Two new anime import series debut on Sci-Fi Channel's "Ani-Monday" import block this Monday: Gurren Lagann and Now and Then, Here and There. I was recently given a sneak peek of the two premieres, and while the 27-episode Lagann perhaps arrives with the greater advanced fan buzz, to my eyes, the 13-ep Now looks like it'll be the more evocative series.
Both shows deliver the goods, especially if you like your s-f anime with big honking machines. While each one centers on young male heroes, Lagann comes across as the more boyish creation: filled with characters spouting bravado and Kirby-esque robots. Set in an underground village and narrated by Simon, a young boy who is part of the isolated village's brutalized child work force, the series opens on Simon and his rambunctious friend Kamina's desire to escape the oppressive community by climbing to the surface world. Kamina tries to rally his friends by creating Team Gurren – all the while shouting a series of inspirational slogans to the skeptical villagers. But it isn't until the digging Simon comes upon a glowing green "treasure" while drilling that the boys are able to find their way to the top.
The glowing treasure proves to be the key to a robot creature called a "Gunman," and when another Gunman shows up to plow its way through the village, guess who gets to commandeer the first one? Even better, it turns out that Simon's found machine has drills on its hands and the top of its head: "That's your kinda weapon!" Kamina unnecessarily tells our narrator, after christening the machine the Mighty Lagann.
Also showing up: an ultra-curvy redheaded warrior babe named Yoko, who hails from a nearby underground village. Though Kamina is scornful of Yoko's origins ("Jeez, you're a pit chick!" he moans. "Get moving, thunder thighs!"), you know this is just the start of some serious sexual tension. At one point during the Gunman attack, Simon lands with his face right between her breasts, eliciting happy shouts from the most of the 'tween-age boys in the audience.
The presence of the Gunmen and the existence of the underground villages is somehow connected to an aboveground intergalactic conflict, though we're only given an unexplained glimpse of this in the pilot's opening. Future episodes, presumably, will provide more background, but for now, just getting our trio to the surface in the Mighty Lagann suffices.
If the first episode of Gurren Lagann is loudly boisterous, Now and Then, Here and There is more comfortable with slices of scene-setting quiet. The story of a young city boy named Shu who is accidentally transported to a war-torn dimension, it's filled with small, well-chosen images, whether of a bright sunset over the city river or of our hero picking his nose as he talks. Shu gets into his predicament after climbing to the top of a factory smokestack to get away from it all. When he sees a lavender-haired girl sitting on a neighboring smokestack, watching the evening sky, his curiosity is piqued. But before he can find out anything more than her name – Lala-ru – a third party appears with a squad of giant snaky robots.
They capture Lala-ru, in a wonderful sequence featuring our hero leaping for his life from collapsing smokestacks, and take both her and Shu back to their world. "It's only debris that got transported with us!" Lady Abelia, the uniformed villainess responsible for the abduction believes. You'd think, after all this time, that futuristic baddies would learn to comb through their garbage.
If the heroes of Gurren Lagann are pointedly proletarian (as they digdigdigdigdigdigdig their way through the ground), our boy Shu's more middle-class. We first see him with his family, complimenting his mother for a "gourmet breakfast," then taking Kendo lessons at the Seidokkan Dojo. As a student, he's the object of ridicule by his fellow students for his "slapstick moves," though he doesn't particularly seem to be bothered by this fact. In fact, Shu comes off a fairly easy-going sort in the opening episode, but from the looks of the world in which he's landed, that good nature will be sorely tested.
At heart, both shows are essentially telling the same basic story: young boy ventures into a new and dangerous world that could stand in for basic adulthood. Of the two, Now approaches this storyline in a less cartoony fashion – no pneumatic uber-babes in this 'un – but they both contain their share of crowd-pleasing action. One of the major advantages of anime: where so many live-action s-f shows load their pilots with a level of budget-busting images that they're unable to maintain over the long haul, animation has no such constraints. I'm thinking that these two imports'll find their fannish audiences on Ani-Mondays, though when it comes to future episodes, I'm personally setting the DVR for the more contemplative Now and Then.