Friday, August 8, 2008

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Not watching it? Who the hell do you think you are?

The American media has finally loosened it's tightly clinched...fist, is what I should probably say...and given a show about a genuine super robot a chance to be on American TV that's not [adult swim], and they couldn't have picked a better one than Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. For those of you who don't speak Japanese, it means Breakthrough Heaven! Gurren Lagann. If you haven't seen it before or on the Sci-Fi Channel yet, then, while paraphrasing one of the show's catchphrases, I say to you, WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

I followed this show...well...let's just say I followed it, and I loved it. Not since The King of Braves: GaoGaiGar have I seen a giant robot anime that I could say I loved this much. It comes from the great team of animators at Gainax, the same team that brought anime fans such favorites as FLCL and Evangelion.

Now if I had to sum up what Gurren Lagann is about, without spoiling anything, I'd have to say: Drills. In the arsenal of super robots there are some standards: rocket propelled fists, big laser beam weapons of some kind, big swords, but there is one that never really got a lot of recognition or praise, the great big mega drill. And that was part of the inspiration and reason Gurren Lagann was made, or so it's creator said in an interview with Otaku USA. All of Gurren Lagann's weapons are drills of some kind: drills on its hands, missile drills, drills like swords, drill lazers, and this one really really really REALLY big drill just to name a few.

In fact the main character, Simon, was a digger in his home village, and he used a drill (he's even said to be the best digger). His friend and "brother" Kamina try to escape from their home town deep underground. (the term is translated from the Japanese word "aniki" [a-ni-ki] which can mean brother or what one might call an older, respected male associate) When a strange giant-face-with-arms-and-legs robot called a Ganmen crashes through the roof, it's followed by the sexy, rifle-wielding girl Yoko. Together Kamina and Simon combine (in somewhat half-assed fashion) Kamina's stolen Ganmen, Gurren, and the smaller Ganmen Simon discovered, Lagann, to become the mighty GURREN LAGANN. With Yoko and others they meet along the way, they form the Gurren Brigade and fight the oppressive Beastmen. I could tell you more, but then I'd be spoiling it and I just can't and won't do that to you.

There's so much great stuff here that I don't know where to begin. The action is great, about the same if not better than most other giant robot shows. Lots of explosions, screaming, grandiose speeches, manly battle cries, but it still has a comedic style with hilarious events. The music rocks, even if you can't understand Japanese. There's a lot of heavy rock and roll, but there's also some lighter, almost pop-style music and even a little Japanese rap.

If you grew-up watching shows like Voltron, Power Rangers, or Transformers, you're probably familiar with the concept of gattai or combination, when multiple vehicles or robots combine into one large robot. ("gattai" [ga-tai] is a Japanese reference to the sound of metal hitting metal, and genuninely used to describe machines combining) While the robots in these kinds of shows are usually made of 3, 5, or more separate parts, Gurren Lagann uses a seldom used minimal form of gattai for Super Robots by being made of only 2 separate units. Kamina's Ganmen Gurren, for you Voltron fans, forms the feet, legs, arms and torso, while Simon's Lagann forms/is the head. It's kind of like Headmasters, those transformers who had the little robots that became the heads of the larger robots.

I should point out that I've only seen the first episode of the English version at this point, so I can only really comment on the three central characters' voices. I have to say that they did a pretty good job of casting. Simon's original voice was timid yet could also be bold, and the voice actor they chose, Yuri Lowenthal, has been good at voicing this kind of emotional range as Sasuke (Naruto), both Supermen from Legion of Superheroes, and more recently as Ben Tennyson in Ben 10: Alien Force. Not quite as good as the original, but still VERY VERY GOOD. A-

Yoko is a character that a lot of people, both fans and non-fans of anime, could have misconceptions about. Yes she wears a bikini top with short/hot pants and carries a big gun, but she is far from being the token big breasted ditsy anime girl. On more than one occasion she shows herself to be extremely smart, resourceful, skilled, and one of the bravest members of the Gurren Brigade, and that's what makes her such a great character. She doesn't talk or sound like a dits in the Japanese version; "dits" shouldn't even be in the same sentence when describing her. That quality has been preserved in the voice casting. Michelle Ruff has provided the voice for other intelligent (and in some cases very sexy) ladies of anime like Fujiko Mine from Lupin III, Rukia Kuchiki from Bleach, Kluke from Blue Dragon, and Ryoko Ibuki from Tokko, now she's doing the same for Yoko. Absolutely PERFECT casting in my opinion. A+
It's when we come to Kamina that things get slightly bad. In the Japanese version Kamina's voice was bold, deep, and strong; when he talked, you listened. His was the voice you think of when you imagine the names of giant robot attacks being shouted. This is not quite the case for the English version, where he sounds more like a quaterback leading the high school football team to victory than the pilot of a super robot. This is probably one of those things that gets lost in translation, and it's not like Kamina's voice actor, Kyle Herbert, doesn't have tough guy credentials. He's probably most well known for doing the voice of the grown-up Gohan from DBZ and DBZ:GT, but he's currently doing the voice of Kiba Inuzuka from Naruto, as well as Sosuke Aizen and Ganju Shiba from Bleach. I got nothing but love for Herbert's efforts, but I just can't help but wonder if there could have been a better choice. VERY GOOD, BUT NOT GREAT. B+

I'm eager to see and hear how else Gurren Lagann has been adapted into English, especially concerning some of the show's other great characters. I hope that a lot of the central issues of Gurren Lagann still carry over. Part of what made these characters great is that you could identify with them, or you knew someone like them, or maybe you always wanted to be like them or to have someone like them in your life. Simon is easy to identify with if you've ever gone through that awkward phase where you feel like you don't fit-in anywhere. With Simon we get to see his evolution and change from a timid boy into a strong and determined adult, man, and hero. Kamina is the kind of guy every guy wants watching their back or that they want to be; confident, strong, good looking, brave, does what he wants with no regrets but still has a strong moral code. It's kind of appropriate that he tells Simon to call him brother, because he's kind of like the big brother you might always wanted to have. Like I said earlier about Yoko, she's not the typical big breasted ditsy anime girl. She is attractive but she is also smart, which is what really makes her sexy. Of course, the rifle doesn't hurt either. She also doesn't freak out when a mole hides in her cleavage or when Simon ends up touching her boobs after they fall from the sky following a fight with a Ganmen. I guess she figures, "I'm wearing a bikini top, and after what just happened it's not the worst thing that could have happened. I'm in an anime, this stuff is bound to happen."

What makes this series truly great is that the characters really fuel the story; each character that joins, backstory or none, is more entertaining or wilder than the next. You can't help but love them all. As such, when certain events happen you may not know how to feel; you may even cry. More than anything, you genuinely care about what is going to happen to all of them.

******SEMI SPOILER ALERT******The only thing worse then when a character you admire dies, is when a character that makes you laugh dies. (Think Colonel Hughes from Full Metal Alchemist or Wolfwood from Trigun.) In the case of some of Gurren Lagann's characters, it's both. It kind of ruins the ride if you're watching it again, but it only adds to the drama if you're watching it for the first time. Still, I feel like I could watch this series again and again and again and enjoy it every time. While the ending may not be completely satisfying it's still more satisfying than some other animes, especially those of the giant robot variety. It even has a giant robot that's measured in light years...let me repeat that, light years...making it the biggest super robot EVER.*****SEMI SPOILER ALERT OVER******

Who the hell do I think I am? I think I'm a fan of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, and if you aren't watching it then you are seriously missing out on something great. Come on, say it with me:


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