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Gurren Lagann (Pierce the Heavens Collection) – Review

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Row! Row! Fight the power!

Life is complex. From the day to day doldrums, to the once in a lifetime events, the ol’ flow of time is never shy about throwing curveballs in amidst the pitches. Of course, whilst some of these moments are notably exciting, shaping personalities and searing themselves into the minds of the masses as key points in history, the vast majority of life just kind of floats on by under the radar. Enter fiction, that great bastion of the soul, the world of infinite possibilities wherein all may take refuge from stress and monotony in order to reinvigorate that voice in their mind that screams joy about the world. Why the introspection and broad scoped quizzicality you ask? Well my curious companions, that’s because I am about to talk about a series that condenses the struggles of life into a handy dandy physical form and then cathartically punches it in its smug face. Why? Because that’s how Gurren Lagann rolls, ’nuff said.

Gurren Lagann, the series that takes all the action and excitement of anime, crashes it into the formula of old Saturday morning cartoons and then multiplies the result by infinity billion (it’s a scientific term…don’t look it up). As far as story specifically goes, Gurren Lagann is the tale of one boy and his journey through life. Beginning underground, literally separated from a vast majority of the world, Simon ekes out his existence using his one discernible skill: digging. Despite understanding this particular strength, it is not until his self proclaimed Big Bro Kamina rocks up that Simon begins to see it in a positive light. Though way back when in the canon of the Gurren story, this simple perspective shift is what causes the rest of the story to unfold. Coming to accept and embrace the power of his ability, rather than simply utilise it without enthusiasm allows for character growth that breaks the monotony of the day to day. This aspect is brought back numerous times in the series wherein, depending on his mood at the time, Simon the Digger is seen as either an insult or a compliment. Whilst it might seem subtle in comparison to some of the more boisterous showings of human spirit, this base layer carries a poignancy that may be overlooked if one does not take note. This is especially the case when contrasted by the effervescent Kamina, stalwart believer in all things awesome and manly. However, despite drawing the attention that he does, through some quieter moments we learn that bravado is not always a solid platform for leadership and requires more than its fair share of support from more grounded sources. Thus, despite being by far the most quoted member of the series, it is shown that moxie must carry meaning and that spouting awesome and convoluted monologues can only take you so far. In the sense of anime in general, this breakdown of the traditional shonen determinator archetype is interestingly refreshing, providing a degree of depth in characters that may seem quite shallow from an outside view. That being said, I do understand certain criticisms regarding character development over some  of the longer periods of time within the series. However, from yet another standpoint, this may present a representation of the dangers of stagnation, of the inability to let go of certain things, move with the times, yet still retain your identity.

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The drill that will pierce the heavens

From its underground beginnings, the series rather quickly introduces us to the concept of Gunmen, mechs of varying shape and size that make life on the surface a daily battle for survival, hence Simon and Kamina’s initial lodgings. However, given that living in a hole is far from the desires of our heroic duo (or one half at least), the two swiftly and explosively ascend to the land above, along with newly acquired pal Yoko (the female side of this series fanservice quota). Ipso facto our protagonists find themselves in an ever escalating war between humanity and the antagonistic Beastmen, dwellers of the surface and pilots of the Gunmen. Though this may sound a touch expository, I specifically made it so in order to convey how simplistic and interesting the character of Kamina is. Despite receiving the same rundown of plot, his immediate thought one that occurred to no other human on the surface; steal a Gunmen. I mean when you think about it it’s the obvious choice, acquire a weapon of equal power to combat your enemy. However, the sheer brashness and stupidity of this plan is what makes it so, for lack of a more complex word, cool. This fact also allows the events of the series to begin and revolve around Kamina due to his direct actions, making it seem that a new story is being formed within a pre-existing world rather than making it seem as if a world is being formed for the sake of a story. Though this may sound like a small difference, this core fact grants an inherent history and believability to the world of Gurren Lagann without one being blatantly presented to us. From this point, the story continues to spiral out of control until it reaches unmatched levels of bravado and intensity which, considering this is an anime, is saying a whole heck of a lot. Despite this, nothing ever seems out of place given the series unabashed acceptance of what it is at its core; insane. The continuous increase of size, scope and ridiculousness meshes perfectly with the development of the story and enhances the drama from start to finish. Though it may seem that, on the surface, Gurren Lagann is just attempting to one up itself at every turn, it is in fact perfectly representing the message it is trying to convey, which is not something that every anime succeeds in doing.

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Never retreat, never surrender, never look back

Speaking of message conveyance, I’d like to briefly touch upon the movies included within this collection. As it stands, Childhood’s End and The Lights in the Sky are Stars are summaries of Gurren Lagann’s two main story halves. As such, they present a much more condensed sequence of events than those allowed by the longer style format of episodic content. For this reason, I feel that the movies are far from the greatest way to enjoy the series. If you feel like a refresher without the time commitment found in watching twenty seven episodes, then go right ahead. However, if you truly wish to see the story of Gurren Lagann, then stick with the series. Despite including some new animation sequences, the films do not offer as much as their source material. Though it may sound contrary to this series, the faster pacing takes away from events by refusing them time to breathe. Simon’s struggle that occurs roughly a quarter through the series is rendered far less poignant by the flow of Childhood’s End and prevents later characters, such as Nia, from receiving the screentime that allowed them to carve their place in the cast. That being said, fans of the series may want to check out the films as I did to simply mark the differences and see what remained the same. Ultimately however, the largest and most positive sequence of the films occurs at the climax of The Lights in the Sky are Stars. This particular portion of the story blends well into the mythos of the series, whilst also showcasing how, just when you thought you understood Gurren Lagann, it can still manage to surprise and amaze you.

From a visual perspective, this series holds up extremely well. Though 2007 may not sound like that long ago, in terms of anime production it is a lifetime, heck even series one year old can show signs of age. It’s an industry that never stops. Regardless, Gurren Lagann carries itself with a fluid animation style that lends flow to the combat sequences and allows the actions of each character to shine. This is most notable in the Gunmen themselves who, despite being mechs, are animated in the traditional 2D style. Meshing well with the personality of the series, this allows each mech to exhibit a more human nature, both in regards to expression and movement. In contrast to this, CGI was utilised in the creation of the Mugann, an enemy that contrasts our heroes in every regard. As such, the stylistic choice allows for an immediate visual split between good and evil that is later supported by story elements. Jumping back to fight sequences for a second, this is still a series that utilises the good old sliding frame technique, wherein the camera pans across a still frame to elicit feelings of movement and speed with less visual effort. However, as this technique is not used for every single fight scene, as it is with some anime, its usage feels like more of a choice and less of a budgetary necessity, meting the negative feelings such a technique normally creates. To further limit visual criticism, the series consistently makes use of a vibrant colour palette, even when relatively unnecessary or completely unexpected, keeping the series enticing even something as dull as a city council meeting is occurring. Ultimately, though I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, the series overall embracement of its highs and lows gives even the negative aspects of this series their own charm, although episode 4 is still somewhat of an animatorial quagmire…not sure what happened there.

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Kick logic out and do the impossible!

Audio, the one aspect of a series most likely to create controversial opinions. Well I’ll just come out and say it; I much prefer the English dub of this series to the original Japanese. Though I do appreciate the original and do not find anything wrong with it, the overall nature of this series just lends itself better to the language one natively speaks. Though aniki is undoubtedly a cool word that fans of anime have heard a million times over, hearing Kamina ask Simon to call him bro is just kinda special in its own way. This language shift also adds more immediate resonance to the various speeches of Team Gurren’s badass leader, allowing the convoluted nature of his views on believing in someone to stick with you. For the purists out there, it may alleviate your doubts to know that the Englsih dub is actually extremely faithful to the source material. Watching the original dub shows that certain lines are almost word for word maintained through translation, of course this could be due to the subs receiving a certain flair, but I’m just going to chalk it up to being loyal and move right along. Musically speaking, this series is one that knows when to start blasting some tunes. During the most climactic moments of the anime, the theme tune begins to play in the background, synchronising with the new found resolve of our heroes in the darkest hour. A fairly well trodden trope to be sure, but music carries an intrinsic ability to inspire, an ability that is utilised to great effect. On the flipside of this, certain characters possess their own theme songs that sound to announce their entrance into the fray. This is most notable of Viral, whose appearance is almost always followed, or preceded by, the opening lines of his song. Again, though a well worn technique, it adds a certain something to the beginning of each conflict with one of the series most consistent antagonists. However, despite the drama of the word choices and the on point delivery of the music, Gurren Lagann’s greatest auditory triumph is the sheer fact the both Japanese and English dubs carry emotion. Whatever your preference for language, characters always present the emotions they were intended to feel during every sequence. Whilst this may seem like something obvious, anime watchers will know that series do not always convey dialogue with the verve one hopes for. More notable in dubs I’ll admit, but not this time around. you want to hear characters scream to high heaven about seizing victory from the jaws of defeat? Then this is the series for you.

As far as extra features go, I feel it’s necessary to mention the Parallel Works found within that particular designation. OVAs created by various sources, these snippets provide an interesting look on how others were inspired by this series. From stories that follow the style and vibe of the source material, to bizarre interpretations that make you wonder what the heck you just witnessed, there’s plenty there to enjoy. Just be warned, one work will show you a lot more of Gimmy than you may want to see…

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That’s the way Team Gurren rolls!

Look, at the end of the day, I know that Gurren Lagann was not the innovator of the mech genre, nor was it the first to present an escalation of villainy and the rise of heroism to meet said villainy. However, at the end of the day still, I could not care less about any of that. You know why? Because Gurren Lagann is fun, because despite everything that happens over the course of its twenty seven episode run it never stops moving forward. In presenting the core of its emotional message so simply, it creates an inherent complexity within its characters. It allows the passion and excitement that you want to feel during a climactic fight to rise to the surface, to take precedence over everything else. Sure this series is about creating a future and never giving up until you obtain it, but there are also moments that remind you to simply be excited about the present, to forget about your plans, of your past, and simply be. Does that sound a touch grand for what is essentially a series about robots hitting each other with drills? Perhaps, but again who cares? Thus I leave you with this final paragraph, written by none other than yours truly immediately after watching the final episode of the series. Does it have anything to do with the mechanics of the series? Not in the slightest. Nonetheless I think it’s a solid example of how anime are able to grab people in different ways and, even if they might not be the most well polished or original stories out there, none of that matters when compared to how they make you feel. Call it a cop out if you will, but the series itself follows the rules it creates; who cares if something is dumb, or lauded by others? Do what fulfills you and enjoy whatever you please. That’s the way humanity rolls.

This is the kind of anime that lights a fire in your soul, the kind of series that transcends its fictitious origins and makes you feel alive. Sure it might sound exaggerated, sappy and down right ridiculous, but if there’s one goddamn lesson you can learn from Gurren Lagann, it’s that none of that stuff matters. Sure life presents itself in a different form to every person, and sure those forms are as incomparable as they are varied, but there lies something behind all of that, something that doesn’t give a damn if you feel sad, happy, or anything in between. Though life may get you down, though it may leave you battered and bruised and wondering if there is any footing to be found under your next step forward, as long as you refuse to give up, as long as you hold onto to that stubborn little voice inside your head, something will rise up to meet your stride. Though the future lies uncertain, though the path before us all is one of mystery, of hope, of fear, it is a future nonetheless and one all must strive to meet proudly. Even if it is lacking in grandeur, even if it is something as simple as doing something you’ve always wanted to, or saying that one lingering message that you have never been able to put into words, the future is an accomplishment of your truest self. Though one should never forget the past, nor forgo the present, they must always keep in mind the unspoken promise that all should uphold; to live. Not for others, or a purpose they hold true, but because that is what they desire in their heart of hearts. To live for another is to pass a mantle that should never be given. Live for yourself, for your desire to live for another, never forget that each individual is the centre of their own life, and remember that that fact alone is not inherently selfish. Greed is only a sin if it is abused. To strive is greed, to persevere is greed, to want a life filled with others is greed, a greed that pushes and pulls with unparalleled force. A life is not to be squandered, nor gifted, nor utilised for any purpose that defies its core, that is the inescapable truth of the universe, that is the unwritten scripture that binds and that is the reason to be. To put it simply, life is an adventure designed to find the answer to the ultimate question, to the truth that combines and separates us all; just who the hell do you think you are?!

Believe in the you who believes in yourself. The words of a Madman that inspired the path of the future. That’s Tengen Toppa. That’s Gurren Lagann.

Grade: A+

-30-

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