Baby dan dan! Baby dan dan! Anti heroes!
Just to warn folks: this article contains spoilers for WandaVision and SSSS.Gridman.
In 2021, in the middle of a pandemic and floundering movie theaters, the most discussed show of the year so far is Marvel's WandaVision. Fans and culture writers have been busy diving deep into what the show is about. Is WandaVision a successful portrait of the process of grief? Does it successfully humanize Wanda, a character who’s so far evaded the spotlight given to characters like Iron Man or Captain America? Is “what is grief but love persevering” a good or a bad line? Where was Mephisto in all this? Most difficult of all: in allowing Wanda some relief and kind words after she brainwashes an entire town into doing exactly what she says, does the show let her off the hook?
Listening to my friends and coworkers argue over this show over the past few weeks reminded me of one of my favorite anime of the past few years — a series that tackled themes of grief, nostalgia, and whether a monster can be redeemed. A series that predates WandaVision by three years and has a sequel coming out next month. That’s right, I’m talking about SSSS.Gridman!
Like WandaVision, SSSS.Gridman is a show about a girl (Akane) who escapes to a bubble world when life becomes too much for her to bear. She uses special technology to manipulate people’s awareness, and through the power of a mysterious entity known as Alexis Kerib, summons giant monsters (kaiju) to murder those she doesn’t like. Our heroes, a trio of her classmates who join forces with the space cop Gridman to defeat the kaiju endangering their friends, eventually turn their attention to saving Akane, the “god” of their world, from herself. They do this over the course of 12 episodes and many exciting, well-choreographed battles.
While Yuta (Gridman’s friend and partner) is technically the protagonist, Akane quickly steals the show as the most developed and layered character in the series. She’s capable of astonishing violence in the pursuit of her own happiness, but just as easily bruised when her plans fail and her creations turn against her. We see the moments when she regrets her actions, but also the moments where she makes terrible decisions despite knowing their costs. Just like Takeshi, the villain of SSSS.Gridman’s live-action predecessor, Akane is defined by weakness as much as strength. Even when her actions put other people at risk, they are driven as much by anxiety and fear as they are by hate.
Just like with WandaVision, there was plenty of discussion as Gridman aired about whether or not Akane could be redeemed. Like Wanda, Akane has hurt and even killed many people. At times she even attempts to manipulate them. Yet at the end of the series, when she “opens the door” to Yuta and her friends and escapes Alexis Kerib’s influence, I was overjoyed. How could this be?
Here’s my guess. Like WandaVision, Gridman isn’t just a show that attempts to humanize a villain. It is a show about nostalgia. As each episode of WandaVision is an obsessively detailed homage to American sitcoms, Gridman is a 12-episode love letter to live-action dramas and giant robot shows. Obscure alternate universe Transformers tie-ins, past episodes of Ultraman, Gridman scripts and guidebooks that were never produced — it’s all there, packed in not just by the dedicated staff but presumably through scriptwriter Keichi Hasegawa, himself a legendary Ultraman writer.
Unlike Takeshi, Akane is a cool, stylish teenage girl. But deep down, she’s as much a geek as Takashi was, fiendishly dedicated to kaiju and robot shows. The kaiju she creates aren’t just a means by which she exerts control over the world, but an expression of her love. When Gridman destroys these kaiju to protect Yuta’s friends, Akane can’t help but take those losses personally. It’s not just the desecration of her favorite hobby. The failure of her creations is a consequence of her own lack of imagination. She can’t imagine any other way to manage her problems than to create a bubble world where everyone loves her.
The trick of SSSS.Gridman is that while Yuta and his friends are the heroes, Akane is the true audience surrogate. How many of us also feel as though we are ostracized nerds with low self-esteem? How many use our favorite shows or games as an escape? In WandaVision, we see how Wanda watches sitcoms as a child as a way to cope with daily uncertainty. There’s nothing wrong with sitcoms; the creators of WandaVision clearly love them, having built such an elaborate homage to them. But if you spend the time watching sitcoms that you could be using to sleep or to eat (or, say, turning a town of people into a sitcom to avoid dealing with the death of your lover) then something will inevitably give.
In Episode 9 of Gridman, Akane traps Yuta and his friends within their dreams in a last-ditch effort to turn them to her side. Each rejects her, choosing their responsibility to their friends rather than their god. At the end of the episode, we see that Akane, herself, is trapped in a dream. Despite holding unlimited power, all she can do is retreat further and further into a shell that she has built out of her own self-loathing. It is a shell that not even a superhero like Gridman can break. In the end, at the very last moment and with the help of her friends, Akane breaks it on her own.
You could point at other similarities between WandaVision and what SSSS.Gridman did back in 2018, if you really wanted to. For instance, the way that both series (through Vision and Anti) approach the question of personhood and what it means to be a “monster” or a “robot.” You could parallel the efforts of Yuta, Rikka, and their friends to pull Akane out of her hole with the way Monica Rambeau becomes an empowered hero surrogate in WandaVision. If I would point at one way in which Gridman differs from WandaVision, it is how Gridman’s embrace of live-action superhero shows and giant robots better lends itself to a finale where human evil is punched into submission. By comparison, by the time Wanda starts throwing energy balls around in WandaVision, it jars with the sitcom homage and character study of earlier episodes.
All things said, at the end of the day I prefer Ultraman and giant robots punching each other to Cheers and Marvel films. That’s not to say the latter is worse; it’s more a matter of personal taste. Either way, I’m glad that art continues to be made that grapples with the messy contradictions of human behavior. Though I’ll suggest: if you’re looking for genuinely challenging, ahead-of-its-time source material for a Marvel adaptation, X-Statix is right there!
Did you watch WandaVision as it aired? Are you looking forward to SSSS DYNAZENON? Will we ever see an animated adaptation of Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye? Let us know in the comments!
Adam W is a Features Writer at Crunchyroll. When he is not loudly shouting the praises of John Allison and Max Sarin's Giant Days, he sporadically contributes with a loose coalition of friends to a blog called Isn't it Electrifying? You can find him on Twitter at: @wendeego
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