In the very near future, a race of huge, insect-like aliens is discovered traveling the galaxy. These aliens seem dedicated to the eradication of the human species as it takes its first steps away from the solar system, and they are getting closer and closer to Earth. Humanity has responded by developing space-going battleships and giant fighting robots (original idea there). These robots are piloted by the best and brightest of Earth’s youth, picked from training schools around the world.
Our story begins in the year 2023, not long after the first battles with the aliens, and centers on young Noriko Takaya. Although Noriko’s father was a famous Captain in the space fleet who was killed during one of the first battles of the war, her own talents as a pilot are questionable. Nonetheless, she has entered a training school. Joined by the beautiful and talented Kazumi Amano, Noriko will fight to overcome the trauma of war, the doubts of her peers, and her own lack of confidence.
Aim for the Top! Gunbuster is a seminal 6-part OVA series from 1988 which was created and produced by an early-era Studio Gainax (their second major project). It has a cult-fiction status both within Japan and abroad and is widely regarded as a keystone in the evolution of not just Gainax but the anime industry as a whole. Even without scratching too deeply, you can see the significance of this project. It was Hideki Anno’s directional debut, and involved a number of famous staff entrenched in the mecha genre’s hall of fame, such as Haruhiko Mikimoto, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, and Kazutaka Miyatake. Now that I have seen it myself I can see strokes of Gunbuster in Hideki Anno’s later magnum opus, Evangelion.
But it’s not really known for its pedigree or lofty critical achievements. The true story of Gunbuster’s success is a gripping story that pulls at the heart-strings, as well as its iconic approaches to entertainment value, including the now-patented Gainax Bounce and its various parody elements. In a way, its blend of aiming to titillate fans and also challenge the anime norms is really the classic Gainax style. The inspired direction and creative input of Hideki Anno helped to transform the already-stellar script by Toshio Okada into an unforgettable science-fiction anime that has well and truly stood the test of time.
Before I watched Gunbuster, I’d already seen and thoroughly enjoyed its 2004 anniversary sequel, Diebuster. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not totally into anime of this era, or at least I don’t tend to be as enthusiastic about 80s anime as others. So I was a little skeptical about Gunbuster, despite all the positive things I’d heard about it. It took about 3 episodes to wring out every drop of skepticism, and from then on it became a thrilling and emotional journey which far surpasses its sequel on almost all levels.
I don’t think the third-episode epiphany was a coincidence either. Gunbuster started out as a relaxed parody of the anime of its era, such as Aim for the Ace!, from which both its title and elements of its premise are borrowed, and the Super Robot genre to which it nominally belongs. In fact it is initially a very typical commercial OVA from that period. This is because it was largely designed to make money after the financial failings of Gainax’s first project, Wings of Honneamise. This is responsible for the very purposeful inclusion of bishoujou characters and fanservice. However, by episode 3 it starts to take a much more serious and emotional direction, tackling themes of death, love and fear head on. The mixture of personal tragedy, and space warfare on a vast scale made for amazing viewing. The final moments of the anime are some of the most poignant I’ve ever experienced watching anime.
On a technical level however, Gunbuster doesn’t compare overly well with many other OVA projects of that era in terms of animation (such as BIRTH ), let alone by today’s standards. This was also likely because they didn’t have the finances to sink too much money into this project at the time. But fortunately, this was more an exercise in design and art than in animation (which I feel is one of Hideki Anno’s traits as a director). In that category, it is definitely a success. The artwork is detailed, attractive, and in some cases really inspired (such as the designs of the space monsters). Anno’s directional approach made for some breathtaking scenes.
Regarding the well-known case of Gunbuster’s final episode being in monochrome: I didn’t think I would enjoy that effect, however it actually worked incredibly well, thematically and visually. It’s interesting that the cels and backgrounds were actually painted to be monochrome rather than simply being filmed in black in white. I think it was that approach that gave it its visceral and gritty appeal.
Gunbuster is also essential watching if you’re interested in anime industry. So many references and homages can be traced back to Gunbuster. It’s fascinating to see a product of Gainax back when they were just starting up. The legendary otaku-fuelled creative passion of Gainax is splashed all over this project. It’s amateur ambition at its best, unpolished in placed, but stuffed with grand ideas and a nerdy enthusiasm that comes through in its hard sci-fi and parody elements. Every so often I forget how important Gainax was and is to the anime industry, and Gunbuster was a profound reminder of that. The great thing is that they still have the embers of this old spirit in their ranks and have the potential to produce more great works in the future.