Gunbuster Anime Review
Toppu wo Nerae! GunBuster
Aim for the Top! Gunbuster
US Release By
Giant Robot War Drama/Sci-fi
6 30-minute episodes
1988-10-07 - 1989-07-07
What's In It
- Mass Combat
- Giant Alien Monsters
- Schoolgirls in Space
- Super Technology (good stuff)
- Nifty Giant Robots
- Cool Space Ships
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 1 (mild)
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.
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Gunbuster is an unusual but impressive anime classic. It is often overlooked in favor of Gainax's later Evangelion, for which Gunbuster served as something of the prototype. It starts out as a mostly-silly parody of girl's sports anime, but develops into so much more that it is worth seeing through to the end. If you look past the unevenness, melodrama, and occasional experimental failure, the characters are emotionally involving, the story is exciting and substantial, the attention to sci-fi detail is commendable, and the whole thing just works as both entertainment and sly war drama.
Those who can't stomach shoujo-like style should probably stay away, but it is a must-see for both mecha anime fans and anyone who can appreciate a creative twist on a classic genre.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
At first glance, Gunbuster looks like just another giant-robot war story--a bunch of good-looking kids piloting fancy mechs, fighting aliens, and coming of age, all against the backdrop of a huge-scale war for the survival of mankind. In fact, it is almost exactly that, but as the story progresses it moves from a semi-parody of girls' sports anime to an increasingly introspective war drama, becoming something more in the process. By putting an affecting shoujo-esque spin on the genre and adding several creative twists, Gunbuster rises above its formula roots to become an often forgotten anime classic.
Gunbuster is an early production by Gainax, of particular interest since it in some ways served as the prototype for the famed studio's other series that re-envisions the kids-piloting-giant-robots genre, Evangelion. While Evangelion is far more cerebral and experimental on the whole, Gunbuster also muses briefly on dissociation and, among other things, features an entire black-and-white episode. They both share a basic premise featuring a desperate battle with monstrous, ill-understood alien invaders, as well as a sense of frightening scale in the huge mecha and vast man-made constructs. Gunbuster is most definitely not Evangelion in the aggregate, but it is an interesting series entirely on its own.
Among Gunbuster's oddest features, and probably one reason it's not better known, is how hugely inconsistent it is. The first two episodes are something of a bounce-heavy parody (Gunbuster may actually deserve credit for the premiere of the "Gainax Bounce") of the classic tennis drama "Aim for the Ace!" with robot war replacing tennis. Though amusing and scattered with hints at something more involved, they have "babes-in-space epic" written all over them, and if you stopped then, you'd walk away thinking that's all there was to the series.
I have heard that Gunbuster was originally intended as a simple parody and switched gears mid-production. Whatever the reason, it changes dramatically as the story progresses, taking on a melancholy, artistic tone near the end. Unlike some mood-switching series, something about Gunbuster makes this swing welcome, so long as you're willing to roll with it. In a way, the first couple of relatively silly episodes actually heighten the impact of the later ones--you've adjusted to fun and childish humor, accentuating the loss of innocence. The questionable start (or dramatic conclusion) may be more difficult for others to forgive, but the series as a whole manages to come together surprisingly well.
The most obvious of the things differentiating Gunbuster from its robot-war kin is its shoujo-like flavor, perhaps due in part to the style of the series it initially references. The emphasis is on characterization, relationships, and personal drama (and trauma) instead of battles and big, shiny robots. Though this largely works to its advantage, it does tend to get overdramatic (read: soap-operatic) at times, and the early part is particularly sappy.
Gunbuster does have plenty of action for the mecha fan, but the high-school-age soldiers spend more time waiting and worrying than fighting, and the focus is on the lives of the pilots between battles and the effects the war has on them. In spite of the unnecessary emphasis on the heroics of the main character and occasional flashy mecha battle, the picture of war painted is not an overly sanitized one. The fight feels desperate more than heroic, difficult choices are made, and when tragedy strikes, it often does so without fanfare. Among the best moments is a subtly powerful scene that exchanges the theatrics that usually accompany the death of a character for nothing more than sudden radio silence, leaving the heroine alone and helpless in space. It follows through as she wanders through a ship bathed in post-battle hush, hoping in vain to find someone who isn't there.
One of Gunbuster's most unique twists is that the young people out fighting the war spend a lot of time at near-light speeds, causing them to return to Earth years younger than their non-combat peers. This increasing alienation serves as an unusual allegory of the distance that develops between those who fight and those who stay home, as well as creating some intriguing situations of its own.
The relativistic time dilation effect is one of the many realistic touches that make Gunbuster more believable than it otherwise would be, moving it from simple space opera into actual science fiction. It goes so far as to put little SD-style "science lessons" at the end of several episodes explaining everything from warp gates to the scale of the enemy aliens. This is not to say that the science is flawless, but it is generally sound (or does a good job of pretending to be), and is definitely a step above most anime.
Gunbuster rounds out its thematic trifecta of emotion and science by addressing some interesting philosophical issues late in the series. In contrast to the blunt style of Evangelion, questions about the cost of survival and human evolution are raised subtly, without bogging down the story or mucking up the plot to get there. It also doesn't answer any of the questions it asks--the plot continues on and the viewer is left to decide whether the choices made are right or wrong, leaving propaganda and moralizing out of the picture. Having mentioned Evangelion, it's also worth noting that Gunbuster does not go haywire at the end; the final episode is willfully artistic, but coherent and satisfying.
As you might expect from Gainax, technically Gunbuster holds up with the best of them. The chubby, classic character designs by Haruhiko Mikimoto (of Macross fame) are attractive if almost too cute for the subject matter at times, and the animation is very smooth. The mechanical design is top-notch: The Gunbuster itself is a decent-looking old-fashioned mech, and the attention to scientific detail is carried through into the design of almost all the hardware--cool and believably functional. I love the Gunbuster's cockpit in particular--it's about the only mech cockpit design I've ever seen that would actually work.
As you might also expect from Gainax, Gunbuster hits some more creative (and experimental) notes late in the series. Most are successful: The black-and-white final episode has a stark beauty to it, and I found the climactic battle--stills set to classical music--visually and aurally impressive rather than seeming like a budget-induced cop-out. The most obvious failure is some wincingly bad silliness in the Gunbuster's abilities right in the middle of otherwise serious battles--I realize it's an homage to classic mecha action shows, but I honestly wonder who okayed the ridiculous idea of a giant laser-reflective cape.
Speaking of homages, in addition to the Aim For The Ace parody at the beginning and ongoing nods and references in the backgrounds, the final episode is essentially filmed as a classic WWII movie. From the black and white, widescreen cinematography, to displaying the names of a number of unimportant political characters, to an informative screen of text giving the final casualty count for the grand battle, the entire thing is a nearly spot-on recreation of a '50s-era docu-drama. It's an unusual effect, to be sure, but it works surprisingly well with the heavy subject matter.
In addition to the orchestral climax, many of the series' musical themes are reminiscent of well-known classical works. The opening and end themes are classic anime cuteness more fitting of the lighter initial episodes, but both are catchy and the end theme is infectiously peppy. The Japanese acting is a little broad, but effective--the powerfully emotional scenes, in particular, are forceful and affecting.
Gunbuster is an unusual but impressive piece of anime. It starts out generic and silly, but develops into so much more that it is worth seeing through to the end. If you look past the unevenness, melodrama, and occasional experimental failure, the characters are emotionally involving, the story is exciting and substantial, the attention to sci-fi detail is commendable, and the whole thing just works. Those who can't stomach shoujo-like style should probably stay away, but it is a must-see for both mecha anime fans and anyone who can appreciate a creative twist on a classic genre.
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The giant robot war story has a lot in common with most of the various Gundam series, and the same with an edge of shoujo style has a lot in common with most of the Macross series. Evangelion borrowed several of the concepts from this, although the result is mostly quite different, and the spectacular short Voices of a Distant Star owes its entire concept to Gunbuster despite a heavier mood.
Notes and Trivia
Gunbuster has had a number of spin-offs over the years. There is Aim for the Top 2!, a not-exactly-sequel OAV series also by Gainax. There is also a 2005 Gunbuster game for the PS2 closely based on the anime. Looking a bit farther back, there was a two-volume comic anthology of weird side stories published around the time the final volume of the anime was released; it's not available in English as of this writing. Somewhat surprisingly, the series did not see a proper manga adaptation until all the way in 2010, when a series with art by Kabocha was announced--over two decades after it premiered.
There is also a "movie" version of the OVA series; it edits the series down to a 95-minute movie with a more focused story. It was released in the US on Blu-ray (only) by Honneamise, although it's worth noting that the "high definition" video is just an upscaled version of the standard-definition master.
On an unrelated note, it's interesting that the original Japanese VHS release of Gunbuster featured two episodes (and one science lesson) per volume, almost unheard of for OAVs. As a result there's only one preview per two episodes, and it covers two coming episodes rather than one. The series was also shown on Japanese TV in 1989, shortly after its video release. A remastered DVD version was released in Japan in 2004. The original 1990 VHS release in the US, by U.S. Renditions, was among the earliest English-subtitled anime, period. (It showed--the first volume featured giant subtitle text.)
Gunbuster contains a number of parodies and references ranging from obvious to obscure. A few I found interesting: The title, "Top wo Nerae!" ("Aim for the Top!"), is a reference to the popular tennis anime and manga "Ace wo Nerae!" ("Aim for the Ace!"); the early part of Gunbuster is a direct parody of Aim for the Ace! with giant robots substituted for tennis. The overall plot has also been said to be inspired by Starship Troopers, the novel by Robert J. Heinlein (the more recent movie and spin-offs are loosely based on it). The Earth ship designs are borrowed from Gainax's submarine designs for Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. The pilot Smith Toren is named for Toren Smith, a major figure in the early anime industry in the US; he also voiced a background character in one episode. Noriko has a number of real-world anime and music posters on her walls, ranging from My Neighbor Totoro to Van Halen; in an unusual twist, the names and faces are not altered in these. Finally, the "Tannhauser Gate" mentioned in one science lesson is a reference to the movie Blade Runner--Rutger Hauer's character Roy mentions such a thing in recollecting his time in space.
Van Halen may have made it unaltered onto Noriko's wall, but Vangelis' Chariots of Fire theme wasn't so lucky; the training montage early on used an interpretation of it, but the later DVD releases remove that piece of music, presumably to avoid running afoul of the music industry. The old US Renditions VHS release left it in, however.
While the normal giant robots used through most of the series are a standard size, the Gunbuster is among the largest humanoid robots in anime (if you don't count the transformed SDF-1); one of the science lessons shows it as being a little under 250m (about 800') tall. In contrast, Gundam robots are usually in the 15-20m range, and even the unusually large EVAs are somewhere in the 40-80m range, depending on who you ask or which scene you use for reference. Many of the human starships and giant alien creatures are also huge--the Exelion is about 8km (5 miles) long, and the largest aliens are in the 100km range; this might be a spiritual nod to the size and numbers of Zendradi ships in Macross, although the Exelion looks more like a Star Destroyer than anything.
As someone with a physics degree, I'm in a position to comment on the realism of the science, so a couple of thoughts for those interested. The relativistic time dilation effect is a real phenomenon. In traveling to distant parts of space it would be entirely likely to find yourself moving away from Earth at speeds near the speed of light, which causes time to pass more slowly relative to those back on Earth and could produce a cumulative effect of years of missed time upon your return. The only flaw is the part where they are traveling to Pluto at near-light speeds; the basic idea is fine, except for the fact that Pluto is only about 5 1/2 light-hours from Earth, so that's the most time they could've "missed." Had they been traveling at speeds close enough to light for time dilation to be noticeable, the months that passed would have taken them well out of the solar system. The faster-than-light travel is of course not realistic (as far as we know), but they do mention the starbow effect. Although a starbow wouldn't actually be visible to the naked eye, it would theoretically appear during near-light-speed travel.
US DVD Review
Bandai, under their Honneamise label, finally released a North American DVD version of Gunbuster in 2007. The 3-disc set is, in a word, spectacular. The video uses the remastered version, which is uncommonly clean, bright, and almost shockingly crisp for something of the age; there are also no interlacing artifacts at all. At only two episodes per disc, there are no encoding artifacts, either; the only flaw--and it's a tiny one--is that there's a bit of "shake" that didn't get stabilized out. The audio also sounds clear and crisp. Extras consist of the science lessons interspersed between episodes, original TV spots, and some relatively random promotional shorts. There's a small booklet with a fancy holographic cover full of art and information, and the whole thing comes packed in a beautiful, heavy-duty, matte-finish slipcover with a tri-fold disc holder inside.
There is also an older UK-only DVD available from Manga, which unfortunately uses the low-quality video masters from the VHS release, and has a small edit in episode 2.
As a whole the series would rank 13-up, even if it doesn't look like it at first, although the extended bath scene in episode 2 probably pushes it into 16-up territory.
Violence: 2 - Never graphic, but there's a great deal of death and destruction.
Nudity: 2 - One extended bath scene in part 2, and one or two bits elsewhere (plus a lot of skimpy uniforms).
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Some hints at romance, but nothing physical.
Language: 1 - Nothing noteworthy.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Noriko Takaya: Noriko Hidaka
Kazumi Amano: Rei Sakuma
Coach: Norio Wakamoto
Jung-Freud: Maria Kawamura
Toshiro: Tamio Oki
Smith Toren: Kazuki Yao
Linda Yamamoto/assorted voices: Ayako Shiraishi
Kimiko Higuchi/Takami Akai: Yuriko Fuchizaki
Captain Tashiro: Tamio Ohki
Noriko's Father: Masashi Hirose
Principal: Takkou Ishimori
Student A: Junko Asami
Classmate: Kyoko Minami
Reiko Kashihara/Miko Akaiki: Masako Katsuki
Announcer: Mitsuaki Hoshino
Speaker: Daiki Nakamura
Announcer: Sakurako Kishiro
Male Operator: Kouji Tsujitani
Female Operator/Woman: Kyoko Minami
Woman: Sakurako Kishiro
Operator A: Kouji Tsujitani
Radar Person: Daiki Nakamura
Additional Voice Actors (Vol 2, ep. 3/4): Tomomishi Nishimura, Ayumi Hashimoto, Masayuki Komuro, Koji Tsujitani, Sakurako Hoshino
Additional Voice Actors (Vol 3, ep. 5/6): Masako Kachio, Tatsuyuki Ishimori, Yuriko Horisaki, Kanetaka Arimori, Tomomichi Nishimura, Kiyonobu Suzuki, Isao Horiuchi, Kayoko Kawamura, Masaru Ikeda, Hiromi Nakamura, Yazura Fujimoto, Yoshitada Ozuka, Shinya Otaki
Story: Toshio Okada
Director: Hideaki Anno
Screenplay (Vol 3): Hideaki Anno, Toshio Okada
Art Direction (Vol 1): Shinji Higuchi, Hideaki Anno
Art Direction (Vol 3): Masanori Kikuichi, Hiroshi Sasaki
Music: Kohei Tanaka
Theme songs sung by Noriko Sakai ("Fly High" in Vol 3 sung by Noriko Hidaka & Rei Sakuma)
Animation by Gainax
Available in North America from Bandai on their Honneamise label as a 3-dvd Box set. Honneamise also released the "movie version" on Blu-ray, both alone and as a set with the movie edition of Gunbuster 2 and a disc of bonus material; the latter set is creatively titled "Gunbuster vs. Diebuster: Aim for the Top! The Gattai."
The OVA series was previously available from Manga Video on three subtitled VHS volumes. It was originally available in the same form from the long-defunct U.S. Renditions, and the rights may have passed through Central Park Media in between, though that company never released it.
RightStuf has the box set in stock, as does Amazon: Gunbuster DVD Set. Amazon also has the Blu-ray movie version, both alone and in the set, but as with all Honneamise blu-ray releases it is very expensive: Gunbuster: The Movie [Blu-ray], Gunbuster vs. Diebuster: Aim for the Top! - The Gattai [Blu-ray].