Writing a review, one can run into a dilemma: Do you keep strictly to what you thought of the subject, or simply guide your audience to what, past experience shows, most viewers will enjoy? Statistically speaking, the vast majority of otakus new to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Pierce the Heavens, Gurren Lagann) are going to adore it. Gurren Lagann is legendary: many otakus think it an irrepeatable masterwork, and it ranks among the top 50 in both popularity and score, higher than classic mecha series Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, on MyAnimeList.net. As I began the series, I noticed one top commenter claiming he was just starting his fifth viewing. No, I don’t doubt him, but I could only shake my head afterward. I take pride in never dropping a series—and after all, I planned on reviewing it—so I stuck with it, making slow progress, as unimpressed turned to boredom turned to drudgery.
Gurren Lagann is ambitious enough, I will give it that. Dating from 2007, this very anime-original series goes from the very humblest to the vastest, most astronomical scale in just 27 episodes. The action begins in a small, dank Giha village, deep beneath the earth’s surface. Under the direction of a chief, villagers eke out a living building tunnels to find buried artifacts and expand the village, the best diggers being rewarded with helpings of pig-mole steak. Among the most industrious is Simon, an unimposing youth who falls under the wing of Kamina, a rebellious older teen. Determined to drill to the surface—which he claims his father showed him as a child, but which the chief denies exists—Kamina is always getting into scrapes, and reprimanded. He and Simon cement their friendship by forming an alliance they name Team Gurren, which also includes their spunky pet pig-mole, Boota.
This is only backstory, but already there are major issues. The setting is hard to accept (the village has been underground for generations, but 1. Where did the air they breathe come from? and 2. Where did they put all the dirt?) and isn’t treated with much curiosity (little is shown of what homes are like, how food other than the occasional burrowing animal is procured, what the culture is like). And it isn’t much of a spoiler that, yes, there is a sky up there. This is an uncomplicated, easy plot, an obvious vehicle to give us dynamic, iconoclastic heroes to admire, and simply-wrong antagonists that feel like a stand-in for the target audience’s parents (some of the theme music includes the lyrics, “Fight the power!”, in English). There is plenty of exposition about humans and most other life on earth being “spiral” lifeforms that, symbolized by the drill motif, will always make progress and smash all obstacles; sounds a lot like progressivism, but also a certain race also identified with a spiral symbol, cue eye roll. Further, the rushed pace when treating what would be, in themselves, momentous events, just augmented my incredulity. Not long after Simon finds a small drill, and then a small mecha, a much larger robot crashes through the ceiling of the village. During the cave-in, Simon and Kamina encounter Yoko, a hot-bodied “surface girl” fighting the robot with a long gun; she’s supposed to be hot at least, but her curves seemed to me a sack of potatoes on her lanky frame. The drill Simon found turns out to be a Core Drill for the small mecha, a Gunmen; dubbed Lagann, Simon pilots the machine, defeats the invading robot, and they have “pierced the heavens” before the first episode‘s end. I really wished there had been more drama and anticipation as they made the change of scene.
Once on the surface, Yoko introduces Simon and Kamina to allies from her own Littner village, forced above ground by an accident. Learning that the hostile Gunmen are piloted by creatures called beastmen, and heartened by Simon’s piloting one of the machines, an ever-expanding Team Gurren aims to appropriate the beastmen’s Gunmen, and take the fight to these oppressors, who attack any humans found on the surface. From here on, there are some ups—a trio of imouto-type sisters—a hot springs episode where, at last, there is enough gag comedy to make Kamina’s bravado feel in place—a beautiful, comes-in-a-box waifu who looks positively mail-order.
But most of the time the action was sleep-inducing. There are frequent giant robot battles, explosions, etc. but the Gunmen designs, like Olmec heads with four limbs attached, and drills that grow to the size of the whole machine for a finishing move, make for cartoony animation incapable of building up tension or seeming in any way a matter of gravity. In retrospect, I realize even Beyblade paid homage to real physics; Gurren Lagann does not.
The treatment of enemies becomes still more offsetting. As it turns out, they have well-founded reason to thwart the humans, but when their concerns are raised, the answer our heroes give them amounts to, “No sweat! We’ve got it!” By series’ end, however, the ultimate crisis feared by the antagonists hasn’t happened yet, strengthening my conviction that this paean to youthful spirit has nothing meaningful to say about the problems humans do often face, when they ignore calls for caution and restraint urged by long experience. Little surprise then that, unusually for a shonen title, little time is spent training for battle, the only thing needful for victory is belief in oneself. Plus a full stomach: Simon becomes incapacitated when he gets the mid-fight munchies.
The first arc of Gurren Lagann was made into Gurren Lagann The Movie: Childhood’s End, which includes about 20 minutes of new material. Likewise, the second half became Gurren Lagann The Movie: The Lights in the Sky are Stars, which includes a heftier portion of new animation, including added fanservice and an extended final battle. There is also a series of music videos set to the soundtrack songs, mostly (but not all) animated, entitled Gurren Lagann Parallel Works. I thought some of these more pleasant than the anime; settings include a reimagining of the series plot in a medieval setting, and a magical girl anime reimagining of one character. Lastly, there is a separate stand-alone animated music video featuring Yoko, “Kirameki Yoko Box – Pieces of Sweet Stars”, which I just love. There, she’s so cute, and much sexier than in the main series. The artistry, the moe is impressive here; we have only to mourn that Gainax held out, did not give us something as nice as the studio-made amv in the main cour.