Voltron: Legendary Defender, Gurren-Lagann, and Human Connection in Robot Cartoons

Voltron: Legendary Defender is huge in a way I think few would have predicted. Previous attempts at reviving Voltron have been iffy at best, and super robots just aren’t an attractive feature to many current anime fans. What gives the series so much presence in the general fandom space is that its characters are charismatic, but more importantly their interactions with each other fuel the burning desire in fans to see relationships form and grow.

The fandom situation with Voltron: Legendary Defender reminds me a lot of when Gurren-Lagann started to hit it big with anime fans of all stripes. In light of its popularity, you could sometimes find more dedicated giant robot enthusiasts wonder what the big deal was with Gurren-Lagann. After all, didn’t works like Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon, Gaogaigar, and Aim for the Top! all exhibit the escalating scale of power and war long before that? The difference, it turned out, was the characters and the way they bounced off of each other. Even those who cared little about fighting robots connected to the friendship and camaraderie shared by the members of the Dai Gurren-dan, and moments like Kamina’s famous speeches (“Believe in the me that believes in you!”) opened up the opportunity for viewers to become fans of these close, emotional bonds.

I hardly find fault in how non-mecha fans connect to mecha series, but I do get the impression that the majority of fans of Voltron: Legendary Defender don’t really care about the robots at all—a far cry from the impact made by the old 1980s series. In that case, if people remembered anything at all, it was Voltron itself. This approach isn’t wrong, but as someone who always holds a soft spot for giant robot appreciation, I sometimes feel as if there’s a crucial part of Voltron fandom missing. In a way, it reminds me of when I first stumbled upon Gundam Wing fanfiction as a kid, hoping that it would be stories of awesome unique Gundams. What I got instead was swathes of stories pairing all of the Wing boys together (as Relena got killed over and over to make room for them).

The fandom that Voltron: Legendary Defender has garnered sometimes feels reflected in the design of the new Voltron itself. This updated version is much rounder, giving it an appearance almost like a human athlete. It comes across as more “organic” in some sense. Yet this makes the robot Voltron itself more like an action hero and less like an imposing mechanical colossus, which is the impression I always get when looking at the classic Voltron/Golion.

Voltron: Legendary Defender might very well be what brings giant robots back into the forefront of fandoms, but it might be something less recognizable to those who have dwelled in the caverns of Planet Mecha. I have to wonder, then, if the robots themselves can ever hold great appeal to those viewers who prioritize the passionate interactions between characters. Perhaps the more the robot lions and Voltron itself are given hints of personalities, the more even non-mecha fans can come to appreciate them and their aesthetic.

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Otakon 2012 Kakihara Tetsuya Interview

Introduction: Kakihara Tetsuya is a voice actor known for roles such as Simon in Gurren-Lagann, Natsu in Fairy Tail, Angelo Sauper in Mobile Suit Gundam UC (Unicorn) and Jin in BlazBlue. I had the opportunity to sit down for a group interview, which proved to be very informative, particularly in regards to his German background, as Kakihara was born and raised in Germany until 18.

Note that the Japanese names are last name first to maintain consistency with the blog. Also, if any of the other interviewers wish to be known, please tell me.

Interviewer A: What’s it like growing up in one country and going back to Japan? What were the hardships and adjustments you faced?

[Kakihara gives a long, serious response]

Translator: Where were the pauses so I could translate?

Kakihara: It was such a serious topic that it was hard to not…

In Germany there’s a school system you’re into until your teens, but by the time you’re in 4th grade you have to decide your career path. 5th grade is when you go into technical schools or pursue further education, and that’s the point you gotta make it. And once you make that decision… I chose to go to university, I chose the educational path. But once you start this new school you’re there for 9 years until Grade 13 with the same amount of people. But during those years I would go to Japan every summer vacation, see anime on TV, see all of the things in the culture and subculture I fell in love with.

But every year you’re in the same school with the same classmates year after year and mostly people don’t change. But there are a number of dropouts who fall out each year, and even though 150 people started the same grade as me, by the time I graduated there were 40 people left. So it was a very strict school. But, seeing that I had such an interest in Japan I decided to move there and pursue a career in the cultures I was interested in, which includes voice work and acting. So that’s how I came to Japan to pursue an acting career.

Interviewer A: Most people who want to go into something can’t always succeed. What made it possible for you?

I ran way when I was 18. I haven’t seen my parents in over 10 years. When I went to Japan after I graduated, I had no other choice but to succeed. I couldn’t drop out of this. It was a driving goal, and it had to happen, and I made it happen. And now that I look back on it, I think that I’m very happy with what I’ve done.

Translator: Pretty gutsy!

Interviewer B: Well you mentioned being part of the subculture at least over vacations before you became a producer in the subculture, a creator, an actor in the subculture. Since becoming involved in the creation of works, have you had any fanboy moments, working with someone where you felt “Oh my God, I don’t believe this is happening?”

Translator: [discussing with Kakihara whether or not he needs to translate] He understands English, he just pretends not to.

Kakihara: Of course. Famous people, when I go to work, they’re to my left and to my right.

Was there anyone in particular who was a hero?

Kakihara: No one specific comes to mind…

I find the people who’ve been doing voice work since I was a child still working… I’m going to be 30 this year and to see them still working is pretty amazing. Our seniors are amazing. There are no other words than that.

But if I need to name someone in particular, Takayama Minami, the voice of [Detective] Conan. So, seeing someone who’s had so many starring roles for decades is someone who I’d respect, but I’ve never really been the kind of person who looks at another and goes, “Boy I’d like to be that person one day!” That’s not the kind of person I am.

Having been working myself for a decade now, when I work with these people, I still feel, boy I still have a lot further to go. Like, working on a show like Saint Seiya Omega where Mr. Midorikawa [Hikaru] is in there, or from the previous versions of the show Furuya Tohru from Gundam, boy, they still got the same voices they did decades ago. There are so many of these greats around me, so even though these are people who should be admired, I am on the same stage as them. If anything, I’m in competition with them to be just as good, so I respect them but I don’t exactly admire them. I’m going to defeat them.

Interviewer B: This is entirely off-topic and somewhat irreverent but I’ve gotten good responses from all of the other guests. Do you have a favorite swear word, and what language do you swear in?

Kakihara: It used to be German in the past. Can I say this word?

Interviewer B: Go ahead.

Kakihara: Arschloch! Arschloch.

Interviewer B: [laughs] The blacksmith in the Dealer’s Room also said that it’s his favorite food.

Translator: What’s the word?

Kakihara: [in English] Asshole.

Interviewer B: That’s the third time I’ve gotten it this weekend! In German!

Kakihara: Leck mich am Arsch [Kiss my ass]. I recall saying this a lot in German.

I’ve begun to think in Japanese these days. I can’t say I really use a lot of swear words in Japanese. To myself or to someone else? It depends on what you’re saying it about and who you’re saying it to. “I hope you burn.”

Translator: Do you say it to them or do you think it?

Kakihara: I say it to them, if they do something idiotic.

Interviewer C: You do a lot of work outside of anime, so what do you think of Otome Games in America, since there a lot of gamers out there? You’ve done voice work in Amnesia, Ren’ai Banchou, Grim the Bounty Hunter…

Kakihara: The relationship simulation games? Love sims? One of the things that attracted me to voice acting was Tokimeki Memorial. That’s a love simulation game for boys. It’s definitely the founder, the one that really started the boom of the love sim games. It was one of the first that was voiced by voice actors. I felt amazement in the Japanese culture, to create a game that allows you to pursue a simulated romance. Of course, it started out being directed towards boys, but these days it seems to be concentrated a lot towards girls playing these games.

I think it’s a very interesting part of what I do in my career. I have to spout lines I would NEVER say in real life, or go to a date location that I would never choose myself, but being able to experience it through these voice roles is very entertaining.

[Asking the interviewer] Are dating sims really popular here?

Interviewer C: I play a lot. All of my friends play a lot also.

Kakihara: [in English] Thank you very much.

Just learning that people are fans of your work even in the United States is always a pleasing thing to learn.

Ogiue Maniax: Given your native fluency in German, I’m wondering if it’s had any influence in the roles you’ve taken as a voice actor. For example, I know that in Nanoha you voice various weapons which speak in German.

Kakihara: So like you said, in Lyrical Nanoha I do speak German, but when a Japanese person imagines a German, they imagine someone who’s burly, wearing a military uniform with a very low voice. My voice tends to be very young-sounding, so I’ve been to recording sessions so that I can direct others on their German because the actors have the voices the producers wanted. But as an actor I would have liked to perform those lines myself.

I have to say, my German has not been a help in my career in most cases. But in cases like this where I come to some place in the United States, having spoken German in my life I can actually listen to English and comprehend a lot of it, so it’s been a great help in this trip.

Ogiue Maniax: I think one of your most famous roles is Simon in Gurren-Lagann, so I was just wondering what giant robot anime you watched growing up, and if any of these shows influenced you portraying the role.

Kakihara: I didn’t really watch a whole lot of robot anime, but there are a lot of shows when I was growing up with hot-blooded main heroes, so seeing leads in these action shows or sport shows did give me some influence in portraying Simon. It’s not just anime you learn from. From manga and everything else you can just get inspiration to portray a character.

Interviewer B: If you could work on a character in any IP, anywhere, do you have a dream voice you want to do?

Kakihara: [in Japanese] What kind of program?

Translator: [in Japanese] Anime or manga, or…

Kakihara: [In Japanese] An anime currently running?

Translator: [in Japanese] That, or even an anime that hasn’t been made yet.

Interviewer B: If they decide to make an anime version of Batman, that’s fine too.

Kakihara: There’s a comic called Bachi Bachi, I really like this title. Do you like sumo in the United States?

Interviewer B: There’s not much chance to see it but when it’s on.

Kakihara: I think it would be a hit anime show if it would ever be made. I’d love to play the lead in that show.

Translator: I don’t think a sumo anime would succeed in the United States. No cute girls in sumo.

Ogiue Maniax: The image of sumo is very foreign, also.

Translator: E. Honda is what people think of.

Interviewer B: Wasn’t there an American champion a few years ago?

Translator: A Hawaiian.

Ogiue Maniax: Akebono.

Translator: But there’s no popularity here. [In Japanese] The only image of sumo here is E. Honda.

Kakihara: Edmond Honda.

Translator: Only Honda.

Kakihara: I think it could be a foothold to make sumo popular here.

Utena via Gurren-Lagann

This isn’t really anything mind-blowing, but I find that one of the themes of Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann can be used to explain a certain aspect of the ending to Revolutionary Girl Utena in a rather straightforward fashion. As I’ll be discussing the ending to Utena, I think a spoiler warning is more than implied, but I’ll put one here anyway because I think both Utena and Gurren-Lagann have final conclusion that shouldn’t be experienced in the form of a paragraph. I advise you not to read this post unless you’ve seen both.

In the “epilogue” of Revolutionary Girl Utena, we see Ohtori Academy only nearly everyone has forgotten about Utena. At first, it seems like Utena ultimately had no impact on the students there despite everything that happened in the series, but little by little the show reveals subtle differences in the characters’ behavior, such as the fact that Wakaba now has a friend who looks up to her as much as Wakaba herself looked up to Utena. Then we see Anthy with Akio, where Akio is trying to revive the rose duels once more. Anthy, however, ends up walking away and (we presume) permanently out of Akio’s life.

If we look at Gurren-Lagann, the drill is one of the very overt themes of the series. The titular robot pulls them out of thin-air, the concept of the infinite power source that is “spiral energy” is derived from the same shape, and it appears in the show’s most famous quotes (“Your drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!”). From that whole drill motif (though I can’t remember if it’s from a production interview or if it’s said in the actual show) comes the following idea: humanity is like a drill in that it moves forward with every revolution.

Now I believe that the Japanese word Gurren-Lagann uses for “revolution” is different from the one that Utena uses (回転 kaiten, revolving vs. 革命 kakumei, life-changing), but I think it explains the ending to Utena quite well. In the end, Utena did not defeat Akio, she did not permanently undo the rose duels, Ohtori Academy still stands, and Utena is gone from the world. However, it’s clear that she did indeed bring forth a revolution, and in that one revolution all of the characters were able to grow a little. All of the characters, that is, except for Akio. While Anthy is able to finally will herself to break free of the cycle that Akio has built up, Akio himself is shown to be a man who can no longer learn, who is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. Like the drill of the  Gurren-Lagann, for the revolution that Tenjou Utena induces, (nearly) everyone moves one step forward.

Yes I Am Quoting Myself

For the Reverse Thieves’ second Speakeasy Podcast they compared Gurren-Lagann and Shin Mazinger, discussing why the former has a much more universal appeal among current anime fans than the latter. One of the topics that interested me was the false assumption that if a person likes Gurren-Lagann then the next step is Shin Mazinger, or similarly that if a person likes Gundam W that they will like the original Gundam as well. I thought of an analogous situation which I think sums up this problem quite well, and I wanted to have it on-hand and on-blog.

So consider, if you will, the following hypothetical conversation.

“Hey, what’s your favorite cereal?”

“Frosted Flakes!”

“Well if you like Frosted Flakes, I think you’ll enjoy CORN FLAKES! It’s the ORIGIN of Frosted Flakes!”

The person recommending Corn Flakes has his heart in the right place, but doesn’t realize that the reason why the other person likes Frosted Flakes so much might be mainly because of the sugar frosting, i.e. everything that Frosted Flakes have that Corn Flakes do not.

Reducing things down is not the answer for everyone, and just like Frosted Flakes vs Corn Flakes, I think people enjoy the total package of Gurren-Lagann, making it difficult to sell some fans on the idea of Gurren-Lagann stripped down to its bare essentials.

A Villain’s Guide to Defeating Giant Robots: Gurren-Lagann

Welcome to the first entry in a series designed to help enterprising villains deal with the constant threat of giant robots. Their abilities are often unpredictable and logic-defying, and it may even seem that the mecha you’re facing is absolutely invincible.

It will never be an easy fight, but I’m here to show you that no giant robot is completely invincible. There is no guaranteed plan of attack, but what I will provide you is the foundation upon which you can formulate plans to eliminate them.

Keep in mind that this information is fairly extensive. For those villains who wish to remain surprised while viewing recordings of their heroic exploits, I advise you read with caution.

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Are the releases we want going to be the releases we get?

One complaint always leveled at anime companies is that they charge too much for anime. It’s something I’ve criticized in the past myself. Well, companies are finally listening and we’re seeing a variety of attempts to lower the cost of watching anime.

Gonzo plans on continuing its free online subtitled broadcasts with a continuation of Strike Witches.

Gainax and Bandai Entertainment have made it possible to watch the smash hit Gurren-Lagann on network cable via the Sci-Fi Network. Not only that, Bandai is planning a blitzkrieg release with 9 episodes per disc with a release of 1 disc per month. That’s 3 months for ALL of Gurren-Lagann.

Maria-sama ga Miteru, officially titled now as Maria is Watching Over Us, has an upcoming release of the entire first season at once. That’s 13 episodes from the get-go. No waiting, no nothing.

Media Blasters is releasing the second half of Gaogaigar all at once for practically nothing as well. This has less to do with plans and more to do with the fact that GGG did not do so well in the US, but it’s there.

And finally, Toei Animation has given the courtesy of releasing episodes of Hokuto no Ken and Slam Dunk online at $2 per episode. Granted, there’s some Digital Rights Management crap that we have to deal with, but they at least figured out that this is a better way of giving exposure to older series such as these.

So the anime industry has finally stepped up their game, and made it easier than ever to obtain anime from legitimate sources for affordable prices. It is now up to us as fans to support them, to tell these companies that, yes, we are willing to give you money directly provided you make it possible for us without sacrificing an arm and a leg when we do not have the fortune of being Edward Elric.

I don’t expect people to buy every single example I list here, and of course people’s income situations vary greatly, but I think it’s important that the anime fandom show that we are supportive of new attempts to get anime in our hands.

What is the skill level of a professional tennis player in Prince of Tennis?

After much thought, I believe this would be an accurate depiction of a Tennis pro in the world of Prince of Tennis.