SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s not losing any momentum, with interesting new reveals boosted by very purposeful directorial choices… but also quite the controversy (or not really) regarding the production that we thought should be addressed before it gets out of hand.
Storyboard: Yoshitada Kuba (Tetsuo Yajima)
Episode Direction: Hiroyuki Takashima
Animation Direction: Tetsuya Hasegawa, Naoki Takeda, Masaru Sakamoto
Heroic Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Hiroshi Mitsuhashi
Key Animation: Yusuke Yoshigaki, Ken Mukaigawara, Hiroki Arai, Kota Sugawa, Kengo Saito, Hiroaki Kanbe, Asami Shimizu, Mayumi Nakamura, Yusuke Kawakami, Kenta Yokoya, Hideki Nakagawa, Atsushi Kaneki, Yoshitake Nakakoji, Takeshi Matsuzaki, Kana Yamaguchi
Naoki Takeda, Hiroyuki Takashima, Akira Amemiya, Hiroki Mutaguchi, Gen Asano
─ Though we’ve been covering this show in small batches of episodes, this time we’re back after just one week because a lot‘s happened – in and outside the show, but we’ll get to that later since episode 8 of SSSS.GRIDMAN was plenty substantial in and of itself. Though the reveal that Akane’s position a deity of sorts allows her to reshape everyone’s feelings doesn’t seem to be as much of a game-changer as previous twists, since it’d already been implied to some degree before, it’s in this episode where we finally have to face the repercussions. After all, it’s Rikka who finds out about her own heart having been tampered with, and she’s by all means been the emotional core of the series. There are some details smartly laid out to make this reveal immediately click for the audience; the show had recently featured a conversation between Utsumi and Akane where it was casually established that liking kaiju was considered weird, whereas in this episode it’s the protagonist trio who are singled out for not being impressed by her murderous plastic model at school. Alongside more overt points like Rikka’s own situation and the teacher’s changing attitude since his incident with Akane, everything about this episode tells us how whimsically Akane goes as far as rewriting someone’s personality. Less heinous than when she casually murders classmates, I suppose.
─ But regardless of narrative developments, on a character level Rikka’s situation remains the most compelling. Her consistent, naturalistic portrayal’s managed to sell her a normal teenager, which is not a comfortable role to have when you’re right in the middle of a kaiju crisis. She’s worried about her friends and wants to protect her normal life, even though she now knows that she’s treasuring something that might have been fabricated. She’s also feeling insecure about her contributions to the Gridman team, despite being the one rooting the weirdos surrounding her to reality and playing a key role in solving every conflict. This awkward mix of conflicting feelings is very hard to convey in animation, which is why I find Yusuke Kawakami‘s contribution to the episode to be so exceptional. The carefully constructed layouts give you a clear read of Yuta and Rikka’s standings, then the final shot captures all that nuance and condenses it into a few seconds of authentic shifting emotion. And while it doesn’t serve as much of a pragmatic narrative role, the kagenashi character art throughout the sequence is damn gorgeous. All of this, coming from an animator who just recently claimed that he still struggled a bunch when it came to acting cuts. Bravo.
─ It’s also by looking at Rikka that we can guess where SSSS.GRIDMAN as a whole might be heading. And if my hunch is right, it’s intertwined with the staff’s priorities in a fascinating way. At this point, it’s obvious that the abundance of environments fully drawn by animators rather than background artists isn’t a whim; director Miyajima mentioned it as a major point, so we know for a fact it’s one of the tools that the team’s using to draw us into its world, to make it feel tangible and existing on the same plane as its inhabitants. The next step? To create the illusion of autonomy for the characters who live in that setting, both the main ones and nameless mobs. We’ve talked about stories happening in the background and changes to everyday scenery that imply actions by its inhabitants beyond what we see. Episode 8 uses Instagram posts by the excited classmates to count down time, and also relies on extensive work by Yusuke Yoshigaki – renowned ex-Gainax animator with a knack for authentic crowds – to illustrate the lively festival preparations, just like he handled the realistic classroom atmosphere in the first episode and the rafting in episode 5. None of those scenes are all that relevant to the plot, and yet that’s what they keep entrusting one of their most accomplished animators with. Again, very deliberate.
─ So why put so much effort in making us believe SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s world is inhabited by “real” people, if the narrative’s telling us they might just be Akane’s peons? For starters, because settings that feel alive tend to be more satisfying than sterile backdrops for a story. But perhaps most importantly, because the endgame of the show might be Rikka convincing Akane that no matter if she was initially programmed to feel a certain way, her current feelings are the real deal to her – and the same goes to everyone else living in Tsutsujidai. Admittedly it might be a bit too early to guess the destination of a show this wild, but the production’s decisions have been so deliberate that I feel comfortable enough predicting the reasoning behind their moves. We’ll see if this all ends up being true or if I’m giving the team too much credit!
─ As a quick side note, many of the details regarding this in episode 8 (plus other neat decisions, like the plentiful recurring shots that fit right in when the conflict involves fighting a revamped version of an old foe) come down to the storyboard drawn by Yoshitada Kuba. Who’s that? To be honest, no one, since that’s just a pen name used by Tetsuo Yajima – best known for his contributions to the Pokemon and Doraemon franchises. If you want to check out an amusing instance of his work that relates to that pseudonym though, I recommend looking up his appearances on Hunter x Hunter (2011); the first episodes that he directed and storyboarded used his real name… but halfway through the production he signed a contract with studio OLM, hence why the iconic Kurapika vs Uvogin fight in episode 47 was storyboarded under Kuba’s name. Considering the timing of SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s production, the reason this time around must have been that he was officially busy with the 2018 Pokemon movie. Even in cases like this where a pseudonym doesn’t hide the creator’s identity all that much, it at least gives them plausible deniability when it comes to exclusivity clauses and implied moral obligations.
─ But as you might be aware, the spicy behind the scenes topic this week isn’t whether the storyboarder hid their real name or not. There’s been a controversy-but-not-really going on that serves as half the reason why we’re publishing this post earlier than planned. Chances are that I don’t have to tell you who Masami Obari is: living mechanical animation legend, who established many visual quirks that went on to define the genre, either outright inventing those techniques or just popularizing them. He’s also quite important to this site – a certain sakugabooru administrator spent years detailing the extent of Obari’s influence, since both casual fans and animation nerds tended to write him off as that one mecha creator who loves posing robots and breasts (something that’s admittedly true). However, the undeniable point that kraker eventually managed to get across was that even if you don’t care about the vast contributions Obari’s made to giant robots, he was also a crucial influence on widely celebrated anime creators – like Yoh Yoshinari, who appeared in SSSS.GRIDMAN #8 to finish up the combination sequence. He’s given a lot to other people, and this project was explicitly meant to thank him, as series director Akira Amemiya mentioned before the broadcast.
─ Unaware of all that, Obari’d started up an account on weibo – a popular Chinese social media platform – to promote a special PV for a Chinese property he’d directed. Aided by his wife’s knowledge of the language, he also began using it as a pseudo-private account, which allowed him to be a bit more frank than on his Twitter account that’s followed by pretty much the entirety of the Japanese industry. And that’s precisely why, after publicly tweeting out all the obvious nods to his work he thought were amusing homages at first, he turned to weibo instead to vent his grievances last weekend. I asked a Chinese member of the sakuga community to translate his comments to make sure the nuance got across right, and the main gist is that Obari did indeed say that the team took this too far, and said that it was heartless of them to copy his storyboards and key animation to that degree. But at the same time, he also made it clear that it wasn’t a money issue: Obari simply wanted to be notified beforehand about the work the production intended to mirror, not to be compensated for it.
Obvious nods to Obari’s Gaiking OP2 in SSSS.GRIDMAN’s opening sequence.
─ The context to all of this is the most important part, which is why I find both the people pretending this is a nasty rivalry that will escalate and those who paint Obari’s feelings as petty just because he’s inspired tons of works (as if an Obari punch was on the same level as sequences following each of his keys) to be frustrating. Had he wanted this to blow up, Obari would have tweeted it on the account that all the Japanese industry has their eyes on; wanting to vent to a reduced number of people is something plenty of you will be able to relate to, and as massive as weibo is, that’s what it represents for him. Keep in mind that the mechanical work in SSSS.GRIDMAN is commanded by Hiroki Mutaguchi, a friend with whom he sells self-published books every year, and that he’s also acquainted with many other people in the team. This is a legitimate personal dispute that only happened to be exposed to a larger audience than intended, so all I ask of people is to neither ridicule it nor try to fan the flames. This kind of stuff actually happens on a weekly basis in this industry, and the reaction to events like this makes me glad that most fans are oblivious to it. A sizable amount of content in this site is based on private personal testimonies, so personally this is also a reminder to treat these matters with care. Getting across the idea that anime is made by people (wow!) isn’t just meant to add more layers of enjoyment to your experience with these works, but also to remind us all to respect them and their personal boundaries.
─ As a happier final note: the next episode is Kai Ikarashi‘s debut as storyboarder and he’ll be supervising the animation as well. The list of animators involved will make people’s jaw drop – as will the quality of their work. Look forward to something big!