SSSS.DYNAZENON – Production Notes 01-04

SSSS.DYNAZENON – Production Notes 01-04

SSSS.Dynazenon is an already fascinating follow-up to 2018’s Gridman, an equally evocative love letter to tokusatsu and mecha titles that wears its Anno influences in its sleeves, while also being in conversation with its predecessor. Let’s see how the project came to be, the way they derived the show’s themes and focus from the creator’s passions of youth, and also its fortunate production.

2018’s SSSS.Gridman immediately became one of my favorite works of the past decade, and perhaps the Studio Trigger title I hold most fondly. Its seemingly simple recipe felt like a revelation; director Akira Amemiya mixed all the bombastic tokusatsu and mecha tropes reminiscent of his youth with the introspective direction that strongly characterized Hideaki Anno’s style in the 90s, most notably in Amemiya’s favorite anime Evangelion. A hodgepodge of tones that felt nonetheless natural—and how could it not, when it was older tokusatsu titlesthat had deeply influenced Anno in the first place?

As captivating as that alone already made it, a mere formal look at the show still undersells it. At the end of the day, Gridman was the story of Akane Shinjo: an introverted nerdy girl, who after leaving behind the one girl she held dear, was so overwhelmed by real life that she sought emotional refuge in a digital world of her own—and a galactic jerk’s—creation. It was a story about escapism that didn’t condemn it, as it was in that fabricated world where she met people—protagonist Yuta, his friend Utsumi, and especially Rikka, reminiscent of her lost friend—who pushed her to finally move forward. The final scene, with real-life footage of Akane waking up in her messy room, is one of the most thematically satisfying endings I’ve experienced in TV anime.

And that brings us to the first potential problem with SSSS.Dynazenon: how do you follow that up? Can you have a Gridman pseudo-sequel without undermining its powerful thesis? The show’s popularity had led to producers considering publicly announcing a sequel as early as during the broadcast of Gridman’s finale, but what could Amemiya use as the starting point to a series he hadn’t initially planned to create? And that’s when it dawned on him: the Dyna Dragon, which Gridman’s voice actor Hikaru Midorikawa had pestered him to include if he ever made a sequel. Yeah, Dynazenon had its genesis in a dorky dinosaur robot from the original tokusatsu series Gridman the Hyper Agent. OK, let me explain.

One thing that’s important to understand about Amemiya and writer Keiichi Hasegawa is that, especially when it comes to this series, they work backward. The only reason a relatively obscure tokusatsu series like Gridman got modern anime incarnations is that Amemiya personally pestered the rights holders during the Animators Expo project for a chance to draw his favorite toys from when he was a kid. Later, and with an excellent writer experienced in the genre like Hasegawa in the picture, he was able to derive an engaging narrative and themes from those boyish passions—those are what come first for this team.

In a way, this is similar to how toyetic properties give their staff merch to sell and at best some vague themes, but they’re the one who’ve got to figure out how to build a compelling narrative around that… except in this case, the creators actively sought the old merch, taking on the challenge as a passion project. Mind you, this does not devalue the powerful message of a show like Gridman. If anything, it speaks highly of the team’s skill; they are capable of creating such a cohesive, fulfilling story almost as an afterthought of gushing over their favorite toys. They’ve gamed the system and have become unstoppable.

The team’s love and mastery of the genre shows when they poke fun at it with no ridicule, something that Dynazenon is very fond of. Having Yomogi cough through all the cool stock footage during the episode where he gets a cough, or turning the once heroic moment into a chaotic recap from his point of view that includes the insert song becoming diegetic are some of the funniest examples yet.

This is all to say that it’s not weird for Dynazenon to have started as an excuse to feature an even more obscure support mech, and that you shouldn’t be surprised about them having tied it to the show’s themes already. Unlike the titular hyper agent, the Dyna Dragon was created and controlled by the friends of the original hero. Two minor assist weapons that combined into one when Gridman was about to be defeated for good. This focus on side characters over a singular hero was immediately emphasized by the new meaning of SSSS. While in Gridman it was the program wielded by the hero to save one specific person, it now refers to a crowd; Special Signature to Save a Soul, singular, has become Scarred Souls Shine like Stars, plural.

The first few episodes have made it clear that the focus is indeed more on an ensemble cast. There is no one as magnetizing as Akane, that’s for sure, but the show has succeeded at making everyone’s personal struggles intriguing on their own. We’ve got Gauma, a kaiju user whose personal story draws elements from a 5,000 years old mummy that fans of the original tokusatsu might recognize, as well as the Kaiju Eugenicists—incredible name—old pals of his who claim to want a world where those huge monsters are needed. There’s also Koyomi Yamanaka and his younger cousin Chise Asukagawa, unemployed adult and truant child respectively, whose circumstances have only been vaguely alluded to. Even co-protagonist Yomogi Asanaka, the most normal of the bunch, is a fairly compelling character with some intrigue of his own—especially if you’re willing to listen to the short audio files released after every episode.

If there’s one character who stands above the rest, though never to the point of hijacking the focus like Akane did, it’s got to be Yume Minami. Every episode so far has addressed the mysteries that surround her, though in a way that only raises further questions. We know that her sister died in an accident, on the very spot where she first met Yomogi. We’ve also heard that there’s something wrong about her and that she appears to have a compulsive need to lie to people, but if you’ve paid attention to the show’s direction, you’ll know that she feels awful about it. And, thanks to the time we’ve seen her spend with her one friend Mei, we also know that despite the stoic side she shows to most people, she’s a bit of a fun-loving dork.

Hasegawa’s excellent writing unfolds these mysteries with clinical precision while allowing the more characterful aspects to expand organically; the way she slowly opens up to the rest of the Dynazenon crew feels natural, but it’s no coincidence that Yomogi’s discovery that she’s a bit of a jokester happened on the same episode where she learned about sides to her dead sister she knew nothing about. The writing is as tight as ever, even as the focus has noticeably shifted towards an ensemble cast.

Since most people don’t listen to the aforementioned voice dramas, I should bring up that another intriguing bit of information surrounding Yume is that her mom appears to have joined a cult to deal with the loss of one of her daughters. Whether this just signals her messy situation at home or whether it’ll go somewhere specific, no one knows.

It felt important to establish that fundamental difference in focus between Dynazenon and its predecessor, because one of the first things you might think when watching the show is Hey, isn’t all of this from Gridman? To some degree, that’s understandable. We could have all guessed that Dynazenon would keep that directorial style that gave Gridman such a unique flavor. The old-school silences it relishes, and the equally nostalgic joy it conveys when having dumb giant robot fun. And most notably, the immersive approach to the animation, favoring cel usage to create a sense of atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife.

What I don’t think anyone could have expected, though, was an introduction to the show that reenacted Gridman’s first scene nearly shot by shot. That first episode, storyboarded by Amemiya himself, also had a few shots that directly mirrored elements from Gridman. In the second one, he made the characters visit a bunch of familiar settings. And by the next two episodes, this time boarded by other artists, the returning settings, exact pieces of background art, and even the same animation sheets were so incredibly prevalent that no simple explanation about cutting corners would feel right. It’s worth pointing out that this is happening after they switched to an entirely different studio to design and paint the background art, so they’re very actively going out of their way to feature all these familiar visuals.

What could it be, then? A nod to avid Gridman fans, thanking them for the support that made Dynazenon possible in the first place? A red herring to mislead all the theory-loving nerds? Both are very much on the cards with this team, but I get the feeling that there might be a bit more to it. While I don’t think Akane is ever going to reappear, because that could devaluate her final decision, it seems quite possible that Dynazenon’s setting is related to the world that served as Akane’s basis to create Tsutsujidai—Gridman’s setting in the computer world.

I say “related to” rather than “this might be Akane’s real world” because, besides the fact that kaiju are currently rampaging around, there are some hints that mortality might not be working quite right in the world; something slightly supernatural, if you ask me. We’ve got Yume walking around with ankhs—a symbol of life but also immortality—that tie her to her dead sister. We’ve also seen loud Kaiju Eugenicist Onija get blasted seemingly to death, just to immediately reappear as he himself is shocked.

Even the world’s lackadaisical reaction to the fact that giant monsters and robots are wrecking cities is a bit suspicious. Hasegawa is great at writing natural dialogue in the most unnatural of situations, but that low key reaction seems a bit at odds with the fact that the Yume and Yomogi found their will to fight by watching the very tangible consequences of the kaiju’s presence—one of the most stunning usages of Amemiya’s full cel approach. And yet, not much social panic, with a grand total of zero reported victims. A less dangerous threat than Gridman, which was set in a self-repairing digital world. Something doesn’t quite add up. Whatever that is, one thing is already clear: Dynazenon is fully aware that you’ve most likely watched Gridman, and it loves toying with your expectations based on that. A series that was born as a love letter to a whole genre is now in conversation with itself too, and that’s fascinating.

One of the neat understated details about the repurposed shots is that all departments have coordinated to replace the inescapable heat from Gridman with more natural weather. That’s a good reminder that Gridman‘s asphyxiating heat was due to Akane freezing the world in the summer due to her trauma being tied to the winter, but with that out of the picture, Dynazenon gets to have more natural scenery even on the same spots.

Before we wrap up, there are a few more details about the production I’d like to report. As mentioned in the seasonal preview, the team is already done with Dynazenon; in fact, they’ve been done for months. Gridman was actually Studio Trigger’s smoothest project to date, so while I was expecting Dynazenon to fare fairly well too given how much time they’d had since BNA, it came as a surprise to hear they wrapped it up this fast. Amemiya credits much of that to the staff having grown intimately familiar with the artistic needs of the project, with a special nod to the pre-production being buttery smooth; according to him, the requests for designs he makes are directed to artists he loves in the first place, so of course he’d approve them immediately! With that in mind, all the reused assets in Dynazenon become even funnier—you know what, maybe it was a genius way to cut corners.

Either way, Amemiya’s comments do make sense. The vast majority of staff members are returning from Gridman, and with that project under their belts, things must have been easier this time around. This also applies to the studios they’re subcontracting work to; episode #04 of Dynazenon was outsourced to Yostar Pictures… which happens to be the same team that worked under ALBACROW when they handled the production of Gridman #04. Even the seemingly major changes to the staff are simply placing more trust in creators who were already important to Gridman. Gen Asano, a regular contributor to Gridman’s 2D mechanical animation, is now Dynazenon’s Mechanic Sequence Director—a raw counterpoint to Heroic Animation Chief Hiroki Mutaguchi’s polished metal. Yoshihiro Miyajima, Amemiya’s right hand man in Gridman, is now officially the assistant series director; a higher responsibility role that hopefully didn’t prevent him to focus on individual episodes, because he’s quite good at that!

There is still a lot we don’t know about Dynazenon, and frankly, we have no guarantee that it’ll wrap up as powerfully as its predecessor. But as someone who was wary about a follow-up to a show I adored, I can already say that I find its cast endearing, and the way the creators have derived the narrative and themes from their obscure childhood passions once again to be fascinating. It’s not a cynical sequel, and maybe there was no way it could have been, because Amemiya and Hasegawa’s love for the genre is too genuine.

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Episode 01

Storyboard: Akira Amemiya
Episode Direction: Yoshiyuki Kaneko
Stock Footage Storyboard: Gen Asano
Kaiju Design: Shinji Nishikawa
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto
Animation Direction: Minami Sakura, Kengo Saito
Mechanical Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Kenta Kawahara

Key Animation: Hiroyuki Takashima, Yoshitake Nakakoji, Takayuki Sano, Claire Launay, Akihiro Inou, Yusuke Kurinishi, Takuya Miyahara, Yuho Onishi, Masamichi Ishiyama, Shiori Tani, Norie Igawa, Tatsuya Akitsu, Akira Oguro, Hiromi Niwa, Ayumi Abe, Naoya Morotomi, Tomomi Kamiya, Morimori, Toshiyuki Sato, Yuma Yokomatsu, Tomoka Tamatani, Yushimaki (Yuki Oshima)

Akira Amemiya, Hiroki Mutaguchi, Yoshiyuki Kaneko

Stock Footage Key Animation: Kenta Yokoya

Episode 02

Storyboard: Akira Amemiya
Episode Direction: Noboru Furukawa
Assistant Episode Director: Koudai Nakano
Stock Footage Storyboard: Gen Asano
Kaiju Design: Yasushi Torisawa
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto
Animation Direction: Michel Sugimoto, Emi Tamura
Mechanical Animation Director: Gen Asano
Production Assistant: Narumi Sasaki

Key Animation: Hiromi Hori, Yuya Saito, Shunpei Gunyasu, Kazuki Chiba, Sayaka Kobayashi, Hidenori Makino, Shiori Miyazaki, Youko Tanabe, Ichigo Kanno, Tetsuya Sakurai, Emi Tamura, Tomoki Yamane, Mayuko Umigishi, Akihiro Sato, Hiroki Arai, Yoshifumi Hagano, Shimon Dohi

Stock Footage Key Animation: Gen Asano

Episode 03

Episode Direction: Yuichi Shimohira
Assistant Episode Director: Yuzu Hori
Kaiju Design: Hiroshi Maruyama
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto
Animation Direction: Mayumi Nakamura, Tatsuya Hasegawa
Mechanical Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Mina Tachikawa

Key Animation: Yoshifumi Hagano, Shunpei Gunyasu, Hiromi Hori, Midori Nakamura, Tetsuya Sakurai, Aya Nagumo, Kazuki Chiba, Yuya Saito, Hidenori Makino, Mayuko Umigishi, Shimon Dohi, Tomoki Yamane, Tetsuya Hasegawa, Ichigo Kanno, Hiroki Arai, Akihiro Sato, Minami Sakura, Sayaka Kobayashi

Episode 04

Storyboard, Episode Direction: Tatsumi Fujii
Kaiju Design: Shinji Nishikawa
Chief Animation Director: Masaru Sakamoto
Animation Direction: Aya Takafuji, Masataka Nishikawa
Mechanical Animation Director: Hiroki Mutaguchi
Production Assistant: Fuuko Tatsuno, Hideki Iwasawa

Key Animation: Yostar Pictures

Masaoka Nakajima, Saori Sekiguchi, Senri Tobichi, Misato Kobayashi, Reo Itoyama, Izumi Matsuzaki
Yui Tanaka, Shiho Hotta, Kenji Nishimi, Takumi Sugie, Ichi Kuwagai, Seiko Takanashi
Shimon Dohi

Production Assistance: Yostar Pictures

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1 year ago

Didn’t Yume reveal at the end of the audio drama that the cult thing was a joke? Unless I misunderstood.

1 year ago
Reply to  kViN

True. I guess we’ll see.

1 year ago

I can’t wait for Ikarashi’s episode I wonder if we will see some of his animation before that.

1 year ago
Reply to  Alex

That’d be a dream. Ikarashi’s Gridman episode 9 is still among my favorite single episodes. Is it actually confirmed we’ll get an episode by his, or just highly likely?

1 year ago

After suggesting more of it a while back, I’m very happy to see the last two articles dabble more in themes. Thanks a bunch as always for doing these. It’s a pleasure to read, and one that comes with quite a bit to learn in the process. After having one of my favorite seasonal experiences with Gridman (not least of all thanks to all the wonderful writing about it like yours), I’m happy to be along the ride for Dynazenon, even if I can’t say it got me as itchy to write about it as the Gridman did back then.… Read more »