I had low expectations when I bought the Gunbuster movie on blu-ray. The visuals looked underwhelming, as did the plot summary. Still, I felt that as an anime fan I had an obligation to watch a Gainax classic, and I’m happy I did. Gainax could have created a forgettable story about girls battling aliens with giant robots. Throw in some fan service, and the show would have practically written itself. Instead, Gunbuster is a story that doesn’t pull any punches and explores deep, emotional issues. The only downside of watching Gunbuster on blu-ray was that the movie version left out a number of scenes that were included in the OVA. I enjoyed the movie, but I’m left wondering if the original version would have provided a better experience.
Putting aside the hyperbole and the fandom that seems to hold hands and religiously scream about every post-digisub series (myself included), the majority of newly crafted anime is objectively mediocre and creatively flat. Realizing this, yet still hopelessly attracted to spending an inexplicable amount of time rooted in front of the stuff, it’s about time that I took charge of my senses and sat down with some anime that sticks with me for longer than 23 mins.
Gunbuster has been around since 1988 (that’s nearly 20 years, people!) and otaku are still talking about it today; sadly, it’s been festering on my hard drive for nearly as long, so rather than plow through a brain hemorrhaging 5 episode marathon of D.Gray-man (*shudders*), I resolved to try out Gunbuster instead. 6 episodes and Diebuster later, I feel like an idiot for waiting this long.
So for the uninitiated, what is Gunbuster? Sad Girls in Space, of course!
Literally subtitled “Aim for the Top!”, Gunbuster’s heroine, Noriko, is an ambitious teenage girl who dreams of piloting mecha and defending Earth against Uchuu Kaijuu (reads better than the pulpy translation “Space Monsters”). Similar to the archetypal Shonen Jump lead, Noriko makes up for a profound lack of natural talent with “hard work and guts”, her unwavering drive relates to the recent death of her Space Admiral father. At least, it is with Noriko’s colourful personality that Hideaki Anno begins to paint Gunbuster’s dramatic tapestry.
Indeed, I did just name-drop Neon Genesis Evangelion’s revered creative maestro. There was once a time when otaku respected the talent of Hideaki Anno without needing to append a disclaimer to their opinions. It’s worth mentioning that Gunbuster was his directorial cherry popping and even here, his unique artistic quality is stamped all over the series. For example, consider that the final (sixth) episode is almost completely drawn in monochrome (black and white), the animation would occasionally degenerate into black and white stills and the plot is borderline obsessed with applying hardcore, believable science fiction to what, in the end, will always be an anime about mecha and space monsters; no doubt, applying such rigid scientific rules to Gunbuster proved to be Anno’s masterstroke.
My favourite moments are almost exclusively related to the science of Gunbuster’s (and essentially, our) universe. During much of episode 3, Noriko is falling in love with a fellow male co-pilot by the name of Smith Toren. That he dies is no surprise; these days it’s a fairly typical plot device in anime to quickly develop a secondary character only to kill him off for emotional effect (see Full Metal Alchemist), it’s more the way Smith dies that is disturbing. Adhering to “Alien“‘s memorable tag line, “In space, no-one can hear you scream!”, Smith’s radio goes dead and that’s it, he is gone forever. The feeling of desolation and helplessness is chilling.
The desolation of time and space are the heart breaking truths at the centre of Gunbuster’s moving drama. Due to advances in space travel, lightning speeds can be achieved, though at a considerable cost; months spent in “space time” are equivalent to years on Earth. Noriko’s struggles are hard enough without having to deal with the devastation of her old life; her friends and family slipping away with every passing minute. Some of the saddest moments come as Noriko hesitantly reunites with old class mates, seeing how they’ve grown up, made families and settled down. The quiet and reflective tone adopted during these moments twists Gunbuster’s emotional complexity, tinging Noriko’s heroism with an inevitable sense of loneliness. It’s obvious from where Makoto Shinkai cribbed his ideas, especially “Voices of a Distant Star“.
Of course, with a name like Gunbuster, one must be expect some ripping good mecha action. GAINAX delivers, apocalypto style. Clearly influenced by his involvement with NausicaÃƒÂ¤, Anno has the universe “rejecting humanity” in the Miyazaki fashion by sending some mind bogglingly huge insect-looking monsters after us, in their billions. Mankind’s only response is to create “buster machines”; mecha and/or weapons with incomprehensible god-like power. I could call it “epic” but that’s such a cliche word to use these days; let’s just say the final episode involves the destruction of Jupiter. Planets gets explodes. Enough said.
The animation by GAINAX is wonderful. Carefully hand-drawn, beautifully fluid and dotted with overwhelming detail, it is a story that springs to life on screen, constantly moving. Like the best anime from the 1980s, there is an overriding sense of spirit and enthusiasm pulsing through this, almost as though someone ripped out their soul and trapped it in Gunbuster for all to see. I hope more of you do, I can confirm it’s better than D.Gray-man.