When I ask myself which anime has the outright best character designs that I can think of, I inevitably come to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Let’s list the reasons why!
Gurren Lagann’s characters were designed from the ground up to be easy to animate, meaning that they couldn’t have too many intricate details in their clothing, and had to be easily identifiable even when chaotically darting around the screen. In order to make each of them recognizable without going too heavy on details, designer Atsushi Nishigori instead focused on giving each character a unique body type and some kind of highly noticeable piece of clothing or accessory. Yoko has a flaming bikini and a gigantic sniper rifle, Kamina has his cape and famous sunglasses, and Simon has his jacket and goggles. None of these are too difficult to draw, nor do they need to be drawn in full detail in order to be recognized–which means that the characters are incredibly readable even when animated frenetically.
As the great Gin-san once explained in Gintama, a good character design should always be recognizable by its silhouette alone–and this is certainly true of the main cast of gurren lagann. Kamina’s sunglasses and Simon’s goggles point off of their faces in a very recognizable way, and Yoko’s giant rifle as the only thing adorning her barely clothed body is unmistakable. This is without even getting into how distinct the shapes of these characters are, with just enough defined musculature to look human and realistic, while still being able to deform into highly animated modes without looking like a different character. Even with a mostly-clothed and typically-of-anime skinny character like Nia, the incredibly distinct shape of her hair makes her silhouette stand out. All told, these are characters whom you can recognize immediately, and who don’t quite resemble any other characters out there.
Each of the characters in Gurren Lagann can be drawn very realistically at times, and have less exaggerated features and body types than what might be considered typical of the medium; but they can also be made incredibly cartoony and stretchy without really changing the fundamental nature of the designs. They still look like themselves, whether they’re being drawn in a highly detailed static harmony shot, or in a much looser and more animated action sequence. The characters don’t have to become super-deformed to fit into a comedy scene, nor do they seem to drastically change when drawn more seriously–they are capable of fitting into any emotional scenario in animation.
This is kind of the opposite of how Nishigori’s designs would later be used in Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt, wherein the difference between each emotional mood of the designs was highly exaggerated, switching between extremely super-deformed characters, somewhat more normal designs, and ludicrously detailed ones during the transformation sequence–almost as if director Hiroyuki Imaishi had specifically asked Nishigori to do the opposite of what he’d done for their previous show.
Each of the main characters’ designs in Gurren Lagann sort of flow into one-another in ways that are obvious when you think about them, but not so glaring that they feel overly apparent from the beginning. Kamina, Simon, and Yoko all follow a clear blue and red color scheme, with inversions in places to reflect that they aren’t all from the same hole, even if Yoko is simply from the next hole over–i.e. all of them are pretty similar in worldview and unified in their goals.
The flames and skull patterns from Simon’s jacket and Yoko’s bikini top fuse together on Kamina’s cape, and each of the three carries some kind of oversized crude weapon–a huge katana, a huge rifle, and a big drill. They all wear light clothing because they come from underground, and both Kamina and Yoko have highly impressive physiques, which Simon will eventually grow into one of later on, while adopting a sort of combination of his and Kamina’s wardrobe styles over time.
Then we’ve got Nia, who shows up at a major turning point in the story and completely breaks all of the conventions established by the other characters. Instead of bold primary colors, she is made of pastels. Her hair is two-toned, her eyes have their own unique shape, and she’s dressed head to toe in pink. Nia comes from a completely different culture and background, and as a result looks almost alien amongst the rest of the series’ cast. This goes a hell of a long way in matching what Nia’s place in the story ends up being, which is to provide an alternate perspective from Kamina and the others whom Simon has grown up around, and to help him to learn a more balanced way of looking at the world. Nia’s design does become more unified with the rest of the cast after she properly joins the Gurren Brigade, however, and is adorned with the trademark skull.
Later into the series, the skulls and flames are slowly traded in for a star motif, which all culminates in the moment when Simon’s sunglasses turn into the star-shaped visor–a symbol of how the spiral warriors have already risen high above the flames below into the stars above.
The beastmen, meanwhile, are a much bigger hodgepodge of design elements, given their nature as sort of weird chimera creatures; but where they are more unified is in the way that they’re drawn–often being portrayed with enormously thick, rough, painterly lines, as if a calligrapher was outlining them with a huge brush. Lord Genome brings this to the next level, as the king of all the beast men with the biggest, most outrageous lines of all.
The anti-spirals then turn to even more abstract and alien designs, to give a sense of their barely-comprehensible, almost lovecraftian nature. This is reflected in the designs of their ships as well, which are either CG UFOs that look nothing like anything else in the show, or just really trippy bizarre ships out beyond the reaches of space and time.
#4. Everyone Stands Out
Not every character design in Gurren Lagann is equally memorable, and they certainly aren’t all equally appealing, but not a single one of them is boring or generic. Every single character has a unique design that communicates their personalities effortlessly, to the point that some of these supporting characters who get less than ten lines across the whole series and maybe have their names shouted out once, still feel like distinct characters who have entire stories of their own that we’re only seeing a small part of.
Kittan’s sisters, Gimmy and Darry, and Leite all have strong enough designs that they could be main characters in any other series–to the point that it’s easy to forget how little each of them actually appears throughout the story, since each of their appearances has so much impact. The series villains are all highly memorable as well, and have a great sense of variety among their designs. Supporting cast members like Leeron and Attenborough whose designs are so different from the main cast or much of anything else in anime lend the series an extra depth of character, like there might be as many different body types and features in the world of this series as you could find in the real world.
#5. Evolution–by the way spoilers, if you haven’t figured that out already.
Every major character in Gurren Lagann undergoes a massive evolution in their design across the series–and not just because of the seven-year time skip that happens in the middle. Kamina starts out as more of a teenaged ruffian before he comes face to face with his father’s failure and takes up his cape to assume the visage of a great leader. Nia has her hair blasted off and then shapes it into her adorable short-haired look to signify her finding her place as a real member of the Gurren brigade. In the future setting, many characters undergo major costume changes several times to reflect their current place in the story–such as Yoko evolving from a schoolteacher into the biggest set of stars in the sky, and Viral going from roughed-up prisoner to starship co-commander.
Some of these characters grow in ways that we expect, while others really show how the times have changed them. Rossiu becomes far more masculine over time, and Kinon totally changes her image in order to follow him. Darry goes from a deadpan little girl to a passionate warrior with the best body in the series, I’m just saying; and then, at the end of the series, we get to see these characters grow up all over again into epic old badasses, which I wish every single anime ever would give us the courtesy of.
None of this is even to speak of the many subtle ways in which the characters’ designs allow them to change with the different emotional moods of the story; such as how Simon can hide behind his goggles in times when he’s feeling the most powerless and dead inside, or Yoko can retreat into her scarf when she’s feeling shy. Even though these characters have so few pieces to their costumes, those pieces are used in as many ways as you could imagine, like the team behind the show wasn’t willing to let a single aspect of the show’s design go unexplored.
Gurren Lagann is a show for everyone. It’s got hyper-masculine guys, cool-looking and smooth guys, busty, voluptuous girls, small cutesy girls, and so on–and somehow, all of them naturally fit into this universe and the tone of this series together. You could show this series to someone who says that they just can’t get into that anime look, or that they hate the aesthetic of modern anime, and they’d probably still be able to appreciate these designs. Likewise, you could show it to the most hardcore moe afficianado, and he’d have bought figures of half the girls before he was done watching it.
Because the characters are drawn with realistic body types and musculature, all of the main cast have been massively popular for cosplay since the series came out–and anyone with the body type to pull off these cosplays at their full potential is bound to be one of the best-dressed people at the convention. These outfits look as cool on real people as they do on the characters in the series, and if you wanted to do a big group cosplay with all your friends, you can probably find someone in the series for each of them to pull off–albeit not necessarily ones that they’ll be happy to hear that they’ve got the right body for.
Even when it comes to fanart and porn, this series has one of the highest cross-gender appeals that I’ve ever seen. There’s as much gay art of Kamina and Simon as there is artist alley airbrushings of Yoko, and it’s not like these designs only appeal to the opposite gender either. Yoko seems to be an insanely popular design with women, especially for cosplay, and Kamina is such an inspiration to any man who values aesthetic excellence that some of my friends have modeled their entire lives after him. Suffice it to say that these are some of the sexiest, coolest, and most widely beloved character designs in the history of the medium.
So there you have it: the six reasons that Gurren Lagann has, at the very least, some of the greatest character designs in the history of anime. And those aren’t even the only noteworthy design elements–every incarnation of the robot itself or any of its main opponents are toy-worthy in their own right, and the setting design has moments of incredible inventiveness. Gurren Lagann is easily one of the most visually stupendous animated series that I’ve ever laid eyes on, and perfect in every other way to boot. Holy shit, what a cool series!
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