Review for Gurren Lagann - Ultimate Edition
I can’t believe that I’m reviewing Gurren Lagann on Blu-ray. First of all, the idea of a high definition release of Gurren Lagann might have been seen as pie in the sky just a few years ago. Then, when Aniplex of America released it, they simply imported the Japanese set and repackaged that. The price for that... wait for it... was $550. They’re going to re-release it now in slightly cheaper single volumes, but when Aniplex demands that kind of price, you know that any other distributor is going to struggle to meet licensor requirements. All the Anime isn’t just any other distributor though, and they can find a compromise that will suit UK fans where other distributors can’t. We’re going to get Gurren Lagann in an Ultimate Edition for just a smidge over £100, and it is loaded with extra features.
The real reason why I can’t believe I’m reviewing Gurren Lagann is that it wasn’t my cup of tea when I first watched it. Actually I’m on record as using stronger words, but I have to admit that my opinion was shaded by how I watched it. For a brief time there, Manga Entertainment dabbled in online streaming, and Gurren Lagann was one of the two titles they tried in the UK, back when it was still a Beez DVD licence. Manga’s streams were dub only, and they were... I believe the technical term is... pants. They even missed out an episode, which got me other-means-ing the show, which resulted in even worse technical quality. What I managed to pick up through that low-bit-rate pixellated mush was a show that seemed to parody its genre to extremes, have its tongue lodged so firmly in its cheek that it was in danger of cramping. It was the mecha show to end all mecha shows, and I didn’t get its sense of humour.
I began to rethink my opinion last year, when All the Anime and Wakanim streamed Kill la Kill, which does for its genre of ‘magical girls’ and high school battles what Gurren Lagann did for mecha shows, turn everything up to eleven, parody the hell out of it, and essentially put the nail in the coffin of the genre. I got the humour of Kill la Kill, and I wound up loving the show. That’s enough for me to give Gurren Lagann another chance.
You wouldn’t think it was much of a life as a digger, especially for Simon, whose sole talent lies with his drill, his ability to create tunnels to expand his underground village, not that it earns him much respect. However, he does have a best friend in Kamina with glowing ambition, a positive attitude to life, and a determination that he and Simon, Team Gurren will one day break out of their subterranean life, and partake of the wonders that lie on the surface. That sort of thing gets them ignored by the cute girls in the village, and shouted at by the village leader, but they get put on an irreversible path to destiny the day that Simon finds a key shaped like a drill. That key fits into a long buried robot head that he uncovers. Not that they get much of a chance to try it out, before the ceiling caves in, and another giant robot crashes into the village, hotly pursued by a cute girl in a bikini top and hot-pants named Yoko, wielding an unfeasibly large rifle. Simon and Kamina have their way out to the surface, but the world above holds more perils than wonders, and the path to their destiny will demand a heavy price.
All 27 episodes of Gurren Lagann, plus extra features, and the two Gurren Lagann digest movies are presented in this Ultimate Edition across six Blu-ray discs thus...
1. Bust Through the Heavens With Your Drill!
2. I Said I’m Gonna Pilot That Thing!!
3. Who Do You Think You Are, Having Two Faces!?
4. Having Lots of Faces Doesn’t Make You Great!
5. I Don’t Get It, Not One Bit!
6. There Are Some Things I Just Have to See!!
7. You’re Gonna Do It!
8. Later – Buddy
9. What, Exactly, Is a Human?
10. Who Is This Bro?
11. Simon, Hands-Off
12. Yoko, Will You Do Me a Favor?
13. Eat Up, Everyone
14. Well Met, Everyone
15. I Will Head Towards Tomorrow
16. Compilation Episode
17. You Don’t Know Anything
18. Tell Me the Secrets of This World
19. We Will Survive, By Any Means Necessary
20. How Far Will God Test Us?
21. You Are Someone Who Ought to Survive
22. This is My Final Duty
23. Let’s Go, This is the Final Battle
24. I Will Never Forget This Minute, This Second
25. I Accept Your Final Wish
26. Let’s Go Buddy
27. The Lights in the Sky are Stars
Gurren Lagann: The Movie – Childhood’s End
Gurren Lagann: The Movie – The Lights in the Sky Are Stars
Gurren Lagann gets a 1.78:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p resolution that looks very nice indeed. The show looks quite resplendent in high definition, the level of detail and increased colour depth is one thing, but it’s in terms of the animation, which now comes across in its native frame-rate, that you really see the benefits of upgrading the show to HD. There is a smidge of digital banding in a few scenes, but you’ll have to actively seek it out to be bothered by it. Gurren Lagann is a vibrant, energetic and fast paced animation, and seeing it like this, unmarred by compression artefacts and the like is really a revelation, especially when all I had to compare it to were those low resolution streams a few years back. I can actually see what’s going on now, and get the full impact of those crazy mecha designs.
The transfer is almost, but not quite perfect. 20:56 into episode 5 on Disc 1, there is a jerky pan in a scene. On disc 2, one cut from 40:50 to 42:00 into playback is jerky again, and very obviously scaled-up from SD unlike the rest of the show, and the occasional scene will show a degree of softness not in keeping with the majority of the HD scenes. All the Anime have stated that at three points in the show, they weren’t supplied the HD footage, and rather than have a frozen screen and audio, they opted instead to splice in the footage from the DVD releases.
Note that the movies have none of these issues, and look fantastic and fairly consistent throughout, with the weak points being some of the footage re-used from the series, but excellent clarity for the newly animated sequences.
For the TV series, you have the choice between PCM 2.0 Stereo Japanese and French, as well as a DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English track. The audio tracks are locked during playback, but the subtitles aren’t, and you have the option of translated English, English signs, and translated French. I gave the English dub a quick try, and it’s a nice, effective surround track, making the action sequences come alive, and giving the show room to breathe. What I sampled of the dub wasn’t too bad either, with the actors capturing the right levels of testosterone for their characters. However, my preference as always was for the Japanese audio, which given the Prologic treatment delivers a fair amount of surround effects. The actors are well suited for their characters, the action comes across well, as does the show’s music. Gurren Lagann has some exceptional music, beyond just the ‘Row, Row, Fight the Power’ rap, and it’s well worth watching the Parallel Works pieces where the music really takes centre stage.
There is a problem on disc 2 however. Prologic works by matrixing suitably encoded two channel stereo to four channels, centre for dialogue, left and right front for the stereo effects, and a single rear surround channel. Disc 2 has a fault where the centre channel is repeated across all four channels, leaving the dialogue sounding hollow and decentralised. You can immediately hear the difference if you switch to the French track, which is correctly encoded. You can mitigate this by switching Prologic off. The dialogue is still unfocused, but at least it’s at the front soundstage, confined to the two stereo speakers. It’s even easier to switch the home theatre off and listen through the TV speakers, but it’s still a blemish on an otherwise impressive release.
The subtitles are accurately timed and are free of error, but the on screen captions could be a little better. For one thing, when there are text captions and dialogue captions on screen at the same time, the text caption will flash whenever the dialogue subtitle changes. And for some reason on episode 16, the recap episode, the clash of text translations and dialogue gets hectic, with some dialogue subtitles not on screen long enough to read. There are also odd differences between the English and French subtitles. The French get the theme songs translated, we don’t, and I also noticed character spellings varying. Aretenborough looks awkward in English, but the French spelling of Attenborough actually sounds like the Japanese seiyuu pronunciation.
The feature films only have audio in PCM 2.0 Japanese stereo form, with optional English and French subtitles.
I received only the check discs for review, and cannot comment on the quality of the packaging, or the physical extras that come with this release.
The discs present their contents with animated menu screens.
All of the series extras are on disc 4.
Yoko goes to Gainax lasts 24:51, is presented in 1080i presumably scaled up from SD, and with PCM 2.0 audio with subtitles. The voice of Yoko, Marina Inoue pays a visit to Gainax studios to take a look at the animators at work, and get an explanation of the animation process. There’s a lot of on screen text along with the dialogue to translate here, and the subtitles do get a little mixed up at times.
Sazigen 3DCG Test Animation Footage lasts 15:19 and is in 1080i, and is pretty self evident from the title.
In a similar vein we get 23:24 of Animated Storyboards in 1080i.
We also get three sets of textless credits, beginnings and closings presented in 1080p. There is also a Storyboard Music Video which lasts about as long as a credit sequence. Incidentally, the credits lack subtitle translations here too.
Finally there is the Broadcast Version of Episode 6, lasting 24:23, in 1080p, with PCM 2.0 stereo in English, Japanese, and French, with English and French subtitles. Note that there is no pop-up menu here, and if you want to change audio, you’ll have to do so from the main menu. When Gurren Lagann was moved to an early evening slot, it became necessary to rework the hot springs episode to something a little less saucy.
On disc 5, with the first movie we get the Parallel Works 1-7 (29:02), and on disc 6 with the second we have Parallel Works 8-14 (39:40), presented in 1080p with PCM 2.0 Stereo. There are no subtitles, and since there is no dialogue, you don’t really need them, except for a couple of animations in the second batch which have a lot of on screen text. These little OVAs are excursions from the Gurren Lagann universe, animators having fun with the characters and experimenting with animation styles, and they really are a lot of fun. Whether it’s knights in shining armour or a Western motif, or what certain characters were up to when they weren’t on screen, it’s all short, sharp hits of fun, and I have to admit that I was more enthused by them than the actual feature films.
Back in 2007, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann was the biggest anime show on Earth. Everyone, but everyone was talking about it. Indeed it seemed that everyone watched it, and this was before the days of legal streaming anime services. It was epic, the anime game changer, the show that comes around once every blue moon to tempt new fans to the medium, to get anime back into the mainstream, it was that year’s Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dragon Ball Z all rolled into one. It was big, epic, almost as big as the phenomenon of Yoko cosplay which took on a racy life of its own. It redefined its genre, told a fantastic and breathtaking story, and it was filled with a cast of memorable and eminently quotable characters. The production values were fantastic, and when it came to the animation, Gainax took what they had learned with FLCL, and turned the dial up to eleven, delivering a show that looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before. And when eventually I did get to watch it, I hated it! Part of it was down to my instinctive loathing of giant robot shows (outside of Evangelion), a loathing I took pains and a fair amount of time to educate myself out of. After all, anime is built on the backbone of giant robots, and to simply dismiss a whole genre is to do the medium a disservice. I also had conflicted opinions about the approach of the show, which I contradictorily found to be an excessive tongue in cheek parody, which also took itself far too seriously.
Now it’s 2014, and I have made up for the dearth of giant robot shows in my collection and my viewing repertoire (although I’ve still yet to watch a single Gundam) and I can approach Gurren Lagann with a more even, and hopefully fair-minded attitude...
I still don’t like it!
On the bright side, I won’t go as far as using the words ‘hate’ or ‘loathe’. I no longer have that instinctive need to flee from mecha anime, and I have to admit that watching this show in high definition certainly was a blast. I love the look of the show, the music is excellent, and it’s an exemplar of visual excess, the kind of show that you simply have to have on Blu-ray to show off. I also like what the narrative does, essentially encompassing human evolution in the space of a single lifetime. The narrative strokes of Gurren Lagann speak of ancient mythology and religious texts. I’m currently working my way through nu-Battlestar Galactica, and watching Gurren Lagann puts me in mind of that show’s refrain of “All this has happened before, and all this will happen again”. There’s something inherently attractive of watching these characters rise up from what looks like the Stone Age, to the point of striding across galaxies, however implausible the premise may be.
I also love how each episode adds another layer to the pyramid, climbs another rung up the ladder, building on what the previous episode established, and enriching and expanding the world. Gurren Lagann is the embodiment of that George Lucas quote. Each episode simply has to be faster and more intense. For me, that means that for reasons that I will go into later, Gurren Lagann starts off fairly poorly, and it’s not a show that I can get into immediately. But each episode begins to draw me in more and more, and it’s when we get to the seven year time-skip, around episodes 17-22, that I sit there convinced that Gurren Lagann is the best anime ever created. Of course for me, what comes after episode 22 has this show lose all credibility in my eyes, it just gets too fast, and too intense for rational thought.
Gurren Lagann is the ultimate quintessence of manly testosterone, in what is still, to this date, the epitome of the shonen hero giant robot mash-up. It is what you would get if you put someone like Son Goku or Naruto in an Eva instead of Shinji. Gurren Lagann was originally meant to be the anti-Evangelion. Even at his most whiniest, Simon is carved from pure testosterone granite, and he is the most complex character in the show. Everyone else has a more singular mission statement.
I approached the re-watch of Gurren Lagann with Kill la Kill under my belt, which does for high school conflict and magical girls what Gurren Lagann does for shonen and mecha, but on reflection, Gurren Lagann doesn’t do it in quite the same way as Kill la Kill, which is inherently aware that it is a parody. It knows that it is pushing things beyond belief, and lets the fourth wall shatter on occasion, complicit with the audience in the joke. Gurren Lagann might be a parody, it is an over the top visual excess of a show, but when it comes to the story and the characters, it plays it surprising straight. The animators and the creators certainly wink like crazy to the audience, but the characters never do, and there are points in the show where I tend to wish for a little acknowledgement of the ridiculousness of it all.
It’s around these points, the conclusion of the first arc, and the conclusion of the series, that I realise that excessive po-faced testosterone can act as a soporific. I dare say that I missed the more stunning action sequences, the manly posturing, the calling of special moves, as to my chagrin, Gurren Lagann was putting me to sleep.
I very much suspect that I have to be in the right mood for Gurren Lagann. Some nights I found the show’s over the top histrionics to be tiresome, but some nights I would be so into the story, so vicariously thrilled by the latest unexpected comeback by the good guys, that I would be surfing a wave of my own testosterone induced endorphins. On nights like these, the exclamatory catchphrase of “Just who the hell do you think I am?” would evoke a “Hell Yeah!” response and a fist victoriously punching the air. For me Gurren Lagann is a love it and hate it show. It just depends on what mood I’m in.
And then there are the movies. They are digest versions of the series to be sure, oft-times hastily edited together with eyecatches where the episode breaks should be. That’s true more so for the first movie than the second, and it’s a shame that most of the good Kamina stuff gets shunted into a short montage. But the films do get new animation, and they also get new endings. The first movie’s ending has a much more accessible climax where all of Lordgenome’s generals attack together instead of one by one. But if you thought visual excess and testosterone overload was bad in the series climax, wait until you see the end of the second film. The film itself, re-edited from fewer episodes hangs together a lot more smoothly, but by God that ending is so extreme that I inappropriately laughed my backside off! That said, I do like it more as it’s not quite as nihilistic as the series ending.
Well, let’s be honest. This isn’t the Ultimate Edition of Gurren Lagann, but it’s close. For the real ultimate edition, you need $600 and a time machine to go back and get Aniplex’s Japanese LE boxset, which came on ten Blu-ray discs, and with the audio dramas and the Parallel Works soundtrack on 5 CDs, and hardcover artbooks, and was ever so briefly allowed for import to the US. That’s gone now. All the Anime’s Gurren Lagann is the next best thing. You get the series, the movies, the Parallel Works, and a fair few on disc extras and physical goodies, all for a fraction of the price. You shouldn’t complain. I shouldn’t complain. So why is it that those three moments of SD video insert (only two of which I actually spotted) bug me? Actually they don’t bug me nearly as much as the Japanese audio Prologic II decoder error on disc 2. These are little things, but things that should have been caught, and make the release not quite as Ultimate as it could have been. It still a lot more Ultimate than most of the special editions we get for anime in the UK, and you shouldn’t hesitate in picking this up, minor flubs and all, as it looks as if this Ultimate Edition is already well on its way to selling out, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.