Gurren Lagann’s Immature Masculinity

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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.

The Allegory of Giha Village: Platonism in Gurren Lagann

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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.”

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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.

 

Divine Illogic?

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.

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