For the moment, SSSS Gridman is coasting high on raw adrenaline and exhilaration; it offers, every week, exciting and good-looking giant monster fights with a scope for destruction and spectacle its roots in live-action superhero shows cannot match. Freed from constraints of what can be done with modelwork, stunts and costuming on a TV budget, there is a full-on sense of scale. In episode 3, the characters comment that twice now the city has been destroyed and twice it has been rebuilt overnight. This is plot-relevant, but it is also a nudge at the transiency of collateral damage in disaster-focused action series that I quite appreciate.
Merely considering the human cost, emotional damage and logistical nighmare of constant rebuilding after week-in, week-out apocalypses is enough to get a series in the superhero or super robot genre considered – by some critics – deconstructive or cerebral. There is a sort of blithe expectation that the weekly mass destruction of monster-of-the-week stories traditionally goes unquestioned and there is the sense, sometimes, of an assumption that it takes series that specifically set out to be deconstructive to consider the possibility that this isn’t the case. This is, of course, fundamentally untrue, but a lot of the most interesting examples have for a long time lain unavailable to watch legally overseas. Examples exist from the start of these narrative considerations, but there are equally examples of series where individual adventures may as well occur in a vacuum.
None of this is particularly interesting to discuss in the simple context of shows about giant things fighting commenting directly on how transient the damage seems to be. I am not here to write an article about super-robot series that care about logistics or rebuilding (just watch Dai-Guard.) The mystery of SSSS Gridman is that this does happen and it seems to happen for a reason, not simply out of dramatic convenience. And, indeed, that it is nowhere near that simple. The buildings reappear. The people forget there was ever a fight. Except the heroes. This is the really exciting mystery here; the villains seem to have the ability to remove people from the timeline by means of their massive destruction, the city-smashing action being a mere sideshow reset each week but the intended victims of the attack not just killed but deleted from history.
There is immense power here and it is purely in the hands of a dangerous, petulant child. Which is one of the bits of SSSS Gridman closest to the original and the bit that most ably leaps over the immense potential it had to go badly wrong. For people unfamiliar with the original Gridman series, one of the human henchmen of the villain, Takeshi, was a stuck-up, petulant student who hated modern life and peoples’ obsession with technology. Gridman was a series fairly enthusiastic about mod cons and technological progress, and Takeshi’s frustration at modernity was the source of his evil as he attacked mobile phones, hospitals, microwaves and the water board. To be absolutely blunt stories about technophilia and the relationship of modern life with technology are going to be divisive in their time and easily outdated.
I am unsure Gatchaman Crowds’ messages of how the ability to raise a popular movement more powerful than traditional authorities is the benefit of social media, and how cyber-bullying and misinformation can be silenced by turning your phone off and promoting the truth politely are really that valid predictions in an age when it is the fake news and propaganda that is doing so well by social media, and it is the people trying to push for moderation that end up getting derided. It was a series that tried very hard to reflect in science-fiction form the state of the modern world and make optimistic predictions – that there would be no chance for fake news and misinformation to spread and rouse mobs if the truth could be spread faster, that social media would allow people to act faster than inefficient public services and so on. Those were, indeed, reasonable predictions for the time (even if I felt as a whole it was a little too charitable on the intentions of tech giants). Now, though, after having seen how easily the opposite has occurred and misinformation drowns out truth – with social media the key vector – it is sad to say the predictions were too optimistic. Were SSSS Gridman to take the same tack, to have a Takeshi-esque villain fighting to get kids off their phones and so on, it would risk misrepresenting or oversimplifying the arguments about the reliance on technology that modern social systems create, and almost certainly feel to some degree or other wrong. Yet it would also, paradoxically, be true to its giant hero and Ultraman-esque roots. Ultraman has never been shy in boldly saying what it thinks about abuse of technology, about scientific hubris and about the environment. That is one of its strengths, that the conflicts tend to be driven by man’s weakness. I just personally feel that in 2018 the whole argument about the merits or failings of technology is such a mess that a series about a huge guy punching monsters summoned by a whiny nerd angry that his parents phone him rather than visiting would oversimplify the issue in a way that would satisfy nobody.
Thankfully it is not a series trying to come up with some serious message about the amount we use phones or computers, because what we have is something significantly better (so far). Akane, the series’ analogue to Takeshi, is even more pointlessly petty. Her mass destruction isn’t driven by particular dissatisfaction with grand social issues, an attempt to force change via misguided activism, she genuinely has so warped a moral compass she thinks the best way to respond to someone making her drop her sandwich is to summon a monster and atomise them with its fire breath, and then erase them from history. And then the following episode attempt to do the same to someone she bumped into in a corridor.
The thematic beats of Gridman that matter are being hit – an alien intelligence manipulates someone with a stunning lack of capacity for reasonable responses to perceived slights into doing their dirty work – but instead of dated references to modernity there is just the subtle hint that Akane is a high school sociopath given unlimited power to do harm by the internet. And there, I suppose, the series is hitting on some deeper themes about man’s relationship with his computer; an internet-based being has radicalised a student with anger control issues to sociopathic acts. Much like, I suppose, extremist politics have become so pervasive in Youtube algorithms that the far right has seen a resurgence. Is SSSS Gridman’s voice in the computer encouraging a social outcast to kill the person who made her drop her lunch so different to the effect InfoWars or 4chan’s politics board may have on impressionable young people?