Gurren Lagann is a strange beast. It’s a 26 episode anime that is self-aware yet sloppy, childish yet undeniably clever. The same studio that created the critically acclaimed half-season anime FLCL is responsible for Gurren Lagann. Whereas FLCL aggressively subverted genre norms to the point of nearly disowning it altogether, Gurren Lagann is not quite as daring. It ends up relying heavily on winks and nods to the absurdity of giant fighting mech animes combined with a blistering pace to keep viewers interested.
The vantage from which one views Gurren Lagann will have a drastic influence on what you see. I have little doubt the show was created for those with an appreciation of (as opposed to disdain for) common anime themes and tropes. Various fighting robots in downright silly designs attack each other with their signature moves while yelling the move’s name in a way that reminded me of watching Digimon when I was eight years old. Characters regurgitate inspirational “good guys win through fighting spirit” babble and “resistance is futile” taunts. No one (well, almost no one) seems to face ultimate defeat when they lose. They’ll be back.
From my perspective, there are three real reasons to watch Gurren Lagann.
The first reason is the pacing. Even if you find yourself predicting the outcome of the episode or even the next five episodes, your prediction stretches further into a story than many shows would dare go in two entire seasons. Just as Gurren Lagann has a hyper-sweet anime flavor, it also has a skim milk sensibility for getting to the point. The story travels outward (figuratively and literally) at an alarming rate, functioning as both an element of the plot and a great way to avoid boring those who feel they’ve seen much of it before.
The second reason to watch Gurren Lagann is the way it subverts expectations. This does not contradict the earlier point about playing into the hands of the classic hero-with-special-abilities-versus-evil plot skeleton; on the contrary, the story relies on the way the protagonist has a special power and drives nearly the entire plot forward using this MacGuffin. Gurren Lagann uses the ham-fisted and full-frontal anime elements to deliver sucker punches at several key points in the series right where viewers least expect it.
As opposed to Game of Thrones, in which it becomes apparent for better or worse that anyone is fair game for any kind of misfortune, Gurren Lagann has some internal consistency issues. Still, it keeps the story fresh and signals unexpected shifts in tone and motivation. These dramatic shifts are why many Gurren Lagann fans will say they loved one portion of the series, but were lukewarm on another.
Finally, Gurren Lagann is an anime for people who like anime. The hero has an explicable power making them better, but they have to grow as a person. Pilots will have long-winded conversations in split-second timespans. Epic fights full of overblown carnage will generally leave anyone important unscathed. Everyone thinks grunting and nodding is a valid response. Events that don’t make sense visually will be explained in completely unapologetic forced exposition. And if you watch much anime, you’ll see that even when events take an unexpected turn, they’re turning from homaging one kind of played-out anime storytelling to another.
The show knows what it’s doing. It’s just checking to see if you do too.
I enjoyed Gurren Lagann, and I can appreciate what it was trying to achieve. However, after 26 episodes, I had become frustrated and bored with the laziness of the storytelling and the constant stream of nonsensical escalation and plot devices. One can't hold a conversation entirely with winks and nods. I can recommend it primarily because it’s short and because after this review, you should know what you’re getting into: if you don’t watch anime, Gurren Lagann will not change your mind.