At this point, between the essay on Evangelion that inspired this series, and the initial installment about Code Geass, that this series has only focused on mecha anime. I am fine with that, but it has made me realize how much mecha anime has fallen by the wayside in the modern anime community. Obviously long-running series like Gundam are still going, while both Evangelion and Code Geass continue to receive new installments, but there is nowhere near the same level of saturation that there was ten or especially twenty years ago.
For whatever reason, mecha anime no longer is a dominant force, especially as recent attempts to revitalize the genre like Listeners and Darling in the Franxx have met mixed reviews at best. Especially Franxx, as it had managed to capture the feeling of Gainax and Trigger shows before catapulting it all into space for two years and revealing that it was just going to rip off every other mecha. Turns out people were hoping that Franxx would have a few original ideas of its own, and they were going to be disappointed.
For whatever reason, mecha doesn’t have the staying power that it once did, and that is a shame. The genre has so much to offer, and it deserves to receive the same time to grow and evolve as any other. That’s especially obvious with today’s topic, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a series I have long considered a counterpart to Neon Genesis Evangelion, its optimism as opposed to NGE’s pessimism. I know how cliche the power of friendship is in anime, but they really had the guts to make a whole show about Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, gritting your teeth, and screaming, “Just who the hell do you think I am?” It’s peak anime.
Gurren Lagann takes place in an alternate history or the distant future (the show itself isn’t quite clear on that front), where humanity has been driven underground by the Beastmen, a race that operates large mecha known as Gunmen. Underground inhabitants Simon and Kamina discover an abandoned Gunman and use it to take revenge on the Beastmen for killing Simon’s parents. Shortly after emerging to the surface, they meet and join forces with Yoko, a girl from a neighboring village and a crack shot with her rifle. The three form Team Gurren, capture more Gunmen, and lead an insurgency against the Beastmen and their leader, the Spiral King, to free mankind.
I’m only going to address the first half of Gurren Lagann here, and not with any particular spoilers, because the second half is where this series really gets into its creative groove. It’s bonkers, it takes advantage of every tool that anime has to offer as a medium, and the action is just the kind that I have a hard time finding anywhere else. The ending has all of it, though that isn’t to say that the beginning or middle of the series lacks any of that.
The real treat of Gurren Lagann is how enjoyable the main cast is. Kamina is the confident older brother type, and makes one of the biggest impressions as the leader of Team Gurren. He’s loud, abrasive, and confident to the point of arrogance, but to challenge such overwhelming odds requires that level of self-delusion. Simon starts off as a timid kid who has to grow into this role of leadership that is suddenly thrust upon him. And Yoko is an excellent counterpart to Kamina and Simon, the kind of tsundere you just don’t get anymore, and a blend of foresight and empathy that her two idiot partners usually hop into the robot too quickly to use.
And the fights in this show are just pure anime goodness. The choreography and environments make every fight well-executed, and literally every character is fun to watch and too stubborn to die, the recurring antagonist Viral is a personal favorite. It’s all dazzling to watch; older anime generally can’t compete, but Gurren Lagann’s visuals are consistently strong. If not for the line art, you could probably convince most first time viewers that this show came out last year, the art is that good.
However, Gurren Lagann is not perfect, despite my glowing reviews thus far. It has some glaring faults that, while they don’t ruin the series, are worth addressing, and make it significantly harder to say it has aged perfectly. The foremost problem is the overall feel of Gurren Lagann, or specifically its mood.
Everything I just told you about Gurren Lagann makes it sound like an excellent Saturday morning cartoon, if only it could get itself together and decide who it is made for. Most episodes contain a pulpy black-and-white morality where right makes might and every problem can be solved in 24 minutes. Then, there’s the episodes where you see Yoko crawling on all fours, spilling out of her clothes, and an entire episode dedicated to an underground colony that has to send its members up to the surface to die when their population exceeds their resources. These two tones are almost always at war with each other.
I’m not going to mark a series down for fan service or lewd character design, and certainly I’d never dismiss an anime trying to handle serious and philosophical topics, but these just don’t blend. It frequently feels like a kid’s show, the value of which I can appreciate, but it has to gel with these sexual and darker elements that can never quite assimilate with one another. It isn’t the end of the world, but it certainly feels like the creators weren’t clear on their demographics. There might be that window where someone can enjoy the simplistic morality as well as more mature themes, but they do very little to make sure that these themes complement with the other.
Gurren Lagann might be better off if it sanded down its rough edges, as trying to make the series entirely adult-oriented would require a bottom-up revamp. As things are, it can fit into the average shonen demographic, the 11-17 year olds, but that tone is going to get different amounts of mileage depending on the person, and overall it detracts from what would otherwise be a superb show for all ages. As such, it’s a superb show that unnecessarily narrows its focus.
There’s also the problem that a lot of the side characters tend to be bland or one-note, so when they die to give a fight some stakes, it does nothing. Team Gurren expands to encompass a large group of people, and I’m personally invested in whether or not six of them die, and that’s absolutely stretching it. Burning through these cardboard cutouts leaves the audience feeling indifferent, and you can’t expect them to feel anything just because this drawing with one assigned personality trait ‘died’.
Despite this, Gurren Lagann does not need to have the most consistent tone or the deepest cast of characters in order to be a good show. It has plenty of positive aspects to outweigh its weaker ones, and I only went as in-depth on its mood because the show really leaves little else to criticize. If that’s the biggest issue with your wild and fun mecha anime, then you are doing particularly well.
The thing that stands out the most about Gurren Lagann though, is that it is one of most consistently enjoyable experiences I have had watching anime. Many anime start slow, or sag a bit in the middle, or have a dumpster fire ending (looking at you, Eva). From start to finish, Gurren Lagann delivers great fights, a compelling main cast, and a solid amount of hype. The overall experience can’t be understated, because I even had a fun time watching the filler recap episodes.
Pacing is such a delicate balancing act of Tetris-ing the shape of character developing scenes with exposition with fights and every other piece of a greater narrative. If even one part does not move in step with the rest, then the pacing suffers for it and makes the series much harder to watch all the way through. Even a great series like Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood had a wobbly start, but Gurren Lagann gets into the action quicky and effectively, and stays there for the duration of its 27 episode run.
The protagonist, Simon, has a well-written character arc. He begins the story hiding behind Kamina’s bravado and having to be pushed to action. It was tremendously satisfying to watch this kid grow up, and I don’t just mean the timeskip. You can see him come out of his shell and be a leader, really step up to the plate and learn how to lead a rebellion. It isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination, but it fits the story so well and just manages to slide into the overarching narrative so easily. You could have easily had Kamina be the protagonist and have him just be this complete character who doesn’t back down from a fight, but Simon’s arc is cathartic and serves the story well.
And then, where I think the show raises the bar beyond compare, is in how over the top it is. Anime is all about spectacle; I can wax poetic on character arcs and atmosphere, but anime has always been about and excelled in spectacle. The final fight could be used as a case study for how to present the most absurd and ludicrous scenarios in your writing and still take itself 100 percent seriously. The very best in anime takes compelling characters, creative worlds, and puts them in front of a fireworks display, and pardon the pun, but Gurren Lagann passes with flying colors.
My final conclusion is that Gurren Lagann has survived the test of time, and aged remarkably well. You can sit down and watch it in 2021 with the same level of enjoyment as you could in 2007, and that is a tall order for any older anime, but Gurren Lagann makes it look easy. I might be a stickler for how the anime comes together as a full meal, but it’s so rare to get a show that does not drag at any point in its 27 episodes that I’m willing to just shut up and take what I am given.
More shows could use such tight and condensed narratives, so I think next time I will be taking a look at something a bit more meandering. I will, however, try to lean off of mecha, but the genre has come away from these tests of time with a record of 2-1, so they could be doing worse.