History of GAINAX: Aim for the Top! Gunbuster

Ah, Anno. There are many figures in modern anime, and few are more divisive than Hideaki Anno; yet, it's clear that without Anno, there would be no Gainax. From the very beginning of the group, with DAICON III, Anno was a central part, and his animation on the finale of Wings of Honneamise defines the film. For his directoral debut, however, Anno takes a very different tack, with the first series the group created: Gunbuster. Whilst, in many ways a spiritual predecessor to Anno's later mech series, the infamous Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gunbuster is still a startlingly accomplished work for a first time director, as well as introducing themes that would later become staples of the Anno style. Released as three OVAs between 1988 and 1989, it tells the story of Noriko Takaya, and her growth from a novice to the ace of the Gunbuster program. Not only is it a surprisingly detailed story for just six episodes, it's also a remarkably realistic take on the mech genre, with strong female characters, at a time where the genre was almost exclusively a boy's club. Let's aim for the top!

Before we dive into Gunbuster, let's first address Gunbuster and its relationship to the series which overshadows it, and the mech series in general, Evangelion. Certainly, there are some similarities-a reluctant protagonist, with a distant/dead father pilots a giant robot to defeat invaders from out of space. Along the way, they're aided by a mentor, with whom they have a complex relationship, have a rivalry with a ace foreign pilot (heck, Jung Freud from Gunbuster shares a seiyuu with Asuka from Evangelion's mother), and eventually come to terms with themselves and their abilities. Here, however, the similarities end; whilst much of Gunbuster (I'll address the very different tone of the final episode in the review proper) is very typical of the slightly jingoistic anime of the 1980s, where Japan rules, or partly rules over most of the known world, where our heroines are open-eyed and plucky, Evangelion is a far more insular, far more psychological series. Whilst Gunbuster stays very much on the outside of Noriko's head, Evangelion delves deep into Shinji and his fellow Evangelion pilots' psyche. Whilst this is partly down to Hideaki Anno's growing depression, and a dwindling budget, this wide chasm in tone is also due to a change in the Japanese psyche itself. Noriko beats her fears, and arguably makes her father proud. Shinji never feels like this. Curiously, another Gainax series can be seen as a descendant of Gunbuster: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. Both Noriko and Simon are initially shy, withdrawn characters who suffers heartbreak, only to eventually become combat aces, and complete and utter badasses. Heck, that crossed arms pose that Simon often adopts? Originally from Gunbuster. If you want an idea of how Gunbuster would have been like as a 26 episode anime, rather than an OVA, look to Gurren Lagaan, not Evangelion.

The first episode, Shock! Big-Sister and I are Going to be Pilots Together?! is practically a (very 1980s style) show unto itself-beginning in flashback with Noriko introducing herself and telling us about her absent father, the captain of the Luxion, a spaceship that protects earth, as well as her wish to follow in his footsteps, it essentially riffs on the school setting and the typical rival of many shonen series. Of course, Noriko, now grown up, has even more reason to chase this dream-with the death of her father, she wants to become a space pilot! One...incredibly 1980s op later (seriously, the homages to a certain 1980s pilot movie partly sharing this series' name (Top Gun, in case you were wondering) are particularly notable here, with the "Danger Zone" esque music.

From the beginning, however, Anno's more realistic take on the mech genre, complete with mechs exercising, is already notable, as is his usage of strong female characters, with Noriko idolising her older friend's ability to pilot. something she seems unable to perfect, due to her lack of ability with machinery. She's also picked on by other pilots, who think she's only got there by nepotism. From tere, we're introduced, through what I can only describe as yuri goggles, to Noriko's senpai, who suggests that hard work is the best way to success. A star-struck Noriko promptly sets out to do just that...watched from afar by a rival. Meanwhile, the head of the program, Coach (who, if anything, is clearly an influence on the design of the teacher in Kill La Kill, down to the mirrored sunglasses and voiced by NORIO WAKAMOTO, everybody), promptly switches off the autobalancers of the mechs. Hilarity ensues. Followed by 50 laps. Uh...Coach? Noriko, unfortunately, still hasn't mastered things, and after a little fumbling around, is promptly made to do her fifty laps...on foot. Ouch. So, our freshman is in the doldrums, a rival is on the sidelines, and she's having second thoughts...only to be told she'll be one of the two representatives of the school?! Even Noriko's senpai doesn't think she'll cut it. Coach, however, has an ulterior motive, and reveals he's a survivor from her father's ship!

In short, what Anno creates, at the half-way point of episode 1, is almost a mini-season in itself-were Gunbuster's first episode a show of its own, you could easily see this first 12 minutes taking up a good two or three episodes, culminating with Coach's reveal. Of course, now labored with the fact she's one of the two pilots of the mysterious Gunbuster, Noriko breaks down from the stress, and begs Coach to re-consider. There are echoes here of Shinji's self-degrading, though it's brushed over far more quickly. Coach then explains Amano's hard work trains her spirit (seriously, the girl wears iron sandles), revitalises Noriko's spirit, and we're given another staple of the 1980s; the training montage (complete with Vangelis-esque soundtrack-interestingly missing from more recent US DVD versions). Noriko's rival watches with scheming interest, as 1980s rivals are oft to do, and before long, she's determined to take Noriko down a few pegs, culminating in a mech-vs-mech showdown. Seemingly one sided, the fight suddenly goes our heroine's way, with a sudden unexpected move, (plus a pep-talk from Coach). Our rival is defeated, Noriko seems to have gained some confidence, and next episode she's off to the real challenge; SPACE.

Episode 2 begins with a flashback of the destruction of Noriko's father's ship, and the rescue of Coach, with Noriko's father promptly going down with his ship. Meanwhile, Noriko and co arrive at the Exelion, which seems based entirely on the Star Destroyer,  whilst the nearby space station is straight out of Kubrick's 2001. Oh, and there are Soviets in space. Here, we're introduced to the duo's foil, Jung Freud, who, as I mentioned earlier, is essentially a prototype of Asuka, down to the cocky demenour and the combat prowess; she instantly strikes up a rivalry. However, it's time to get to grips with being in space, and more training begins, only to be interrupted by Freud, who promptly challenges them to a fight. Here, Anno's use of single colours and extreme closeups is particularly effective. Agreeing to fight Freud, Amano proves herself more than a match for the firey German, and their fight soon leads into an abandoned area, into which Noriko follows. Here, we're introduced, stunningly, to the villains of the series, the space bugs that threaten the universe.

From here, we get a pathos filled flashback of Noriko's childhood memory of her father, only to be hauled in in front of Coach for infiltrating a military facility, and both Noriko and Amano end up on probation. Whilst the duo bathe, Freud pays a visit, complimenting Amano's piloting ability, and seems to warm to the duo, although Amano is less keen on her designs on Coach. Meanwhile, a mysterious object enters the solar system, and, because of technobabble, it must be investigated by hand...by Amano and Noriko, of course!

By the wonders of nigh-lightspeed, they're able to catch up with the object; but, of course, there's a catch-for every minute spent at this tremendous speed, three months pass on earth. Whilst I'll talk about the scientific accuracy once we get to the Science Lesson shorts that accompany Gunbuster, this concept, and its usage both dramatically and scientifically, is one of the best things about the show. Here, as the mission begins, we get another Anno trademark that would become refined in Evangelion; pre-mission suspense, where mechs, machines and characters prepare, we're briefed of the (typically high) odds, and it's all underpinned with suitably dramatic scoring. Off they go, with Coach following in quick succession, and soon catch up with their target...a spaceship. But not any spaceship. The Luxion! Here, the shock of Noriko's realisation is rendered brilliantly,, with a sudden freezeframe and desaturation, followed by both Coach and Amano reacting with horror.-due to the way time acts, it's only been two days since the battle on-board, and thus, Noriko goes in search of her father, with Coach in pursuit. As Noriko reaches, the bridge, she discovers it nothing but an empty void, the front of the ship torn away, and Coach retrieves her, just in time. This entire scene is not only superbly rendered and scored, it's some of the best voice-acting in the entire series, and delivered with real pathos. Back aboard the Exelion, Noriko finally breaks down, coming to the realization that she's lost her father. The episode ends superbly, with a younger Noriko exclaiming to her father that she wants to go into space, followed by a pan-up to star-filled skies.

Episode 3 begins with a recap, and...karaoke. During which we get, entirely in Japanese, some physics (which again, are focused more upon in the Science Lessons, which I'll talk about shortly), including Dr Tannhauser (a reference to the gates referenced by Roy Batty in Blade Runner). From here...space, beautifully rendered, as Kumiko writes home to her friend, before the ship jumps to lightspee-Sorry, Subspace. During which our group do the usual dares, wander around the silent ship, and bits of robot are shown. As luck would have it, Kumiko comes across a boy on the same sort of dare, and...Hello, Coach. It seems our luckless duo have really lucked out, and have to clean the ship's laser lenses, whilst Kumiko waxes lyrical about the beauty of the galaxies around them. She's not the only one, as the captain is in retrospective mood too. But, trouble is on the way, in the shape of the enemy. Another typical Anno “Prepare for Battle” montage follows, whilst Kumiko swots up on battle procedures. Leaf 64...is, however, not as the captain remembers it...and the enemy are to blame, it seems. Meanwhile...Amano reveals to Coach that she doesn't feel that Kumiko is ready for battle, and promptly dissolves her partnership...in front of Kumiko.

Despondent, she turns to her male friend, who agrees to make a partnership with her, and finally introduces himself as Smith Toren. The fleet prepare for battle, with the mechs following suit, on their first real mission; here, the music, aping Holst's Mars, suitably adds to the tension of the scene as they join the battle. The detail of the animation, too, is superb, with the vastness of space, the tense cutting, and the vast armada of ships filling the frame. Here, the fixed perspective, largely through Kumiko's targeting scope, and the use of closeups is particularly claustrophic-you, like Kumiko are trapped in the mech, in the vastness of space, and the final shot of her alone and adrift is particularly stark. Seemingly, however, the force the enemy sent are merely a diversion, and their usage of the star in order to hatch their eggs may cause it to become unstable! Kumiko returns to a battered force, with some mechs badly damaged, and Smith missing, presumed dead; again, Anno's usage of images, rather than dialog, is particularly well utilised here- the shell-shocked and  exhausted mens' look is enough. We're then finally introduced to Gunbuster, looming, not unlike its spiritual successor, behind thick glass, whilst Kumiko vows to train to be worthy of Amano. The enemy aliens begin to claw free of the sun, and the episode ends on a dark, downbeat tone.

Episode 4 begins with a roundtable discussion, (not unlike, to be honest, the discussions between Gendo and the other members of Seele in Evangelion), where the aliens are revealed to be targeting humanity as the eventual goal. Noriko, meanwhile, is on garbage, and more yuri abounds. Excellent. Back to training with Coach, including doing karate katas in a mech. Freud watches with interest, and promptly corners Noriko, seemingly jealous of her special treatment by Coach, before challenging her to a fight. Unfortunately, Noriko, crippled by her fear of space, promptly breaks down. Freud labels her a liability, but Coach isn't so sure. The fleet makes its next move, worried that the enemy force will follow them back into the solar system. Still crippled by the loss of Smith, Noriko mopes, whilst Coach prepares to potentially use Gunbuster, something the captain would rather not do. Once again in subspace...they're attacked by the enemy, and, crippled by their lack of radar, promptly leave warp, leaving the Earth a sitting duck; the Exelion is promptly surrounded by enemy ships, and the mechs are promptly launched to defend the fleet. Even proton torpedoes aren't enough, and the mechs are soon dropping like flies, including Freud's teammate. Filled with new determination, however, Noriko vows to do something.

What follows...is one of the greatest sequences in mech anime history. With the Exelion badly damaged, the captain decides to ram the enemy flagship! But wait! Something, a mech, emerges from the battered hull of the Exelion, arms crossed, and ready to kick ass.  Everything about Gunbuster  from its pose, to its iconic march, and its cross-armed pose...is beyond cool. Flying (arms still crossed) across space, it promptly blows the enemy fighters to kingdom come, and takes on the flagship. With less than two minutes less, desperate measures are called for, and Noriko allows it to impale Gunbuster...right where she wants it, and promptly fries the flagship in a bloody explosion! The enemy retreating, Gunbuster is revealed to have survived the huge explosion, (albeit battered and battle worn) and returns to a triumphant reprisal of the opening.

So far...so typical mecha series. However, with episode 5, Anno now makes a sudden turn into the left field of anime. Beginning with Amano and Noriko's graduation, 10 years after their classmates. Returning back, they suddenly pass Kimiko, one of Noriko's school friends, who now has her own daughter, whilst the navy continue to build new ships...to evacuate Earth. Uh. Time has passed, it seems. Meanwhile, guess what? More enemies are on their way, and Amano and Coach are arguing, culminating with him slapping her, and her running away. Coach promptly collapses, and cuts off her attempts to ring for help. Freud announces she's giving up chasing Coach, and we get a flashback where Coach reveals that, not only is humanity all but doomed, unless Gunbuster defeats the enemy fleet. Here, Anno's direction is superb, with the voice-acting and the style of cutting adding greatly to this scene, particularly from Wakamoto, with Coach admitting he's weak, and slowly dying, but that Amano mustn't know this. With the government all but throwing in the towel, Coach arrives on the scene, proposing to use the Exelion to create...a black hole. Uh. With little left to throw at the enemy, they reluctantly agree.

Aboard the train, Noriko and Amano realise that they may well be going to their deaths, and Amano  reveals that she knows about Coach, but that the lives of the entire planet outweigh his. With the two Buster Machines ready to launch, Noriko tries to cheer up Amano, who, despite the mission only likely to take six months, may not survive that long. Nevertheless, they launch for their mission, watched by Coach, Freud, Kimiko, and co. Arriving at the battered Exelion, our two heroines prepare for battle, and time begins to accelerate; this sequence is beautifully rendered, both in the typical Anno-style battle preparations, but also in the reactions of both characters to the passing of time. With much of the fleet blown asunder, and the intercutting of the time passing, the tension is built superbly, ending with Amano nigh-cracking under the stress, and the fear of losing Coach.  As the battle rages around them, Noriko attempts to snap Noriko out of her fuge, reminding her of what they may lose if they don't fight. Resolved to fight, Noriko and Amano combine their mech, once more forming Gunbuster! With our duo now fighting as one, they reland on the Exelion, ask the enemy fleet who the hell they think they are, and reign utter chaos down on them. Pretty explosions and all.

Oh, and Gunbuster has a cloak. A cloak of KICKING YOUR ASS. Exelion goes supernova, the alien fleet is dragged into the black hole, and mission accomplished! Gunbuster lands, and Coach is still alive! Noriko is left alone with her thoughts, and finally believes she's made her father proud.

Here, many directors would have left Gunbuster, on a positive, if slightly bittersweet note. Not Anno. Fifteen years pass, everything is in black and white, and Coach has been dead for over a decade. Here, a note about the production of this final episode should be made-this black and white episode, far from being the cost-cutting Gainax would become infamous for, actually cost more than producing this episode in full color. It's both devastatingly effective. With her husband dead, Amano is now leaving on a final mission, whilst Noriko has remained young and a hero out in space; even the usual upbeat OP has been stripped away, with suggestions that the world has been badly impacted by some unknown foe, with a new weapon, the Black Hole Bomb, and only three planets lost from the collapse of Jupiter, humanity finally takes the fight to the center of the Galaxy, fighting for its own survival. At any cost. The Black Hole Bomb soon arrives alongside the fleet, and Amano and Noriko are soon (tearfully) reunited.  Anno adds in backstory through Noriko's photo-strewn walls, whilst Kimiko's message hopes that she will return within her lifetime...

The fleet prepares for battle, and Amano and Jung have a final Tet-a-tet, The battles are even starker with the black and white, and Amano and Noriko prepare for one last sortie in Gunbuster, whilst the enemy fleet bring out every weapon they have...and attempt to ram the Black Hole Bomb! The solution? MALL the dakka! It's sadly not enough, and the shield is penetrated-Anno again reaches into his cinematic bag of tricks and brings out a montage of still battle shots, soundtracked by...classical music. With the countdown reaching zero...nothing happens. Thus, the chain reaction must be triggered...manually. Using one of Gunbuster's degeneracy engines; it's thus a race against time to get in there, trigger one of Gunbuster's engines, and get out. There is, of course...a catch. If they trigger the engine, it could take them decades to return to earth. Descending further into the core, Gunbuster begins to slowly shut down. Practically tearing itself apart, (and giving us a random breast show in the process, Gunbuster punches the core into the bomb, triggering the reaction, and a cataclysmic explosion. Back on earth, we get a brief shot of Kimiko, before revealing the damage the Black Hole Bomb has left...

Then Anno reveals his final, spectacular hand,  if anything, topping the introduction of Gunbuster, delivering one of the sequences of his career. Only twelve thousand years later...Gunbuster floats through space, its heroines returning to an almost unrecognizable earth. Is mankind dead? The piano builds...and lights begin to switch on across the earth's surface, slowly spelling out "WELCOME BAC"(it's a deliberate misspelling, Japanese wise). Epic guitar soloing...and the colour returns, as our heroines' escape capsules fly down to earth. One sec. Something in my eye. Gunbuster, battered, broken, but triumphant, floats through frame, the Earth beneath it, as the sun rises behind the Earth. It's a perfect ending to a nigh perfect series; humanity unbroken, unbeaten, and triumphant.

Before I wrap this review up, we need to talk briefly about the Science Lessons; directed by Kazuya Tsurumaki, (who would go on to make the subject of next Gainax Season review, Fooly Cooly,) they're essentially expanded explanations of Science concepts by superdeformed versions of Noriko, Amano and Coach,  including quintuple Nobel Prize winner Tannhauser, and...warp thingy. In short, they explain some of the mechanics of the series in...surprisingly scientific language. (Seriously, I did physics to upper secondary school level, and most of this actually makes sense...in theory, anyway). Most importantly, it also explains the plot-critical Rip Van Winkle concept, and fleshes out the ideas that Anno had for this series. It's not vital to watch them, but they work well at what they do.

...What can be said about Gunbuster 26 years on? Simply put, it proved Gainax were not a one-trick pony-whilst Wings of Honnamise proved they could make films, Gunbuster proved they could make a series; and what a series to start with-but it proved more than that. Its animation, for the most part, whilst a little dated, still stands up today. Its heroines, Noriko and Amano are two of the most complex, well written female characters in anime, let alone the previously male dominated mech genre, with cleverly wrought character arcs,. Noriko herself is a blueprint for almost every reluctant hero Gainax has created since, from Shinji Ikari and Simon the Digger, to Ryuko Matoi and
Naota Nandaba. Her blood flows in the veins of dozens of iconic reluctant protagonists. Its execution is peerless, its story increasingly raising the stakes until humanity's existence itself is on Noriko's shoulders; and as for Gunbuster itself, few mecha in the two and a half decades since have come close to this machine for coolness and just pure damn style. The battles are tense, the score is superb...there's almost nothing I can dislike about this series.

Before I conclude, though, I'm going to quickly address what I regard as the (very minor) issues of Gunbuster are. First...the voice acting is a little dated; that's not to say Wakamoto et al are bad per-say, more that...voice acting in the 1980s was not subtle. Everything's a little over the top, the female characters are a little prone to bursting into tears at the drop of a hat, Wakamoto literally shouts half his lines (OK, Wakamoto still shouts half his lines, but still...), and apart from our main trio plus Coach, the small cast makes itself painfully notable. Next...the nudity. Fair enough, there's a yuri subtext in this series, most of the characters are female (Apart from the Captain, Coach  and Toren, only one of which really gets any development, and Noriko's father, who has all of two lines), but...some of the nudity is...kinda unnecessary. Only kinda. Noriko ripping her pilot suit is a suitably dramatic moment, showing how closely connected to the machine she's become, but showing her partly undressed whilst answering the phone seems a little more fanservice than dramatic.

Finally...the way that this series has been overshadowed by Evangelion. Don't get me wrong, Evangelion is a masterpiece, a series I love dearly, but Gunbuster, for my money...is even better. A stronger, no-nonsense female protagonist, determined to make her father proud, not wallow in fear of him. A cooler mech. One of the best tag-teams in anime. Gunbuster deserves as much love (if not more) than Evangelion does. I don't blame Anno, nor Gainax for this, but Gunbuster has been allowed to essentially gather dust, (aside from a so-so spiritual/actual sequel, Diebuster), whilst Evangelion is a multi-billion dollar monolith. So...perhaps it's time once more to give Gunbuster its time in the sun. Fire up the Buster Machine! Let's aim, once more, for the top!

Verdict: Cheesy, beautiful, heartfelt mecha AWESOMENESS. 10/10


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