Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jul 20th 2009
Simon is a young boy who's spent his entire life digging tunnels in his underground village. All that is about to change, however, when he discovers a giant-faced robot buried in the ground. Joined by hot-blooded "big brother" Kamina and gun-toting beauty Yoko, Simon uses his newfound robot (hastily named Lagann) to break through to the surface, entering a world of adventure ... as well as danger. Across the wilderness, humans are threatened by a savage race of robot-piloting beastmen. That reign of terror may soon be coming to an end, though, as Kamina takes a robot for himself (naming it Gurren) and joins forces with Simon to defeat the beastmen. Will the robotic duo of Gurren-Lagann be enough to protect humankind?
Gurren Lagann: one of the all-time giant robot classics, or an obnoxious agglomerate of fandom memes? While it's still too early to determine this series' place in anime history, it should come as no surprise that the franchise's runaway success has spawned a manga adaptation. It should also come as no surprise that the manga adaptation makes sure to quote all the famous lines: "Your drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!" "Kick reason aside and do the impossible!" "Believe in me who believes in you!" "Who the hell do you think I am?!" Well, that should just about cover the fandom meme portion. But what about telling the actual story? That takes a little more than quoting famous lines from the series—and it looks like manga-ka Kotaro Mori isn't quite up to the job.
Creating an anime-to-manga adaptation of an iconic, well-loved series is always a precarious balancing act between following the original and putting one's own spin on the story. In this case, Mori errs on the side of faithfulness—an error that turns out to be fatal. Instead of a grand tale about a boy discovering his place in the world, we get a jumble of battle scene reenactments that make the opening arc look like monster-of-the-week fluff. Why are they fighting those enemies? Why did a tougher enemy suddenly show up? Why are they powering up their robots like that? Well, if you saw the anime, you'd understand—except that the point of an adaptation is to make it so that someone who hasn't seen the anime can understand, and that's where this one misses the boat.
To his credit, though, Mori does throw in a handful of original touches—just not enough to really put a fresh spin on the story. He starts off the very first scene with Yoko in the middle of a hunt rather than Simon's monologue; the back story about Simon's parents adds some genuine depth to his character; fan favorite Kittan shows up a lot earlier to help out in battle. In addition, faithfulness to the original turns out to be a positive when it comes to getting the characters right: Simon's wide-eyed naïveté is exactly on point, as is Kamina's brash fighting spirit, and all the endearing little traits that round out the supporting cast. (It wouldn't be Gurren Lagann without Leeron's flamboyant androgyny, after all.)
Staying true to the original also proves to be a plus in the artwork department: not only are the character designs instantly recognizable and appealing, but the battle scenes themselves emanate with an over-the-top dynamism pulled straight from the anime. Things get so intense that the artistic style shifts from scene to scene, one moment diving into pure shonen action, then going for obsessive mecha detail, and breaking down into utter pen-and-marker destruction when the combatants really let loose. Yet this boundless energy, which seems so effective at first glance, ends up becoming its own worst enemy when trying to actually tell the story. The sheer amount of artistic clutter, combined with the anime-scene-reenactment mentality, results in several sequences that would stump even those who know the series by heart. That scene where Lagann gets thrown at the bad guys like a baseball? That's reduced to a page where the robot goes flying in one direction ... and then comes back in the opposite direction. It may look cool with all the speedlines, but the coherence is lost. Clearly, copying key animation frames and slapping them together haphazardly is not the best way to draw a great action manga.
Sloppy and imperfect as this adaptation may be, there's at least one thing that it nails 100%: the dialogue. As mentioned before, the series' most famous lines get quoted directly, but more than that, the interstitial dialogue also brings out the characters' essential traits. Kamina's personality is the one that shines the most, of course, as his hot-blooded nature makes for plenty of exciting battle cries and declarations of fighting spirit. A lively translation also keeps that spirit burning, with just the right sprinkling of slang to beef up the script. For the sake of completeness, the sound effects also get translated (while preserving the original Japanese lettering), and bonus content comes in the form of character sketches, some 4-panel gags, and—who didn't see this one coming?—a glossy Yoko pinup inside the front cover.
It's no surprise when a hit anime series gets converted to manga form. It's also no surprise when the resulting manga chooses to stick closely to the source material. So it should also come as no surprise that, after comparing the two, the original is better. The first volume of the Gurren Lagann manga is something of a beautiful mess, capturing the spirit of Simon and Kamina's early adventures but losing a lot of coherence in the process. The battles are a joy to look at, and the famous quotes are still worth reading (or yelling) out loud, but trying to follow the story as if it were any regular old manga quickly exposes the artist's weaknesses. Yes, everyone loves Gurren Lagann and no honor would be greater than working on an adaptation of the material. But when the adaptation process becomes nothing more than a slavish act of copy-and-paste, the end product inevitably falls short.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Captures the visual pop and fighting spirit of a classic giant robot series.
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