Quicker than expected, here’s the first instalment of what I think I’m going to call ‘The Big OverThinkAlong’. We’ll have some Let’s Read series, some Let’s Play series, perhaps… but for now, the first in what will hopefully be many posts of Let’s Watch!
Watching episode 1 of Tenga Toppa Gurren Lagann reminds me why I loved this series the first time I saw it. Years ago, I decided that anime was the sort of thing I really ought to be more into: I started watching Bleach and Death Note – the latter of which ranks among my favourite series of any genre of all time, the former of which I gave up on watching but did read the manga every week until it finally shut up shop last year – and a few other shonen-type shows. I was never a massive anime fan in the sense that some people are; I didn’t watch any show in the genre just because it was anime, but I do still enjoy a lot of shows. I consider them good shows which happen to be anime, rather than shows which are good by virtue of being anime. Gurren Lagann, which I stumbled across after making a few escapades into series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Elfen Lied and invariably failing to get to the end of them, is one of the most ridiculous anime shows I’ve ever come across, and I absolutely love it for that. It might be topped by FLCL or Kill La Kill – incidentally, both were made by at least some of the people involved in the creation of TTGL, so that might explain that – but it’s one of those shows that starts by deciding to be as balls-out crazy as possible and then somehow turns that into part of the story itself. It’s not over-the-top for the sake of it, it’s over-the-top because that’s the kind of story it’s telling, the kind of characters it creates and the kind of world it depicts. Form follows function in that sense.
I have seen TTGL once before, a long time ago. I vaguely remember some of the stuff that happens, in particular one very large plot development about halfway through, but I don’t intend to spoil anything in these reviews. I don’t remember enough to feel as if I know what’s going to happen anyway, so most of the plot happenings will be as much of a surprise to me as they were first time around. That said, I was struck by how familiar the show felt from the first few seconds of the opening. It might have to do with having recently rewatched Kill La Kill, which shares a similar art style and opening music, but I think it was more just a recollection of the feeling that this show always evoked in me. The bold colours and strong lines of the visual style, along with the general sense of epic-ness brought about by the music, immediately give an indescribable but indubitable sense that I don’t know what I’m in for but it’s definitely going to be awesome. Indeed, awesomeness as an unquantifiable but tangible thing is something that forms part of the fabric of TTGL’s world from the get-go.
This is something I remember about the series: a sense that among the fundamental interactions of the universe, gravity, electromagnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces are joined by something along the lines of ‘extreme manly determination’. I can’t remember an awful lot of specifics, just that ‘EMD’ seems to be several characters’ solutions to any and all problems. And it usually works.
Kamina is perhaps the exemplar of this quality, as we see in this first episode. Naturally, being the first episode, ‘Bust Through the Heavens With Your Drill’ has a bit of work to do introducing us to the show’s world and the characters who inhabit it, as well as the concepts and feel that will define what kind of show this wants to be. Kamina embodies the spirit of this show. Earthquake? He doesn’t run. Sword-wielding village chief? Doesn’t even blink. Enormous maybe-colossus-maybe-robot thing falls from the ceiling – which here means ‘from outside the entirety of the world as all the people in the village know it’ – and starts beating stuff up? Kamina stands right in front of the damn thing and tells it to fuck off, basically. Something that I find really interesting about Kamina’s attitude to the world and any obstacles within it, an attitude summed up well in his mantra ‘reject common sense to make the impossible possible’, is that it doesn’t always seem to work. Yes, Kamina’s been doing living by this method probably his entire life and so far nothing seems to have gone too wrong for him, but I think it’s notable that the danger he puts himself in because of his hot-headedness is usually resolved by someone else’s actions. In this episode, his recklessness could have got him killed on at least two occasions, had he not been lucky: first, he’s the only person besides Simon (who’s frozen in fear) not to run for cover when the earthquake kicks in, and only the fact that it just happens to stop saves him; second, he stands up and challenges the Gunmen, which might well have proved incredibly stupid were it not for Yoko’s intervention.
I think the show is trying to sell Kamina’s outlook on life as something admirable, but it’s already sowing the seeds for something to go wrong should his refusal to ever back down work out badly.
I don’t think there can be any condemnation of his goal of seeing the surface, though. We don’t get to see much of this underground village, but it’s clearly not much of a life. Simon spends his days digging tunnels to expand the village; it’s obviously an extremely important job, since the boundaries of these people’s existence are only as far as they can dig. Indeed, Kamina tells him that the drill isn’t just what he does, but who he is. It’s kind of hard to work out Kamina and Simon’s relationship straight away, since Kamina acts as if they’re old friends but you get the impression that he might treat everyone that way. But I think the idea of the drill as part of Simon’s identity is a big part of what links him and Kamina in a deeply bonded sort of way: the drill represents breaking out, busting through, broadening the world. Both of them want more than anything, to expand their horizons, to see more, to find the hidden treasures. Plus, of course, the drill turns out to be key to saving the day, as the little drill Simon digs up doubles as a key to the little mech called Lagann.
Lagann’s adorable, and he also helps Simon to discover a little bit of his own ‘Kamina-ness’. It’s telling that Simon’s most in control of the mech when he gives himself over to pure determination, forgoing logic in favour of impossibility. In fact, he finds himself completely unable to remember how to pilot the thing if he’s not under desperate pressure. This first episode, as lots of anime pilots do (and other genres besides), starts Simon on his own little path to heroism by putting him up against what seems to be an insurmountable foe, but which he learns to dispatch by harnessing his own inner power. Naturally, by the end of the series, we’ll probably look back on this first Gunmen and think ‘what a wuss that guy was’.
Also key to dispatching the Gunmen is Yoko. I almost think of her as a newly-introduced character before remembering that every character is a new character when you’re only one episode in. I guess it’s because her heroic entrance immediately establishes that she’s not from this village that’s all its inhabitants have ever known, and she’s clearly a bit of a different sort of person. Her visual design alone makes that pretty clear.
Speaking of Yoko’s visuals, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Well, two things in particular. (Hint: Boota hides between them, and Simon’s face ends up in them.) Kill La Kill was a fanservicey show, there is absolutely no getting around that whatsoever, but it subverted the semi-nudity it often subjected its characters to by turning it into a major plot point. I don’t remember whether Gurren Lagann ever uses Yoko’s blatant sex appeal to make any sort of point, so for now it’s just one of those things that I have to accept as… being there. Perhaps she’s there as a sort of feminine foil to Kamina’s hyper-masculine energy, but her personality is just as fiery as his. We’ll see where this adventure takes her. She’s certainly capable, so she’s not just there to be eye candy, but I hope the show doesn’t spend too much of her screen time reducing her to (as Kamina says) a ‘nice body’.
I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to watching this show again. It just gives me a sense of unstoppable awesome stubbornness, and I hope I’ll enjoy it as much the second time round as I remember doing the first time. I think I get a bit infected by the feeling espoused by Kamina’s many pithy catchphrases, a few of which we’re introduced to in episode 1: ‘who the hell do you think I am/ we are’, ‘bust through the heavens with your drill’, ‘believe in the me that believes in you’ and ‘reject common sense to make the impossible possible’, to name but a few. Kamina’s got some great soundbites, but the best thing is how obviously he believes that every one of them is literally true and something that should be lived by no matter what.
We could all do with being a bit more Kamina sometimes, perhaps, but make sure you’ve got a Yoko around before you go challenging a giant toothy face to a fight. It won’t go well.