Friday, April 20, 2012

Big Damn Gurren Lagann, or, Drills, Everywhere Drills

Gurren Lagann: The "Normal" Review

I'm going to review this series in two parts: one will be a standard review (standard to my "squishy" style anyway), and the other to address fandom's interpretation of the themes of the series, interpretations that unconsciously put me off the show at first. The standard review begins now, including great big spoilers:

Gurren Lagann is awesome. It's not just awesome because of the wondrous spirit of perseverance that infuses it, though that's part of it: GL is awesome because it is also hilarious, bizarre, and surprisingly competent when it goes dramatic. That's not to say the series is flawless, but it is fun, and often pleasantly surprising.

Young, timid Simon is a tunnel driller for an underground village. His best friend  is his "Bro", Kamina, a larger-than-life man with sunglasses as pointy as his chest is bare. Kamina is determined to be the hero of his own story, and it starts with getting to the surface he knows is up there.

However, said surface is ruled by the Spiral King and his Beastmen (and women), animal people with varying degrees of humanoid appearance, who roam the world in their mechanical Gunmen. Simon however, has discovered an empty Gunman and a drill-like key that can make it run, and after Kamina claims another one for himself, the two combine to form Gurren Lagann, a drill-packing tower of mechanical might. Together with their allies they just might save the world, but the nature of that world is more complex than it appears at first….

That's the premise, but the series can't be summarized without acknowledging that more than halfway through, Gurren Lagann becomes an almost completely different series. The cast and themes are still there, but they have aged seven years and the story becomes darker and more solemn. The cast understands now why humans were forced underground: the "Anti-Spiral" race watches worlds and when the inhabitants evolve by acquiring too much "Spiral Power" through technological progress and a large population, the Anti-Spirals attack. Their ultimate goal is to defeat the heroes through causing "despair".

The transition to the second arc is not entirely smooth, and it is the first time I really feel a Gainax show switches horses in midstream: the studio's series have been accused of doing it regularly, but I felt all other examples hung together, drawing so much from the earlier episodes there wasn't that big a shift. Gurren Lagann's change isn't enough to wreck the series, since the darker parts are well-done on their own, just that it's a jarring translation that takes some adjusting to.

Especially since the early parts of the series are so damn funny. We're meant to believe in Kamina as a symbol of power, but the series likes to take the piss out of him with mistakes and pratfalls, so that he doesn't become insufferable. Gurren Lagann is, in the first eighteen episodes, just having a lot of fun with itself. Like a lot of anime, it doesn't have an ironic bone in its body, but just does silly things because it wants to. You can't tell me a robot throwing giant metal sunglasses at enemies, and eventually a cosmic-sized robot throwing GALAXIES like buzzsaws, both of them brimming with phallic symbols, isn't hilarious on some level.

And then you have the characters, many of whom are a little more complex than they could have been. Kamina is actually a nice person, rather than just a macho asshole: he genuinely wants to see Simon grow stronger, and credits Simon as the real source of the team's strength. Pretty much all of the female characters are fanservicey in various ways, but Yoko, Nina, and the Black Sisters still manage to feel like "real" people. Nina in particular has a surprising amount of self-determination for a character that could easily have been just a vapid love interest, introduced so that Simon didn't have to suffer too long after seeing that Yoko loved someone else. Leeron is almost every bad comedic gay stereotype ever, but he's a brilliant scientist and mechanic, so it ..kind of balances out. Rossiu is another standout, developing from a fairly generic sidekick to a strong but rigid leader that goes through a dark period.

Kamina also dies early in the series, before the episodes hit the double digits. It's not surprising: the series starts out being told from Simon's viewpoint, so he was already the protagonist, and for all Kamina's behaviour, one never forgets he is a secondary character. And it's also not surprising Simon is the protagonist, because it's usually more compelling for a story start with a character that needs to do some growing, versus a character who's already got everything together.

However, there's not much that's particularly original about Simon's emotional arc: he starts out small and timid, but becomes a man that fights and wins against greater odds than Kamina has ever faced. Simon is at his most compelling when he's showing that strength, showing that he will never give up, because viewers know he "earned" it through hardship and emotional transformation.  Once the "high" of seeing Simon stand up to cosmic forces is past, however, one realizes that he hasn't become all that distinct from Kamina anymore.

That might be the point, but there were hints earlier that Simon is successful in part because he is his own person, and it's disappointing to see that fall by the wayside, that "being his own person" is apparently defined by just standing on his own two feet without Kamina, and not in finding his own  unique way of solving problems.

The ending is…odd. I can buy Nina dying as a consequence of the characters achieving their larger goals, and her dying at the wedding that Simon put on even though he knew her time was almost up makes for a wonderfully bittersweet conclusion. However, Simon deciding afterwards to become a lone wanderer doesn't sit right. He's certainly not leaving because of angst, but it seems contrary to the series' spirit for Simon not to stick around. Is he afraid of gaining too much power and becoming like Lordgenome? Or is he just too awesome for a mundane existence now? There are no strong reasons given, and it's that which brings the finale down.

The animation and artwork reminds me a lot of another Gainax production, FLCL: a rubbery, twisting style packed with absurd-looking designs, and this doesn't disappear once the series gets darker.

The setting and concepts of the series make it further stand out, consisting of the underground cities, the wasted Earth, the Beastmen, funky hybrid animals the concept of "Spiral Energy" and "Anti-Spirals"…the series just looks weird and different and if not unique, definitely with its own stamp. 

The Gunmen are usually walking heads with arms and legs, and many look strangely cute and Digimon-ish. The Beastmen designs run the gamut to anthropomorphic animals to the nearly human, without being connected to power levels or (thankfully) gender.  This lack of consistency is justifiable as part of the weird nature of Gurren Lagann, and I'm also just glad it isn't packed with "sexy" girl Beastmen and "monstrous" boy Beastmen. In fact, the most important Beastman character is Viral ("Veeral") a guy who looks almost human except for eyes, fangs, and monster-hands. Cool.

So, while Gurren Lagann is far from perfect, it is still a joy to watch. Wonderfully weird in concept and execution, (mostly) driven by pulse-pounding inspirational thinking, and surprisingly dramatic when it tries, Gurren Lagann deserves the praise it gets.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Legend of Korra

Before we begin, I'd like to welcome myself back to blogging. My last semester just ate me up, so I put this on the backburner for a while. I'm back now, and I've got some things I want to write about.

During that last semester, though, I managed to catch the early release of the first two episodes of The Legend of Korra, sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Mike and Bryan, you magnificent bastards, you had me looking forward to a sequel, and the first two episodes look promisingly good, so much so that I'm not looking all that deeply at it.

It helps that the Avatar universe had a ready-made sequel hook, instead of the creators having to haphazardly invent one when enough money is made: the Avatar, master of all four elements, is constantly reincarnated in a cycle, manifesting in one of the four nations in sequence. After Aang, the titular Airbender, is Korra, a girl born into the Southern Water Tribe. At seventeen, Korra has mastered earth, fire, and water, but lacks the "spirit" needed for air. The hope is that Tenzin, the adult son of Aang and an airbending master, can teach her.

Another thing that Korra does well as a sequel is that it does not spend too much time mooning over the older cast, or what might remain of it. Since there is a new Avatar, Aang is deceased, and a few other characters are said to be dead, too. The only one we see is the elderly Katara, now a grandmother. These characters are treated with gentle reverence, but it is clear that their story has been told, and they will not be overworked. This series knows when to let characters go.

The more obvious distinction is that Korra is meant to be the polar opposite of Aang. Though Aang was undoubtedly heroic, he was (literally) small and unsure of himself, and had a quiet air inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. Korra is (literally) big and brash, and loudly confident. She has mastered all the elements except air, while air was the only thing that Aang knew at first. This means that Korra's quest will involve something new, that the creators will be keeping their work fresh instead of retreading it. It was already obvious that each Avatar was a very different person, but in this case it helps to further separate the sequel from the original.

 So, how does the series stack up in execution? In lesser hands, the character of Korra could have been insufferable. If she already knows three elements, there is a source of conflict removed. Headstrong characters in children's television also tend to have it laid on too thick, becoming complete idiots in the process.

Just because a series is designed for kids doesn't mean its characters have to be idiots, though, and Korra is a pretty cool gal. She makes a lot of stupid mistakes, but is a genuinely kind person who wants to do well. She has nuance and some degree of self-control, which go a long way towards making her likable.

Tenzin is obviously meant to form an odd couple with Korra, creating another new source of conflict. This predictable dynamic becomes effective, however, when it's clear Tenzin still has respect for Korra, which gives his interactions with her a quiet dignity. Like Korra, it would have been easy to make Tenzin into a caricature or in this case a one-dimensional "wise old mentor" but he seems more intelligent and worldly than that.

Also, Tenzin is a husband and father. While he's not the protagonist, the way that his family are all developed as distinct characters in their brief screentime, and the fact that Tenzin's family life isn't treated as a hurdle, might hopefully encourage more media creators to be less averse to writing characters as families and parents. Come to think of it, against a lot of common wisdom, Korra's parents are both alive, too, and this could provide new dynamics that other cartoons have avoided: we'll see.

The two brothers aren't that interesting so far, but at t his point I have faith that they'll pick up. Overall I love the world-building going on here: I find the advances in technology credible, and they serve to further distinguish the series as well as looking cool. Add the anti-bending movement and the bending sports, and this feels like a transformed, and even more importantly, a lived-in world, one that comes alive, and is bigger than what's in front of the main character's noses. That was true of the original series, too, and one of the main reasons why it reminded me of an epic fantasy novel brought to television.

So yeah, I'm excited to see more of this show. It's not beholden to the older series, doesn't take the easy way out with characterization, and you know what…I find the pilot more intriguing than that of Avatar. They both have a lot of clich├ęs, but Korra seems to play around with that more immediately.