Imagine flying – higher and higher through an endless sky, higher than you thought possible, and the music rising, louder and higher as you soar. That is the “fighting spirit” of Gurren Lagann.
“Your drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!”
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, or Gurren Lagann in short, follows Simon [pronounced ‘See-mawn’ or ‘Shi-mon’], an orphan boy in a distant future where humanity lives deep underground, as he struggles to reach the surface and continuously strives further and further. Initially, each episode begins with a voiceover that changes slightly as Simon sees his destiny, fights his fate, and carves his own path.
You are warned. Heavy spoilers follow.
He follows an elder-brother figure, Kamina, who was originally a juvenile delinquent in the underground village. As part of ‘Team Gurren’, they pilot mecha called ‘Gunmen’ in the story initially to fight the Spiral King, and then against even greater enemies. Simon’s drill is a key, fueled by fighting spirit and determination, that lets him use ever-increasing power, performing impossible feats in his mecha, Lagann – even combining with enemies’ gigantic Gunmen.
‘Tengen Toppa’ literally means ‘heaven-piercing’. The power of Simon’s spirit leads him through every barrier, beyond all limits: “If you become a wall blocking my way … I’ll drill a hole in you and blow you apart! That is … my drill!”
This is a mecha anime unlike any other; indeed, it’s unique as an anime. Most anime that feature fighting – the type exemplified by Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, Naruto, and so many more – take it as a matter of course. The fight is everything there, and the training, the Super Saiyan transformations, and the Bankais are spectacular means to an end. Gurren Lagann venerates the power itself, and its cultivation. It stacks power over power and keeps building it higher and higher like a never-ending spiral.
The theme is the spiral, given physical form in the drill key that Simon carries around his neck. It’s a shape that represents evolution and unstoppable improvement – everything from chromosomes to galaxies are spiral. In the final battle, Simon says, “We evolve, beyond the person that we were a minute before! Little by little, we advance a bit further with each turn! That’s how a drill works!”.
The hero declares:
Mark my words! This drill will open a hole in the universe! And that hole will be a path for those behind us. The dreams of those who have fallen, the hopes of those who will follow! Those two sets of dreams weave together into a double helix, drilling a path towards tomorrow! And that’s Tengen Toppa! That’s Gurren Lagann! My drill is the drill, that creates the heavens!
Gurren Lagann celebrates power and determination like no other story, because it is power itself that it loves – power that comes from love of life and friendship, and from bravery and courage never to submit. Aspiration to a better tomorrow through determination is a religion in this anime: it’s an all-encompassing metaphysics.
To call it a religion is no exaggeration. This is a world where conventional religion is an almost-forgotten thing based on superstitions, and it can only be tolerated in certain characters like Rossiu when he is governing Kamina City in a rational way. Yet, the theme of anti-rationalism runs through the story. Scientists like Leeron move the plot forward, and it’s stressed that the capability to advance civilization lies in the same Spiral Power that Simon uses; but the real glory seems to lie in defying logic.
“Kick logic out and do the impossible!” is the motto of Team Gurren. God is dead in this world, and human will is paramount. Our heroes succeed in the face of not overwhelming, but impossible odds – they become heroic by doing the impossible, which the Spiral Power enables them to.
The whole thing may sound a little fascist sometimes. All this talk about the human form being the perfect expression of Spiral Power, and the anti-rationality, anti-religiosity, Darwinism, and the fighting strike us as distinctly fascist. There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary, however. For one thing, human beings aren’t the only ones with Spiral Power: even animals have it, and the ending describes alien races as equal allies and “cousins” of the human race. Certainly, the fair criticism of Rossiu’s cold calculation (and of its merits) are anything but fascist or authoritarian.
Most importantly, Gurren Lagann tackles the hard questions, instead of toying with the unattainable and the impossible. It accepts that the world is a difficult place, and not even the fiercest fighter can change everything. Thus, many lose their lives, often without warning. Kinon volunteers to go with Simon. Nia has to accept the reality of her identity and its consequences. Simon admits that the dead cannot be brought back – Yoko says he isn’t God. The anime takes a serious look at the eventuality of victory over Lordgenome, and we see that there are no happy endings.
For all its enthusiasm, Gurren Lagann is built around a depressing world. Characters have no choice but to forget what was or could have been. There are moments when we can’t help but grin, and others when we shed tears despite ourselves. When Kamina asks Simon when he got taller, they might laugh, but the viewer cannot. The epilogue, as brilliant as it is, shows a giant of a man in beggar’s robes.
And what a man! Gurren Lagann “is the story of a man”. The women are just as admirable as the men, and fight side by side with them; but without denying characters who happen to be strong women their proper place, it is to be noted that there is a masculine trait to the whole story. Kamina and Simon are bound by brotherhood. Simon understands Kamina’s feelings for his father, but Yoko does not. Kamina exudes unabashed machismo and urges his teammates to be “manly”. Not that heroes have to be macho – Leeron discards gender binaries, and Dayakka cries on his wife’s shoulder. But masculinity is linked to the Spiral Power; the drill itself is a male image.
In fact, all the characters have a Marlovean quality. No one who sees the anime can doubt that they are individuals, but there is a flatness to them, or rather a deliberate simplicity. There is conflict, certainly, and much dynamism: Simon matures as he ages, and Rossiu changes as he fills “in the blanks with life’s experiences;” one antagonist even becomes a hero. But the characters’ motives and the methods are straightforward, and depicted so, unlike in the majority of anime. In fact, Nia is almost Shakespeare’s Miranda.
The show acknowledges that it deals with larger-than-life characters who would be gods if they weren’t human. Those exaggerated proportions express the willpower of humanity, which bursts forth in the Giga Drill.
Also Marlovean is that theme of flying after distant ideals, committing mammoth tasks with cyclopean weapons, and still striving for greater things. Amidst these Edward Alleyn speeches and high astounding terms, it is Simon who is the everyman, ironically enough. He is more than willing to leave the limelight to the others, doing what he does best when needed: digging a path for others to follow.
The music does its job remarkably well. “Sorairo Days”, sung by Shoko Nakagawa, is the anthem of Simon and every one of his compatriots who left their lives on earth or under it to reach for the stars. When the instrumental peals, we see him fighting the fate of the whole universe, drilling through galaxies if that’s what it takes to save himself and everyone else. “Rap is a Man’s Soul” and “Libera Me From Hell” are remembered as the pulse of the story. Their shared lyrics would not be out of place in a description of Tamburlaine the Great:
Do the impossible! See the invisible!
Row! Row! Fight the power!
Touch the untouchable! Break the unbreakable!
Row! Row! Fight the power!
“Minna no Peace” takes us from humble grounds, and with feet planted in the dirt, we look up through stars and worlds to the spirals in the sky. The essence of Spiral Power is as much in the drill as in the star that glows as the opening theme ends; it is the light of Gunmen flying from through the sky to ever-widening horizons.
The art style is a little like Samurai Champloo. It’s often flat, or unexaggerated, but a riot of colors and sketchy lines fill the fight scenes. Overall, the animation is splendid.
Of the many characters – man, woman, Beastman, and pig-mole – one of the most memorable is Yoko Littner (pronounced ‘Ritona’ in the Japanese dub). Many of us have already seen Yoko; it is sad that so few of us have met her. In a world of manly drills, she carries the biggest gun, and she literally swoops down into Simon’s world from above to face her quarry. A feminist icon, Yoko’s fearlessness and homely wishes go hand in hand; just like Simon, she goes from a quiet life to a galactic war and back without missing a beat.
Her character is well fleshed-out (forgive the pun). The climax shows (literally, through a television) how many sides a person may have or hope to have. Yoko sees herself as a fearless and beautiful bounty hunter, protecting children; then she is a model; then, a competitive shooter – the best in the galaxy; and then, getting married to a brave man who loves her. Finally, she comes back to a fateful moment, face-to-face with a man she had loved, and who had fired her soul with the same passion that pushed everyone from the ground to the stars. Yoko sees him, sees herself dressed in her (scanty) battle armor, and returns to reality. One of the most poignant moments in the series is when we see her in yet another role, smiling and waving in the epilogue.
Gurren Lagann changes the viewer as much as the great politicians of the 20th century were changed by their favorite books. It would not be surprising if a few of tomorrow’s leaders were to trace their childhood inspiration to the story of a man who strives for his destiny – nor, indeed, is it a story meant for children (though it’s quite family-friendly). The yells, screams, tears, and laughter are cherished with more passion than many a more famous anime. It made Gainax even more famous as a studio with its unique animation and style. It earns its place not with a mindless appeal to rebellion, but a heartfelt warmth and passion for life that resonates in every human heart.
It is a sheer privilege to watch Gurren Lagann.