Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Spiral in Permanent Revolutions: Gurren Lagann via Gilles Deleuze

- Leeron Littner

At first glance, Gurren Lagann looks like a generic example of Shonen anime.  Its story is hackeneyed: young man starts into the world from his small town and quickly gathers a group of eclectic friends to face down a global-level threat. As it follows this basic format it is easy to mistake Gurren Lagann for an earnest tribute to its forerunners, counting such classics as Getter Robo, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Gundam Wing and other exemplars of the "Real Robo" and ,"Super Robo" genres as its wikipedia-obvious influences.  You could see it falling well in line with its better known, longer running contemporaries like One Piece or Naruto. But Gurren Lagann transcends the limits of its genre-siblings and forerunners by pushing the conventions of Shonen to the edge of absurdity in a single season-length statement.  This manic, concise, and ultimately critical spirit makes Gurren Lagann one of the most interesting anime I have come across.

The show affects its aesthetic and narrative feats by finding spirals at the heart of the genre and bringing them to the forefront. Watching this theme develop on-screen, you're surprised that you hadn't thought about it when viewing Gurren Lagann's act-alikes (assuming you hadn't); Shonen repeats the cycle of get stronger, beat boss, discover new threat.  It shares this narrative structure with video games, particularly early generation RPGs that were severely limited in gameplay diversity by virtue of their hardware and thus were forced to repeat variations on a theme.  But limited structure can sometimes make for the most inspiring art, and Gurren Lagann achieves baroque-pop greatness by taking this repetition and expanding it in a profoundly exuberant way. Far from being fanboy gushy about its influences, this expansion is accompanied by a surprising self-awareness that allows the show a critical reflection that is all too often missing from its fellows. This reflective stance transforms Gurren Lagann into a meditation on desire.

Already in this trailer you can see that Gurren Lagann does not shy from an overt traditional masculinity and a certain teenage puerility.  This may turn some off from the show; it certainly made me more wary when I started watching it (especially since some scenes are explicitly transphobic).  I think the show can be legitimately criticized for its shortcomings, but I also think that it embraces its kinks as part of the territory; when you're going to create the ultimate Shonen, you have to be willing to express its weaknesses just as much as its strengths.  This willingness to capture the entirety of the genre, flaws intact, defines the progression of the show.  It is "orgasmically" structured; each "circle" in the "spiral" of its narrative structure follows the aforementioned build-up, climax, recovery cycle.  And what's interesting is that the characters suffer the consequences.

Note: This next section will make a hell of a lot more sense if you have seen the series.  If you have not, hopefully I have piqued your curiosity enough that you'll go try it, maybe watch it, and come back.

Take, for example, the transition between the first and second major arcs of the series. Simone acts as a subject orbiting around an object of desire in both, the object of the first arc being Kamina and his desire to "break through the heavens," his desire for freedom, and the second being Nia and her desire to discover her purpose.  When Team Gurren has a center, it becomes what Deleuze calls "fascicular"; it spirals outward and echoes the power of its origin in an expansive and exploratory way.  For example, Team Gurren's escape through the ceiling of the hometown, the destruction of the four spiral generals, and the acquisition of Dai-Gurren act as echoes of Kamina's willingness to "drill" through the established order through sheer will in the first arc act as good examples of this echoing.  The more important note here is that in the interstitial period, when Team Gurren has no definite focal point, it flops.  Simone's depression and the establishment of the well-intentioned totalitarian world state after the second arc leap immediately to mind here.  It's easy to argue that the third and final act of the series is about Simone finding and expressing his conjugal desire for Nia.  But there are two interesting weaknesses to this third desiring relationship that beautifully illustrate the question that animates the series.

The first is that Simone's desire for Nia isn't strong enough.  When the Anti-Spiral traps Team Gurren in the alternate dimensions where they act as other selves, they stay stuck there.  It takes Kamina's reappearance and reactivation of Team Gurren's old desire, that is to say Kamina's desire, for freedom to jar them back into the fight. Trapped by their otherwise mediocre and everyday desires, they rely on Kamina's strength to galvanize them to their utmost potential.  Kamina here becomes more than an "individual" or a "symbol"; in this sequence, Kamina is a becoming.  Characters that are becoming-Kamina are each transformed in entirely different ways, each striving to reach their utmost expression.  Nowhere is this better captured than when Kamina explains that when he doesn't believe in himself, he relies on the him that Simone believes in, the becoming-Kamina in himself that defies his insecurities and transforms him into an expression rather than an individual.  This is further validated by the scene where Simone tells Kamina he'll "always be in his heart" and goes on to destroy the Anti-Spiral; Kamina has ceased being a person or a symbol, and become a freeing affect.

The second weakness of the central relationship of the third act is that after this final desire is consummated in the symbolic marriage of Simone and Nia, both characters are finished and the series is over.  It's easy to forget that Gurren Lagann ends on a cliffhanging, bittersweet note; the bulk of the characters take up becoming-Kamina again and presumably go on to challenge the spiral nemesis, but Simone ends up tired and comically impotent (skip to 21:56, unless you want to see the whole final episode and/or hear the Four Year Strong-esque end theme):

This is what I find truly fascinating about Gurren Lagann; every productive and strong force in the entire show relies on the drive to freedom of becoming-Kamina.  To me, becoming-Kamina is a perfect example of Deleuze's successful war-machine, the nomadic flow that continually escapes established boundaries on its own novel flight path.  When becoming-Kamina, Team Gurren creates, steals, and destroys with an anarchist glee; when forced to become sedentary, they lapse into a sometimes dangerous or aimless segmentation. The stand-out reference for this "reterritorialization" is Rossiu's world-state.  The series takes pains to make it explicit that his carefully planned order is born of his original religious resentment and is parasitic on the raw desire unlocked by Kamina; he tries to control, quantify it, and reduce it to its utility, but cannot fully contain its flow (as a perfect example, consider the Grapearls; mass produced based on Gurren Lagann's technology, they ultimately cannot come close to matching it).  Eventually the war-machine starts up again and the state relinquishes control when the Anti-Spirals shatter Rossiu's carefully constructed equilibrium.  Kamina and Team Gurren are a line of flight that breaks free from centered structures, including the identities of Kamina and Simone themselves.

Team Gurren is stuck vacillating between their self-sustaining collective desire and their centered, serial dependence on their cycle of become stronger, win the battle, and suffer refraction.  This assemblage is the basis of the startlingly interesting dynamic exploration that makes Gurren Lagann worth watching and worth thinking about.  At times, Team Gurren use their alliance and shared desire to act as a multitude straight out of Hardt and Negri's Empire.  At others, they fall into the "black hole" of hierarchy and complacency.  Their task (and perhaps ours) is either to find a practice of desiring that doesn't rely on a constantly collapsing structure of desired objects, but instead puts emphasis on sustained "plateaued" force (Trotsky, Deleuze/Guattari) or accept that the tragic structure is our lot and heroically embrace this fate (Camus, Zizek).  Or, to put it in appropriately melodramatic terms, are we up in the sky with Kamina, or stuck on the ground with Simone?

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