This 27-episode anime was rather uninteresting for the first third. I feared that I had been trapped by my self-indulgence into yet another meaningless, drivel-driven shonen, and then this anime suddenly leaped up beyond all my expectations. While settling into a small rut towards the end, the story surpassed many of my predictions and made for the best shonen and mecha I have seen in quite some time. While not escaping the drawbacks of the shonen genre entirely, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann did a great job of defying them in a meaningful way. It has certainly carved itself a small, unique niche in the world of oversaturated gunk that is all too often shonen anime.
All shonen settle into a “little engine that could” story in some form or another, and Gurren Lagann did the same at the outset. This central theme certainly dominates it without question, but Gurren Lagann puts a unique spin on it with a shockingly (for a shonen) realistic event. The ever-pleasant world of shonen often depicts events unfolding without any hiccup. By the time the end finally rolls around, everyone is living happily ever after, all the love interests together. Gurren Lagann is brave enough to say that sometimes, life isn’t fair, and things just don’t work out the way you want them to, even with the power of love and friendship on your side. I applaud their efforts.
However, despite my heavy praise, Gurren Lagann has two notable failures that keep it firmly in “7” territory. One: you have to slug through some very boring sections at times. I was actually on the brink of dropping it, my patience worn thin, when it finally went into high gear and reeled me back in. Despite how much I ended up liking it, all its positives are no excuse for wasting my time with crap. 3 or 4 episodes could have easily been cut without any loss in character development, and those few tested the limits of my patience sorely. Perhaps others will enjoy the over-the-top humor and random antics that made them borderline fillers. I found them neither funny nor interesting.
The second major annoyance that bothered me was the development of the powers the characters used to fight with. Upgrades in fighting strength were achieved by a combination of dumb luck and inexplicable scientific advancements. The troop is literally in the middle of a wasteland with nothing to eat when the genius of the group unveils fully automated spiderbots… that do nothing particularly useful. Every time the characters are backed into a corner, they miraculously remember why they are fighting and then unleash the trademark of shonen: magical-willpower-strength. Even the best of shonen seem unable to escape this philosophy, and Gurren Lagann leaps into that pit with glee. Later on in the series, things get very sci-fi, but all technology remains unexplained. In an extremely short time humanity essentially goes from about our present day to super-futuristic technology with no adequate explanation even attempted. The quick development is even mentioned, but given no explanation. Nothing irks me more than enormous plot holes. To put this in perspective for the potential viewer, we literally see the level of technology rise from manually digging in the dirt to make tunnels to biological supercomputers. Come again? Even for a shonen, the genre impossible power-ups, this is just asinine.
Gripes aside, the story was excellent for a shonen. Unexpected twists and truly touching messages made this an unexpected winner. Carry on through the occasional muck, especially at the beginning, and you will be rewarded with a surprisingly emotional and deep story that touches on a variety of interesting topics, such as love, loyalty, and the strength to face an intimidating future with courage.
If you enjoy eye-popping explosions, than look no further, because in Gurren Lagann seemingly everything that exists is capable of blowing up in a “WTFBOOM”-level mushroom cloud, and those are the small ones. I found myself rewinding just to see an epic explosion one more time. In fact, I found myself rewinding and pausing to study several scenes more than once in this anime.
Character animations were great. Not too much to say here – everyone looked the part quite well, occasionally minor characters being a tad bland. You’ll certainly get some substantial fanservice with Yoko, one of the female leads, but it is always done in a pretty funny and self-conscious manner, so it isn’t obnoxiously obtrusive for the more conservative viewer (most of the time).
I’m a big fan of color schemes that are attached to characters and certain messages throughout an anime. Death Note is an excellent example of this – lights and shading are always used to create an undeniably immersive effect; there are those dramatic moments when the eyes of opposing characters meet and the background “auras” seem to clash against each other. Gurren Lagann also uses this technique to great effect, creating some surprisingly inspiring and intense moments that had me enthralled. I guarantee you will be dazzled at least once watching this anime.
The best parts of Gurren Lagann’s soundtrack were the opening and closing tracks, especially the opener. I sat and watched the opener at least every other episode just because I enjoyed it so much. Other than that, it was all pretty standard; nothing particularly caught my ear. An excellent job of matching music to scenes was done; quiet, dramatic moments were appropriately silent, with only dialogue, while other times saw grand battle themes clash with giant explosions. The opener was good enough to push my rating up a bit, but nothing in the show was ear-shatteringly spectacular.
The voice acting is what really shined. Every character was well voiced, thankfully avoiding the whining male lead pitfall which would have easily killed this anime. Each character certainly had a distinctive and unique voice, especially the main supporting character, Kamina, who was voiced exceedingly well, despite my utter hatred of him.
With one exception that I will comment on shortly, the characters of Gurren Lagann were quite spectacular. I didn’t expect much; characters in a shonen are often hurried along with quick introductions and just enough background to make you care, only to “hold down the fort” against the grunt army while the main character fights the main villain. Gurren Lagann wasted no space with its characters. People I quickly wrote off as flat pieces of cardboard were eventually fleshed out later in the series. Against all odds, Gurren Lagann continually reused its cast, refusing to just drop anyone out of the picture. Everyone who is anyone in Gurren Lagann has not only a big role but a truly meaningful role at that. It was quite a pleasant surprise.
The lead character, Simon, is developed exceedingly well. Simon is certainly a weak character to begin with, but this is justified and works well. He has his definite flaws and lives in the shadow of the main supporting character, Kamina. Simon, through the course of the anime, goes on an intriguing journey discovering a purpose and a sense of self that anyone who lives can relate to. It is one of the most complete and fleshed out character developments I’ve come across, and certainly one worth appreciating by any anime fan.
My favorite character from the series is Viral, a beastman. He is the first real villain the heroes must fend off, but subsequent developments shows he has much more meaningful motivations than mindlessly obeying his superiors. I won’t say more, but be sure to keep an eye on him.
The reason that Gurren Lagann does not score more points in this area is due to a single character: Kamina. Oh, how I hate him. Take your generic shonen: Naruto, Bleach, what have you. Take all of the speeches, monologues, and “we can do it with the power of love and friendship” rubbish out of them, and shove it all into one character. This is Kamina. He had no less than 26.7 speeches per episode. He is completely essential to the story, and occasionally he surprised me with a touching moment – but he is also a seemingly endless fountain of idiocy and mediocrity. He easily could have been much different, much better, and still played the same role. Some will love his devil-may-care attitude, constant out-of-control antics, and mindless drivel. I did not. If I go to hell, I will wake up chained next to Kamina endlessly monologuing about how my destiny will pierce the heavens. There is having the confidence to believe in yourself, and then there is mindless recklessness that doesn’t even make any sense – and Kamina crossed that line. He certainly has personality, at the very least.
Despite the most annoying character ever (EVER) and the inevitable shonen stereotypes, Gurren Lagann does a bang up job. I was bored and annoyed at times, but overall it had some great moments that really had me captivated. And just for emphasis, the explosions were awesome. This needs to be qualified: don't forget that it is good for an action flick. Gurren Lagann was really pushing for an 8 from me, but couldn’t quite get there on action scenes and characters alone, especially with the black spot named Kamina. However, I give it an excellent recommendation to any fan of shonen, mecha, or action- adventure, and only a slightly less enthusiastic recommendation to anime fans in general. Relax and don’t pay attention to the plot holes, and you'll be in for a surprisingly emotional good time.