SSSS.GRIDMAN casually dropped one of the most memorable episodes of the year, a tour de force of evocative layouts and energetic animation that managed to make a hateful villain into a sympathetic person as if it were easy. Let’s explore this show’s greatest episode, the team behind them, and the industry movement it represents.
Key Animation: Yoshifumi Hagano, Yusuke Kawakami, Keisuke Mori, Mayuko Umigishi, Sayaka Kobayashi, China, Kai Ikarashi, Masaya Nagi, Toya Oshima, Yuto Kaneko, Yuuki Yonemori, Toshiyuki Sato, Yuho Onishi, Haruka Nagai, Kenta Yokoya, Hiroki Mutaguchi, Ken Yamamoto, Yuji Hamada
We wrapped up the coverage of the previous episode by noting that SSSS.GRIDMAN #9 was going to be a jaw-dropping experience, so you can’t say you weren’t warned. Even if you knew that, however, it had something in store that you likely weren’t prepared for: suddenly making the gleeful psychopath Akane into a sympathetic character, without dropping any game-changing reveals. The show is as of now maintaining an almost impossible balance regarding her character; I’d say it’s a miracle that it works at all, were it not for how deliberate it feels. Her whimsical attitude towards death and other people’s memories, as well as the weight of her wrongdoings, aren’t being swept under the rug – on the contrary, it’s the sight of Tonkawa’s family business and her gravestone that awaken Yuta from his dream. Unlike the original live-action series, where Takeshi’s cartoony villainous acts and the tone of the show allowed a quick redemption, SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s chosen a trickier path and keeps making a point out of Akane’s misdeeds.
Yet at the same time, the crushing loneliness that the series had hinted she might be feeling becomes an asphyxiating force anytime Akane’s on-screen this time. Being rejected by people programmed to love you is disheartening in and of itself, but it’s the oppressive layouts that capture the agony that have made her so weirdly compelling. As the audience, we’re left perfectly aware of her heinous actions… and yet it’s hard not to feel for her, simply because of the masterful way in which her suffering is conveyed. An outstanding episode, but also a bit of a scary reminder of how big of a role framing devices play in our emotional reaction to events. I can’t say I regret becoming emotionally invested in parka-wearing immoral deity though, if what we get in exchange are episodes this strong.
Chances are that if you’re reading a site like ours, you at least have a bit of a clue where this episode’s destructive power comes from. Animation director and debutant – yes, this was his first time – storyboarder Kai Ikarashi is an artist we often bring up after all. Ever since he started attracting attention as a perfect complement to Hiroyuki Imaishi’s hectic work in SEX and VIOLENCE with MACHSPEED, his standing both within TRIGGER and among fans has done nothing but rise. Unsurprisingly so I’d add, since he’s got the draftsmanship and eye-catching style required to quickly turn heads. It was the surreal work of Yasunori Miyazawa and especially Masaaki Yuasa – first with his Buriburi Zaemon Shin-chan special and later with Kemonozume – that pushed him towards animation in the first place, but once he joined this field, he trended very heavily towards the Kanada Style; Ikarashi’s angular drawings, his characters with exaggerated limbs that jump from pose to pose in energetic fashion, make him feel like Imaishi’s most direct heir since Akira Amemiya. Very appropriate then for Ikarashi to level up further on Amemiya’s first major project.
And level up he did. Ikarashi’d already had a major hand in some TV anime episodes, co-supervising a few of them and contributing his kineticism to climactic scenes and sakuga parties. However, I’d argue that it wasn’t until SSSS.GRIDMAN #9 that we started seeing his true potential and why his peers have placed such high expectations on him. This show had already proved to be a great canvas for creators capable of channeling nostalgic, mecha-flavored vibes like Ikarashi does. And this episode in particular happened to be a key moment for the antagonist that everything revolves around. Though fans tend to associate him with frantic action because of his link to Imaishi, this might very well have been the perfect opportunity for Ikarashi to debut as storyboarder and sole animation director and leave this strong of an impression; incidentally, Masaru Sakamoto’s credit as supervisor is a bit of a misnomer – it’s been confirmed that his position is more akin to chief animation direction for the in-house episodes. The reason why pretty much the entirety of this episode feels congruent with Ikarashi’s sensibilities is that he was in charge of it all.
Viewers who didn’t get the memo about the special episode will take no time at all to realize that something’s off. The very first shot features the ominous grade crossing signals that Ikarashi sprinkled throughout the episode to warn us of the upcoming danger; it sets the tone immediately and also manages to encapsulate both his own style – the sketchy pencil work to give texture to the metal – and SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s own identity, putting the full cel precept at the forefront. After an unsettlingly realistic background character introduces us to the kaiju du jour, we quickly get to see Akane’s scheme: trapping the main characters in a dream world based off their memories, attempting to make their fantasy interactions better than reality and thus making the bonds she yearns for eternal. At this point we all know where this is heading, as Yusuke Kawakami‘s animation kicks off one of the many neat ideas in the storyboard. His digital effects and three-dimensional environments are deployed for the first of many instances of Gridman peeking into this dream world. Not just for Yuta, he’s become an inescapable presence for the whole team that represents their sense of duty.
The illusion proceeds with the other main characters, trapped in dreams that represent the different bonds that Akane desires. We’ve seen Yuta as her lover, followed up by Utsumi as her ideal friend sharing the same interests, and Rikka as the person to be most intimate with. Perhaps in an act of desperation, she actually tries to literally seduce them all; it’s not as obvious as with her boyfriend and the acquaintance she sensually invites home, but Rikka’s fantasy is introduced with an LGBT counseling poster that’s also present in the infirmary as they grow comfortable with each other. Incidentally, the intimacy between the two appears to have been portrayed by ちな. His appearance is no surprise, if nothing else to repay the favor to Ikarashi after he’d appeared (under a pseudonym) to assist on his astonishing Yama no Susume S3 #10, but it’s still amusing to see how he refuses to let go of his Naoko Yamada adoration even within an episode very much unlike her work.
We’d previously mentioned that after the reveal regarding Akane’s position as the goddess of this world, SSSS.GRIDMAN often feels as if she were the one directing the show. And never is that more obvious than in this episode, where she is in control of the reality projected into the minds of the main characters. The bright, cheerful colors during her date with Yuta are entirely unlike the atmosphere of the show as a whole, as if her own feelings leaked into the palette; in that regard, and when it comes to the execution of Ikarashi’s ideas in general, we’ve got to thank episode director Yoshiyuki Kaneko for making sure the episode ended up living to its extraordinary potential. Unfortunately for Akane, her own plans didn’t work out quite as well as the staff’s, and the dream world begins falling apart in spite of her desperate attempts to please the main trio. The separation between those who want to return to the real world and the one who wishes to remain in a dream is clear.
Gridman’s descent – yet another nod to Kanada’s animation in Gaiking‘s second OP and one of Toya Oshima‘s partial contributions to the episode – is a nice sequence, but the true turning point comes by the hand of Ikarashi’s most spectacular piece of animation in the entire episode. Not just a perfect example of the raw energy that his work can convey, but also quite interesting within the context of SSSS.GRIDMAN #9; our protagonists dash to the left as they try to run back to reality, whereas earlier in the episode we’d seen Akane running to the right in similar fashion, trying to escape deeper into this fantasy instead. In a way I feel a bit bad for Kenta Yokoya, who’s got to follow that up with a more standard mecha animation fare. Not bad by any stretch, but what would be a highlight in a normal episode gets overshadowed by the fascinating character work.
The episode wraps up with Akane emotionally and literally on the edge. Ken Yamamoto – whom you perhaps know for his escapades as Yoh Yamamoto – captures her pain in one of the most striking scenes in the episode, perhaps the most affecting one in the entire show. Akane’s godly powers might allow her to leap off a tower crane just fine, but after the blow she’s taken there’s no way she can land gracefully. Yamamoto’s animation, never afraid to slow down its drawing count to 3s and 4s, makes that emotional crash all the more impactful. We’re headed towards a final arc where the main characters will likely attempt to save Akane. That might have sounded preposterous a few weeks ago. And honestly, it might still be. But after feeling her pain so viscerally, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.
Digesting such a densely packed episode takes some work, but I couldn’t end my commentary without briefly mentioning the overall movement that SSSS.GRIDMAN #9 is a part of. Though Boruto #65, Violet Evergarden‘s peaks, and a certain something airing in December are candidates to the most impressive production effort of the year, there’s a clear trend among the most accomplished episodes of TV anime in 2018. Though Hugtto Precure #16 was only the second episode that Koudai Watanabe ever storyboarded, he commanded Toei’s youth and his own friends as they put together a one of a kind experience. Yama no Susume s3 #10 was the third episode that ちな was in charge of, yet he guided his young pals into making arguably the strongest TV offering of the year. And now you’ve seen what’s happened on Ikarashi’s debut. Three up-and-coming figures in similar situations skyrocketing at the same time, fueled by shared staff – not to the same degree for Precure since Toei’s a beast of its own, though the likes of Keisuke “soty” Mori can boast of having shown up on all of these episodes.
So, what does that mean? Fate/Apocrypha #22 was a sign that change was approaching, and these episodes confirm that it’s already happened. The anime industry as a whole is shifting. Globalization of consumption and production, plus the advances in tech with tangible effects, are causing all sorts of changes. However, I feel like what we’re seeing here is something more simple at its core: a generational change. New figures are emerging all over the place, and the quickest ones to adapt to the climate are putting together episodes that manage to overshadow the creators who inspired them in the first place. Harsh as I’ve got to be with this industry, in this regard it’s a very exciting time to follow anime.