Thursday, September 5, 2013

Romance: The Power of Excess in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

[Sigh.] Yeah Note: Another attempt at more-accessible diction/organization.

I spent Monday and Tuesday watching Blu-ray rips of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (the set was , to ). What made my experience so magical was the fact that I could watch the series at both the macro and the micro levels--and enjoy the series more thoroughly, at a level of thoroughness that very few anime titles ever seem to merit. Few series make you want to go through something again and again, the whole way through. As such, I'm a huge fan of spastically and repetitively re-watching 10 or 20-second snippets of a given series.

Uhh it's about the thighs! The thighs, I swear--dammit.

What do I mean by "re-watching snippets?" When one breaks down interests, he realizes that he has many different sorts. There are some that are higher-minded but most of the "lower" ones are fairly-easily met. And, as 2DT used to say, Japanimation is the place to go. Any funky taste you've got is going to be represented to some degree in the medium. Therefore, the question isn't what you like, but--as the Tupac Shakur song goes--how you want it. What kinds of lolis do you like? Old-school or bipolar tsundere? How big the boobs on your women, or pecs on your men? Do you like characters that are a bit chubby, like Ladies vs Butlers!' Selnia Iori Flameheart, or pencil-thin?

Such freedom of choice or individuality allows one a slight caveat to Azuma's pessimism: if he's right, and if consumption of the 2-D database really does come down to junk-food snacking, we still have the option of being snide about our tastes. I even think that this being snide saves us from supposed postmodern savagery. Consider: do you like to imagine that your women/men really are chubby/thin, or do you tend to relegate that to art style? Do you like to feel as if narrative "seriousness" consistently pervades a work, or are you genuinely all right with a more fragmented approach? See, you do have a voice!

An unusual phenomenon for works within the medium, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann demonstrates this flexibility in spades. It's the authorial vision that's unique. People often gush about the "heart" of a story, which for me is hard to comprehend until it's at the scale of a show like TTGL.

I'm talking romance. Romanticism, too.

Burning love defines the show. Fanservice. Penis jokes galore. Moe. Bromance. The ache for the Infinite and Absolute. The show gives you 100 explosions in the place of a single one, and loves to pan out for the sake of fantastic scale. Secondary characters are rather flat: they sort of have their moment, and then fade into the background. But as most people are quick to tell you, there's a hell of a lot of stuff going on. The textual patterning ("symbols," "images") is so subtle--and yet so unquestionably there--that you constantly scratch your head at the narrative scale. You almost think the writers are just fooling around; they aren't. It's fun to watch at the micro level, and everything I feel I'm missing from Hollywood action films. This is likely because outright fun and earnestness is integral to the storytelling frame, but also because there are always new things you pick up on with a rewatch. Or piece together, or imagine.

The TTGL discography is fantastic (have a thing for Ottoman military music, actually), whether you listen to it holistically, play little 10 or 20 second bits of it repetitively, or watch particular scenes utilizing those hooks or climaxes. I'm pretty sure the audio quality has improved. The seiyuu already blow the English VAs out of the water, right? I mean, the speaking tempo and rhythm is totally sexy. Listen to Viral's best lines, and you'll understand what I mean.

With Blu-ray quality, you can appreciate images in or out of context. I want a Chouginga Gurren Lagann. I'd like to visit a Kamina City. Certain images have a more stunning effect.

It's incredibly anti-mimetic. Slap angular and star-shaped glasses onto everything, why don't you? Aren't trenchcoats and waist cinchers cool? You want to imitate bits of these characters--even their gait. And the plot doesn't hide the fact that it's messing with the concept of likelihood to begin with, so it's hard to argue that it manipulates too much or "doesn't really portray X realistically." It's valid, but just unpleasant to argue.

It's incredibly vague, which may be seen either as bad or good. Though viewers often think so--mistakenly--there actually is no message or easy moralism to the series, no "this is what X is" or "this is how you do Y." It doesn't advocate Hegelian dialectic (far too messy for that), and it certainly doesn't validate Nietzsche's ubermensch premise (it's the Anti-Spirals who are convinced that Spiral beings behave this way). It doesn't obsess over or celebrate the "triumph of the human will." What it says--the kind of life-affirming thinking I can really get behind--is that "action is life." It's within time and space that we do what we do. What is time? What is space? What is cause? We don't know whether there are gods or a cosmic order. Should they exist, however, it's your earnestness and active seeking of life that gets you to a place in which you can feel at peace. The show doesn't tell you how the world is--it isn't very highly mimetic, remember--but rather focuses on a facet of human experience, observing its expansion, contraction, and mutation over the course of a romping story.

This peace, TTGL emphasizes, is not total ease, or static inner clarity. It is not political or ideological agreement; violent conflict is something one should anticipate and wisely prepare for. It sometimes involves impulsive or ignorant rushing to one's death. But in the end, Rossiu isn't attacked by the writers as wrong--we just read that in, or sense the incongruity in his behavior. What Simon tells the guy is, "Look, if we hadn't so seriously disagreed with you, and been bent on doing things a different way, we would never have pushed ourselves to this new limit. You believed in something; cling to that earnestness." What good viewers will do, one hopes, is look past the ickiness of Simon's belief (it is icky), past the obsession with classification and judgment. It isn't a straightforwardly dialectical story--there are gaps.


To a number of shrugs and frowns, I've even suggested that TTGL makes most of its "fuller" sense if you:

* Understand it in light of Greek myth (Iliad and Odyssey), Mesopotamian myth (the Akkadian romance Gilgamesh), Greek rhetorical philosophy (Gorgias). Gilgamesh is ultimately the lightning-fast shortcut, and the recommended "first source."

* Understand it not as a mere "fighting the power" story, but one about the fickleness of art. Kamina is the mad artist (filled by the god), Simon the bad philosopher, Kittan the bumbling everyman. In short: Why do men do art?

To this end, I've for some time been working on a commentary-megapost explicating all of this stuff with close-reading, philosophical banter, etc.

I'm saying this: what works for TTGL is that it telegraphs its feelings. Which means that we get incredibly empathetic moments for all parties--which, paired with soliloquy and dialogue, can emphasize incredible contrast or dissonance. When absurdity hits, it hits hard. The snider of us, however, retort that because it's telegraphed and over-the-top, it's childish or less organized. This is folly.

Viewing TTGL's new release has caused me to remember that even if you can keep someone suspended with ambient sensory overload, you might actually be doing something precise and good. The participatory, indecipherable feeling of how something works is significant--perhaps more so than actual narration, dialogue, or scene. We don't see anything suggesting Testukan and Cybela to have sexual tension except, precisely, for an instant within the Extradimensional Labyrinth. The fact that you see a single, fleeting instant causes you to wonder, to fantasize, to become momentarily entrapped by something characters tear themselves away from. And beyond reason and logic, the reaction is enough.

If it's true that TTGL is "good"--and there's probably an argument to be made--then what a delicious take it is on hagiographic romance versus myth!
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