Winter has always been my favorite season, followed closely by autumn. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the northeast. Perhaps it’s because my parents love to tell an anecdote about how my father had to shovel nearly a foot of snow to rush my mother to the hospital on the day I was born. Perhaps I just love the holiday season. There’s something calming, comforting about chilly weather that invites warm food, soft ambient light, and the coziness of blankets.
Winter can also be bleak and oppressive at times, as the days blend into each other with what little sunlight available casting long shadows in the afternoon, the dull thudding of ice breaking, or the eerie silence of snowfall. One of the best anime examples of this winter atmosphere is The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, which portrays it perfectly through cinematography, lighting, and highly-specified attention to detail. The warmth of breath materializing in the cold air and disappearing, the city lights a backdrop to softly falling snowflakes that melt in Yuki Nagato and Kyon’s hands — even in the cold of winter, warmth can be found.
By contrast, summer is oppressive. The light and heat bears down with palpable weight as cicadas sing a constant, droning chorus in the background. In winter, you can escape the chill with a blanket, a crackling fire, or a warm mug of hot chocolate. In summer, you cannot escape the heat. It makes you lethargic, bringing with it doldrums that limit activity.
In SSSS.Gridman, summer plays a key role in creating a stifling backdrop for the show’s sentai action and smaller character moments. The atmosphere is aided by cinematography that emphasizes an obstructed view, uses specific light sources, and frames things askew, either through dutch angles or moving the figurative camera slightly off-center. Even in scenes where Rikka is chatting with her friends — the context is that she’s making time for them, now more aware of the possibility of death — the framing adds a sense of dread and foreboding by placing something else, in this case a tree, in the foreground.
The first episode opens with a series of pillow shots accompanied by the grinding screech of cicadas in the background — an audible shortcut that announces to the viewer that it’s summertime. In stills like the one above, the camera doesn’t move. The only movement comes from visible waves of heat that distort the image towards the bottom of the frame. Even the “TRIGGER” title in the foreground serves in static relief to the flickers of heat in the background.
When the camera does pan over these stills, danger lurks just out of view. The sunny summer sky is filled with kaiju that, more often than not, are simply standing still, looming over the city, waiting to be called into action. SSSS.Gridman frames character interactions from a close-up perspective frequently, and then zooms out to reveal a sun that’s just a bit too bright and the imminent threat of a monster fight. The kaiju are tied to this oppressive summer atmosphere.
Similarly, the main antagonist, Rikka, Shou, and Yuuta’s classmate Akane Shinjou, is tied to the blinding summer sun. As early as the premiere, before her antagonistic role is revealed, she is visibly placed with the light. When Sakiru Tonkawa accidentally interrupts Akane’s conversation with Yuuta courtesy of a stray volleyball, it sharply separates Akane and Yuuta as opposite parties. Not-so-coincidentally, Sakiru is one of Akane’s first victims, dying before Akane is revealed as the source of the kaiju but made a target due to this very incident.
Episode 3 throws a visual wrench in the works with a summer rainstorm that’s equally oppressive, disrupting the status quo of the series thus far — kaiju shows up, Yuuta gets into Gridman, they defeat the kaiju — by moving the fight earlier in the episode. After Gridman’s presumed defeat, a cloudburst bathes Akane in sunlight as she laughs at her own victory. This further ties Akane to the head of summer. Summer is inescapable in SSSS.Gridman, and the series never allows the viewer relief from it’s oppressive atmosphere.