Spring – Summer 2007
TV series, 27 episodes
Genre(s): Action, mecha, sci-fi
The synopsis: A band of humans take up arms against the beastmen who drove them underground and, after discovering a mysterious glowing drill, PIERCE THE HEAVENS!!!
The good: Uh, everything. The animation, the music, the characters, the story, the ending, the laughs, the tears, I could go on but I’m afraid of hyperventilating.
The bad: It’s a mecha action show. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
Is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann the perfect anime TV series? It’s a valid question since TTGL shattered expectations when it aired in 2007, quickly becoming the most popular show of the year and a fan favorite. I myself wouldn’t argue that it’s perfect per se; rather, it’s an example of perfect execution, a shining illustration of the potential of anime and its captivating powers when all the stars align properly. And no studio has flirted with perfection over the years more than Gainax.
Let’s get the “bad” stuff out of the way because appending it at the end of the stream of praise and compliments I’m about to unleash would break the review’s flow. So here’s the required disclaimer: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (“Heaven-Shattering Gurren Lagann”) is an action show. There isn’t a single episode that goes by without its share of explosions. Therefore, if you’re in the market for a slower-paced drama where characters sit around soliloquizing about their emotions, please, keep walking. There is drama in TTGL, but it’s another ingredient in the filling of a delicious shounen action cake. (Yet another cake metaphor, thank you Antique Bakery.)
Right. On to the good stuff, shall we? TTGL chronicles the adventures of Simon, Kamina and their merry band of followers, collectively know as the Dai-Gurren Brigade. In TTGL‘s world (which may or may not be a future Earth, more probably an alternate one) humans live underground in isolated villages carved from the rock. Resources are scant, the people without ambition, and memories of the surface world fading slowly.
Simon and Kamina live in such a village under the oppressive yoke of their Chief, who promises them succulent pig-mole steaks if they reach their daily digging quota to help expand the village. Whereas young Simon is the best digger in the whole village, the older Kamina is a slacker with a heart of gold who believes in the surface’s existence and longs for it… And justification appears one day when a Ganmen (read: giant mecha) piloted by an evil beastman crashes through the village’s roof along with a mysterious female sniper, the curvaceous Yoko. Simon decides it’s about time to show the other two his latest discovery, a smaller Ganmen he dug up during his spare time whom Kamina dubs Lagann. Will our heroes somehow make use of Lagann’s powers to defeat the beastman menace and explore the surface? I wonder…
I’ll stop my summary of the plot here since going any further would spoil one of the most captivating storylines I’ve seen, ever, in any media. Do keep in mind the theme of the Spiral as you watch TTGL: a spiral starts out as a narrow circle, not much more than a point, but every revolution builds on previous ones while expanding the whole. It’s one of a handful of nice thematic touches that Gainax sprinkled throughout the show, and which give TTGL extra layers of meaning to dig through.
Characters. They’re all awesome. Simon is a shy kid who grows and blossoms under the fraternal care of Kamina. And by gum, he doesn’t go to high school, doesn’t have every female in the show swooning at his feet (that’s Kamina’s department), and ends up being capable of a whole lot more than anyone except Kamina gave him credit for. Kamina himself is a unique blend of machismo, bravado, and heart – “There is only room for one Kamina in this world!” he yells later in the series, and you have to agree. Yoko boasts the figure you’d expect out of an exaggerated female protagonist, yet she comes across as a woman with a mind of her own, at least as much brains as babe, if not more.
But for me, the secondary characters – a stupefying number by any standard – steal the show whenever they come onscreen. There is not a single generic face in TTGL, from the hybrid beastmen to the rank-and-file members of the Dai-Gurren Brigade. Kittan, Viral, Lord Genome, Roshiu: Gainax could have made any of those the series’ protagonists and it would have worked. Talk about a genuine ensemble cast.
Animation is superb from start to finish (with the exception of guest-directed episode 4 for which Gainax caught some flak). As I’ve hinted above, character design is top-notch, and even the Ganmen are all unique projections of their pilots’ personalities. Most of the episodes do fine without CG, but when CG does find its way in, it’s integrated seamlessly.
MUSIC! Holy crap the music. The opening theme’s guitar riff will be stuck in your head for days, but the award can only go to “Libera Me” From Hell, a track that mixes rock, opera and rap in a hair-raising theme song that will give you goosebumps. As for the rest, the background music is varied and suits the various situations well enough. Rarely does a show’s music make its mark on me but TTGL‘s soundtrack belongs in that category.
I’m still afraid of giving away important plot points, so I’ll tread carefully in this discussion of the ending, which was satisfactory in this reviewer’s humble opinion. When the ending arrives it is not a surprise, but the resolution is, how shall I put it, disheartening, and it will draw tears even from hardened viewers. After everything the Dai-Gurren Brigade has gone through with its philosophy of “kicking reason to the curb and achieving the impossible”, the choice that Simon is forced to make feels out of place, capitulation to a fate in whose face he’s been spitting since the get-go. But is it out of character? I’d argue that it isn’t. The show constantly refers to evolution as being an integral part of what makes us human. And without the choice that Simon makes, there can be no evolution, only stagnation. Life and love go on.
Yay or nay?
You’re kidding right? YAY TO THE TENTH POWER. Who the hell do you think I am?!? The DVDs are coming out as I write this, so if you enjoy being a patron of fine anime productions, now’s your chance to send a few well-deserved bucks Gainax’s way.