Written by Richard Brown
The internet is a funny, fickle thing. While this anime was airing in Japan, the mecha websites were overflowing with praise. But after it finished, the predicatable happened, a vocal minority appeared to pick it apart. But which viewpoint is true? This is an anime made by Gainax, a company known for doing big things with mecha, but also for messing with its viewers and mercilessly milking its cash cow, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Gurren Lagann is however as about as far away from Evangelion as you can get. Is it worthy of the hype? Read on to find out.
The Basic plot
Simon is a timid young miner, working to expand an underground village. Kamina is the local rebel, sporting tattoos and telling tales of the surface, which the village elder swears does not exist. Both orphans, Kamina and Simon form a sibling relationship. One day a large monster falls through the ceiling, followed by the minimally dressed gunslinger, Yoko. She identifies the monster as a “Gamen” and Simon finds a much smaller version buried. Kamina names it “Lagann”, and they force their way to the surface. Kamina soon seeks his own gunman, triggering the events that will lead to the creation of the Gurren Brigade, the human resistance against the Gunmen and the Beastmen controlling them, and its symbol, the robot Gurren-Lagann. Thus begins the story that will see Simon challenge the Beastmen, their King, and the force behind them; from his origins in a mudhole, to the ends of the universe.
Who the hell do you think I am?!
Gurren Lagann is a very enjoyable series, which is a once homage of, and evolution of, the first mecha shows. Its action driven, but favoured with comedy, drama and fan service. The basic elements of heroism, totally implausible mecha designs and uncomplicated morality is something which has been done hundreds of times before, although such animes are not common in the UK. The likes of Mazinger Z are still largely unknown to the UK scene. What makes Gurren Lagann brilliant is that while it keeps the spirit of shows like Mazinger Z, it dumps what made these animes so stale. There is almost no stock animation, and no episode formula. What it keeps is a relentless energy that infects every aspect of the show. The characters themselves are optimistic and driven, often far removed from the angst most people associate with giant robots. This style is however an acquired taste and I can imagine someone being turned off by it. However, to do would be a tragic mistake. A great strength of the series is its pacing, and willingness to court controversy. The plot is not complex or notably original, having elements of the coming of age story, the master and apprentice dynamic, and ultimately, the damsel in distress. But by the end of the series, it has reinvented itself three times, and given you three red herrings in the bargain. While you could claim that the series is cheesy and clichéd, you could not say its slow paced and boring; risks are often taken. The first was the one-off radical change in animation style for episode 4, which remains the series only real misstep. Then the series does something that must be discussed despite its status as a massive spoiler, Kamina’s untimely death, an event which honestly made me tearful at the time.
Up to this point, the series was largely comedic, with no real plot and a lot of silliness. All of a sudden this is stripped from us. Kamina represents what is the overriding ideal of Gurren Lagann, one which does pop up a lot in super robot animes, but perhaps not to this level. It’s that self-belief, and the will to win, will grant victory irrespective of the odds or common sense. In Kamina this comes across as bravado and stupidity, but it proves to be just the attitude needed to pilot a Gamen and inspire those around him. The battle cry “Who the hell do you think I am?!” is at the heart of the anime, a sense of anarchy and the will to hit back at anything that holds you down. With Kamina gone the series seems to falter; Kamina’s luck ran out, and Simon dives headlong into grief. By this point of the series, you can’t help but empathize. Kamina is such a charming character, with more depth then first apparent, and his loss is upsetting even if you saw it coming. Seeing Simon come apart at the seams is almost as sad. This is a kid who has more or less lost everything, and only makes things worse by trying to avenge Kamina.
But then, something spectacular happens, Simon breaks out of is depression and resolves to be his own man, but finish what Kamina started. Think about that for a second, the character actually matures, and overcomes his angst. Simon fufills his potential after an immense personal loss; Shinji Ikari should take the hint. This leads us to Gurren Lagann’s other main theme, moving on in the face of death. Most of the characters are orphans, and several of them die during the course of the series, but the survivors do not let themselves obsess over it. Far from it, they mourn and resolve to carry on; even performing acts of heroism that they know would lead to their own demise. The concept of “emo” is something the anime refuses to acknowledge, it does not make the mistake of confusing plain misery with character development. Simon’s triumph over his grief is both the anime’s best moment, and its declaration of principles. Gurren Lagann’s message, if it has one, is don’t give up. Ever.
While this metamorphosis in Simon takes place, the wider series is also going though a big change, the shift from simple comedy to light hearted drama. This is the third big risk. Whereas before the series was very much in the 1970’s style of daft robots, this arc put me in mind more of the 1980’s. With a clear goal, a much larger cast, and a mobile battleship as a base, Gurren Lagann starts to resemble a Gundam with a sense of humour. The catalyst for all this is Princess Nia, Simon’s love interest, and daughter of the Helix King, leader of the Beastmen. It’s another bold move by the anime, replacing a comically masculine character with completely innocent and naïve girl, but it works. Nia adds a welcome feminine touch, and her presence kick starts the long term plot. While the story takes on a more epic feel, the visual quality keeps place, shifting from on-on-one fights, to large scale battles.
You have to acknowledge the look of the series, which is smooth and quirky to start with, but becomes progressively more inventive and impressive as time wears on. A big part of the shows appeal is its animation, which constantly shifts styles. Different episodes where often made by different animation teams, who seem to have been in open competition to produce the most vivid and over-the-top piece of eye candy. As I mentioned earlier, there is almost no stock animation here, only when there is deliberate decision to do so, such as in the combination sequence and the Gurren Lagann’s signature attack. Even these are used sparingly, and you’d have to look very hard to see something being recycled. Even the explosions seem to be have been animated from scratch for each episode. And what animation it is.
Gurren Lagann often feels like a series of experiments by different animators, and they have had some very interesting material to work with. The Gamen at first impression are comedic, squat creations with no heads, and faces on their torsos instead. The first appearance of a “feminine” Gamen will raise your eyebrows. Once you’ve acclimatised, you realise how expressive and distinct they actually are. Few mecha visibly change expression in response to their pilots, and in one case, a wardrobe malfunction. Most are indeed comedic, but it is something the characters who pilot them overcome. The walking battleship Dai Gurren for example, is ungainly and quite phallic, and yet it produces some of the more memorable, and funny, action sequences in the series. Kittan, second in the command of Team Gurren, pilots something resembling an angry, spiky banana and he still comes across as a badass. The titular Gurren-Lagann itself is created by accident, a result of Kamina’s bravado, but still comes across as hugely powerful and flexible machine. The actual character designs are of a similar quality.
Another Contraversy: The Time skip
After an extremely satisfying end to the second arc, the series tempts the wrath of fanboys yet again, with another shift. The story jumps forward seven years, and appears to make homage to another decade of mecha animes, the 1990’s. In what has been called the character flaw arc, the anime introduces the real villains, while the Gurren Brigade fragments. The design aesthetic also changes, Gunmen have been replaced by the mass produced Graparl, the settings is now a city rather than wilderness, and the badguys are computer generated. The real change however is the shift away from action and comedy, to the differences between Simon, and Rossiu, his former co-pilot. In the face of things, Simon’s approach to things seems antiquated, too simplistic for the new world of politics, and things don’t go much better on the battlefield. Rossiu acts as the ultimate pragmatist, doing exactly what is required, regardless of his own opinions. Kamina’s ideal is again questioned, not just by Rossiu, but the entire cast, as revelations about the Beastmen cast doubt on the entire war against them. There is also a hint of conflict between generations, as most of the Gurren Brigade is in the government, and the fighting being done by the young(er). Things quickly turn a bit dark.
The reason why this is a risk is because the anime bears now very little resemblance to the original episode. Action and comedy does still remain, but there’s an air of sadness to events as characters that you rooted for end up fighting each other or feeling redundant. But it’s not a bad thing, as the supporting cast get more time to shine. Gamen veteran Dayakka has to cope with being a father and how this overrides his old loyalities. Yoko disappears for a time, only to get an episode to herself which reminds us that there’s more to her than her dress sense (although you may wish to deduct/add points for the amount of boob shots in that episode). Gimmy and Darry, two orphans from Rossiu’s village are now grown up, and fulfilling action duties. The runaway success however is Kittan. Seeing though Rossiu, reforming the Gurren Brigade and his actions at a hospital confirm Kittan as a hero in his own right. Unfortunately, it is also true to say that the series is starting to suffer from having too large a cast. Ultimately, this story arc is a test of faith, both for the viewer and the characters. Hope returns to the series with a bang, and series moves on to its final stage. While it would be a great spoiler to discuss the ending, I will say one thing. Those of you expecting Gurren Lagann to end in the manner of Gainax‘s other works, will be surprised. The series keeps raising the stakes, and it reputedly spent 40% of the budget of its final story arc. Looking at it, it’s easy to see how.
As a cynical old fart, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann appealed to me far more than I expected. Admittedly, I have enjoyed the dafter kind of mecha show before (GaoGaiGar), but I never considered this anything more than amusement for my inner child. Gurren Lagann convinced me that you don’t need quasi-real science, war drama or deeply layered plots for a good mecha show. If you get the feel right, everything else is gravy. Hugely entertaining, well-paced, occasionally smart, and actually uplifting, this anime deserves the hype. While it IS cheesy, old fashioned, simple, and flashy, it has heart. And that counts for a lot.