Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a 2007 anime series by Studio Gainax. I first watched it not long after it aired, back when Netflix was primarily for delivering DVDs to your house, and after a little bit of a slow start, it sucked me in. The show revamped my brain with some of the best writing I’ve seen in any medium when it comes to raising stakes, tying those stakes to the arcs of the protagonists, and showing how to make a ridiculous concept work through the power of diegetic earnestness.
A quick overview of the show: Simon and Kamina are two young, blue-haired men living in an underground village. The hot-blooded Kamina decides it’s time to escape the village and go to the mythical “surface,” but before he can manage this, the surface comes to them, in the form of a giant robot engaged in a battle with a red-headed woman with a sniper rifle. What follows is a journey to the surface of the planet and far beyond, during which Simon, Kamina, and the other members of Team Gurren (of whom there are too many to list here) will grow as people, learn to harness the power of the Spiral (the power of “fighting spirit,” i.e. the ability to will yourself to success, but also somehow the mystic force behind evolution and double-helical DNA), and pilot ever-bigger giant robots who wield ever-bigger weaponized drills. But underneath the highly entertaining cartoon robot fights, Studio Gainax has planted a writing masterclass. It’s a show that should have been ridiculous, and is instead hewn from raw awesome.
ALERT: Beyond this point, this essay contains unmarked spoilers for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann!
In episode 22, “This is My Final Duty,” the entire population of Earth is facing extinction; an alien species called the Anti-Spirals have pulled the moon out of its orbit and set it on a collision course with Earth. The human race is fleeing Earth on Arc-Gurren, a spaceship created by the first major antagonist of the story, when they come under attack by the Anti-Spirals’ hand- and foot-shaped warships. The aforementioned Simon is forced to team up with his former nemesis, Viral the shark-cat-man soldier, to pilot the titular combining mecha, Gurren Lagann, and save humanity. Like everything I’m about to say, it all makes sense in context.
The moment of pure awesome comes at the crisis point of the episode. Gurren Lagann and its fellow mecha are getting swamped and overpowered. This undermines the collective faith of humanity in the ability of Gurren Lagann and Arc-Gurren to save them, which in turn drains the Spiral Power available for the machines to use. A secondary character suggests that, just as the mechas Gurren and Lagann combined to form Gurren Lagann, Gurren Lagann should combine with Arc-Gurren to form Arc-Gurren Lagann. People scoff at this idea, of course – but not Simon and Viral. Instead, they fly Gurren Lagann toward Arc-Gurren, and thanks to their Spiral Power, the combination works. Arc-Gurren shifts into a humanoid mecha form like a planet-sized Transformer, and Gurren Lagann flies into the cockpit and sits down in the pilot seat, allowing Simon and Viral to pilot Gurren Lagann as it pilots Arc-Gurren Lagann. In other words, a combining mecha’s pilots believe in themselves so hard they break the laws of physics and create a recursive combining mecha.
This should be pure comedy, the moment at which this series went screaming off the rails. Instead, though I did laugh, I also cheered. Why? Two reasons:
One, because the writers gardened their way to this moment. The preceding 21 episodes were a constant spiraling upwards and outwards of the stakes and the power levels, starting with two boys in an underground village, growing to two boys in a combining mecha, adding a supporting cast of other mecha, giving the team an epic victory over the evil Spiral King and his evil combining mecha, unveiling the Anti-Spirals, turning the moon into an apocalyptic threat, and then allowing the combining mecha to recurse. It’s funny, and it’s awesome, and it isn’t the slightest bit out of place.
Two, because the writers create a lot of human drama against the backdrop of this absurdity. Every character in the main cast is given a story arc, mostly revolving around themes of masculinity: is being a man being a berserk, hot-blooded warrior full of homophobia and misogyny? Is it being a coldly logical maker of tough decisions? Or is it believing in people and knowing one’s limits – and refusing to accept the limits others put on you out of their own fear? In light of this, everyone in the show either grows as a person and/or makes a fateful (and often fatal) decision that wraps up their arc. As ridiculous as this world is on the face of it, it never fails to treat its characters’ struggles with sympathy, its low points with gravitas, and its high points with triumph (and electric guitars). It doesn’t shy away from what it’s doing, but it also frames it as serious within the world where it’s happening.
This is embodied in Simon and Viral in this moment. Prior to Gurren Lagann’s arrival, Team Gurren’s effort to defend Arc Gurren from the Anti-Spirals is a losing effort—the mecha aren’t making much of a dent in the enemy ships, and the despair of the situation is making the fight harder as Spiral Power plummets. Simon and Viral’s arrival turns the tide, but getting there requires they both get over a major obstacle in their own psyches.
Viral spent the first 21 episodes of this show as a recurring antagonist who never seemed to be able to defeat Team Gurren—a shameful, infuriating state of affairs, especially given Simon is a child when Viral first faces him. Simon’s decision to offer the co-pilot seat to his nemesis is a show of empathy that cements Simon as the caring, but uncompromising, man he’s been turning into over the course of the show. Likewise, Viral’s decision to see Simon’s ability to repeatedly get the best of him not as a source of shame and frustration, but as something to learn from and ally himself with, is a stirring moment that helps Viral begin a slow climb out of toxic masculinity and into a more mature, heroic mold. The power they wield when together is obvious from the moment they get into Gurren Lagann — after combining, they strike a dramatic pose that by itself channels so much Spiral Power it causes nearby Anti-Spiral ships to explode.
It doesn’t hurt that one of the show’s clear messages is feeling emotion – the hopeful looks on the threatened humans and the stirring music that plays during the transformation into Arc-Gurren Lagann are proof of that. The characters believe in themselves so strongly they make the people around them believe in them — the appearance of Arc-Gurren Lagann shatters the instruments the team uses to measure Spiral Power, causing the readings to literally spiral outward from the glass in a huge display of coruscating energy. Their belief in each other becomes so strong, I found myself believing in them, too, and I believed in myself more while you’re watching.
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a bizarre and over-the-top show, but it’s also perfectly okay with being what it is and asks the viewer to meet it there, and it comes to all its weird moments organically. And that, I think, is awesome.
Tyler Hayes is a science fiction and fantasy writer from Northern California. He writes stories he hopes will show people that not only are we not alone in this terrifying world, but we might just make things better. His fiction has appeared online and in print in anthologies from Alliteration Ink, Graveside Tales, and Aetherwatch. The Imaginary Corpse is his debut novel. Find Tyler on Twitter and Instagram.