I enjoyed Gurren Lagann; I really did. It doesn’t replace Kill la Kill in my heart, but as I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t responded to an anime the way I’ve responded to Kill la Kill. I guess it’s just the kind of story that happened to hit me at the right time in my life. But while it’s my easy pick over Gurren Lagann, that doesn’t mean that Gurren Lagann is an insubstantial story.
However, there are things in Gurren Lagann that brought me very, very close to dropping the show. In fact, I had a similar experience watching Kill la Kill’s earlier episodes for the first time, but I stuck with it because at the end of the day, I just vastly enjoy shows with predominantly female casts. Yet while I can point to plot and thematic reasons for nudity/fanservice in Kill la Kill, I can’t say the same for its appearance in Gurren Lagann. Episode 6 is off-putting enough, the uncensored version even more so. Yoko is a shoddy token female figure for much of the series and is often the object of Kamina’s (and every other straight man’s) ogling. She deserves better, though she does get some good character development in the second arc. Still, it’s ironic how much the men objectify her and yet when Leeron flirts with one of them (i.e., treats them the same way they treat Yoko), they threaten to kill him.
All of this is to say that in its early episodes, Gurren Lagann presents a toxic, immature model of masculinity, chiefly expressed in Kamina, the self-proclaimed paragon of masculinity. While Kamina is like a philosopher in some ways, he’s still very much a product of living under a rock his whole life. We learn from the start that his father was his hero and the person who took him up to the surface to begin with. However, Kamina doesn’t grow up with his father’s presence in his life, only memories and ideals. So, he has to invent his own perception of manliness and strive to achieve it. This is a rash, boisterous, yet surprisingly effective worldview that takes Kamina and Team Gurren much, much farther that anyone expects. The problem with Kamina’s understanding of masculinity is not that it’s completely trash, but that it’s not refined or matured, and he never has a chance to grow up like the rest of the characters do.
His dedication to making the impossible possible, to fighting with all your strength and building a future for humanity, and pushing back against any huge, bullying forces (Lord Genome) are all noble ideals that Kamina ties into his masculinity. He also highly values his brotherly bond with Simon, but as a consequence often pushes his approaches onto Simon, who is much more tempered than Kamina. Still, his ideas of masculinity are powerful enough to translate into actual power. The “manly combining” with Simon, creating Gurren Lagann, is a clear manifestation of moving even further in this direction of masculinity to become more powerful. This type of transformation is similar to what I’ve noted before about magical girls gaining more power as they become more feminine. Kill la Kill has its own moment of “sisterly combining” in which Ryuko and Satsuki transform together into their more “feminine” kamui. On some level, both shows are playing with this idea of gaining world-changing power through stepping into some version of gendered strength.
Yet Kamina is a parody of masculinity. That’s one of the reasons why his masculinity is so immature and why Simon is the one who actually refines it by the end of the series. Most audiences laugh at his ridiculous declarations, but they’re also inspired. Kamina’s rhetoric is powerful and it becomes even more powerful after his death. His words come to mean everything that Team Gurren fights for and believes in, but Simon quickly realizes that he can never be Kamina. He can never have that kind of masculinity or that kind of general spirit that Kamina had. Rather, Simon uses what Kamina tried bestowing onto him as a starting point to find his own way and unlike Kamina, Simon actually gets to grow up. He becomes the Supreme Commander and takes humanity to the stars to fight for freedom. In the last few episodes, he bears Kamina’s likeness, but he is more realized than Kamina got to be. Simon doesn’t make grand assertions about masculinity nor does he ogle the women around him or feel so threatened by Leeron’s very different presentation of masculinity (a queer, gender non-conforming one) that he says he’ll kill him. He also isn’t as reckless or brash as Kamina was. All of these are ways in which Simon has taken Kamina’s legacy and made it into something mature that can actually sustain humanity.
So, just as Gurren Lagann’s characters grow up, so does its presentation of masculinity. It begins as something powerful and inspiring, but immature and toxic. Then, it’s refined into something strong enough to rip a hole in the universe without destroying the entire human race through Simon’s coming of age and his tendency to read a situation before jumping right into the fray. As much as Simon wears a Kamina mask by the end of the series, he ultimately takes Kamina’s ideals to the next level, and that next level doesn’t require constant declaration or affirmations of masculinity. Not even Kittan, Kamina 2.0, gets to this point and dies in a blaze of glory.
In a series riddled with a lot of anime “standard fare,” this development of masculinity as a concept ties in neatly with the general themes of not just growing up, but growing beyond. The characters go from living under a rock (literally) to reshaping the universe and accomplishing such a feat requires, among other things, a masculinity that takes what Kamina started and tempers it into something that runs on more than just pure adrenaline.