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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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.

Madoka Magica and…Sacrifice?

Puella Magi Madoka Magica has come and gone, and it’s going to be a subject of much discussion. Part of it may simply be that the delay caused by the earthquake in tsunami Japan magnified the anticipation for the finale even more than the already huge expectations for the show, but I think this anime is going to stick in people’s minds for at least the near future. Though the show has its flaws, overly expository dialogue and some contrived twists to name a couple, I found it to be an overall strong show and indeed an interesting twist on the magical girl genre that understands what magical girls are about.

I’m going to be discussing the show and its ending in depth, so take this as the Spoiler Warning.

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The Fujoshi Files 13: Kinon Bachika

Name: Bachika, Kinon (キノン・バチカ)
Alias: N/A
Relationship Status: Ambiguous
Origin: Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann: Guren Gakuen-hen

Information:
Kinon Bachika is the third-eldest sibling of the Bachika family. She, along with her brother Kittan and her sisters Kiyoh and Kiyal, attend the highly unusual Daigurren Academy. As the assistant to the head of the School Disciplinary Committee Rossiu Adai, Kinon can frequently be seen at his side helping him to administer the rules properly, a necessary task given the high number of delinquents at Daigurren Academy, though the unique rules of the school mean that fighting is not only allowed but encouraged.

In her free time, Kinon finds the opportunity to draw racy images of her male classmates and teachers in romantic congress with one another. These include well-known figures such as Kamina and her own brother Kittan, but also her boss Rossiu, for whom she has feelings.

Fujoshi Level:
Kinon Bachika can be seen carrying around her sketchbook constantly, always eager to think up new pairings to whet her fujoshi appetite. However, Kinon is also somewhat embarrassed by her obsession, and tends to keep her sketchbook close by.

And Then Emperor Palpatine Fell Into an Explanation

The other day I went to see the movie Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fan one year before the release of Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I won’t say much about the movie itself except that I thought it was hilarious, but it reminded me that there’s a lot of Star Wars “lore” out there. I had borrowed a Star Wars character guide from a friend long ago, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, so I decided to hop online and take a look at the compiled information on the universe that is Star Wars. Upon reading I began to feel this sense of dread.

One of the very important lessons then Western Art took from Eastern Art was the concept of negative space, that leaving spaces blank can be just as effective a tool as filling in every detail. Essentially, it means less can be more. When applied to storytelling, it means that not every detail has to be explained and that in many cases the more explanation that arises the less effective the storytelling becomes. This is what I saw with the information on the  Star Wars Universe. I saw unnecessary explanation after unnecessary explanation, as if making sense of the world and filling in the gaps is far more important than maintaining the feel of the story and characters.

The idea of fans filling in the gaps is not something that’s necessarily bad. In fact many times I consider it to be a good thing as I feel it’s a very important foundation of fandom, whether it’s imagining stories in between major events, inventing new characters, or even fleshing out one-dimensional characters. One can argue that having these complex technical explanations is one type of fan’s way of exploring the universe of the story, but once it reaches a point where it becomes some kind of hybrid canon/fanon that influences or restructures the original story, I can’t help but feel that it is done at the detriment of core vital elements of a story. Obi-Wan and Yoda learned how to maintain their identity in the Force. Why does this need an explanation? Obi-Wan is a magical old man, and Yoda is an even more magical and even older man. There, that’s your explanation.

I think one of the many reasons why I like anime so much is that it seems to understand this idea of effectively using the gaps in storytelling. It’s not just about fueling imagination so that we the viewer may fill in the blanks, but using that sense of ambiguity to excite and drive us forward. Gurren-Lagann is an excellent example, because the characters utilize this vague, ill-defined power to achieve victory after victory. They are literally powered by a lack of common sense that keeps them from questioning if anything they’re doing is truly possible. “Do the impossible, see the invisible,” as the saying goes. One does not need to explain what doing the impossible entails or how it works other than that it was driven by the hero’s desire and the support of his friends.

A more apt comparison might be Star Wars and Gundam especially given the way they’ve influenced each other, but for all of the detailed explanations and added material that has been placed into the Gundam Universe, I feel that Gundam has handled it far better than Star Wars. What even its most hardcore fans ultimately enjoy appears to be more the story and the characters and the way great tales are told, rather than little details.

Wasn’t Star Wars once in its own in a way similar to Gurren-Lagann? There was the Force as a vaguely defined aspect of the universe with vaguely defined skill sets available to its users. What’s the difference between a normal man and a Jedi? That one is a Jedi and one is a man.

Be Mindful of Your Surroundings: Dennou Coil

In 2007, Dennou Coil hit the anime scene and blew everyone (who watched it) away. Touting one of the most impressive production staffs in recent history, Dennou Coil went on to win numerous awards, even one that was not exclusive to anime. If you want a very basic idea of Dennou Coil and its level of quality, keep in mind that it won some of these awards alongside Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. Dennou Coil however is nothing like Gurren-Lagann, general excellence aside.

In the world of Dennou Coil, the latest craze among kids are these special glasses which let them see a nearly both the real world and cyberspace mapped 1:1. This isn’t a Digital World that whisks you far, far away, this is simply a digital world. If there’s a garbage can in the real world, there will be on in the cyber world exactly where the real one would be, though for the safety of everyone it doesn’t work the other way around. “Dennou” literally means “Electric Brain,” and is one way of saying “computer” in Japanese.

The story focuses on two girls both named Yuuko, who each get nicknames based on the spelling of their names in Japanese and their basic personalities. Okonogi Yuuko, nicknamed Yasako for her gentle personality, is an elementary school girl who inherited her cyber-glasses from her grandfather, a man who was central to the development of the glasses. At the start of Dennou Coil, she has just recently moved from her home town to Daikoku City where her grandmother lives. Amasawa Yuuko, nicknamed Isako for her confidence and bravery, is a girl the same age as Yasako. In an environment where mischievous kids with a little bit of know-how in manipulating the virtual landscape call themselves hackers, Isako is known as a “programmer,” someone with intimate knowledge of the cyber world far exceeding the norm.

Daikoku City is a playground of sorts for those who wear the glasses, as kids compete with each other to find shiny, crude digital stones known as metabugs, which translate directly into currency in the virtual world, which translate into tool such as laser beam attacks and steel walls with which kids can participate in general shenanigans. Keeping them on their toes is a very robust and merciless anti-virus program named “Satchii” that will attack anything that doesn’t belong, which includes the illegal add-ons most kids are equipped with in Daikoku City.

Dennou Coil was produced by Madhouse, one of the oldest Japanese animation studios and responsible for an incredible range of works such as Ace o Nerae!, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Kaiba. The project is headed by Iso Mitsuo, a key animator for Giant Robo OVA and FLCL who is the head writer, director, and original creator of Dennou Coil. Animators include Honda Takeshi and Inoue Toshiyuki, both of whom have worked on Kon Satoshi’s movies such as Millennium Actress and Perfect Blue.

To say the least, Dennou Coil is a very impressive show.  The show’s themes and general feel are always changing, always keeping you on your toes. Sometimes it’s about kids having fun in a world meant for kids. Sometimes it’s about exploring the mysteries of the virtual world and outrunning Satchii. At one point, Dennou Coil turns into survival horror. And the amazing thing is, it all makes sense given the world of Dennou Coil. It is consistent without being predictable, and varied without losing focus. As I watched Dennou Coil from start to finish, I had one thought sitting strong in my head. “Ah, so this is what it’s like to have a show planned out from start to finish.”

You have shows which are described as “a little bit of everything,” but Dennou Coil, to paraphrase Chef  Boyardee, Jr., is “a lot of bit of everything.” It evokes a sense of discovery and wonder in the little things in life that I really enjoy in shows. The world of Dennou Coil is deep and robust, and the more academic anime fan could probably write multiple theses on some of the ideas present in Dennou Coil. The show’s major plot lines get stronger and stronger as the series progresses, and does so in a way where you can notice that they’ve been building up to the climax. Single-episode stories are also present, and they range from the silly to the heart-felt. Even the recap episode is entertaining as it takes place from the perspective of a character who normally doesn’t get to speak much. The storytelling is subtle without being excessively obtuse. Vital information is explained only as far as you need to know. The animation is amazing, with quality that is almost unheard of for a television series, especially in recent years. A great number of the staff members have extensive experience as animators and it shows, from the way characters interact with the environment to the way they express themselves to the world of Dennou Coil itself runs on a day-to-day basis. And the characters in Dennou Coil are among the best I’ve ever seen.  In terms of visual design and personality, the characters are distinct without being shallow, and the character  development in this show is on another level entirely. They learn and grow, they laugh and cry, the emotions that run through them all feel incredibly genuine, a “realistic virtual world” in a very different sense.

I have not re-watched Dennou Coil since finishing it, but I definitely know that it’s the kind of show that can be viewed repeatedly. Dennou Coil has a lot of depth from its animation quality to its writing, from its world to its characters, but that depth and sophistication has no high entry barriers. You can enjoy the show at any level, as it will reward you no matter what.