How do you define “deep?” Does it equate directly with emotion? confusion? logic? subject matter? Is it inversely proportional to popularity? Is it a clear-cut boolean standard? Or is a continuous scale of sorts? Is there even a right answer to all these questions? I don’t think so. Everyone eventually forms their own opinion based on what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard from people on the internet, and what they personally think and believe.
Webster dictionary’s definition of deep is: (1) Extending far down from the top or surface, (2) Covered or immersed to a specific depth. Thus for something to be considered “deep” it must convey its message in a manner that requires us to dig through multiple layers to fully understand. It means stripping away all personal bias, all the while digging deeper to grasp the message the creators intended. Once grasped, one needs to take the message back to the surface where personal bias returns. If you find the journey easy, it isn’t “deep” for you. If you find the journey difficult, only then is it truly “deep.”
A “deep” anime will ask a question, expose the conflicts and struggles, and propose a solution. The presentation and exposition are usually easy to point out, the solution however is almost always the most difficult to pinpoint. Watching TV show or movie is very much like reading a book, the difference being that the director establishes a direct link to one’s feelings and emotions. He or she can control exactly what happens on screen which in-turn resonates with most people more than words on a page.
As always, with great power comes great responsibility. A good storyteller maintains a steady balance between “show” and “tell.” Stray in the former’s direction a little too far, and the show runs the risk of losing its focus and audience. Stray in the latter’s direction and the show run’s the risk of potentially boring the audience or crossing into the realm of pretentiousness. Each director has his or her own method of storytelling. Thus, each work is different, and there is no “right” way to convey depth. However, there are certainly “less effective ways.”
I chose to focus on GAINAX titles, namely Evangelion, FLCL, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, due to their striking similarities. In fact, once all the peripheral details are stripped away, all three essentially tell the same story. Granted, the presentation and exposition varies greatly with each work. For example, Evangelion is a social and psychological commentary that incorporates copious amounts of western religious symbolism. FLCL is a comedy and parody paying homage to and celebrating post-modernism. Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is essentially an over-the-top homage to the super robot genre of decades past.
Each show features unique characters, build-up, and pacing. However, in the eventual climax in each of the three, the main character is always faced with the same crucial decision. Shinji, Naota, and Simon all have to eventually choose between staying true to their emotions, or succumbing to reason.
Evangelion may seem confusing at first. The creators were very secretive in revealing the plot. Gendo’s character in particular is one where we never fully understand until the very end. Then there’s all the religious symbolism, the giant crosses, the references to kabalism and german folklore. All of that is build-up for the grand finale. The ultimate scene where Shinji alone must decide the future of humanity. He can choose to either accept human instrumentality or to reject it.
Evangelion is a show that throws a lot at the viewer, but if you sit down and slowly recount all the details, slowly everything begins to make sense. The motives of each character, SEELE’s ultimate goal, and the actions of Gendo, Rei, Asuka, all fit together into the grand puzzle. In the end, Shinji’s choice is not difficult to contemplate at all. Evangelion, despite being both brilliant social commentary on Japanese society, is not so much deep as it is insightful.
Naota, the protagonist in FLCL is a little bit different since he is the only one who refrains from making the choice. Yet if you think about the reasons why, it becomes extremely easy to understand. Naota is still at a liminal point in life, or at least moreso than his Gainax counterparts. (Naota is several years younger than both Shinji and Simon). Both Anno and Kazuya implement similar styles of storytelling, but one apparent difference between FLCL and Evangelion is the dialogue.
FLCL is inherently comedic in nature and therefore can get away with over-the-top action and situations. Like Evangelion, the plot and character origins are never really revealed until the very end, and then it’s only implied. The main difference however, is that Naota’s choice is three-layered and implies a two-fold result, while Shinji’s choice is two-layered and exposes a single result. That is Naota must decide his path in life, the path for the world, and the path for Japan. Shinji rejects instrumentality for himself and ultimately leaves the choice up to the world. FLCL, despite being a literary masterpiece, is still not the deepest.
Now finally we come to Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Most people have seen it so let’s skip the boring crap. It’s the final episode. Simon and his Gurren Brigade are facing the “Anti-Spiral” race. Why? Because they did some “evil” things such as bomb the Earth and kidnap the main character’s love interest, the usual shenanigans of evil shonen antagonists, etc. The shonen-esque storytelling that Imaishi employs leads us to cheer for the “good guys.” However, during the penultimate scene when Simon confronts the Anti-Spiral, everything is revealed. From the origin of the Anti-Spiral race, to the fall of Lord Genome and the subsequent creation of the beast-men. This is where Simon’s choice occurs. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to see Gurren Lagann, but I will say his choice has several deep implications that are evident if you look past its surface value.
In the end, I’d go as far as to say Simon choice was the toughest choice of the three, tougher than both Shinji’s and Naota’s. Isn’t it ironic that the most ridiculous and over-the-top show ends up posing the most profound questions? GAINAX cleverly masks Gurren Lagann as a shonen series, but below the surface, Simon’s ultimate decision proves to be the most thought provoking.