Archive: Review of Gurren Lagann Ultimate Collection
On 1st April 2007, Gurren Lagann debuted. To mark its 10th anniversary, we have republished our review of All the Anime’s Ultimate Edition boxset which was first put on sale in 2014. The series has since been re-released as a Collector’s Edition exclusive to Zavvi (details here). Sections in italics (except the top quote obviously) specifically concern the Ultimate Edition boxset.
“‘Space’, it says, ‘is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space, listen…’” – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
Past reviews of this anime, including on this website, frequently say that Gurren Lagann is not perfect. In response to this, I reference the following true story. When Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life won the 1983 Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival it was seen by the film director Henry Jaglom, who claimed that it was the best thing Python had ever done. In response Terry Gilliam said to him: “No, there’s great bits in there, but there’s crap in there as well.” Jaglom replied: “No, that’s why it’s great, because the crap is there to balance the greatness.”
This is how I feel about Gurren Lagann. OK the humour is not the most sophisticated, the plot is perhaps not that original, and the animation of one episode was so shoddy that it led to one of Gainax’s co-founders, Takami Akai, having to resign because of the way he handled the criticism. However, when you look at the way that it was made as a whole, the story that was created, the characters that were portrayed, and the sheer scale of the entire project, it all combines into what is probably one of the greatest anime of all time.
People also said at the time that you “shouldn’t believe the hype”. I didn’t believe the hype, because I was unaware of any hype. This was because Gurren Lagann was one of the very first anime I had ever watched, and when it was first shown to me back when I was in the University of Teesside Animation and Comics Society back in 2007, I had never heard of it before. I knew very little about anime at all, but when I watched it I thought: “Yes, that just sums it up. This is one of the best things I have ever seen.”
It was because of Gurren Lagann that I am became interested in anime. Without it I would not be here reviewing stuff for this website, which in turn would mean I would not be reviewing manga for MyM Magazine, which was my first regularly paid job. This was my gateway show. Of course, a single piece of work cannot sum up an entire art-form, but if you wanted to encourage people to take an interest in anime, this would be an ideal title to show.
Now I realise that at this point some people may be rather annoyed that I haven’t actually started reviewing this collection yet, so let’s start.
This “Ultimate Edition” of Gurren Lagann has been in the pipeline for some time. All the Anime announced their plans to release the series back in June 2013, and eventually said this collection of just 2,000 sets would be released in June 2014. However, several problems have meant it has not come out until four months later. This of course is a big deal, not just for the fans but for All the Anime too.
For a six-disc Blu-ray box set with an RRP of £149.99, consisting of the entire TV series, both films (never released in the UK before), the OVA “Parallel Works” (also making their UK debut), a hardback art book and various other extras, this release needed to be perfect. If they messed this up it could ruin the entire company’s future reputation. Have there been any problems – well, there have been some complaints.
In some collections, and I have to report this is true with mine, the glue used on the third Digipack tray is loose and thus it slips around the box. In my opinion this is nothing major and it is not the fault of All the Anime, but of the people who put the box together and All the Anime have made complaints to the manufacturers. Other people have complained about images freezing in Episodes 5, 7 and 10, and some talk about a skip in audio. The company has since issued this statement saying that: “we had to switch in the DVD footage as the best solution since no re-supply was possible in this case. Otherwise, you would have had 9 seconds, 13 seconds and a momentary image freeze with ongoing audio in its place. Not ideal. These are the only instances and as you can tell they are not over any crucial moments, so whilst annoying it doesn’t impact the overall viewing pleasure & quality of watching Team Gurren on your big TV.”
Some people, including on our own forums, have expressed complaints about these cock-ups, especially given how major a release this was for them. Some have been put off by All the Anime altogether; others are complimenting them about their response to the problem. For me personally, I haven’t noticed anything major that disturbs my pleasure from this collection, and I would rather have this series available on Blu-ray, in Region B, that it not be available at all.
If you are unfamiliar with the story, Gurren Lagann is set in a post-apocalyptic future, in which humanity has been driven underground, living in isolated villages. The central character, Simon (pronounced “See-mon” in Japanese), works as a digger, using his conical drill to dig holes to expand the size of the village, as well as to find his own treasure. These bits of treasure include a rather small drill-like key known as a “Core Drill”, and later on some kind of large face. Simon’s friends consist of a shades-wearing “mole-pig” creature called Boota, and a troublesome guy named Kamina. Kamina, normally seen wearing a pair of trademark pointy specs, dreams of going to the surface where he once went as a kid, but no-one else apart from Simon believes him. Things all change however when a gigantic mecha crashes through the village ceiling and chaos ensues.
Kamina starts to fight it, with Simon wanting to hide away, but then a buxom girl named Yoko comes down from the surface with a big rifle and starts firing at the mecha, which she tells the guys is known as a “Gunmen”. Simon comes to realise that the big face he has found is actually that of a small Gunmen and his Core Drill is the key to activating it. Together they use their big-faced Gunmen, which Kamina christens “Lagann” and appropriately enough for Simon it uses drills as a weapon to defeat the Gunman attacking the village. Simon also uses the Lagann to help Kamina, Boota, Yoko and himself to escape to the surface of the world, now a barren wasteland.
Simon and Kamina learn from Yoko that the humans on the surface are constantly attacked by a race of creatures known as the “Beastmen”, who serve a man known as the “Spiral King”. To fight back, Kamina steals his own Gunmen, which he names “Gurren”, and eventually comes up with the idea that Simon’s mecha should combine with his. Amazingly Kamina’s idea works, with the combined “Gurren Lagann” seemingly being stronger than anything else.
With this humanity begins to fight back against the Spiral King, with Simon and Kamina gaining more followers. These include Leeron, a camp gay mechanic from the same village as Yoko; Rossiu, an intelligent boy who originally came from a village where they worshipped an old Gunmen as a god; two young and excitable children from Rossiu’s village called Gimmy and Darry; and a group of Beastman hunters known as the Black Siblings: eldest brother Kittan and his three sisters Kiyoh, Kinon and Kiyal. Together they continue to collect more mecha and fight against the Beastmen, with their most common foe being the shark-toothed Viral of the Human Eradication Army.
As the story progresses, we encounter comedy, tragedy and love in equal measure. The mecha become bigger, as do the battles and the danger. The story itself extends over a period of years. We see the characters, Simon amongst them, growing up but still encountering even more terrible dangers, which not only threaten humanity, but the whole of the Earth.
As stated already, there are several reasons why people might be put off Gurren Lagann, whether it be errors made in this box set or the quality of the series in general. But the positives by far outweigh the negatives. The first thing to mention is the way Gurren Lagann combines so many elements. There is comedy, drama, tragedy, action, romance and science-fiction. It works a bit like the “Gurren Lagann” mecha itself, in that one genre will combine with another to make the show more powerful.
It works brilliantly, and also rather strangely. You will be watching a sequence where there is a huge battle going on, and there is fighting, chaos, carnage and death – the whole scene is full of fear and tension, and while this is all happening, little Boota is hiding away, seeking shelter from all the horror and the hurt, hiding away… in Yoko’s huge tits. You get the feeling that this is what a mecha series would be like, if it was being filmed by the Carry On team.
This is most clearly demonstrated in the sixth episode which is set in a bathhouse. For most of the episode Kamina, Simon and Gimmy constantly try to get a glimpse of the ladies who are also bathing. In this episode there is one scene in which Gimmy sticks his finger up Simon’s arsehole, another in which you see Gimmy totally naked, and in the end Yoko’s bikini flies off Barbara Windsor style.
When this episode was first broadcast in Japan it had to be cut, but the “Director’s Cut” version is all the collections. You also have the original broadcast version of the episode as one of the extras in the “Ultimate Edition”. However, I think that this is one of the best moments in the series, as this is humour that we British can relate to. I feel that it is also important to state, given recent news events [i.e. the then recently introduced UK laws on cartoon pornography], that I feel that there is nothing wrong with the “Director’s Cut”, including the depiction of the naked Gimmy, whose penis is visible in the episode and in some of the other “Ultimate Edition” exclusive features. A person should not feel pressured into thinking that just because you are seeing a picture of a naked child that this automatically makes you some sort of suspect sex offender. Everyone in the world has been seen naked by at least one person, and you cannot and should not criminalise the act of just seeing a person naked, whether they are fictional or in real-life – if you did you’d have to arrest an awful lot of midwives who had just delivered new-borns.
The second reason for why Gurren Lagann is so great are the characters. The main characters especially are brilliant for varying reasons. Simon starts off as being timid, wanting not to fight and at times wishing to return home, but as the story progresses he overcomes obstacle after obstacle. Simon matures and develops into a stronger character. Things really start to happen when Simon encounters the character of Nia, who becomes his love interest and helps Simon to overcome some of the major tragedies that has recently had to face.
Kamina is one of the best anime characters, in my personal opinion. Acting as mentor to Simon, he is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Simon’s Luke Skywalker. However, Kamina also has the added factor of being possibly the most over-the-top character in anime. He has some of the best lines I have heard in an anime series. How can you not like a character who says things like: “Don’t believe in yourself. Believe in me! Believe in the Kamina who believes in you!” or “Reject common sense to make the impossible possible”, and, “Who the hell do you think you are? Isn’t your drill the one that will pierce the heavens, the earth, and through to tomorrow?”
There are also lots of other elements that combine to add to the greatness. While the animation in the fourth episode is admittedly poor, to the point where it cost the jobs of two staff at Gainax, elsewhere it is brilliant. The character design, the landscapes, the mecha and 3D animation neatly fit together to create a believable setting. Plus there is the soundtrack. The opening theme song, “Sorairo Days” by Shoko Nakagawa, automatically acts as a hook. The end pieces – “Underground” by High Voltage, “Happily Ever After” by Shoko Nakagawa, and “Minna no Peace” by Afromania are also fun. But probably the best is “Rap is a Man’s Soul” by Spontania. I’m not a rap fan, but even I like this. There is also “‘Libera Me’ from Hell”, a combination of rap and classical. The soundtrack should be credited to the composer Taku Iwasaki.
But the best reason by Gurren Lagann is so good is because it is so big. It starts of small, with Simon in his village with his Core Drill. But his Lagann has a big face, which combines with Kamina’s large Gurren. Later they combine with other mecha, and take on bigger enemies. Kamina has his big glasses and a massive passion for what he believes in. Yoko carries a gigantic gun and has plenty of room in her bosom to support Boota. Then the mecha themselves get bigger and bigger. They get so big it seems almost impossible to talk about their size without having to go into bold block capitals for added emphasis. The whole series is so big, brash and loud that it is the sort of show that you want to project on the biggest screen you can find and shout at those passing by to stop whatever they are doing right now and just watch this!
While the series itself is great, we need to turn our attention to the matter of this particular collection, apart from the sliding Digipack and the issues regarding freezing images. Appropriately enough, for such a big series there is plenty extras and bonus material to keep you entertained. Both the “Ultimate Edition” and the standard Blu-Ray edition contain the following extras: Yoko Goes to Gainax!, a behind-the-scenes documentary presented by Marina Inoue, the Japanese voice-actress who provides the voice of Yoko; a collection of early 3D test animation taken from the second half of the series; an animated storyboard, which features the original illustrated storyboards played over the entire 15th episode; and clean opening and closing title sequences, which include the animated music video which is used as the ending for the 16th episode (the compilation episode).
Out of these extras, my personal favourite was the 3D test animation. This is mainly because it features some ideas that did not appear in the final cut of the anime. For example there are sequences in which Nia is riding on Gurren Lagann while they are fighting some mecha that in the end she does not encounter in the anime. The only problem is that none of the written text is translated.
When it concerns the extras that are just on the “Ultimate Edition”, these are plainly obvious as soon as you open the box set. One of these is a hardback 112 page art book, containing designs of the characters, mecha and landscapes. If you are keen on your art this makes for a rather useful reference work. You also get an art card, signed by the “El Presidente” of All the Anime (and the man who has had to deal with all the complaints) Andrew Partridge, which displaying the number of your release (in my case No. 816 out of 2,000). You also get, as previously stated, the original broadcast/censored version of the sixth episode (the one in which you don’t see Gimmy sticking his finger up Simon’s bottom).
But the really big extras are two discs containing anime previously unreleased in the UK: the two Gurren Lagann films – Childhood’s End and The Lights in the Sky Are Stars – and the Parallel Works OVA collection, which are on the fourth disc along with the final episodes.
The two films mostly contain old footage from the original TV series, but also include new material that sometimes gives more background information on the series, and sometimes tries to make the series bigger than it already was. Childhood’s End tells the story up to the battle between the Four Generals of the Spiral King. The Lights in the Sky Are Stars starts briefly with the Battle of Teppelin and then tells the second half of the story.
There are plenty of differences between the two films and the original series however. In Childhood’s End you learn more on how the Spiral King came to be; the contents of several episodes are significantly abridged, mainly the encounters Simon and Kamina have with new characters (Kittan, Rossiu etc.), and rather than the Four Generals attacking separately, three of them gang up on Simon and his followers in a single, climactic battle.
In The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, which in my few is the better of the two films, you see how civilization developed quickly after the Battle of Teppelin, and significant changes to the battles that take place in space. For example, certain characters which are killed in the series remain alive in the film. This seems to be an excuse for the creators to make more mecha, even bigger and more powerful, ultimately creating the final Gunmen which so large that even entire galaxies are dwarfed by it. Given how big Gurren Lagann already is this just knocks the series sideways.
The Parallel Works are a series of short stories with no spoken dialogue, set to music from the original soundtrack. The stories vary wildly in terms of plot and animation style, and most have no relation to the original anime. Stories range to a European medieval retelling of the story with Simon as a knight rescuing a Nia maiden; a steampunk wild west setting with Viral as the hero; a nude Gimmy stealing people’s clothes by sticking fingers up people arseholes; how Kittan got his Gunmen; a surreal sequence in which Gimmy and Darry find a series of strange doors leading to alternative worlds (my personal favourite); and a story with Kiyal as a magical girl. Some of these stories are funny, some are interesting artistically, and others help build the context of the series more. Like with the other extras, the written text is not translated which is annoying in some of the stories, but for most of the xx?, it is about the animation, music and mini-stories, which are made more interesting the lack of any speech.
To sum up, I think the reason I like, and indeed love Gurren Lagann is because that not only can I not imagine a similar programme being made in this country, but I also can’t conceive of a programme being made on such a scale ever again. Simply being so big in terms of the setting, it’s impossible to think of a way that you can top that. While some parts of Gurren Lagann are arguably not original, when it comes to scale it seems to have dwarfed everything before it, and I can’t see anything topping it while maintaining a similar level of quality. It is only fitting that such a big show should get such a big box set. I forgive this series for the faults it has in it. I feel sorry for All the Anime for the problems it has faced during its production and for all the delays it has had.
It is hard to for me to write up a clear view about Gurren Lagann without getting emotional. Yes, I can understand why some people are put off by it, and all the hype that goes along with it, and many people will be angry with the fact this release is not 100% perfect. But Gurren Lagann has never been 100% perfect. Since it began people have complained about it, and people will always complain about it. I don’t think you could ever have a 100% perfect collection of Gurren Lagann. Look at the extras they might have included but didn’t: when Beez Entertainment brought out the series, they had things like the soundtrack and various patches and props that you could use for cosplay purposes like a lighting-up Core Drill. Also, what about episode commentaries or specially made documentaries about the series? The other thing you have to remember is that more Gurren Lagann stuff is always being made. A stage play of the anime has been made, so a future release might have something about that.
Of course, this was always going to be a problem – for an anime so huge it’s truly impossible to include everything good about it in one box set. I know there are issues of cost and licensing, plus for some the idea of making an even bigger collection is daft. You couldn’t do that, it’s just plain common sense. But to quote Kamina, I think we should reject common sense to make the impossible possible.