SSSS.GRIDMAN And SSSS.DYNAZENON Interview: Series Director Akira Amemiya On The Franchise’s Production And Style

SSSS.GRIDMAN And SSSS.DYNAZENON Interview: Series Director Akira Amemiya On The Franchise’s Production And Style

Today we bring you this translated interview with SSSS.Gridman and SSSS.Dynazenon‘s director Akira Amemiya, talking about how each series came to be, the intent behind their unique direction, and how they ended up being studio Triggers’s best managed projects.

Series Director: Akira Amemiya

Interview by Kotaro Gosho from Anime Hack’s editorial department, originally published here after the broadcast of a couple of episodes of SSSS.Dynazenon and then further expanded after more episodes were broadcast—no real spoilers ahead, though! Translated by bitmap.

Creating gateways to the original Gridman with SSSS.Gridman

I had the chance to watch up to episode 2 of SSSS.Dynazenon before the interview. It was really interesting.

Thank you very much.

Much like the average viewer, I watched SSSS.Dynazenon with basically no advance information. So I’d like to first look back at the making of SSSS.Gridman, and then go into more specifics for SSSS.Dynazenon, to be published after the relevant parts air.

That would be great.

When you signed on as director for SSSS.Gridman, what kind of show did you set off to create? I know that previously, you also directed the short anime “Gridman the Hyper Agent: boys invent great hero” (2015) for Japan Animator Expo.

Animator Expo and SSSS.Gridman were separate projects altogether. I don’t remember all the specifics, but unlike Animator Expo where I also participated as an animator, for SSSS.Gridman I wasn’t in a position to do much on the actual animation side. Coming from an animator background, there’s a part of me that wants to be drawing, but I decided to focus on directing instead.

The natural dialogue between the teenage characters in SSSS.Gridman drew my attention. I heard you actually visited schools to collect data. Was it an intentional decision to place effort on parts like this outside of the action?

We did visit school buildings for data, but we didn’t really interview the students. Somehow I felt that for the civilian parts, it wouldn’t really help to gather data there, and it’s not like we gave special attention to making the conversations seem true to life. The foundation of the project was that it was a 30-minute late-night TV anime. So actually, we felt like it was a bit off-track for the intended product, and we shouldn’t focus too much on that part. However, for the characters, I thought it would be best if they were a far cry from the artifice of Gridman or the kaiju. That it’d be nice to start off far removed from that artifice, and have them both coexist on the same screen.

I watched SSSS.Gridman without knowing anything about Gridman the Hyper Agent, and yet I thought it was really entertaining.

Thank you very much.

At the same time, I watched it while thinking, “I bet this part would be even better if I had watched Gridman the Hyper Agent”.

To begin with, I wanted to respect the audience going into it completely fresh, not having seen Gridman the Hyper Agent. I wanted to have it serve as a gateway, and even back in the project planning stage, I wanted people who saw SSSS.Gridman to gain interest in watching Gridman the Hyper Agent.

Using 3DCG to depict suits and costumes as physical objects

This applies to SSSS.Dynazenon as well, but what surprised me about SSSS.Gridman when it first aired was that much of the action was in 3DCG, produced by Graphinica. I felt the same for Promare, but Trigger to me is known for their hand-drawn action animation. So I wondered why the action was outsourced, but it hooked me when I actually saw it for myself. How did you come to decide on using 3DCG this way?

In tokusatsu, I really like it when they make use of objects that actually physically exist. Rigid objects, such as costumes and suits, are ill-suited for hand-drawn animation if anything, so we made this decision to make it feel like toku. You could say what we wanted most from the 3DCG was the feeling that it was an object that was moving. With 2D animation, it ends up feeling too much like a character, so hopefully the 3DCG helps you see them as objects. After all, what 3DCG does best is having something look the same no matter what angle you view it from.

I see.

For a long time, I had noticed when an artist draws kaiju, they tend to come out with strong character expressions. Of course, kaiju are characters as well, but both in terms of the story and the visuals, I wanted the viewers to see them as objects. When they were drawn by hand, they would always end up looking overly expressive.

Just as a tokusatsu series is split up into live-action and tokusatsu parts, distinguishing the two parts in animation by having the characters be hand-drawn and the tokusatsu parts in 3DCG gives it a similar feel. I remember discussing the idea from the very early stages of the project.  

Graphinica, who handled the 3DCG, has Ichiro Itano working as an advisor, who’s also listed as a kaiju designer for the show. Itano’s worked on the 3DCG for tokusatsu films such as Ultraman, so I thought that there might be a connection there.

We had independently asked Itano to work on the kaiju design, but because Graphinica handled the 3DCG, I heard he was involved with the 3DCG side as well in the end. That wasn’t our intention at all at the start, so it just happened to work out that way. We were very fortunate.

Itano’s kaiju design for SSSS.Gridman.

— When it came to producing the tokusatsu parts in 3DCG, what kind of communication took place with Graphinica?

I’m essentially a novice when it comes to 3DCG, so I wasn’t doing a lot of hands-on direction in that sense. The 3D staff was so talented, they basically would fulfill all of my requests. The tokusatsu parts turned out impressive thanks to Graphinica’s skills. They took on the task with the enthusiasm needed to create something amazing, and delivered material that wowed me from the very start. It felt like I barely had to do any work.

At the early stages, did you talk about what kind of visuals you were aiming for, or show them some sort of reference footage?

At first, we talked with Graphinica about how we wanted them to look like suits. Although the basis is human movement, we didn’t want them to move in ways that you couldn’t while wearing a suit. So we asked them to intentionally reduce the points of articulation. I gave orders like these verbally, but the actual management of it all was taken care of on Graphinica’s end.

It felt fresh and different to see Gridman moving so slowly in 3DCG. It must have been difficult getting that slow movement down right.

Graphinica handled that part really well, too. It’s not like you can’t do that kind of slow movement with 2D animation as well, but it requires great precision, and most of all incurs too much cost and labor. 3DCG is well suited for precise movements while taking the amount of resources at hand into account, so I’m really glad we decided to go with Graphinica. They kept delivering above expectations, so I have nothing but gratitude for them. They’ve continued to do the same for SSSS.Dynazenon, which was extremely reassuring.

From reading interviews for mooks and such, many of the staff members, including yourself, bring up the fact that SSSS.Gridman had a healthy production. From your comments just now, I can’t help but feel that what played a big part in that was the fact you left the staff to their own means, while making sure they had the production time they needed.

Having Graphinica handle the 3DCG means that situations come up that can’t be resolved by anyone at our studio. The first is the delivery deadlines. This goes for the audio as well, but when decisions are made externally for parts we can’t control, we then have no choice but to adjust accordingly on our end. It just ended up being exceedingly favorable conditions, even when it came to deadlines.

You say that, but having all the work slowly get pushed back due to unavoidable circumstances is what I envision for anime production. So it’s amazing that you ended up actually meeting those deadlines.

We didn’t meet every deadline, and there were places where we wanted to do better. The production staff drafted the schedules and handled the staff assignments, and as someone responsible for delivering the product, I just followed their orders. In that sense, the staff members around me lightened my load.

You mentioned at the beginning that you tried not to work on the animation itself too much; during production, how did you divide your time into different tasks?

I wasn’t the one allocating that time myself. I just did as I was told, so any success is due to the skill of the aforementioned staff who managed everything. The production costs are decided on beforehand. For example, we decide at the start roughly how many cuts each episode should be, so all I need to do is stay within that range. As such, my work as a director isn’t too different from the norm. But when there was something I needed to draw, I would do so before leaving the rest to others.

Do you mean times when it was just faster to draw something to get your point across?

There were places we didn’t have reference sheets for, like the school hallways, so I drew those myself. It ended up being a welcome break.

Everyday scenes given tension by omitting background music

In SSSS.Gridman, most of the scenes outside action segments don’t have background music. I enjoyed episode 1 without realizing that, and was taken by surprise later when I found out there was no music.

For the everyday scenes, I wanted to intentionally have it feel slightly dragged out. We show what we need to in a fun way, but I felt that the parts that are tedious needed to emphasize that very tedium. Adding music there fills in the gap. Introducing music to even a boring scene gives it a sense of progression, and removes the unease as the void is filled. But I felt we should create an atmosphere that brings home the sense of tedium, and feels just a bit too long.

You call it tedium, but I think for the viewers, it’s not a sense of boredom, but rather a tension that fills the work as a whole with the lack of music.

When you look at older anime, you’d be surprised how often scenes just don’t have music. I think there’s a trend in modern anime to add more music than before. You can just look at Anne of Green Gables, directed by Isao Takahata. The soundtrack has just a few tracks, and they do things like spend a quarter of an episode with Anne waiting for the train. I really love how it feels like you’re actually waiting.

A part of it is also that for SSSS.Gridman, we decided that we would go all out for the battle scenes, and thus it’d be okay to take it easy for the rest. When we set out to cut down on the music to make the flashy battle scenes stand out even more, we thought it might be more dramatic to just remove the background music entirely from the everyday scenes, and play Shiro Sagasu’s tracks during the battle scenes as the ordinary shifts to the extraordinary. And then it turned out to be surprisingly feasible when we actually tried it.

So there was a moment during the dubbing process (when the audio is added), where you thought it could work without background music.

Most of the everyday scenes don’t use background music, so instead we had Eiko Morikawa, who did the sound effects, add all sorts of realistic environmental sounds, which I think you can tell if you watch with headphones. It was only possible to take such care with the sound effects because of our comfortable schedule. It was something I myself had been interested in trying, so I’m glad we were able to have her contribute as such.

Let’s talk a little more about the everyday scenes. In a different interview, you talked about how you tried to not have too much movement for everyday scenes. I think that the art also played a large role in conveying the sense of tension in those scenes without the use of music.

How do I put it? I like drawings that don’t move, but can still sustain a scene. I want the fight scenes to have lots of motion. But for character moments, we tried to stay away from excessive motion and have only their gazes shift, for example. All while paying attention to small details like the size of their mouths.

So as an animator, you thought that if you paid attention to small details like those, it would be more than enough to sustain a scene, and the audience would get it.

As a last resort, I can always whip up a drawing and go, “Please make it look like this.” So I was prepared to do so and take responsibility if needed, but for SSSS.Gridman, there didn’t end up being much need for me to lend a hand that way. Now, for SSSS.Dynazenon, our animators have sharpened their skills even further, so it feels like I was able to take it easy.

For the everyday scenes, the camera may not move much, but the satisfying way the scenes are cut helps create tension.

I went from animator to director, but in between, I never got much of a chance to work as an episode director. As a result, I’ve suffered all sorts of setbacks. But also, there are parts where I’ve been disregarding some of the basic how-tos of episode direction out of ignorance.

This is to say that I’m aware that there are some parts that seem absurd on an episode direction level. And if you look closely, you’ll notice lots of places that are unnatural or have disconnected flow. But at the same time, in some of those places I intentionally removed elements I deemed unnecessary, and specifically gave instructions not to connect the cuts. Because of my limited experience as an episode director, I can shamelessly try things out like this as I see fit.

So you were going off what you thought worked and was interesting, and that’s why those scenes are cut as such, even if it may not abide by the episode directing playbook.

I feel like live-action ignores that kind of logical flow between scenes more often, and even more so when you look at tokusatsu. You can have a clear sunny scene when it had just been raining previously, and most people don’t take notice. So I thought SSSS.Gridman could do the same to the extent that the audience doesn’t notice. The editor got on board as well after I explained it. You could say it’s a bit of an eccentric anime.

On a similar note, the basic distinction we have is that the tokusatsu parts are 3DCG and the everyday parts are 2D animation. But there are lots of places where we actually do the opposite. I doubt there’s a viewer out there who can tell which parts are which with complete accuracy. There’s 3DCG that we made that resembles 2D animation, and some hand-drawn parts made to look like 3DCG. I doubt that it matters too much to the audience either way here as well.

Did you decide which parts would be 3DCG and which would be hand animated at the storyboarding stage?

We didn’t think it through that far at that stage. At first, I thought it might be nice to mix the 3DCG and 2D animation and highlight the contrast. But because the level of skill on both sides was much higher than I had imagined, it didn’t look out of place very much, which was a happy accident. And here as well, it was because we had a lot of leeway in our schedule that we were able to stop and reevaluate our work when we felt we had gone a bit too far.

What were the reasons you were able to stay on schedule?

I think a major reason was that the mechanical designs were decided on quickly. In the anime business, it’s not uncommon to have the designs take several months, holding up everything else. Then they’re completed after considerably missing deadlines, at which point everyone hurries to get everything done. But we mostly managed to finalize designs for Gridman and the kaiju on the second draft. The designers were all famous names I respected, so I’d be overcome with joy at what came back, and that’d be the end of it. What’s more, we handed over those designs to Graphinica to turn into 3D models as is. The modelers were very skilled, so we basically didn’t need to do anything on our end. I’m glad that we were able to spend more time on the characters because the robots and kaiju were finalized so quickly.

Rikka and Akane’s character designs

— Let’s talk about the character designs for SSSS.Gridman. Specifically, how did you go about designing the two heroines, Rikka and Akane?

Because it’s based on a tokusatsu series, I felt all the stronger about having the characters feel very anime. From the start, I wanted designs that would make anime fans want to watch, but we went back and forth a lot on the designs themselves. I lean on the plainer side when it comes to my approach to characters, while Masaru Sakamoto, the character designer, takes a much more anime-like approach. In the end, I think we ended up with a nice balance of the greatest common factors between the two. I was satisfied with the designs when they were finalized, but looking back on it, I feel like we could have gone in other directions as well.

Rikka and Akane ended up being very popular.

That wasn’t a part of our considerations when we were designing them; it just turned out that way. There was a style of design that I wanted to achieve. I created some strict rules, like intentionally staying away from easily distinguishable features like twintails, or having them move a certain way. Sakamoto tried his best to make them stand out while adhering to those restrictions, which is why I think they turned out as nice, simple designs befitting of heroines. It’s not easy drawing characters with fewer distinguishing features, so I’m glad that a lot of artists have taken the time to draw them.

Akane seems like the kind of heroine that viewers might end up hating. Or should I say, a lot of her words and actions go overboard.

Rather than a heroine, her position was actually supposed to be that of the villain, but I was surprised at how much viewers were okay with. I didn’t think we would get away with having a character do things like crushing the pastry under her foot, but we needed to show it to establish her as a villain. I’m happy people ended up taking a liking to her.

It almost seemed like the more awfully Akane behaved, the more captivating she became.

You could say that by going that far, it actually served to further establish her personality.

How far had the production for SSSS.Gridman progressed by the time the first episode aired?

The production was in its final stages. It started airing at the beginning of October, and we wrapped up production that same month. We had actually been aiming to have everything delivered by the end of September, before it aired. But various circumstances meant that a part of the work got pushed back. If it hadn’t been for that, we would have finished the production before it aired.

That really is a healthy schedule.

We were able to dub episode 1 with almost-final footage. Full-color dubbing had apparently been a goal of Masahiko Otsuka, the president of Studio Trigger, ever since he started the studio. But he had something else come up, and wasn’t able to make it to the dubbing session for episode 1. The producer seemed crestfallen that Otsuka couldn’t be there to see his dream finally fulfilled. Thanks to the fact that the footage was almost complete by the dubbing stage, we were able to bring our A-game and do things like match the sound effects to the footage, as I mentioned earlier.

Dyna Dragon, the origin of SSSS.Dynazenon

After SSSS.Gridman’s popularity, when was it decided to create a follow-up?

I heard this after the fact, but the conversation of making a follow-up started while SSSS.Gridman was still airing, and there were apparently even talks of announcing a sequel confirmation in the last episode if things had progressed quickly enough. When I heard that, I thought, “For real? How sadistic.

After all, SSSS.Gridman ended in such a satisfying way, to the point where you could call it a perfect ending.

We never imagined there would be a continuation, so we made the final episode with the assumption that there would be nothing more.

In another interview, you talked about how SSSS.Gridman was a work where you gave everything you could, but that there were also some loose ends left, in a good way.

That’s right. Some of that comes from seeing reactions from all the different viewers as it aired, though.

After it was decided that a follow-up would be made, did it take a while until you settled on the project that would become SSSS.Dynazenon?

It really did take a while. How that unfolded is too complicated a story to explain it all briefly. I knew all too well that there were people out there who wanted a proper sequel to SSSS.Gridman, but the finality of the ending made that difficult. However, there was one element that we didn’t touch on in SSSS.Gridman that we could use as a starting point. That was Dyna Dragon.

When SSSS.Dynazenon was announced, I didn’t understand why it was called SSSS.Dynazenon, and yet had Gridman the Hyper Agent listed as the original work, like SSSS.Gridman did. But apparently fans of the original picked up on the “Dyna” bit immediately.

We didn’t have enough room for it in composing a series for a single cours during SSSS.Gridman, and so we intentionally left out the Dyna Dragon. That being said, it’s not that we wanted to leave ourselves room in case of a sequel. We just simply couldn’t fit it in there. However, during the recording sessions, Hikaru Midorikawa, who plays Gridman, kept telling us, “I see you didn’t include Dyna Dragon. I hope you make a sequel with Dyna Dragon in it.” At the time, I said I’d think about it. When it came time to think about a follow-up, I was encouraged by the idea that there must be other viewers who felt the same way he did.

Having watched up to episode 2 of SSSS.Dynazenon, all the characters are new, and even when the fight against kaiju is over, the city doesn’t go back to normal like in SSSS.Gridman.

SSSS.Gridman ended itself nicely, so the staff as a whole wanted to try new things that we hadn’t done there. Akane’s story reached its conclusion, so her coming back would mean breaking our promise with the viewers, which we didn’t want to do. If we were going to make something new, we wanted to respect that. We intentionally restricted ourselves in places like that, challenging ourselves to create something just as interesting as SSSS.Gridman using only the Dyna Dragon.

— That makes sense.

That meant we couldn’t use the funniest part, with Gridman popping up on the computer screen to get a word in, and Akane’s not here, either. It was a fresh start, much like trying to serve up plain white rice at a gyudon restaurant, and somehow get you to say that it’s delicious.

SSSS.Dynazenon as another gateway to the original Gridman

One thing that stood out as I watched the first two episodes was seeing Yomogi and Yume’s relationships with their parents. It seems like something that wasn’t there in SSSS.Gridman.

One rule we had in SSSS.Gridman was to avoid showing adults too much, so you could say this is our answer to that. Similarly, SSSS.Dynazenon has 4v4 team battles because we wanted to have everyone fight this time, as opposed to SSSS.Gridman, where it’s basically just Yuta fighting while everyone else just watches. That way, we can do things we didn’t do last time, and avoid doing things we did last time. We worked out the plot hoping people would see those kinds of contrast as they watched the show. We worked to create the show in a way so that the people who watched SSSS.Gridman could be taken by surprise, but at the same time so that those who only watched SSSS.Dynazenon would still understand it.

It’s true that there’d be no problem for people starting with SSSS.Dynazenon.

Just like SSSS.Gridman, we created the show hoping that it could serve as a gateway to the original tokusatsu series, Gridman the Hyper Agent.

In the 3DCG scene where we first see Dynazenon, I could tell that it was a step up from what we saw in SSSS.Gridman. This observation may be off the mark, but I was surprised to see the combined robot form first before it transforms into Dynarex, the dinosaur form, in the climax. It’s an unusual order.

The original Gridman has Dyna Dragon, a dragon mecha, and that’s its main form. In SSSS.Dynazenon, the robot form is the more iconic of the two, but we wanted to have the dinosaur form take the spotlight like so. Also, Dynarex is the more difficult form for us to animate, so we wanted to limit its appearance from a production standpoint as well…

Just as we did in SSSS.Gridman, the story for SSSS.Dynazenon was written with the configurations of the mecha designs in mind. You could say we were pretending to try and sell toys. We thought of the premise of each episode to go with the mecha designs, and then worked out the broad ideas for the story. From there, the specifics of how each episode presented itself were left for writer Keiichi Hasegawa to fine-tune, and I think he made everything easy to understand.

If you don’t mind, could you share how the production for SSSS.Dynazenon is currently? (Note from the editor: This interview was conducted in early March.)

The production of the series ended quite a while ago. At the beginning, our schedule was even better than for SSSS.Gridman, and at the time of dubbing, we had color footage.

So it’s already complete. We won’t see the response from the fans to the series until they’ve had a chance to see it, but how do you feel about the work you’ve done this time?

All of the staff members have grown even more since last time, and their quality work meant that I had a fairly easy time as director. I felt at the time that I had done a good job for my first time for SSSS.Gridman, but SSSS.Dynazenon went even more smoothly. There were many experienced people on staff who had built up the knowledge from last time, and those who were new this time around delivered quality work as well. For me, it was a positive experience all throughout, and I really enjoyed my time working on it. I feel blessed in my work.

If you could leave us with a few words for fans looking forward to further developments on SSSS.Dynazenon.

I think it should be a fun and fresh experience for both those who have watched SSSS.Gridman and those who haven’t. It goes without saying that SSSS.Dynazenon would not have been possible without everyone who supported SSSS.Gridman. So in that sense, we’ve worked hard to create something that will meet those people’s expectations, as well as parts that go against expectations in a good way.

The plot makes use of various devices, and the characters and mecha contain visual hints to analyze and help shed light on the story. We wanted people to enjoy the visuals on a storytelling level as well, so I hope people can take notice of those elements on repeated watches.

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