Thursday, April 9, 2015

Gurren Lagann

"Damn! You got a mighty fine body. Surface chicks are a breed apart."
-Kamina (not speaking to Kate Upton but he could be) to Yoko Littner-
It's difficult to accurately describe and categorize the positively wild Gurren Lagann. But it should comes as no surprise the end result of Gurren Lagann (2007) is the output of one, very-hard-to-pigeonhole Studio Gainax. After all, Studio Gainax was the studio that broke all the rules to begin with as an outfit comprised of science fiction fans turned animators. This was clearly the artistic geek studio made of geeks that understood geeks.

Gainax, as you know, is a studio that has produced some of the very best. The Wings Of Honneamise, Gunbuster, Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water, Neon Genesis Evangelion, His And Her Circumstances and FLCL all rank among the classics and certainly hold a very special place in this anime fan's library. These are films, TV series and OVAs that are returned to repeatedly and deservedly so in terms of sheer quality. Rarely has a studio had such a cohesive vision yet crossed the span of so many wildly different genres and styles.

The studio's original foundation by a group of friends has a good deal to do with that. Together they would often collaborate, animate and pitch story and character ideas to generate a fusion that was so unique no one in the business was working quite the same way. The studio didn't even have a true director in the traditional sense that would lend the kind of singular focus an vision of a master like Hayao Miyazaki. But collectively the group of animators somehow managed to rein in the chaos to create something truly magnificent often with an energy anime had not seen before. Founder/ animator Toshio Okada, no longer with the company, dubbed it "chaos theory," but for Studio Gainax it worked and for a long stretch the studio soared creatively.

Animator/director/actor Hideaki Anno, character designer/manga artist/ animator Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, director/producer Hiroyuki Yamaga, character designer/ animator/ game creator/ illustrator Takami Akai, producer/author Toshio Okada, director Yasuhiro Takeda and artist/ special effects supervisor Shinji Higuchi were the men behind the formation of Studio Gainax.

In many respects, it could be debated, the science fiction aficionado in me would tell you that Gurren Lagann was arguably the last of Studio Gainax glory days - the last of their run of greats. For Gurren Lagann the studio bursts through the heavens in glorious fashion by once again deconstructing conventions and delivering one of the most explosive, unpredicatable, bizarre, unexpected and funny over-the-top series one can experience in the new age of digital animation. It's like eating a massive banana sundae.

In fact, Gurren Lagann marked the beginning of Anno's departure from Gainax with the creation of Studio Khara, the studio behind the rebuild Neon Genesis Evangelion films (2007, 2009, 2012). One of Anno's anime production company's first efforts was to provide in-between animation for Gurren Lagann.

There is of course a connection between Khara and Gainax, but if we're being honest the Gainax that delivered some of the most remarkable, passionate and stunningly groundbrekaing films, TV series and OVAs ever committed to anime celluloid seemed to sunset with Gurren Lagann or arguably earlier. Look no further than the output of Studio Gainax between 1987-2009 (see A Selected History below).

So if Gainax had a good degree of new blood, which is always required in any business, what makes Gurren Lagann work so well? Ideas and talent and the Gainax motto of breaking rules is important of course. With Gurren Lagann it may comes as no surprise that talented director Hiroyuki Imaishi also had a hand in the frenetic, kinetic and wildly off the wall Gainax OVA for FLCL (2000-2001) by director Kazuya Tsurumaki. To give you some idea of the generational linking here, Tsurumaki took over the directorial reins from Anno on His And Her Circumstances (1998-1999). Tsurumaki then went on to direct FLCL and Aim For The Top 2! Diesbuster (2004-2006), the spiritual sequel to Aim For The Top! Gunbuster (1988-1989) produced by the founding fathers of Gainax.

So Imaishi has studied under some of the very best. He offers a unique and energetic stamp on his animation. He takes many of the conventions of classic anime series and revitalizes them and reinvigorates them within his love for the Gurren Lagann series. He even enjoys working in the look of those old pencil lines when it comes to his computer animation. But indeed Imaishi comes from very good stock, learned from the best and offerd the kind of maverick firebrand the studio has come to be associated with.

Unfortunately for Gainax, following his direction on two follow-up Gurren Lagann films to the TV series Imaishi departed Studio Gainax, as so many seem to do, and founded his own production studio dubbed Trigger (2011).

On the writing side, not to be overlooked is the sharp, witty, insanely original and fresh writing committed to Gurren Lagann by writer Kazuki Nakashima (the popular Kill La Kill). He was a significant player in offering an infusion of new blood to the mecha sub-genre here with this series along with Imaishi.

For the moment we look at Imaishi's small but mighty contribution to the legacy of Studio Gainax which really finished strong on a long run of science fiction adventure works of which are all nothing short of amazing.

And while I admittedly do not normally embrace the excessive use of fan service, Imaishi's pacing and comedic tone in spots absolutely nails it fan service and all. Thus any use of bouncing tits, pressed boobs, face plants into boobs and so on are entirely embraced. Imaishi and company also created quite possibly one of the sexiest female characters in all of anime in Yoko Littner. She is an outwardly, unabashed, wild thing that just exudes sex. Unlike the hottie little totties of characters like Asuka Langley Sohryu or Rei Ayanami from the Gainax production Neon Genesis Evangelion, Yoko is clearly the hands down winner for hottest, no holds barred sex kitten when it comes to Gainax anime. As delightful and adorable as Nadia was in Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water, bare midriff and all, this Yoko Littner has really got it all over the competition. Her breasts are sandwiched tight in an outfit that could force her privates to spring out like a jack-in-the-box at any moment. Imaishi lets that aspect all hang out and I kind of admire him for it amidst all of the completely original science fiction adventuring.

Regarding the anime as a whole, maybe Gurren Lagann touches that kid in me - the one who loved Gaiking and Force Five, because Gurren Lagann certainly has cross generational appeal. But of course Gainax has always been able to pull that balance off. It's not like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster or Nadia The Secret Of Blue Water were free of buxom babes or teenagers with attitudes amidst sound stories. Astoundingly Gainax has always managed to straddle the line of entertaining the masses, young and old, while providing some pretty impressive, solid science fiction ideas.

Because additionally with Gurren Lagann we have the giant robot and mecha genre completely reinvigorated, we have colorful characters in, again, Yoko Littner, Simon and the great (just ask him) Kamina (affectionately referred to as "bro" by Simon). And with these thrilling characters is an abundance of refreshingly original and funny dialogue that just explodes off the screen with all of the antics and action.

Truthfully, this kind of science fiction series is generally not my cup of tea. I prefer science fiction anime with a more serious tone like Knights Of Sidonia but it is a pleasure to open the mind to something outside of my comfort zone and with concepts and ear-popping dialogue that makes for a fun experience.

Gainax has always been a rule breaker. The studio is irreverent to the max and I applaud them for it. Gurren Lagann is quite simply one of those series that fuses genres and ideas and throws them all into a pressure cooker so that it can explode into a sky full of eye candy. Not many series can do it. There's always been a lot to thank Gainax for as a fan of anime because of the studio's willingness to to be inventive and unconventional. Gurren Lagann is, once again, one of them and one of the last science fiction greats to really yield from the studio warts and all.

I've never completely fallen in love with the sometimes too clean, sterile animation work of the digital environment. Those shortcomings are sometimes too great. That approach is certainly notable here at times despite some outstanding moments of animation for a TV series no less. When it comes to the hierarchy of budgeting the TV series is often last behind the OVA and the film. So it's always staggering to me what Gainax is able to achieve. It has generated some handsomely crafted productions through the years in all formats of release, TV, OVA and film. They never seem to be limited by the dictates of their respective producers and or financial backers.

Take the complexity of the combining sequence in Gurren Lagann that occurs in the formation of gunmen Gurren Lagann. Gurren Lagann is a composite of Gurren, piloted by Kamina, and Lagann, piloted by Simon, and together the two form the great mech giant that is Gurren Lagann. Funny enough, but for some reason Lagann Gurren just wouldn't sound right. Thus this great giant forms and bursts with power in a vivid explosion of animation. Mech anime fans positively rejoice.

When I consider the joy of beholding the formation of Gaiking from three unique components launched from the Daiku Maryu and the simplicity of animating that sequence from my childhood, Gurren Lagann is indeed mecha action on significant steroidal overload. It's the exhilaration of Gunbuster updated. It's the fan love of Gainax all over with nods to anime from Gaiking to Pokemon. No wonder Japanese animators are dying at their desks and pleading for a little professional respect economically. This is glorious stuff that makes the simple animating style of Gaiking look laughable. Kids today are completely spoiled by what they can see and have access to. No wonder they scoff at my idea of beautiful. Still, I'll never discount the charms of those early classics that continue to resonate with me. Nevertheless it's easy to understand why contemporary anime fans would find it difficult to go back after seeing something as positively wild, gorgeous and wickedly cool as the stuff of Gainax.

This post serves as a brief introduction and primer to one of the last great animations, in my humble opinion, of Studio Gainax. Imaishi contributed a big one after seeing Gainax falter for a number of years in science fiction save for FLCL and arguably Diebuster. Gurren Lagann was indeed one of the greats that arrived late in the studio's run outside of what might be considered the golden era and hey day of Gainax in its prime as established by its original founders and core creators.

Gurren Lagann is outrageous, over the top mecha fun complete with an absolutely buxom babe, action sequences hopped up on roids, sweet nuggets of character drama and emotional waves that move seamlessly between sheer hilarity to the sweet to the downright bizarre and wicked cool. I about bust a gut a few times. This massive THING is unquestionably speaking to my inner teen perhaps even my inner twelve year old. I mean this is not mature science fiction anime, but the writing is sharp thanks to scripting from Japanese writer Kazuki Nakashima. And hey, everyone is entitled to a weird guilty pleasure now and again especially when it's this damn fine. Stay tuned in the coming months true anime believers for brief episode by episode reflections of the TV series that was Gurren Lagann. I'm not here to necessarily summarize each entry but rather offer observations pertinent to this weird and wonderful, original outing. Gurren Lagann comes highly recommended.

A Historical Retrospective of Studio Gainax highlights:

Royal Space Force: The Wings Of Honneamise (1987)
Appleseed (1988)
Gunbuster (1988-1989)
Nadia: The Secret Of Blue Water (1990-1991)
Otaku No Video (1991)
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)
Evangelion: Death And Rebirth (1997)
The End Of Evangelion (1997)
His And Her Circumstances (1998-1999)
FLCL (2000)
Diebuster (2004)
Cutey Honey (2004)
Gunbuster Vs. Diebuster (2006)
Gurren Lagann (2007)
You Are (Not) Alone (2007)
Gurren Lagan The Movie: Childhood's End (2008)
Gurren Lagann The Movie: The Lights In The Sky Are Stars (2009)
You Can (Not) Advance (2009)
You Can (Not) Redo (2012).

* This primer of Gurren Lagann is based primarily on the first five episodes.

Episodes include some terrific titles too in:
Episode 1: Bust Through The Heavens With Your Drill!
Episode 2: I Said I'm Gonna Pilot That Thing!
Episode 3: Who Do You Think You Are, Having Two Faces!?
Episode 4: Having Lots Of Faces Doesn't Make You Great!
Episode 5: I Don't Get It, Not One Bit!

And by the way, there is a reason these episodes all end with an exclamation point! Wow!


El Vox said...

I tried to get into it, but I'm just not a fan of the over-the-top nature though the artwork appeals to me. I just wish they'd tone it down. I'd still be interested in reading your episode blow by blow take on it however.

I did see an older anime the other night, however, that I enjoyed called Casshan: Robot Fighter. I saw a few eps. of the Planetes anime too and thought they were pretty good.

SFF said...

Gurren is highly original. If it toned it down it wouldn't be the same show that's for sure.

But I would agree it's not for everyone.

I did pick up the Blu-Ray of Casshan the original series by Tatsunoko. Hope to have a look at it soon and cover it a bit.