Ten Years of Piercing the Heavens with Gurren Lagann

by Christopher Farris,

I like to describe Gurren Lagann as ‘the last anime you should ever watch’. I don't mean that you should actually quit watching anime after you've seen this series, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, but when you're feeling burnt out on the medium, like keeping up with seasonal shows has become an exhausting slog, definitely check the series out if you haven't seen it yet (and revisit it if you have). If the pure exuberance of Gurren Lagann doesn't rekindle your passion for anime, I don't know what will.

When Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann came out in 2007, it became a classic almost overnight. The references, jokes, and memes surrounding each episode spread like wildfire; it was the hit that everyone was talking about, and it was easy to see why. Contrary to a lot of the more low-key output that had come to dominate the anime scene with the moe boom in full swing, Gurren Lagann was big, loud, exciting, and most of all, manly. The over-the-top presentation of the show, with hot-blooded characters screaming virtually every second as they piloted their wildly-designed mecha, became a visible beacon for its memetic success. The series' constantly-escalating battles, unique robot combinations, and ever-expansive scope of its setting made every episode feel like a major step forward on the show's journey, both thrilling to follow as it was released and great for marathon viewing.

That constant escalation, evocative of the spirals central to the series' design, also happened to represent everything Studio Gainax had done leading up to their creation of perhaps their last magnum opus. It may seem hard to imagine now, but Gainax were once synonymous with the idea of the otaku anime passion project, from Otaku no Video to FLCL, not to mention a little show called Evangelion. Of course, they had their share of lesser successes between the cracks, but some of the most influential and beloved anime made by hardcore hobbyists for that audience came from this particular studio. In many ways, after being defined by it for so long, they finally found their antithesis to Evangelion in Gurren Lagann. Evangelion was a dark, harsh deconstruction of the mecha genre, impressing that giant robots wouldn't turn out as great as anime had made us think they would. Gurren Lagann ran in the opposite direction, happily shouting that not only were giant robots awesome, you could make them more awesome just by slapping as many of them as you could together. But beyond the combining robots on-screen, Gainax was building on many works from their vaunted history.

Before Evangelion or FLCL, Gainax first made a splash in 1988 with Gunbuster, and revisiting this six-episode sci-fi classic now, you'll be surprised at how many seeds it lays for the eventual creation of Gurren Lagann. Both series start out incredibly small in scale only to grow into huge mecha epics that break space-time itself. Gurren Lagann's penchant for combining and co-piloting mecha, impossibly huge space superweapons, and impractically passionate speeches can all be traced back to this original OVA. Gunbuster even originated the Gainax Pose that Gurren Lagann would go on to make iconic for modern fans: the main robot or hero rising proudly into frame, arms crossed as drums pound triumphantly.

Gainax would revisit Gunbuster for their twentieth anniversary with the sequel series Gunbuster 2 (AKA Diebuster), and if the original series was just planting seeds, this follow-up plays out almost like a full-blooded prototype of Gurren Lagann. Gainax threw all their most popular eggs into one celebratory basket, combining the universe-spanning scale of Gunbuster with the artistic sensibilities of rising star animator Hiroyuki Imaishi, who'd cut his teeth on Dead Leaves, the best episode of Abenobashi, and some of the most distinctive scenes of FLCL. Everything about the scope and style of Diebuster foreshadows what Gurren Lagann would become just a couple years later; Gainax only had to put the series under Imaishi's control for it to crystallize so effectively.

Imaishi's style was irrefutably part of what made Gurren Lagann so special. The show's irrepressibly loud craziness, which was more divisive in previous Imaishi projects, worked more universally this time because it fit so perfectly with the story being told. Making noise, standing up for your freedom, and loudly declaring that you are here fit the heroes' narrative drive to fight back against ridiculously oppressive authority figures. Even the most memorable piece in Gurren Lagann's soundtrack is defined by a chant of the lyrics “Row Row Fight The Power”. Our protagonist Simon's slow ascension to this level of passion was the core development that blazed through the entire story, spurred on by his best friend and initial source of this passion, Kamina.

Memorable characters are key to this phenomenal level of success for just about any series, and while Gurren Lagann had a broad and colorful cast, Kamina's placement at the center of everything was what really turned heads. An unabashedly macho caricature of the mecha-pilot mentor, Kamina's impossible-to-ignore attitude headlined by his distinctive design lent the first quarter of the series an energy that could not be understated. Fans understood that Simon was technically the main character of the story, but Kamina's trademark “believe in the me that believes in you” reassurance hooked in an audience that may have needed to hear that themselves on a more personal level. Kamina led the series at full charge for eight episodes, and if that had continued, Gurren Lagann might still have been a great show. But as we all know, that was not the case, pushing the series into something more extraordinary.

Since it's been ten years and Gurren Lagann's big twist is about as well-publicized as Madoka Magica's, this is your last spoiler warning. Killing off Kamina eight episodes into a 27-episode series was a huge decision even in a show all about shattering limits. It's a vicious gut-punch to an audience that had grown almost dependently attached to the character in a short timespan, the last catalyst Gurren Lagann needed to go from “excellent entertainment” to “unforgettable phenomenon”. Kamina's death continues to drive Simon's character development through the rest of the series, and his presence is palpable in the story's spirit well after his demise. Impressively enough, the show maintains this spirit while firmly moving past Kamina in its pursuit of breaking limits, plainly spelling out that his brand of brazen badassery would not be enough to win the day. Simon and his team needed to keep digging upward and evolving to find new nuances of strength that Kamina himself didn't possess. This formula of a game-changing twist about every eight episodes would repeat two more times as Gurren Lagann progressed, first with a surprising time-skip and then by launching the cast into deep space, every time daring the audience to believe they couldn't go further before blasting away our expectations.

While many aspects of its appeal remain timeless, it can be argued that Gurren Lagann's explicit machismo hasn't aged as well in the modern anime landscape. With a sense of hot-blooded, fan-driven passion being rekindling across anime of all stripes and genres these days, the robot battle-focused action of Gurren Lagann may come across as less rebellious and exceptional than it did in the less diverse moe doldrums of 2007. Of course, this issue is tempered if seen as an expanded follow-up to Gainax's female-led Gunbuster shows. Viewed through the lens of “Gunbuster, but with guys”, the show becomes an amusingly novel spin on the unique aesthetics of its progenitors. This evolution of aesthetic has continued beyond Gurren Lagann, underscoring it with new productions. When Imaishi and other Gainax talent left to form Studio Trigger, their debut series Kill la Kill could only be described as “Gurren Lagann, but with girls”. In that sense, Gurren Lagann isn't so much a reaction to its time period (even if people reacted that way) as an extremely timely event in a timeless legacy of spirit.

Indeed, Studio Trigger may be the most enduring legacy Gurren Lagann left behind. The team has produced a variety of shows at this point, but virtually all of them reflect what Imaishi's team did with Gainax on Gurren Lagann. Whether it's the nonstop insanity of Kill la Kill, the comedic escalation of Space Patrol Luluco, or the energetic positivity of Little Witch Academia, the spiral structure of Gurren Lagann that started with Gunbuster has been taken well past its original peak by Studio Trigger's continued efforts. Just as the series succeeded by moving past Kamina, Trigger's work has grown by striving to build past Gurren Lagann rather than trying to echo its hallmarks as Gainax arguably did with Evangelion. Of course, Trigger isn't opposed to throwing in the odd homage to Gurren Lagann throughout their work, just to remind us who the hell we think they are. The difference is that while these style homages were once accused of being Gurren Lagann references by fans, they're more commonly seen as just "Studio Trigger" references instead.

Maybe that's the greatest gift Gurren Lagann has given us; it wasn't a one-off lightning-in-a-bottle fad. Beyond its influences on Studio Trigger, the series has spawned style homages in everything from American cartoons like Transformers: Animated to French cartoons like Wakfu. All these similar series may leave Gurren Lagann a victim of its own ubiquity someday, with its labor of love catching future viewers less off-guard after they've seen it referenced a million times. Then again, the theme of the series was a revival of passion that would keep going past its own inception. Contrary to how I introduced it, Gurren Lagann may not be the last anime you should ever watch, because its limit-breaking story exclaims that nothing ever has to be.

So what does Gurren Lagann's legacy mean to you? Share your favorite heavens-piercing memories with us in the forums!


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