Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 12th 2008
Sub.DVD 1 - Special Edition with CD
Simon, a skilled driller, diligently works to expand his underground village while his “big brother” Kamina steadfastly seeks to reach the mythical “surface” he believes he saw as a child. While drilling one day Simon comes across a strange drill bit, which later proves the key to operating a robotic face he also discovers. The second discovery, soon dubbed Lagann, becomes vital when a giant Gunmen (i.e. face-dominated mecha) falls through the ceiling, pursued by the buxom, gun-toting Yoko. The ensuing battle opens a path to the surface, allowing the trio to ascend. There Kamina carves out a place and reputation for himself by seizing a Gunmen, soon dubbed Gurren, from its Beastman pilot and defeating all foes. In the process he and Simon discover that they make a powerful combination when their machines come together to form the unified mecha Gurren Lagann. Inspired by Kamina's heroics (and supreme manliness!), a large group of humans, first called Team Gurren and later team Dai-Gurren, gradually gathers to combat the Beast Men, their Gunmen, and the Spiral King who stands behind them all.
When ADV first claimed the immensely popular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann in late 2007 they seem to have achieved a major licensing coup. However, ADV saw TTGL slip through its fingers less than a month shy of its scheduled release when their business arrangement with the Japanese licensing company Sojitz apparently collapsed, which opened up an opportunity for Bandai Entertainment to swoop in and pick it up. Fans were ecstatic that the title had not only been “rescued” but also arranged for a cable broadcast on Sci Fi Channel's “Ani-Monday” programming block beginning in late July 2008. To hurry the title out while still blazing hot, Bandai opted for the highly unusual practice of releasing the series first in three subtitled-only dual-disk volumes, with their English dubbed version to follow in early 2009. Given the remarkably boring title logo and cover art for the first volume, fans may long find themselves wondering if the right company ultimately ended up with the title, as little about Bandai's production of the first volume conveys the raw energy integral to making this series the biggest hit in anime fandom since The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. One has to think that ADV, a company much more inventive when it comes to hype, would've come up with a more compelling presentation than this.
Once you get past the packaging, though, a true spectacle awaits. Unlike most other prominent animation studios, Gainax was founded by a group of diehard otaku raised on the classic giant mecha series of the late '60s and '70s, and periodically during the studio's history it has paid tribute to those roots by producing a loving homage to giant robot mecha that has been infused with more recent sensibilities to create something entirely new. Such is the case with TTGL. It may not be as innovative and revolutionary as Neon Genesis Evangelion – in fact, its spirit and look much more resemble Gunbuster 2 – but that does not at all diminish how much fun it is to watch. Most viewers will not be able to resist getting swept up in the torrent of high-spirited energy that permeates the early episodes through to their core. It is utterly over-the-top, deliciously bombastic, bodacious, unapologetically sexy, and loaded with enough bravado to face down an entire herd of charging bulls. It slams its pedal to the metal and charges boldly forward, barely lets up before the end of episode 8, often leaving its viewers breathless in its wake and never giving them an opportunity to ponder how completely ridiculous its premise and combats are. Even if one did do that, why would it matter? The first several episodes, and especially the first one, are balls-to-the-wall anime enthusiasm at its finest.
The spirit and vigor of the episodes is fully embodied in Kamina, one of its two leading men. His relentless machismo, fierce determination, and unshakable confidence do not make him a particularly deep character, but he serves his purpose beautifully here. “Who do you think I am?” becomes his trademark line when faced with friend or foe who deems him unworthy or thinks that he should retreat in the face of an enemy, and he inspires many to follow in his stead. Sure, we have certainly seen this archetype before, but Kamina endears himself to the viewer more than most of his ilk because, unlike nearly all similar characters, he is not selfish. Aside from reaching the surface and constantly reinforcing his badass manliness, his main goal in life seems to be to help the cowardly Simon grow into a worthy and respectable man. He never seems happier than when Simon triumphs, even if that means giving up the glory himself, and that surely resonates deeply with many fans. The flaming gay Leeron and other prominent male supporting characters make less of an impression.
Yoko, the primary female character through these nine episodes, is no push-over herself, and is perhaps the least stereotypical of the core cast introduced so far. She is neither the emotionless ice princess nor the flaming hothead one normally sees in these sexy “girls with guns” roles, but instead finds a comfortable medium between the two. The way her sparse clothing flaunts her curvaceous figure never lets you forget the sex appeal inherent in her role, and her massive gun and competence in the heat of battle confirms her action heroine status, but there is more to Yoko than just that. Most of the more subtle nuances of characterization in the first third of the series can be found in her, which makes her more than just the sum of her ogle-worthy parts. Episode 9 adds Nia, a gentle and more petite female character, to the mix as a decided counterbalance to Yoko. She looks like she will become a prominent regular cast member, but the volume runs out before she gets established enough to delve much into her persona.
The subtler aspects of the series are not limited to Yoko, either. For all its seeming shallowness, TTGL often gives the impression that there is a bit more to it all than all its surface bluster. That , unfortunately, does not prevent the early part of the series from indulging in tired retread scenes like the “must find a way to peek over the wall at the naked ladies in the hot springs” sequence in episode 6, or occasionally descending into other equally dead story gimmicks, but a viewer can get the sense that the series will eventually achieve something more. The dramatic shift in tone that results from a stunning (but also thoroughly telegraphed) development at the end of episode 8 may mark that turning point, but as the volume ends that remains to be seen.
The overall look of the series owes much to Gunbuster 2 (and less directly to FLCL), especially in the way characters move and certain attacks are executed. While Simon's design is more typical, Kamina, with his perpetually bare chest and sharply-pointed sunglasses, cuts a more bold and manly figure. Yoko is given a much more hippy character design than one normally sees in anime girls (something which Kamina regularly teases her about), but, of course, the way her short shorts and not-big-enough halter top provide regular doses of fan service is the main point here. Nia, in a total visual contrast, radiates a charmingly sweet and demure look when she finally appears. Other supporting characters tend to have rougher looks. The Gunmen also distinguish themselves from other modern mecha with cartoonish designs that sometimes seem like throwbacks to the '70s kids shows like the Time Bokan family of titles. Even more modern-looking ones, like the head-shaped miniature Lagann with its brain-patterned protective shield, have a fresh look to them. Beastmen designs, by comparison, range from convincing hybrid forms to the positively silly. Although the primary color scheme is vivid and appealingly colorful, Gainax often uses variations in the color scheme to reflect mood and environment, especially in the underground scenes and, to a lesser extent, in episode 9. Respectable background art is also a regular feature. The animation is better than most of Gainax's other productions, although the styling of the way characters and mecha move (especially in the involved fight scenes) may not work for everyone.
For all of its great and exciting look, and for all of its normal production quality, TTGL does, unfortunately, suffer from quality control issues. This is most painfully obvious in episode 9, where character designs lose their sharpness, Yoko becomes less busty, and in general everything takes on a rougher edge. (The degradation is, in fact, very similar to artistic breakdowns that happen in two episodes of The Third: The Girl with the Blue Eye.) Lesser problems can be seen in episode 4 and other individual spots throughout the series, and some design elements are not consistently maintained; the size and coverage of Yoko's halter top varies a bit from scene to scene and angle to angle, for instance. The problems here are doubtless connected to the vast array of different key artistic personnel who worked on the series, as the episode director, storyboarder, and animation director all vary from episode to episode, with many responsible for only a single episode.
And this being a Gainax series, it does, of course, have loads of fan service. As previously mentioned, Yoko is inherent fan service, but even beyond that she gets the occasional opportunity to flash even more skin and the camera seems obsessed with using angles that emphasize her sexuality. A trio of sisters pops up on multiple occasions to flash their curves, but the “hot springs” episode takes fan service to absurd levels, such as characters moved along by lines of bouncing breasts and male characters employing amusing methods to cover their manhood. (One deliciously ironic scene shows Yoko complaining about the male characters cavorting with Playboy bunny-clad girls while she stands with her ample chest stuck out.) Let's not forget the occasional phallic symbolism in that and other places, either. Another kind of fan service comes in the cameos present in the “hot springs” episode, as Gainax borrows designs from across the spectrum of its previous series to stock its Playboy bunnies, albeit often making them look much bustier than in their original form; look carefully for representatives of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mahoromatic, and both Gunbuster series, among others, and keep a careful eye out for one “queen” bunny.
For all its other merits, the soundtrack may be the series' least impressive aspect. It does an adequate job of hyping up the action scenes and underscoring certain stirring sequences, but overall it is not a major contributor to the production's success. Lively but also pedestrian J-rock numbers open and close each episode. Note that the opener visuals update in episode 9 to reflect the events of episodes 8 and 9, though the music remains the same.
Instead of using the dub cast ADV had already selected, Bandai handed the series over to Bang Zoom! for a complete recasting, which means the ADV dub for the first few episodes (if ever made) may one day be regarded as one of those obscure anime oddities. Dub fans will have to wait for either the Sci Fi Channel broadcast or early 2009's dual language releases to hear it, however, as only the subtitles are present here. Again, one has to wonder if this will ultimately prove the best option, as ADV's dubs have traditionally been at their best when dealing with boisterous, over-the-top content like this, but only time will tell on that. The Japanese cast certainly turns in some fine work here, especially Katsuyuki Konishi in the defining role of Kamina. Pickier viewers may take some issue with how the subtitle text handles thing, especially the Spiral King's name.
Although Bandai has put two disks totaling nine episodes in this release for a regular anime volume retail price, they have gone quite shy on the Extras. Both disks contain only the first clean opener and closer, but the fact both disks have them suggests that Bandai is just going to slap the dub onto each disk and release them separately come next year. The original Japanese opening and closing credits are retained for each episode, with cumulative English credits only at the end of each disk. A Special Edition version also includes a CD. Bandai's decision to release the subtitled-only episodes exactly one-third at a time may also be called into question here, as the end of episode 8 seems like a much more natural disk break point than the end of episode 9.
Despite some flaws, TTGL succeeds wonderfully in its first third precisely because it seems to know exactly what it wants to aim for and hits a bull's-eye in execution. It looks like it may take a more serious turn in its second third, but it definitely gets off to a slammin', fun-lovin' start.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Loads of enthusiastic fun, plenty of dynamic action and fan service, likeable characters, hidden depth.
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