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).

War orphan with hidden affinity for mecha must fight vast alien menace in space! Some say the aliens are merely the antibodies of the Milky Way, fighting a human infection. Faster-than-light time dilation messes up the lives of those who fight, and it’s dangerous work. Only the central heroine remains young.

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. There’s a character called Toren Smith, named after the real person, who was a friend of the studio. I wonder whether Toren’s 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 the 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.

The studio’s passion is amazing. A character played by Wakamoto Norio has his eyes hidden by glasses, which suddenly produce a glossy reflection when he presumably emotes behind them. Several characters have gag names, the protagonist loves heavy metal and anime, and so on. The “antibody” premise recalls “The Immunity Syndrome” (1968). 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).

animation fiction Gainax Japanese production mecha moving picture 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.

animation bonus material fiction Gainax Japanese production moving picture

Gunbuster Renewal EX (2004Moving picture)

Episode 3: Jung learns more about the Sizzler mecha, from an engineer who points out that there is nothing strange about the mass production model being less powerful than the prototype: it’s anime tradition.

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

animation bonus material fiction Gainax Japanese production moving picture

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).

animation fiction Gainax Japanese production moving picture sequel