Akane Shinjou is a fantastic metaphor for the dangers of withdrawing from reality, but it is never too late to heal your broken heart.
While the kaiju genre has flourished in many mediums such as film, comics, and television – one medium that the genre has yet to fully realize for a long time anime. In 2018 that changed with the release of the anime series SSSS.Gridman from Tsuburaya Productions and Studio Trigger.
SSSS.Gridman, a spiritual sequel of sorts to the original tokusatsu series Gridman the Hyper Agent from 1993, became my favorite anime of 2018. Not only for its kaiju story taking advantage of the medium of anime but for having some of the best human narratives in the genre. The main highlight of this is one of, if not the central character of the series: Akane Shinjou.
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Now if you look on the surface Akane Shinjou seems like your a standard cute anime girl made for marketability and while that seemed to have happened to the character in many of Gridman’s merchandise, that is far from what her “role” is in the actual narrative.
Yup, she’s not the popular girl made for unnecessary fanservice (which sadly happens in one episode of the series) but is instead fills the role as the human villains seen in many tokusatsu series including the series the anime is based on. Not only that she is central to the show’s themes on deconstructing the toxicity of otaku culture in Japan and to an extent nerd culture as a whole.
The Hyper Agent
To give a brief summary of the anime itself, it follows our human protagonist Yūta Hibiki who after waking from an incident that gave him amnesia, begins to see the giant kaiju and the enigmatic alien Gridman. Soon his friends the level-headed Rikka Takarada and Kaiju/Tokusatsu fanboy Shō Utsumi also notice the world is besieged by kaiju and teams up Grdiman and the aliens own allies, the members of the Neon Genesis High School (clever Trigger).
But our heroes learn that the kaiju are created by the most popular girl of their school Akane Shinjou and her own alien ally the criminal Alexis Kerib as she sculpts her own kaiju as Alexis brings them to life in classic tokusatsu fashion as she uses her monsters to kill and “erase” anyone who crosses her. As the members of the “Gridman Alliance” continue to fight off her monsters, they learn they are actually in an artificial digital world or the “Computer World” created by Akane as she is the “god” of their world.
Soon they try to reason with as it turns out she is manipulated by Alexis as part of his own goals and is using her depression and loneliness to create her “perfect” world and to destroy it in a form of sadistic pleasure. But with the power of Gridman and his allies, he frees Akane from her manipulator and she returns to the real world knowing she can’t escape reality and must confront her sorrows.
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One of the aspects of SSSS.Gridman that makes it unique to not only the Kaiju/Tokusatsu genre but most anime series as a whole is that the series’ antagonist has the most amount of character development out the cast. This is a highlight of most of Studio Trigger’s series with their female characters being fully fleshed out and three-dimensional with examples such as Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill and Akko from Little Witch Academia to name a few. And it’s clear the staff of Trigger wanted to use Akane as the nucleus of the series major themes and to play on the trope of the genre.
I’ve Come to Rescue You from Boredom!
In terms of playing around with tropes of the genre, Akane is a major subversion in many major ways. For one she seems to be an intentional opposite of her equivalent character from the original Gridman series Takeshi Todo. In Gridman The Hyper Agent. Takeshi was a social outcast who uses his alien ally Kahn Digifer to conjure the computer virus kaiju (it was the 90s) to reak havoc in the real world as the kaiju attack the Computer World.
Takeshi himself used his monsters out of spite as he felt wronged by the world for his own personal issues (it almost scarily resembles today’s incel culture). Akane, on the other hand, is as different as night and day. When we meet Akane she appears as a social butterfly and was established as the most popular girl in school. It wasn’t until the second episode that is was revealed she was creating and controlling the kaiju, and it was midway through the series that it turns out she created the anime’s setting.
While Takeshi had his kaiju attack to spite an “unfair” world, Akane wants absolute perfection for her own world uses kaiju to kill anyone who she feels “ruins” her world by sending kaiju to kill them. This is definitely a far cry from most human antagonists in Kaiju and Tokusatsu media as most human antagonists are either greedy businessmen, terrorists, or some fantasy warlord, not a high school girl that’s for sure.
On a metaphorical level, Akane serves a greater purpose as she reflects the series’ themes on isolation and the dangers of extreme escapism. Now before you retort, I highly doubt SSSS.Gridman is condemning escapism as a whole as the Kaiju and Tokusatsu genre is very much escapist fiction.
Escapism can be a very healthy outlet one can cope with hardships in real life. But just like anything, too much of something can become very unhealthy. While what she experiences in the real world is entirely unknown, it’s clear whatever is affecting her has led to her depression and she’d figuratively and literally escaped from reality and used her passion for the kaiju genre to create a perfect world where everyone would’ve loved her. But as we know with escaping from reality, reality catches up to you eventually and things will get ugly.
In Japan, one of its major societal issues is “hikikomori”, a phenomenon of which individuals (primarily young people) withdraw from society for months to even years at a time. A lot of it is due to the societal pressure of becoming successful in life as quickly as possible once reaching adulthood. See in Japan society focuses on the collective than the individual, as such if one doesn’t get a good-paying job or enters a good school, society sees them as “useless” to the community.
This feeling of isolation and pressure leads to many with depression, anxiety, and severe loneliness that makes them shut themselves away from the outside world as they feel that they aren’t wanted and not wanting to be a burden, even to their loved ones. “There’s still a lack of respect for individuals,” psychiatrist Saitō Tamaki said on the subject of hikikomori.
“People who aren’t useful to society or their family are seen as having no value. When hikikomori hears the government’s rhetoric about promoting ‘the dynamic engagement of all citizens,’ they’re liable to take it to mean that their inability to be ‘dynamically engaged’ makes them worthless. This drives them into a mental corner.”
This feeling of isolation can lead to wanting to escape from reality and many of these individuals try to find different outlets in coping with their depression. And usually is becoming obsessed with pop culture. While the term “Otaku”, the Japanese equivalent to nerd or geek, is seen to many westerners as a term of endearment.
In Japan though, it’s used as a derogatory term for those so obsessed with pop culture that they are seen as social outcasts. Add on the issues that come with hikikomori then you have a recipe for an individual so obsessed with escapist media that it leads to them basically becoming hermits. And this is seen heavily with Akane.
Whenever we see her at her “home” it is cluttered by bags of trash and wall to wall with kaiju and tokusatsu merchandise. A major stereotype in Japan for otaku and hikikomori is a very messy room and a lack of hygiene. And while Akane fulfills that on a surface level, the character arc heavily deals with the issues of isolation.
As she created the world to be a paradise for her, this can be seen as a metaphor for those going to fictional worlds to escape life’s many hardships. And with Akane’s world literally built by kaiju, one can see that she herself as a kaiju fan, and this can be symbolism as someone either getting engrossed in the genre or even making their own work and getting lost into it.
And as said before I don’t think the team behind Gridman is saying all escapism is bad, but rather getting too deep into it is very unhealthy. Escapism has many benefits to it such as reducing levels of stress and anxiety, finding outlets of confronting the issues of the real world, and fueling one’s creativity. But this is supposed to enrich your life, not control it. Getting lost in escapism leads to a lack of understanding of the real world such as consequences for one’s actions and potentially a lack of empathy for others.
In her desire to control her world, Akane even attempts and sometimes succeeds in killing off her “friends” using her kaiju. In the first episode, she sends the kaiju Ghoulghilas to kill a fellow classmate all because she accidentally ruined the lunch she wanted to give to the series protagonist Yuta. She then has her world “reset” in which the history is rewritten where that student has been dead for years, essentially eraser her from existence.
One can see this as Akane burning bridges and hurting a friend/classmate, probably for something that can be fixed with some social understanding and communication, making that person “dead” to her. And as the series progress and Gridman and his allies defeat her kaiju, she grows more and more manic until she snaps goes through severe depression, even having one of her kaiju outright kill the ones who repair her world. This is clear with one’s obsession reaching to the point of self-destruction.
And then there’s the central villain himself Alexis Kerib. Alexis seems to be the personification of a toxic mindset and enabling oneself into those toxic behaviors. Like a devil of Akane’s should she manipulates her into her self-destruction and even transforms her into a kaiju in order to destroy her world. This destruction of her world can be seen as essentially a mental breakdown when reality hits some hard and whatever comfort that escapism lead is now the one thing causing her pain.
But not all hope is lost. For one the series offers a counter to Akane’s character with the supporting character of Sho Utsumi. Sho is also a kaiju fanboy and at first, has is enthusiastic about the situation at hand as he references many tropes from the franchise such as Ultraman. But as the series progress and how dire things are getting, he realizes how serious the situation is and acting like it was a TV show won’t always save you when real consequences affect you. Not to mention Sho has enough self-awareness when he makes a mistake and takes the initiative to apologize.
Another way the show brings hope is how it redeems Akane’s character. Throughout the series one of her creations Anti is sent over and over to kill Gridman and fails, leaving him to be abused by her and Alexis. Anti could be how many people in nerd culture have a sense of entitlement to their passions and sometimes demands way more than the creators can realistically offer or for them wanting to take it for their own creative freedom. But despite this abuse Anti remains loyal to Akane and even saves her from her kaiju form. I see this as our passions having an important message to say and is used to help us in our darkest hour.
Then in the final battle when Alexis absorbs Akane for himself Gridman uses his “Fixer Beam” to literally “fix her broken heart” This is shown to the audience where our heroes telling Akane she isn’t alone and has people for her that will always love her despite her faults and mistakes. And the series ends with Akane tearfully apologizing to her friends, her artificial world, and awakens in reality.
It is very clear SSSS.Gridman is both a love letter to the Kaiju and Tokusatsu genre, but one that has something very important to say for its audience. Yes, reality can be scary and we have the urge to shout ourselves away from it using our passions as an escape, but it is healthy to have small escapes from hardships, but never be afraid to know that you are never truly alone.
Akane is a fantastic metaphor for the dangers of withdrawing from reality, but as seen in the series conclusion, it is never too late to heal your broken heart. She remains a prime example of the brilliant writing and storytelling of human characters of the Kaiju and Tokusatsu genre and is up there as some of its best characters in the genre along with Dr. Serizawa from the original 1954 Godzilla and most of the human characters in the Heisei Gamera trilogy.
And to quote one of the lines in the final episode “Nobody’s perfect, which is why we rely on each other.” If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or any other mental illness, please seek help wherever you can find it, your life is something far too precious to lose and there will always be someone there to help you.