Drilling down Gurren Lagann

Some French friends have organized a last-minute Christmas blogging project (affectionately known as Nyoël Blogging 2011), in which we were supposed to suggest a few anime titles that we'd seen recently and were prepared to blog on, and the others would vote on the one they most wanted to read about. You can find those articles below (in French):

As for me, I was assigned the task of blogging about Tengen toppa Gurren Lagann, which I've happened to watch earlier this year for the first time at an anime club showing back in France. I knew very little about it before beyond the designs of the main characters and the fact that it was a robot show revered by robot show lovers. Based on that information I kind of expected it wouldn't be my cup of tea, but I ended up gnashing my teeth throughout and disliking the experience to a much greater extent than I imagined I would.

So this post will be about Gurren Lagann and what I hated about it. I've already explained that on Twitter, but you'll have it here in longer form for the enjoyment of the Frenchie Christmas crowd, even though there is little Christmas-like about it. Although you could say it does have a bit of Japanese Christmas-likeness, seeing as I'm typing it out alone in my room on Christmas Eve and will mostly be talking about other men's penises. Note that I won't be talking much about thinks I'm either somewhat positive or noncommittal about, like the technical prowess in animation (which I frankly don't care much about to the extent it doesn't serve an aesthetic that I can get behind).

Incidentally, I apologize for interrupting a quasi year-long hiatus with a post about penises that aren't even attached to cute little boys. Speaking of which, I'm rather stoked about that upcoming Akane Shinsha magazine specializing in otoko no ko. But I digress...

Before I get into the meat of the matter—it would be untimely for a French person to say “the turkey”, so perhaps “the fried chicken” would fit the bill in keeping with our Japanese theme—I'd like to make it clear, seeing as the previous post on this blog was one of those anti-anti-moe rants, that what follows is not an attempt at trolling critics of moe by randomly trashing a (mostly) non-moe show. It is true that what little appealed to me in Gurren Lagann on an aesthetic level were mostly the moe elements (namely Nia), but my contention is not (or at least not primarily) that I wish there were more of those.

To illustrate that point, and as a matter of preamble, and as a way to ensure that I'll spend the better part of the night writing this post instead of any other more productive Christmas activity (if I'm starting to sound needlessly long-winded, well that might be because I always am, but I may be more than usual due to trying to hard at reading the work of pure and utter long-windedness that is Nishio Ishin's Shoujo fujuubun; it has little girls in it, though), I'd like to say a few words about [Kakusan kibou] Tasukete kudasai... Imouto ga netouyo nandesu!, a short novel game for Android phones that can be downloaded for free on the Android market (or at least it could until recently; seems to have disappeared?). The title roughly translates to “[Please RT] Help! My little sister is a netouyo”, netouyo being those Japanese right-wing nationalist otaku operating on the Internet (mainly from 2ch) that flood discussion boards and Youtube video comment threads with revisionist statements about Imperial Japan, racial slurs against Chinese and Korean people, conspiracy theories involving the Japanese Communist Party, Teachers' Unions and the DPRK, and cartloads of insults on whoever dares call Crown Prince Naruhito's cute youngest daughter “Aiko-sama” instead of her full title “Toshinomiya Aiko-naishinnou-denka” (or worse, call Takeshima “Dokdo”).

In that Oreimo parody of a game (which isn't really game, since there is only a single route with no choices), the protagonist is the average high school boy, and has a sister in middle school, Kyouno, who is a cute and popular honor student. But she has a secret! That secret, which the protagonist discovers by stalking her after she gets into a fight with her history teacher, is that she is a netouyo. And what's worse, she's learnt a lot of her netouyo “lore” from Saionji, a fat sweating pervy otaku classmate of the protagonist. Sensing the NTR flag, the protagonist tries to snatch her sister back from the grip of that loser Saionji, and, in passing, explain to her that Koreans may not really be an inferior people of ruthless dogeaters, or that comfort women may not really be a pure fantasy of the anti-Japanese forces around the country. Unfortunately, he's as ignorant of history as any other random high-schooler, so he's easily overwhelmed by Kyouno's well-crafted netouyo rhetoric, and pretty depressed when she says he must be brainwashed by all those communist teachers at school. In the end, though, he convinces her to lay low until the exams, so that she can be admitted to her high school of choice. In exchange, he accepts to help her express her heartfelt patriotism during the middle school graduation ceremony: together with Saionji, he unfurls the Hinomaru as she starts to sing the Kimigayo devotedly. After all, if it weren't for the left-wing extremists among the teaching staff, all school would do that, wouldn't they? The game ends a short while after that touching moment of Japanese national fervor, when the protagonist gets a momentary suspension from school for his participation in the disruption. He ponders the events and concludes, more or less: “I don't care if my sister has strange ideas. She is my cute sister and that's all what matters”.

When I picked up the game, I expected it to be a big joke making fun of netouyo. Well it does that a little, but the joke seems to be mostly at the expense of otaku (moe otaku?) in general, who tend to shrug off really dodgy subtexts in the works they consume as long as the heroine is sufficiently kawaii. (Either that, or the game seriously wants you to believe that Nanking didn't happen and that comfort women were providing services willingly; but I'll err on the side of interpreting the message charitably).

A recent example of that was Hanasaku iroha, quite a popular show and certainly the most shameless display of conservative propaganda in the guise of cute-girls-doing-more-or-less-cute-things in recent memory. It overtly depicted the clash of urban modernity with rural traditions, except it made it the clash of dissolute, morally bankrupt, irresponsible urbanites with righteous, upstanding people from the country who realize that values like hard work, respect for your elders and the stronger gender, and not making a fuss about attempted rape, pave the path to a fulfilling life. Now to be fair I have only watched it up to episode 19, but I'd be very surprised if the last few episodes turned the show on its head to the point of having, even from the perspective of a non-feminist (which I clearly am; I mean, running this blog is proof enough that I'm a rape culture supporter, by feminist standards), “an empowering message” (I'm tempted to believe that Toyama-based P.A. Works is more at fault than Okada Mari on that one, though; what I've seen of Hokuriku is pretty much a different country, coming from Tokyo).

So where am I going with all this? It seems to me that what something like Hanairo does with kawaii heroines and conservative rural values, Gurren Lagann does with kakkou ii heroes and the cult of hypermasculinity.

The yardstick of hypermasculinity in the show is of course Kamina. In the space of a single episode and some, he is introduced as brazen, reckless, foolhardy, quarrelsome, basically ignorant, with a blatant disregard for logic or rationality, and keenly (hetero)sexually masculine (as evidenced both by his insistent gaze on Youko and by his instinctive sexual panic in the face of a gay male). When he speaks, it's mostly to drum maxims about how males should behave or what it means to be a man—most notably otoko wa kiai da (“being a man is all about fighting spirit”). And somehow, strucks of dumb luck upon strucks of dumb luck make it almost seem as if that hypermasculine attitude is the path to success—including sexual success, of course, as Kamina conquers big boob girl Youko.

Now of course, while Kamina plays a major thematic role in the show, he's not the protagonist (Simon is) and his goals are not exactly aligned with the show's purposes. At first, it may even seem that most of those hypermasculine tropes are played primarily for comedic effect, and that we're really looking at a parody of the classic shounen escalation of powers narrative structure. A show that accomplished that beautifully in the early 2000s, and not just because of Kanami, was s-cry-ed (I really need to go and see that new movie).

Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear that the tropes aren't just for laughs: they're supporting a certain ethical stance, which is presented in a completely dishonest manner, via mass strawman burning. The first blatant instance of that is episode 5, in Rossiu's village, where the couterpoint to Kamina's knows-no-rule attitude is introduced as a particularly barbaric form of religious obscurantism (Gurren Lagann being Gurren Lagann, there is no attempt there to tell a balanced moral story, as you could find in, say, Kino no tabi). That's bad enough at that point, but it becomes worse later when it is used retrospectively to discredit Rossiu, and the symbol of rationality and intelligence he comes to represent.

Paradoxically, the Kamina ethos really takes the central stage after Kamina's death—which, itself, comes after Simon witnesses Kamina×Youko making out and feels jealous, establishing him temporarily as an impotent, wimpy loser. The whole subsequent arc is about Simon's laborious attempt to overcome his supposed wimpiness and embrace the hypermasculine ethos by growing a big drill, and by that we mean spine, and by that we mean penis (Lacan would have loved that anagram), and by that we mean manning up and getting his own chick. An attempt that conveniently coincides with the need to save the planet.

Post time slip, the presentation changes a bit, but I would argue it is rather for the worse, as we are served a stereotypical instance of a well-known, tired discourse: civilization and too long a time without a war make people weak, lazy, forgetful of past heroic deeds and easily seduced by corrupt demagogues. The civilized social order, as organized by that guy Rossiu who thinks too much and must therefore be up to no good, can only be a repetition on a larger scale of the totalitarian rule of his native village. The respect for proper procedures and the rule of law are presented as elements of that proto-fascistic system. So, in a nutshell, the choice offered to the viewer is between the show's core ethos and what basically amounts to genocidal fascism. They're not even burning the strawmen at that point, they're nuking them and throwing napalm on top for good measure. And if you put that discourse back into its cultural context, that of a post-bubble Japan where significant political factions lament the glory the country had supposedly attained after the hardships of war and has now lost in years of decadent cultural hedonism, it has a rather sinister ring to it.

To be fair, the emphasis in this part of the show is less on hypermasculinity per se, and more on how sheer kiai, not reason, is the way to overcome all obstacles. But I don't think that really detracts from the previous point, especially as that kiai still manifests itself as phallic shapes of cosmic dimensions stretching out towards Simon's girl Nia.

So to sum up, my problem is that Gurren Lagann's message is ultimately a glorification of the penis—or at the very least, a glorification of “willpower” considered as a heavily sexually charged part of the male experience, particularly as it pertains to relations with the opposite sex—and that this glorification is based on smoke and mirrors. Especially smoke.

Now it's entirely possible that I'm applying a double standard here. I know I don't have a problem overlooking the dubious ideas about femininity and the World War II whitewashing in a show like Strike Witches—I'd say it's because those aspects are tangential to the message of that anime, which is a rather consensual statement about the power of COURAGE and FRIENDSHIP, but even so, I'm not sure I'd claim the delivery to be entirely honest. It is even possible that I would have liked Hanairo had Ohana been five years younger with straight hair, glasses and brains, though I find it hard to imagine the show could have proceeded similarly if that had been the case. Generally speaking, though, I think controversial messages based on deceitful presentations are a turn off for me, at least when I disagree with them. And unless things get into so bad it's good territory.

Ok, now, it's past 5:30 and I've been unable to think clearly for the past few hours, so I'll probably stop here. For that reason, I'll also laugh at suggestions that I'm somehow “overthinking” this show.

12 comments for ‘Drilling down Gurren Lagann’.

[...] [tsurupeta.info (anglais) - @bikasuishin] : Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (11), K-ON! le film (3), Hanasaku Iroha [...]

The show does pertain a certain message, but I don't think it's propaganda as much as it's pandering to audiences who dig that stuff. I remember rooting against Rossiu because I really do hate the totalitarian state. Regardless of what the intentions were, that was the worldview presented to the viewer. Now, I'm not making excuses for the show, but I am making excuses for me enjoying it--I'd call it fanservice for the "carnivorous" male (and female) audience, if you may. Which is something I find acceptable, considering its production started planning at a time when bishoujo shows had been abusing the tried tropes without inventing new ones for the longest time. It took Haruhi or some show to wake people up of the stale state of the tropes. Basically, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is the result of much needed balance, when the carnivores took back a tiny bit of anime territory from the dominant herbivores.

I'd argue the show goes well beyond merely being targeted at a carnivorous audience as you say, though.

Take something like Cowboy Bebop, for example. I'm not a fan of that anime, partly because the dark hard-boiled hero type is something I don't particularly enjoy in my entertainment, but I sure as hell wouldn't say I hate the show, or try to level at it any of the criticisms above. It features carnivores (ok, maybe carnivores on a diet sometimes, but still, manly men), and it is probably made for carnivores as well, but it doesn't revolve around elevating their lifestyle as a recipe for a better world.

Evangelion was perhaps vaguely militant in that respect, in the sense that it dissed Shinji all the way through for being such a wuss, but at least it pointed to relatively realistic character flaws. And it was honest enough to acknowledge that the manly men can be just as fucked up.

Gurren Lagann, on the other hand, ostensibly opposes the super-virile and impotent worldviews, but it ends up identify those with that of heroes and villains with little perspective or distantiation. That's precisely propaganda (in support of the socially stronger and dominant group, at that, which is rather ugly).

Conversely, I think you'd be hard pressed to find the mirror image of that in an anime, of the bishoujo sort or otherwise. Shows about uplifting the egos of herbivores tend to be pretty self-derisive in a way Gurren Lagann is not. One of those shows, by the way, is the Gainax OVA Otaku no video!

(Incidentally, I find it a funny comment on the zeitgeist that the book that introduced the term soushoku danshi was published on the same year as Gurren Lagann premiered).

Ah, a topic near and dear to my heart. "the joke seems to be mostly at the expense of otaku (moe otaku?) in general, who tend to shrug off really dodgy subtexts in the works they consume"--The best handling of this whole concept is definitely Nadesico. The ugly political subtext in anime concept, I mean, not the endless penis surrogates in anime concept.

1) inbr ur overthinking anime
2) "flood discussion boards and Youtube video comment threads": oh gawd, I remember when Akihito made that speech after the tsunami and the comments on Youtube were like 10% "頑張れ日本!", 10% "優しい意おじいさんだね", and 80% "大日本帝国万歳!"
3) "what little appealed to me in Gurren Lagann on an aesthetic level were mostly the moe elements (namely Nia)...that kiai still manifests itself as phallic shapes of cosmic dimensions stretching out towards Simon's girl Nia"--oh shit, NTR end!
4) "I know I don't have a problem overlooking the dubious ideas about femininity and the World War II whitewashing in a show like Strike Witches"--I have sort of the same mindset with a lot of shows. Strike Witches was one of those, and more recently I definitely got this same kind of vibe with Infinite Stratos. I more or less enjoyed the show, but I would also start laughing every time I thought about the blatant Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity themes (and with how it's a show about how all those huge-titted occidental ladies are infatuated with the lead's yamato damashi, and by damashi I mean penis. And how utterly marginalized the Chinese character is, obv.)
5) "—I'd say it's because those aspects are tangential to the message of that anime, which is a rather consensual statement about the power of COURAGE and FRIENDSHIP"--I think that the only thing that's really pulled this off were the Sakura Taisen games, where they would both explicitly exult concept of liberalism/modernity, and actually had the fascists as the enemy in the second game.

Ah, Nadesico is up there with Utena on the list of anime from the 90s I really need to get around watching. (Also, Ruri).

Surprised that you have not yet.

Finally gotten to read this post in full (rather than skim). I think the HanaIro example as you framed it is definitely not the conventional read of the material. It tries to avoid that classic country versus dirty evil city slicker thing pretty much the whole time. The story, unlike Gurren Lagann, is actually about reconciling the differences, and in a way that goes beyond nostalgia tripping.

It would be up to the individual to interpret if Satsuki or Sui has it right; the script leaves enough leeway that I can comfortably say that I don't think Satsuki was wrong in the way she handled Ohana at all.

I'm also going to assume you are not a fan of Takahata Isao.

Thanks for reading!

Re Hanairo, I must have missed its attempts at presenting a balanced view or at reconciling differences; I mean, we have a whole episode based on Ohana's mother basically selling her family for petty professional reasons, for example. Now of course there are also quite a few instances of the grandmother's behavior being scandalous by progressive standards (like her beating on employees and paying them slave wages), but in all of those, the presentation suggests that you're supposed to consider it a commendable attitude based on honest-to-god intentions grounded in respectable traditions (whereas the backstabbing by Ohana's mother is shown as anything but). What topped it off for me was the school trip arc: at the end of episode 14, Yuina delivers the first instance I found of a genuine statement of woman empowerment and freedom from arbitrary conservative constraints. So I approached the next episode with I think a quite high degree of benevolence. And yet it ended up being entirely devoted to beating some sense back into the rebellious bitch and prepare her to become a good caring wife.

But as I said I only watched up to episode 19. Conceivably, the ending could improve my bad impression somewhat. I might try to write something up if I end up finishing the show.

As for Takahata, it really depends on which movie we're talking about. As you can guess, I really can't stand Omohide poroporo. On the other hand, I'm mostly fine with the message in Pom poko, which makes a much more legitimate point than simply rejecting urban progressivism outright (it simply criticizes the way the somewhat reckless and occasionally corrupt way the urbanization of the Greater Tokyo area was carried out; it's difficult to argue otherwise); plus the presentation is upbeat dumb fun, as you say, and that's difficult not to enjoy.

Oh, and I do think Hotaru no haka is a masterpiece, but we're not talking the same kind of subtext.

[...] Gurren-Lagann (mt-i) [...]


"shrug off really dodgy subtexts in the works they consume as long as the heroine is sufficiently kawaii"

Or in other words, Ron Paul's appeal.

(bah dum tish)


Does it work with Christopher Hitchens too? w

[...] Actress alias le chef-d’œuvre de Satoshi Kon. Pas bien, Kabu ! - mt-i qui n’aime pas Gurren Lagann, mais pour ceux qui ne le savaient pas, ils pouvaient s’en douter. - nyoronyolo qui lui aussi [...]

[...] it to your face) and grinding of inaka value into dirty, evil, material and inhuman urban values to people with things to grind against. I’m just going to say that this is also possibly the funniest and ballsiest Ghibli [...]

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