMAN offers for the most part a more laid-back side of Amemiya than we’d seen at TRIGGER, I had no doubt that his project would become a canvas for people with similar animation sensibilities as his own, rare as they gradually become.
─ Ikarashi’s presence is felt the most among the animation directors, not just because of his bold personality but as a consequence of the work distribution; character designer Masaru Sakamoto seems to be acting as Chief Animation Director But Not Really for the in-house episodes so there’s less he can tackle on a weekly basis, whereas Takeda got assigned a smaller segment than Ikarashi, who supervised the second half but also showed off his own key animation with the aforementioned classroom scene. The spectacular density of information that you can appreciate if you pause at any point in that sequence was conveyed to the rest of the episode through his corrections, so it’s no surprise that key animators like Naoto Uchida (who handled the entire restaurant scene) joked about leveling up under Ikarashi’s supervision. Some of the more idiosyncratic animators left their personal mark for sure, but in many scenes his animation philosophy and specific quirks like the smears exiting the frame ring so strongly that I wouldn’t be able to tell whether he corrected the scene or (re)drew it all. A quality problem to have, truth to be told.
If you thought the scene at the restaurant was sensual to say the least, keep in mind that the animator in charge outright called it the footjob scene. Please don’t get fired for browsing our site at work.
─ Sakuga bonanzas like the one this episode offers might not be a common occurrence in SSSS.GRIDMAN (though they’ll absolutely happen again, wink wink), but what definitely happens on the regular are the short spurts of good old mecha animation. The usual culprits were back at it, which is to say that Amemiya and Heroic Animation Director Hiroki Mutaguchi stuffed the episode with as much Obari love as they could again. The latter’s Obari Punch is worthy of note not just due to the amusing fact that he reused the background effects he drew for Captain Earth a few years ago, but because he might very well offer the coolest renditions of the legendary technique – so much so that Masami Obari himself took this as a chance to retweet this helpful chart explaining each step of the skill, made by our colleague Kraker.
─ The positive not-really-surprise, as he’d already contributed to the staff book, was seeing young mecha ace Gen Asano appear to co-animate the combination sequence. Much like Ikarashi, Asano was born sort of in the wrong era, as it’s unusual to see someone from his generation specialize so wholeheartedly in hand drawn robots. After his training at Khara, he actually was one of the youngsters who managed to make Yoshimichi Kameda’s jaw drop during One-Punch Man‘s production. He had the fundamentals to branch out however he pleased in the animation world, and yet he chose a bit of a dying art like this simply because mechs are what drive his passion. He’s very quickly become one of those select individuals who get requested anytime a show feels like having an authentic-feeling mecha gag, so of course he’d take the chance to work on a show as honestly committed to the subject matter as SSSS.GRIDMAN.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Tatsumi Fujii
Animation Direction: Masataka Nishikawa (ALBACROW)
Chief Animation Director: Kengo Saito
Heroic Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Manjirou Momiji, Fuko Tatsuno (ALBACROW)
Key Animation: ALBACROW
Masataka Nishikawa, Takeshi Matsuzaki, Kenji Saikai, Natsuki Wada
Tatsumi Fujii, Kenta Yokoya, Naoki Takeda, Hiroki Mutaguchi, Akira Amemiya
─ I’ve been pointing out that SSSS.GRIDMAN is perfectly approachable even with no prior knowledge of the franchise, but episodes like this are interesting in that they showcase both what’s changed and what remains the same. It’s clear that despite all the main cast representing someone from the original series, all characters in this new series are very much their own thing. While Yuka proved to be an invaluable ally by actually coding Gridman’s upgrades through Junk, Rikka’s as computer illiterate as it comes – which is surprisingly just as useful. Akane may be occupying the exact same role as Takeshi in the live action series, but while he showcased some empathy towards his own creations, her character ramping it all up to eleven means we’re now seeing the poor sentient kaiju getting its face smashed by its creator on the regular. Modifying the characters like that inevitably means changing their dynamics as well: while in the original show it was Takeshi who chased Yuka because of his unhealthy crush, this time we’ve got Rikka sort of trying to rebuild a past relationship instead; the fact that the one time Akane’s actively approached her led to willingly sitting behind her on an empty bus might be the single rudest thing this gleeful murderer has done.
─ And at the same time, none of those changes have actually altered the core of the series: Gridman is still very much structured in that kids show fashion from the original series, where each week presents a simple lesson that can be applied to the daily life of teenagers; “pick up your phone when friends call you” and “be more straightforward with your crush” are the kind of simple tips that you wouldn’t expect from a latenight anime series, and yet it feels right at home here. Now there’s no denying that SSSS.GRIDMAN has surrounded it all with a more intriguing overarching narrative, but protecting that simple and pure essence is what’s making this show into such a nostalgic experience even for people who didn’t watch the original series.
─ When it comes to the execution of the episode, the proverb that no news is good news still applies. It very much follows all those concepts we’ve been talking about, which has even more merit since this was the first episode of the series that was fully outsourced to another studio. Now there’s a bit of a trick to that: the company that produced this episode is ALBACROW, led by none other than Geso Ikuo and featuring plenty of creators who people often associate with TRIGGER, like Kiznaiver’s series director Hiroshi Kobayashi and ex-Dogakobo ace animator Yuuki Watanabe (though neither were present in this episode, as they’re busy elsewhere). Which is to say that to avoid the communication problems that often arise when subcontracting entire episodes, Amemiya and TRIGGER relied on their own pals to handle this episode as closely as they would do it themselves. Not a luxury all studios have, but a perfectly valid strategy here!
─ Any dilution of the show’s identity that may have happened in spite of that was compensated by Tatsumi Fujii‘s storyboard and direction, which was in some regards the most brilliant yet. I found his storyboards to be particularly readable, the kind of scene composition that immediately gets one point across and does so with style. ALBACROW started off as a small crew featuring talented artists from different fields and has only recently become an actual subcontracting studio, but if they keep putting their own talent and interesting freelance up-and-coming figures like Fujii to good use, I can see them quickly becoming an important entity.
─ Normally I’d save the final comments for the hand-drawn animation, talking about interesting figures like ALBACROW’s Masataka Nishikawa – the youngest animation director in the production! But instead, this time I’d like to wrap up with something that gets framed like a necessary evil most of the time: the 3DCG. Graphinica’s technical advances in this field and their ability to craft animation with timing that feels satisfying to an audience acclimated to traditional anime aren’t entirely new, but I’ve noticed more than one industry figure talking of their work in this show as kind of a breakthrough, and the more episodes pass the more willing I am to agree. I’ll admit that I found it simply alright in the first episodes, but the studio’s contributions to the last couple of episodes and the opening have been rather exceptional. The more photorealistic approach to the inazuma kick in episode 4 was a curious change of pace, but my favorite scene remains this badass showcase of force and momentum from episode 3, with uncredited action storyboarding by Amemiya. I’m the first one to rejoice about hand drawn mechs, but credit where credit’s due, and that’s some great work!