Andrew and I often criticize shonen for ruining story pacing and suspense. I’ve wrote one article about the problems of anime/manga storytelling. Andrew, recently, wrote critiques of One Piece and Bleach. We often discuss what Bleach and other shows could do to tighten the storytelling and build suspense. The pull-back almost all shonen do, just at the peak of suspense, looks to be a cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Bleach would be better if half or more of the Soul Society captains died. Deaths of heroes and supporting protagonists increases suspense. The hero must have the possibility of failure in order to create tension. If all these important “good guys” die, including this main character, the hero might just fail too.
Gurren Lagann gets suspense right.
Okay, as you can probably tell this post will have spoilers. After all, I am looking at the story structure. So if you want to be surprised, stop reading here.
Still reading? Alright. Let’s look at how Gurren Lagann returns a little of my faith in the ability of anime/manga to have interesting stories.
When Gurren Lagann opens, the first part of the plot makes you think Kamina is the hero. He is the usual strong-willed, impulsive, and overly confident hero shonen tends to love. Simon, his little buddy, is weak, timid, and the complete antithesis of a hero. Simon finds the Core Drill, an artifact that taps into his inner energy (called Spiral Power), but that is the only hint of his role in the story. Kamina leads the show. Together, he and Simon each find mechs that they can combine to form Gurren Lagann. Together they seek to free humanity from its cramped underground cities. In the process they challenge the beastmen that live on Earth’s surface and seek to keep humanity underground.
Along comes episode 8. The hero Kamina dies.
His death creates shockwaves across Team Dai-Gurren, the posse Kamina puts together to challenge the beastmen. Team Dai-Gurren elects Simon to carry Kamina’s battle on. Only Simon is not initially up to the task.
Gurren Lagann‘s set up of Kamina and his death is interesting. The impulsive shonen blowhard is killed in favor of the timid, weak-minded Simon. The rest of the series focuses on Simon developing to face the challenges Kamina sparked. For much of the series, Simon remains in Kamina’s shadow, emulating him and trying to image what Kamina would do in a given situation. The daughter of the King of the beastmen, Nia, becomes Simon’s partner and helpmate. She essentially becomes Simon whereas Simon develops into Kamina. Kamina’s death leaves a deep scar that serves as motivation for Team Dai-Gurren. They become stronger because of his death.
Killing a character like this has interesting impacts on the survivors. Imagine Bleach’s Ichigo watching Rukia die. Or Orihime. Or Chad. Or all of them! What would his failure to protect those closest do to him? It would certainly increase the threat of the villain that does the act.
In Gurren Lagann’s grand finale, Team Dai-Gurren is killed one member at a time. Each member goes out in a spectacular fashion, spitting into the eye of fate and laughing at death. Each member dies to protect the mission, Simon, and the youngest members of the Team. However, each death also creates a greater sense of hopelessness. The audience begins to wonder if the story would end in a tragedy or a Pyrrhic victory for the heroes. Each death tightens the suspense. As the more likeable and developed members of the Team die, perceptions of how dangerous the villain is increases.
As Andrew pointed out in his critique of Bleach, Aizen would become a terrifying villain if he dueled with the Head Captain, the supposedly most powerful being, and completely wipe the floor with him. Instead, he has to use underhanded tactics. While this is interesting, it breaks with the point Bleach makes about ever escalating strength.
Gurran Lagann stuck out as something different. The art style is certainly odd, and the series doesn’t completely shed all of its shonen roots. There is a lot of yelling and bluster. But, hey, it is a mecha. Some of the fights get a little extreme, such as at the end when they were literally throwing galaxies at each other. Gurran Lagann certainly isn’t subtle, but it does tell a different story. It breaks away from some of the plot problems and tension breaking habits anime has. It ratchets mecha tropes to the point of being satirical.
It is unfortunate well put together series like Moribito are not popular here in the States. It is nice to occasionally see a show like Gurren Lagann that isn’t entire predictable. It is nice to see a show that also doesn’t fall into back story or flashbacks or filler just as the peak confrontation starts. Unlike many anime, Gurren Lagann isn’t afraid to kill characters for the sake of the story. I was surprised by Naruto when the series also offs characters to advance the story. Anime’s key strength is its ability to create unique characters that appear only once. They are not actors you will see in another movie. When a character dies, this uniqueness makes the death final. That character will not appear in another anime. Gurren Lagann leverages this to up the ante. Now if only other anime would do this. It is hard to part with a character. As an author, I know. But if handled well, character deaths make them memorable.