My Review of Gunbuster!

In the distant future of 2006, Mankind had only recently made it’s first steps towards exploring the vast reaches of space. Well, that, or it’s 2016 and we haven’t even set foot on Mars yet, you can pick which world line sounds cooler. Anyway, with huge advancements in our understanding and manipulation of quantum physics, we’ve managed to evolve our technology to the point where we can effortlessly cruise through our own Solar System, from the Milky Way to the outer reaches, to new and as-of-yet unidentified planets lurking right outside the range oif our telescopes. But as we begin to take our greedy first steps outside of our own cozy little system, we make a much more sobering discovery… Giant space bugs have been destroying entire systems by laying eggs in their stars, which gives a whole new meaning to sunny-side up.

Among their first targets was the fleet being led by The Luxion, which was in turn piloted by the heroic Admiral Yuzo Takaya… A man who gave his life to make sure his entire crew could make it home safely. This cowardly 2015 ambush orphaned his daughter Noriko, who decided on the spot that she would follow in his footsteps, and train to become a pilot herself, so that she could either find him and save him, or in the worst case scenario, avenge his death. Now, alongside her perfectionist senior classmate Kazumi Amano, a soviet pilot named Jung Freud and their gruff Coach, it’s up to Noriko Takaya to overcome her deeply rooted inferiority complex and realize her destiny as the hero of the human race, who… If she succeeds… Will remember her even 12,000 years in the future!

It’s easy to look at an anime from the eighties and pick on it for looking sub-par. I’ve done it myself, despite the vast differences that exist between then and now in terms of budget, technology and artistic resources. The reason I do this is that even back then, it was entirely possible for an anime to look really damn good, and Gunbuster is one of the most reliable examples of this. There are plenty of static shots in this show where there’s no movement on screen save for the flapping lips of the featured characters, because of course there are, but between these shots, there is not one piece of motion in this show that looks cheap or stilted. The animation is consistently fluid, save for perhaps one or two nude scenes that the animators got a little clumsy at. But hey, we’re talking about Gainax here, an it’s believable that most people on staff wouldn’t know what a naked woman looks like.

That’s not to say the series doesn’t show it’s age, of course… The space battles and mecha action are so well-animated that they hold up pretty well even today, but the art style is firmly rooted in it’s time. Characters look far more realistic in proportion than the moe-models of today, despite the enlargened eyes on our teenaged protagonists. The mechs are nothing to write home about, as they look disappointingly bland compared to even the existing mechs of it;s time, especially with Gundam preempting it by almost ten years. The military uniforms are pretty authentic looking for the men, and the leotards the girls where strike an impressive balance between being sexy enough for viewers, but also just barely professional enough to not be distracting from the tone. The aliens, when you actually see them, look awesome, and are by far the visual wonder of the series.

The music was composed by Koihei Tanaka, and the soundtrack as a whole is awesome. The main voice actors pooled together to sing quite a few original songs for the series, including the opening theme Active Heart and insert songs like the electrifying fight theme Fly High. Unfortunately, the instrumental compositions are a little bit bland and easily forgettable, as I’m pretty sure I’ve heard them all in other shows, either repeated verbatim across the Gainax library or tweaked for similar shows. The opening song is awesome, but I’m afraid the accompanying video is mostly a collection of shots from the show, and there’s little to be said about that. There really isn’t any dub to speak of, although I’ve heard rumors of one coming, but the sub is more than serviceable on it’s own, with a lot of great acting and emotion behind each performance. Most of the cast members have very impressive credits to their names.

One of the unique joys of reviewing older anime is that you get to compare it to all the titles that came afterwards, and figure out what ways it affected the genre, as well as how many titles it may have inspired. Gunbuster, like many of Gainax’s early projects, actually inspired quite a few anime over the past 28 years. There are two ways an anime can show inspiration… Well, actually there are more than that, but only two of them are presently relevant. The first is when an anime becomes really financially successful, so a bunch of other studios try to rip it off to copy it’s success. There are many examples of titles that tried to do this to Madoka Magica, Azumanga Daioh, Lucky Star, Berserk, Haruhi Suzumia and Evangelion, to name a few. But then there are other examples, when an older anime is really heavily flawed, and the shows it influences actually manage to improve upon it in unimaginable ways. Two years ago, I mentioned this was the case with that train wreck His and Hers Circumstances, so… Where does Gunbuster lie?

Well, for starters, let’s look at the title that I feel borrowed the most from Gunbuster… Battle Athletes Victory. Yeah, I know you were expecting me to say Evangelion, but we’ll get to that later. Gunbuster starts off with a very simple story… We have a teenage girl who enlisted with a training program so she could one day ascend to Outer Space and follow in the footsteps of their deceased parent. She encounters hard times, and doubts her abilities, which are noticeably behind where they should be. An older rival with top-tier grades is miffed by this, and says some things that shake our heroine down to her foundation. She learns how to improve through hard work, and winds up leaving her best friend behind to travel into outer space with her rival, whom now has more respect for her. This is literally the plot of Gunbuster’s first episode, and Victory’s first TEN episodes.

Yes, the first episode of Gunbuster has the exact same plot as the first ten episodes of another series that bears some other striking similarities to it, all the way down to the student’s athletic attire. So which approach worked better? Well, I’ll try not to talk too much about Battle Athletes Victory too much, as I’m planning to review it in the future, but suffice to say, the story and characters have infinitely more meat attached to them than they did in the original, and even though it’s ten times the length, very little of it could be called filler. It had several extra characters, each one unique and important in their own way, to the point that even the heroine’s rival had her own rival, as well as a heart breaking backstory that explains her to a T. This is to say nothing of the heroine herself, whose plight is far more compelling.

Noriko and Kazumi aren’t bad characters by far, but if I’m being completely honest, there isn’t much to them. We know that Kazumi is prideful and headstrong, and her doubt in Noriko serves the main character’s development, but that’s it. We don’t know her family, her history, her drive, her dreams, her outlook on life… All of which are clear with Victory’s Jessie Gurtland. Noriko is a bit more developed, but after she’s told to work hard and not give up, she just instantly starts doing so and improving. There’s a bit of realism to this, as the elapsed time shows that improvement isn’t an immediate thing, but there’s little to no psychological complexity to it.

Akari Kanzaki had a far deeper problem, as her inferiority wasn’t a mere complex, but a security blanket. By convincing herself that she was incapable of succeeding, she was sabotaging herself. She had an excuse not to try, and thus she had an excuse not to fail. She had to hit rock bottom before her best friend was able to beat some sense into her, and even at that point, she still wasn’t done developing, because said friend had become her new security blanket, which left her beyond devastated when that blanket was no longer available to her. Yes, the obstacles Noriko had to overcome were very clearly defined, and her improvement was paced well within the episode, but it was also incredibly vague, and the fact that almost every single training animation in the first episode had NOTHING to do with space combat didn’t help. Victory went there, and portrayed the character with a kind of intimacy that no amount of fanservice can deliver.

But is it fair to judge a 1988 series by a set of standards that wouldn’t be established for almost ten years? Yes and no. No, because obviously the medium of story-telling has to evolve over time, but also yes, because Battle Athletes Victory didn’t cause the problems in Gunbuster, it just called attention to them. Nobody jumps to defend Snow White and Cinderella just because modern Disney movies tend to contain more active and complex princesses… Yes, they were fine in their own time, but times have changed, and you’re far more likely in today’s era to see those films judged by today’s standards. Likewise, the main characters of Gunbuster are nothing but chump change compared to the ones from Victory.

And yes, you can blame the six episode format for this… Well, four episodes and a two-part conclusion that was literally an after-thought… But just because development and pacing issues can be excused, doesn’t mean they should be forgiven, especially when we’re coming to the part of this review where we’re going to have to take off our nostalgia goggles and admit a hard, sad truth to ourselves… Gunbuster just isn’t very good. Yeah, I’m sorry, but it still has numerous problems that a limited episode count can’t be blamed for. The story is competently told for the most part, but as it goes on, it keeps on hitting more and more problems, as the cracks in it’s writing become clearer and clearer. There are so many missed opportunities that other shows would have jumped on without hesitation, especially if it meant adding dramatic depth to the story and plot.

In episode 2, we’re introduced to the third girl in the main cast, who we’ll be referring to as Russian Asuka, because another reviewer already called dibs on calling her Prototype Asuka. She challenges Kazumi to battle, causing them to go awol and accidentily discover a very unnerving secret about the military. The three of them get put on probation for this, and despite all of the material a good writer could have squeezed out of not only that secret but even the probation situation, neither plot point is ever brought up again. One sloppy looking nude bathing scene later, all is forgotten. The story would not have changed even a little bit if they’d never been caught, or were just let off the hook completely, or if their discovery had been a bunch of lost frisbees on top of the ship’s roof, nothing would have changed.

And remember when I brought up Evangelion? Well, episode three is the poor man’s Kaoru episode. And for the record, the original Kaoru episode was ALREADY the poor man’s Kaoru episode. In the space of about half of an episode, Noriko meets a dude, gets conveniently dumped by Kazumi, and then finds herself overwhelmed in combat when her love interest and current combat partner dies as a result. Feeling guilty for this (As she damn well should), she sits out the next battle, even though she’s suddenly exactly the soldier they need to save everyone. She picks herself up by her bootstraps, joins the fight, saves the day, and it all feels so empty. The story is so rushed that we know about as much about Noriko’s love interest as we did about her rival… Nothing. Hell, even Shinji’s bullshit “I love myself now” shtick was more compelling than Noriko just getting her act together out of nowhere because the plot demanded it.

But the space fighting is cool, right? All of the mecha action is intense and awesome, right? Yes. Yes it is. I’m not much of a mech fan, never have been, but the sci-fi backdrop and fast-paced mecha action had me watching at full attention even when I was bone-tired. The action is the heart and soul of Gunbuster, and it’s by far where it shines the brightest. It’s also the part of the show that should, by all means, have least amount of explanation possible poured into it. Unfortunately, Gainax didn’t get this memo. See, there’s a good reason science fiction isn’t supposed to be rooted in science fact… It would be too freaking boring if it made sense. Using Star Wars for an example, nobody cares how a ship can slow down in outer space… What we do care about is who our heroes are, why they are the way they are, and where their journey is going to take them.

Gunbuster does the exact opposite of this, by developing the science and technology of this world, and giving everything else minimum effort. Between each episode in the DVD box set are mini episodes where chibis of Noriko and Kazumi dump exposition that’s full of big words but don’t mean a single damn thing. It keeps going on and on from there, sounding progressively regressive in it’s sanity until it’s finally suggested to us that Space Travel can be greatly improved by harnessing the power of ESPers and dolphins wearing space helmets. No, I am not making up a word about that, but here’s the strange thing… These details were so incomprehensible from the beginning that nobody really complains. Viewers before then had already given up trying to make sense out of ANY of the things Gunbuster has to say about it’s own universe, so why not dolphins?

These spurts of insanity could be used as a running gag, but that’s not the kind of sense of humor Gunbuster had. Remember how there was a lot of training in the first episode that had nothing to do with space battles? Push-ups and running laps in giant mech suits, marching up and down huge flights of stairs in lead sandals? That was intentional. That was Gainax’’s honest attempt at a joke. That’s its sense of humor in a nutshell. Didn’t laugh? Me neither.

Even the villains are described half-assedly, as attacking the human race because our existence is meaningless to the universe. Not a threat, mind you, but just meaningless. I really hope that was just a character describing his own theory, because there is no way Gainax would be stupid enough to make that canon… And yet there’s no disproving it. Oh, and don’t point to that one ‘military secret,’ because we can’t prove that predates the attacks. So yeah, we’re just innocent victims, here. Guess what? Villains without understandable motives are boring. At least Starship Troopers offered up the possibility that the bugs were provoked.

I’m no physicist, but from what I’ve heard, the only part of it Gunbuster gets right is the time disparity between those traveling at lightspeed and those on Earth, as it’s a plot device used a few times, especially in the final two add-on episodes. It’s an interesting idea to say the least, and it’s used well at first, up until the final two episodes, where it breaks down into an excuse to explore new futures without having to age the how young protagonist. The new futures, by the way, bring abrupt, out of nowhere developments like… Kazuki being in love with their Coach! Her and Noriko’s robots can combine! Yeah, I hate to say it, but the final two episodes don’t even really need to be there. At the end of episode four, a charming little blurb tells us that while two final episodes have been confirmed, the only things they’d come up with were the two titles. And the story was largely over at that point, so moving forward, the only way to really round out two new episodes was to repeat the plot two more times… With minor, spoiler differences.

In a way, you can kind of tell that Gunbuster was created by a group of otakus just barely starting to find themselves as story-tellers. They even made their main character identify as the “Ultimate Otaku,” a designation that amounts to a few posters on her wall and the visual of her calling out the names of her attacks, presumably because it was the only way to make her feel relatable to them. I don’t want to come down too hard on it, as it was only their second project, and their first financial success, and they DID expand a lot of it’s ideas several years later with Evangelion. It’s a very amateurish piece of work, which makes sense, because they were amateurs at the time. It’s a very important title in their history, so I still highly recommend you check it out.

Gunbuster was originally available stateside by Image Entertainment, with a very boxy DVD set that was released in 2007. It’s since gone out of print, but you can still find it floating around online for about fifty bucks, unless you get really lucky like I did. It’s set for a re-release in May by the company Maiden Japan, who’ll be releasing it in movie format. Yes, they somehow trimmed the three hour series into a 95 minute movie, and no, I haven’t seen it, so I have no idea how well it’ll hold up. A sequel series is also available on DVD, but since I haven’t seen Diebuster myself, I have no idea what it is or how it ties into the series. The manga by Kadocha is not available stateside.

Earlier in this review, I said Gunbuster wasn’t very good, and I stand by that assessment. If you’re a die hard fan of it, I apologize, but I only saw it recently, and I don’t have the benefit of nostalgia goggles. That’s not to say it’s a bad show, of course… Honestly, I enjoyed it. If you can ignore how bare bones the writing is, it has a very simple story, and while the characters are closer to constructs than people, they’re still likeable. The final two episodes, while a little pointless, are more of exactly what this series delivers on the hardest… Great action and decent animation. Unfortunately, the animation is one of the only things about it that doesn’t feel dated, and even with that issue removed, it tends to feel a bit mediocre. It’s still an okay series, and it’s engaging enough to keep me awake where other shows wouldn’t. Not only would I recommend it to people, hell, I’d watch it again. It’s one of Gainax’s best shows, even if that honor is slowly becoming more dubious. I give Gunbuster a 6/10.

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