Reviews of Gunbuster: Aim for the Top! (1988) and related work

Gunbuster: Aim for the Top! (1988Moving picture, 3.0 hours) – previously

Anno Hideaki (director), Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist).

A war orphan with a hidden affinity for mecha must fight at time-dilating speeds. She stays young while the people around her age and the contours of the alien menace expand ever further. One character speculates that they—the aliens—are the antibodies of the Milky Way fighting a human infection.

An OVA series of military science fiction. In more detail, an uneasy, operatic mixture of titillation, pre-Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) mecha anime, shōjo tropes, tennis spokon parody (Aim for the Ace! (1973) and its 1980s OVA sequels) and surprisingly deep tragic pathos.

The creators apparently could not agree where to go with this, so they went everywhere and ran out of money. Some parts are evocative, grounded tragic SF like The Forever War (1974), but lots of other stuff is very corny and exaggerated, like the name of Soviet pilot Jung Freud. Much is ripped straight out of 1988 trends and everyday environments with no regard for the credible evolution so brilliantly executed in Wings of Honneamise: Royal Space Force (1987).

The contrasts can be sharp. The mecha themselves are ugly without realism and so anthropomorphized that they seem to benefit from calisthenics, whilst their designers have simultaneously attempted to illustrate precisely how the pilots operate them using the laughable cop-out of a couple of sliding levers, like a rowboat simulator. These scenes have the appearance of parody, but the writers are just poking a little fun while trying to tell an original story in the cracked old mold. Astoundingly, it works!

There’s all sorts of weird background matter lurking beneath the surface, giving the show its unique texture. Among various gag character names there’s a Toren Smith, named after the real person, who was a friend of the studio and himself an influential figure in bringing Japanese animation to US shores. I wonder whether the same character is also named after Haldeman’s Taurans, the aliens of The Forever War. According to a roundtable discussion with Anno at Anime Expo ‘96, in Gunbuster, Hawaii is occupied by a revived Japanese Empire following a 2000 CE war with Smith’s US. Though not stated on the show, this WW2 sublimation underpins the whole script. The Japanese, training on Okinawa, resort to suicidal tactics, culminating in a sublime weapon surpassing the atomic bomb: The black hole bomb. A character played by Wakamoto Norio has his eyes hidden by glasses, which suddenly produce a glossy reflection when he presumably emotes behind them. The protagonist loves heavy metal and anime (she’s got posters on the walls like Sam in Brazil), and so on. The “antibody” premise recalls “The Immunity Syndrome” (1968) with a hint of “Swarm” (1982).

The studio’s passion is obvious despite the poor planning and lack of Honneamise’s brilliance in production design. Honneamise is better because it’s smarter, but Honneamise is unique. Gunbuster is more typically Gainax even in its flaws. It minted the “Gainax bounce”, which is the application of inertia—a cornerstone of realism in animation—specifically to women’s breasts. The earliest instance of this may possibly have been Ryan Larkin’s “Walking” (1968), and there’s a prototype in “Daicon IV Opening Animation” (1983). It isn’t prominent here, by comparison to still-later work, but by definition and despite its origins in realism, it’s more conspicuous than naturalism allows. It may have been intended to correspond to the USA’s “jiggle television”, a derogatory 1970s term for contemporary live-action programs on the ABC network. It is the visual equivalent to this halting scene from Mishima’s The Sound of Waves (1954):

Shinji made no answer and a surprised look came over his face. He had caught sight of a black streak that ran straight across the front of her red sweater.

Hatsue followed his gaze and saw the dirty smudge, just in the spot where she had been leaning her breast against the concrete parapet. Bending her head, she started slapping her breast with her open hands. Beneath her sweater, which all but seemed to be concealing some firm supports, two gently swelling mounds were set to trembling ever so slightly by the brisk brushing of her hands.

Shinji stared in wonder. Struck by her hands, the breasts seemed more like two small, playful animals. The boy was deeply stirred by the resilient softness of their movement.

The streak of dirt was finally brushed out.

Yamaga said he made Honneamise to get people to love reality. Anno settled for an extreme scale, ambiguous historical metaphor, and Mishima-esque boobs. Gunbuster is eccentric, if not to say erratic, but I’m becoming dangerously sentimental towards it as the years go by.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”, Blazing Transfer Student (1991), Love & Pop (1998), Gurren Lagann (2007), Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012), Interstellar (2014), “Cassette Girl” (2015).

moving picture Gainax animation Japanese production mecha fiction series

Science Lectures (1988Moving picture)

Noriko and her oneesama, periodically interrupted by the sudden appearance of koochi Kouichiro, explain the fictional science behind the series.

Super-deformed explanation of premises. One brief episode per episode of the original series. I believe the first four lectures were created alongside their parent episodes for the original release, whereas the last two are a later addition for some other release (original laserdisc?). No budget, but a very admirable effort. Explicit geeky references amuse.

moving picture bonus material Gainax animation Japanese production fiction

Gunbuster Renewal EX (2004Moving picture)

Episode 3: Jung learns more about the new Sizzler mecha, from an engineer who points out that the mass production model is not less powerful than the prototype: that sort of thing only happens in anime.

Three very brief films released with the 2004 remaster. They may be older. Not as charming.

moving picture bonus material Gainax animation Japanese production fiction

Diebuster (2004Moving picture, 101 minutes)

Tsurumaki Kazuya (director), Higuchi Shinji (storyboard artist).

Humanity has had a long history, slowly producing another 83 Buster Machines to battle space monsters who now enclose the entire solar system. Nobody seems to want to venture outside in any event. Humankind is stuck in a rut. One girl sneaks away from home to be a space pilot, but she’ll have to work her way up from waitress.

Another dizzy mix of epic SF, mecha, kaijū, porn, psychic powers, reluctantly shōjo social structures and most of all, the genre of “konjō” (根性), meaning willpower and implying passionate effort. That subgenre may never have been done better: the audiovisual beauty and intense effort of the early combat scenes inspire tears. As in the original series, some details hint at sincerity, others at parody, and fan service intrudes.

References here: Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007).

moving picture sequel Gainax animation Japanese production fiction