Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Gurren Lagann

I've seen a number of anime series that build and build toward a satisfying climax, only to go totally weird in the last two episodes and ruin everything. I've seen shows that hold my attention for a while before steadily becoming less interesting as time goes on. Gurren Lagann introduced to me a new category of anime that falls short somewhere: shows that are totally rad except for a string of episodes in the middle that make you very, very angry.

Gurren Lagann is the first anime series I've seen that plays out like an ongoing D&D campaign: characters of humble origin are driven together by chance and circumstance; they embark on a grand adventure against increasingly impossible odds, becoming stronger and more heroic along the way; and no matter whether they achieve victory or taste bitter defeat, the story continues and new adventures arise as a direct result of what the heroes have been through. It's almost like four different series starring most of the same characters, fit neatly into the span of 27 episodes.
You've got Kamina, the irrepressibly and even foolishly gung-ho leader of the group. There's Simon, the cowardly digger who unearths the Gunmen (note the intentional pun on Gundam) called Lagann that sets their adventure into motion. You meet Yoko, the sharpshooter with a heart so warm that she barely needs any clothing to keep out the cold (that clothing restricts her movement is the completely reasonable rationalization given for her skimpy attire).
Along the way, the group meets up with a host of other characters, who range from a fabulous technology wizard, to a quartet of black-clad siblings, to a crewman whose only function is to excitedly press buttons, to a heroically comedic pig mole. They pick up team members from a sheltered, impoverished village just as easily as from the enemy palace. The team is even able to capture enemy Gunmen, changing their situation from being oppressed humans living underground to being powerful humans who roam freely across Earth's surface in their giant mechs.
Gurren Lagann is just as much a show about the characters as it is a show about big robots smashing up other big robots. At times it's a tongue-in-cheek parody, and at other times it's a serious and heartfelt tale of these characters fighting against fate, but more than anything else it's just plain fun. Gonzo action sequences, creative character designs, larger-than-life friends and foes, and smile-inducing dialogue make for a show that is just plain entertaining. The fact the characters are real characters who grow and change through their experiences, and whose actions directly impact the direction of the story, gives the show depth and a meaningful weight that's often absent in action-heavy anime.
That's why I got angry at Gurren Lagann: Following the conclusion of the major story arc that comprises more than half the series, we fast-forward to a point in the story that destroys both the fun and the meaning by having a few key characters shut off their brains to manufacture the conflict of the next story arc.

My wife and I have been watching the first season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and we've been noticing an unfortunate trend: everything is going well until one character shuts off his or her brain, triggering an unnecessary conflict that gives the characters involved a reason to fight, get captured, and/or die pointlessly. Conflict is not flowing naturally from the circumstances--it's more like the writers want to have a big battle between some clone troopers and the local aliens, so they introduce a character supposedly on the side of the good guys whose only goal in life is to kill all the local aliens. The writers have him shut off his brain when people try to reason with him, and have everyone else shut off their brains when he orders them to stop talking and kill the local aliens. This results in the viewer hating the character driving the conflict and calling everyone else an idiot, effectively severing any real investment he or she had in the episode. At least, if this viewer is like me.
My anger toward Gurren Lagann--like my distaste for the last several episodes of The Clone Wars--is not directed so much at the conflicts themselves as it is toward the presentation of those conflicts. Don't allow the viewer to get so angry at the avoidable situations and boneheaded characters that they begin to hate the show itself--temper the viewer's temper with a reason to pity or sympathize with the boneheaded characters, or forgo the emotional investment in people and places that'll make it hurt more when bad things happen to them.

There's a string of five consecutive episodes in Gurren Lagann where several of the heroes are turned into villains, either in the eyes of the viewer or in the eyes of their comrades. After fifteen episodes of natural story progression and logical character interactions, bad things just happen. Characters go off the deep end in pursuit of their beliefs, people stop thinking rationally about the actions and motives of other characters, and the writers--in true Dungeon Master fashion--develop the romantic relationships between characters just enough to be used against them.
If you ask my wife, she'll tell you that everything terrible that happens here is because of how the characters' histories and personalities are shaping their interactions with others and affecting their ability to adapt to their new situation. I don't entirely disagree. The problem is that the writers fail to show the viewer any of the humanizing factors that put these characters' actions into context until too late in the story.

It's one gut punch after another as the characters you once cared for are villanized and their world falls apart...but there's no glimmer of hope that things will get better; no feel-good successes in the face of disaster; no flickers of remorse from the offending parties; nothing to suggest that the good guys who think they're doing the right thing really are doing the right thing. I simply stopped caring at one point--let their world fall apart, because I'd rather see it burn than suffer through another half-dozen episodes of unchecked angst and despair.
By the end of the series, most of the events that had made me angry had been softened with further explanation and perspective, but that doesn't change my drastically unfavorable reaction to the episodes where all I could see were manufactured conflicts and emotionally manipulative situations. Did Gurren Lagann redeem itself? Yes. Once they finally started acting like heroes again, the show quickly went from bearable to downright fun once more. The sour taste in my mouth persists only because of how much I like everything surrounding that string of infuriating and disheartening episodes--Clone Wars is disappointing when it resorts to artificial conflict, but the show so far hasn't done enough to invest me in the characters and raise my expectations of the writing to make it feel like all that much of a letdown.
Overall, Gurren Lagann is one of the most entertaining anime series I've seen in a while, with at least one or two of the best action sequences I've ever had the pleasure of watching in an anime. There are great, memorable characters and a dynamic story that becomes almost absurd in its scope, though delightfully so. Even with my complaints against the way the second major story arc was handled (and your feelings on the matter certainly may vary, as my wife can attest to), I respect the show for its ability to continually build on itself without overstaying its welcome or losing track of its roots. It's a good series that comes recommended to any anime fan, and first-timers with no prior exposure to anime are all but guaranteed to find something they like, whether it's comedy or plot continuity or big robots punching each other with drills.
As a side note, viewers in search of fan service a more complete Gurren Lagann experience should be advised that the English dub of Episode 6, the infamous hot springs episode, is considerably different from the original Japanese cut. It's a near-mandatory anime tradition to have an episode (frequently the sixth one, for some reason) take place at a hot spring, opening the door for scantily clad shenanigans in even the most serious and conservative series. Gurren Lagann is no exception, but the censors obscured some of the racier content with fog clouds, and excised the rest of it altogether, replacing it instead with a clever-but-obtrusive recap of the first five episodes.
As a result, the story feels somewhat disjointed, and most of the humor of the episode is lost, along with some worthwhile character development and even a little foreshadowing. The uncut and subtitled Japanese version is out there for free on the Internet if you poke around a bit, and there are plenty of synopses that go over the version differences if you'd prefer to pass on watching/rewatching the episode with its questionable content intact.

Anypigmole, that's Gurren Lagann for you.

[Images from and Wookieepedia.]


JoeReviewer said...

So it's partly a parody of Gundam? I have to admit that's what I thought it said in the title at first :P. I really need to catch up on this stuff someday.

Flashman85 said...

Not having seen anything Gundam, I can safely say that Gurren Lagann is, indeed, partly a parody of Gundam. However, it's considerably more than that. Definitely comes recommended!

Mr. E [PostApocolyptica] said...

What annoys me about some animé fans is they tend to base their opinions of a series on fanservice alone. I've many reviews of different animé, such as Highschool of the Dead, which are more or less comprised of "this show has way too many panty shots, so that means that the voice acting, the action and the music are all bad." Nonetheless, Gurren Lagann seems interesting enough.

Flashman85 said...

That's funny; I've rarely heard any complaints about fanservice from the people I know who watch anime. And, really, the amount of fanservice in the show is limited to the hot springs episode (where it's used to comedic effect more than anything else) and the outfit that Yoko wears. It's rare for them to go out of their way strictly in the name of fanservice.