We’re approaching the end of SSSS.GRIDMAN at full force, with barely any time to breathe but still enough for you to enjoy this penultimate look at the series. Let’s examine the directorial and production choices as usual, the staff behind them, but also the context at studio TRIGGER that influenced how this show turned out – not just their current projects, but those that might come next.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Hideyuki Satake
Animation Direction: Masaru Kawashima, Hamuto Natsuno
Chief Animation Director: Shuhei Handa, Akira Amemiya, Masaru Sakamoto
Heroic Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Noboru Furukawa, Tasuku Suzuki
Key Animation: Kanako Abe, Masahiro Ishida, Atsushi Ito, Hirotaka Ozawa, sute, Ai Tsuruta, Kayo Nomichi, Minoru Ishida, Nizou Nisuke, Haruka Hinata, LAZZ
Hideyuki Satake, Masamichi Ishiyama, Hiroki Arai, Shuhei Handa, Hideki Nakagawa, Yoshifumi Hagano, Akira Amemiya, Sushio
─ Energy conservation is an omnipresent concept in the anime industry. No matter how blessed of a project you’re dealing with, there are episodes that will be allocated fewer resources – be it time, talented staff, money, or all the above – so that others deemed more important can receive more attention by the team. The success of the greatest productions, then, comes from either exceptional management ensuring a respectable quality threshold or from amassing enough talent that your lows don’t even register as such for the audience. And with a little from column A, and a little from column B, SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s managed to come across as a consistently strong series with some astonishing peaks. After the remarkable effort last week by Kai Ikarashi‘s team we were due a more modest offering this time: still of decent quality all around, but more pedestrian as a consequence of being sandwiched between such a demanding episode and the last arc that’s been allocated as many resources as possible.
─ The reason I started by talking about the manufacturing side of things, however, is to contrast that with the narrative choices. You might have expected things to calm down after such an emotionally exhausting affair – I know I did – but SSSS.GRIDMAN outright rejected the idea of the calm before the storm, opting to launch us into the final arc with no spare time to even breathe. The keyword for this surprisingly hectic episode would be heart; Akane trying to cut off her own feelings but being unable to contain the inner turmoil embodied by the rampaging kaiju, while Anti’s chooses the opposite by embracing the humanity he’s gained. Sure he’s done it through mimicry (which due to this show’s endlessly referential layouts also means copying previous mecha titles), but the sense of purpose that’s given him is genuine, hence why he was able to transform into Gridknight – yet another scrapped concept from the original series that series director Akira Amemiya managed to repurpose.
─ Given that unexpectedly weighty material, director and storyboarder Hideyuki Satake did a solid job with the portrayal of Akane. If you asked people to single out the scene that best encapsulates his job, chances are that they’d choose her meeting with Anti under the rain: it presents their mirrored positions in a striking way, makes it painfully obvious that Akane’s hurtful words regarding kaiju‘s inherently harmful existence are aimed at herself, plus the way eyes are hidden before their humanity (or lack of thereof) gets brought up is a rather neat bit of storyboarding. And yet as good as that was, what stuck with me the most in such an emotionally resonant episode was… casually walking through a gate. Up until now, the entrance to Akane’s house had been framed in an imposing way that corresponded to her threatening presence. Things have changed as the mystique surrounding her gets dispelled, though; we’ve come to know of her godly powers and also of its shortcomings and her personal frailty, so now we see that not only is her house within 10 seconds of their base, but the entranceway that felt so intimidating from her lens is actually pretty humble when seen from a more neutral POV. One of the more innocuous but amusing examples of subjectivity in SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s direction.
─ As mentioned earlier, the production couldn’t afford many extravagant efforts this time. Though it was done in kind of stealthy fashion, the episode was majorly outsourced in the first place – the main group of animators, supervisors, and even the director were people attached to Creators in Pack, a studio mostly focused in supporting duties with many locations at their disposal. Since TRIGGER collaborates with them rather often (look no further than Hacka Doll) this was another case like episode 4, where the familiarity among the staff protected the identity of the series in spite of the major subcontracting process. And while the animation is hardly among the most impressive offerings in the show, it still left us some highlights like the confrontation between Calibur and Anti, fully key animated by the young sute. As someone who’s only just made it to the industry and didn’t follow traditional education, he was pretty happy that his animation’s started to make it to episodes as he intended, pretty much untouched. Considering the quality of his work, he’s earned it!
─ And during the moment where the 2D animation had to hold back, Graphinica’s CGi was there to pick up the slack. The confrontation with the kaiju led to some of the sweetest details in the entire episode. For starters there’s its design: a half-baked effort by Akane led to the most crappy suit-like monster yet, to the point that the holes meant to allow the person inside to breathe weren’t even hidden. And once something did emerge from inside, we were met with the most unsettling creature to date, based on the Alien Metron from Ultraseven but made an order of magnitude more terrifying; it was character designer Masaru Sakamoto who came up with it, and it would be no exaggeration to say that he seemed more happy about being given that opportunity than he was about drawing the entire cast. A nimble, erratic foe drew the best out of the 3D animation staff, who put together one of the most viscerally satisfying (if unbalanced) fights in the show as a whole.
Storyboard, Episode Direction: Masato Nakazono
Animation Direction: Naoki Takeda, Mayumi Nakamura
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto
Heroic Animation Director: Gen Asano
Production Assistant: Mina Tachikawa
Key Animation: Kengo Saito, Takeshi Ikezawa, Aya Takafuji, Reo Itoyama, Mayuko Umigishi, Shinichiro Yamada, Sayaka Kobayashi, Midori Nakamura, Gen Asano, Shouta Sannomiya, Takayuki Sano, Yuto Kaneko, Nobuaki Tanaka, Tomoyuki Munehiro
─ The penultimate episode of SSSS.GRIDMAN maintained the momentum that the second half of the series has been building up, but all things considered, it was a pretty uncomplicated affair. Don’t take this as a complaint, though: this is to say that the show’s groundwork is so solid that a revelation as big as the true nature of the protagonist made things more straightforward, rather than giving us new things to worry about. If you value sheer shock then Yuta’s twist might have felt underwhelming, but I’ve grown very fond of SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s approach; the truth’s always been there all along, we simply weren’t looking at things with the right lens. That sentiment was echoed by director and first-time storyboarder Masato Nakazono, who said his job was simply not losing to the previous episodes, and thanked not just his team but everyone else who’d worked on the series up until that point.
─ Throughout the show we’ve seen various recurring layouts that underlined progress in certain ways, be it the relationships between characters or changes in the setting itself. Nakazono’s storyboard put a lot of emphasis on that, giving an old trick more impact than ever considering how dire of a situation the heroes find themselves in. Even Amemiya joined in on the cruel fun as well with a certain change in the opening sequence that he’d clearly prepared all along. While Yuta’s painful situation and the heartbreaking frustrated encounter between Rikka and Akane should have been the emotional highlights, in the end I found Utsumi’s ordeal the most affecting; the self-hatred over having been enjoying tokusatsu battles without really considering the victims and the powerlessness he feels as he’s unable to help his friends were captured perfectly by Nakazono. Yuta has his own body on the line, while Rikka’s singlehandedly in charge of pulling Akane back from the abyss, but Utsumi’s got nothing… until the action-packed finale, where his knowledge of the genre will prove to be useful.
─ Speaking of first times, Nakazono wasn’t the only one making his debut. Akihito Furuya (sp?), best known as kasen, completed his training and made his first appearance as a TRIGGER in-betweener – a fairly noteworthy event when you consider what he’s been shown to be capable of. It also was the first episode managed by Mina Tachikawa, a new member of the studio’s production assistance crew. Curious overlap of debuts aside, the reason why I’m bringing this up is that I came across the information that Tachikawa’d been contacting animator Akane Yano – character designer and chief animation director on Ryuo no Oshigoto, main animator on Nisekoi, and so on – for months to request her work in a TRIGGER project. Since it wasn’t meant for this episode (the most recent contact happened after the production had finished) and Yano’s style doesn’t seem to fit Promare enough for her to be contacted out of the blue, chances are that the studio’s got a new title in preparation, something more cutesy to make use of Yano’s skills.
─ Regardless of what may come next, it’s obvious that SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s production was influenced by what’s currently on TRIGGER’s plate. This show’s been in many ways different from any other title by the studio, and that’s in great part because the usual creative leaders are working alongside Hiroyuki Imaishi on Promare. Considering how SSSS.GRIDMAN‘s turned out, I see that as a positive aspect rather than a missed opportunity; young people work with TRIGGER all the time, but this time they’ve been granted the spotlight more effectively than before, even when compared to the project that was explicitly meant to train youngsters. The last episode of the show will feature a few of those high profiles names fans associate with TRIGGER’s name plus other ace animators attached to Promare, but they’re very much in a position of guests – it’ll be Yoshihiro Miyajima and Amemiya himself, the two raising directorial figures of the show. It’s their time to shine!
─ There are plenty of reasons to get excited about the finale, but it’d be a bit disrespectful to move onto hyping that while ignoring the good work in this episode. It’s worth noting that almost every single animator who contributed to episode #11 was a regular member of the team with multiple appearances so far. There were a couple of nice surprises, like theatrical animator Shinichiro Yamada and Takayuki Sano, who had a field day animating the Gridknight since he was a big fan of the original live-action series, but otherwise this all came from the hand of the core staff. Be it Kengo Saito‘s beautiful character art, Gen Asano‘s mecha supervision, or the impactful smears by Yuto Kaneko, this was all the result of the main team in charge of the production putting in some extra effort even though the last episode is meant to be the big one. And it will be, but the staff’s commitment to this show is never half-assed!