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Review: "Gurren Lagann"

When my mom got Netflix for the family about a month-and-a-half ago, my favorite feature instantly became the Instant Streaming component. I set it up on my Wii so the family could watch shows over the internet and we’ve barely watched regular television since. About this time I noticed that there were some shows on Netflix that I’ve always wanted to watch but never could due to cost-related factors (I’m not the type to torrent a show just to watch it). One of those was Gurren Lagann, an anime (Japanese animation) that my brother watched online a while ago. So one day, out of boredom, I decided to start watching the series. I’d heard a lot of good things from the rather cult-ish fanbase around this show on the interweb about it, some people saying it was the greatest show they’ve ever watched. So, the question here is: does Gurren Lagann live up to the hype? Is it really that awesome? For the most part, I’d say yes, but I did hit some noticeable snags along the way…

“Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann” (or just “Gurren Lagann” overseas), which aired in 2007 in Japan and 2008 in America (Sci-Fi), was made by Gainax, an anime company most famous for the disturbingly depressing Neon Genesis Evangelion, frequently cited as one of the greatest anime series of all time (though I regrettably haven’t seen it yet). Like Evangelion, Gurren Lagann is a “mecha” anime, meaning that it centers around gigantic robots fighting each other, though that does not mean that there’s no character development or emotion present. The mechs, called “Gunmen” (in Japanese it’s “Ganmen”, literally “huge face”), are powered by their occupants’ “Spiral Power”, or in other words, fighting spirit that’s possessed by certain species, most notably humans.

Roughly speaking, the story of Gurren Lagann is what you’d get when you take The Little Engine that Could, mix it with any other generic mecha anime, give it both steroids and LSD, and twirl it around in a soapy washing machine at light-speed. The story begins with Simon (pronounced sea-moan) and Kamina, two friends living in an underground village. Simon’s job is digging tunnels for expansion, and one day he discovers a tiny, glowing drill. When their village’s roof comes crashing in due to the arrival of what appears to be a huge monster (a Gunman, as mentioned above), they meet Yoko, a rather immodestly-dressing girl with a huge gun that tries to shoot down the Gunman. Simon takes them to another discovery he found underground, a giant face, and he notices a drill-shaped keyhole. The giant face turns out to be a tiny mech (which they name “Lagann”) with the power to use drills, and they use it to defeat the Gunman. Upon going to the surface (which Simon never knew existed) they meet a lot of new people and embark on a quest to defeat these Gunmen, who are terrorizing the human populace. The story, as expected, gets much more complicated than that later on, but I’m not going to spoil anything more than the first two episodes here.

At first glance, this is a rather generic-sounding anime, isn’t it? Well, for the most part, it is, and that’s one of the series’ many shortcomings. The story at times is rather generic and immature, especially the occasional filler episode (*cough* beach and bath house episodes *cough*). An episode or two can even seem like a chore to watch sometimes. As a whole, however, the story is incredibly inspiring. Certain things happen over the course of the series (which I won’t spoil) that make the characters question whether they’re able to succeed. Like The Little Engine that Could, they always end up pushing forward and trying their best, no matter what the odds. Said “odds”, at times, approach on zero (especially near the end of the series), but they always overcome them with their determination.

While inspiring, the story also tends to be incredibly epic at times (and don’t get me started on how insane the last part of the series is). Gurren Lagann, their Lagann combined with another mech (which becomes their main mech), is able to do absolutely incredible things out of thin air based on their spiral power (as I said, “fighting spirit”) alone. There’s tons of explosions and action at every corner of this series in addition to character development, which should be enough to please anybody. The acceleration of this series, though, is pretty slow. I didn’t start feeling happy or sad for any of the characters until the middle and near-end of the series, each of which is prefaced by a so-so storyline with little emotional tension. It also doesn’t help that some parts of the series make absolutely no sense whatsoever (I’m talking to you, last-few-episodes), though regardless of all of that, the finale of the first and second acts in the show are incredible and really make the series feel worth it in the end.

A far as appearances, Gurren Lagann is very vibrant. The animation for the most part is very stylish and colorful, as evidenced in the above opening theme. The animation style seems sketchy at times, but it uses that to a great effect in some episodes by making actions scenes look fast and furious. Episode 4, however, really stands out among the usually great animation by being less-than-mediocre. Apparently, according to an interview somewhere on the internet, it was a parody of how some animes would dip in animation quality part-way through; unfortunately it didn’t come across as that very well and ends up looking awful. Most of the series though is a sight for sore eyes and very emotionally uplifting from the style itself. This doesn’t mean that what’s animated isn’t uplifting, however; the show is a victim to the disease known as “pointless fanservice”, as in, “convenient” camera angles that exploit the female characters who are oh-so-alluring in their character designs. While some perverted folk won’t mind this, I find that it’s really bothersome and takes away from the epic nature of the story in an immature fashion. Breasts jiggle, cleavage is constantly present, butts are common, though this doesn’t go too far beyond the realm of immaturity (no sex scenes, etc.). Yoko, for example, is one of the most constantly-immodest characters I’ve ever seen in a show. She’s almost always wearing nothing more than what looks like a bikini. This is unfortunately used a lot for fanservice-y scenes (especially in the awful and unnecessary episode 6, where they go to a bath house and several female characters are barely covered up). This is parodied however, rather hilariously, in a half-filler episode where they go to the beach and Yoko decides to put on a one-piece bathing suit that is actually more modest than what she usually wears! After the male characters criticize her “poor choice” of bathing suit, Yoko says that sometimes it’s best to “leave some things to the imagination”, which annoys the guys who were hoping to see some, well, you get the idea. Right after Yoko says that, Nia, another, younger female character (who hasn’t hit puberty) comes in with a similarly modest bathing suit and all of the guys suddenly gawk over her, much to Yoko’s laughable displeasure.

The music also deserves similar praise. Most of the background music is forgettable, though the opening and closing themes are absolutely fantastic. Some of the music in epic battles is also great, though not always on par with the best the series has to offer.  To get a good idea of how good the music is, here’s the second ending to the series in full (technically third if you count the “recap” episode):

The Verdict: 4/5

Gurren Lagann is a great, awesome, and epic series that unfortunately falls to mediocrity and immaturity when it could have been so much more. In the end though, through all of that, it ends up being an inspiring and well-done show that anyone reasonably mature should watch. That is, if you’re able to sift through the filler, fanservice and language.

Moral Concerns:

Violence: Almost all of the violence in this show deals with gigantic mechs, so it’s relatively light. There’s constant explosions and fighting in giant Gunmen robots, but there is also some close-and-personal violence involving amounts of blood. It isn’t nearly as severe for the most part as some more heavy anime I’ve seen, but there’s a significant-enough amount to make it not okay for small children.

Sexuality: As I said, this show has a lot of fanservice which takes away from the enjoyment overall. I’d have given this show a 5 if it didn’t handle sexuality so immaturely (and trust me on this: you will facepalm at the number of jiggling breasts over the course of the show). The sexuality, besides episode 6, is actually rather mild though and any reasonably-mature teen should be able to handle it. In fact, you might as well skip episode 6 altogether and just read the spoilers about what happens in it online. Trust me, you won’t miss much.

Language: Gurren Lagann has a lot of unnecessary profanity in it, which adds to it’s immaturity. “[Son of a] bitch”, “Who the hell do you think [I/we] [are/am]?” (which is actually the show’s catchphrase in a sense), frequent utterances of “damn” and “bastard”, and so on. The profanity isn’t too bad, but if your kids are the type to repeat everything they hear, you might want to keep them away from the show until they’re more mature (at least).

Spirituality: The show revolves around the “spiral power” that is present inside of everyone, even portraying it as how the world came to be and how the world works. Characters don’t depend upon a God, or even acknowledge one exists, but instead do everything from within their own internal spirit. References to “evolution”, the “big bang”, and “gods” occur in the later arc of the series, though they are without mention of a creator. An episode occurs where an underground village is discovered with a cult-ish religion that ends up being a bunch of baloney; while that isn’t an attack on religion as a whole, it does show that the characters couldn’t care less about that type of thing.

Overall Maturity Level: 15-16+

The show contains a lot of elements that need to be handled by a mature audience, especially the confusing plot near the end. The show would be very confusing to a younger audience, and the immaturity of the sexual themes and language isn’t very appropriate for an audience younger than this. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about how the show has a lot of things in it that don’t really add to the enjoyment and how it could have gone without them. There’s better, more “appropriate” anime and shows out there, but this one isn’t so bad; it’s only immature to the point where it can be safely ignored.

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