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It is a rare thing for me to consider an anime to have enough meaning outside its own individual world that it is worth looking at from the standpoint of literary analysis. Most of the time, anime is a very self-contained thing. There are plenty of interesting or fun stories to go around; however, I would never make the claim that series like, say, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Naruto or Ouran High School Host Club (to give a good range of interesting things) possess any true artistic merit beyond the confines of their plot.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a series that often gets analyzed, for some reasons I can accept and others I find stupid. Though I’ve not seen the series in its entirety, I’ve read enough to understand that it IS a deconstruction of the mecha genre as well as a condemnation on the apathetic japanese high school male. However, every time I hear someone claim “symbolism” in Evangelion I wince, because while there is a number of pretentious religious references running all over the place, they are ultimately meaningless, because all Hideki Anno wanted was something that would seem mysterious to Japanese audiences. It is unfortunate that post-Eva series are filled with this kind of pretentious meaningless symbolism. It seems now that any Japanese guy with a hankering to write a story and the ability to make a quick google search can come up with a meaningless but neat naming schema. Fortunately, I do like more post-Eva series than Eva itself, so this isn’t SO bad all the time. Scrapped Princess is a DELIGHT despite the pointless naming characters after guns, for example.

Leaning closer to the side of potential meaning is FLCL. While it is hectic, chaotic and nigh-indecipherable, FLCL is filled with potential symbolism. I say potential because there is still a good chance that the entire series was written when the staff was high, but because of the number of recurring themes and glimmers of coherency, I at least like to think there’s something more there. The fact that there are a number of epileptic tree-style theories about what is going on (my personal epileptic tree: It’s all going on in Naota’s brain) shows at least people can latch on to something, meaningful or not.

Both Evangelion and FLCL are Gainax series, though they are mostly connected by studio. They’re also both stepping stones in a road towards something meaningful in anime. Have there been potentially meaningful series before and since them? Certainly. The amount of possible discussion of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya demonstrates clear possible meaning (the Wild Mass Guessing page of TV Tropes for it is almost as big as Eva’s.) And I listened to Crispin Freeman give a talk on The Hero’s Journey in Anime a few years back, with examples dating back to the original Gundam. And then there’s Miyazaki’s films, which are above and beyond most other animes in terms of symbolism and meaning. Then again, Miyazaki’s films are about as timeless as Disney’s best animated films.

Recently, a rather large step forward was made in symbolism and meaning in anime. That step, from the same studio that created Evangelion and FLCL, is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Notable for its coherent and graspable symbolism and messages and a well-written three-pronged Hero’s Journey, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann may be one of the most impressive attempts at meaning in anime to date.

Spiralling Symbolism

The most prominent symbol throughout Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is that of the spiral. Not only is the main character’s weapon a spiral-style drill, but numerous other spiral shaped objects are brought up and linked through their shape. What is shaped like a spiral? Our DNA. What else is shaped like a spiral? Our Galaxy. What is so special about our DNA? Well, we HAVE evolved into a species that is distinct in that it has rational thought beyond instinct. And in the space of the Gurren Lagann universe, spiral shaped galaxies and spiral shaped DNA bring about this phenomenon.

While in our world we don’t know exactly what drives evolution beyond adaptation, at the very least a little suspension of disbelief allow us to accept this simple idea. Evolution is caused by spirals, and the power they emanate.

Spirals as drills are not as obviously linked as this concept, explained quite neatly in episode 18. However, drills do represent another concept: breaking through walls. The drills in the show are pointed drill bits, spiraling up from a thin point to a wide base. While this kind of drill doesn’t exist in real life, it has been a fixture of anime since the Super Robot era of the 70s, a point which will be brought up later. Regardless, this kind of drill shape is utilized not only as a weapon, but also as the main character’s tool to represent his profession (digger,) as well as the keys and primary weapons of Spiral Energy powered machines. As the spiraling drill acts as a conduit for spiral energy, it becomes a device to break through barriers, be they physical or metaphysical. It also in the end becomes linked to evolution itself: the catalyst that takes the wishes of the departed and transforms it into a path for those that learn from them and follow.

Fairly simple anime symbolism by most standards. However, what pushes it beyond typical anime symbolism is the way spiral power is represented and used.

The spiral symbolism would be mostly condensed to the Gurren Lagann universe were it not for the inclusion of the Anti-Spirals. The second major opposing force in Gurren Lagann, the Anti-Spirals are a race of beings that were a Spiral race until they observed the violent, expanding tendencies of evolution and spiral power, and attributed it to the potential of decimating themselves, or worse, the universe. They called this threat the Spiral Nemesis. Out of fear and in a decision fueled by objectivism, the Anti-Spirals sealed their own evolution and emotion, and then struck down and subjugated any other race observed to have the potential of becoming the Spiral Nemesis. All for the preservation of the universe.

How does this become a commentary that applies to realms outside the Gurren Lagann universe? Consider a trend in recent science fiction literature where futuristic societies are tending to be more and more dystopian. Usually, these stories deal with the hubris of humanity, their power growing so great that the world falls into disarray and humanity almost entirely destroys itself through its own power. This trend towards dystopian futures paints a fairly cynical view of humanity. It is a view that I personally had held recently.

The Anti-Spirals are an entire race that views emotion and evolution as dangers. They take this idea of dystopia and stretch it to its furthest possible extreme: the destruction of the universe. Nihilism and objectivism drive their motivations; trying to preserve a universe at the expense of happiness and growth.

In other words, they are anti-evolution.

Their very existence is the antithesis of all the spiral symbolism that has been built up. Because they also strive to drive spiral-beings into despair to prevent them from fighting (likely to try and avoid a mass buildup of spiral energy that will create the Spiral Nemesis,) they serve as an antithesis of hope. Hope is something that Kamina and later Simon brought Earth itself through their rebellious actions against another oppressive race, the Beastmen.

Hope Vs. Despair. Evolution Vs. Stagnation. Spiral Vs. Anti-Spiral.

The story structure itself also resembles several spirals.

In terms of scale, the series starts small and builds. Beginning in an underground, claustrophobic village, having the main character start as a child, the first major mecha being the smallest in the series, everything starts at a small point. And these respective endpoints, an alternate dimension with mecha standing atop conceptual galaxies, the main character a fully grown man both physically and spiritually, and possibly the largest mecha ever conceived, show an end at a much larger point. The scale of everything builds from small to large. And there is always a larger set piece, character, or mecha.

In terms of influence, the series starts by being influenced solely by the 70s era of mecha, specifically, the Super Robot era defined by series like Getter and Giant Robo, and with each arc adding a new era. The 80s, defined by real robot shows like Gundam and transforming mecha shows like Transformers and Macross, is added in the second arc. The 90s, defined by the darker takes on the more optimistic super robot and dramatic real robot formulas, most notably Neon Genesis Evangelion, is added in the thrid arc and coincides with the introduction of the Anti-Spirals. The modern era of mecha, which is partly a revival of all the previous mecha eras, is represented last. Rather than shifting influence, it really just adds, so that in the end we are left with mecha genres stacked atop each other, with the mecha representing the super robots of old facing off against the faceless unknown evils of the Eva-era mecha.

Super Robots represent hope. Eva-era Mecha represent despair. Spiral Vs. Anti-Spiral.

This last point is no mere coincidence. In interviews, the creators of Gurren Lagann pointed out that this was their very intention: to use the eras of mecha series as a blueprint for the story structure.

There are also parallels between characters and plots indicative of the spiraling structure. The beastmen, creations of a defeated spiral warrior, resemble the anti-spirals in their intent and purpose: they keep the Spiral race under control and in despair to prevent advancement in order to prevent the destruction of the world. Rossiu, the youth from a seemingly religious village later repeats his village’s mistakes in population control when the world comes in danger. As the plot elements build and coil upwards, the series itself begins resembling the distinct spiral shape.

It all bonds together into one cohesive whole: the symbol of the spiral permeates throughout the world and forms consistent imagery building to one simple point.

That point is that there is hope for humanity.

In one impressive raspberry blown towards the nihilistic objectivism of the Anti-Spirals and science fiction authors predicting self-destruction, the ultimate conclusion of Gurren Lagann is summed up in one line.

“Humans aren’t that foolish.”

As the spiral of the structure builds outward one way, it starts building the other way as well, building a spiral of message down to that one point. The point that maybe, just maybe, there is hope for humanity. Building up to this one simple message is a string of other messages, repeated and recreated numerous times to create another spiral form.

“Go beyond the impossible and kick reason to the curb!”
“Your drill is a drill that will pierce the heavens!”
“Don’t believe in yourself! Believe in me, and believe in that I believe in you!” “Believe in yourself. Don’t believe in the you that believes in me. Don’t believe in the me that believes in you. Believe in the you that believes in yourself.”
“WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM?!”

Determination, willpower, belief. These are the emotions and powers bestowed by the spiral. These are the emotions that will overcome despair, and that will prevent humanity’s destruction.

The emotions that bring about Hope.

The Hero’s Journey and the Path of Simon

But for there to be a message, there must be a messenger. Someone to hear the message, learn it, carry it, and teach it to those that follow.

The message of Gurren Lagann is worthless if it isn’t told by a worthy messenger.

Thankfully, the creators of the series saw fit to create Simon, a hero in the classic sense of the word, to carry the message.

The Hero’s Journey is a literary device, a pattern found in ancient myth and identified by Joseph Campbell and now exploited in modern works. Much of the modern exploitation of this literary device, in works such as The Matrix and Eragon have met with ire of critics, claiming that slavishly adhering to the Hero’s Journey leads to cliched or otherwise derivative work. Regardless, its patterns were originally used in ancient myth, works that were created to convey a message to its audience. Usually epic tales, like Homer’s The Odyssey, utilized this pattern to tell a story that was in many ways larger than life.

A quick google search will reveal the steps in a Hero’s Journey, which I won’t relay here, but I will provide a link.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is not instantly recognizable as a Hero’s Journey due to the way it plays around with the ideas and tropes contained within the pattern. Usually in Hero’s Journeys, especially modern era, the call to adventure is more distinct, the mentor wise, the thresholds obvious, the one path clearly laid out and traversed. However, Gurren Lagann, in its intent to create its own epic story rather than follow a set pattern, seemingly rebuilds this, and makes things less apparent than they seem. It does this by replicating the spiral pattern of the narrative, and using multiple Initiation steps before letting its hero obtain his ultimate boon.

The logic behind this is that Simon never has a perfect mentor. In fact, for each of his three initiations, he has a different mentor, one optimized for one of the traits needed for the hero that is required to deliver the message. From Kamina, he learns courage. From Nia, his heart is primed. And the Anti-Spirals themselves serve to be the final mentors, showing Simon the proper resolve that is needed.

With each mentor comes a different departure and a different initiation step. The first stage of Simon’s journey begins at Jeeha Village, where he has grown up with his friend, “soul brother” and mentor Kamina, a man who shows no fear. When Simon finds his call to adventure, he doesn’t think to take it himself, instead deciding to show his aniki the simple treasure he has found. When a secondary call, the arrival of a hostile Gunmen and the pretty girl fighting it, appears, Simon ends up being thrust headlong into the fray by Kamina. Simon accepts the call by activating the mecha he has found with the strange drill bit he found underground, which Kamina declared to be his soul. The first threshold, the ceiling that separates the village from the surface, and the belly of the beast, the arrival into the brand new world of adventure on a surface that is controlled by the oppressive beastmen, leads way into the first Initiation of Simon.

In this first initiation, the initiation of Courage, Kamina continually primes Simon to be his successor. Kamina is courage and determination embodied, but he lacks restraint and is so unable to back down he starts endangering himself and his comrades. He can only show Simon how to be brave in the end. Ironically, Kamina becomes the “goddess” of this step by uniting his mecha with Simon’s. Meanwhile, their friend Yoko is something of a temptress, though not in an intentional way. Simon develops a childhood crush on this pretty girl close to his age, but she ends up falling instead for the courageous leader who has almost singlehandedly turned the tide of the war against the beastmen. This temptation ultimately leads to heartbreak, and through it Simon’s weakness causes Kamina to lower his guard to knock some sense back into Simon. The two fight alongside each other one final time, amends are made, and Simon’s courage ignites. However, because of wounds sustained in the battle, Kamina dies, and the ignited courage becomes a nigh-uncontrollable firestorm of vengeance and hatred. Instead of obtaining Apotheosis and the ultimate boon, Simon is thrust back into the belly of the whale, with only the last words his brother left him as a guide.

Inside this second belly of the whale, Simon’s world, changed by the loss of his closest friend is bleak and bitter. He is violent, rash, impulsive, and rude to all the others that joined the battle which resulted in Kamina’s death. He refuses to back down, due to the courage he obtained and the wish to be the replacement for his brother, and that ultimately causes his mecha, run on emotion, to grow sick of his corrupted emotions and reject him as a pilot.

A second call to adventure occurs here, of a different kind, but one that is ultimately answered the same way as the first: with the drill bit, with his soul, Simon opens a strange box with the same lock mechanism as Lagann. Inside, he encounters his second mentor and goddess, the cute, naive Nia. Nia, the abandoned daughter of the leader of the beastmen, serves as a mentor for Simon’s heart, a salve to cleanse his corrupted spirit. However, she only acts as a small snap back to reality for Simon, who must still find the meaning of his brother’s words on his own. His true Apotheosis of Courage comes when he works to free his allies after their temporary leader Kittan foolishly leads them into an obvious trap. When Lagann accepts him again, he reawakens as not a replacement for Kamina, but instead a guiding light on his own terms, beaming steadily rather than violently.

The remainder of this section is his fight to free humanity. His courage is tested again and again, and never broken; the finely tempered sword of courage becomes unbreakable. Simon’s heart is tested, however, when he must confront Nia’s father, Lord Genome, who is also his precursor as a soldier who faced the Anti-Spiral threat. The love between him and and Nia triumphs over the tyranny of Lord Genome, and over seven years, Simon slowly builds up the different kind of courage needed to confess to the woman he loves.

It is at this seven year point that the final test, the final call, the test of Simon’s resolve, appears. When the woman he loves becomes a messenger for the oppressors of the universe, and the people he helped save turn on him as they search for a scapegoat, Simon must find the determination to fight for his people, even if they do not wish for him to fight. The steps become muddled here, as the goddess of the last initiation becomes the temptress of this, and Simon does not truly accept this call to adventure until he joins with his former enemy Viral and takes the Gurren-Lagann into space to fight the enemy armada threatening to extinguish all life on the planet. No, the call isn’t even accepted then; the tests for his resolve do not begin until he inserts a larger version of his smaller drill bit into the controls of the Cathedral Terra. The threshold that he must break through to answer the call is none other than the temptress/goddess herself. As he does, he promises to free her from the control of the Anti-spirals, and accepts the call to fight the greatest threat in the universe to his people, all for the sake of his love.

The final belly of the whale that gives way to the trials of Simon’s resolve is the Anti-Spiral’s special sub-universe that they create to trap those that would oppose them. One by one, six of Simon’s comrades are killed in a vicious battle, and the man closest to him in terms of power sacrifices himself so that the fight may continue. Simon must bear the weight not only of his wish to free the woman he loves, but also the wishes of the seven warriors that gave their lives so that he may succeed. Their sacrifices give Simon the strength to fight back, and thusly Simon finally and fully awakens as the hero. The ultimate boon: the thrice-folded blade of courage, love, and determination, embodied by the massive supermecha, the Chouginga Gurren Lagann.

It is here that Simon’s Return begins, and his final flight becomes a walk through a falsified dream world with a strongly neutered version of his first mentor Kamina placed there to neuter him as well. However, he is freed by an image of the true Kamina, and the warriors that gave their lives for him, and fully understands the message he has been entrusted with. He breaks himself and his friends out of the dream world, and endures a battle with a now extremely emotional Anti-Spiral, the final test of his resolve.

The Anti-Spiral in this battle relates the tale of his race in a surprisingly heartfelt manner for an objectivist nihilist. The final test proves to be overcoming the fear of the Spiral Nemesis, and understanding that at his current stage of power, HE is the greatest possible threat to the universe. When Simon breaks through every barrier with the help of every last one of his allies, the Anti-Spiral charges Simon with one final request.

“So will you then protect the Universe?”
“Of course. Humans aren’t that foolish.”

Simon, in showing his determination, has struck down another race that had a different kind of resolve, but both were fighting for the sake of their universe. Simon’s path was simply that of evolution and freedom as opposed to the Anti-Spiral’s stagnation and oppression.

And so it is with that message that Simon reaches the end of the tunnel he has dug with his drill. He returns to earth with the love of his life, even though they cannot remain together due to the unfortunate circumstances of Nia’s fate. However, both accept their fate, and Simon, his mission done and the message of hope delivered, exits from the scene, likely to fulfill his promise with the Anti-Spiral, as well as to meet the demands of his own message.

The message that “With evolution, we must take the path carved by our predecessors and use it to carve a new path for those that would follow us” is the true message of the series. This is why when characters die in the series, they are never resurrected, contrary to fan demand. The ending even makes a point to point this out, almost a jab at modern series wherein death of characters, be it through heroic sacrifice or otherwise, is often cheapened by resurrection. There is often the message that reviving the dead is a “bad thing” in many series (see Fullmetal Alchemist for a particularly strong take on this message,) but never is the WHY so eloquently explained.

In fact, the entire series builds up from its origin, and evolves with the mecha genres, to create a message to anime creators in specific. “You are the predecessors to this series. We have taken your path and carved a new one. It is up to those that would follow us to take this new path and make their own.” Gurren Lagann, partly a take on mecha series as a whole, is also a request to future creators to have a bit more hope.

The Beginning and The End; or “Why the Ending matches the theme of the series rather than the promises of the Beginning.”

The message internal to the series, carried to a single point and spiraling outward from that, results in a society that takes to the stars, seeking out new life and making peaceful relationships, forging a universe that need not fear the Spiral Nemesis. As they take to the stars, Simon, now a wizened man wandering the earth and instructing new children on the proper use of the drill, points out “All the lights in the heavens are stars, with new friends waiting for us.”

But wait. This isn’t the ending the beginning of the series promised.

The first sequence of the series shows a scene at an unknown time after the supposed end of the series. It features a slightly older Simon and a definitely older human form of Boota, seen in the dream world briefly. Space explodes in a brilliant battle against an impossibly huge force of enemies. Certain segments are echoed in the final battle, but it’s not exactly the same sequence ever again. In it, the following lines are uttered.

“So, all the lights in the heavens are our enemies.”
“They aren’t WORTHY of being our enemies! I’ll crush them along with Space-Time itself!”

This sequence never happens in the actual series. However, the potential for it was there.

In the humongous battle in low earth orbit that gives birth to the Arc Gurren-Lagann, a single attack from the mecha blasts an enemy through a hole in space. And in the final battle in the Anti-Spiral’s trap, the Maelstrom cannon, referenced in the first sequence, is shown to have the potential to fire not just everywhere, but everyWHEN along a given axis in time. By the end of the series, Simon literally has the power that the Anti-spirals feared as the Spiral Nemesis at his fingers.

So what is the opening sequence, then? It is the other ending. The bad ending. The ending in which Simon, facing off against every force in the universe, becomes the Spiral Nemesis and destroys it. Rather than viewing the other stars as allies, he decimates every last one of them, ending all life that ever was and would be in a massive space-time annihilation.

It is unfortunate that it also seems this is the ending that many fans of the series wanted.

Fortunately, the Simon at the end of Gurren Lagann is a great deal more tempered and wise than the Simon in the hypothetical ending, and thus is able to see the potential of these other stars in a different light.

This brings forth another interesting message outside the boundaries of the series itself. “Don’t be afraid of the unknown. Humans aren’t as foolish as you make them out to be, and perhaps the stars are home to friends, not enemies.”

Too often, we use science fiction as a simplistic medium, one detailing invaders who attack solely because they view us as filth not worth the planet we stand upon. We treat ourselves as a race that can do no good in a nihilistic, godless world, and one that would either be wiped out by invaders who decide we are too large of a threat, or perhaps that we aren’t even worth coming in contact with.

The universe is a large place, and there’s plenty of time to grow and explore it, and meet our many friends waiting among the stars.

We just need to use our lives, given to us by those that came before us, to create the right world for those that will follow us.

“That is Tengen Toppa. That is Gurren-Lagann.”