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Dig For Fire: The Roots of Gurren Lagann

by Jason Green,
The arrival of a new anime to American cable airwaves is always cause to celebrate. There's even more to get excited about when that series comes courtesy of Studio GAINAX, the fans-turned-pros behind anime classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster, and The Wings of Honneamise. GAINAX's latest, the 27-episode 2007 TV series Gurren Lagann began airing as part of Sci Fi's Ani-Monday block in late July.

But what's all the excitement about? This feature attempts to answer that question by tracing Gurren Lagann’s roots in the GAINAX canon, offering GAINAX diehards a glimpse of what the show has in store while giving new fans an overview of the connections to the many classics in the studio's vast catalog.

The Staff: FLCL + Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi = Gurren Lagann

In the semi-autobiographical two-part OAV Otaku no Video, studio founders Hiroyuki Yamaga and Toshio Okada paint a portrait of GAINAX as a group that are close friends and diehard anime fans first and professional anime creators a distant second. Given that close-knit nature, it comes as little surprise that the bulk of Gurren Lagann’s staff is comprised of company veterans—starting with Yamaga himself, credited as series planner—to ensure the series maintains the look and feel that defines the GAINAX style.
Series director Hiroyuki Imaishi's relationship with GAINAX spans over a decade. Joining the company as an animator and storyboard artist for the company's comeback smash Neon Genesis Evangelion, Imaishi filled a similar role on its movie spin-off/sequel End of Evangelion and the romance series His and Her Circumstances. He rose to the rank of animation director for 2000's surrealist six-part OAV FLCL (an Adult Swim mainstay under the title Fooly Cooly), where he worked with directors Kazuya Tsurumaki, Shouji Saeki, and Masahiko Otsuka. Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashia 2002 series where its protagonists leap between bizarrely skewed versions of their hometown—gave Imaishi the chance to show off both his mecha skills and his directorial chops when he was tapped to direct its third episode, set in a sci-fi variant world.

In 2004, Imaishi completed what is perhaps his best known work, the OAV Dead Leaves, on which he served as director, animation director, and character designer. Though the film was produced by Production I.G, the connections with GAINAX are still evident, most notably by the presence of Hiromasa Ogura, the legendary art director whose relationship with the company dates back to its first release, the epic 1987 film The Wings of Honneamise. When Imaishi was tapped to direct Gurren Lagann, he teamed once again with Tsurumaki, Saeki, and Otsuka: Tsurumaki contributed storyboards, Saeki directed two episodes as well as creating storyboards and scripts for several episodes, and Otsuka served as Imaishi's assistant director.

Not all of the staff is grizzled GAINAX vets. By contrast, Gurren Lagann’s series composer and chief screenwriter, Kazuki Nakashima, is better known in the world of theatre than anime, and has but one other credit on his GAINAX résumé: the script for the first episode of Re: Cutie Honey, Evangelion director Hideaki Anno's 2004 relaunch of Go Nagai's classic cheesecake superheroine. Also, though the characters of Gurren Lagann bear a strong resemblance to the work of GAINAX's go-to designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, particularly his work on FLCL, the character design chores were handled by Atsushi Nishigori. Nishigori is also a relatively new name to the GAINAX honor roll, previously serving as key animator to the opening theme for Mahoromatic, the company's fanservice-packed tale of a young boy and his cybernetic maid.

The Mecha: Gunbuster + EVA Unit 01 = Gurren Lagann

Naota, the reluctant hero of FLCL, had to deal with mecha spontaneously bursting form his forehead. His plight could serve as a metaphor for GAINAX's entire creative philosophy, for in GAINAX shows, mecha truly does show up in the strangest places. Nadia - The Secret of Blue Water may have been set in 19th century France, but that didn't stop them from packing in fanciful transforming ships made of wood, or the villain Grandis’ massive spider-like pursuit vehicle. Mahoromatic may be a heartfelt romance between a boy and his maid, but when said maid is a retired combat android there are still plenty of opportunities for flashbacks to explosive mecha action.

Since the founders of GAINAX were, in their hearts, huge mecha fans (as documented, again, in Otaku no Video), it's only natural that it is the mecha shows where their unabashed excitement really shines through. GAINAX's approach was already proving revolutionary with their second work, the 1988 six-episode OAV Gunbuster. At times, they playfully poke fun at the absurdities of the genre. Nowhere is this playfulness more evident than in the training sequences, where students are forced to run laps and do push-ups using their massive fighting suits. The pinnacle of craziness, however, is the “Buster Shield,” a superhero-esque cloth cape that the Gunbuster robot wields to deflect bullets. Despite the silliness, Gunbuster is a science fiction story informed by scientific fact. Operating a walking robot has never looked as realistically complicated as it does in the Gunbuster with its bevy of sliders, buttons, and switches, nor has a series so deeply explored scientific theories on faster-than-light travel, space warping, and time dilation.

The 26-episode Neon Genesis Evangelion was less a love letter to mecha anime than a complete reinvention of the genre. Where most mecha were bulky constructions straight from the school of Gundam, EVAs were tall, lithe, and built for speed. Where most robots have seemingly limitless power, EVAs were bound by extension cords. Where usually the hero's robot is his greatest ally, the EVAs hid a terrifying secret. The runaway success of Evangelion resulted in a whole slew of imitators in the years that followed, but none were capable of matching GAINAX's ingenuity.

GAINAX once again reinvents the concept of the giant robot in Gurren Lagann thanks to innovative mecha designs by Yoh Yoshinori, whose previous GAINAX work includes the design of the mecha in The Melody of Oblivion and the gruesome monsters of This Ugly Yet Beautiful World. Yoshinori turns the Evangelion design sense on its ear with the Gunmen, boxy robots whose entire torso is taken up by a giant face, a face whose mouth moves when its pilot talks. In a nod to classic combining mecha like Voltron, multiple Gunmen can merge to form a single Gunmen whose power is determined by the number of “faces” it has.

The Gunmen concept throws scientific realism out the window in more ways than one. Lagann, the Gunmen operated by the show's hero Simon, is powered by its pilot's willpower, not batteries or an engine, and can even repair itself if its pilot believes strongly enough. The titular combined robot Gurren Lagann is capable of producing dozens of drills at will, and its final attack, the “Giga Drill Break,” magically creates a massive drill many times the size of the robot that is wielding it. Playing fast with reality opens up Yoshinori to inject fun into his designs, like Kamina's trademark sunglasses serving as inspiration for Gurren's chest emblem. Villainess Adiane gets the show's most hilarious variation on the theme of faces, a Gunmen with feminine curves whose eyes double as nipples and whose gaping, V-shaped mouth is centered squarely on the robot's crotch.

© Gainax, Kazuki Nakashima / Aniplex, KDE-J, TV Tokyo, Dentsu

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