#1 Rebelliousness as a virtue
Set in a world where humanity is forced to live in underground villages, Gurren Lagann follows the story of two youths that dream of going to the surface. Kamina is the loudmouthed, inspiring leader of a local gang. A bit of a delinquent, though he always fights for what he believes is right. Always at his side is Simon; a meek, awkward boy who looks up to Kamina, but who is occasionally capable of incredible feats when push comes to shove.
One day a monstrous robot comes falling through the village’s ceiling, together with the voluptuous gunslinger Yoko Littner. Kamina and Simon join forces with her and, after defeating the monster, finally set foot on the surface world.
Yet this is not enough for them. It turns out that the surface is haunted by Beastmen who pilot giant mechs. What few humans have escaped their underground prisons carve out a meager living, hiding away from these fearsome enemies. This will not do. Kamina and Simon commit themselves to new, even grander dreams. To revolt against the Beastmen, claim their mechs for themselves, and fight for a brighter future for humanity. No matter how impossible the odds.
To say that Gurren Lagann is an anime with attitude would be an understatement. Kamina is one of the most celebrated characters in shounen anime, thanks in large part because he is such an aspirational punk. He refuses to accept the way things are, refuses to compromise on his ideals, and inspires others to do the same. It’s bombastic and absurd, sure, but seeing Kamina and friends achieve the impossible gives you a kick every time. That is the soul of Gurren Lagann.
“With a man’s soul and a strong back, go beyond the impossible and kick reason to the curb!”
#2 Ridiculous action
Gurren Lagann was one of the last anime directed by Hiroyuki Imaishi before he left Gainax to establish Studio Trigger. This was still Gainax at its peak and they were eager to flex that. Gurren Lagann is a constant barrage of delicious action scenes, full of amazing moments and hilarity.
At its most basic level, Gurren Lagann is a mecha action anime. You got giant robots duking it out with enormous weapons, missiles, or even good old fisticuffs. Saying that, however, undersells just how explosive of a series this is. Fight scenes are as chaotic as they are cathartic. I was constantly being jerked between laughter and awe as the flow of the action keeps shifting in different directions. While in many shows this would feel like an inconsistent mess, Gurren Lagann makes it all feel so perfectly natural.
Trigger would attempt to recapture this feeling with Kill la Kill, but I feel that Gurren Lagann did it so much better.
#3 Killer soundtrack
#4 Deep character arcs
All of the above may give the impression that Gurren Lagann is just a silly action series. While it does focus on action-comedy a lot, don’t let that mislead you. The series has some fantastic characters in it, whose stories left me teary-eyed more than once.
Kamina, Yoko, Simon, and their friends go through a lot of development over the course of the series. They are brought together by war, but end up experiencing so much more together. These experiences strengthen their bonds and drive them forward. Characters from relationship, face setbacks, reevaluate their beliefs, and even process grief when the fighting inevitably claims loved ones. Sure Gurren Lagann is a lot of goofy fun, but it knows when to let emotional moments play out.
No character goes through as much development as Simon. He is but a little kid at the start of the story, who everyone regards as Kamina’s hanger-on. He helps out, but Kamina is clearly the one who makes the decisions and does most of the fighting. Everyone rallies behind Kamina, even in his dumbest moments. When Simon has to take charge, however, people are far less enthusiastic. Even though Kamina himself trusts Simon through and through. So much of the story centers around Simon finding his own path. Becoming his own man—inspired by but distinctly separate from Kamina.
He and others benefit tremendously from the timeskips throughout Gurren Lagann. At several milestones across the anime, the plot jumps forward by several years. Characters grow older and they get children, who themselves then grow into proper adults. It’s build up very well, making these timeskips feel like a massive pay off to everyone’s development thus far.
#5 Expanding scope
Besides time, another aspect of Gurren Lagann that keeps advancing is the scale of its conflict. The fight that Kamina and Simon are waging starts out so very small, but the battles keep getting bigger and so do the robots. How big can it possibly get, you ask? We start with a preview in outer space for good reason.
Following this trend is entertaining because it makes it feel like you’ve been with these characters since their most humble beginnings. Back when it was just scruffy 3 people stuffed into a tiny robot head. Soon they captured bigger mechs, formed an army, eventually started wearing actual clothes. That gradual increase of not just seeing them grow older, but also more powerful and professional is really satisfying. Just a shame that the problems grow along with them, with new, bigger enemies always ready to present themselves. Thus the crew sets out to become even more powerful!
I won’t spoil just how BIG everything eventually becomes. Just know that it’s very, very, very big. And it’s hype as fuck.
More like this…
Lyrical Nanoha: Action series where characters grow up through a series of timeskips.
Kill la Kill: Over-the-top action series headed by Hiroyuki Imaishi.
Onideka: Story of ever-increasing scope as protagonists literally grow bigger and bigger.