“Who the Hell Do You Think We Are?” Gurren Lagann’s blunted message of liberation

By: Stephen Hero August 14, 20200 Comments
a group shot with Kamina in the center, looking toward the camera. Rendered with intense colors and thick dark lineart

Spoilers for Gurren Lagann

Content Warning: Discussion of misogyny, homophobia; NSFW screenshot

Frederic Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, writes that the “non-serious or pulp character of science fiction…allows [it] to inherit the vocation of giving us alternate versions of a world that has elsewhere seemed to resist even imagined change” (223). In other words, he argues that the genre, even at its most commercial, affords creators the space to realize other worlds and enact radical political change.

As a visual storyteller, Imaishi Hiroyuki has made a career of speculative thumb-nosing. From Dead Leaves, his directorial debut in 2004, to Promare, his latest film, the esteemed animation director has consistently challenged the establishment. A distinct antiauthoritarian spirit runs through his works. Yet nowhere is Imaishi’s call for collective action more realized, but most glaringly compromised, than in the show that made him a household name: Gurren Lagann. 

Simoun crossing his arms looking determined, with Nia poking out of the robot cockpit behind him

“If we kick and struggle and fight like hell, we’ll move forward a little bit.”

So, how does the show—and by extension, Imaishi—suggest the oppressed should challenge the oppressors? Simple: through collective action and coalition building.

An often unremarked upon strength of Gurren Lagann is its commitment to radical politics. Underneath the veneer of mecha commercialism beats the heart of revolution. Viewed through a Marxist lens, the show chronicles a group of freedom fighters committed to toppling tyranny.

The protagonists begin their journey in the subterranean Giha Village, a glorified prison. Designed to eliminate privacy, it subjects the individual to the authority of the state. Everyone is at the mercy of the brutal village chief, a taskmaster who uses orphaned children as a veritable source of slave labor. His sheathed sword, reminiscent of a police baton, keeps the population in check. The emancipatory stirrings begin with Kamina and his urge to “break through the vault of heaven.” Bristling against the authority of the village chief, Kamina enlists the reluctant Simon to shatter the physical barriers that keep them underground. 

Kamina pointing dramatically upward. subtitle: Yours is the drill that will break through the vault of heaven!

Kamina’s revolt doesn’t go exactly as planned, but with the help of Yoko Littner, a surface-dwelling ally, the trio carve out a small space of security aboveground.

From this point on they doggedly push back against the Beastmen who seek their destruction. Their group increases in size as they lock arms in fellowship with other survivors and build a force capable of challenging the hegemony of the Spiral King. Gurren Lagann has a sense of progression not unlike a video game; as the core group “levels up,” they expand their reach and build up a bigger and bigger party. Imaishi highlights the strength of collective action, showing laborers working toward the common goal of liberation.

This all reaches a fever-pitch with the early death of Kamina. Sacrificing himself to ensure the survival of the revolution, he is its first martyr. This is appropriate on so many levels; the taleteller becomes the tale. In the absence of a body, Kamina takes on mythic proportions; he becomes the agent of change who catalyzes radical political action. 

A line of mechs raising their fists against a flag of a flame wearing sunglasses

And so, the tale spreads…

In the wake of Kamina’s death Simon and Co. form what is essentially a vanguard party. They start calling themselves Team Dai-Gurren, proudly waving the flag of their departed comrade. Reaffirming their commitment to revolution, Team Dai-Gurren appropriates the means of oppression (mechs) to challenge their oppressors. Most notably the team commandeers the Dai-Gunzan, a massive walking tank and points it right at Teppelin, the seat of dictatorial power.

While paving a path to freedom other factions join their cause. Humanity rallies around Kamina’s message and sees a path to a more equitable future within Team Dai-Gurren. Unlike the feudal trappings of the Beastmen, Team Dai-Gurren is devoid of hierarchy; everyone pitches it to the best of their ability and receives compensation adequate to their needs. The show celebrates this distinction. It powers the revolution.

And after a long fight, the battle-tested companions snatch victory from the clutches of despotism.

A fleet of ships with a red ship in the foreground

 “You humans are not the only ones who want to protect the Earth.”

So, the revolution is successful. The Spiral King is defeated. Gurren Lagann could have easily ended there. But what makes the show so special and its political message so nuanced comes during the next twelve episodes.

Seven years pass. The victors build a new city on the ruins of Teppelin, naming it after Kamina. But complacency sets in. People have grown “attached to their new lifestyles.” Even Simon slips into lethargy. The desire to build a more equitable society has become buried under heaps of bureaucratic paperwork and material consumption. The radical and potent iconography of the revolution, those symbols that fueled that first insurgence, have now devolved into kitsch.

But the show doesn’t take a victory lap. It asks more of its characters (and viewers) by interrogating the status quo even further. In the absence of an enemy to fight the population has become less politically engaged and has let certain things go. They have retreated into their homes, shutting themselves out from the public sphere. Paranoia begins to set in. In response, Rossiu, one of the earliest members of Team Dai-Gurren and the current head of state, begins his own descent into totalitarian rule by detaining migrants and staging show trials.

a statue of Kamina pointing upward in a park

The Beastmen, nominally granted citizenship in Kamina City but still clearly considered “the enemy,” lack political representation. Rossiu, consciously or not, has made it so that no Beastmen serves on the New Government Council. An apartheid future certainly seems possible.

Injustices mount, the fires of revolution simmer…

In response, Gurren Lagann argues for a second revolution, positioning Simon’s idealism as the alternative to Rossiu’s passionless ideology. Empathy remains his greatest strength. Simon can look beyond culture, class, and race to lock hands with an outsider, epitomized in him asking Viral to pilot the Gurren Lagann alongside him in the hopes of defeating the existential threat of the Anti-Spirals.

Simoun introducing Beastman Viral at a meeting. subtitle: I'm going to have him attend our mission planning sessions from now on.

Admittedly, Simon’s gesture might only be intended as a temporary war measure, but it does hint at more significant political change. The initial revolution may have created a more equitable society for humans, but not Beastmen. Simon’s decision to give Viral a seat at the table sets a precedent and opens new possibilities of racial cohabitation. The show gives viewers a brief tease of the future; twenty years after the destruction of the Anti-Spiral homeworld, Viral is part of an intergalactic peace conference where he will represent Earth. 

It’s a shame Gurren Lagann doesn’t explore this idea of otherness more fully. It uses the idea of a second-class citizen as a plot convenience rather than a serious thematic concern. Simon’s reaching across the aisle makes for some killer transformation sequences, typical of the genre, but the show doesn’t allocate space for reflection. No thought is put into the societal structures that produce such xenophobia. The same could be said for Yoko, who is also held at arm’s length. 

Despite these shortcomings, the second half of the show reinforces the ideological swing back to the values of fraternity and equality that first inspired Simon and Kamina to break through that rock ceiling. It recalibrates its radical goals and advocates for a “permanent revolution.” Keep in mind, that loaded phrase doesn’t mean the system needs to be consistently upended—no. Rather, Gurren Lagann argues that we must be politically engaged; complacency breeds tyranny.

a bridge crew in matching uniforms sitting at high tech machines. subtitle: We're representing Earth out there! Put some spirit into it, people!

“I want to be useful.”

Unfortunately, Gurren Lagann fails to empower every character equally. It compromises its emancipatory message with archaic and discriminatory characterizations. 

By and large the women of Gurren Lagann are painted with a broad, sexualized, and commercial brush. Powerful male figures dominate the mythology of both revolutions; the show revels in their masculine deeds but fails to challenge their toxicity. The audience is meant to valorize Kamina, warts and all. His misogyny sets the tone for the show’s humor; not only does he grossly leer at Yoko, but he verbally—and physically—degrades her with his lecherous comments and actions. His peers lightly criticize his blatant sexism, but not in meaningful ways; he stubbornly resists change. But the gags continue well after his death. We’re meant to shrug off his ribald behavior and clap him to victory, thereby legitimizing his views.

Kamina making a pass at Yoko. She looks annoyed. subtitle: Hey, baby, how ya doin?

Furthermore, the show consistently oppresses its female characters with a domineering male gaze, which blunts and dilutes its radical message of liberation. Characters like Kiyoh, Kinon, and most especially Yoko are devalued by their hypersexualized designs, seemingly engineered to enable future erotic figure-makers more than characterization. The writers never waste a moment to place Yoko in a compromising position or make an off-color joke at her expense. Gurren Lagann champions freedom, friendship, and feelings, but that message only goes so far. The rampant fanservice corrodes the integrity of its themes. 

To be fair, Yoko and Nia, the two most prominent female members of Team Dai-Gurren, actively contribute to the movement. However, they can only play a limited number of prepacked roles: teacher, cook, caretaker, wife, etc. True, Yoko kicks a lot of ass, but her ambitions are paper-thin. Same with Nia, who checks all the major tropes: girl in a box, damsel in distress, sickening sweetheart. Yoko and Nia’s sincerity isn’t in doubt, but the reasoning behind their motivations is. Even when Yoko becomes a teacher, her moment of supposed self-actualization, her design signals that nothing’s changed—she still labors under the gaze of her male creators. She doesn’t own her body like her male counterparts do. Despite the revolution, she isn’t free.

An upskirt shot of Yoko from behind, mainly framing her butt

If that wasn’t enough, Gurren Lagann continues to marginalize other vulnerable groups. Leeron, Team Dai-Gurren’s chief engineer, is in many ways the show’s Greek Chorus. He operates at a distance from the primary cast, allowing him the space to effectively comment on events without breaking the fourth wall. Often this character type functions as the mouthpiece of the creator.

But because Leeron doesn’t fit into the show’s traditional definitions of gender and sexuality (as he is explicitly coded as a feminine gay man), he is held at arm’s length and derided despite being exceptionally competent at his job. Kamina and Kittan, the hypermasculine paradigms we’re encouraged to emulate, actively discriminate against him. They jeer and chide him for his feminine appearance. In addition, the writers frame him as a child predator, a joke they return to again and again. Leeron is not given the space to fully realize his identity and is not allowed the opportunity to truly integrate into the collective. For a supposedly emancipated world, that’s damning.

Kamina raising an eyebrow at Leeron. Subtitle: Keep your mitts off of Simon, got it?

Imaishi’s post-Gurren Lagann work continues to challenge the establishment, to mixed results. Unfortunately, many of them fall prey to “style over substance” issues that so often plague his flashy productions. It’s a difficult line to walk. Panty & Stocking and Kill la Kill attempt to upend corrupt power structures, but lack a potent or cogent message of revolutionary agitation that ultimately undermines them. Gurren Lagann, however, despite its visible flaws, performs a surprisingly nuanced interrogation of political institutions and consistently argues that the only way to challenge an entrenched status quo is not through incrementalism, but through radical collective action. 

In arguably the show’s climactic moment, the entire team, invoking the memory of their fallen comrade, shout, “Who the hell do you think we are!?” In the presence of a monolithic tyranny, their unified voices grasp toward freedom. In a lot of respects this signature line embodies the spirit of Imaishi’s politics; it’s both defiant and collective, punk-rock and communal. It’s just a shame that not everyone gets to participate in that outcry.  

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