Looking Back at 2007: Gurren Lagann, 1-9

This serious moment was brought to you by THE funniest hot springs episode ever
This serious moment was brought to you by THE funniest hot springs episode ever

Mike finally begins watching something 99% of you readers have probably already seen and loved. What does he think?

Can Gainax redeem themselves after making so many unbearably generic and sometimes just plain bad works (I’m looking at you, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World)? Diebuster certainly helped in that direction. With character designs by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto*, but directed by a newcomer to the Gainax fold, this wacky-looking and retro mecha anime should at least hold some fan-exploiting fun. —Mike, circa March 2007

*yes, I know that is wrong. What did I know back then?

I remember going to Pacific Media Expo last year and filming a guy who was cosplaying nearly naked. He was spouting off ridiculous phrases like “Believe in the me that believes in you!” and far too many things about “manliness” for me to feel comfortable. :) I vaguely recognized that he was someone from Gurren Lagann, and that there was a wild and crazy character in that show who fit that description. Obviously, the guy was cosplaying as Kamina, who genuinely embodies everything that is both strange and deeply appealing about this bid–as I suspected even back then–to reverse, or even repent, of the last giant robot TV show Gainax produced

Winner for most creative use of mosaics
Winner for most creative use of mosaics

It’s not like the show is particularly original. Kamina has plenty of predecessors in anime, most notably in Nadesico‘s “Gekiganger-3” fanboy Gai Daigoji–of which Gurren Lagann often played like an extended episode. All the way until episode 8, with its spastic explosions and flailing robots, the show’s tongue is placed so firmly in the cheek that it not only “kicks reason to the curb,” it also destroys the line between parody and homage. Gurren Lagann is truly postmodern in that way. It is an anime made by fanboys of cheesy old school giant robot shows–no surprise, given this is a Gainax production–who are in turn making an old-school giant robot show but with all the awareness of the last several decades intact. And they’re clearly loving it. When we laugh at the increasing size of the drills (huh huh huh) and when the girls comment on how massive and huge that big Gunmen battleship is (huh huh huh huh), we know what’s going on. They’re winking at the naked Freudianism AND they’re being ridiculous in the old school way.

Sometimes a Gunmen is just a Gunmen
Sometimes a Gunmen is just a Gunmen

What makes this different though is that it’s not being ironically detached the way many parody shows are. Parody and homage need not preclude emotional earnestness and honesty. There’s real fear, grief, and sadness, as well as uproarious laughter: the hot springs episode was one of the finest of its kind. Most of all, we see masculine emotions taken to ridiculous heights when it comes to Kamina. While his never-say-die attitude would instantly get him killed in a real war zone, by sheer force of will, he manages to make up for an entire decade of mopey protagonists and whiny heroes just by being alive. We are meant to revel in his sincere, over-the-top declarations of manliness and no retreat, not regard it as foolish–because, being anime watchers, we have seen far too little of it in recent years. And, arguably, the reason for that was because of Gainax, too, with Shinji becoming the prototype for the average anime male in giant robot shows, and harem comedies too. Kamina is repentance for Shinji.

Even Simon, his protege and the one who sounds the most like Shinji at times, reflects this change. I think what made Shinji maddening to so many fans back then was how intractable his self-loathing seemed. Shinji didn’t seem to grow much during the show at all, and in the movie, a bitter Hideaki Anno made him regress instead. Simon, on the other hand, is clearly on a classic Hero Quest and so his fear and doubt are put into a much more understandable and sympathetic context. The audience understands that he will be unsure of himself at first when he gets into the robot; that he will need Kamina to both rebuke him and save his butt sometimes; that he will be devastated and unstable when Kamina is cruelly taken away from him. But even in the midst of his grief, his reaction was “I have to get tougher,” which is a far cry from Shinji curling up in a corner and crying in as Asuka gets shredded to pieces. Simon is actually growing and learning. The show is clearly presenting this as one of the painful but necessary steps toward maturity and courage that he must pass in order to continue.

Feeling low
Feeling low

I think that is what is so appealing about this show, in the end: it is about courage. There is no courage without fear, and courage is the ability to do the right thing in spite of fear. There has been so much dithering, or outright cowardice, on the part of so many passive male anime protagonists since Evangelion that I think some of the massive fandom for this show (believe me, I saw the crowds at the Bandai panel at AX this year) is due to the shock of seeing, at last, the opposite. “Manliness” is really just a synonym here for courage, as well as the ability to take the initiative–something which Kamina did in the loudest and most outrageous manner and which many male anime heroes simply don’t do. Arguably, Kamina is the protagonist more than Simon because he is the one who drives the action for most of this first batch of episodes; Simon is the one who is, in a way, learning to become the protagonist over time. Alongside the requisite lessons about teamwork, not to mention the appeal of spectacular explosions and wordy villains, is the fact that these people face up to the situation and do something!

Then, and only then, do the moments of doubt and heartache find a place–as it is clearly beginning to do, with the sharp mood swing in episodes 8 and 9. This is why it doesn’t feel at all like a bundle of unsympathetic angst. It is because, after seeing them in action, I came to believe in these characters, believe in their potential: believe in what Kamina was able to see in Simon even before Simon had it. That’s the key behind his famous quotation, the one that guy at PMX was spouting.

The rest of the series is now out via Bandai in low cost sub-only form, and I will most certainly be purchasing it and finishing the rest of the series for review. It’s been fun, and I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

3 thoughts on “Looking Back at 2007: Gurren Lagann, 1-9”

  1. Glad to see that you’re enjoying it. I think you really hit the nail on the head about how the show is a homage and often a parody of robot shows yet it also takes itself seriously. This is why Kamina’s ridiculous speeches make me laugh but they also make me want to believe in everything he’s saying. Gurren Lagann definitely lacks irony and this is one of the things I love about it.

    I like what you said about courage which, somehow, I hadn’t really given much thought to before. I won’t spoil it for you but in episode 25 one of the characters directly speaks about fear and courage.

  2. I recently picked up the first DVD set as well and loved it! I’m not ashamed to say that I cried during episodes 8 and 9! XD Anyways, it actually made me excited about anime again, which is always a good thing. To be honest though after the first episode I really wasn’t feeling the show all that much untill episodes 5 and on, it slapped me in the face and pulled my hair! There hasn’t been a show that has gotten me this excited since mabye Haruhi.

    But even then I don’t think even Haruhi has made me as excited as Gurren Lagann has. Gurren Lagann has restored my faith in anime once again.

  3. @lbrevis: I’m looking forward to it myself. I’ve talked to so many people who found the show genuinely inspiring. I have to see what this is all about.

    @Benu: now THAT’s a recommendation.

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