Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (henceforth TTGL) is a 2007 anime created by the studio Gainax, most well known for the earlier anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Having written this piece I realise that most of it kind of assumes you have already seen Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hence why this is a discussion not a review. Honestly I could just link to or paraphrase the Wikipedia article on the series to describe the plot but I’ve already put the 4 of Hearts up there and I don’t wanna spend that much more effort on this piece.
One of the things I have always enjoyed is stories willing to just take their premises and run with it, and TTGL is definitely in that category. It is a series that is willing to just keep accelerating, relying on the vague notion of “spiral power” to just bypass the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is a anime that relies heavily on spectacle and bombast, and that has enough moments in which that works wonderfully that I could fairly easily just list them here as “THE TOP 5 MOST OVER THE TOP MOMENTS IN GURREN LAGANN”, but I don’t think that would be fair. These are not the only good moments of the series, and, since we’re being fair in the sense that means honest and complete, there are plenty of things in the series that just don’t work.
That being said, the bombastic scenes are an important part of the series and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them here. Kamina stealing a mecha by just climbing into the cockpit and kicking out the pilot, the capture of the giant battleship mecha Dai-Gurren, the defeat of Guama, the siege of Teppelin and the subsequent duel with Lordgenome that is the finale of the first act. Then in the second arc we have Yoko’s defeat of two mecha while on foot, the spontaneous creation of a wormhole to punch a guy out of shooting himself, the formation of Arc Gurren Lagann, Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann and the titular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the latter leading into a finale that involves mechas so large they use galaxies as throwing stars against each other. That is quite a lot of iconic moments for a series only 27 episodes long. The animation and the soundtrack carry these well; special shout-outs to the tracks “Pierce the Heavens with Your XXXX” (No I don’t know why it is called that, considering that the XXXX in question is a drill) and “Libera Me From Hell”, a song that takes the most over the top elements of opera and rap and slams them together.
The series also has excellent main villains in the form of Lordgenome and the Anti-spiral. Both have very understandable motives and are powerful enough to enable the ridiculous, fantastic spectacles I mention above.
The final bit of the series that work for me is the emotional core of Simon and Kamina. Kamina in particular is used wonderfully in the short time he remains in the story, and is a surprisingly deep character. While he is most recognised for his massively over the top personality and impulsive actions, my favourite moment for him is the quiet moment he has with Yoko where he explains that he views himself as essentially a cheerleader and source of courage for the far more reliable Simon. Simon’s character arc after his death is essentially Simon coming to realise this for himself, and moving on from his need for Kamina to motivate him, culminating in a very understated moment in one of the final episodes where Kamina’s ghost notes that Simon has finally grown taller than him.
That’s quite a lot of good stuff to write about. If I felt like it I could probably go off on a thousand word tangent discussing how the universe in TTGL, via the mechanic of Spiral Power, responds to depression and feelings of hopelessness verses determination on a level that is literally built into the world, and linking that to the earlier series Evangelion and my own mental health problems.
(Actually, I would like to do that, but I feel that setting the ground work of how I feel about Gurren Lagann is kind of needed for it, but not something I’d want to actually write in that piece.)
The problem is however, despite all of these excellent moments to the series…there’s just so much not particularly good stuff around them that my feelings on the show altogether are kind of neutral, if not negative. TTGL has a very large cast, and it really isn’t sure how to use them, best summed up during the lull that dominates the first part of the second act, when a large portion of the male supporting cast sacrifice themselves en mass in a pointless and not particularly engaging scene.
The female cast members get off even worse; out of the seven female characters, one is a mechanic who at least gets to help out by fixing and over-charging the mechas (a role that could have been used to match with Simon’s arc about how you need both motivation and reliability, but isn’t), three are first defined as being “Kittan’s sisters” and do almost nothing in the second act other than being love interests and one is a member of a pair of twin pilots who end up piloting the titular Gurren Lagann in the epilogue despite doing basically nothing in the series proper. The last two are Nia, who is introduced literally as a throwaway character (she was thrown away by her father Lordgenome), then gets possessed by the anti-spiral, becomes a damsel in distress, and then dies. It is only the last one Yoko who really gets anything to do, and even then the majority of the time she’s being used for fanservice.
It’s much harder to put the failings of TTGL into words than it is to put down the ways it succeeds. It’s just a mess of wasted characters, long boring moments, and tedious moments of perversion. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about it, but rather that they are like choice cuts of meat floating in gruel. If you can rescue them they are great, but I wouldn’t advise eating the whole dish.
On a final note, I think this is part of what made it so popular. TTGL came out right at the same time that video hosting, particular youtube, became popular online. It is a series almost tailor made for youtube; lots of great moments you can cut out of the series itself and just upload on their own. And honestly, I think that might be the best way to watch it. Find some clips of the best moments and enjoy them, divorced of the rather tedious context they are surrounded with.