Gurren Lagann- The Consequences of “Fighting the Power”

At its core, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a show about maturing as an individual and rebelling against oppression. Despite the equal importance and narrative intertwinement of these themes, today I will be focusing on the latter. More specifically, I will be looking at how, without the second half of the series, Gurren Lagann would not be remembered today.

Rebelling against oppressor is one of the oldest, and therefore, most used storytelling devices. After all, rebellion is a frequent and important element of real-world history. We saw revolution in the earliest human societies, and we still see it regularly throughout the world today. Further, it is so simple to garner support for a character when they are fighting against a tyrannical regime that is trying to put them down.

The first half of Gurren Lagann takes that narrative device and boils it down to its absolute pure essence. We are provided with one of the most clean-cut, smooth, and satisfying rebellion stories in fiction. There you have it, Simon and the rest of the Dai-Gurren Brigade defeated Lordgenome and the Beastmen forces, regaining control of the surface world. They had some tragic losses, but also made some new friends along the way. A young boy who started out as a non-confident, bullied antisocial in his underground village transformed into the man who led the rebellion to its victory. As most writers would put it, THE END.

What makes Gurren Lagann stand out from its contemporaries is that this “ending” is only the halfway point of the series. After a seven year timeskip, “act 2” begins with what I like to call the “political consequences arc.”

Historical rebellions aren’t as clean cut as most fictional works would have you believe. Revolution often comes with the desire for a new form of government, something that is immensely difficult to implement in a nation so accustomed to tyranny. Systems must be destroyed and rebuilt, citizens must be accounted for and entered into government programs, and all prior opposition must be dead or imprisoned to prevent regime reversal.

The second half of Gurren Lagann addresses all of these elements, and more. Simon and Rossiu, who occupy the two most prominent government leadership positions, are having an excruciatingly difficult time running their nation. Initiatives to move citizens from their underground villages back to the surface world are failing; they didn’t account for people wanting to remain in that oppressed lifestyle. They find out Viral, a high-ranking and unaccounted for member of the original oppressive regime, is working as a terrorist, undermining citizen relocation efforts.

When citizen dissatisfaction and political unrest begin to spread through the new capital, we see Rossiu, a rebellion hero and close friend to Simon, turn on him in a political move he believes is in the best interest of the nation.

All of this climaxes with the invasion of the anti-spiral forces. You see, it is revealed that the initial oppressive regime was present in the first place in order to prevent this external “nation” from invading. Simon must escape from political prison, gather his old rebellion friends (and even some former enemies), and fight against the invading anti-spiral.

Despite being presented through high-concept science fiction and dimensional shenanigans, the second half of Gurren Lagann is showing real-world consequences. Political turmoil, betrayal, and even foreign invasion in times of weakness are common elements of real post-revolution nations. Most fight against the tyrannical regime stories don’t dare tread these complicated waters, they are satisfying enough as it is.

The fact that Gurren Lagann takes a step beyond mere satisfaction, and addresses these logical consequences, is why it is still remembered as a masterpiece today.

Spirited Away is a Reality Show

As someone who grew up with Spirited Away, and hails it as a flawless masterpiece, naturally I am obsessed with getting other people into the film. Throughout my execution of this mission, I have noticed one common thread: everyone feels that the ending was anticlimactic. At first, I just dismissed my inability to see this problem as mere childhood bias. After all, I had seen the movie so many times that I have probably become desensitized to any flaws it may have.

However, after seeing the movie on the big screen with my roommate while living in D.C., something finally clicked. My roommate loved the film, up until the ending, as most seem to do. However, he explained his issue not just as one of anticlimacticness, but of a lack of payoff. He saw the driving force of the movie as Chihiro’s mission to return her parents to human form and return to the mortal world. If you did have to give the movie a simple synopsis for the sake of a magazine review or IMDB page, that is essentially what should be said. However, I also believe there is a huge misconception based on that very synopsis.

Spirited Away is not an epic fantasy story; it is a reality show. The fantasy adventure premise is merely a vehicle to transport you to a world. Once you are settled in this world, the movie is not about this central conflict. It is about Chihiro, a young immature girl, learning to adapt to a new environment, and mature into a responsible and strong individual.

It is, for this very reason, that the plot of saving her parents is somewhat abandoned for the second and third acts of the film, only to be quickly resolved in the last five minutes. The movie is not about that story, it is about a story of personal growth in a unique setting. But the conflict did get you invested in Chihiro and the characters that inhabit this world, didn’t it?

Reality shows are about people’s lives, individuals adapting to new situations and dealing with their own personal growth. Although person vs. person conflicts are present, they are often artificially inserted to get you more invested. Sound familiar? Hayao Miyazaki inserted an almost artificial fantasy conflict to get you into your seat, and then pushed it to the side to make room for the real Spirited Away.

It is also for this reason that there is no central antagonist in the story. Yubaba, the witchy owner of the bath house, may seem like an obvious candidate to point fingers at. Those assumptions would be misguided. What did Yubaba ever do to harm our protagonist? Yubaba didn’t turn Chihiro’s parents into pigs, her parents did that out of their own selfishness. Yubaba didn’t refuse to give Chihiro her parent’s back. Chihiro never asked for that directly, Haku told her to just ask for a job in the bath house instead. Rather than simply turning Chihiro into an animal, she decided to allow her to work. Yubaba was just a greedy, but overall redeemable person, using a bad situation to profit. Despite being a spirit, she was just being human.

That’s the core of Spirited Away to me, a story about people. Through Chihiro’s eyes, it’s a peak into a world that has been static for a long time, and will continue to be static after she leaves. Chihiro isn’t some epic fantasy heroine that is going to change the status quo of some fantasy world. She’s just a girl, thrown into a rough situation and learning to mature from it. Spirited Away is not a fantasy adventure, but a reality show peering into a fantasy world through the eyes of an outsider.

The Smash Pros: The Art of Long-Form Comedy

In my opinion, long-form comedy is the most satisfying form of comedy out there. Although I do love stand-up and short videos, to me, the pinnacle of the genre comes in the form of the the long game. The core of the artform of comedy is jokes: setup and punchline in that order. However, I believe that, if executed properly, a long joke can serve as the best the genre has to offer.

As explaining this with simple vocabulary is a bit of a challenge, I will use a case study. Garrett’s Response to the Falsely Made Poorly Played Stream is one of my favorite pieces of comedy of all time. This excerpt from internet comedy group Mega64’s 2013 MLK Day stream is essentially a 41 minute joke. Despite its mammoth length, it still manages to follow the comedic formula we have all become accustomed to. The setup to the joke is purposely made to be excruciatingly lengthy. This makes the punchline, which encompaces the last 5-10 minutes of the video, even more rewarding. If you are a fan of Mega64, or of good comedy in general, I would highly recommend checking out this masterpiece.

For a few years, this video remained in my consciousness as the cream of the crop when it comes to long-form comedy. When explaining that style of humor to others, that was the video I would always recommend. However, I recently discovered a series that not only is the best piece of long-form comedy ever made, but is one of the best written pieces of media. This is the YouTube mockumentary The Smash Pros.

A spoof of The Smash Brothers (a popular documentary that examines the competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee community), The Smash Pros is far from a simple derivative parody. It’s very hard to explain The Smash Pros to someone who hasn’t seen it. Saying it’s a mockumentary of a sub-par documentary about the competitive Melee scene doesn’t do the series the justice it deserves. I guess the best way to describe it would be that it takes a simple comedic premise, and develops an entire world, with its own rules, unforgettable characters, and flawless execution of long-form humor.

The first two episodes of The Smash Pros are admittedly very difficult to get through upon first viewing. The constant barrage of information that the writers throw at you may seem overwhelming at first. When I tried to watch the series for the first time, I dropped it after episode 2. I thought I just didn’t get it; I wasn’t a hardcore smasher. However, I urge you to push through. The Smash Pros is a series that needs to be consumed from start to finish before any judgement is passed. Upon completion, you will realise that a majority of this barrage is actually the setup points for the massive, climactic punchline that is Episode 5: The Grand Finale.

One of the key aspects I must point out is that, no matter how absurd they may seem, The Smash Pros universe is bound by rules. In what is probably one of the greatest climaxes and conclusions in writing history, The Grand Finale sees the slow collapse of this rule system. In the epicenter of this collapse is the genius payoff to the massive joke that is The Smash Pros. Although the comedic formula is the same, the setup and punchline is extended over an entire show. It gives the viewer an illusion of feeling lost; maybe they just don’t get it. But, if the viewer is patient enough to stick with it to the end, they realize that that they were supposed to feel lost; they were still in the setup. Their minds will hopefully be just as blown during the payoff as mine was, leading to one of the most satisfying and rewarding punchlines in the history of comedy.

The only series I can say comes close to this radical extension of the humor formula is Curb Your Enthusiasm. Curb enters the long-form comedy fray via its seasonal arcs. However, even then, these arcs are not present in every season. Furthermore, not every episode within a season weaves into the setup and payoff based narrative of said arcs.

Please be patient with The Smash Pros. Don’t make the same mistake I did upon my first viewing. Just power through, and you will be rewarded for your loyalty with one of the greatest pieces of comedy in history. Stay tuned for some more in-depth Smash Pros analysis in the near future. I have so much more to talk about, and I hope you’ll stick with me as I do so.

Moana and Wind Waker: Perfecting the Polynesian Ocean Explorer Aesthetic

May as well cash in on the Moana hype train for a second time. There is a particular aesthetic in media that I have become increasingly fond of over the years. This is that of the Polynesian ocean explorer. Today I am going to be explaining this aesthetic, as well as why I appreciate it, through two pieces of media that perfect it. These are Moana and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Moana takes a very direct approach with regards to implementing this aesthetic. After all, the movie is literally about a Polynesian girl who wants to explore the ocean. Every single trait of the aesthetic is there: island inhabiting tribes, personified sea life, traditional Polynesian fashion. However, the element that stands out to me the most is the exploration of the ocean itself.

Despite being from entirely different mediums, both Moana and Wind Waker perfectly portray the vastness of the oceans at hand. In both instances, the audience knows the true constraints of the body of water. In Moana, it is limited to the confines of Earth’s Oceania region. In Wind Waker, it is bound to the grid-based world map that the player is given early in the game. Despite these literal constraints, the writing manages to make the oceans seem endless.

The idea of Moana’s deep-seated calling for ocean exploration is presented very early in the film. This already gives the sea a sense of vastness, as she is truly unaware of its constraints. She has never left her island; she has no perspective as to the true size of the body of water. To her, it may as well be infinite. This cleverly ingrained theme is only amplified when she actually begins to explore the ocean with Maui. Together, they encounter many unique characters, islands, and magical entities. The feeling that you can come across almost anything only supports this illusion of oceanic endlessness.

Wind Waker, while extremely different, flaunts the very same aesthetic in a similar manner. Before comparing the game directly to Moana, I must explain the context of Wind Waker as a part of a media franchise. The Legend of Zelda, a video game series produced by Nintendo, is one of the most well known high fantasy sagas of all time. The series typically takes place in a somewhat generic high fantasy world known as Hyrule, which always has the typical geographical tropes. A volcanic mountain region, an aquatic lake/river region, a mystical forest region, and a harsh desert region can be seen in almost every game in the series, regardless of where it lands on the timeline. However, aside from minor strides in Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker was the first game in the franchise to truly turn this world upside down. During the time between Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker (the two games directly next to each other on the series’ timeline) the world of Hyrule was flooded by the gods. Wind Waker is the first game in the series to take place in the ocean that is the aftermath of this very flood. There is no longer a main continent, only small islands formed over the peaks of what used to be traditional Hylian landmarks. Now, rather than exploring a vast landmass on horseback, you are sailing across a massive ocean on a small boat.

Although Wind Waker naturally borrows many elements from its franchise predecessors, it manages to use this oceanic atmosphere to its advantage. It seamlessly blends the traditional European fantasy concepts that defined the series with a Polynesian ocean explorer aesthetic. Link, rather than living in a farming village or forest haven, now lives on a small tribal island. The attire of the villagers is influenced heavily by Polynesian style. Once you leave your village, you sail to many islands and come across a plethora of unique creatures, but this aesthetic still remains. In fact, many of the staple characters and enemies of the series get an oceanic makeover. The Kokiri get a re-imagining that feels like it stepped straight out of Polynesian mythology. The Zora race is replaced by the Rito, a group of anthropomorphic bird people that live in a society that is literally that of a Polynesian tribe. Bokoblins, rather than running around Hyrule as bandits, now patrol the seas from rafts and watch towers as pirates. Even the main antagonist of the saga, Ganondorf, now looks somewhat like a tribal chief.

However, what Wind Waker succeeds at the best with regards to this aesthetic brings me back to what Moana did so well. Despite there only being a limited number of original characters and creatures, as well as only 49 small islands to visit, the world of the flood still manages to feel massive and unexplored. This aesthetic doesn’t even wear down the more times you complete the game. With each playthrough you manage to notice new things. Whether it be a hilarious character you never talked to before, or a secret area on an island you thought you knew by heart, the world of Wind Waker still manages to feel endless after all these years. Although the second and final game to take place in the flood era of Hylian history, Phantom Hourglass, does not succeed in implementing this aesthetic successfully, we will always have the endless appeal of Wind Waker. This replayability is one of the main reasons why it is, and probably always will be, my favorite video game of all time.

This is also why I would love to see Moana sequels in the near future. There is just so much of this world still left to be explored. I would love to see new islands, meet new characters, and face new threats with Moana and Maui, as long as the movies continue to be as well written as the first.