If you listen to the podcast, you know that I really like this director. I’ve talked about both of the anime series he’s directed on the show at least once, and now that he’s left Gainax to found his own studio, “Studio Trigger”, I feel I should go back and talk about his contributions to animation. Also, Kate’s four–part retrospective on Mainframe Entertainment totally inspired this, so blame her if you don’t like it.
While Hiroyuki Imaishi has done quite a bit of work before this, Part 3 is going to focus on all those little contributions. And since I just got done re-watching this series for the first time since I saw it, I figure why not talk about his directorial debut: “Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann”.
Gurren Lagann first aired in Japan during the spring and summer of 2007, gained a lot of popularity on the internet (especially with 4chan), and was eventually dubbed and brought over to the States, originally to be distributed by ADV, but the rights were eventually picked up by Bandai. The show also aired (and I think reruns often) on the SyFy channel during their anime block.
It should be noted right now that Gurren Lagann (and a vast majority of Imaishi’s work) is not for everyone. If you like your anime more rooted in realism (and especially if you like your mecha anime that way), Gurren Lagann might actually just turn you off. While it’s a clear love letter to the entire mecha genre, it’s adamant in carving out its own, over-the-top style at the same time, and it especially comes to a head in the final episodes. The series takes cues from all sorts of mecha anime, including Gundam, Getter Robo, Evangelion (naturally, considering it’s a Gainax series), Mazinger Z and more.
That being said, the show is definitely a feel-good romp through and through, as it’s about overcoming any and all obstacles with the power of the human spirit, doing the impossible and kicking reason to the curb. Because “that’s how Team Gurren rolls”. To quote the show’s TV Tropes page, “This is what happens when you ask Gainax to make a Saturday Morning Cartoon.”
One final note before I start doing a synopsis of the show: if you haven’t seen the show yet, stop reading here. Or at least at the end of this paragraph. There will be some spoilers in this article and the show is best seen without their knowledge if you want to get the full experience. I only say this because again, the show was really popular when it was first coming out, so the internet is full of spoiler-related stuff. I suggest you just avoid looking it up on websites or Googling it if you’re honestly interested in watching it. Hell, the whole show’s available in English, on YouTube, for free, so hop on over there and watch it if you’re interested. Now, we head into Spoiler Country. You’ve been warned.
The show is about a boy named Simon, and a guy who he calls his “bro”, Kamina. (They’re not blood-related, but they’re “brothers of the soul”.) Kamina and Simon live in an underground village, where Simon’s job is to dig tunnels to expand, and Kamina dreams of “the surface”, and desperately wants to break through the ceiling to get there. Of course, everyone tells him he’s full of it when he says that the surface is real. It’s not until a giant mecha called a Gunmen falls down into the village that everyone finally sees Kamina was right. Simon and Kamina are joined by another girl from a neighboring village, Yoko, and the three all hop into a tiny mecha that Simon discovered while digging. They use the tiny mecha, who Kamina names “Lagann”, to destroy the enemy Gunmen and to bust through to the surface, only to discover more Gunmen and danger above.
The series continues as we learn that any humans on the surface are targeted by beings known as Beastmen (human/animal hybrids), and their Human Eradication team has caused the humans to form a resistance group to fight for their right to live in peace on the surface. Kamina eventually gets the bright idea to steal an enemy Gunmen (and he somehow succeeds), which he names Gurren. And while fighting one of the high-ranking officer Beastmen known as Viral, Kamina gets the idea to combine Gurren and Lagann to form a two-faced Gunmen. It unbelievably works, and the two form Gurren Lagann, a mech with incredible power.
The rest of the show is about “Team Gurren” fighting through all the obstacles that stand in the way of a peaceful existence of freedom. Special attacks are called, bigger mechs are created, and they all “ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWAH”, so to speak. The team isn’t invincible, though. There are plenty of plot twists that seem like they come out of nowhere only because you never expect anything bad to happen to Team Gurren. But at the end of the day, they always find a way to come out on top.
Ask a lot of people who have seen the show and they’ll tell you Kamina is easily one of the most lovable characters in the past few years of anime. His undying attitude made of fearless bravado is as awesome and endearing as it is hilarious. (His bombastic manly speeches as he runs into what everyone else would consider a suicidal situation is often played for laughs.)
Simon plays second banana to his “bro” a lot but that’s because his more quiet, timid nature takes the spotlight off him and shoves it onto Kamina, who steals the show a lot. Of course, Kamina’s always there to give a rousing speech to Simon when he needs a morale boost, and it’s awesome to see his words of advice push Simon from his hiding-hole (no pun intended) to genuine acts of heroism. The fact that Simon grows to be like and eventually surpasses Kamina is awesome, too.
To round out the three main characters (of the first arc, at least), Yoko is a fun enough female lead, and in true Gainax tradition, isn’t afraid to show some skin (or let ’em hang out, so to speak). Her abilities as a marksman (or markswoman I guess) perfectly compliment Simon and Kamina’s “up-close-and-personal” approach to fights. They’ll be out brawling in Gurren Lagann, and Yoko hangs back to provide cover-fire. She’s indispensable during the first half of the show, then disappears for a bit and comes back near the end to help out again.
Of course, there’s also Princess Nia, a girl Simon finds locked in a box at the bottom of a valley (it makes sense in context) after a truly traumatic moment in his life, and it’s this girl that not only pushes him out of his slump but also serves as one of the major plot-points in the show’s second half. She’s the show’s Rei to Yoko’s Asuka (in that she’s a lot more reserved, but Nia isn’t nearly as quiet), and she’s easily the show’s most adorable character. (It doesn’t help that in the English dub, her young self is voiced by Hynden Walch, aka Starfire and Princess Bubblegum, and she serves as Simon’s love interest for the rest of the show.)
Despite the show’s feel-good attitude, there are the aforementioned plot twists that can really stick a knife in the viewer’s heart, and that’s only because of the way the show’s set up. The fact that Team Gurren always seems to win the day despite the insurmountable odds would have you think that the characters are pretty much invincible, or at least protected because hey, they’re part of the plot. But that’s not always the case. I’ve talked with multiple people who actually stopped watching the show the first time around after Kamina dies (myself included), because the show really takes an emotional nosedive after it happens. Hell, the whole episode after the fact is mostly gray colors, set during a rainy day, and we get to see Simon (who was the real protagonist all along) slip into maddening despair. I guess considering that Gainax made this show, we were all afraid we’d have another Shinji Ikari on our hands.
Of course, once Simon finally snaps out of his sadness, he stays snapped out of it, and it’s the last few episodes of the show’s first half that really start to turn up the crazy dial. Since the movies (more on them in a bit) leave out most of this first final battle, I forgot just how damn good the episode it happens in is until I watched the show again.
The second part that I find a lot of people have trouble getting through is the part after the show’s first half, when the show skips ahead 7 years into the future. It takes on a much more “Gundam-like” approach, as the mechs start being mass-produced, and there’s a lot of focus on the law and ethics during this arc. Two characters have a Face-Heel Turn (look it up), where one will make your heart break and the other will make you want to really hate that character, especially considering how he justifies his actions. And actually, a long-time foe’s Heel-Face Turn (TV Tropes, people) brings out of the show’s coolest team-ups, which lasts for the rest of the series.
It’s when the characters are faced with a much bigger threat than their plight on the surface in the first half that the best part of the show really starts to kick in. The mechas become space-bound and that’s when the show’s best battles and some of the more touching moments occur, all leading up to the climactic final battle with the reason behind it all: the reason Simon and his friends were forced to live underground in the first place. It’s the final battle that really starts to just say “okay, fuck it”, and where the show actually starts to “kick logic to the curb”. I can sum up how crazy it starts to get (without spoiling too much) in three words: Ninja-Star Galaxies.
If you can stick with it through its more rough points, Gurren Lagann is a great feel-good series, even despite its somewhat Downer Ending. (Oh yeah, spoiler alert: the ending is kind of a downer. But then again, it’s a Gainax show, so what were you expecting?) The show tells the story in such an emotionally gripping way, with very likable characters, that it’s not hard to see why it gets such a strong response from people, fans or not. Either you love it because it just decides to be a fun, colorful blast of a mech show, or you hate it because they tend to hand-wave a lot of the explanations, (the reason they can hit an enemy with 0% chance of success? “Probability-altering missiles”), or they don’t explain it much at all (do we ever find out how they’re able to make the drill grow 5 times its size during a Giga Drill Break attack, besides the term “Spiral power”?)
If there’s one thing you can give the show credit for, it sticks to its theme of drills and spirals to the end. Think about it: this is a show where the characters start out in a small situation (and mecha), and by the end of the series, they’ve spiraled out into being able to alter probability and they’re in a mecha that’s bigger than some galaxies. Spirals and drills, constantly growing and moving forward, respectively, fit in with evolution, which is what Spiral power is in the first place. It’s a show about evolution, and the show itself constantly evolves from start to finish. Hell, Simon as a protagonist goes through an amazing evolution over the course of the show, too. I mean, the character starts out like this:
And by the end of the show, he’s become this:
Of course, this is an article series honoring the animation director, so what am I doing giving an overly-long synopsis for? Yeah, explaining why the story and characters are awesome is all part of these articles as well, but the animation of Gurren Lagann is superb. Every episode is animated pretty fluently (with the exception of the 4th episode, which was guest-directed and pretty poorly-received), and Hiroyuki Imaishi’s punchy, kinetic style is present throughout it all. More intense actions (like the rapid spinning of a drill or Gurren Lagann’s transformation sequence) are accented with rough pencil scribbles, and a few select scenes are animated in this style as well, to bring out the ferocity.
Hell, it’s even rumored that 40% of the show’s entire animation budget went towards the last episode alone, and considering what an amazing send-off it is, it wasn’t mistakenly spent at all. Just makes me wonder how they were able to cram the other 60% into 26 other episodes of amazing animation. (Okay, it’s actually only 24 since episode 4 is animated pretty terribly, and episode 16 is a recap of the first half of the show.)
There’s also something admirable about the fact that all of the mecha are hand-drawn, as opposed to using CGI. The mech designs aren’t ridiculously complicated, but considering all the action the machines are put through, it’s still impressive. Hell, the choice to not use CGI has another purpose during the second half of the show: the Anti-Spiral mecha known as Mugann are animated with CGI, probably to make them look more alien compared to the hand-drawn Gunmen.
I could also gush about some of the set-pieces and some of the beautifully-drawn scenes and backgrounds, but this article is already way too long, so I might as well blab about the two movies for another paragraph or two and close this thing out before the other guys get pissed at me for writing an article that’s far too long OH GOD WHY CAN’T I STOP TYPING HOW DO I END THIS PARAGRAPH
Of course, if you don’t want to sit through 11 hours-worth of this show (because we’re all busy people), there’s always the two movies, which condense the entire show into 2 two-hour chunks, while changing up the story ever-so-slightly for time’s sake, and adding in some new animation which somehow puts the last episode of the show to shame. If you choose to watch the movies, you’re stuck with subs, as the movies were never dubbed into English (although they might have had select subbed screenings here in the US).
The first movie, “Childhood’s End”, condenses everything from the start of the show to right before the assault on Teppelin, buffs up the animation on the “Simon’s rebirth” scene, and adds a totally new battle scene against Team Gurren and Viral and three of the Four Generals of the Spiral King. The second movie, “The Lights in the Sky Are Stars”, starts off pretty much at the end of the Battle for Teppelin, and goes through to the end of the show, adding a LOT of new scenes to the final battle (where even Nia gets her own mecha), and the biggest mecha of the series, which is less a robot and more like a god made of pure energy. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t seen the movies yet, hunt down subbed versions of them, because they’re crazy and extremely well-animated.
I can say with certainty that Gurren Lagann is my favorite show ever, and hopefully typing this part of the tribute got enough of it out of my system so that I can shut up for a while and stop annoying you guys with it. Again, it’s the kind of show that elicits strong responses from people, so either you’re the person who’s pushing it on to other people, or you’re the person who hates it because the internet as a whole hasn’t shut up about it for the past 4 years.
If you’re not a fan of anime, this might not be a bad place to start out, as it’s very fun and as mentioned before, behaves a lot more like a Saturday Morning Cartoon than your traditional mech show. However, it’s so bombastic and over-the-top that not everyone’s going to find it to their liking, and chances are you already know whether or not that’s true already. But again, the show’s in English on YouTube in its entirety for free, so decide for yourself if you’re truly interested.
So… yeah. Sorry this article was so long. Just consider it an unofficial RA-View. Anyway, Part 2 of this tribute will come soon enough, where I’ll examine Imaishi’s next series, and it’s going to get angelically dirty…