Death of the Shounen Protagonist: The Subversion of Gurren Lagann

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By Sean Aitchison

In Gurren Lagann, Kamina, Simon and a number of other characters repeatedly utter the phrase “Just who the hell do you think I am?”

The question is rhetorical—a defiant response to those believing they might give up when a fight gets tough. But there’s never an answer, or if there is one, we’d call it the “shounen subversion.”

SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the entirety of Gurren Lagann.

Sure, that’s a bigger picture than what a big meathead like Kamina would be capable of understanding, but the point stands: Gurren Lagann’s unique approach to shounen tropes and the mecha genre is succinctly subversive.

Through its character arcs, major events and over-the-top eccentricities, Gurren Lagann manages to break all expectations, veering from the usual to, like Kamina and Team Gurren, carve its own path. In doing so, shounen themes of loss, strength and overcoming adversity are explored in new ways, ones still wholly unique to the series. Specifically, Gurren Lagann combines satire and deconstruction to ask of its counterparts, “What happens when a shounen protagonist…dies?”

Fighting spirit

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Before a major turning point in Episode 8 of Gurren Lagann, the series sets itself up as something of a normal anime—well, as normal as an anime about mecha with giant faces for bodies can be. Simon and Kamina break out onto the surface world to find that it’s ruled by humanoid animals called the Beastmen, so they steal Gunmen (aforementioned face robots used as weapons by Beastmen) and form Team Gurren to take back the world for mankind.

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It’s a simple enough setup, but there is a level of satire draped upon it. The two main manifestations of this are Kamina’s over-the-top personality—his absolute fearlessness, his bold brashness, his theatrical sense of manliness and his never-give-up attitude—and the mecha of the series, powered by the fighting spirit of their pilots.

Like many other shounen protagonists, Kamina has something of a positive, flat character arc. He doesn’t change as a character, but he does change the world around him. This can be seen in how he inspires Simon to break through to the surface and gain confidence in himself—“Your drill is the drill that will pierce the heavens!”—as well as how he inspires other humans to steal Gunmen and fight back against the leader of the Beastmen, the Spiral King, as Team Gurren.

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Kamina is the beacon of hope in Gurren Lagann’s rebellious narrative, his boundless determination and eccentric machismo rallying mankind with his over-the-top speeches and brash battle cries. His nature—how exaggerated he is, satirizes shounen protagonists—serves to sell hard just how crucial Kamina is to the heart of the rebellion, a pillar that holds up Team Gurren, filling them with fighting spirit.

Since fighting spirit is used as energy for Gunmen, we get a literal, actionable representation of just how much Kamina’s words and actions boost the spirit of every fighter on Team Gurren. He is the keystone to humanity’s fight against oppressors.

And then he dies.

When the light burns out

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The first few episodes of Gurren Lagann build up the idea that the series is about the continuous fight of Team Gurren against the wrath of the Spiral King and his army of Beastmen, with Kamina standing as their beacon, lighting the path forward. It’s pretty standard, that is, until that beacon burns out–and this is a whole new show.

With Kamina’s death, everything the previous episodes built is knocked down, and the strength he gave to others is suddenly gone. And Kamina’s death is big.

Prior to his demise, he’s built up as a textbook shounen protagonist and the thickheaded main character until the end of the show. Until he’s not.

Imagine if Natsu died after the first big battle in Fairy Tail — who would keep up his numbskulled excitement? Or what if Luffy died in the first few story arcs of One Piece? Would the Straw Hats still be together? Kamina’s death is meant to have the same impact as these character’s deaths would have, exploring how the shounen formula falls apart without its shining light, and how the supporting cast could hope to survive without them.

Believe in the me that believes in you!

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With Kamina’s absence, characters like Kittan and Yoko attempt to fill the void, acting as defacto leaders of Team Gurren in different ways, but the void is ever-felt. Simon, Kamina’s “little brother,” falls into a depressive mess of a state, eventually finding that he has to adapt and grow in order to rebuild Team Gurren. 

Kamina was a great leader because he brought out the best in everyone, and in order to do the same, Simon must step into the role of a similarly inspirational leader. Simon is able to grow into the leader he becomes because of Kamina’s advice, to “believe in the [him] that believes in [Simon].”

With this strength, knowing that someone as great as Kamina believed in him, Simon is able to pick himself up out of total grief to lead Team Gurren. But he doesn’t just step into Kamina’s shoes and become Kamina II. Simon is vulnerable, full of anxiety and a bit slow to respond, all weaknesses he learns to combat in become a true leader–weaknesses Kamina never had.

And while this leadership skill doesn’t completely surface until the last third of the series, it’s this reflection that turns Simon into the protagonist Gurren Lagann never knew it had.

Ultimately, Gurren Lagann is a series that masterfully explores loss, grief and the process of moving forward, all looped in a fantastic satirical bow. It takes the shounen portrayals of strength and the power of diversity, and challenges viewers to look beyond a character’s death–even when it feels impossible. That subversion is its power, making the series one of the most hopeful, beautiful thematic statements in all of anime.

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