This Saturday, the latest anime series from Studio Trigger, SSSS.Gridman, will premiere in Japan, with an English dub uploaded simultaneously to the streaming service Funimation. The show is based on Denkou Choujin Gridman or Gridman – The Hyper Agent, a one-season tokusatsu (or giant hero) series produced by Tsuburaya Productions.
A co-production between Trigger and Tsuburaya — the company behind the iconic Ultraman series — SSSS.Gridman is the first Gridman series to be produced since the original debuted 25 years ago. Akira Amemiya, who directed a short called Denkou Choujin Gridman: boys invent great hero three years ago, returns to direct the full-length series, his first.
Speaking to Anime News Network this past August at Anime Expo in Los Angeles, Masato Takeuchi, an animation producer on the series, suggested that the series was made "for both Japanese and overseas fans." True fans can tell as much from the series' full title: Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad Gridman, a direct reference to the mostly forgotten mid '90s American adaptation of Gridman that ran for 53 episodes from, 1994 to '95.
Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, or SSSS, followed Sam Collins (Matthew Lawrence) and his friends/Team Samurai bandmates Tanker (Kevin Castro), Amp (Troy Slaten), and Sydney (Robin Mary Florence) as they fought against Mega-Virus monsters in the digital world; monsters that were all developed by their classmate, the moody outcast Malcolm Frink (Glen Beaudin) and brought to life by Kilokhan (voiced by Tim Curry), "an upper echelon secret government program researching artificial intelligence," that was presumed destroyed in an accident.
The teenagers are allowed to enter cyberspace and fight the monsters after Sam is sucked into his computer, which occurs when he hits the power chord on his guitar during a power surge. The accident merged him with Servo (Gridman), a program designed to fight the Mega-Viruses. The other three teens are also able to go into the digital world to assist Servo by piloting an assortment of vehicles that could combine into one giant robot (Zenon) or with Servo himself (Synchro). Each week, there was a new monster to defeat.
If this sounds a bit like Power Rangers, well, that was the point. MMPR premiered a little over a year before SSSS, quickly becoming the most-watched kids' show on television. With great success come imitators, most of them licensed by Saban Entertainment, the production company that brought Power Rangers to America in the first place. VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs all followed the same formula: take stock footage from Japanese superhero and robot shows, splice in some new footage with western actors, and voila!, you have yourself a Saturday morning kids show.
SSSS, however, wasn't produced by Saban, but by rival DIC Entertainment.
DIC, short for Diffusion, Information et Communication, was, according to David Permultter's book American Toons In: A History of Television Animation, the studio that "effectively replaced Hanna-Barbera as the major animation combine studio in the '80s and '90s." It was responsible for shows like Inspector Gadget, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, and many others. In 1987, DIC President Andy Heyward, along with a number of investors, bought out DIC from its founder and with ambitious plans for the company, such as theme parks and later live-action programming.
Jymn Magon, one of the two main screenwriters on SSSS, speculates that DIC got the rights to the Gridman license not only to capitalize on the Power Rangers trend, but as part of a personal feud with Saban Productions founder Haim Saban that went back to the late '80s, when Saban worked for DIC. Magon told SYFY WIRE via phone that Heyward "looked around and he found this show called Gridman, brought the rights to that and said, 'we're going to do the same thing.'"
The rivalry was brought up in a number of articles in 1993 as Saban released a statement saying that DIC changed the name of the series from Power Boy to Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad to avoid confusion with Saban's cash cow. The statement also said that it changed Lawrence's characters name from Zack Jason to Sam Collins also to avoid confusion. DIC retaliated with a statement of their own, saying the changes came not because of Saban, but to appease a request made by Margaret Loesch, then president of the Fox Kids.
Magon was hired to write the show along with Mark Zaslove, with Zaslove reflecting that they were brought on because they were "fast and cheap." Neither was familiar with Gridman, so they both watched the series taking, as Magon put it, a "Lennon and McCarthy" approach with the scripts and source material. Magon would handle the odd episodes, Zaslove the even ones; the goal with each script was to figure out how each Mega-Virus attack would affect high school kids, and it all had to be done very quickly.
During the production of SSSS, Magon and Zaslove were writing four scripts a week; "I don't want to tell you we were pulling our hair out by the end of the series, but we were pulling our hair out by the end of the series," Magon said. The cast and crew were producing an episode a day. They were able to produce so many episodes so quickly, because all the live-action segments of SSSS were done on a small number of sets in one studio. There were three in all: Sam's basement, the school cafeteria, and the school hallway; the "closet" where Malcolm would banter with Kilokhan was, according to Magon, just "a dark corner of the studio."
Adam Weissman, who directed 32 out of the 53 episodes, described his entries into that series as "not too dissimilar to how a soap opera works." They filmed the series single-cam style and each day he would begin in one set and work their way through each.
SSSS had a very low budget, even compared to all of the Saban series. It was really a testament to DIC's well-known frugality when it came to their series, both animated and live-action. "Here in America we use to refer to it as 'Do It Cheaper,'" Mygon said. All of the episodes were filmed indoors, except one, the series final episode, "Take A Hike."
Magon says that DIC approached him and Zaslove to write one more episode, weeks after the two were done with the series and production had pretty much wrapped up. The reason, according to Magon, was so that Heyward could "sell the package somewhere, because he was always putting deals together." The problem was, the sets had already been torn down, so they wrote the episode, which has Tanker taking over Servo duties for Sam (because Lawrence was unavailable) and filmed it in Griffith Park, the largest park in Los Angeles. "It was just so bizarre, but that's life in the fast lane," Magon said.
There were some benefits to working on such a fast production, the main one being that no one from DIC butted in with notes, so the writers could pretty much do what they wanted, which included adding a number of Beatles references to the series. "Jymn is an idiot for The Beatles," Zaslove said. "I love The Beatles, but Jymn was an idiot about it, in a good way, it just became one of those things." Magon said that the references were a way "to keep ourselves amused during the process."
Little did the writers know that a group would turn their "amusement" into a drinking game. Some time after the series, a group approached Zaslove, telling him that they would take a shot after every Beatles reference. "That was one of my proudest moments as a writer, I just thought, I finally done something useful for the universe."
SSSS, like many of the shows that followed the Power Rangers trend, took some liberties with the source material. The original Gridman series only ran for 39 episodes, while SSSS ran for 53, leading to monsters getting used multiple times. Gridman was not a program, but an inter-dimensional police officer from the "Hyper-World," who took the form of a computer superhero the three (not four) teens created. He was only able to fight the monsters when he would merge with Naoto, the series main character and only Naoto could go into the digital world, the others are only able to control the vehicles (which they develop themselves) via remote control.
The original series co-antagonist, Takeshi, is an anti-social outcast, like Malcolm, however, the two differ as Takeshi is put under the control of Khan Digifer (Kilokhan); Malcolm's actions are of his own free will. The biggest change in the series is that in the original, Gridman is only able to stay in giant form for ten minutes, which was scrapped entirely in SSSS.
Differences aside, according to a YouTube video going into detail the history of the Gridman series, SSSS was more faithful to its source material than the Saban programs, perhaps due to the source material coming from just one show, while the Saban shows took from various series.
While they didn't expect a second season, Magon did say that him and Zaslove were called in to discuss a new series after SSSS. The idea, according to Magon, was to have the Syber-Squad become either "security analysts or a virus protection squad; we wrote a premise for it, pitched it, and nothing ever happened to it."
Over 20 years after SSSS Lawrence is still a working actor; Castro and Florence are now living private lives away; Beaudin has his own website that states he was working on a documentary series, but I can't tell the last time it was updated; Curry continues to do voice work, making the rare live-action appearance; and Slaten, who left the series after 40 episodes, became a lawyer, who has made numerous appearances on major news networks as an expert on legal matters.
Magon, Zaslove, and Weissman, hadn't the slightest idea that there was a new Gridman series coming, and were more than surprised that anyone remembered SSSS in the first place. They all wished Trigger good luck on the series. "It was just so much fun, Zaslove said, summing up the experience, "we were hanging people upside down, stuffing people into lockers; maybe I hated it at the time, but all I remember is being so busy and then going, OK, this was fun."
SSSS.Gridman is not a sequel or reboot to the original Gridman, but a new story. If anyone working on the series were to gander at any of the previews for the series, they would see a show that is vastly different than the one they adapted. However, in that same ANN interview, Takeuchi did say to "expect for there to be some SSSS Easter Eggs in this new series."
Only being on the air for one year, SSSS faded quickly, forgotten by many, but not by all. There aren't many dates in my childhood I remember, but there is one I haven't forgotten: Christmas Day 1995. I don't remember everything I got that day, but I do remember a set of toys my mother bought me, it was the "Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad Synchro Set," it came with Servo and the three attack vehicles. You could build Synchro or Zeon as many times as you like, and to this day, I still think of it as one of the coolest gifts I've ever gotten. I don't have the toys anymore, but I'll be checking out SSSS.Gridman when it releases, see if I can spot an Easter Egg or two, watch a kid turn into a giant to fight monsters, and, as the theme song went, "kick some giga-butt."