Editorials · On Themes

Kamina and Thoreau: Transcendentalism in Gurren-Lagann


Gurren-Lagann had actual subtext? Holy shit, really?!

From the very first “WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK I AM,” to Simon’s final act of rebellion against the Anti-Spirals to take back the universe, it remains clear that Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann is a twenty-seven episode ode to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau through and through. With Gurren-Lagann’s classic coming-of-age story for Simon, comes a struggle for independence and identity both on the outside and within and yet, at the same time a tale of reconnecting with the universe and returning to nature through rebellion. The amount of parallels to written works of Thoreau and Emerson is truly astonishing, whether intentional or not. Cozily hidden under Gurren-Lagann’s burly, testosterone injected hide, is an exceedingly clever story which circles around individuality, nature, and rebellion, the three hallmarks of the transcendentalist philosophical movement.

Only the sickest facial hair.

To put it in 21st century terminology, the transcendentalists were, well, a bunch of dirty hipsters who came into prominence in the 1830’s. The transcendentalist movement mostly arose from a widespread contempt of government in America. Society in general was also a target for their essays; they believed that through coming together as a community, man forgets his natural inclinations and chooses to do what is popular rather than what is right. Nonconformity and freedom of expression was a staple to their beliefs as they believed that the government restricts the individual and forces mankind into a routine. On top of this, many men of their movement, Thoreau and Emerson in particular, felt a very strong affinity for nature, believing that the wilderness is where all mankind return to their natural state beyond routine, a belief which later became a social experiment of sorts for Thoreau.

The number of theme overlaps in Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann and transcendentalist writing is absolutely fascinating. It’s a story about returning to nature, fighting oppression, and rising against conformity. In addition to being a classic parable on the human spirit, the Gurren-Lagann’s story encapsulates the essence and core values of the transcendentalist movement.

Individualism and Identity

“Aniki is dead. He’s not here anymore! But on my back, and in my heart, he lives on in me! My drill is the one that pieces the heavens! Even if that hole becomes my grave, as long as I break through, I shall be victorious! Who the hell do you think I am?! I’m Simon! I’m not my brother Kamina! I am myself! Simon the digger!”

It should come as no surprise that the classic coming-of-age outline is almost always synonymous with the discovery of one’s self. While Simon’s journey with the Dai Gurren-dan is one of rebellion, his internal struggle is a battle for identity. In the beginning, Simon lacks the confidence and drive of Kamina, his best friend and brother. Simon starts off as unconfident and unsure of himself and remains in a headlock with anonymity. While Kamina raises his cape, a symbol for leadership and authority, Simon lives under its shadow, hidden and confused, despite Kamina’s attempt to have Simon come out of his shell and to live as himself. Kamina proclaims that Simon should not only believe in those around him, but also in himself, his unique individual spirit. The first half of Gurren-Lagann is as much as a story about rebellion as it is a struggle for true originality.

True to the movement’s nonconformist roots, transcendentalism circles around staying true to one’s self (as corny as that sounds) and the certain failure of imitation. In his essay Self-Reliance, Emerson states that “envy is ignorance,” and “imitation is suicide.” Envy is always unrequited since one can never truly become another and imitation is killing what sense of self you have left. According to Emerson, one’s persona is always unique and impossible to copy and trends are but mindless habits and fads formed by society. However, from experiencing the failure which eventually stems from imitation, true originality and clarity can be derived for the individual.

The first 15 episodes of Gurren-Lagann are dedicated to Simon’s discovery of himself. Simon tries to become Kamina and but he is unable to because he’s himself. Although he previously lives in the shadow of Kamina as a leader, he rises among his peers and grows to become a new man, a charismatic king capable of leading the Dai Gurren-dan. When Kamina passes on from the world, he passes on his bravery and courage to Simon through his flame insignia, a worldwide symbol for the human spirit. With both Kamina’s kiss with Yoko and his passing on, Simon is hit with the shocking realization that he isn’t and can’t be him. Although this series of events sends Simon into a brief state of denial, through this experience he begins his own journey into his own psyche and discovers who he really is, Simon the digger.

While Kamina is the primary source of bravery and comfort for Simon in the first quarter, Kamina teaches his brother how to derive courage and true originality from within. Simon can’t become his brother; he’s already dead. While Kamina does pass on his bravery and spirit to Simon, Simon no longer tries to be him and uses Kamina’s advice to grow. Through coming to terms with his identity, Simon grows stronger as a person, and eventually surpasses Kamina as a leader.

A spitting image of each other, but different men nonetheless.
Returning to Nature

“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection. ”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature)

Struggling under the underground labyrinth against an enormous mechanical bull, Simon activates the Lagann with his drill and breaks through the Ganmen. Taking the advantage of the situation, Kamina and Simon decide to break through the dungeon’s ceiling. In one of the most memorable moments of the show, Simon and Kamina emerge from the Earth’s crust with Yoko and the Lagann and gaze out towards the splendor of the desert’s dunes below them, amazed. With the sight of their wondrous faces upon their return to the earth, Gurren-Lagann became a story about nature.

Whether it be the first battle against Thymilph, the climactic brawl with Lord Genome, or the penultimate punch out for Earth against the Anti-Spirals, the Dai Gurren-dan’s fights are all motivated by reclaiming and protecting the planet. Their battle is constantly a fight to return to nature and to escape their imposed routines established by their oppressors. It’s a battle to reclaim the Earth, the stars, and their natural surroundings; in other words, nature.

Common to transcendentalist doctrine was the belief that nature was perfect, untainted, and should be treasured by the individual. To them, nature was thought of as perfect and without flaw since it was considered to be shaped by a higher power. Appreciating and contacting nature was considered to be a part of spirituality and reconnecting with the flawless universe. However, more than that, Emerson’s theory, which was later tested by Thoreau, was that isolating one’s self and letting the landscape envelop them on a wilderness sabbatical would allow them to escape their despised routines.

In the beginning of Gurren-Lagann, we see that the men and women of Simon’s subterranean village are uninspired and devoid of free will. The are all committed to their jobs and etiquette; only a few among the villagers have any dreams or aspirations that they wish to follow. They all laze away at their days in a cycle of conformity. This boredom and apathy is common to the other families and towns of Gurren-Lagann. From the village of Littner to Kittan’s small family, the entire world is either on the defensive end due to the Ganmen and are isolated from the rest of the world. They have all taken to routines. In Rossiu’s village, this is taken to the extreme, where the fallen Ganmen are deified and the outside world is feared as a death trap. However, with the Simon’s and Kamina’s arrival into these aforementioned character’s lives, those trapped and isolated in cities begin to rebel against the Ganmen and take back the Earth.

The return the earth is a common theme in Gurren-Lagann’s story. It’s present when Kamina reminisces about his father on the surface, when Simon and his party solemnly stare up at the stars, and when Viral is trapped in his never ending dream. Gurren-Lagann even centers around this conceptual return to the land through the introduction of villains who seek to keep the protagonists from it, such as Lord Genome and the Anti-Spirals. With the struggle to reclaim nature comes inner peace, tranquility, and the breaking of routines for each of the characters.

Craggy, rough, and the scene of an enormous tragedy – but undeniably beautiful and soothing.
Rebellion and the Roles of Government

“I heartily accept the motto, that government is best which governs least … Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe, that government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”

-Henry David Thoreau (Civil Disobedience)

It should come as no surprise that Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann is a tale of rebellion. Whether it’s on a the small-scale, such as rebelling against the rituals of a town, or as completely ridiculous as blasting a hole in an Anti-Spiral for trying to decimate the Earth in order the balance of the universe, Gurren-Lagann is about defying convention in order to do what is just. Throughout the course of the story, Simon rebels against the inhumane oppression of Lord Genome, his subterranean homeland, the Anti-Spirals, Rossiu’s village, and even against the city which founded with his own two hands. Tying in with the recurring themes of individuality and nonconformity, Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann boldly states that one has to live by his own laws and morals, not the government’s.

Throughout the course of the story, a number of various leaders and forms of governments are introduced. While there exists a sizable number of differences among leaders and tyrants across the storyboard, they all share a major common feature: the willingness to discriminate for the sake of the common good. All of the antagonistic leaders introduced, from Rossiu to Anti-Spirals, do not act as a force of evil but rather as a force to preserve. They choices to destroy are not fueled by vitriol or ego. In order to preserve the human race (or in the Anti-Spiral’s case, the universe) they are willing to go to extremes and expel other groups of citizens under their jurisdiction. In the heat of such injustice, Simon chooses to side with his morals rather than the laws imposed by the government, something which Thoreau heavily encourages throughout his essay Civil Disobedience.

All throughout Civil Disobedience, Thoreau asserts that governments are typically more harmful to the individual than they are helpful. Democracies as well fall victim to this, for he states that a law decided by the majority does not represent the values of an individual. If one has a moral objection to a law, one should exercise his own beliefs rather than the so-called values of the government. According to him, the government is an agent of corruption and injustice, for while it chooses to guide the people through its laws, it also seeks to stay effective and in power. It’s practical. It’s uncaring. It’s law. The law is like clockwork, most times reasonable but always emotionless, and is a cold-hearted machine run by cold machine men. Voicing revolution and discontent is an expression of one’s spirit, which should not be limited by the those governing the world.

In Gurren-Lagann, the decisions of the government are practical, but unjust in the eyes of our protagonists. In Adai village, the people have adapted an extreme practice of expulsion, leaving those chosen out to die in order to preserve the remaining fifty villagers. During the age of the Ganmen, Genome kills humans and traps them underground in order to stop the human population from breaching one million. According to the Anti-Spirals, the spiral power of the human race is a threat to the universe and mankind should be eliminated in order to prevent this. And even in Kamina City, a man as good as Rossiu is the one who chooses to sacrifice Simon and force those living underground out of their homes. In all four cases, Simon, Kamina, and the rest of the Dai Gurren-dan choose to rebel against the established forms of government. While it can be debated on whether the choices of these leaders were righteous or not, the protagonists of our story clearly see this as morally unjust.

Staying true to the story’s individualist roots, the characters refuse to conform to the ideals of the imposed tyrants and enforce their own virtues and beliefs. They choose to revolutionize and rebel against the cruel constitutions brought forth by the leaders, even if it those said laws do not affect them. Simon, Yoko, Kamina, and the others of their brigade rebel because they see injustice in these actions. Instead of choosing the easy path of apologies, they choose nonconformity above all things. They don’t let outside forces decide their morals; only they do.

He may have very well done the right thing. That’s not what matters to Simon.

Simon is the perfect embodiment of transcendentalist ideals.  Simon’s story is one of individuality, rebellion, and staying true to one’s self.  Through his journeys and his scuffles in the world outside of his cave, Simon eventually discovers who he really is and protects that identity, no matter the trials or scrutiny which falls upon him. Along with the growing scale of the story comes his growth as a person, eventually solidifying his place amongst the stars. He’s a true hero in every sense of the word – he gives himself to something more, something larger than himself but at the same time he never forgets who he is. He’s a rebel, a brilliant flame of the human spirit, who refuses to sacrifice his own beliefs, but at the same time gives everything he has to everyone else.

Whether the creators like it or not, Gurren-Lagann is a vivid celebration of transcendentalist ideals.  Gurren-Lagann is a festival dedicated to individuality, a jubilee in the name of nature, and a ballad devoted to rebellion. The series is an uproarious tour-de-force of revolutionary gusto. The twenty-seven episodes encapsulate the spirit and the vigor of the entire philosophical movement, from beginning to end. While I claim to be no seer, and am nothing more than another meek anime blogger swimming in the anime blogosphere, I’m confident that if Thoreau had been reanimated back into our time, he would have been proud.

4 thoughts on “Kamina and Thoreau: Transcendentalism in Gurren-Lagann

  1. “This anime is like that philosophical movement” – an interesting thought exercise, but lacking the analysis of what the anime has to say about the philosophy. “a vivid celebration of transcendentalist ideals” is a nice way of saying “I don’t really have a thesis”.

    1. Looking back, that’s something I mostly agree with, especially since the editorial is mostly just drawing parallels instead of setting up an actual argument. Since a thesis is supposed to answer a question, and since mine answers zero, I sure went and fucked up there.

      Now that I think about it, I didn’t even restate it in the conclusion. Odd. Regardless, thanks for the comment, mate.

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