GUNBUSTER | ANIME REVIEW & ANALYSIS
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Before Evangelion, Hideaki Anno was busting guns and taking names
Director: Hideaki Anno
Cast/Voices: Noriko Hidaka, Rei Sakuma, Norio Wakamoto, Maria Kawamura
Introducing Gunbuster the Movie
Gunbuster the Movie has a lot more to offer than critical fans of the original Gunbuster anime series will lead you to believe. The OVA (original video animation) might be a better option for some, but the movie is still an enjoyable gem from the golden age of sci-fi anime.
Admittedly, the story became a little harder to grasp, and the character development less coherent, when the series was trimmed down to Gunbuster the Movie. But was the trim really such a bad thing?
I never felt much moved by the characters emotional journey in the series anyway, at least not the peripheral characters. The protagonist – Noriko – has a nice emotional arc, which carries over to the movie, whilst cringe-worthy high school-drama is cut to the bone.
Fans of pre-2000s sci-fi anime are undoubtedly well-versed in interpreting convoluted plots. If you have already tackled Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Perfect Blue, or series like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Serial Experiments: Lain, the story in Gunbuster the Movie is a walk in the park.
«The emotional distress of spaceflight and time dilation is fascinating enough,
whereas underdeveloped teenage angst didn’t add much to the series anyway.»
– JCA –
The series was a respectable effort from the young production team for sure, but many of the characters felt underdeveloped, nonetheless. As such, the trimming away of story arcs leading nowhere arguably tightened the storytelling. The trimmers did go a little overboard, though. The perfect cut probably awaits, somewhere between series and film.
I do sympathize with the argument that the small emotional arcs of peripheral characters contributed to the overall atmosphere of the show. I am unsure as to how much that mattered to me when watching Gunbuster the Movie?
The hard trim into movie accentuated the strong points of the series: Amazing visual design and engaging action. It’s downright impossible to not get lost in the 80s atmosphere. Not to mention the many references to 80s popular culture and anime.
The out-of-print Bandai DVD-release of the entire series is great, but hard to come by. The 2006 edition of Gunbuster the Movie is easier to find. It also comes with re-recorded dialogue by the original cast and better English subtitling. In other words, a good choice for fans of retro anime.
The Gunbusting Facts!
Gunbuster was first released as an anime series in 1988/89. It was directed by Hideaki Anno, who would later create Neon Genesis Evangelion. In Japan, Gunbuster is known as «Aim for the Top!», which refers to an anime called «Aim for the Ace!» and the Hollywood movie Top Gun.
Anno was attracted by the element of time dilation in Gunbuster. He found it comparable to the tale of Urashima Tarô, a character from Japanese folklore. Tarô spent a few days with a princess in a palace beneath the sea, only to realize that he had been gone 100 years when he returned home.
The Gunbuster series was released in several formats overseas, most of which suffered from poor image, sound, or subtitles quality. In 2006, a theatrical version hit the cinemas in Japan, which led to the first proper overseas release in the form of Gunbuster the Movie.
Many consider Gunbuster a precursor to Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series that would make Anno a worldwide anime icon. Evangelion become infamous for its mix of heavy sci-fi and exploration of the human psyche, two themes which also are present in Gunbuster to a lesser extent.
The Plot-Problematic in Gunbuster
The story in Gunbuster was already high paced in the original series. Cutting it down to a 95-minute movie didn’t make the tale more accessible. Condensing a story spanning more than 12.000 years into a dense film presented the audience with a challenge.
That being said, to anyone interested in sci-fi, and particularly the relativity of time, the story in Gunbuster the Movie is rife with interesting thought experiments. Different passing of time is a well-know topic in sci-fi, which is taken directly form theoretical physics (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity).
«Concepts of time are central to Gunbuster’s plot,
but time is also its biggest problem.»
– JCA –
Another challenge, when approaching Gunbuster, is that the first part (of both the series and the film) is pretty clichéd. The story is set in 2021 and introduces two young girls who are enrolled at the Okinawa Girls Space Pilot School. Simply put, their mission is to learn to control massive spaceship robots, and then protect the earth from alien attacks in space.
The pilot school sequences are coated in typical anime über-kawaii. Before long, however, sci-fi extravaganza takes over and turns predictable teenage story lines into high paced, riveting space action.
At this point, the teenage emotional turmoil adds a nice down-to-earth element to balance out the grandiose sci-fi-opera. I guess my somewhat self-contradicting statement at this point argues against the heavy trim of the series, but I still think Gunbuster the Movie is worthwhile.
The main character – Noriko – is the daughter of an admiral robot fighter who got lost in the first battles of an ongoing alien war. In contrast to her father, Noriko doesn’t seem to possess the talent of a supreme robot fighter. Through training and personal development, she still proves to have some innate abilities to control the giant robots like no one else.
Thereafter, she soon becomes a Gunbuster pilot sent on a space mission to defend Earth. Due to unforeseen developments, the robot fighters are led further and further into space. By the time they manage to return, the trip that only took a few days for the pilots, was 12 years on Earth.
From there on, the story develops into a grandiose space opera of epic proportions, with some of the most impressive space battles ever seen in 80s anime. To get the full picture, prepare to watch the film a few times, or just read about the plot beforehand on Wikipedia.
Produced by Anime Fanboys, for Anime Fanboys
Gunbuster was made by Gainax, an anime studio that grew from a university sci-fi club who dabbled with amateur anime. As such, Gunbuster was an early example of an anime series made by actual fans of the medium, not some calculating corporation.
Amongst the fanboys who founded Gainax was a young Hideaki Anno, who would later become an icon in the niche of mecha anime/giant robot-action. He was by no means the creator of the mecha concept. Giant robot pilot stories in Japan can be traced back to late 1940s manga (Atomic Power Android, 1948) and beyond.
Anno would, however, develop the robot pilot stories into something deeper and darker than anyone before him. His approach to character development, especially when dealing with technological development, was more thought-provoking and experimental than most anime-makers dared to do at the time.
The full realization of his visions would come with Neon Genesis Evangelion, but Gunbuster also explored the characters psyche like few robot animes before it. Consequences of actions and choices constantly plague the protagonists, as they knowingly sacrifice their place in time on Earth for the common good of humanity.
Anno and Gainax also broke new ground in the visual design department, both when it came to their personal production abilities and the approach to sci-fi anime in general. As such, Gunbuster becomes increasingly well-made in tandem with the episode progression.
It is undoubtedly a happy accident that the final two episodes showcase sharper animations, which nicely fits the concept of moving farther into the future. In a sense Gunbuster feels like the reflection of a crew on a personal journey; their leaps in production ability approaching light speed towards the end of the series.
The very final episode might come as a surprise though, as it is presented in gritty black and white (still sharper drawn than the first episodes). The final fight is not even animated, but presented in the form of something akin to a slideshow of storyboards.
This strange artistic choice is naturally debated. Differences in opinions aside, the montage-esque presentation of the epic space battle definitely leaves a lasting impression. I for one, belong to the fans that think the black and white ending adds a unique touch to the finale.
It’s as if the black and white images underline the timelessness of the story. Incidentally, these sequences where the only ones that really made me take part in the characters’ emotional turmoil. I truly felt the anguish and solitude that Noriko struggled with, which leads me to conclude that Anno made the right artistic choice.
Between the Fabric of Space-Lines
The alien adversaries in the Gunbuster saga bring existential questions to the table. These massive beings have evolved beyond the need of planets. They drift around in space, lay their eggs in stars, and serve as an antibody for the entire universe. Their main mission: To seek out and destroy the cosmic plague, i.e., all sentient life.
For one, the pre-apocalyptic theme, in which mankind is portrayed as much a bad guy as the aliens, seems an apt allegory for Japans participation in WWII. The definitions of good and bad guys depend on your standpoint, which is as much the case in Gunbuster as it was to Japanese forces during WWII.
Describing humankind as a planetary virus also brings environmental issues to mind. Japan was known for being environmentally negligent in the 80s. If this connected to Anno’s image of the human plague, is hard to say. It does, however, seem to fit the overhanging threat of global warming, rising sea levels, species extinction, and increasing world hunger.
Tokyo changed its way, though. In less than 20 years, it went from being one of the most polluted places on Earth in the 80s, to becoming one of the cleanest metropolises on the planet. At the moment, Japan might be as guilty as the rest of us, but at least they did something right back then. Perhaps we should all take some inspiration from this?
Between the Fabric of Teenage Panty-Lines
On the lines, rather than between them, are boatloads of teenage emotional turmoil. The youngsters’ problems are real, and the solutions are rarely easy. All the while, feelings of solitude and depression add to the pressure of having to make difficult decisions.
A closer look at the character development reveals characteristic issues of the otaku-generation. Bob Clark over at «Wonders in the Dark» argues that the early 80s manga- and anime-otakus reflected a prolonged immaturity that would become central to Anno’s work.
«Noriko is a child who refuses to grow up, and moreover,
is given the opportunity to do just that by living her life in outer space
… an apt predictor for the Peter-Pan syndrome of the otaku experience.»
Bob Clark – Wonders in the Dark
Furthermore, Clark argues that Anno increasingly emphasized the otakus’ refusal of adulthood in his work. In Clark’s own words, «there’s an impulse to use science fiction as a vehicle for expressing the adolescent angst of girls growing up in modern Japan». Arguably, Anno pushed these issues hard in an attempt to wake the otakus from their slumber.
The fact that Gunbuster is filled with enough sexualized teenage girls to satisfy all kinds of lolita complexes is another matter. But, it is a matter that seems to connect with female anxiety and distorted self-images in modern Japan.
Psychological undercurrents and messages of misplaced sexuality is humorously underlined by naming the Russian Gunbuster cadet «Jung Freud» (after Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud). Even though her character has some depth (at least in the series), Jung Freud is more often remembered as a predecessor of the iconic character Asuka from Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Gunbuster Easter Eggs
Not until you dig into the plethora of references to other animes and popular culture do you realize just how much of a fanboy-production Gunbuster was. It was a labor of fans, made for the fans. It was a playground where Hideaki Anno was free to do whatever he wanted. Perhaps this is why it still feels fresh to this day. Real enthusiasm never fades.
There is something special about discovering hidden hints of obscure, or even wildly famous sources of inspiration. For one, Gunbuster quickly became known as a crossover between sports anime, hardcore science fiction, and shôjo manga.
The team never tried to hide their fandom of otaku culture. Gunbuster is chock-full of inside jokes and well-worn genre clichés, both between the lines and right on top of them. Sailor Moon-jokes, for instance, are served like conveyor-belt sushi during an end-credit science class.
Seasoned anime fans will also notice more than a few tips of the hats at classic Japanese sci-fi and anime such as Ultraman (1966), Space Battleship Yamato (1974-75) or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).
A few cranks up on the nerd-dial leads us to the mentioning of a «Tannhauser Gate», which is a reference to a line from the character Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982). Closer study of backgrounds also reveals appearances of space vessels from the film Fantastic Voyage (1966) as well as the Star Wars universe.
The previously mentioned black and white final episode is also claimed to be an imitation of Kihachi Okamoto's Battle of Okinawa (1971). But, since I could only find this theory one single place online (SFE – The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction), let’s just call it a curious, unconfirmed parallel for now.
Final Verdict for Gunbuster the Movie
Gunbuster was released the same year as the sci-fi anime masterpiece Akira. It might be speculative to argue that Gunbuster suffered from standing in the shadow of an anime giant. Still, it feels like Gunbuster was somewhat neglected outside of Japan, which is a shame.
Gunbuster the Movie is a terrific science fiction adventure, and a wonderfully nostalgic piece of retro anime. Plot holes and cutting of crucial dialogues might put a damper on the experience, but not to the extent that the film should be overlooked.
In fact, I would choose Gunbuster (both series and movie) any day before Neon Genesis Evangelion. I do appreciate the enigmatic allure of Evangelion of course, but Gunbuster is equally magnetic in terms of sci-fi action and technological contemplation. And contrary to Evangelion, it does not require a manual to wrap my head around it.
A key strength of Gunbuster is how elegantly it bonds with the viewers. In-between silly jokes, sexualized teenage girls, and grandiose action, it somehow manages to capture its audience in an almost mysteriously unpretentious manner.
Gunbuster the Movie might not be as groundbreaking as Evangelion, Gundam or Patlabor, it might not be as significant as Akira or Ghost in the Shell, but it has charm. It has a certain naiveté that only a lovechild of real anime fanboys can acquire. It was made by one of our own, and for that reason alone, it deserves our undying respect.
Ain’t it Cool News: AICN Anime - Gunbuster
Animekritik: Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Introduction)
Anime News Network: 30 Years of Gunbuster
Bateszi Anime Blog: Lost in Transition: Gunbuster the Movie
MangaUK.com: The World of Hideaki Anno
Reel Rundown: Anime Reviews: Gunbuster ~Aim for the Top!~
Wonders in the Dark: Nostalgia for the Future: Hideaki Anno’s «Gunbuster»