This show has one of the odder origin stories. Not within the show, I mean the origin of the show itself.
Back in the strange television wasteland that was the early 1990s, Tsuburaya Productions, the company responsible for the Ultraman franchise, was on a bit of a break from its most famous creation. They hadn't made an Ultraman series since 1980's imaginatively titled Ultraman 80; although a couple of licensed Ultraman series were made in English-speaking countries in the early '90s, Tsuburaya themselves wouldn't make another one until Ultraman Tiga* in 1996.
In 1993, perhaps missing a bit of that giant superhero action, Tsuburaya made a TV show called Denkō Chōjin Gridman ("Lightning Superman Gridman", sometimes rendered Hyper Agent Gridman in English). Gridman is... weird. Like, really weird. It's as if someone at Tsuburaya stayed up way too late one night and thought, What if we crossed Ultraman with Tron?
You see, like Tsuburaya's more famous characters, Gridman is a giant superhero of alien origin (it's suggested that he's actually from another dimension), but, as his name might tend to suggest, he lives and fights giant monsters inside "the computer world", not in the actual streets of Tokyo. Real-world consequences of his battles are thus limited to whatever weirdness is caused when the computers go haywire because there is a giant monster battle happening in, and wrecking large swathes of, cyberspace.
The thing is, like certain other fictional properties of the early '90s (yes, I'm looking at you, ReBoot), Gridman is a show about computers that seems to have been written by people who had heard of computers, but didn't know anything about them. (It sometimes feels likely that the writers of Gridman had never actually seen one. :) The effects which Gridman's battles in The Computer World have on the real world are hilariously impossible. Example: In one scene in the first episode, the monster's targeting of a hospital's computers is reflected not in the hospital's scheduling system going down, or the power failing, or perhaps the accounting computer mistakenly billing patients for procedures they never had; no, instead, an operating room in which a young boy is being treated for acute appendicitis is suddenly filled with arcs of lightning and inexplicably levitating surgical instruments, as if the place has been invaded by an unlikely and bothersome team-up of a feral Pikachu and a poltergeist with a grudge against the medical profession.
Couple that with the high, high visual standards of early-1990s "live actor matted into CG scenery" technology and you have one strange-ass viewing experience. Gridman is a relic from a simpler time, a time when Japanese audiences would happily put up with shows that neither made sense nor looked good as long as the premise was interesting and the presentation was sincere. And Gridman's presentation is certainly sincere. The actors all come across like they're in a Very Special Episode of ABC After School Special. (The quality of script and direction they have to work with is similar as well.) This nonsense is Serious Business as far as they're concerned. :)
Cut to North America, where Art Metrano and Harry Connick eat pizza and buy ties for their stupid girlfriends and Harry Truman gets off a plane by the sewage dump and then a blind guy goes by and says, "Help me," what the hell was that supposed to be?! DiC Entertainment, eyeing the success of repackaged tokusatsu shows like Mighty Morphin [sic] Power Rangers and Big Bad Beetleborgs, set themselves the task of coming up with something like that, only based on a show that is not as good and given an even dumber title. They succeeded wildly in both respects, because what they came up with was a series built around the battle footage from Gridman and called Superhuman Samurai Syber [sic] Squad.
Oddly for one of those shows, SSSS was produced with the actual cooperation and input of Tsuburaya, rather than just using Western actors and a pair of scissors like Haim Saban did to make the original MMPR. Among other things, this meant that the props and sound effects matched. On the other hand, it was still based on the fight footage from Gridman, with its iffy matte effects and hilariously bad CGI backgrounds, so it still wasn't a very good show. I was just at the wrong age to really get into any of these shows, besides a mild 20s-ironic flirtation with Power Rangers (which mostly consisted of seeing the first movie with Derek a few times), but I remember running across it a few times on cable and thinking it looked pretty bad even by the liberal standards of that kind of program.
By the time SSSS started airing, Tsuburaya had put its international adventures behind it and started work on the Heisei-era Ultra shows, starting with the aforementioned Ultraman Tiga. Gridman and SSSS lived out their runs and then faded into a well-deserved obscurity.
Until a year or two ago, when someone at Tsuburaya was apparently looking around for a project that needed doing and thought, Well, there's Gridman... oh, and the Americans did that other show that was based on it. Why don't we make an anime series based on both of them?
So... that's what they did. That's what the SSSS in SSSS.Gridman stands for. It's a mashup of Gridman and Superhuman Samurai Syber [sic] Squad. And it is just as weird as that sentence suggests it must be. The thing is that, at least over the first three episodes (that's all I've watched so far), although it's based on two television shows that were bad, SSSS.Gridman somehow manages not to be terrible. In fact it's pretty good.
I mean, the visuals are a lot better, but you would expect that from animation produced in the late 2010s as opposed to live-action-plus-CG from 1993. It's not just that, though; it's also better-written. Weird and trippy, yes, but one gets the sense that the general vibe of "I can't be sure what the hell is actually going on here" is cultivated instead of accidental. It feels like it's leading somewhere, rather than just being a function of the show being an incoherent mess.
It also feels, unlike the original series, like it was made by people who were having fun. For example, it's relentlessly referential to its origins—not just Gridman and SSSS, but Tsuburaya in general. One of the main characters (the Third Guy, who is not one of the deuteragonists but isn't quite a secondary character either) is an Ultraman fan and routinely remarks about the similarity of various situations they're in (mainly involving giant monsters attacking the city) to how things generally go in the Ultra series. Gridman's "manifest, then grow to giant size" thing is shown from above just like pretty much every Ultraman's, too.
Tonally, it reminds me a little of the Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova anime, in that Very Serious Things are happening, but at the same time you can never trust it not to just haul out the slapstick in the same scene. There's a group of characters who are apparently personifications of Gridman's inevitable power-up equipment, and although frighteningly capable, they are also idiots. For instance, one of them, Samurai Caliber (who turns into a giant sword for Gridman to wield), carries a bunch of very long swords crossways on his back, and although he possesses superhuman agility and combat prowess, he can't walk through a door without banging them into the doorframe and falling down. In the third episode, while the Female Deuteragonist and the Third Guy are trying to get an emotional handle on the apparent deaths of Gridman, Caliber, and their friend the Male Deuteragonist, three more of the "personified power-ups" characters randomly show up and do this whole comedy scene about ordering lattes.
I'm finding it to be good fun so far. It's not a "deconstruction" of the genre the way, e.g., Evangelion was; it doesn't have that mean-spirited "revenge" vibe to it. More like it's somewhere between there and the bald-faced celebration of all the clichés King of Braves Gaogaigar was—aware of its own absurdity, but having fun with it rather than trying to make you feel like a dick for enjoying it.
Of course, there are nine episodes left, so there's still plenty of time for it all to go horribly wrong, but so far I think it's very promising.
* Not to be confused with this year's Ultraman Taiga. Seriously.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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