Fridays are an embarrassment of robot punching riches
Some spoilers for SSSS.Dynazenon and Back Arrow to follow…
I’m not one to watch too many currently airing anime at once. Between work, older titles, and other hobbies, even if I start a season with a handful of shows I’m eager to continue with, I inevitably fall behind. This means I’m particularly ill-suited to draw comparisons or read the wider room of any given season, instead comfortable to sit back, watch the online discussion, and take note of what to eventually take a look at. But once in a blue moon, I’ll be caught up and living in the moment of seasonal offerings. This is one of those times and let me tell you: when there are two new hugely entertaining, distinct super robot shows airing on the same day and recently both featuring big show-stopping “let’s combine!” moments where the robots get bigger with the power of teamwork and heart to save the day, the times are good.
I suppose it isn’t much of a surprise to find a rewarding experience in Dynazenon every week. A direct follow-up to Trigger’s 2018 SSSS.Gridman, their strongest production to date and a show that only continues to grow on me, which itself was a many years later sequel of sorts to Tsuburaya Productions’ Gridman the Hyper Agent 1993 tokusatsu series, Dynazenon is undeniably cast in the same mold as its predecessor. Much of the staff return, including director Akira Amemiya, scriptwriter Keiichi Hasegawa, along with many many more, and the show uses this continuity in very deliberate ways. Trigger’s lineage dates back through Gainax and particularly Evangelion, along with the impossible to undersell influence of earlier tokusatsu, and the intertwined relationship between robot and kaiju media is on full display and forms a sort of creative spiral. Along with a similar setup of a group of kids—a full-grown adult and 5000-year-old rehydrated mummy notwithstanding—coming together to battle monsters popping up in their city, this time with large vehicles that combine into the titular robot, Dynazenon directly quotes shots and locations from Gridman to create a sense of deja vu.
This air of familiarity that lands somewhere between comfortable and knowingly artificial hangs over the series, it’s a strange balancing of natural and artificial. This is to say that Dynazenon is a show of deep contrasts. Much of each episode is made up of quiet introspective scenes that have the emotionally reserved cast slowly inch towards confronting and unpacking lingering pain and doubt in their lives—Yume’s deceased sister, Koyomi’s regret and frustration in a lack of direction in his adulthood—where breathy, naturalistic voice acting is all that is heard. Characters are framed as boxed up by rails and fences, highlighting their isolation within themselves. Pillow shots set a slow mood. And then a giant monster, typically seen slowly manifesting in quick cutaways, starts smashing its way through the city, music makes itself known, and the gang has to leap into action with Trigger’s signature explosions with explosions within explosions gusto. Their machines soar into the air and vividly clang together in elaborate transformation sequences, with the resulting robot’s name defiantly announced to the world. It’s at the controls of this big toy robot where they’re able to find some voice, some spark of connection with those around them, or inspiration to move forward. Trigger lovingly recreates the look and feel of Tsuburaya’s real-world handmade miniatures with crunchy showdowns, the way the monsters sluggishly stomp around, and how whole buildings get casually kicked across the frame. It’s big loud get up out of your seat yelling “hell yeah” fun and wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying without that underlying humanity.
Then there’s how Dynazenon sits in conversation with and builds off of Gridman, where much of the overarching conflict is out in the open very early on, the damage to the world is cumulative, and the unfolding of the central plot is far more relaxed. Even the villains aren’t in that much of a rush, spending one episode going bowling because hey, it’s the weekend, why not? They know we’ve seen Gridman and don’t jerk us with the same tricks and mysteries, instead allowing a new scenario to play out, informed by but not shackled to the past entry. My biggest fear was Gridman Again and by the end of the first episode, it was clear Amemiya and crew had different objectives in mind. It’s a fascinating mix of the contemplative, that asks its audience to not only listen to words its frustrated cast can barely give but to really sink into the space between, and high octane silly, where they punch a monster into space in only the third episode and zero fuss is made about Dynazenon’s component parts being literally the toys they’re already selling that tempt me to no end. I suspect like Gridman, time will only improve my feelings.
On the other hand, there’s Back Arrow, which sets its sights towards more modest ends, never promising the moon or writing checks for blowing off your face but I think deserves equal points for staying within its limited means and absolutely crushing it. From Studio VOLN, director Goro Taniguchi, and writer and frequent Trigger collaborator Kazuki Nakashima, Back Arrow was barely on my radar until very recently. I knew Taniguchi and Nakashima had a new show and being a fan of their past work, there was scribbled note in the back of my mind to eventually take another look but nothing about the pitch jumped out and its footprint in my corner of social media seemed to barely register when it began airing in January. Look, there’s a lot of anime being produced right now—well past the sustainable threshold for a healthy industry—and I am very aware that a whole mess of shows that would be my jam are going to slip through. And to be fair, Back Arrow‘s presentation, while competent, has a generic plastic sheen over everything that just does not endear at first glance. Its mixture of cartoon cowboys, European, and Chinese societies gave me the impression of a quick and dirty mobile game adaptation that aimlessly throws a lot of visual styles into a blender and the robots struck me as toothpaste mascots. But there’s nonetheless been a steady group of folks on my Twitter timeline singing its praises and directly pointing me towards it over the months. And I am here to say that peer pressure works and can be rewarding.
Early episodes don’t sell a necessarily engrossing world and the effort to expand the cast across its multiple kingdoms and factions turned upside by the arrival of an amnesiac man from beyond the walled borders of their world, Lingalind, gives the first dozen or so a disjointed, wandering feel. But the main thrust, of the mysterious man with no name (quickly dubbed Back Arrow because well, he’s trying to get back over the wall) throwing in with the frontier town he crashes into and slipping on the former sheriff’s speedo, thereby taking on the responsibility it naturally represents, has a gee-whiz, simple but effective quality that steadily wiggled its way into my affection. Arrow and the rough and tough livin’ cowpokes of Edger Village don’t stay put for long though, as his presence draws more and more curiosity and military force from the rival kingdoms of Rekka and Lutoh, and set off using the massive hovering battleship found directly underneath the ruins of their town. It’s just so darn friendly and good-natured on execution that I can’t dismiss it as flat. As Atlee, the current sheriff settles on when trying to quickly explain how Lingalind’s robots, Briheights, work, “Basically, it’s all about feelings!” That’s not flat, that’s just getting right to the gooey core of what powers super robot stories. What Back Arrow might lack in introspection, it more than makes up for in directness.
I felt the distinct spirit of irreverent wild west n’ robots classic Xabungle in the early stages, aware of genre routines but confident enough to not take them so seriously and strictly as to strangle any fun out of the proceedings. So in one episode, we get a visit to the Pretty Boy Farm, which is hilariously and tragically, exactly what it sounds like. Underneath is a running theme of have-nots being routinely discounted, exploited, and targeted by power structures that claim to protect them rising up and creating their own political spaces. And as Back Arrow progresses, I see that scrappy, swing for the fences recklessness of Samurai Flamenco in the way the story exponentially accelerates in the second cour. That previously uninteresting jumble of political bodies and secondary cast? It’s here that Taniguchi and Nakashima’s knack for propulsion and wild friction meets and really blasts off when they all start bouncing off of each other. Multiple people have vowed to fistfight God and they’ve already reached the JRPG final boss screen with nearly a month left to go. Never quite the batshit nonsense thrill ride of Taniguchi’s most unhinged Code Geass direction or bursting at the seams with the grinning energy of a Nakashima/Imaishi double barrel, Back Arrow is a consistently entertaining middle ground between the two. One that went from me having to make an effort to push through to a genuine delight.
There’s a certain strain of defeatism running through mecha fandom, a fear of impending extinction and obsolescence, that I’ve never bought into. Sunrise just spent the last decade offering up a huge variety of Gundam projects ranging from dour war stories for crusty old fans to rollicking delights anyone can get behind. Shoji Kawamori still plugging away at new Macross entries and now much of the back catalog is miraculously open for international licensing for the first time in decades. There’s a new, hopefully thoroughly distasteful Getter Robo right around the corner. Promare and Planet With are recent home runs and going farther back into the 2010s you get the endlessly lovable Aquarion Evol. More and more older titles are being made available on home video and through streaming options; hell, you can go watch those spirit hollowing Ideon movies on Hidive right now. From where I’m sitting, it’s pretty cool we’re getting two strikingly different shows that meet in the middle for some good old-fashioned robot fisticuffs and I’m just sad we only have a few more weeks of Gattai Fridays.
Both SSSS.Dynazenon and Back Arrow are currently streaming exclusively on Funimation