Thursday, May 10, 2018

Gurren Lagann - The Power of Hope

One of the most special things about anime is how it is a medium all of its own; it's different from Western animation in terms of style and how the Japanese culture and ideas influence the stories and characters that inspire it, and visuals are often too imaginative for anything to be caught on actual film, or to be read on a page. Sometimes shows are capable of transcending the media that is set before it and it becomes a classic both visually and in terms of thematic storytelling. One of the most popular mecha shows of all time, Gurren Lagann, vaults over the possible in terms of animation and character and places itself as one of the most special and inspiring pieces of fiction ever to be created.
If you're a fan of anime in any respect it's likely you've at least heard of Gurren Lagann. Mecha fans (i.e. Gundam or Evangelion) have probably also watched this show since in the modern era it's nigh impossible to find a really good mech series. But if you're unaware, then, here's the basic premise of Gurren Lagann:

A pair of young boys named Simon and Kamina live underground, dreaming of a world above them that may not exist. When Simon stumbles across a small face in the ground, they discover it's actually a mobile suit of some kind, and when their underground village is attacked, they are led by a wild Beastman-hunter named Yoko to their dream: the surface world. Together, Simon and Kamina resolve to defeat the one that put humanity underground, the Spiral King, using their ultra-powerful mech, Gurren Lagann. Along the way they meet countless colorful characters and discover the true meaning of fighting spirit, as well as what it means to hope.

The show's plot is fairly linear: beat the next strongest foe in front of you. Each episode escalates the combat above the previous one; if the first episode is fighting a Beastman, the next has to be fighting the one who orders him around, or maybe a multitude of Beastmen. And it goes on from there, fitting with the overall theme of the show (that of which being always moving forward, pushing on until you've reached the very limits of existence, be it metaphysical or physical).

Now, it's pretty obvious that Gurren Lagann wants the viewer to walk away with a renewed sense of fighting spirit, of always giving it your all in a fight or a difficult situation, and doing everything you can to win. Time and again we see our cast of characters scrambling for whatever they can do in a desperate attempt to just win, or even just survive, as we see later in the show.

But I think there's a bigger theme, a bigger idea, at play here. It's one that exists from the very start of the show all the way to the final shot: Hope. Gurren Lagann, as a whole, is a show about never losing hope, or about finding hope within one's self.

There are many quotable lines from the show ("Believe in the me that believes in you;" "Just who the hell do you think I am?", "My drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!") and all of them carry with them this ideal of hope, though most of them require context. The first, the one about belief, is one that carries through the majority of the first arc of the show, as it relies on one finding hope in others, not just themselves, because, let's face it, it's hard to do that at times.

This belief in others does serve a dual function, though. Characters are inspired by one another, sure, but as they often realize, they had this belief in themselves all along. Even our most confident characters, as we see throughout the show, are actually just as afraid as everyone else and are relying on one another to pull through. Simon and Kamina cannot exist without the hope each other instills in one another, and Yoko serves as a representative for all of the supporting cast as she reflects their state of mind about where the group stands, while still having her own character with hopes and dreams.

Gurren Lagann is not short on it's big, over-the-top bombastic moments. In fact, I would say that it revels in these. Almost always, too, it gets an emotional response, and it isn't because of the incredible music or insane dialogue, but rather, that underlying idea and theme of hope latent within each character that comes bursting free. When characters hit their lowest low, they still have each other to fall back on, or at least what they can remember them as.

As a narrative, these big moments show as a way of inspiring our characters to be their very best. It's almost cyclical, and that's what helps Gurren Lagann stand out among other series. Whereas other shows about "fighting spirit" mostly come down to a character not knowing any better, this show does have our characters confront the very harsh reality of an end to their dreams or death, but also has them pushing forward because they have to attain their dreams, and won't be denied. They can't look back, because looking back means giving up, and they know that there has to be another way to win.

Hope feeds into hope; people believe in each other in this series because they have to if they're going to win. This, then, empowers our main cast. Hope is the ultimate power source for Simon, Kamina, and Yoko, our main combatants.

Those three, along with Nia, are the true embodiments of hope, and each serve a different aspect of the feeling: Simon channels it, allowing him to pilot Gurren Lagann as well as be the beacon by which hope is born; Kamina is the symbol of hope, the one who slices their path forward and shows them the way; Yoko is the anchor of hope, the one that is always there for the team and is never going to give up, beacuse she isn't afraid to continue the fight; Nia is the idea of hope given form, someone who doesn't understand fear or doubt, because she's lived all her life away from hope and now that she has it she isn't going to back down.

Kamina being the symbol of hope basically cements this theme for the rest of the series, given his importance to each character as the loud leader of Team Gurren, and as Simon's icon. Since Simon is our main character and given how much he looks up to Kamina, we, as the audience, look up to Kamina all the same and are therefore so much more invested when it comes time to fight. As Simon channels that hope from his friends or from Kamina, so too do we that they will find a way out of this.

In any other show, it would be pretty contrived that Team Gurren basically never loses, but, since hope plays a narrative and thematic role in the story, it doesn't feel that way at all. Given that it eventually becomes a literal power source, in a way, it makes even more sense for Simon and Kamina and Yoko to be the ultimate leaders of Team Gurren.

Other characters, though, embrace this theme of hope in a different way. Rossiu, as a realist, sees hope more as a last measure; he can't give up hope, but, he's also someone that never really thinks outside the box. It does come at a detriment as the series progresses, but once things start coming around for him and once Simon begins to channel some of his own hope into Rossiu he really comes alive and becomes the character he was born to be.

It'd be easy to compare Kittan to Kamina, particularly given where things are by the ending, but I think the show does an excellent job at establishing that Kittan is someone who will never give up not for his own sake but for the sake of his friends. Kamina's glaring flaw is that he was a little self-absorbed, putting himself out in front, but he did so in order to gain the trust and strength of the other members of Team Gurren. Kittan is loud and bombastic like Kamina so that he can protect the others, to be the voice of insanity that they have but may not have the will to express. Both are arrogant and quite naive, but they serve ultimately different functions to both Simon and Yoko as the series goes on.

But how can something as simple as hope make for a show that runs for 27 episodes (26 if you don't count the clip-show between the first and second arc)? Quite easily, actually, as you have a series that is predicated on a world that is in the dark and has no light shed upon it, as well as a show that has stakes rising at an exponential rate at each episode.

From a plot perspective, hope has to be a major theme of the series because it's what drives the characters onto the next thing. At the beginning of the series, it's the hope that one day humanity will be free from its oppressors, and in the second half of the series, it's the hope that humanity will be saved from its oppressors AND that the structure of the world can fundamentally change for the better. Hope evolves the plot as well as the characters.

Speaking of evolution, we see hope come alive across the world as Simon and Kamina's war against the Spiral King makes waves all around to the other villages. It makes complete sense that the show would be almost singlehandedly driven on this concept, so simple in mind but so complex in execution, because there will always be those who are inspired to join the fight, so we have to meet new characters and get new subplots thrown into the mix that eventually feeds into the endgame. Everyone has a part to play by the time the final battle comes around.

Still, though, Gurren Lagann does an excellent job of showing how all of these characters reflect themselves and their hopes back onto the one who matters most: Simon. If you want to see a series where our main character evolves because of both what he does and those around him, look to Gurren Lagann. Simon isn't an incredibly complex character, but incredibly complex and challenging things happen to him that force him to evolve, adapt, and push forward, just like he always would. As a result, we get some fascinating and inspiring scenes, some of which are the best in all of anime. Just watch the final battle or the scene where Simon becomes a man to see what I'm talking about.

Gurren Lagann is a show for everyone. It's fun and wild while still holding its own gravitas and weight. It's loud and action-packed, but there are still good amounts of character development to be had as the series progresses. Best of all, though, it's inspiring. It makes you want to push forward through your own dreams and to transcend those. It's a series that tells you that there is always room to go, that we, as people, can do the impossible and pierce through that which holds us back. If there's anything Gurren Lagann has taught me and helped me understand, as a person, as someone with their own dreams, it's that hope never dies. We just have to find it and cling tight, because if we decide to pursue our destiny, it's gonna be a hell of a ride, but we'll be smiling when we get there.

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