Piercing the Heavens or Just Digging Yourself A Deeper Hole? (Or, A Detailed Look at Gurren Lagann, Part I – Episodes 1-16)

NOTE: This article is also available at Ideas Without End here

This article, and a subsequent continuation focusing on the remaining episodes of the series, will take the form of an extended retrospective over the 2007 series Gurren Lagann. The series is well liked for its visual style, soundtrack and dynamic action sequences that throughout the show consistently outdid the previous extremes in terms of scale and spectacle. For Gurren Lagann this arms race stereotypical of super robot anime is integral to the plot and, once the initial adrenaline rush of seeing some new machine or weapon deployed passes, is used to a very different end.

Note: This article will be discussing the plot and ending of the series – do not read on if you do not want to be spoiled about later developments.

The series’ plot is a simple and predictable one on the surface, divided into three distinct arcs. The first concerns the childhood of a downtrodden miner, Simon, who with the help of the macho and brash Kamina and the femme fatale Yoko escapes from his dull daily life and ends up the hero in a desperate battle against the army of monstrous Beastmen who occupy the surface of Earth. During the battles against the Beastmen, Kamina dies and his role is replaced by the timid Rossiu, who in time becomes more confident and willing to fight thanks to Simon’s indefatigable spirit. At the halfway point of the series, the Beastmen are defeated and Simon and Rossiu become leaders of a new human empire, alongside the former princess of the Beastmen, Nia. The second arc focuses on the difficulties they face in ruling a technologically advanced civilisation and Simon facing the destruction of his reputation as a new, unknown force, known as the Anti-Spirals, invade. Simon’s failure to adequately respond to this new invasion leads to Rossiu betraying Simon, staging a coup and assuming control, and the arc focuses on Simon’s efforts to clear his name and fight back. This then leads into the final arc, in which Simon, now restored to glory, leads his empire in a counterattack against the Anti-Spirals to save Nia, who they have taken hostage.

While this plot is simple, and on the face of it a paean to the power of bravado, machismo and aggressive, do-or-die tactics over all adversity, supported by the final arc’s procession of more imposing weapons brought to bear by Simon against ever-more impossible odds, it is at the same time a more refined rejection of these stereotypes. Gurren Lagann draws visually and thematically on action anime from past decades in its embracing of the power of human “fighting spirit” and courage in the face of unwavering evil, and in its superficial plot is closely based on cliches and homages to past entries in the genre. From the start, Simon looks up to Kamina as the epitome of “manliness,” an infallible mentor figure who is a natural leader and whose plans are guaranteed to work. It is Kamina who convinces him to try and leave their safe but dull life as miners, and throughout their early adventures fighting the Beastmen he takes the lead – even usurping Yoko’s position as the head of a resistance group and rebranding it in his own image as Team Gurren. He drives the plot forward on a wave of what seems to be natural charisma and talent as a leader of men, and Simon draws on this to come out of his own nervous shell.

The forced co-operation between Simon and Kamina as the two of them pilot the series’ titular two-man fighting machine Gurren Lagann builds on this mentor relationship and begins to show the cracks in it. Kamina’s over-reliance on pure aggression is proven not to work and yet very quickly it is shown he has nothing beyond this; his leadership skills are limited to charismatic catchphrases and inspiring speeches but overall his position is little more than a figurehead. This comes to a head at the mid-point of this first story arc, when prior to a major fight, Simon sees Kamina talking to Yoko and realises that all of his bravado and courage is simply a bluff; that he has been coasting on his reputation as a man of action and instinct without much in the way of talent to back it up. This realisation leads to the mission almost failing, and Kamina’s last-minute surge of the energy that has in the past inspired the others leads to his death. This sequence, while on the surface a straight homage to a number of past series that contribute to the overall aesthetic and tone of Gurren Lagann, also provides an undermining of expectations; the hero has died heroically, but his successor’s last memories of him are of a man frightened and unable to properly cope with the position of leadership he fought his way into.

Kamina’s replacement is the timid and resentful Rossiu, little more than a child who in turn must be mentored by Simon. If the first sequence is about the sudden destruction of an ideal, then the second (from Kamina’s death to the end of the first arc) is about Simon shaping the “right” memory of Kamina to let the others carry on. He must take up the mantle of the man of action. This comes across as the same kind of overconfident aggression, but now backed up by knowledge of the real effects of failure, and the series “returns to course” and meets the viewer’s expectations; the hero has lost his mentor and come out of the experience stronger, teaching the new generation. This first arc concludes with the most frantic and high-stakes battle yet, as Simon finally meets a worthy opponent in the form of the Beastmen’s king. In a visual theme that will recur throughout the series, victory comes only by sacrificing the lower half of Gurren Lagann and Simon fighting alone in the detached cockpit and winning with his own hands. The final scene of the episode, after a fight which has ended up with the hero and villain exchanging barehanded punches after thoroughly destroying each others’ machines, and most of the battlefield, has the dying Beastman warn Simon that his victory is a hollow one and that when one million humans are living on the Earth’s surface, fresh disaster will occur.

Throughout the series, the iconic motif of Simon and his team is a drill, their machine’s signature weapon and initially a symbol of progress; as a miner, Simon tunnels through the earth towards the surface and Kamina continually exhorts him to “pierce the heavens”. This motto continues on into the second half of the series but is made strangely meaningless; a drill is a tool used for burrowing or downward progress from the perspective of someone on the surface and once Simon has literally pierced through his world’s roof, all he can do with the drill is head back underground. This choice of signature weapon and visual cue contributes to the sense that the entire ethos of Team Gurren is an empty one; they are rushing blindly forward, drilling through all obstacles, but can do little more than that. Already, blind optimism and aggression has been shown to be limited; it has led to Kamina’s death and at times endangered the rest of the team – but the second half of the series, to be discussed in a subsequent article, completely smashes what faith an audience may still have in a never-say-die attitude and the indefatigable human spirit.

To conclude, the first section of Gurren Lagann is both a standalone story about a young hero coming to terms with his mentor’s death and avenging it in grand style, and also a vital setup to the second half of the story. Its strict adherence to the cliches of the genres it is a part of is used to make those moments where it does diverge from it (Kamina revealing his insecurities in a personal moment, making his death not only inevitable in terms of narrative cliché but also in terms of his failure as a character to live up to expectations, for one) more noticeable. Human determination, usually the stock in trade of the genre, is not as infallible as the characters believe it to be; heroic deaths are caused by unheroic hesitation and even the defeat of the villain has come at a higher cost than expected. With this more human approach well-established, the story moves on to explore what future there is for Simon, who is beginning to, much like Kamina, build up his own legend – what future there is for a hero with no war to fight.

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  1. I’m with you. I can’t really take Kamina at face value, I can’t just enjoy him as the badass who burns brightly and quickly, for two reasons.

    The first is Gunbuster and Diebuster. Gainax had played around with this mentor-protege/pseudo-sibling stuff before. To great effect, I might add. It’s not quite the same sort of story, but you get some similar themes in Diebuster especially.

    The second is that I’m an elder sibling, and I’ve watched Gurren Lagann with my brother, whose attitude (and mine, too) is that Kamina is a constant obstruction. Simon is eclipsed by his aniki, even when his aniki fucks up. As if that weren’t enough, Simon has to deal with learning that his role model is human. The tension is such that it’s almost a relief for me when the show gets Kamina out of the way, sympathetic though I am toward him.

    • It’s quite interesting to consider GL in relation to two series I’m currently watching; Eureka Seven (as shown by the articles I’m writing!) and Macross 7. Both have their own approaches to the flawed but apparently badass character.

      First up (spoilers here for a future E7 article perhaps) Holland – while he’s presented as the paternal figure everyone needs, it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see he’s actually just quite vindictive and enjoys having power over someone who will take his crap because they idolise him. It’s most clearly shown after the induction episode; while all the other characters are being social, Holland is sat about literally drinking beer in his underwear laughing at Renton. Hardly a good paternal model!

      Secondly Basara; he’s Kamina’s attitude writ large on a protagonist. His way is the only way that he sees working, and when it does work it’s a happy coincidence to the viewer and all the other characters, but he sees it as positive reinforcement. When played for laughs, as so much of M7 is, it’s a lot more tolerable, but again the interest in the show is as much about seeing how other people have to react to his constant idiocy as simply laughing at it.

      • Nice observations, but, to Basara’s…credit, or something…singing at bad guys isn’t a huge leap of logic when you exist in the same universe as Lynn Minmay.

        Power to the dream!

  2. Gurren Lagann is a show I find really difficult to discuss sometimes, even though I love it, because the most visible and beloved interpretation of it around here (with “here” being the parts of English-speaking anime fandom that I’m familiar with) posits that it’s a “reconstruction” of the super robot genre that embraces the power of fighting spirit, and that’s not really an interpretation I can be satisfied with myself. (There are other reasons as well, but they’re more complicated and I’ll get into them another time, on my own blog when it’s set up.) Going into the series with that interpretation informing my judgment, I struggled to appreciate it, because Kamina wasn’t a glorious hero as I saw it, but a sad flawed figure both frustrating and sympathetic. In other words my perception of him, once I managed to shake off the baggage I’d dragged in from the hype, fell in line with your observations and the comment above.

    As for the non-Kamina aspects of the show, however, I think I don’t go quite so far in my reading of the series…its treatment of the aforementioned power of fighting spirit does strike me as subversive/deconstructive but also somewhat appreciative. The show doesn’t have the nihilistic bent, to me, of something determined to completely rip apart the ideals it’s deconstructing; it seems more about rejecting certain elevated, unrealistic usages of them.

    • I think when I get to the second part of the series, when you do get a lot more of a sense that you can’t get by on willpower alone (despite it apparently working) that argument becomes more interesting.

  3. @Pontifus – I think that’s what makes Basara’s character a lot more interesting. The viewer knows what he’s doing will probably work eventually (and needs to for plot reasons), but the good number of episodes where it doesn’t, combined with all the other scenes where he’s self-centred and ignorant of others, make the payoff all the sweeter but at the same time still make him hard to absolutely like.


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