I might have to accept that I view the world in a very different way from everyone else. That won’t surprise anyone, I guess, but I was surprised to be reminded of a common opinion regarding Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann: that Kamina is a failure. I disagree. In fact, I believe Kamina is a success, a resounding one. He’s nearly the most successful character in Gurren Lagann.
If I understand the “other side” correctly, Kamina is considered a failure mostly because he dies. But also because he doesn’t live to see the ultimate success of the Gurren-dan or Simon’s growth into an adult. His advice is nonsensical and – horrifying, to me – I’ve seen recently that he’s a failure because he’s all talk, no business.
No way. There are two ways I think I can make my point. Allow me to go through each in turn. First, most obviously, Kamina is a mentor figure. We all remember that Kamina feared for his life in that tunnel collapse and the Simon drilled everyone to safety. But Simon could only do that because Kamina trusted him. And Kamina does, implicitly. When Simon chokes in the battle for the new Gurren-dan flagship, Kamina trusts that it’s not an inherent truth of Simon’s character. Simply, Kamina trusts that Simon can succeed, and pushes him to do so. You can’t push someone you don’t really think will pull it off, the person will feel that flakiness, that weakness in your opinion. There isn’t anything like that in Kamina’s regard for Simon. Yes, in a big way Simon surpasses Kamina, but not because he lives, but because he becomes what Kamina was aiming for. He becomes a mentor in turn, but with Kamina’s teaching to reinforce his own strength, he can live where Kamina dies. Kamina is basically Merlin in this story, or Gandalf – whatever you like. He almost has to die by fiat of the narrative logic: he’s more powerful, stronger, more willful, and forceful than Simon. But he’s grown up too long in the society that fostered him. He fights against air, thinking he can feel chains. He’s fighting for freedom, but because he hasn’t had it.
Even underground Simon was freer than Kamina, because Kamina shielded him from the worst his society had to offer. He led Simon into being what he could be, even if that meant he was “just” a digger. Nothing is mere anything. What is Kamina in society, what is his role? There isn’t one for him. His image smacks of the ronin for a reason: he can’t serve a master, even if it’s society itself – the one thing Simon is willing to serve, represented usually by his circle of friends.
The other reason – and the one that’s stronger emotionally for me – is that Kamina does everything he sets out to do. He doesn’t live to see Simon go into space like he wanted, but that’s his legacy. I’ve rarely seen anyone point to the space program as a failure for JFK because he didn’t live to see the Moon landing. Kamina is the animating force, the pure spirit of the Gurren-dan. He haunts the brigade long after his death, and it’s his spirit that wakens Simon from his grief. Simon takes on Kamina’s spirit, he lets Kamina ride him like a Vudun loa. Simon is the only cast member more successful than Kamina, and that’s solely because he can see a vision of a society that works, that isn’t terrible and terrifying – and that’s because Kamina made that society, with his bare hands, underground and in the wasteland. The only times anyone had to be afraid of Kamina were if they were trying to hurt one of his friends or if they refused to act on their desires. That’s Yoko’s sin, the flaw in her character that breaks her – she fights her own urges, and fights the Beast Gunmen half-heartedly. She never thinks to pursue them. She uses a sniper rifle, keeping her as far away from things as possible. She can influence the world with the smallest action possible: pulling a trigger. It’s not weak or meaningless, but literally small.
You can start to see how the iconography of the show supports its spirit. We all know about Yoko’s, erm, assets. Her big boobs, that’s what I’m describing here. She has potential – sexual as well as social. But she creates a front of realizing her potential to hide behind. She flaunts her sexuality that isn’t there. She can’t make a connection to the man she apparently loves because she’s too busy building up the image of her own power.
Kamina and especially Simon, though, are bare-chested in a desert. They expose themselves. Simon’s weapon is also a tool, he can create (tunnels, passages, ways forward) or fight with it. Kamina has a sword, but also a cape, a shielding device – he is the sword and shield of the brigade, pushing everyone forward.
Have you ever read All-Star Superman? This same theme is beginning to show up in the current Action Comics as well. By the end of All-Star people, bad people, feckless people, begin to stand up for themselves and others. Superman’s legacy in that comic isn’t his deeds – though he suffers twelve deeds, like Hercules before him – it’s his gift of his image before everyone’s eyes. The office jackass, constantly belittling who else but Clark Kent, stands up in an unconscious imitation of Superman’s physical pose, stands up to Lex Luthor with his machines and his new superpowers, in an act of defiance that would have been unlikely, but not impossible, before he saw Superman.
Kamina is the Superman of the Gurren-dan. Everyone could have done what they ended up doing, but they weren’t on course to do so. Kamina put them there. He made people better, despite themselves. His deadly rival, Viral, supports Simon in the end, because he saw what a person could be in Kamina – and he saw Simon recreating and improving on what Kamina had done.
People believe Superman looks down on humans – in JLA he revealed that he looks up to them, that his strength comes from his faith in them, and their faith in him. But in the end he gives to us and Metropolis what Kamina gives to us and the Gurren-dan: faith in ourselves. Simon’s and our trust in Kamina becomes trust in ourselves when we realize Kamina’s spirit can be ours. We know who the hell we are. We’re Kamina, fighting because everyone knows we can. And we know we can, too, now.