12 Days of Anime #5: Super Robot Revival

This will probably seem strange to those of you who know me as the super-robot apologist on Bakacast, but I didn’t watch Gurren Lagann until this year. Well, to be precise, I watched a couple episodes soon after it finished, but I never got farther until early in 2010. That was when I realized the entire series was on Hulu, so I plowed through it in a few days. Despite a few problems I had with certain aspects of the story, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Unfortunately, watching Gurren Lagann made me realize how rare it is to find any super-robot shows–much less good ones–being made today. It just isn’t the popular genre that it was once (that honor now belongs to slice-of-life). But, lo and behold, a new challenger approached: Star Driver. Both the series description and the first episode promised all the fabulousness of Code Geass with none of the angst. I was immediately intrigued. And while Star Driver has certainly had its low points, I’ve had a lot of fun watching it anyway.

But I’ve recently realized something. With a few notable episodes to serve as exceptions, I didn’t end up sticking with either of the shows for the robot fights. They became a secondary or even tertiary concern. A nice bonus, if you will. What really makes both Gurren Lagann and Star Driver shine like glittering stars are their characters.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I think Gurren Lagann‘s protagonists play a huge part in making the show as good as it is. This is, after all, the show that gave us Kamina, a man who had a profound impact on anime culture. But it wasn’t just him. Simon undergoes a fairly believable transformation from scared little boy to confident leader. Nia is the cliche naive princess who not only isn’t annoying (an impressive feat) but also grows and learns alongside Simon. And Yoko is the obvious fanservice character who has more attitude and depth than the entire cast of Samurai Girls combined. Of course, it also helps that she’s actually pretty smart AND uses a railgun as her signature weapon. It’s like Gainax designed her specifically for me.

Even though there are some incredible fight scenes in Gurren Lagann, the fights are won by the pilot’s self-actualization and bonds with his or her friends, not by superior fighting skill or technology (except for in a couple notable instances). This is why the robot upgrades might seem to come out of nowhere. The character is the one who “upgraded,” and their robot just magically reflects their development. It’s a pretty clever twist on the trope.

And then we have Star Driver, which is also a character-focused show where the robots and their fights could almost be considered an afterthought if they weren’t animated so well. Unlike Gurren Lagann, the focus of this new robot show is on the antagonists. Notice that I didn’t say “villains.” Star Driver does such a good job of making interesting and likable antagonists that I honestly doubt that most of them have particularly evil intentions. Self-serving, maybe, but evil? Not so sure. Some of the best episodes of Star Driver (such as #5 and #12) focused like a laser beam on one member of the Glitter Star. It’s incredibly impressive that, in episode 11, the writers actually made me want Takuto to lose. Not because I don’t like Takuto (that couldn’t be further from the truth), but because Simone and Takashi were so sympathetic.

It’s strange. I became a fan of super robots because of G Gundam, a show that isn’t exactly known for its deep characterization. I watched it for the crazy fights. And now the situation is reversed. Sure, I come for the awesome robot battles, but I stay for the character interactions. Which makes me think that maybe the super-robot genre isn’t dead. It just transformed into something slightly different.

And if that means I can have more shows like Gurren Lagann and Star Driver, then I welcome the change with open arms.