Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann: Rebellion Perfected?

The Big DJ

[Apparently Geasstards such as myself aren't being pretentious enough about Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. Rather than produce a direct rebuttal, I thought I'd write 1700 words about TTGL, splashing a few of Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost around as I did so, making a sly joke about Haman Karn and icing the cake by linking a few other suitably pretentious articles.

I totally haven't had this in my drafts for a month, waiting for an opportunity to use it. The Animanachronism is hardly that devious, nor is he able to see into the future.]

Anyhow . . .

The rebel is a seductive figure who crops up all over the place in popular (and unpopular) culture. Inasmuch as there is a coherent thread to Western thought, Milton is to blame for this. As someone steeped (too deeply) in the Western literary tradition, my instant response to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was to apply a rebellion stencil. Quite how well that works is another question, which will be considered below.

Spoilers ahead. Or rather, since this is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann we’re talking about, GIGASPOILERS ahead.

I must at this point acknowledge an inspiration. DeathToZippermouth’s essay on TTGL helped me to crystalise my thoughts on the subject and if you haven’t read his entry, I suggest you do so now – both because this is partly a reaction to it, and because it’s worth reading on its own merits.

But – since I’m incapable of reading anything without disagreeing – I must also note here where and why I disagree with DTZ. My main disagreement is not with DTZ’s own work but with the concept which underpins the middle third of it. I am convinced that the ‘monomyth’ of the Hero’s Journey is an unwieldy concept.

It is either too specific to be applicable to any more than one story at a time (by shaping it to fit the story one is studying, it ceases to fit anything else), or too generalising to say very much (by shaping it to fit so many different stories, the different elements become too vague). It’s also a ‘pic’n’mix’ concept, rather like Freudian psychoanalysis, which is often plundered by critics selectively rather than reflectively.

I call this (rather unpoetically) the ‘Joseph Cambell Was a Bloody Idiot’ Thesis. [Is that ad hominem enough for you?] I suspect that I will be accused of doing a similar thing, but this is my United States of flocci non facio.

EDIT: Lolikitsune recently wittily demonstrated precisely what’s wrong with the monomyth more effectively than I ever could.

I: A Brief History of Rebellion

Paradise Lost is the English epic par exellance. There are others, of course, some of them quite good (actually, I’ve only read one other, but it was quite good). Successful epics exercise a powerful influence over storytelling which happens after them. This is partly because of their quality, and perhaps rather more because the people who tell stories are generally part of the same mafia. Who wouldn’t like to associate their work with something which is considered monumental?

Paradise Lost tells a strange story, but one of its important elements is a rebellion. Satan, who is initially an attractive and inspiring character, rebels (or has rebelled – the poem begins in medias res) against God, is defeated and then tempts Eve and Adam into eating a certain fruit. The story’s not original – Milton got it from somewhere else (!) – but we need not concern ourselves with that.

Satan = Not Very Gar
Satan is not very GAR

As is the way with epics, this rebellion story has exercised a powerful influence. People love to appropriate Milton – the recent His Dark Materials trilogy is a good example – and the most far-reaching and influential appropriation was carried out by the Romantics, and is encapsulated in Blake’s comment (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) that

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

The Romantics loved rebels, and the initial phases of the Romantic movement are associated with democracy, individualism and various other things which seem to be pillars of the modern thought-world.

As might be expected, they liked Satan (the character in the poem, not the spiritual entity who may or may not exist), picked up the rebel idea and ran with it in their art. And sometimes in their lives: Byron managed to rebel against financial restraint, sexual mores, Austria and Turkey, in only thirty-six years of life.

[Since this is an anime blog, and I'm on the subject of Byron, I will note that he quite possibly slept with his half-sister, and may have fathered her daughter, Elizabeth Medora Leigh. How would you tag that on an imageboard? 'wtf_was_this_guy_doing_(besides_his_sister)'?

Ahem.]

Rebels are popular in part because everybody loves an underdog. Precious little consideration needs to be given to the rightness of the underdog’s cause, since we know that underdogs are usually right. After all, storytelling usually focuses on heroes, and there’s no tension if the hero is the overdog, so most storytelling (since the Romantics) has focused on righteous underdogs.

And you can’t be more of an underdog than a rebel against omnipotence. Doomed heroism has a certain glamour to it (viz. the Ragnarök story’s attractiveness).

This is one of the problems that modern readers sometimes have with Paradise Lost. Satan rebels against an omnipotent ruler, and his rebellion has heroic elements (at least initially – part of the movement of the poem is the way Satan becomes less and less heroic). Milton’s overdog, God, is (as far as the text is concerned) in the right. To a mind fed on the post-Romantic ‘rebel = good’ structure, this is decidedly odd.

Abdiel Is Pretty Gar
Abdiel is pretty GAR

II: The Ultimate Rebellion?

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann tells the story of a series of rebellions against restraint, each rebellion on a larger scale than the last, in (as has been noted elsewhere) a spiral structure. In the final arc, it is revealed that Simon is in fact a rebel against an omnipotent enemy, in the form of the Anti-Spiral(s) (there are many, but there seems to be one speaking avatar that they use).

Complete Control

The Anti-Spirals exhibit control over pretty much everything, to the point of wielding what is apparently a new Big Bang as a weapon, and creating alternate universes. The series of defeats which Simon inflicts upon them are neatly explained by Lord Genome (in a swift hand-waving moment) as a result of their methodology: they reduce themselves to their opponents’ level in order to cause despair by winning despite their self-imposed limitations.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann thus harnesses the power of the doomed rebel figure. But Simon is different to Satan: Simon’s rebellion is considerably more justified. While the conflict is ultimately between two sides with different approaches to the same problem (the Spirals want to continue evolution and search for a way to solve the Spiral Nemesis, and the Anti-Spirals want to avoid the Spiral Nemesis by halting evolution), the Anti-Spirals’ approach is (to the modern eye) much more morally questionable than Simon’s.

Even if the Spirals mess up sometimes (‘ROSSIU LIED, PEOPLE DIED’) , they trade on individualism, emotion and heroism. They’re also associated with flashy animation (the Anti-Spiral is, by contrast, a black-and-white being), coolness and heroism, which basically justify anything in a lot of mecha shows.

So Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann perfects the rebellion device, by combining rebellion against impossible odds with justification. It’s a deeply humanist story in its optimism, a definite contrast (as DeathToZippermouth notes) to the plethora of dystopian science fiction stories available.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who noticed that Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a kind of repudiation of Neon Genesis Evangelion (surely a depressing tale). Like NGE, TTGL took us ‘down the rabbit hole’ as it drew to a close (in the twenty-sixth episode) before (unlike NGE) escaping again and providing an ending which many considered to be ‘GAINAX’s atonement’. There’s also a certain ironic contrast in the animation-quality-curves of the two shows: NGE degraded, whereas TTGL improved.

Tengen Toppa Zeta-Lagann
Coincidental resemblences can be hilarious

This perfection almost works. Except, of course, that the Anti-Spirals have to lose. And it’s impossible for an omnipotent force to be defeated. In the final episode, the godlike creative/destructive power of the Big Bang is absorbed by Lord Genome’s sacrifice (the importance of Simon’s homosocial relationships could fill an entire other blog entry) and transferred to the final form of Gurren Lagann, granting Simon enough power to defeat the Anti-Spiral.

But this doesn’t really explain how Simon defeated something omnipotent – if everything really was under the control of the Anti-Spiral, he’d easily be able to prevent Simon’s victory, and would certainly never be destroyed. We’re left to conclude that the Anti-Spiral was not omnipotent after all, which really rather diminishes Simon’s status as the rebel against impossible odds.

It doesn’t make sense, but then TTGL doesn’t want to make sense. It’s about kicking reason to the curb, ignoring all evidence to the contrary and pressing forward in an immense spiral of GAR.

So much for the rationalist emphasis of humanism.

But perhaps all this goes to show is that the best place for theology is in academic journals, rather than something built to entertain. And boy, does TTGL entertain . . .

III: Afterword

To be fair, this post is probably a result of my habit of reading everything through the lens of Paradise Lost. Still, I happen to think that what I had to say here was at least vaguely interesting.

[This entry did originally contain a paragraph regarding Nia's role as an Incarnated messenger of an omnipotent being, and linking it to the image below. But that would be (more) tenuous, and also travelling (further) into the realms of 'What do you mean, "It's not symbolic"?']

What do you mean it’s not symbolic?
No comment

Blogiography

Posts not linked to in the above, but which are relevant either to the anime concerned or to the writing of this entry.

  • tj_han reads TTGL as a logical extension of a postmodern, characterfully-meaningless era in anime, begun by Neon Genesis Evangelion, and also expressed in Haruhi. [Since Modernism naturally equates in my mind to Eliot and Pound, I found his entry caused a chronological dislocation.]
  • . . . while transientem sees the dark side of Spiral Power and the point of view of the Anti-Spirals
  • . . . and Omonomono draws parallels between Simon and Simon The Rock (can you smell what he is cooking?)
  • TheBigN had an opposite reaction, pointing out that the hero’s victory began to feel too logical and expected.

18 responses to “Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann: Rebellion Perfected?

  1. I applaud you for linking Byron and imageboards in one joke. Truly the pinnacle of human thought has been reached. We can only go downhill from here.

    I agree with most of your post, though on the Anti-Spirals being omnipotent I think they were more omnipotent in a having-super-advanced technology way than a being-God way. Any technology can be turned on its creator, especially when hot blood and guts are involved. And I think NGE had just as hopeful and uplifting an ending as TTGL, you just had to look past all the weird stuff in the movie.

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  3. It’s always a delight to see differing opinions, especially when it’s something I could have come to myself if the heroes journey thought hadn’t come first. There are many ways to do literary analysis, and Paradise Lost is another motif that’s good to go with. Excellent write up, though I didn’t really feel you rebutted me like you initially set out to do. ^_^ Still, wonderful work of comparative analysis.

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  5. Damn, I really wanted to read this but I still haven’t watched TTGL. Arghhh.

  6. Yeah, I didn’t think the anti-spiral was/were so much impossible to beat as “highly unlikely.” The “defying the law of energy conservation” was revealed a couple episodes before anyway, wasn’t it?

  7. @ Demian: I thought the entry where I linked Sir Mix-a-Lot to Petrarch was pretty good in terms of cultureclasm, but yes Bryon and imageboards don’t mix. You’d throw all these fetishes and paraphilias at him, and he’d be all like ‘Been there, done that, got the STD(s). I hardly need to look at pictures when I’ve achieved it, yes?’

    It may be a matter of technology, yes. Though I think that wielding a/the Big Bang seems to be beyond technology on a kind of ‘meta’ level, but then I’m not a physicist (I’m descended from several, mind).

    Possibly before deciding how we feel about the end of NGE, we have to first decide whether there’s one ending or two. But if we’re looking at the movie, I suppose it’s not an entirely depressing finale, true. (But surely ‘wedding’ beats ‘bizarre apocalyptic mass thing‘?)

    @ DeathToZippermouth: Yeah, if in doubt I always crash what I’m experiencing into Paradise Lost. It’s the WD40 of interpretive paradigms.

    I wouldn’t say I was seeking to refute your thesis so much as the Hero’s Journey which underpinned part of it – but a thesis isn’t to blame for its foundations (otherwise a lot of Classical philosophy would be much less relevant than it is).

    @ iniksbane: I sympathise. Here’s hoping ADV sort themselves out.

    @ Shiri: IIRC several episodes before, the Spiral’s mission had already reached ‘0% chance of success’, too.

  8. I would be interested in reading the paragraph about Nia myself. :P

  9. Sorry . . . blogging, like striptease and philosophy, is very much a matter of strategic concealment in lieu of actual revealment revelation.

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  11. Again, it didn’t feel like a rebuttal to the Heroes Journey and more like an alternate literary analysis. Which is still good, it just seemed a little tangential and didn’t connect back to the original intention you gave, which was the whole “Joseph Campbell was a Bloody Idiot” thing. There’s nothing wrong with holding that belief, and I personally only use the Heroes Journey when I feel it’s worth investigating. This is usually me saying that stories that slavishly adhere to it are contrived and dull (See: Eragon, The Matrix). In fact, TTGL is one of the only modern stories I feel does the concept properly, due to its attempting to create a modern myth rather than sticking to the patterns of the monomyth.

    Similar finished work, different toolkits to do the job. That’s what our essays are, and that’s why I like yours.

  12. The original intention was to demonstrate that pretentious Geasstards can be pretentious about TTGL too. I’m sorry if my use of ‘thesis’ misled you, but everything before the numbered sections was sort of a sideshow – acknowledging your own fine essay and mentioning in passing why I dislike the Hero’s Journey.

    If there is a thesis for this entry, I’d say it’s something along the lines of ‘TTGL is basically Paradise Lost, but it’s the BAD END version.’ Similar works from different toolkits is exactly how I’d put it. I’d also agree that TTGL manages to do a Hero’s Journey much more sucessfully because it actually speaks in the mode of myth rather than slavishly following the ‘monomyth’ pattern.

    [On a sidenote, I checked an odd referrer from my stats page and discovered that this is at the bottom of the first page if you Google 'critics on rebellion in paradise lost' (no quotation marks). Sorry whoever's trying to write an essay using the internet; may I recommend a good university library, and a copy of Lewis' Preface to Paradise Lost for an outdated but instructive apologetic approach.]

  13. No offense, IKnight, but man … I got bored with Paradise Lost.

    I’ll try the monomyth in Finnegans Wake, though, but without the Joseph Campbell Skeleton Key. :)

    :D

  14. PL isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste – in much the same way that I’ve been studiously avoiding Joyce (so far with success): I dislike prose in general and Joyce is supposed to the novel form’s Evangelion (intentionally meaningless confusion). But if it floats your boat . . .

  15. Oh James Joyce… from hell’s heart I stab at thee.

    Sorry. Just had a “Portrait” flashback

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