My Review of Aim for the Top 2: Diebuster!

Out of all the fears that lurk in the back of our minds, there are some that are obvious… From spiders, darkness and the unknown to more everyday occurrences like violence, death, and the constant threat of insectoid invaders from outer space. But there’s one fear that people often overlook, and it’s one that can completely consume your life… The fear of absolute solitude. Not having a past, not having a future, just being alone, with nobody to look out for you but yourself. For some people, this wouldn’t be so bad… After all, as it’s been said, there’s no feeling freer than having nothing left to lose. But to Nono, a spunky girl surviving by the skin of her teeth on the planet Mars, there’s nothing cool or ideal about it. Having spent an unknown and potentially unfathomable amount of years living on her own, traveling the expansive red desert without a home to go back to, without any memories to tell her who she is, or any future to look forward to, the only comfort she has in the middle of the night is her head full of dreams, and her ambition to one day become a famous pilot and save humanity from the insidious alien threat!

However, like most people in modern day times, she’s only able to live out her dreams through fantasy while working a dead-end job for wages that she can just barely survive off of. Working in a diner that’s populated mainly by truckers and washed-up space pilots, her dreams of outer space adventures are the only thing saving her from the looming threat of assault from her patrons. Thankfully, when that threat becomes fully realized, so does her dream! An ace mecha pilot from the elite interstellar military known as Fraternity, who is ironically female, crash lands right in the middle of the diner, saving her(whether intentionally or not) and unknowingly offering her the once-in-a-lifetime chance to hitch a ride into space and live out her dreams! Well, that’s what she wants to do, but there’s a catch; The pilots of Fraternity are called Topless, not because they’re shameless exhibitionists, but because they have some sort of ESP power, so it’s like there’s no lid on their minds to hold in their powers. Yeah, that’s stretching it, but hey YOU try to explain why they’re called that. Nono, who is revealed to be a robot, doesn’t have this ability, but as it turns out, she might just have potential far exceeding those who can.

In 2004, Studio Gainax released two anime to commemorate their 20 year anniversary; One of them was This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, a full-length TV series that massively disappointed, and Aim for the Top Diebuster, the sequel to their debut OVA Aim for the Top Gunbuster, and it only takes a cursory glance at both shows to figure out which one got the most attention from the production team. This Ugly was going to be an easy, dumb title full of nudity, so they didn’t need to waste too much money to make it successful… Diebuster, however, was going to be a sequel to a 20 year old anime that had a massive army of loyal and highly protective fans behind it, was much more of a risk, and in light of this, the amount of money they poured into this title is immediately apparent upon the first few minutes of the first episode. I haven’t seen every single Studio Gainax anime… Give it a few more years, I definitely will be able to brag about this at some point… but from what I’ve seen, Diebuster is by far the best looking anime I’ve ever seen from them. Yes, that includes Evangelion, at least by a little.

To be fair, at least in terms of it’s characters, Diebuster is on the more cartoony side of the scale. Honestly, they look more like Fooly Cooly characters than Gunbuster characters, which I guess is just the look the company was pushing back then. It’s a huge step away from Gunbuster, but I think there are a few reasons it’s worth forgiving. First of all, the most colorful and cartoony character IS the sunny, happy-go-lucky robot girl, which allows the distinction to make a small bit of sense. Everyone else, even those with alternate skin and hair color options, look far more down to earth, and the few who don’t are given so little screen time it doesn’t really matter. Second, the outdated character designs of 1984 wouldn’t mesh at all with the beautifully drawn and exquisitely detailed backgrounds they’d be placed in. Before the first appearance of the show’s title in the first episode, I was already on Facebook gushing about how gorgeous it looked. I don’t think there’s a single shot in Diebuster that I wouldn’t want to watch on loop so I could fantasize about living in it, save for maybe the scarier war scenes.

There are so many layers on screen at any given time that you almost don’t know where to look… The characters aren’t always in the foreground, because sometimes that space will be reserved for lens flares, or a small cross section of whatever they happen standing in front of. After that, depending on the environment, the remaining layers can be used to show an entire world of activity in the background of outer space, or the crushing loneliness of an open plain. It’s not impossible for an anime to look as alive and immersive as Diebuster does, but it is rare, and I want to think this is the only time Gainax has ever pulled it off. The use of lighting also helps, seeing how once we leave Mars in episode 1, the bulk of what we see from there on is shrouded in shadow, which perfectly complements the bright and bouncy Nono, who’s childish antics and outgoing personality are quite literally designed to shine in the darkness, both in terms of the artwork and in terms of the bleak tone of the story. The immersive background also helps distract you during those rare moments when the animation maybe isn’t as fluid as it is elsewhere, which is already a sparse problem.

The CG is also used to perfection here, and it pops up frequently, in all sorts of background and foreground layers. You’re not just going to be impressed by the fleets of ships that the Fraternity owns, you’re going to be impressed by vast expanses of space they’re existing in. I’ve praised several anime in the past for having beautiful looking paintings represent space, but in Diebuster, space is ever moving and ever evolving like an organism all it’s own. In shots that combine layers of CG with layers of traditional animation, it looks freaking unbelievable. The same can be said for weather effects and the way they visually affect the characters on-screen, as well as lazers, light beams and any other special effects the script may call for. You could almost call this a spiritual predecessor to Gurren Lagann, if it didn’t also surpass that series. Characters, whether in action or idling between missions, are animated perfectly, with a wide and very graceful range of motion, capped off by fully expressive and photogenic faces. Gainax has never been the best company when it came to managing budget issues, so for Diebuster, I’m going to assume they didn’t HAVE any budget issues, and whether or not that’s the case, it worked out amazingly for them.

While Kohei Tanaka is not a name you’d generally hear associated with Gainax… Honestly, he’s much more well known to the One Piece crowd, although I’m a much bigger fan of his work on Bastard… He did compose the score for two of Gainax’s projects, those being both Gunbuster and it’s sequel, Diebuster. This is probably why there are so many Gunbuster songs that wound up being reused in Diebuster, and in some surprisingly smart and subtle ways. I wasn’t a huge fan of the first season’s OST, but the tunes that are shared by both shows are used much better this time around. Tanaka is generally known for his grand, sweeping ballads, but he’s also known for using rock and roll and electric tracks in order to rack up the intensity of a fight scene. Honestly, though, the music in this show isn’t exactly memorable… You won’t be humming along to any of it’s tracks on the way to work… But they work splendidly in the moment, and you will enjoy them when you’re watching the show.

The opening, Groovin’’ Magic, is far more memorable, and I challenge you not to get it stuck in your head. It’s received some criticism on two different fronts, with one saying that it’s just a piece of Jpop fluff, and the other saying it’s just a mish-mash of clips from the show. To the second I say, have you never watched a Gainax show before? They do that all the time. Most of Gainax’s anime properties have openings that use original animation to bookend long slots of random out-of-context clips. Diebuster does this too, and while the original animation basically consists of silhouetted characters walking, it’s still a lot of fun to watch. The song has a sort of light, funky sixties pop feel to it, which was a great choice considering what kind of person the main character is… Nono is an idealistic dreamer, a sunny flower child who brings ideals of pacifism and humane priorities to a war zone full of cynics and jaded veterans, challenging the way they think. this is very much her theme song, but that’s not to say the ending theme doesn’t also resonate with her. It does, but it runs a little deeper, to the darker feelings she keeps hidden from everyone, as well as her firm resolve to put on a smile for their sake. It’s a great soundtrack overall, and a huge improvement over that of the first season.

Actually, as it turns out, improvements upon the first show can be found all over the place in this one. Now, I originally thought Gunbuster was okay, a good show overall, if not problematic in a lot of areas. It’s characters were weakened by it’s insistence on setting aside time it didn’t have to spare for the sake of explaining things we didn’t need to know, showing us things we didn’t need to see, and exploring several dead end plot points that wound up adding nothing to the important areas of the story. As a result, thing got overly complicated, and we sacrificed any depth the main characters or the badly explained one-note villains could have had in exchange for footnotes like “dolphins with helmets were connected to the development of extrasensory perception.” It probably wasn’t fair of me to blast it for being outdone by a later series, particularly in the area of developing it’s main character, but I stand by my belief that newer anime can be both superior products and useful comparative tools to older anime, and since Gainax already improved upon several elements of their inaugural series through Evangelion, they had a golden opportunity to seal the deal with their 20th anniversary piece.

There really aren’t very many ways to connect Diebuster to Gunbuster as a canon sequel, although they apparently exist in the same universe with a massive time gap in-between, so it works a lot better to consider this series as a reimagining of an older concept. And yes, Diebuster features a vast improvement in terms of narrative and execution. On the surface, it’s story is very simple. It follows an innocent and untainted main character getting the opportunity to live out her dreams, struggling, and ultimately becoming more than the sum of her parts through unexpected and unorthodox means, while changing the people around her in the process. There are little to no deviations from her journey, and the fact that it’s her journey above all else is never in question. Everything that happens in the series is either related directly to her, or directly related to the Fraternity group and surrounding characters in ways that will affect her down the line By using this much tighter sense of focus, Gainax is able to explain the plot and setting to us through her, as we learn what she learned, while at the same time getting us invested in her story. With Nono performing this role, there’s little to no need for exposition, although Gainax still crowbars it in with their subtitles.

Unfortunately, Diebuster isn’t so much an improvement as it is the exact opposite of Gunbuster in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Whereas Gunbuster spent a lot of time telling you very little, Diebuster sounds way too little time telling us way too much. There wasn’t very much happening in Gunbuster that was very important, which made it feel a little boring, but there’s way too much important shit going on in Diebuster, making it feel way too overwhelming and confusing at times. To be fair, this doesn’t actually start happening until episode 4, as I think everything was paced really nicely up until that point. Past episode 4, however, the story and plot become extremely difficult to follow, with important revelations being dropped like hot potatoes, new characters being introduced just to be killed off after mere seconds worth of collective screentime, which is apparently supposed to feel tragic, but I had to watch episode 4 three times just to catch what that tragedy even was, let alone why all the remaining Topless were lying in hospital beds with protective headgear on. It made sense when I was finally able to wrap my head around it, and the scenario I’d been missing was even written better than I thought, but that still doesn’t excuse such shoddy pacing.

But that’s all fine, because the characters get appropriate time devoted to their arcs and individual developmental journeys. Well, I say that, but just because time’s being devoted to them doesn’t mean what we’re being shown is going to hold up. As much as I loved her, and she is an incredibly fun and likeable character, Nono is kind of a Mary-Sue. There’s some subtle depth to her, when you compare her lonely past on Mars to her refusal to compromise her principals in Fraternity, but most of the time it barely resonates with her character in any meaningful way, and after spending half the series as an upbeat Lego brick, her transformation into Jesus happens on a dime. She’s too perfect, she’s always right, and when you get right down to it, she’s… well, she’s Robin Williams. I shouldn’t be too upset about that, as her perfect nature was an integral part of episode 3, which was so perfect it made me cry, but that wasn’t her episode… It was the episode of another pilot named Tycho Science(real name, not joking), who’s backstory and resolution are without question the most memorable thing about this story. And she doesn’t even manage to make an impact beyond that episode.

Which leaves the final main character, L’Arc Mellik Mai, who is probably the best one in terms of development. She starts out the series as a battle-hardened, no-nonsense warrior, the top of her class and the undisputed lord of the kill count. Meeting Nono gradually warms her heart and forces her to open up over time, resulting in her becoming more expressive as well as a few other spoilers. But I honestly can’t help but feel that she got a bit too much screen time. for a relationship between two characters to feel strong, it has to become strained at some point so it can mend and become stronger than before, which does happen in Diebuster between her and Nono… In what has to be the worst way possible. I’m going to spoil this, so skip to the next paragraph if you really don’t want to know how this all falls apart. Basically, she catches a pilot she has a thing for attempting to rape Nono, and her first words are “Why not me?” Which… I just… no. She turns her back on both of them, because how DARE he try to rape another, and how dare she BE that other, and oh dear God I’m going to vomit.

I know I spent a lot of space talking about Diebuster’s flaws, but it really is a fun show. Much like the first season, a lot of it’s best qualities can be found in it’s space battles, and in this season, none of them ever feel wasted or pointless. We know what the goal of every fight is, we know what’s at stake, and when the enemy suddenly becomes unimaginably strong, we know how and why it happened. There’s a sense of progression on both sides, with the humans discovering new technology, and the bugs becoming immeasurably powerful just when we think we’re about to overcome them, even though what they are and why they want to kill us still hasn’t been established. There’s a lot less fanservice than in the first season, as instead of bathing scenes forced in for no reason, everything that happens in this series… nudity included… Serves a strict narrative purpose, whether it’s Nono being cleaned after being rescued from Mars or characters contemplating their issues while alone in the bath, and even then, everything’s shot tastefully… Not to censor, but at the same time, not to exploit. Even the early shot of Nono ripping off the chest of her shirt was meant to be an homage to the first season, which Diebuster does clearly have a lot of respect for, even if it doesn’t look like it at times.

Aim for the Top: Diebuster! is available from Eastern Star Studios, which… Like a star… Is a bright spot in an expansive empty space of no fucking releases. This DVD set came out stateside nine years after the series came out proper, and after only three years since, it’s so far out of print that you can’t actually get it on Amazon. It’s cheap enough on Ebay, as I got my copy for about twenty-five dollars, but yeah, I have no idea why it’s been so sparsely released. An anime film, Gunbuster vs. Diebuster, is much easier to find, as it was released more recently. A single volume manga that ran in the magazine Dragon Age Pure is not available stateside.

So, how does Studio Gainax’s 20th anniversary OVA series hold up? Well, considering their other offering was a collaboration with Madhouse that brought little other than pretentious ramblings and barrels of bare boobies to the table, I’d say this one turned out rather nicely. It has surprisingly little to do with the original Gunbuster aside from some terminology and the visual of a robot running on a treadmill… I’d nitpick, but considering that she also eats, sleeps and has a heart, sure, why not… It actually feels a lot more like a few other Gainax properties. I already made the comparison to FLCL, in regard to it’s colorful and cartoony character designs and over-all artistic aesthetic, but it also incorporates a lot of Evangelion, especially in the way that the pilots interact with each other. Oddly enough, though, it kind of also feels a lot like Gurren Lagann, which wouldn’t come out until three years later. I won’t go too specific, but it even ends with the imagery of a drill! So yeah, it works way better as a representation of what Gainax was between the late nineties and the mid-oughts than it does as a direct sequel. Much like Gunbuster, it has a lot of problems, but over-all, it’s a pretty fun experience. I give Diebuster a 6/10.

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