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.
− Artistic quality control issues, some material is tiresomely retread.
NOTE: This review unavoidably contains massive spoilers for the first volume. Reading it is not recommended unless you have already seen at least through episode 8.
Devastated more than anyone else by the death of Kamina, Simon struggles to find purpose and motivation in his life while the Spiral King’s generals continue their assaults on Team Dai-Gurren and their new mobile fortress. He finds some inspiration in the support of the charmingly guileless Nia, a discarded daughter of the Spiral King who must come to terms with the meaning of her own existence and forge her own path forward – and that path seems to lie with Simon. When a clever enemy ruse leads the team into the most desperate of circumstances, Simon finally takes decisive action in his own way as he steps up to become the man Kamina always wanted him to be. With Simon now at the lead, the forces of Team Dai-Gurren, and new allies they pick up along the way, march against the remaining Generals and the Spiral King himself in his capital city of Teppelin. The final confrontation with Lordgenome, the Spiral King, reveals some of the truth of the world, and a cryptic but especially disturbing warning about the future.
Seven years later, the absence of the Spiral King’s tyranny has allowed humanity to develop at an explosive rate, but the Spiral King’s dire words still linger in the minds of the new society’s leaders, including Simon and Roussiu. With the birth of a single child the terrible truth of his warning starts to become apparent.
In its first story arc Gurren Lagann was the epitome of the bombastic, macho, high-spirited old-school giant robot series it so deliciously paid tribute to, a spirit which in many senses came crashing down with the death of Kamina, its human embodiment, at the end of episode 8. At times during the post-Kamina Spiral King arc, which spans episodes 9-15, the series recaptures that heady spirit, especially in the glorious sequence of scenes in episode 11 where Simon finally and decisively comes to terms with who he is and makes sure everyone knows it. And what studio other than Gainax could take a scene so infused with potent bravado and turn it into an emotional as well as storytelling triumph? For all of the silliness displayed elsewhere, it’s moments like that which have won the series legions of fans and which keeps them coming back.
But, as a whole, Gurren Lagann is not the same series in its middle third that it was in its first third. Sure, it has a semi-beach episode to give another opportunity for the female side of the cast to flash some skin, but the light-hearted frivolity has become less frequent and the overall tone of the series has subtly shifted. The fighting gradually becomes less about proving manly superiority than about waging a true rebellion against the authority of the Spiral King, and the victories gradually become less about personal achievement than they do advancement of a cause. This all culminates in an even more dramatic transition in the post-Spiral King arc, which begins with episode 17. (What happened to episode 16? It’s just a recap episode.) We get to see how character have aged and changed – in some cases dramatically – with the passage of time, and how this has changed their values in some cases. More importantly, at that point the series becomes less about a triumphant adventure than a struggle to protect what humankind has created; in other words, the story has matured along with the cast. As if to serve official notice that the fun-loving frivolity is over, one of the major characters undergoes a devastating and heartbreaking transformation to mark the onslaught of the newest and greatest threat.
Although Simon’s rise to leadership may define this block of episodes, the emergence of Nia as a key cast member is nearly as important. Her soft look and sound, bewitching innocence, and charming lack of knowledge about the real world all endear her to viewers in a very moe-like manner, but hidden beneath that gentle veneer is a core of steel, one as firm and resolute, in its own way, as Kamina’s indomitable spirit. Unlike so many other moe characters out there, her background, when she learns it, affects her but does not define her; in fact, it seems to make her stronger, more determined. She is much more than the companion for Simon that Yoko could not be, as evidenced by her ownership of what is arguably this block of episodes’ second most powerful scene (the graveyard scene near the end of episode 11). The only other newer character worth a mention is the armadillo-like General, who is the only one of the four to show a modicum of intelligence and cunning or any personality beyond your standard shonen leader-type bad guy. Even Lordgenome himself offers nothing special. Yoko, however, continues to prove that there is more substance to her than just being a big-breasted bimbo.
While the first third of the series suffered from erratic artistry in some episodes, the overall look and visual style, for better or worse, remains more consistent through this span of episodes. An old-school look supported by modern digital coloring and fan service sensibilities creates a production that looks both fresh and classic at the same time, one which evokes flashes of FLCL and Gunbuster 2 but generally sets itself apart from most other recent series. The updated character designs in the post-Spiral King episodes provide pleasing extrapolations of how the younger cast members look when older; Darry (the young girl) in particular ages quite impressively. The only downside on the character design updates is the haircut Nia gets at one point, which makes her look too boyish and is, thankfully, returned to a more suitable length in the new arc. Except for the beach episode the fan service actually tones down quite a bit during this run, and even the beach scenes pale in comparison to the hot springs episode last volume. More inventive are the mecha designs, which often seem to embody characteristics of their users and sometime take on a playful feel, such as General Adiane’s “are they eyes or are they breasts” custom Gunmen. Regular animation is not the smoothest, and in fact is sometimes deliberately jerky, but the animation avoids excessive shortcuts in battle scenes by using a highly stylized and exaggerated old-school approach that may not work for some. Also notable are the ever-changing eyecatch pieces, which offer two new still shots each episode.
The series’ soundtrack is still not its strongest point but deserves a bit more credit through this run of episodes for what it does to enhance and support the action in any given scene. Do not expect much for new musical numbers outside of the recap episode and an update to the eyecatch theme, however. The original opening song remains consistent throughout, although its visuals update again in episode 17 to mark the beginning of the third story arc. The original closer continues through episode 15, after which a one-shot theme set to series concept art fills in as the closer for episode 16 before the new closer, “Minna no Peace” by Afromania (a number which sounds an awful lot like some of the Naruto opening themes), takes over with episode 17.
The Japanese vocal work distinguishes itself by playing well to the flamboyant spirit of these exaggerated characters, but the most notable performance is actually Yukari Fukui’s subdued performance as Nia. Her delivery style defines Nia’s character as much as the actual characterization, so it will be interesting indeed to hear what Nia sounds like on the English dub. The English dub on DVD will have to wait for 2009’s hybrid release, but I’m going to take this opportunity to comment on the Bang Zoom! dub which can be heard in the Sci Fi Channel broadcasts. Through episode 8 the casting decisions have been excellent, with most English renditions proving to be close fits for the originals. The only performance which can reasonably be called into question is Kyle Hebert’s rendition of Kamina, which will take some getting used to for those who hear the Japanese version first since it does not seem to initially capture Kamina’s full spirit. This impression fades away as the series progresses, however, and by episode 8 his version of Kamina kicks as much butt as Katsuyuki Konishi’s original. The episodes including Nia (the one other role that could be a trouble spot for the English dub) have not come up yet as of the time of this writing, so how appropriate Hynden Walch (Amy from the second season of Immortal Grand Prix) will be in that role remains to be seen.
Bandai certainly offers a good deal by included nine episodes in a regular-sized DVD case for a typical DVD price, but a translation of the opening and closing credits anywhere on the DVDs or in the packaging might have been nice. Both disks share clean versions of the newer openers and closers as their only Extras.
Unlike most of its contemporaries, Gurren Lagann, with these episodes, shows a capacity to adapt to its story advancement and grow beyond its original parameters. It’s still a purely entertaining series at heart, as it does not promote any deeper meaning than being true to yourself, finding your own self-confidence, and striving towards your goals, but it also shows that flamboyant style, ridiculous behavior, and over-the-top action do not preclude telling a solid and sincere story populated with worthy plot twists and characters that are more than just stereotypes.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Development of Nia as the female lead, continues to be fun despite generally getting more serious.
− Animation style (especially in fights) may not work for everyone, lack of translated credits.
Nia has become the agent of the Anti-Spiral forces, the Moon is coming to crash into the Earth and wipe everything out, and Simon has been quickly tried, convicted, and locked away awaiting execution as a scapegoat, but the worst is still yet to come. Roussieau’s desperate and calculated effort to save as many people as possible by leaving the planet in a gigantic Gunmen found deep under the capital city meets with fierce resistance in space, creating a situation that only the original Team Gurren, with Simon at their lead and help from an unexpected new ally and an absent old one, can handle. The stakes and threat levels rapidly increase as Simon and crew draw upon the Spiral power to pursue the Anti-Spiral forces to their extradimensional home world, both to rescue Nia and to secure the safety of humanity. In doing so they learn the ultimate truth about the oppression of the Spiral races, but once Simon sets his mind to something, even that won’t stop him.
When one describes an anime series as “speaking from the heart,” one is normally referring to some kind of romantic series. Gainax proved with Gunbuster and Gunbuster 2 that it is possible to apply that description to mecha anime series as well, and with the final third of Gurren Lagann they have done so again. This is the manly side of mushiness, the kind of content which speaks about people who truly throw everything they have – all of their passion, their hopes, their determination, and even their souls and very lives – into the crucible to challenge the heavens, to force a path to their own destinies and those that they hold dear. For some, it requires noble sacrifices; for others, it requires an acceptance of those they have long regarded as enemies or of the weight of their duties and responsibilities. For all, it is about the brash arrogance to think that, even when the universe is (literally) against you, there is still some way to triumph, and the will to make it happen. Thanks to Gainax’s keen understanding of exactly how to best exploit this scenario, these final episodes repeatedly prove capable of choking up more sentimental viewers and perhaps even compelling a few manly tears. In short, these episodes bring one of the liveliest series of the decade to a rousing, rollicking good time of a finish.
Do these episodes recycle plot elements from numerous other series? Sure. Anyone who cannot at least basically predict how things are going to go down is probably an anime (and especially mecha) neophyte. Are things like literally punching a hole in space-time utterly preposterous? Sure, but that’s also half the fun. Do either of those factors weigh the series down? Not at all. Despite some serious content, this is not the kind of fare that is intended to be analyzed in-depth, nor is it attempting to find any kind of credibility, subtlety, or multilayered meaning. It knows exactly what it wants to be, does not aspire to anything more, and in so doing succeeds brilliantly. Many, many other anime series out there could learn from this example.
The late episodes lose little of their punch in their visuals, maintaining the highly stylized look that has pervaded the previous series. The space vessels of the Anti-Spirals offer intriguing (though not entirely original) designs, and the Anti-Spiral avatar itself looks like a piece of abstract art that has hopped down off a museum canvas. Yoko also does not disappoint in her eventual reappearance, appearing with a properly matured look and suitably racy space outfit to follow up a reveal on where she has been for at least part of the past few years. Also watch for a startling late transformation by one long-term cast member. The animation, though not terribly impressive overall, suits the visual style well. Those that are watching the series only on Sci Fi Network should be aware that the broadcast is cutting out some great and always-changing eyecatch art.
Never a weak point, the musical score continues to do an excellent job of capturing and enhancing the changing moods and tones of the show, especially its key action sequences and high-spirited declarations. Though skipped in two late episodes, the version of the opener which accompanied the beginning of the last story arc continues through to the end, as does the most recent version of the closer. Also listen for some of the “Fight The Power” theme to creep into the actual episode content at times.
This release still includes no dub, but based on the Sci Fi Network broadcast the dub continues along just fine as it enters the series’ late stages. Performers carrying over from the first two arcs continue solid characterizations and deliveries, and the new casting decisions (especially the recasting of Nia for her adult form), while not exciting, nonetheless do the job. The dub script also seems to stay surprisingly close to the original for as boisterous a show as this is.
Nine subbed-only episodes on two disks for basically the same cost as a regular DVD equates to only minimal Extras, this time including only textless renditions of the newest opener and closer.
The epilogue for the series is as much sad as joyous, yet it also feels exactly right. Everyone must ultimately answer to their true natures, and the beginning of the “seven years after” story arc showed what happens when people try to force themselves into roles that go against those natures. The ultimate fates of all the key characters are exactly the fates they should have had given their circumstances and personalities, and Gainax wisely chose not to force another path for any of them.For all its recycled plot elements and utterly preposterous nature, Gainax’s paean to boisterous, macho mecha action delivers in triumphant fashion.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Maximizes the series’ potential by playing fully to its strengths, surprisingly affecting.
− Some plot elements are a little too retread, minimal Extras.