NOTE: This article is also available at Super Fanicom here
NOTE: Readers should begin with Part I here
This article forms the conclusion to this retrospective on Gurren Lagann, focusing on how the series, having established a flawed depiction of human bloody-mindedness, then completely shatters any preconceptions the viewer might have in an unsympathetic depiction of the failure of the attitudes presented as having the potential to work in its first half.
NOTE: While the first part focused in some detail on the plot, this second part will go into significant levels of detail which will very likely affect the enjoyment of someone planning to watch it. Be careful!
The second arc of Gurren Lagann begins some time after the defeat of the Beastmen. Simon and Rossiu are now rulers of a technologically advanced human empire, and it looks like there will be lasting peace. This section of the narrative begins with a short fight between Rossiu’s new army and a veteran of the Beastmen, the brutal Viral. Viral, now reduced to a terrorist picking at the edges of the human empire just as Simon was in the first arc, is defeated and imprisoned. The concept of justice and law is held up as what sets mankind apart from anyone else, foreshadowing later events. The impulsive macho posturing that defined Kamina’s leadership has been replaced by cold rational thought and this is beginning to take its toll on the gang of heroes who the viewer has got used to seeing.
In a more literal sense, Simon’s manliness has reached both its highest point and its end; he is engaged to Nia. The courage needed to accept an offer of marriage is shown as a different kind to the impulsive aggression that was needed to pilot Gurren Lagann, and the potential for family life is both an end to his childhood and the end for his embracing of a reckless, impetuous perception of manliness. It is when Nia is then apparently possessed and declares herself the ambassador of the invading alien race the Anti-Spirals that he rediscovers the drive that led him to victory initially. The first fight against the Anti-Spirals provides a complete reversal of the rapid defeat of Viral; Rossiu’s army is decimated with the same ease and it takes Simon’s return to save the city. This cliched setup is typical of the genre (the heroes become complacent following an apparent victory and it takes the protagonist returning from retirement to save the day) but what makes Gurren Lagann’s take on it so interesting is how it ties into the second arc’s focus on responsibility.
Rather than being the returning hero, Rossiu resents Simon’s intervention, and the collateral damage the dying Anti-Spiral has caused. His confidence in the capacity for humanity to put the past to one side and progress in a measured, civilised fashion has been shaken and rather than accepting he may be wrong he lashes out. The conflict between Rossiu’s rationality and attempts at utilitarian rule, and Simon’s unwillingness, with Nia in danger, to mature beyond his youthful aggression is set alongside a battle against an enemy that neither strategy works on. The Anti-Spirals have a bomb inside them that causes great devastation when they are destroyed, and at the same time there is no immediately evident strategy for disposing of them without using Gurren Lagann. With both of the heroes stumped, it is Simon’s reputation as a man of action that fails first; his reckless attacks and aggressive strategies are causing as much damage as the enemies he is fighting and Rossiu uses this against him, favouring a strategy of containment. What is more, Nia is now being used as a weapon; her appearances explain little by little that humanity has become too powerful to be allowed to live and overturn Rossiu’s attempts at deceiving the people by explaining plainly to everyone what fate they face.
Each appearance of Nia makes Simon more determined to fight back, and each time he fights he becomes less popular with the people he is supposed to be leading, playing into Rossiu’s hands. While aggression and reckless fighting was exactly the strategy needed to work against the stupid Beastmen, the Anti-Spirals, as they claim, are specifically intended to counter this. The arc comes to a head with Simon imprisoned after losing all favour with the people, the hero shown now to be fallible and no longer the leader that they want. Much like Kamina lost his confidence in time, Simon loses his reputation and does not have the charisma to coast on as a figurehead.
The arc, however, ends in more predictable fashion than it begins; Simon is rescued by his former friends who realise Rossiu is no fit leader, and reject his brutal strategy of saving only a useful few from the impending total destruction of earth to join in the fight themselves. At this point it appears that everything is back on track for mankind’s utter victory over yet another enemy, with fighting spirit and aggression once again beating reason out. This is held up by a battle in space where Simon, now with a redeemed Viral as his co-pilot, physically combines Gurren Lagann with Rossiu’s own ship on which he planned to weather out the apocalypse and the old partnership is reformed for a moment to save the day. The fight climaxes with the revelation that Nia is being held prisoner on a distant world, and Team Gurren vow to save her. The Anti-Spiral flagship, disguised as the moon, is subsequently revealed to be a former Beastman secret weapon that has been taken over, and the third arc begins with former enemies now allies in the face of a common foe.
Despite this, though, the tone is anything but blind optimism; Simon’s fall from grace and subsequent restoring to influence through a standout victory shows that despite all the claims to being civilised that humanity has made, it is still impulsive and fickle. The ordinary people will happily follow the leader who brings them victories, rather than the best leader of men. Simon has become a second Kamina at the start of the third arc. The arc is defined by a procession of ever more powerful secret weapons deployed at the last possible minute, and dramatic one-shot victories immediately followed by ever greater complications. It is the absolute extreme of the spectacular machismo of the first arc – a pure victory for fighting spirit in the face of a deadly enemy. Even the times when the heroes fail are predictable and hit the beats of genre cliché – each battle against the Anti-Spirals necessitates greater sacrifice ending with the last stand of Kittan, one of Simon’s wingmen. Kittan’s death is presented as a noble sacrifice for the greater good, intended to save humanity from an enemy trap literally depicted as an ocean of apathy and despair which saps the fighting spirit they rely on – his last blaze of glory not only figuratively fires everyone up to fight on but literally restores their energy.
In this final arc, the concepts of aggression and bravado are given physical form as the nature of Gurren Lagann is revealed; it is powered by the desire to fight and win against impossible odds. However, the victories become increasingly hollow as fewer and fewer of the characters live to see them and so when the final battle occurs, with the entirety of Team Gurren now working as one to pilot Gurren Lagann, the sense of hopefulness and optimism feels empty. Each new weapon that has been deployed, supposed to help Simon better protect others and save Nia, simply worsens the situation in a self-perpetuating arms race that finally comes to its head in a one-on-one duel.
The dialogue during this confrontation, between the Anti-Spirals’ leader and Simon, sets the whole arc in context; the spiral, used as a symbol of aggression, masculinity and strength, is shown to be in constant exponential growth which cannot be controlled or limited and has potentially devastating consequences. Humanity, described as a “spiral race,” need to be kept in check by a dispassionate regulator in order to stop them expanding faster than can be managed and leading to armageddon. If Simon is now the epitome of impetuosity as embodied by Kamina, the Anti-Spirals are the epitome of Rossiu’s cruel utilitarianism. Even the imagery of the showdown has expanded; it has gone from single machines and ships fighting to both sides coming together into one immense composite being that represents their entire people. Many viewers either cite this final conflict as spectacle trumping suspension of disbelief, or the pinnacle of exciting action but it works beyond the visual. Rather than the final battle being armies in conflict, both sides have given physical form to their ideologies.
The final blow delivered by Simon, in a visual echo of the previous battle against the Beastmen, sees him sacrificing all of the components of Gurren Lagann’s ultimate form and relying only on himself; he finally completes his journey to maturity and realises that aggression must be tempered with reason. By rejecting the monolithic embodiment of his ideals he is able to literally find the weakness in his opponents’, and emerge victorious – the whole final fight is revealed to have been a debate between philosophies represented visually.
This, however, is not the end of Gurren Lagann; there is one final coda which completes Simon’s journey and that is his reunion with Nia. It is short lived, for the defeat of the Anti-Spirals has caused her life to come to a premature end, but Simon’s acceptance of this gives the series closure. When asked why he doesn’t use the limitless power he has thanks to Gurren Lagann to find some way to revive her, he reminds the others – and the viewer – that there must be limits to the use of power. The entire conflict is thus shown to have been a learning experience for humanity, a test to make sure that they are capable of survival without causing their own destruction. Aggression and the hollow manliness that has won them their battles must now be rejected completely.
To conclude, it is simplistic to say that Gurren Lagann is a simple rejection of notions of masculinity and strength overcoming adversity; however, in showing the limitations of it so clearly via the terrible sacrifices that are made to ensure it works, and the ultimate emptiness of the victory on a personal level (for although mankind is saved, Simon has lost Nia and never could have saved her), it challenges the notion of whether it is a useful method of running a society. Despite mankind’s victory being total, the message of Gurren Lagann is one of compromise and impulse tempered with reason. That it uses the imagery and cliches of action anime to tell this story, and embraces them so readily, gives it a subtlety that would not work were it not so blatant.