Reviewby Theron Martin,
NOTE: This review unavoidably contains massive spoilers for the first volume. Reading it is not recommended unless you have already seen at least through episode 8.
Devastated more than anyone else by the death of Kamina, Simon struggles to find purpose and motivation in his life while the Spiral King's generals continue their assaults on Team Dai-Gurren and their new mobile fortress. He finds some inspiration in the support of the charmingly guileless Nia, a discarded daughter of the Spiral King who must come to terms with the meaning of her own existence and forge her own path forward – and that path seems to lie with Simon. When a clever enemy ruse leads the team into the most desperate of circumstances, Simon finally takes decisive action in his own way as he steps up to become the man Kamina always wanted him to be. With Simon now at the lead, the forces of Team Dai-Gurren, and new allies they pick up along the way, march against the remaining Generals and the Spiral King himself in his capital city of Teppelin. The final confrontation with Lordgenome, the Spiral King, reveals some of the truth of the world, and a cryptic but especially disturbing warning about the future.
Seven years later, the absence of the Spiral King's tyranny has allowed humanity to develop at an explosive rate, but the Spiral King's dire words still linger in the minds of the new society's leaders, including Simon and Roussiu. With the birth of a single child the terrible truth of his warning starts to become apparent.
In its first story arc Gurren Lagann was the epitome of the bombastic, macho, high-spirited old-school giant robot series it so deliciously paid tribute to, a spirit which in many senses came crashing down with the death of Kamina, its human embodiment, at the end of episode 8. At times during the post-Kamina Spiral King arc, which spans episodes 9-15, the series recaptures that heady spirit, especially in the glorious sequence of scenes in episode 11 where Simon finally and decisively comes to terms with who he is and makes sure everyone knows it. And what studio other than Gainax could take a scene so infused with potent bravado and turn it into an emotional as well as storytelling triumph? For all of the silliness displayed elsewhere, it's moments like that which have won the series legions of fans and which keeps them coming back.
But, as a whole, Gurren Lagann is not the same series in its middle third that it was in its first third. Sure, it has a semi-beach episode to give another opportunity for the female side of the cast to flash some skin, but the light-hearted frivolity has become less frequent and the overall tone of the series has subtly shifted. The fighting gradually becomes less about proving manly superiority than about waging a true rebellion against the authority of the Spiral King, and the victories gradually become less about personal achievement than they do advancement of a cause. This all culminates in an even more dramatic transition in the post-Spiral King arc, which begins with episode 17. (What happened to episode 16? It's just a recap episode.) We get to see how character have aged and changed – in some cases dramatically – with the passage of time, and how this has changed their values in some cases. More importantly, at that point the series becomes less about a triumphant adventure than a struggle to protect what humankind has created; in other words, the story has matured along with the cast. As if to serve official notice that the fun-loving frivolity is over, one of the major characters undergoes a devastating and heartbreaking transformation to mark the onslaught of the newest and greatest threat.
Although Simon's rise to leadership may define this block of episodes, the emergence of Nia as a key cast member is nearly as important. Her soft look and sound, bewitching innocence, and charming lack of knowledge about the real world all endear her to viewers in a very moe-like manner, but hidden beneath that gentle veneer is a core of steel, one as firm and resolute, in its own way, as Kamina's indomitable spirit. Unlike so many other moe characters out there, her background, when she learns it, affects her but does not define her; in fact, it seems to make her stronger, more determined. She is much more than the companion for Simon that Yoko could not be, as evidenced by her ownership of what is arguably this block of episodes' second most powerful scene (the graveyard scene near the end of episode 11). The only other newer character worth a mention is the armadillo-like General, who is the only one of the four to show a modicum of intelligence and cunning or any personality beyond your standard shonen leader-type bad guy. Even Lordgenome himself offers nothing special. Yoko, however, continues to prove that there is more substance to her than just being a big-breasted bimbo.
While the first third of the series suffered from erratic artistry in some episodes, the overall look and visual style, for better or worse, remains more consistent through this span of episodes. An old-school look supported by modern digital coloring and fan service sensibilities creates a production that looks both fresh and classic at the same time, one which evokes flashes of FLCL and Gunbuster 2 but generally sets itself apart from most other recent series. The updated character designs in the post-Spiral King episodes provide pleasing extrapolations of how the younger cast members look when older; Darry (the young girl) in particular ages quite impressively. The only downside on the character design updates is the haircut Nia gets at one point, which makes her look too boyish and is, thankfully, returned to a more suitable length in the new arc. Except for the beach episode the fan service actually tones down quite a bit during this run, and even the beach scenes pale in comparison to the hot springs episode last volume. More inventive are the mecha designs, which often seem to embody characteristics of their users and sometime take on a playful feel, such as General Adiane's “are they eyes or are they breasts” custom Gunmen. Regular animation is not the smoothest, and in fact is sometimes deliberately jerky, but the animation avoids excessive shortcuts in battle scenes by using a highly stylized and exaggerated old-school approach that may not work for some. Also notable are the ever-changing eyecatch pieces, which offer two new still shots each episode.
The series' soundtrack is still not its strongest point but deserves a bit more credit through this run of episodes for what it does to enhance and support the action in any given scene. Do not expect much for new musical numbers outside of the recap episode and an update to the eyecatch theme, however. The original opening song remains consistent throughout, although its visuals update again in episode 17 to mark the beginning of the third story arc. The original closer continues through episode 15, after which a one-shot theme set to series concept art fills in as the closer for episode 16 before the new closer, “Minna no Peace” by Afromania (a number which sounds an awful lot like some of the Naruto opening themes), takes over with episode 17.
The Japanese vocal work distinguishes itself by playing well to the flamboyant spirit of these exaggerated characters, but the most notable performance is actually Yukari Fukui's subdued performance as Nia. Her delivery style defines Nia's character as much as the actual characterization, so it will be interesting indeed to hear what Nia sounds like on the English dub. The English dub on DVD will have to wait for 2009's hybrid release, but I'm going to take this opportunity to comment on the Bang Zoom! dub which can be heard in the Sci Fi Channel broadcasts. Through episode 8 the casting decisions have been excellent, with most English renditions proving to be close fits for the originals. The only performance which can reasonably be called into question is Kyle Hebert's rendition of Kamina, which will take some getting used to for those who hear the Japanese version first since it does not seem to initially capture Kamina's full spirit. This impression fades away as the series progresses, however, and by episode 8 his version of Kamina kicks as much butt as Katsuyuki Konishi's original. The episodes including Nia (the one other role that could be a trouble spot for the English dub) have not come up yet as of the time of this writing, so how appropriate Hynden Walch (Amy from the second season of Immortal Grand Prix) will be in that role remains to be seen.
Bandai certainly offers a good deal by included nine episodes in a regular-sized DVD case for a typical DVD price, but a translation of the opening and closing credits anywhere on the DVDs or in the packaging might have been nice. Both disks share clean versions of the newer openers and closers as their only Extras.
Unlike most of its contemporaries, Gurren Lagann, with these episodes, shows a capacity to adapt to its story advancement and grow beyond its original parameters. It's still a purely entertaining series at heart, as it does not promote any deeper meaning than being true to yourself, finding your own self-confidence, and striving towards your goals, but it also shows that flamboyant style, ridiculous behavior, and over-the-top action do not preclude telling a solid and sincere story populated with worthy plot twists and characters that are more than just stereotypes.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Development of Nia as the female lead, continues to be fun despite generally getting more serious.
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