My Fiftieth Review: Gurren Lagann!

Before we begin, there’s something I’ve been waiting to say, and only now is it called for.  Vegeta, what does the scanner say about this blog’s view count?

Vegeta:  It’s over nine thousaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand!

What?  Nine thousand?  Well, back to the review!

Giha is a cozy little egalitarian village out in the middle of nowhere. Nestled underneath a vast, arid desert, this little hole in the ground… Which, by the way, is a literal hole in the ground… is the lifelong home of a community of diggers and Pigmole farmers whose lives are occupied with expanding the terrtiory, raising livestock, and living in fear that every single tremor they face could bring them one tremor closer to being crushed to death under a massive Earthquake. Most of the residents of this piece of prime real estate have resigned themselves to their fate, like the young orphan Simon, who finds comfort in the freedom and artistic expression that his prowess with the expansion drill offers him. But every peaceful community has that one non-comformist outlier, and that’s where Kamina comes in.

Kamina is your proverbial big fish in a small pond… He refuses to believe that the surface world is uninhabitable, or that humans weren’t meant to dwell there, and his frustration over the issue leads him to get into quite possibly more trouble than he’s worth. He’s basically a Reddit conspiracy theorist, and while Simon doesn’t necessarily believe in the older boy’s insane ramblings, but he does find a certain reprieve in the boy’s charisma and fortitude. One day, he uncovers a tiny glowing drill and a giant robotic face while on his latest digging job, and just as he’s about to break Kamina out of jail to show it to him, a new giant robot comes crashing down through their ceiling, bringing a scantily clad babe with a long sniper rifle, inviting the entire underground populace to witness their struggle.

The girl, who introduces herself as Yoko, accompanies her new friends in digging up Simon’s giant head, which turns out to be a small but formidable Mech suit that takes his tiny drill as an ignition key! Squeezing into the cockpit with Yoko and Kamina, Simon the digger defeats the intruder and bursts through the dirt ceiling to enjoy his first ever view of the outdoor sunlight… But life on the surface is far more dangerous than it had seemed, as Simon and his mutually adoptive big brother must face this bleak terrain with a few friends at their back and an entire organization of humanoid monsters in his path, each of which piloting a mech of their own, and each of which is dedicated to either stomping out the uprising humans or pushing them back into hiding from whence they came. Having made an enemy out of seemingly the entire world, can Simon hope to overcome the trials and tribulations of the surface world, or will it’s sacrifices become too much to bear?

I’ve reviewed quite a few Studio Gainax anime in my time, and the word I seem to keep on coming back to is ‘inconsistent.’ Well, I’m simultaneously pleased and horrified to say that Gurren Lagann blows right past that handy descriptor with a level of quality that I can only reasonably call bi-freaking-polar. When Gurren Lagann looks good, it’s top tier stuff, with fast-paced action, brilliantly integrated CG, and a cool, confident sense of style in it’s presentation and cinematography. Since these breathtaking turns take place during giant mech battles and all-out space wars, you could easily say that the money was spent where it needed to be spent.

Having said that, when it’s bad, it’s hideous. I’m not the first person to point out how ugly episode 4 looks compared to the better moments of the `series, and yeah, that entire episode… Mech content and all… Is a noticeable blemish on the series. Gainax does sometimes have a penchant for outsorcing it’s work, and that entire episode was directed by a different person from the rest of the series… And the results probably played a huge part in him not being invited back. But it goes beyond just that episode. Throughout the series, but particularly in the first third, the budget saving tactics are embarrassingly obvious, running the gamut between broken frame rates, talking heads and key frames, and I hate to say that even the giant mechs suffer from this from time to time.

The animation gets better as the series goes on, to the point when we reach the explosive galaxy-hopping climax where I swear to God everything finally looks as perfect as the creators probably wanted it to since episode 1. It doesn’t make up for all the shortcomings that came before it, but you know what? The over-all look and design of the series kind of does. I don’t think I can name any other series that had this inspired of an aesthetic before. The look of each character speaks volumes about who they are and what they’re like, and while this element isn’t taken to the same kinds of extremes that it was in Utena, they still look really cool. Remember what I said about Kiddy Grade’s side characters looking like they got taken out of a drunk artist’s notebook? Imagine that, but with focus and a distinct sense of direction, and you’ve got the characters from Gurren Lagann. The robots look awesome too, just as diverse and interesting looking as the people who pilot them, from a two-faced Optimus Prime with shades to a supporting mech that looks like a cross between Staryu and The Dancing Banana.

The soundtrack is surprisingly diverse, hitting unexpected genres as jazz and operatic/rap vocals mixed among much more common shounen orchestrations. All of it is loud and attention grabbing, none of it is subtle or underplayed, and yet it’s all used with consistent perfection. I’d fall back on the old cliche that there’s “something for everyone” here, if it wasn’t for the fact that I feel like most audiences would eat up the entire damn score. The jazzy funeral music is a nice somber listen, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be the theme song of antagonist Viral, which has to be one of the most pulse pounding fight songs I’ve ever heard from that side of the ocean. The op and closing themes are disappointingly standard by comparison, but they’re not bad by any means.

The english dub, on the other hand, is not without it’s common complaints. The biggest one comes in the shape of Kyle Hebert in the role of Kamina, and honestly, I don’t get the hate. He’s nowhere near as inspirationally insane as the Japanese actor, but he holds his own adequately enough. Give the guy a break, he had a tough act to follow. It’s not like he sucked up the joint.  Then again, Yuri Lowenthal had a much tougher job as Simon, and he nails it with flying colors. You can generally expect a character who ages through out the story to have lots of character development, and he has no problem sticking with his character through the whiny early years and into the much deeper and more masculine adult years. Michelle Ruff gives a very subtle performance as Yoko, and while she of course knows how to hit all the notes perfectly, she also knows to keep a lot held back in order to complement the forces of personality that she’s been paired with. Steve Blum playing an effeminate gay man is so, so perfectly beautiful a thing.

Johnny Yong Bosch does a good job as the pragmatic Rossiu… Because of course he does… But he’s a bit over-qualified, and it feels like his talents were being under-utilized. Maybe if he’d been the one to play Kamina instead of Hebert, this dub would be more popular? In any case, Jamieson Price plays one of the main villains, which you know damn well is a good sign, and while I appreciate the fact that most actors here kept their roles past the time skip, Nia didn’t. She’s a very inquisitive character who doesn’t know anything about human society and has millions of questions to ask about it, which is why it was so perfect that they hired Hynden Walch, the voice actor behind similar fish-out-of-water Starfire from The Teen Titans, and having her grow up into Bridget Hoffman was a stroke of genius. There’s a very large cast in this dub, and while it never really gets bad, it’s still nowhere compared to the original sub. If you’re a dub fan, this one is perfectly fine… But otherwise, I’d have to recommend the original version based on the strength of Kamina alone.

Before I go into anything else, I’d like to start by addressing the one thing everybody seems to agree with in regards to this series. It’s something that critics and fans alike are quick to point out, to degrees of pride and shame that would quite frankly surprise you. That fact is that Gurren Lagann is one of the stupidest anime ever made. There is nothing in it that makes sense, from the basic mechanics of a drill being used to combine machines all the way to some game changing plot revelations in the final arcs, there is not one solitary moment where it feels like the writers actually sat down to decide how the universe works, except for the explanations so out there that they give serious cred to the age old excuse “A wizard did it.” Now, I’ve ripped apart plenty of anime for being stupid, but in Gurren Lagann’s case,m is it really such a bad thing? Well, yes and no, but to explain why, we’ll have to explore the positive and negative aspects of it’s brainlessness.

All right, what’s good about Gurren Lagann being stupid? Well, a lot of things, really. Gurren Lagann subscribes to a binary that values belief over doubt, and in support of this, it openly and proudly embraces ignorance and stupidity as the ultimate solution to overcoming the impossible. The world it takes place in quickly begins to feel like a world where virtues such as strategy and reason are valued substantially less than masculinity, courage, and balls-out bravado, and the reason it works so well is that, for the most part, it’s consistent enough in execution that it believably becomes the law of physics in this particular canon… Which is all well and good, but you could say something very similar about the first two seasons of RWBY, which did nothing for me.

On that note, the difference between RWBY and Gurren Lagann can be summed up by examining a few key ideas, my favorite of which is an idea RWBY had called The Forest of Forever Fall. Basically, it’s a forest that’s in perpetual autumn, with leaves always flowing to the ground. Logically, this makes about as much sense as hippos evolving to be covered with giant grapes, like they did in Gurren Lagann, but how is it used in the story? Well, the Forest is used as a backdrop for the character development of Jean, who’s turn towards manliness thanks to the conquering of a few bullies has NOT been brought up since, nor has the Forest, and to my recollection, neither have the bullies. What puts Gurren over RWBY is that while it had a lot of crazy ideas, it never feels like it crowbarred them in just to waste your time. The grape hippos are livestock and meat, nothing more.

So what’s bad about this show being stupid? For one thing, it robs it of any substance or depth. Gurren Lagann is pure spectacle, and if it wasn’t for a few saving graces (One of which I’ll get to later) I would honestly consider it the anime equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. I’ve tried analyzing it, and aside from it’s basic coherence to The Hero’s Journey story structure model, the drill symbolism and genetic metaphors seem to be hinting at the message that you should be proud of your dick. The issue of over-population comes up a few times, but it’s treated as bullshit at every turn. Beyond that, the story is very simple, and there’s a lot of room for stupidity… Up until the story arc directly following the time skip, where our heroes have aged by seven years and established their own government. The story tries to be all serious and political here, but the only feeling it elicits is a constant string of “WTF”s as it tries in vain to utilize concepts it’s not mature or intelligent enough to understand.

Before I could even come to terms with the idea that this advanced, futuristic society could have been erected by humans with little to no experience with above-ground architecture in only seven years, not even bothering to explain where all the materials came from out of the vast wasteland they had to work with, or how this team of fighters were somehow all suited and qualified to run a government in the first place, I was forced to swallow the idea that a leader making one simple, understandable, honest mistake that anybody could have made that caused a ton of structural damage but no specified human loss, could turn the public against him so quickly that he gets sentenced to death and they wind up falling back on the classic imagery of a dictator’s statue being pulled over. Thankfully, this arc was mercifully short, and Gainax decided to rush through it to get back to the stuff they were good at in the first place.

So yeah, the plot is stupid. The story is stupid. For better or worse, everything is stupid, stupid, stupid. Well, aside from the political missteps, the character writing is anything but dumb, and it’s easily the strongest element of the series. Gainax has always loved writing coming of age stories that showcase the growing pains of male characters, and while Gurren Lagann’s not really their best show, Simon the digger is probably the best character that they’ve put through that formula. I’m not gonna lie, there’s some Shinji in his early episodes, but it’s not unwarranted Shinji-ness. He goes through some shit that would make YOU emo for a few days, too, from seeing his crush hook up with his best friend, to overhearing someone close to him emasculating him in conversation, to… Um… Spoiler stuff. He starts off as a tag-along, perfectly happy to be the sidekick of one of the most charismatic leaders in anime history… I’ve spoken about this at length in my Top Ten Siblings list, but he idolized and idealized Kamina to the point that when it was time for HIM to step up, he found himself unable to do so, until something amazing happened.

I’ll spare you the spoilers, but to paint it in broad terms, Gurren Lagann fills out Simon’s character arc by taking one of my least favorite pieces of stock advice and making it work. I think I’ve always hated that old mantra of “Just be yourself,” because it’s dishonest… The sad truth is that society does have expectations, people do expect you to follow basic social norms, and unless you’re already the kind of person who fits them(or breaks them in superficially appealing ways), you do have to adapt to avoid being a lonely loser. Gurren Lagann takes that phrase from another angle… Growing up doesn’t mean becoming like the heroes and role models from your childhood, it means breaking away from them and being the best YOU that you can be. You don’t have to become your idealized icons to be a good person. you don’t have to wind up with the pin-up models you used to idealize when there’s a down to earth, sweet girl right under your nose. Stop trying to aim for your role models, and become one yourself.

Unfortunately, as perfectly complex and fulfilling as Simon’s development is, everyone else seems to exist in service to it, which I’m kinda okay with. This is HIS story, and to that end, I don’t really think anybody was underutilized, with the possible exception of Yoko Littner. She was a really cool and interesting character, who was competent in a fight, kind and generous, and wasn’t afraid to admit or pursue the things she wanted, but as soon as the love triangle was resolved, she basically got demoted to secondary character so a new main female character could enter the story… One with a much more interesting backstory, granted, but one who would be fridged towards the end of the series due to some random bullshit that came out of nowhere and was completely unnecessary. adding emotional stakes to a story where the very existence of humanity was already on the line. Still, for there to be even one complex female main character who’s treated fairly and with respect in such a testosterone fueled dick fest, let alone two of them, is still pretty amazing in it’s own right.

Every character in the cast has something to offer to it, even if it’s not so evident right away. The stereotypical gay character is never painted as a predator, but actually acts as the engineering genius of the group. The hot blooded cocky dude who acts as a rival for Simon’s leadership steps aside as soon as he knows he should, and genuinely feels like he cares about everyone. Villains working under the Spiral King have their very own co-worker dynamic, and the political mini-arc is almost saved by the emotional turmoil that the bureaucratic character goes through as he lays down the law. I guess it’s hard to feel sad watching side characters die when they barely had any lines up until that point… And one of them has a wife and kid who’s reactions are never shown, which I’m sure was an honest mistake by the writers… But I still cared so much about the main cast that I felt every loss, and in a cast this huge, that’s saying something.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is available from Aniplex of America, which unfortunately means you’ll be dealing with a distinct level of scarcity from it. It’s out of print, and the dubbed version can cost you a pretty penny on Amazon, which is why I’m pleased to report that there are some pretty damn good deals available on Ebay, where you can get the thinpack Brand New for between 20 and 30 dollars. It can also be found for streaming on both Crunchyroll and Netflix. A follow-up manga adaptation is available stateside from Bandai Entertainment, but the light novel unfortunately is not. Two movies were released in 2008 and 2009 that retold the story with better pacing ARE available stateside from Aniplex, but they’re just as obscenely expensive as the series can be, and I hate to say it, but Ebay isn’t gonna help you with that one.

When I realized that my 50th official review would be dropping in Studio Gainax month, I knew that I had to review one of Gainax’s big three titles. I picked Gurren Lagann not only because it’s arguably their most popular, and not only because I had the most to say about it, but because it’s right in the middle… Better than Evangelion, but not quite as good as FLCL. It has it’s fair share of problems, as I’ve no doubt proven by now, but what Gainax show doesn’t? The way it’s able to work most of it’s worst aspects to it’s advantage suggests that there might actually be method to it’s madness, and an intelligence lurking below it’s stupidity. Even if I’m wrong about that, it’s still one of the most fun, passionate, energetic, and over-the-top anime out there. It takes a lot of confidence to boldly champion the values of dumb machismo, and it takes nothing but pure sincerity to back it up. I give Gurren Lagann an 8/10.

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8 comments
  1. Your view count caused my scouter to explode. Now I have to buy a new one.

  2. Adam said:

    When I first saw Gurren Lagann I felt the same way about the series, fanservice and robots smashed together to satisfy all the tropes without being mired in an overly complex meaning. But more recently I stumbled upon a review/analysis of Gurren Lagann, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIiX4TL2_vg)
    And it was very interesting, and very rich. And I feel that, even if I don’t agree with the reviewer, the fact that they created such a rich conversation using Gurren Lagann, and that their remarks actually prompted me to consider some rather engaging questions, shows that there’s more to this series than is immediately apparent.
    Like FLCL, I feel that Gurren Lagann decided that it was more interested in symbolism and underlying meaning, than in coherent concrete plot. I think some of the episodes are a bit lacking, but overall, there is depth in the series, which is carefully concealed in a very strong execution of many of our favorite action tropes.

    • I agree for the most part. Personally, I’ve always considered Kill La Kill to be the fully realized version of Gurren Lagann… Fast action and pace with a distinct personality, but with better animation, and whose plot, symbolism and fanservice are all thoughtfully connected. The biggest difference is that the puberty and coming of age metaphors are completely gender-swapped. That, and it’s message about tradition vs. individuality feels a lot more culturally relevant than Gurren’s message of evolution.

      Does that mean I don’t love Gurren Lagann? Hell no, it’s still awesome.

      • Adam said:

        Kill La Kill is also on my to watch list. Slowly working my way through.

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