This article contains spoilers for episodes 1-10 of SSSS.GRIDMAN
When it started, SSSS.GRIDMAN seemed to be angling itself as a show that survived on style over substance. If you’re out of the loop, the gist is this – SSSS.GRIDMAN is a reboot/sequel to the original live action tokusatsu series Gridman The Hyper-Agent, probably better known in the U.S. as the source material for Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad. GRIDMAN centers around Yuta, an amnesiac high schooler, and his two friends, distant Rikka and incredibly nerdy Utsumi. Together they form the so-called “Gridman Alliance”. And, with the help of the titular character, they defend their city against attacks by kaiju–giant monsters (think Godzilla/Gojira if you’re not familiar with the broader term). Gridman himself is a giant living robot that Yuta must enter an old, decaying computer at the junk shop Rikka’s mother owns to “pilot”, essentially merging himself with the mechanoid.
From all this description you might assume that the initial reading of the show, mentioned above, was correct. This bears out to a point, as the show’s early episodes were mostly sold on two specific merits. Firstly, the top-notch visual work; consisting of a mix of lovely CGI, fluid traditional animation, and hand-drawn (and painstakingly detailed!) backgrounds. Secondly, there were the fights; high-action affairs with a surprising amount of weight to them, packed full of flash and, more often than not, loving references to the original Gridman, other tokusatsu series (such as the more well-known Ultraman), and peculiarly, the Transformers franchise. These episodes, comprising roughly the first half of the series, were fun on their own merits. Though they were unfortunately marred by a tendency for tasteless fan service, the appeal was straightforward and easy to see.
As early as a few episodes in though, it seemed like SSSS.GRIDMAN might be heading somewhere stranger and headier. This isn’t without precedent in the genre-space that GRIDMAN is working in. Certain episodes of the Ultraman franchise (especially those directed by one Akio Jissoji) were a big influence on Neon Genesis Evangelion. So to see GRIDMAN tackling some similar thematic ground–albeit from a different perspective–isn’t that strange. What might be surprising though is the ease that GRIDMAN leans into its weirder elements with, by the time you realize the series has gotten a bit odd, it’s already been far more than just Gridman slugging giant rubbery monsters for several episodes.
Akane Shinjo, the series’ nominal antagonist (alongside the mysterious Alexis Kerib), has probably always been the real “main character” of SSSS.GRIDMAN, and is the center of these headier tendencies. Creating the kaiju that Gridman fights against by carving them out of wood is interesting enough, but from the start, she was the character about whom we knew the least, and was therefore the most interesting.
Progressive revelations about the nature of her character–early on as the main villain, and then later as the “God” of the world that the series takes place in (which turns out to be a simulated reality) have in many ways only deepened the mystery. Akane is an otaku, and in the show’s first half is painted as someone utterly consumed by the darkest parts of her hobby. If that was all there was to the character though she’d simply be one of not a few characters in the medium’s history to take this tack. Instead, the show continues to add more layers to the character. Early on we learned that much of her kaiju-driven murder is fueled by petty revenge.
Episode 6 is where we get the “God” revelation, and subsequent stories have continued to expand on her character in interesting ways. By now, we know that Akane is deeply depressed, actively running away from the world to the sanctuary of the virtual reality she controls, and desperately trying to understand why the main cast (who we learned in episodes 7 and 8 are also her creations in at least some sense) don’t love her like they’re “supposed” to.
This comes back to one of GRIDMAN’s larger themes, which is reinterpreting “kaiju” as a sort of metaphor. In the series’ parlance, a kaiju refers just as much to any human being who’s let their desires override their empathy as it does to the literal giant monsters. Equating the two makes a certain kind of sense, someone who is powerful and willing to use other people as tools rather than treating them as equals can cause just as much damage (if in a much more subtle way) than a rampaging beast. In Akane’s case, the simple, near-universal human desire for acceptance has run out of control.
As the series enters its final stretch, the two most recent episodes of GRIDMAN–the 9th and 10th, at the time of this writing, have gone a long way to further flesh out this allegory in general, and Akane’s arc in particular. In the 9th episode, Akane traps the Gridman Alliance in a dream world. Each of them, lost within this dream-space and allowed to interact with her but not each other, still manage to find their way out, and Akane is devastated. Subsequently, by the 10th episode, she’s snapped completely, and the episode ends with her stabbing Yuta. Certainly “solving her problem” in a sense, but doing so heartlessly. By now, Akane Shinjo has become a kaiju.
In the other direction we have Anti, a supporting character whose arc is in many ways a direct inversion of Akane’s own so far. Initially one of her kaiju creations, Anti abandoned his master, initially focused solely on the goal of destroying Gridman. Over time, though, the empathy shown to him by the rest of the cast, and the realization that his goal is ultimately futile, have transformed Anti from a kaiju into a person. This is hammered home by the most recent episode as well, where Anti uses his “copy” power to fully become a clone of Gridman (as the “Gridknight”), thus making his transformation from kaiju to human literal.
This is all rather heady ground for a show like this to cover. It’s far from unprecedented–either within GRIDMAN‘s specific genre-space or within anime in general–but it’s a refreshing change of pace nonetheless. It’s hard to say where exactly GRIDMAN is going to take its story in its final few episodes. Many plot threads (especially what exactly Alexis Kerib’s entire deal is) remain unresolved. What we can say with confidence though, is that it’s going to remain one to follow.