Sometimes a reaction to a show feels so diverse that I wonder if the two sides are legitimately watching the same show.
A few months back, I watched SSSS. Gridman, along with everyone else in the #Anitwitwatches crew. It’s a group organized by Jon Spencer Reviews that I’ve been part of for over a year now, and we watch a couple of episodes of a show every Monday. Right now, we’re a good part of the way through Shin Sekai Yori.
What struck me about people’s reaction to Gridman was just how negative it was. It ranged from mild disinterest to rage-hating the show. Granted, I’m not sure how much the rage hate was a joke, but it definitely felt real.
I think there were two or, maybe three, of us who were on, “Yay! Gridman!” island. There have been few shows that I’ve watched during #Anitwitwatches that I have felt that much joy watching. Like a lot of Trigger shows (or sort of Trigger shows), it evoked the kind of GAR that I felt watching Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
It’s hard for me to describe the child-like excitement I felt when the Gridman would take on a new form, so it could overcome some new bad guy.
If entertainment is about being entertained, well, Gridman accomplished that.
While I thought I was one of a few people on “Yay! Gridman!” island, I evidently wasn’t. After my last batch of tweets concerning the end of the show, I got a tweet from someone else I respect, saying that it was their favorite show of the 2018 season. At the time, I thought I was just being joined by one more person on Gridman Island.
But then Jamal from the Get in the Mecha podcast put up a tweet wondering why Gridman didn’t get the respect that other Trigger shows do. His tweet was in the light of another show that has become a darling of the season, SSSS. Dynazenon. That put at least two heavy-hitters with me.
Then the response to Jamal’s tweet was overwhelmingly positive as well. People suggested the audience for tokusatsu isn’t here in the west. Others suggested that people just don’t have any taste.
The amusing thing is that I don’t feel entirely at home in the camp of saying SSSS. Gridman is perfect either. As much as it pains me to admit it, Jon Spencer is correct. Gridman is a show at war with itself. While I love the spectacle and the surface-level storytelling, those aspects stand in stark contrast to what the show is trying to accomplish thematically.
At it’s heart, the show is trying to make an argument that escapism is abusive. There are a couple different ways to read this depending on what metaphorical role you assign Akane. Either Akane, the creator, abuses her creation and is being abused by her corporate overlords.
Or Akane, who is seeking to escape from the real world, is taking out her anger on her self-made prison and is, in turn, being abused by it.
Either way, this discussion about escapism is struggling against the pieces of the show that are escapist fiction.
As much as I think SSSS. Gridman succeeds on a plot and spectacle level; it fails to live up to its ambition. And I have an idea why. Or at least a useful comparison point for a show that did similar things better.
Yep. I’m going to bring up anime’s favorite boogeyman — Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The Angels of Evangelion
Look. If I had a better example, I would use it. Like any critical fan, I hate relying on the 25-year-old crutch that is talking about Eva when I need an example of a show doing something right. Not only that, this is an argument I have made before.
But, as much as it pains me to say it, I don’t have a better example to use for what I’m talking about.
So, the short version is that the Angels in Evangelion don’t matter.
Yes. I’m sure there is someone who has tuned out at this point, but, for those that haven’t, what I said there is kind of misleading. The Angels are essential because they provide an enemy for the Eva pilots. Still, everything about them is meant to highlight the internal and interpersonal battles that Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Misato and others are facing.
The Angels don’t have any country. They don’t have any allegiances. They don’t have a philosophy. Their only goal is some sort of vague desire to reach Adam.
Likewise, their form is dictated by the struggle that the characters need to overcome. Need to have Shinji and Rei have a moment together, make an angel that fires over long distances where one person is a sniper the other one is the shield.
Want to explore Shinji’s underlying feelings of abandonment, create an angel that sucks him into an alternate dimension.
Want to show how Shinji and Asuka are facing similar struggles, make an angel that forces them to work together.
The angels are an extension of the internal struggles rather than representing some competing ideology or country. If the creators could accomplish that by having them be pony-sized ducks, then they would be pony-sized ducks. Or they would be giant blocks of tofu.
They also serve a larger purpose to the show. For lack of a better term, the Angels provide spectacle. I don’t think it’s possible to watch Eva and avoid the story it’s trying to tell about communication and trauma, but, if you could, there is an enjoyable show about giant toys smashing into each other that still remains.
Now, it’s entirely possible to have the opposite of Evangelion. In fact, it’s more common to have the giant monster/giant robot to represent some philosophy or desire and the giant robot to struggle against that. The Big O does this a lot. Many of the robots/creatures in The Big O represent man’s destructive nature or man’s desire to understand the world around us.
The Big O often reacts in opposition to that desire. It represents a pro-social force. If you’re going to create something, do it responsibly and with society in mind.
Again, these are my theories. Your mileage may vary.
But getting back to the point, in Gridman, the kaiju don’t matter, but in a completely different way.
The Struggle between Spectacle and Theme
One of the things I found strange when I was watching Gridman is that we learn really early that Akane is the force behind the kaiju. Normally, I would expect this to be an episode 9 turn. Basically, there would be a friendship built up between Yuta and Akane, and then BAM, down comes the hammer.
Instead, we learn in episode 2 that she is behind the kaiju and that they are the instrument of her rage. We know that Akane is deeply unhappy and uses the kaiju to express that.
The problem is that beyond being an embodiment of that rage, the kaiju don’t really mean anything.
Much like the angels, the kaiju of Gridman exist to provide spectacle and excitement to the show. They are something for our heroes to struggle against. They are exciting and do exciting things.
What they don’t do, though, is highlight some internal struggle between the characters. (Well, except for one case, and that one is more the exception than the rule.)
Now, there are several reasons for this. Arguably, the show, on a plot level, is just not that concerned with the conflict between Akane and Yuta and the gang. For the most part, Akane molding the kaiju is separate from Yuta and the team fighting the kaiju.
It’s not a surprise that some of the show’s best moments are when Rikka, Utsumi or Yuta come into contact or conflict with Akane. These always happen outside of the kaiju fights.
Second, as much as I hate to say it, Yuta really doesn’t have much going for him as a character. I can sum up his character primarily as “Rah. Rah. Gridman.” His internal struggle is when he loses confidence in “Rah. Rah. Gridman.” While occasionally the themes of escapism and abuse crop up around his character, it’s rare, and it’s not exceptionally nuanced when it does.
So the problem is that beyond providing spectacle, the kaiju don’t really DO anything. And when half of an episode is taken up fighting them, you really end up with two different stories. One that is about escapism and abuse and one that is about giant toys smashing against each other.
There is a way to avoid this, but it would have required exploring why Gridman was there. What he represented. Why Akane was running away.
Much like The Big O, there could have been a story that co-opted the tokusatsu battles as a way to explore the show’s themes.
If you want an example of where this works, I will point to episode 9. Literally, this is an entire episode that puts Akane and Yuta and the gang into direct competition. She creates a kaiju that sucks them into a fantasy world where they need to fight their desires. Yes, it is the old trope that if you make a world that is too perfect, people will rebel, but it’s still masterfully executed.
And it shows the conflict between wanting a safe world where nothing challenges you and the desire for a real world where you can struggle and grow stronger.
There is an old saw about people appreciating shows with ambition that fail to shows without it that succeed. As someone who likes trashy, pulp shows I can’t entirely agree with that. I appreciate any series that sets out with a goal in mind and achieves that goal, even if it’s solely to entertain me.
But there is a certain appeal to the noble failure. The story that tries to do something exciting but didn’t quite live up to those expectations.
There are other issues with Gridman, but they essentially boil down to a weirdly unresolved love story and the tragic underuse of Utsumi. They are relatively small in my mind to the more significant issue with the show.
As much as I can see it earning derision for not achieving its goals, the effort is still there. And even more than that, I would still hold that the spectacle makes it worth it.
So, for now, I will safely stay in my little outpost on “Yay! Gridman!” island, where I will examine the bones of the show that was and the show that could have been.
And hope that Akane is having a better day.
And, as always, thanks for reading.