How could I invest so much time and energy analyzing Kill la Kill without watching its predecessor? Though I didn’t react as heavily to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann as I did to Kill la Kill, I still have plenty to say about the series. One of those things is its Platonism.
At the start of the show, people live day in and day out in the underground village of Giha, never wanting or dreaming of anything higher. Even Simon is perfectly content digging tunnels all day long. This way of life goes unchallenged and no one sees a reason why it should change, no one except Kamina, who has seen the surface and returned to the underground to convince everyone else to leave the village. Yet this is treated as nothing more than a ridiculous claim from an even more ridiculous man. The surface doesn’t exist and Kamina had better stop causing trouble and spouting nonsense.
This is more or less what happens in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which describes people living underground, watching shadows pass by of people carrying statues and other objects. All they do is watch the shadows and think they’re observing the real objects, but one person breaks away and finds their way out of the cave. They reach the surface where they see the blinding sun for the first time and can’t even look directly at it. Their blindness doesn’t give them a very good impression of the surface, but they have seen it nonetheless. However, when they try to spread the news of this revelation, they’re met with scorn and disbelief.
I think the connection to Kamina is obvious. Kamina only has vague memories of the surface. He can’t describe or define what it really is, but he’s seen it and he knows that it exists. Knowing that there’s a completely different realm above his head, one where light comes from the actual sun rather that a pale imitation of fire, Kamina cannot rest until he reaches it again.
In Plato’s cave story, the person who breaks free and sees the surface is the philosopher, maybe Socrates, who is the gadfly of Athens and may or may not be a gigantic troll. He pokes holes in people’s understandings of piety, virtue, justice, and other intangible values, leaving them embarrassed or pissed off.
So, this would suggest that Kamina is the philosopher, which would then favor the reading of Socrates as a troll. Kamina is hardly the image of a wise, thoughtful person. If Kamina represents any kind of philosopher, it’s probably a post-post-post-post modern deconstructive type you’d find on the Internet. Then again, that’s assuming philosophy is totally serious to begin with.
“We didn’t ask what it seems like; we asked what it is.”
Whatever the state of philosophy, Kamina nonetheless is determined to find real things. For him, Giha Village is a farce and he is certain that something truer and greater than its false reality exists. Delving a bit into obscurity for a moment, Kamina partially embodies the philosophy in mewithoutYou’s “The King Beetle on the Coconut Estate.”
In the hot spring episode, Kamina says to Simon, “Let’s go to the moon!” Simon then points to the moon’s reflection in the water and asks if this is what Kamina means, but Kamina emphatically denies that and points up to the actual moon. Not only is this foreshadowing events in Gurren Lagann’s second arc, but it also reveals how serious Kamina is about finding things that are true and real. Like the King Beetle, he’s not satisfied with what things seem like. He wants to see what things are, so he’s not satisfied with going to a mere reflection of the moon.
Kamina dies in this journey from what seems to what is, but not before influencing dozens of other people in his way of thinking. He dies without reaching his promised land, but knows that Simon will actually pierce the heavens. If Kamina is that philosopher in the Allegory of the Cave–Socrates–then Simon is his student Plato. Both Simon and Plato inherit their teachers’ philosophies and carry on their legacies. Though Socrates most likely existed, what we know of his views and writings may be heavily fantasized. He’s a bit mythologized, though his views clearly had a profound impact on his students. One can read Plato with the view that he’s simply putting on a Socrates mask to articulate his own views. Similarly, Kamina is mythologized and his legacy is intangible ideals manifested in Team Gurren. Simon spends a great deal of time figuring out who he is without Kamina, yet by the end of the series, he’s certainly wearing a “Kamina mask” in both his physical appearance and his drive to see the end of the Spiral/Anti-Spiral war.
I’ll continue refining this concept moving forward, but I’ll admit that I actively looked for divine illogic in Gurren Lagann since I found it so readily in its successor. Though there’s certainly plenty of illogic to go around–the kind that does radically change the fate of humanity–it’s not closely linked with any characters or groups claiming or presenting themselves as divine. In fact, this series seems to present the divine as false and illogic as the awakening force to a truth that doesn’t seem to involve any sort of spirituality. This is most obvious in Rossiu’s story, which involves learning that his patron god is just a gunman that he could theoretically pilot and then going up to the surface to live in a new reality where he abandons his faith. Much later, he returns to Adai village and has a resigned, peaceful conversation with the old chief. Rossiu tells him that their village’s holy book was most likely a practical joke since he couldn’t identify what language it was written in. “A joke? Our holy book was just nonsense?” says the priest. “So, I was preaching God’s word with someone’s practical joke in my hand?” Here, faith is nonsensical or illogical, but not in ways that change the world. “You learn that something you thought was a precious treasure was nothing but junk,” says Rossiu before he goes off to attempt suicide in atonement for his sins.
It’s a bleak picture, but also Socratic in the sense that Socrates/Plato challenged the gods and may not have put much stock in them. Socrates certainly got in trouble for allegedly swaying people away from the gods. There is something incomplete about living underground and worshipping an abandoned gunman that fell from the surface. As Simon’s drill keeps piercing through surfaces, literal and metaphorical, he and Team Gurren only find creatures no greater than themselves. Sure, the Anti-Spirals are formidable, but they have no divine mystery about them.
In the end, Team Gurren doesn’t reach Plato’s Heaven, but the story doesn’t focus on finding the true forms of any particular ideals. Rather, it’s about continuously striving to see the world as it is (which might be the same thing as finding true forms) while balancing the tendency to self-destruction that seems inherent in humanity.