Pure boyish exuberance is the only way to describe Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann; even given its parent company's predilection for unsatisfactory endings the series manages to be satisfying, smart and unique while paying homage to those that have tread similar ground before it. Gurren Lagann is without a doubt one of the most well-rounded pieces of anime to come out in what seems like a long time.
Ordinarily, shows which have such a large emphasis on growing stronger and are top-heavy with action set-pieces, there is a tendency to demean your audience with shallow characterisation or to bludgeon them with a lack of subtlety; this series does none of these things and manages to be viscerally appealing as well as emotionally layered. As with any good story, the core is simple: a coming-of-age for the protagonist Simon. Far from focusing on one aspect of this journey, Gurren Lagann charts Simon's meteoric rise from dirt-scratching child to heroic teenage leader to legendary saviour to wisened elder man; the sense of accomplishment and triumph at each stage is immense and, along with the cast of eclectic characters, tells the more immediate story of conquering insurmountable odds.
The most blatant messages are those of persistence and belief: belief in oneself and belief in there being a better way, overtones of growth and freedom and undertones of machismo and departed loved ones. The metaphors are neither blatant nor byzantine, the gimmick of drills and spirals quickly becomes taut and emotive, the rapidly increasing mecha size mirroring Simon's growth making it all the more telling when they are stripped away in the climax, revealing the man he has grown to be. Galaxies and planets are dwarfed by the scale of ambition, both for the series itself and the characters within; the theme of rebellion against ever increasing authority figures until the characters essentially take on the universe that would restrict them.
The series obviously panders to a male demographic with such testosterone fuelled ideals of dying for one's friends and the greater good, it's perhaps slightly worrying that the female cast members are marginalised so much. Yoko is the obvious female lead, and her initially spunky, bikini-clad optimism gives way to being weak at the knees when kissed by males and blatant maternal subtexts later in the series; her obvious status as titillation is never really quashed despite attempts to flesh out her personality. Other female cast members are treated similarly, shown as the typical damsel in distress, settling into homemaking or fighting for the affections of an oblivious man and only the most tertiary of characters (the enigmatic mechanic and Darry who is portrayed as Yoko-lite) escape through lack of development. Even the lone penis-less antagonist is portrayed as some kind of mentally unhinged dominatrix who pays little heed to clothing.
Despite this, Gurren Lagann succeeds in every other way at being supremely entertaining. Action ranges from standard mecha-on-mecha duels to vast battles, only rarely slipping in to animation platitudes such as distant explosions or laser spaghetti, more often it's kinetic, brutal and divine. The otherwise consistently high-quality animation sometimes dipps into badly drawn characters (the effeminate technician is a constant eye-sore), however it always delivers when it matters most and given the fan reaction to some of the more flagrant examples, these sections will likely be fixed for the DVD release. All the tiers of characters are charmingly distinct and wonderfully developed, even the most despicable of characters are redeemed and never does it feel arbitrary; the series antagonists meanwhile are initially over-the-top, wonderfully heinous and, coupled with the breakneck pace, give the series a great impetus. Even the soundtrack is exceptional; the at first laughable Engrish rap becomes an anthem for the series, stamping the eye-catch commercial breaks and signposting the slow-burning but absurdly fitting "Libera Me - From Hell" which accompanies some the series most spectacular moments.
It's hard to heap more praise on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, it is a series which satisfies on all levels: story, characters, development, animation, audio, emotion are all superlative and despite the odd hiccup in animation and the uncomfortable portrayal of women, its vice-like hold over your eyes and feelings isn't released even after the seminal finale. Enumerating everything brilliant about the series would be a task unto itself, suffice to say it is unrelenting, pulls no punches and is absolutely required viewing for all but the most cynical and jaded of anime fans.