Friday, 18 March 2011

天元突破グレンラガン/ Heavenly Breakthrough Guren Ragan / Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Not since One Piece has there been such an exuberant, wilful and just plan enjoyable anime, and indeed, Gurren Lagann is utter brilliance for very similar reasons. Both series thrive on being extremely over-the-top and power through their stories with big speeches and endless ebullient self-confidence, but both can switch gears to become something full of genuine emotion, something that really is epic despite poking fun at itself. This has to be the most fun action-adventure series I've seen beside One Piece, and can even go to places Shounen Jump’s flagship title cannot, because as a 27-episode series, it has a finality that an ongoing piece does not – or at least, has not as of yet.

There are several wrong ways to watch Gurren Lagann. It’s no good watching it as an important sociological comment, because it revels in saying that we should cast aside responsibilities to go and kick arse, and the consequences will work themselves out. It’s not good as a really coherent story, since it has a certain air of making-it-up-as-it-goes-along: this nasty king controls the moon, but oh wait, he’s in league with these anti-spiral guys, but oh no wait, he was actually against them all along and they just happened to be using his machines to their own ends, and this formless astral projection thing sends messengers and incrementally increases the power of its attacks rather than starting with full force because, um…because…it wants everyone to be in despair! Yeah! It’s also not exactly something that you can rely on for good science, seeming to forget evolution is reliant on aptitude for an environment, rather than just being indefinite. But those are all totally the wrong way of looking at the show. You sit back, you watch the show expecting it to just kick arse and go way, way over the top, and you’re rewarded with a magnificent display of silliness that will genuinely move you.

Here’s a story outline. Shimon is a young boy in one of the subjugated colonies of humans left on an earth ruled over by the giant robots of the beastmen. All he does all day is dig, so that the colony can eke out a meagre underground existence, until one day he finds a strange little drill, a drill that just might activate a little fighting machine. And good thing too, because the war between humans and beastmen soon bursts into the colony, a girl in a bikini with a very large rifle fighting against a giant robot. Along with his brother figure Kamina, a man so full of cheesy lines and dramatic poses that none can deny his awesomeness, they defeat the enemy and burst out onto the surface to wage war against their oppressors. But there may be more to the situation than they realised, and those that have long subjugated the humans may just be doing it for their own good.

Most of the early episodes are just plain fun, brainless fights between loudmouthed heroes and snarling baddies, but later on the series takes a brave turn and starts to question what it means to be a leader, when one should make sacrifices for the greater good, and how a society often runs on selfish, minor needs, but that angle is soon sloughed off when a few convenient attacks allow the heroes to reassert themselves as fighters and go rocketing off to kick some butt. But such out-of-hand dismissal works well; we see enough of the change of mood to know that the series could have covered that angle and done it very well, but prefers the adrenaline rushes of immense battles where galaxies and even Big Bangs can be hurled around, and huge personal sacrifices can be made. At its funniest, Gurren Lagann is hilarious, as when Kamina decides to try and make two robots combine for the first time, or when yet another massive robot grows out of the last. At its saddest, it really is moving, with all the self-sacrifices war films can allow. And it’s not afraid to just throw everything into the pot to see what happens. Got a mole-pig mascot? Let’s make it evolve into a cute boy-thing just for the hell of it, then forget about that in the next episode. Got a great voice actor who’s not gonna be used any more? Make him an exposition-spewing computer head! While you’re at it, take a typical anime side-story formula and give it to the gun-toting girl, but make sure you do it in typically awesome fashion. The whole point of Gurren Lagann is that it’s stuff you’ve seen before, done in such an excessive way, with so much style, that it’s totally brilliant.

And the show looks great, too, reaffirming my faith in Gainax after mediocre efforts like Melody of Oblivion and He Is My Master. The art style isn’t to everyone’s tastes, being loose and bouncy, but again, I think of One Piece’s often slapdash art and strange character designs that are made to work by the randomness of the setting. In Gurren Lagann, there’s no problem having talking armadillos or flat-nosed identical twins or a gunnery controller who looks strangely like Charlie Chalk – it all fits into the world, and helps tell the slapdash, hyperactive story, and looks awesome, especially the stylised eye-catches with snatches of the similarly overblown soundtrack (much of which is London rappers going ‘Ro! Ro! Fight da powa!’ while an opera singer screeches). It takes spirals as its theme, mostly because anime fans have a bit of a thing about drills, having appeared in some of the unintentionally silly 80s mecha anime and often being used in fanart for things like Marimite, and so big drills and loosely related things like DNA helixes are placed at the fore, and there’s nothing quite like an unfathomably huge robot attacking a huge stone face with a planet-sized drill!

Gurren Lagann
exists for its moments of sheer idiosyncratic greatness, of ludicrously uplifting fights and moments of bittersweet love, of big speeches and bigger drills, and rushes of adrenaline. I’ll definitely file it beside One Piece in terms of fun, humour and all-round awesomeness, and I’m sure I’ll come back to it again and again. It’s not one for newcomers to anime, for thinking this is what all anime is like would be to miss most of the joke – the humour here derives from the fact that it’s so much dafter, so much camper than just about anything around it, which is why it will make fans of the genre laugh at it and love it all the more. If you’re an anime fan who’s even a little bit au fait with the tropes and clichés of mecha anime, you must watch Gurren Lagann.

(originally written 15.10.07. Spellings have since been solidified at least in fandom to 'Simon'/'Row! Row!' Movie impressions here)

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