Gurren Lagann (aka Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann or TTGL) is an anime series from 2007 about a boy named Simon, his friend Kamina, and their mechs respectively named Lagann and Gurren. It may be relatively short, at one season of 27 episodes, but it has a story that’s constantly moving and delving into new ideas and themes.
It’s a series about willpower, about growing from loss, and about rap-opera fusion. But a particular aspect of the series that I want to focus on is how it treats the relationship between its male leads, Simon and Kamina, one that forms the backbone of the series’ narrative.
The series takes place in a world where most human settlements have moved underground, to the point where most people don’t even believe a surface exists. Simon has one of the most menial jobs in this society; he’s a digger, digging tunnels to locate resources and expand the small settlement where he and Kamina live.
Kamina is, quite honestly, not a great person. He doesn’t listen to authority, he’s misogynistic, and he’s egotistical. He dreams of going to the surface, to see his dad who left him when he was young.
He knows that Simon will surpass him, as a person, as a leader, and as a hero. He’s the first person to see Simon’s true potential, as for the first chunk of the series nobody else really believes in Simon besides Kamina himself.
He also tells Simon that Simon’s drill will pierce the heavens. The drill is a major symbol within the show, as it’s Lagann’s main weapon, and it’s also used as a symbol for Simon’s growth; he will succeed, he will reach for the surface with his drill, and he will bust through it, no matter what stands in his way.
Simon doesn’t really see Kamina’s flaws because of how he idolizes the older boy, and the narrative of TTGL is designed in a way that these flaws never need to be challenged. This is because it’s Simon’s narrative, and Kamina doesn’t really need to develop or grow in order for that narrative to stay intact.
While TTGL is my favourite anime, I think this is one of its major flaws. By interrogating Kamina’s character, it stands to reason that Simon would be shaken to his core. He would have to reconcile the man whom Simon has always trusted with someone who can and has made mistakes and who has hurt those around him.
Maybe, in the face of that pain, Simon would have to define who he wishes to be outside of Kamina’s influence.
The path that the anime does eventually go down allows Simon to define himself separately from Kamina, as he grows and is influenced by others around him besides Kamina. But that core aspect of Kamina that Simon bases himself upon stays constant throughout pretty much the entire series, and Simon continues to style himself to look like Kamina as well.
Not only does the series not question Kamina, it actually valorizes him, in a way. At one point, we see an alternate version of Kamina who’s been beaten down and who submits when put under any pressure. This is shown as a complete defeat, as a failure, and it’s legitimately one of the most emotional moments in the series. By contrast, the Kamina that we’ve grown used to seems like the greatest person in the world.
It’s the moment where Simon realizes what he’s fighting for, and why it’s so important; resistance, willpower, and the desire for change. What’s always surprised me with this segment is that it is the villains of the series who show Simon this alternate version of Kamina and therefore, again, this would be a perfect time to challenge Simon’s assumption of Kamina’s righteousness. Instead, this vision ends up provoking Simon into trying to resist even farther, having the opposite of the intended effect.
Maybe there wasn’t enough time to explore it all, or the writers just weren’t interested. But by leaving these parts of Kamina’s personality unchallenged throughout the run of the show, making Kamina seem like a flawless role model. Therefore, even if unintentional, the anime helps to perpetuate toxic masculinity.
While I wouldn’t quite call myself a huge fan of shonen, I’ve seen a few and know people who watch and read a ton of the genre. For those not familiar with the term, shonen refers to a genre of manga aimed towards teenage boys that usually features action and fighting of some sort, usually in some sort of fantastical setting.
Shonen is a genre from which TTGL draws heavily, and it is one that’s tended to struggle with toxic masculinity. After all, in a genre that tends to be about being physically strong, that can become all that the characters focus on, and the centre of all the conflicts. And in a genre aimed towards teenage boys, it’s often teenage and young adult male characters who take the starring roles, to the detriment of shonen’s female characters.
With regards to TTGL, an escapist anime about being the best person that one can be and striving to accomplish one’s goals ends up being dragged down by this association with these misogynist concepts. This also ties into another major critique of the series, its gratuitous fanservice. One of the two female leads is Yoko, a fourteen-year-old girl, and well…
You see the problem.
I love TTGL; its characters, its themes, and its mech fights. But by missing the mark on acknowledging the harmful aspects of Kamina’s character, it really makes it hard to recommend without a disclaimer. TTGL was really formative to me, and it helped me believe that I could really make a difference during my teenage years when I most needed that message. In many ways, the show mirrors Kamina himself.
It has big dreams, it pushes itself to always surpass expectations, and it can serve as an inspiration to those who need it. But, at the same time, it isn’t for everyone. Even as it tries to acknowledge its message as universal, it has its flaws that need to be addressed too.