Kudos to Madman for posting episodes of Gurren Lagann as part of their free streaming service: Screening Room. While miserly companies would have hosted lesser titles, with prime cuts like fan favourite, Full Metal Alchemist and top shelf work like Gurren Lagann from Studio Gainax, Madman is giving fans a real gourmet selection of titles to taste.
Studio Gainax is best known for Neon Genesis Evangelion and it sure must be one hell of a place to work. Up in the attic you Hideo Anno sliding into Axl Rose-style irrelevancy as he colour corrects Evangelion before releasing it again for the umpteenth time. Perhaps, because of Anno’s increasingly narrow-focussed output, downstairs, Gainax has moved away from more introspective and character-driven fare preferring to warp the traditional narrative with progressively more crazed and action-packed output. FLCL took typical adolescent male angst and ennui and made it manifest in all its surreal, comedic and kinetic glory. Gunbuster 2 re-imagined the Gainax classic dispensing with the time warping angst and replacing it with bombastic space opera, kooky characters and more costume changes than a Britney versus Pink winner takes all cage match.
Gurren Lagann opens with the big picture — two massive space fleets face off — before moving to the personal POV of Simon, a teenager who lives cocooned in an underground community, taught to fear the world above.
Gurren Lagann appears to be Gainax’s to attempt to do a more straight forward adventure story playing to their strengths — there are the aforementioned massed space battles looming on the horizon, mechs, a tip of the hat to some classic manga and anime with mysterious star-faring individual with cape and skull iconography and finally a young, naïve protagonist from a sheltered community who is about to receive his call to adventure.
Design and composition-wise, Gurren reveals a studio that is at the peak of its craft. The series is clearly informed by FLCL and Gunbuster 2. Every shot and every cut is superbly composed for maximum drama. Character design has a lithe elegance with a rubbery dynamism that only enhances the action. The mech designs resembling Norse carvings of are fantastic beast heads with stumpy arms and legs are gloriously original and imbued with humour.
Dramatically, Gurren stumbles. The cavern with its limited horizon is a bit too much of a bludgeoning metaphor. The blank slate Simon is surrounded by exaggerated caricatures that act and react in a state of borderline hysteria. His older brother, Kamina is little more than a dim witted surfer dude type and the buxom Yoko is all shrill fan service. With such a familiar scenario and shallow characters it feels as if Gainax wants you to fill in the emotional depth while it’s creating all the cool stuff.
Gurren Lagann has all the frustrating hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster. The action is breathtakingly executed but characterisation and story are depressingly predictable. It’s kind of exasperating because Gainax has proven that as a studio they can more than match its action in the emotional stakes. And try as I might, my brain would not remain at home. While Gainax was skilfully stroking my eyeballs with breathtakingly executed action sequences my brain kept reminding me that it was being asked to do all the emotional heavy lifting. Maybe it’ll pick up, but with my brain having plotted its course, the bottom line is, Gurren Lagann is a great ride — just not with your brain.