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I don’t know how it really caught my attention at first. Something about the description on ANN, the genres it represented and the art style of that one picture, made Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann a show I kinda sorta wanted to watch. It took quite some time to convince Dio Bravo that maybe, just maybe, Gainax will create a series that doesn’t hurt his brain this time.

But neither of us expected this show to be as good as it is.

Our attentions at the start of the season were caught by things like Bokurano, Oh-Edo Rocket, Darker than Black, series we could really get a handle on before they started. Gurren Lagann? It was that mecha show we were giving a chance. All I wanted was a comedy shounen mecha show, as that was the only information ANN had.

And then the season started, and while some series met our expectations and some were slow to get going, Gurren Lagann had a strange sparkle to it right off the bat. At least to me, something felt different about this show than anything else. I enjoyed it and had a great deal of fun. When it started growing better and better with each passing episode, complete with substantial jumps at episode 8, 11, 15, 17, 22, and the entire finale, it slowly began chipping away at my mind, and eventually became the only anime I really cared about this season. Sure, Bokurano was a very serious snuff film with a cast of interesting and very disturbed children. Sure, Darker than Black was a nifty short-story based show that had characters that were more interesting due to the lack of things we knew about them. Sure, Hayate the Combat Butler, Seto no Hanayome and Princess Resurrection seemed to go beyond typical harem series by having interesting and fun gimmicks.

But none of them developed as strong a story as Gurren Lagann. None of them reached the level of awesomeness as Gurren Lagann. For all their unique animation styles, none of them were as visually impressive as Gurren Lagann. And above all else, none of them, not a one other series this season, made me cry like Gurren Lagann. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya was the last series to make me cry, with Haruhi’s honest confession as to why she wants to find interesting things, and Kyon’s convincing wish to return home at the end.

Gurren Lagann, despite having a rocky start, is above and beyond all other shows from the year. It may be the best show of the last five years. Even of the decade. Not sure if I would go as far as to say best that has ever been or best that ever will be, but at the very least, until the next amazing show comes along, Gurren Lagann will be my favorite show.

Gurren Lagann is a show both worthy of being reviewed as a work of entertainment, as well as analyzed as a work of literature. As such, I have decided to make two posts about it. This first post is a review of its entertainment qualities, much like you would find on a review website. My next post will be in the form of literary analysis, observing the apparent symbolism and meaning to the story that transcends the boundaries of the story itself.

Let’s begin, then.

 

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Even if we were to be enslaved by the galaxy’s cycle of rebirth
The feelings that were left behind will open the door!
Even if the infinite Universe were to go against us
our burning blood will cut through fate!
We’ll break through heaven and dimensions!
We’ll show you our path through force!
TENGEN TOPPA GURREN-LAGANN!
Who the hell do you think we are?!

This thundering speech echoes out at the start of episode 27, relaying to the viewers a battlecry, building up their expectations and getting them primed for an insanely entertaining final battle between two of the largest mecha ever conceived in an alternate dimension amid a backdrop of entire galaxies as not just scenery, but in fact PLATFORMS. In the background, “Libera Me” From Hell plays. This song is a fusion of the optimistic rap song that has been dominating the show from the start of its second half and a powerful operatic vocal piece, forming a strange piece that almost seems like the two styles are battling each other, the optimistic rap and the melancholic opera, a perfect piece for use in battles between warriors of hope and beings of despair.

If that isn’t awesome, then I don’t know what is.

It also is one of the many moments in Gurren Lagann where everything so perfectly comes together, from the convincing voice acting to the astounding art direction to the powerful music choices and above all else the emotionally charged writing. And yes, I said many. Gurren Lagann is filled to the brim with moments like these, moments where you just sit back and gape in awe at how… peerless it truly is.

Each of the pieces of this scene demonstrate the whole of the series, and for entertainment purposes, the issues most worth looking at.

Art Direction

From the first minutes of the introduction to the final pan up to a sea of stars at the end of the series, Gurren Lagann’s art is stylistic, colorful and most of all energetic. Apart from one hiccup at episode 4 (which was bad and will not be mentioned again,) the series never drops in art quality, and in fact continues to grow, with each arc’s capstone episode displaying that arc’s most wonderful animation.

The art of of any anime has several facets to it. The major facets are the design of characters, the locales and set pieces that they live in, and the animation that makes them move. Gurren Lagann succeeds admirably at all three.

In terms of character design, Gurren Lagann shoots for simple but effective. Indeed, every character in Gurren Lagann looks unique, and it still uses a lower palette for hair colors than a Sunrise or Gonzo series. And the character designs are expressive and fluid, too. From Kamina’s cool cool glasses and energetic movements to Rossius serious stare and rigid movements to Viral’s pointy grin and militaristic stance, you can tell character’s personalities just by looking at them, and you can tell everyone apart as well. Even the most seemingly crudely drawn character Attenborough, better known among fans as Beamspam McMuppet, exudes personality from his lanky body and hyper beamspam animation.

And then there’s the mecha design. Mecha design is never simple, but Gurren Lagann at least puts effort into making every major mecha look unique and stylish. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of having mecha that ARE heads, but it’s rather nice having a diverse, colorful set of mecha with different faces, unlike, say, Gundam, where all the mecha are the same head put on a different body (especially noticeable in G-Gundam, where every mecha is the gundam head put on top of something kinda silly, including the absolutely bizarre Windmill Gundam.)

And Lagann’s combined mecha forms are among the most fun takes on humanoid mecha out there. Gurren-Lagann rocks with style throughout the series, its cool glasses and broken offbalance helmet accentuating the mecha with cool as it uses drills for every single conceivable solution. Arc Gurren-Lagann evokes images of Big O and Gao Gai Gar as it acts rather badass, crashing its hands together and cracking its neck. Chouginga Gurren-Lagann towers, twice the size of the earth and with a drill on each shoulder like massive pointy shoulderpads. And then there’s the Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, the abstract many-faced omnimecha fighting atop galaxies and alit with a flame of spiral energy.

The backgrounds of Gurren Lagann, be they the underground village of Jeeha, dark and claustrophoic, or the final battleground, a cluster of galaxies, always fit the scene perfectly. Nothing ever seems out of place, and things are always accentuated the way they should be. A particularly good set piece is episode 5, where everything is rendered in greyscale with a touch of red from torches providing a strange reddish hue. Also wonderful is any sequence in Kamina City, from its utopian introduction to its warzone feel during the invasion of the Anti-spirals. It’s amazing how one city can change so much in short periods of time.

But all this would be worthless if the animation wasn’t as amazing as it is. The animation is never out of place; it’s always the way it should be, both in emotional drama scenes and insane action scenes. There are times when the animation seems to be so overpowering it shatters the very lines confining the characters. The action scenes are vibrant and energetic, but most of all EXISTENT. There are few scenes that try to hide the action; no off screen shots with sounds of punches here. Every scene is lovingly crafted and animated to maximum effect.

Also of interest is the only use of apparent CGI in the series, the Anti-spiral mecha Mugan, though the exact reasoning for those will be covered in the analysis paper.

Sound Direction

So everything looks great. That much is nice. But how does it sound?

Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Every character is voiced by a convincing and talented seiyuu, and the soundtrack is one of the most effective there is.

The voice acting in the series is one of the key aspects that went so far into making a believable cast. Tetsuya Kakihara as Simon is probably the most impressive of the bunch, demonstrating several layers to his young Simon voice, and later showing multiple layers to adult Simon as well. The range is amazing. The other seiyuu demonstrate incredible talents in their own rights, with the astounding Nobuyuki Hiyama (Link) as Viral, incredible Katsuyuki Konishi as Kamina, and adorable Yukari Fukui as Nia really being among the best. Even the side characters get impressive distinct voices that match their personality. I again point out the hilarious Attenborough, to whom Daisuke Kirii applies a hilariously perfect voice to a character whose main line is pretty much “FIRE!” The characters sound perfect, and each of them puts a level of emotion into their characters that makes it seem they truly believe whatever madness their characters are saying, and that helps us believe it as well.

However, the true star of sound direction is the soundtrack by Taku Iwasaki, which is possibly one of the most effective soundtracks out there. Low key during the character drama scenes and intense in the action scenes, every time the music plays it just feels right. Gainax seems to have even made much of the animation AROUND the music, demonstrating an understanding of music flow that few other studios truly get. The intense Mugan fight theme, the chilling Gattai theme, Viral’s technorock battle theme, and the thundering brass of the main action and drama themes are all great.

However, the true showstopper is the recurring song “Rap is a man’s soul!” Occuring in no less than four forms, the most impressive form being used three times, the incredible chorus sums up the true point of this series. “Do the impossible, see the invisible. ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWER! Touch the untouchable, break the unbreakable. ROW ROW FIGHT THE POWER!” The message of the series, condensed to one single chorus. In all its forms, it is a simple rap piece, an industrial rock theme used for the eyecatch, a melancholy techno remix, and the aforementioned “Libera Me” From Hell. With every use of the final song, chills will likely run through your body, and in the context of the scenes probably evoke tears.

The series sounds as good as it looks. And that much is impressive.

Story Direction

But if it only looks and sounds good, that makes its appeal shallow. If it wasn’t for the incredible writing and character development, Gurren Lagann would undoubtedly have been just another super robot show.

Now, I like super robot. It’s more fun than real robot or eva styled mecha series.

But for however fun it is, the typical super robot show feels shallow. One of the shows compared often to Gurren Lagann was Gao Gai Gar, a 1997 super robot show that is incredibly fun indeed. However, it is also very typical of super robot: a long haul of episodic stuff before the plot really kicks into gear. In these episodes, pretty much the same thing happens again and again, complete with stock footage that looks the same every time. Now, there’s a stronger cohesion and seriousness to it, but it starts getting silly when they finally have 7 robots running around each with not one but SEVERAL pieces of stock footage. Mostly, it’s all there to sell toys.

Not once did I feel like Gurren Lagann was trying to sell me a toy. Was there stock footage? Sure. But it wasn’t nearly as prominent as in other super robot shows. In fact, towards the end, each of the “stock footage” transformations for the mecha get used precisely ONCE. Stock footage attacks? Only one, the Giga Drill Breaker, and that gets used all of 5 times on screen and once offscreen. It gets used by three different mecha, the Gurren Lagann, the King Kittan, and the Chouginga Gurren Lagann, and the attack itself is so absurdly over the top that there’s no conceivable way for it to be toyetic. It even FAILS the third time it’s used.

No, Gurren Lagann is something more than a typical super robot show. It’s something else in super robot clothing. Once the real robot and Eva-inspired arcs begin, there are trappings of those styles as well, but never once does it match those styles either. The genre of Gurren Lagann is hard to place. It’s something disguised as every mecha show in existence while being greater than all that came before it. Its genre is something I will discuss in the analysis post.

The writing itself is great as well. Never is there something that feels like a Deus ex Machina, even with the numerous mecha upgrades. Everything comes from somewhere, everything is hinted at, everything is consistent. Characters live, grow, fight, love, and even die. And not once does any dead character come back from the dead. The series has a message and is consistent about saying it, never backing down and letting its characters relay the message with a powerful honesty. Again, this is more something to discuss in the analysis post.

If there are any weak major characters in the show, it’s the series Big Four, and only because they really are the only villains without strong, believable motivation beyond their loyalty and their jobs. (And the fact that two of them go batshit crazy before they’re defeated. But at least that allows us to make fun of Cytomander’s crazy face.) However, the two major villains in the series, Lord Genome and the Anti-spirals, are amazingly believable once you realize their motivations and reasons. Once more, more stuff to discuss in the analysis post.

In fact, most of the plot of Gurren Lagann that can really be discussed deserves analysis. All I can say in a review setting is that it’s really good. It starts simple and grows in complexity while never losing the viewer in a sea of technobabble and nonsense. Its conclusion is bittersweet, but ultimately optimistic, an anime that for once not only paints a positive potential for humanity’s future, but a believable potential at that. The Art and Sound only work to back up the powerful and gripping Narrative.

Conclusion

There are many things Gurren Lagann is not.

It isn’t a typical shounen series. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you’d best look elsewhere, like Naruto or Bleach. While it has the enthusiasm of your typical shounen show, its plot is more compact and meaningful.

It isn’t a typical comedy series. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you’d best look elsewhere, like Hayate or Seto no Hanyome. While it does have its humorous moments, its story is too cohesive and strong to be typical comedy.

It isn’t a typical mecha series. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you’d best look elsewhere, like GaoGaiGar, Gundam, or Eva. While it does have mecha, it doesn’t fall into any distinct type of mecha series.

It is more than these things. It has a little of each with a dash of drama, romance and true heartfelt honesty to it that very few series ever obtain. It’s a show that shows you happiness and sadness, and through it all you grow to love its cast, and perhaps feel a bit more optimistic about life itself.

It is my favorite series. It is the best show of the year.

It is itself, a series above typical.

It is Gurren Lagann.

FINAL ASSESSMENT
Art: Aside from one hiccup in episode 4, the art and animation is consistent, stylish and unique. A
Sound: An excellent voice acting class and one of the best soundtracks ever created for anime. A+
Story: A meaningful story with a cast of wonderful, likable characters backed up by a mixture of awesomeness and honesty. A+
Overall: The best show of the year. A+