Gurren Lagann, the Great Man and the People.

Gurren Lagann is an awesome anime. It has giant robots, drills, space exploration, pseudo-scientific babbling, drills, billion years long battle, unreasonable giant robots, drills, a tiny hint of solipsism, drills and gigantic character growth. Yeah, it’s great! But this is not a review of the anime nor is a “why Gurren Lagann is so damn awesome that makes you want to pierce through the heavens” text. This is one about a digression caused by one line from the last episode. Let’s go.

This will also contain spoilers so read at your own risk.

Now, in the last episode, after Lord Genome goes through a quantum breakdown, becomes one with the energy and is absorbed by Simon&Co, a dialogue between them and the anti-spiral ensues. Simon goes on to say that the way the drill work is by always (re?)evolving beyond what they were a minute before, advancing with each step and that the only limitation is the limitation one sets to oneself. After this, Yoko comes in and says the following:

そう!人間にだってもっともっと大きな奴が居たは!その人のためにも私達は前に進む!

Which can be translated to:
Yes! For us, humans, there was somebody much, much greater! We also keep moving forward for his sake!

And just to compare, the official dub used for this line (in the US release) was:
He’s [Simon] right! We humans used to have somebody much greater than us! For his sake alone, we’ll keep on moving forward!

In other words, Yoko is saying that there’s someone who humans consider to be much greater and that they keep moving forward for him (or that he, alone, is a reason for them to keep going forward, in the English dub). Then the question that should arise but didn’t at first for obvious reasons: Who’s she talking about? There’s not even room for doubt here, right? She’s undoubtedly talking about Kamina, right? Still, this begs the question. Is Kamina really that great, compared to other humans? And what does “greater” even means?

Kamina’s actions were essential for the story being told to kick off. He defied his own village’s rules and went on an adventure on a completely unknown surface (for him) taking (dragging) his old friend Simon with him. He also motivated Simon to become the one and only Digger, though this motivation was much more effective after his death. It can’t be denied that, yes, from the vantage point of the anime, which is told by Simon, he was an important character since he was the one who started everything. Without him, Simon wouldn’t have tried to use the gunmen he dug against the surface invasor in the first episode and he wouldn’t have gone on an epic quest.

That’s what Kamina did. He started everything. He brought Simon to the surface, became a source of courage for him and motivated the members who would later become the team Gurren to follow him.

What about other humans? What did Simon do? He defeated all four of the four generals created by Lord Genome, Lord Genome himself and the Anti-Spiral. He can also be credited for helping with the rebuilt of the world after the surface-ban was lifted. One could say that Simon is the hero of humans AND the Spiral race, since he’s the one who defeated their respective oppressors. And after all that, he kept roaming his home planet, helping villages with his digging abilities. Also, he’s able to eat Nia’s food.

Rossiu is shown as being the one responsible for building and maintaining the political side of the rebuilt world, also being the one responsible for administering most of Kamina City, working, apparently, in the executive, judicial and legislative power. He also led the secret project that kept Lord Genome alive to access his memory and learn from the past. And that’s quite a feat, if you consider his background (and of all the other characters, actually). He also seems to be the spokesperson for the human race, as he is the one who says to be receiving a lot of messages from other spiral races as soon as Simon&Co defeated the anti-spiral.

Other characters also accomplished some great feats. Leeron was likely the one overseeing and coordinating the scientific and technological advances in the new world. Leyte was the one responsible for creating a system to allow gunmens to be used in outer space, which I believe we can agree is something really awesome, specially if you consider she did that without going to space (or she was able to develop the system really fast, which is awesome either way). She’s also the (most likely) top engineer of the team, having important roles during the fights later on the series.

Let’s not forget Lord Genome. He was in the last spiral war, leading an army of spiral warriors (which can be seen in the movie). He’s also the one who created the beastmen and captured all the gunmens available on Earth to keep the population of humans under control in order to protect them (unbeknownst to them, though) from the spiral nemesis. Important to note that he was not only able to create a species to call his own, he created one that didn’t have the spiral force, something inherent to his surrounding (Though, it’s really unlikely that he’d be called “greater than humans” seeing as he’s portrayed as the villain, despite his acts being his own way of protecting humans).

Sure they’re all alive when Yoko said that, but still, what does one needs to do to be considered “great”? And can we really point our fingers to only one of them and announce that one person as the greatest of all? Weren’t they able to accomplish what they did because they were together, as a team? Based on what one defines “the greatest” among them? Is being responsible for creating a managerial system and using it to manage a city something greater than defeating the most powerful enemy? Is leading the development of science and technology less greater than creating your own species? Or is being able to encourage and motivate people around you to make them give their best what we’re looking for? Who decides?

But this finger pointing is not weird. It appeals to our need to find the causes that explains the effects. This need we have to be able to explain and justify events around us. Everything happens because of a reason and we, as rational, superior beings, are able to find all the reasons. Science says so! Physics says so! Newton said so! Action and reaction! And the more palpable and visible the action is, the better accepted it is.

Saying that the crowd stood up is not as good as saying that a group of selected ones marched forward and even this discourse is not as good as saying that one person stood up and lead everyone who followed. This last narrative allows us to create myths. This last narrative allows us to create gods and demons, heroes and villains, good and evil. But maybe even more important than that, it allow us to assign responsibility and accountability. It allows us to say things like “he/she made that”, where “he/she” and “that” could be anything.

Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both created two of the largest empires in the ancient world, Gavrilo Princip started the First World War, Stalin killed millions of people, Chung Ju-yung built the industrial base for a country. Phrases like these are not uncommon to be heard. History is not the only place where you’ll face instances of this kind of statemtents. If you work in a company, it’s likely that you’ve heard something similar, mostly related to someone in a managerial position.

Thus enters the Great Man Theory, which says that history and its course can be explained by looking at the impact of a few, selected “great” people. The idea is simple enough to understand and it’s interesting because it allows events to be explained by a single (singular) unit. To go back to one example, Genghis Khan expanded the mongolian empire from Mongolia until the Caspian Sea. Had Genghis Khan not existed or killed before he was 19, the mongols wouldn’t have flourished as they did and history would be different. Had Hitler died during WWI, WWII would have had another development and maybe it wouldn’t even have happened. Lots of others examples exists.

Another interesting habit that seems similar to this Great Man Theory is how we tend to transform a group of diverse, heterogeneous individuals into a massive, homogeneous unit and humanize said unit, turning it into something close to a great man. History again have some famous examples like “the bolsheviks”, their rivals “mensheviks”, the French “sans-culotte” and others, though we can see this pretty much everywhere. Companies, countries, political parties, sports teams, all truly a collection of heterogenous individuals, each one of them with their own passions, reasoning, fears and hopes, but that gets all squashed and ignored by the unit. When two countries are at war, it’s not like all of the population from both countries are fighting against each other and that the whole extension of their territories are battlefields. But when we say “Country A is at war with Country B”, we don’t see that. We may know, but we don’t make it explicit.

There are obvious limitations to this approach. It can make individuals accountable for something that no individual person could possibly do. It could be because the person has the power to do so but not the knowledge. Think of politics as a clear example. Those representing the executive power (president, prime minister, governors and whatever else) are normally the ones who get bashed or praised when the country, state our city they represent is doing bad or good but how much is the situation really due to their own conscious actions? They are surrounded by a group of experts (or so we’re made to believe) that helps them deal with all the topics in a timely manner (or so we’re made to believe) and the final decision is given by themselves alone, but that doesn’t mean that they actually know what they’re doing. They may very well be just reciting what they were told to. They have the power to change whatever decision those around make (to a certain extent, obviously), but they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or will to do so in a fully conscious manner.

There’s also the opposite scenario, where the person have the knowledge to accomplish something but can’t do it alone. Back to Genghis Khan, it’s obvious that it wasn’t he, alone, that expanded the empire. His military abilities and tactical knowledge were key ingredients of the success, but without an army, he likely would have perished much sooner.

Other issue is that it can give little to no importance to environmental influences. Political, economical, social and cultural influences shape people as time goes by. Where and when they are born can make a difference in how they grow. Or so I’d argue, though we don’t have a real way to prove nor disprove this in a conclusive manner. (Important to keep in mind that people also influence and shape the environment, though some to a lesser extent than others)

But The Great Man Theory makes things simpler. And it sells. The media is so much about the great man. Massacres, scandals, corruption, disasters. Stick the name of one person or an institution (personifying it) in the headlines and the news is ready to go (maybe that’s why we name hurricanes?).

By making history simpler, important aspects and details are lost.

One alternative theory that opposes the Great Man is, I guess obviously, the People’s history. Unlike the former, this argues that history is driven by the people as an aggregation. Families, workers and capitalists, population and the rulers, each constituted of an heterogeneous group of people that may not even have the same objectives and philosophy but which interactions make the wheels of history turn. Similarities and differences drive their actions and thus history is made. Great men don’t grow in a vacuum and they don’t magically appear ready to make history.

Still, history is written by the winners. But not by all the winners. By a few selected (great?) ones on the winners’ side. The soldiers who fought in the world wars and survived had no saying when history was being written. The families that had to struggle to survive during the world wars also had none. Those who worked to supply the armies during the world wars also had no saying. Where they irrelevant? No. But including them would make the work so much more complex, although very, very rich.

And now, back to the initial question. Who was Yoko talking about? I don’t know. But something interesting happened in the movie version of that dialogue. There, a slight change can be heard. She says:
そう!人間にだってもっともっと大きな奴が居たは!その人達のためにも私達は前に進む!

Which can be translated to:
Yes! For us, humans, there was somebody much, much greater! We also keep moving forward for their sake!

(As far as I could tell, the movie is not available with English dub so checking their translation is not an option.)

I don’t know if the change was scripted or if Inoue added that extra “達” by herself and nobody complained (or noticed), but it’s kind of funny because unlike the TV version, most of the Gurren crew is spared from death. Maybe in the movie context it’s easier to make it clear that she’s referring to both Kamina and Kitan, whereas in the anime, using the plural could be understood as a reference to all the crew who died (and I guess it’s clear that Yoko had a closer relation to both)? Or is it a nod to the people’s history and a step away from the great man theory?

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