Now that it’s finally revaling its mysteries, SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s more intriguing than ever. Let’s delve back into the series with another in-depth look at its secrets, the directorial principles that make is so engrossing, the ups and downs of outsourcing process, and a few more behind the scene matters that explain what’s happening on the screen.
Storyboard: Hiroyuki Oshima
Episode Direction: Yoshiyuki Kaneko
Animation Direction: Shuhei Handa, Tetsuya Hasegawa, Masaru Sakamoto
Heroic Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Noboru Furukawa
Key Animation: Yuto Kaneko, Aya Takafuji, Kana Yamaguchi, Takeshi Ikezawa, Haruka Nagai, Tetsuya Hasegawa, Sayaka Kobayashi, Yusuke Yoshigaki, Tomoyuki Munehiro, Kenta Yokoya, Reo Itoyama, Toshiyuki Sato, Asami Shimizu, Yoshifumi Hagano, Mayuko Umigishi, Midori Nakamura, Hiroki Arai, Gen Asano, Yusuke Adachi, Hideki Nakagawa, Saki Konishi, Akira Amemiya
Shingo Abe, Hiroki Mutaguchi
─ I’ve got to give this show props for maintaining its identity even during the token fanservice outing. It’s not as if SSSS.GRIDMAN was free of titillation up until this point, and I’m not here to condemn the eye candy, especially since they made a bit of an effort to balance it with Utsumi’s cute pudginess. In an episode like this where it’s frankly the main point, however, they could have given up on every other aspect that makes the series so attractive. And they didn’t! What stood out the most this time around was the usage of understated background elements to give extra texture to the world and even to build up to important narrative reveals that only become evident later in retrospect – what’s referred to as environmental storytelling in videogame criticism parlance. SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s general eye for detail allows it to note the passage of time by changing the sculpted kaiju in Akane’s room as she moves onto new pieces, and even to give more life to classmates with no spoken lines; the suspicious Akko lookalike we’d seen in the opening and in previous episodes is the protagonist of a background love story with as much of a happy ending as you can have during a kaiju crisis. And if neither that nor the swimsuit parade do it for you, Yuta’s dream and the final moments are still there as the mandatory hook. Not the best episode, but it gets the job done.
─ Leading the episode we’ve got freelance staff that happens to be very familiar with TRIGGER; Hiroyuki Oshima (experienced in Kill la Kill, Ninja Slayer, Luluco, and LWA) handled the storyboard, while assistant series director Yoshiyuki Kaneko supervised the execution of those ideas. Since Kaneko is sort of Akira Amemiya‘s right hand man in the project, it’s no surprise that he replicated his involving direction well enough. If I had to nitpick something, I’d say that it slightly misses the mark on a more personal level. Most of you know that SSSS.GRIDMAN is chockful of references to multiple genres, schools of animation, and TRIGGER’s own titles. It’s a passion project where people like Amemiya and Hiroki Mutaguchi had the time of their lives nerding out in sneaky ways. And when their references are brought into the spotlight rather than happening in the background, they make sure to recreate the appeal of the things they loved rather than just winking at the audience. But when we’ve got these shots referencing Evangelion #11 without an ounce of its oppressing direction – which SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s shown it can nail – then it all feels shallower. That said, using the phone booth to simulate a 4:3 aspect ratio is genius, so in the end I can only give up and accept Oshima and Kaneko’s victory.
─ Let’s jump from one Kaneko to the other to talk about something the episode definitely got right: scale. Akane’s plan was to overwhelm Gridman through sheer size, which means the staff had to make the gigantic kaiju as imposing as possible. And so, based on the design of genre veteran Osamu Yamaguchi, the team took a different approach than usual. Rather than the suit-like 3DCG with hand-drawn closeups, this time the kaiju was depicted through harmony shots meant to make it feel as if the world itself had come alive. This technique involves an animator drawing the lineart – Yuto Kaneko in this case – and then switching production lines to make the background art team finish it. The result tends to have lots of dramatic energy, hence why Osamu Dezaki popularized the technique with his iconic postcard shots, but it can also be applied just to give extra oomph to the visuals like this. To be perfectly frank though, I feel like they did a bit of a disservice to Kaneko’s art, which was much more ominous than the finished footage. SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s background art is actually one of its weaker elements, which the show gets away with precisely by bypassing the art department and giving the animation and painting crews more work. This was a cool, deliberate technique, but also a reminder of one of the production’s minor weaknesses.
─ When it comes to other production aspects, the episode was satisfactory too. Since the clips went viral among horny Twitter I’ll spare you the talk about the careful depiction of volume and weight with Akane’s swimsuit shots, but that was far from the only highlight. Though there isn’t actually all that much room for them to work, what’s with the 3DCG and short battles, mecha animators flocked to this project like there’s no tomorrow. The guest star this time was Shingo Abe, who likely animated the final missile barrages and the finisher before the beam turns CG, but we’ve also got Kentaro Azuma who drew all the layouts for the transformation sequence with assistance by Gen Asano and Hideki Nakagawa. Heroic chief Mutaguchi has kept on handling the coolest mech shots, while other regulars like Toshiyuki Sato (the first action sequence?) and Kenta Yokoya (effects before Abe’s part?) keep hand drawn robots alive as well. Supervising this whole ordeal we had one of the new animation leaders at studio TRIGGER in the form of Shuhei Handa, who hyped up the episode with a striking Eva nod but was mostly in charge of keeping everyone attractive in their own ways during the first half of the episode in particular. The other main animation director was Tetsuya Hasegawa, who also designed the swimsuits for the boys – while the girls’ were by Rie Ishige. I almost succeeded in keeping this family-friendly.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Yoshihiro Miyajima
Storyboard Assistance: Michel Sugimoto
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto, Akira Amemiya, Kengo Saito
Animation Direction: Lee So-Roe (St MASSKET), Liu Yunliu (St MASSKET)
Production Assistant: Shoichiro Taguchi, Tasuku Suzuki
Key Animation: Thundray
Zhenlei Cheng, Xinran Fu, Hailong Hu, Chengdai Xu, Yanqing Jiang, Shuang Li, Jian Liu, Chong Wang, Yan Wang, Yifei Wang, Hui Xu, Senmao Yuan, Ping Zhang, Hua Zhong, Xueqing Zou
Hero, till, bagus yoga, wolf, Lzyboost, zuuc (Russel Braganza), Daniel Baron, onepeach, blu shade (Isaac Weston), Spike
Juansheng Shi, Yang Huang, 謝鐘黎, Dongsheng Luo, Yuanwu Ma, Feipeng Li, Chen Chen, Wenzhen Li, Yuan He, Hantao Lin
Paeni Hong, Hongxi Lu, Bojie Xie, Wei Huang, Xiaoyue Zhu, Peiyi Yang, Peng Zhang
Takeshi Ikezawa, Kengo Saito
Production Assistance: St MASSKET
─ After dropping many hints in the previous episode, SSSS.GRIDMAN finally decided to stop beating around the bush and addressed a bunch of its mysteries. And one major conclusion we can draw is that the show itself is very honest, but surrounded by (well-meaning) lies. Let me explain: in episode #6 of the original live action, Gridman fought a benevolent musical kaiju who was being mind controlled. They spared its life during the fight and made sure to revert it to its original state, which earned them the gratitude of the monster and the sound spirit that’d warned them of what was going on – plus one fancy sword upgrade, because that’s how the genre goes. Decades later we get episode #6 of SSSS.GRIDMAN, which features a mysterious kaiju girl whose design is a mishmash of those of the monster and the spirit, claiming that their ancestors owe a lot to Gridman and implying a direct continuity. Did they lie a bit by promoting this as a fresh new series, then? That seems to be the case if they take the sequel route, yes. Was the show itself misleading? Actually no, since the girl’s actually been in the background throughout the entire series, and even the opening song is titled UNISON – the name of that sound spirit. Can’t deny that the truth was always there!
─ That wasn’t the only major reveal, though: the fact that Akane is kind of a god is as big as developments get. And that’s where Yoshihiro Miyajima‘s work as storyboarder and episode director shines the brightest. We’ve talked before about the position of episode director in TRIGGER productions being heavily geared towards the management side of things rather than the creative one, hence why they get unique artists with precise demands to draw the boards and then rely on diligent individuals with a background on production assistance to “direct” that. Which is to say, to make sure the job actually gets done. Miyajima’s origins are also in management, but he’s kept on leaving such a positive impression on his peers that he’s slowly but surely wormed his way into creative positions. This is the first full-length episode he’s been fully in charge of – though assisted by animators like Michel Sugimoto for the storyboard and Kengo Saito for the layouts, to ensure his ideas worked visually – and considering how well it went, we’ll be seeing it happen more times in the future.
─ Revealing that a classmate is a godly (but definitely not holy) being is something that deserves real tension, unless you’re dealing with a case like Kamichu where naturality is the main point. Miyajima made SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s atmosphere more oppressive than ever during the double date, as if there was an omnipotent being surveilling the entire world – because as it turns out, there sorta is. The reveal that the city is all there is to Akane’s world clicked on a narrative level, quickly explaining the naps that everyone took while riding the train in the previous episode, and he made sure to underline it visually with details like this. From a directorial standpoint, this episode is a standout offering by someone who’s not even supposed to be acclimated to this position yet. Keep an eye on Miyajima!
─ In spite of all of that, this episode still had to make some compromises. Don’t take this in an overly negative fashion – that it was memorable in spite of its issues only speaks highly of Miyajima and the rest of the team. At the root of the problem, we find the fact that this episode was fully outsourced to Studio MASSKET, which had tangible positive repercussions but also acted as a limiter. If you read our previous post on SSSS.GRIDMAN, you might remember that episode #4 was subcontracted in its entirety too; in that case, there wasn’t much of an effect because it was handed to a sibling company that shares multiple staff members with TRIGGER. Things aren’t quite the same when it comes to MASSKET, as a support studio with an office in Japan but that mainly operates in China by further subcontracting chunks of an episode. Outsourcing is this industry’s game of telephone: the further (not in a physical sense) the message has to spread, the more ridiculous the misunderstandings between staff become. Aware of that, Miyajima and company cut corners by handing a bunch of scenery cuts that’d usually be drawn by animators – that full cel philosophy that we’ve established as a main pillar of this production – to the art team instead, as that didn’t change. A seemingly small detail that explains the difference between the exceptional scenes in the episode and those few moments that feel weirdly lacking.
─ The upside to this is the main argument you see in favor of outsourcing all the time: it alleviates the workload of the core team while at the same time enabling the presence of more diverse talent. Colored Pencil’s Juansheng Shi proved to be more compatible with Amemiya’s style than most Japanese animators could hope to be, but the obvious example of diversifying the talent is the involvement of LAN Studio, a Chinese company with worldwide animation muscle – if you haven’t read it, I recommend this long interview with many of the young animators from all over the world who tend to collaborate with LAN. It’s through outsourcing that the presence of talented people like them joined the production… but that’s also what came back to bite their ass a bit. As it very often happens with multilayered subcontracting like this, the situation was a bit chaotic; LAN’s crew was given fewer cuts than they’d been promised, which made the distribution a bit troublesome, and once things were said and done they noticed unexpected almost complete redrawings and simply unused cuts. Slightly unfortunate, even if the collaboration was a bit of a dream come true for some of them.
Juansheng Shi’s rough animation was respected well enough. Not everyone was that lucky!
─ It’s important to understand that SSSS.GRIDMAN is actually a blessed production. We’d been talking about how healthy its production schedule was before the coverage of the show had even started, and now it’s public knowledge to the point that regular staff members like Kengo Saito have started joking about how much free time they have now that their job is done. And yet, not even those unusually positive circumstances can cancel out the problems built into the system, like the poor communication between artists that chains of subcontracting elevate exponentially. The aforementioned team is sadly used to working on production disasters, but direct communication during the creative process is so important that they’ve actually been able to live up to their potential better in projects with a way worse schedule than SSSS.GRIDMAN. There are many factors at play when it comes to the success and downfall of any production!
Key Animation: Akira Amemiya, Saki Konishi, Haruka Nagai, Aya Takafuji, Kengo Saito, Masamichi Ishiyama, Naoki Takeda, Michel Sugimoto, Reo Itoyama, Hiroki Mutaguchi, Tomoyuki Munehiro, Sayaka Kobayashi, Midori Nakamura, Kenta Yokoya, Yoshifumi Hagano, Yuho Onishi
─ The monster of the week formula is an inherent time consumer – and a blessing for many of us, admittedly – but even that isn’t enough to stop SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s narrative momentum now that the jig’s up to a certain extent. Reveals like the computer world from the live action series being in the sky and the shadow-like kaiju serving a purpose rather than being something that director Amemiya’s fond of seem to confirm this is indeed a sequel to both Denkou Choujin Gridman and Boys invent great hero; sure, there’d been nods to the original and usages of scrapped old material before, but the way things are unfolding indicates that being a follow-up will be a major point in the end. In a way that makes SSSS.GRIDMAN into one of the most outrageous passion projects in the history of this industry, but I hope it doesn’t cheapen the impact for newcomers without prior experience with the franchise. As far as I’m concerned this is still very compelling even if you had no previous attachment to Gridman, but I’ll leave that judgment to viewers who never saw the live action and the Animator Expo short.
─ And truth to be told, SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s always more about the way it tells things than the events themselves, as intriguing as some of its mysteries are. Ken Otsuka‘s storyboard felt workmanlike, but returning episode director Masato Nakazono elevated into yet another terrific experience that proves he gets the series. Now that we know just how terrifying Akane is, Nakazono made it look as if she were the one directing, tightly controlling the atmosphere whenever she’s around and always just one step away from whimsically ending it all. The casual omnipotence she exudes when jokingly seducing Yuta in his room and when explaining her misdeeds comes crumbling down just as easily when she finds out Alexis has acted independently, which reveals how deeply rooted her insecurities are as well. Takeshi’s redemption on the original series was rather sudden, but SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s acknowledged that Akane’s much more twisted to begin with, so I’m curious about how they plan to turn things around.
On top of drawing the storyboard for the episode, Otsuka also animated this week’s gattai.
─ One aspect regarding the production process we often bring up is that, in episodes with two main animation directors, they tend to split supervision duties right in the middle; as long as most anime is made for television, the commercial break halfway through will offer a perfect splitting point to assign workloads. One of the perks of not being starved for time is that you can act in less efficient ways that potentially yield higher rewards, though. And that’s why this episode of SSSS.GRIDMAN was able to assign scenes to its animation directors depending on their individual strengths and preferences. Mayumi Nakamura, whom you might recall as the person who put together the ending almost singlehandedly, supervised all scenes in the Junk shop, at the school, the night street, but most importantly the convincing shots of Rikka’s room and the equal parts sensual and unsettling scene with Akane and Yuta – putting the same delicacy from the ending to good use. Meanwhile, Michel Sugimoto‘s naturally amusing art and action prowess were used for the characters and kaiju during the battle, the striking Anti punishment, and moments like the funny date at the restaurant. Weirdos who don’t fit through human doors might be the best recurring gag in the show.
─ The last production-related point that I want to bring up in this overly long series of notes is that the person in charge of designing the kaiju this week was none other than Ichiro Itano. Not only that, we also got to see his original drawing on top of the 3D model! This is quite a special occasion, since Itano had to force himself to quit animation because he couldn’t draw straight lines anymore – which is why he moved onto supervision and CG duties for a while. If you’re somehow not aware of who he is, Itano was one of the most important animators during the 80s, best known for the Itano Circus technique; though he didn’t coin the term himself, his barrages of tracking missiles with thrilling camerawork were so popular that they became one of anime’s greatest quirks, especially for mecha and effects-heavy titles. And how was his kaiju defeated in this episode of SSSS.GRIDMAN? With a fancy, 3DCG Itano Circus. A coincidence? Absolutely not!