Only on the rarest of occasions does an anime come along that truly grabs me and elevates itself above mere entertainment and into the realms of gripping television. Gurren Lagann did this with frightening ease, not with complexity or depth of its storyline, nor with its technical excellence, or innovation, but with its boldness, energy, sense of humour, and heart. Some people may be put off with the degree of silliness the show never ceases to deliver, or at least be deterred from becoming deeply invested in the plot or its characters, but being the sucker for just this kind of shameless splendour and over-the-top theatrics, I took to it with enthusiasm, and came out of it with a strong sense of appreciation for the fun that the show delivered from week to week. Gurren Lagann is the kind of series that you may scoff at while you’re watching it, or laugh at its unapologetically ridiculous antics, but which still leaves you craving the next episode. I became so swept up in the show’s passion and heavy-handed charm that I quickly learned to turn my brain off and just go along with the ride. And this is how Gurren Lagann is best enjoyed, with an open-mind and a desire to sit back and enjoy yourself; if you can’t refrain from cynicism or pretentiousness, you likely won’t enjoy the show. I also recommend that the series is not watched as marathon fodder, in fact I’m not sure you can truly capture the same experience if you missed out on watching it on a week-by-week basis.
But the show is not just for action junkies and comedy fanatics; it may have more than its share of explosion-riddled skies, sexual innuendo and galaxy-sized mecha, but more than that the show is somehow able to endear the viewer to its characters through all the furore and anarchy of the plot – and it is not afraid to cash in on that either. The characters are all really fun to watch, each of them flamboyant and charismatic in their own peculiar way, and on top of that, the series weaves in a good amount of sincere character development almost without the viewer noticing. Kamina, in particular is instantly likeable and memorable as the unstoppable and inspired leader of the group that the show revolves around. His unquenchable determination and guts are what really caught me into the series to begin with – one cannot help but stand alongside the other characters in the show with their reverence for him. More than being a likeable gang, the characters are used to great dramatic effect; the show has a number of dramatic peaks over its course that won’t easily fade from my memory. Simon’s transformation from a cowardly underling of Kamina, to an empowered and confident hero is also a key part of the story, and it is handled acceptably, though not quite believably. For that type of theme, I defer to Eureka 7’s development of its protagonist, Renton.
Furthermore, the story itself, while inarguably simplistic, revolves around a strong moral core, with themes that are challenging at times and rousing at others. The use of metaphor is vastly overdone, but revelations further into the show made me appreciate the central “drill” metaphor a bit more. My actual interest in the plot varied throughout the series, starting off quite high with the intrigue of the mysterious new world and the immediate threat of the Beastmen, and cooling off until the post-timeskip story kicked in, which introduced a more serious and challenging feel to the series and hence boosted my interests once again. The pacing is probably my biggest complaint for the show, as the constant action, ironically, became tedious at times, particularly in the build-up to the climactic episode 15. The show may always have a sense of fun, but it is inconsistently gripping.
The animation, episode 4 aside (whose director was later fired – although that’s another story), is brimming with vigour and vitality; it is not always consistent, and rarely very detailed, but it seems to adjust itself to the mood of the show in a very unsubtle but fitting manner. There were a number of blatant shortcuts that were used during many of the battle sequences that I couldn’t help but notice, but given the ‘epic’ nature of the show, it is difficult to expect top-class animation right the way through. At times, the art and animation are genuinely amazing, and there is no denying that this was an ambitious and costly undertaking by the usually self-preservational GAINAX. An extra boost of cel detail would have welcome but probably impractical from a budgetary perspective.
The music for the show is much like the show itself, in that it’s hard to take seriously, but it is unavoidably engaging. Rather than cinematic type of score work, the show is packed with insert songs and a handful of key piece of theme music. I am appreciative of the way the music was distributed throughout the series, with new music being added to the mix right up until the end. This prevented it from stagnating. A few of the tracks are stand-out pieces of music, and are used in the show to give it a genuine boost of captivation and emotion. In particular, the main heroic theme of the show never fails to rouse me into a high-spirited love for the series.
At times powerful, almost always senselessly fun, and with a strong moral core top its themes and story, Gurren Lagann is the highlight of 2007, and an anime worthy of anyone’s viewing. Far from flawless, yet somehow rarely flawed, this anime series is inexplicably lovable for those who are easily hooked in by unsubtle fun. Gurren Lagann has something for everyone, and as such I recommend it to everyone. However, I think it appeals more directly to a male audience with its badassery and male hero role models.
Perhaps no other show I have viewed have I gone into with higher expectations and hype than with Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Practically everyone I know has told me about how awesome it is, how its epic ending is the best thing since the invention of the internal combustion engine. Looking back I suppose that made it inevitable for me to be let down and disappointed.
A message to the rabid fanboys probably is in order. If you are incapable of accepting anyone’s opinion that differs from your own then you might as well stop reading this right now. What follows is a critical and perhaps a bit harsh analysis of a series that at its best was one of the best things I have ever seen, but at its worst made me want to punch a hole in my television. I certainly did not hate TTGL. I can clearly recognize its achievements and its place in anime history and its influence. But it also has some unforgivable warts that many of which were unnecessary. It's typical of a GAINAX project which always seems to be high on presentation and build up and piss poor at conclusions.
There is nothing remarkable about the story in TTGL. It borrows from familiar themes and unfolds in a pretty predictable and formulaic manner. It’s the presentation of the storyline that makes it so unique from most anime of this type. TTGL is really two anime in one. The series is divided into two major story arcs. Both are full of balls out macho testosterone filled awesomeness. The scale of the story grows exponentially as each battle and each Gurren Lagann transformation becomes more and more epic. Taken at that, TTGL succeeds at an unrivaled level. The first arc has a perfect mix of comedy, tragedy, drama, and GAR. I loved it. It totally worked at every level. Until...
Where things start to come undone is in the second arc which starts at episode 16 and is set seven years after those events. The feeling is totally different. First you’re trying to get used to characters that have grown up, at least physically, and a setting that is completely alien to the apocalyptic wastelands of the first half of the series. But where things unravel is that it starts to get away from what made the early parts of the series so successful. It begins more of a romance arc, which you expected given the way things went in the first part and frankly I would have been disappointed if this hadn’t developed. However it’s so ridiculous that all it does it make you think the characters are completely retarded. I mean seriously, how can you be in a relationship with someone for seven fucking years and never kissed that person? Really? You expect me to take this seriously or actually care? The second is the addition of a political drama that does about as much for the story as the unrealistic romance elements. All it does it take a cast that was almost entirely likeable from the first half and make half of them asshats and douche bags.
Eventually though things get back on track with what made the show so completely awesome before. The problem is by time they do will you be so angry and pissed off that you even care anymore? That was the situation I found myself in. As much as I wanted to be angry at it the feelings I had for it do start to pop up again. The battles are even more epic and literally galaxy shattering. It’s so totally masculine that I am surprised I didn’t grow a pair of balls myself. But... it seems I always have to say that, just as it manages to redeem itself and make me swoon with delight; GAINAX delivers their final fuck you to the audience and frankly, it is unforgivable. Sadly it completely ruined any enjoyment I had for it.
TTGL characters are pretty much what you would expect from shounen anime. However it manages to carve out a few legendary ones. Pretty much anyone who is a fan of anime knows who Simon, Kamina, and Yoko are. I can say that they aren’t overrated by the fandom either. Kamina is pure awesomeness. A man’s man and a woman’s dream. His single minded determination and love for his comrades makes him the kind of friend that any man would want. While he may not be "husband material" to us girls every one of us would want to put our arm in his and be protected by him. He’s the kind of guy that can really only survive in a world of conflict. A true hero for the ages.
Simon has many of Kamina's traits. As the main protagonist in the series he does well to overcome the obstacles in front of him. I loved him, as a boy. It was after the time skip that he has grown up that he becomes less interesting as a character. He evolves into something he’s not, a virtual clone of Kamina that they are almost indistinguishable from one another. The weaknesses and more reserved nature of the younger Simon which made him for me a much more real and interesting character disappear. Instead of the thoughtful and cowardly boy we have a guy who is as reckless as Kamina ever was and goes into everything with all guns blazing and damn the torpedoes! Its so uncharacteristic of him that it takes away from his character. The final events of the story in particular are needless cruel and unnecessary and a further example of how out of character he has become. By the end he is Kamina, complete with the ending you would have expected of him and all traces of the likeable kid all but erased.
Yoko is the ship that launched a million wet dreams from boys and probably a few grown men alike. You might think that a character with eye popping measurements that spends the majority of the series in a bathing suit would be simply a tool for exploitive fan service. But that’s not the case, as she really shines on her own and manages to be sexy without feeling like she’s just a prop. Yoko is one of the few characters in the story to actually grow up. She takes on responsibility as opposed to the rest of the cast who seem intend on riding the coattails of their past glories instead of contributing something to society. Overall though she's treated poorly by the story and while she is very important to the first part of the series it’s almost like she became just another face in the crowd later on. Being a big fan of hers I found that to be particularly disappointing.
The rest of the main and supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag. The reason my score of them as a total suffers is that the vast majority of them are very static and unchanging. Most of them are not all that interesting and are more like the background. With few exceptions when one of them dies in the story's epic death count you are left with little emotional reaction because you didn’t feel anything for them when they were alive. The time jump also affected my enjoyment of them as I mentioned many of them had total personality changes that really had no justification. Some initially charming and interesting characters such as Nia I found myself just despising or becoming apathetic towards.
One thing that TTGL does not fail to deliver though is heart pounding and eye-popping visual effects and artwork. This series is truly a masterful work of art. Everything about it screams epic goodness. GAINAX always has a bit of a unique and cartoony art style. But what I really love is the bright colors and quirky designs. It totally works for this series perhaps like no other ever has. This is truly an achievement that I can find absolutely no flaws with.
Not to be outdone, the musical score and voice acting is just as exceptional. The actors manage to bring out all the macho characters and the often screaming dialogue and make it all work. The music is some of the best I have heard in an anime. The OP/EN themes rock hardcore and will have you moving your feet and singing out loud.
So did I like TTGL? The answer is yes. Did I enjoy it? Not really. Because of that it just can’t go down as one of my favorite series as it really should have thanks to that retardation at the end. I know I am going to be in the minority here. The story is not meant to be taken seriously and for the most part I didn’t. However I was expecting more and I didn’t get it. Chances are if you’re male, and under the age of 30 you just might watch this and think it’s the best thing ever. For us girls your experience may vary. It’s definitely worth the viewing but beware the trap of unrealistic expectations and hype.