30 Years of Gunbusterby Dawn H.,
For people of a certain age (like yours truly), Gunbuster might have been something you first saw at an anime club viewing many years ago. Crowded around a 19” tube TV, watching the old US Renditions VHS release, Gunbuster was one of (if not the first) mecha anime that really spoke to me. With a main cast of mostly young women around my age when I first saw it, I felt a connection to it--especially to main character, Noriko. The heroines of Gunbuster had triumphant, powerful moments; but they also went through relatable obstacles. They fell in love, they had personal hardships, and they cried. To this day, it still holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite anime series of all time, mecha or not. And it's amazing to think that in just a few weeks, this October, it will officially turn 30 years old.
In a nutshell, the story of Gunbuster centers around Noriko Takaya, who goes to Okinawa Girls Space Pilot School to train to become a space pilot, just like her father. With the help of her older, more popular & experienced classmate Kazumi Amano (who she lovingly calls “oneesama”), former space-pilot-turned-instructor Kouichiro “Coach” Ohta, and others Noriko meets along the course of the 6-episode OVA series, she becomes one of the pilots of the titular super robot Gunbuster to help save humanity from an onslaught of space monsters. It would take me a few years after my first viewing to learn just how much original Gunbuster referenced not just classic shoujo anime Aim for the Ace!, but things like Getter Robo and Space Battleship Yamato, just to name a few. An early creation of Gainax, Aim For The Top! (it's official title in Japan--a combination of Aim for the Ace! and the American film Top Gun) was made by a group of immensely talented folks that are now well-known anime industry vets: Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, “OtaKing” Toshio Okada, prolific character designers Haruhiko Mikimoto and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the list goes on. While the first episode feels almost like a sci-fi parody of a vintage shoujo sports anime, as the series progresses the stakes grow higher and the story uses hard science fiction elements right alongside it's fantastical references. While in theory this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it's cleverly put together in a way where the references used are subtle enough that they just feel like natural parts of its story rather than a parade of winking-at-the-camera in-jokes. It has just enough drama, while still having plenty of humor and heart.
Gunbuster was a hit for Gainax, which really helped them after the unfortunate initial low sales of Royal Space Force - The Wings of Honnêamise, their previous work. You can see echoes of Gunbuster, both visually and thematically, in almost every Gainax work after that for quite some time—all the way up to 2007's Gurren Lagann. Even now, with many members of the core staff that worked on Gunbuster off doing their own things away from Gainax now, you can see their thumbprints from it on the work they produce to this day. It just goes to show how formative that series was for many of them, and how working on such a classic helped shaped them into the artists they are today.
But that's not the end! 16 years later, Gainax returned to the property with a sequel, Diebuster (officially released in Japan as Aim For The Top! 2) to celebrate Gainax's 20th anniversary. At first glance, Diebuster looks like it has more in common with FLCL than Gunbuster. But even with only a handful of the original Gunbuster staff involved in this sequel, it does have many of the same plot-points of the original series: a plucky young girl who wants to be a space pilot, a group that doesn't quite think she deserves to be there, space monsters, space travel, super robots, and even the iconic Inazuma Kick makes a triumphant return! There are also very subtle musical and visual nods to the original, but since so much time had passed since Gunbuster, fans are divided over it to this day. Some love the fresh take on the old Gunbuster story, and how it subtly ties to the original. Others critique that it's a too different, too modern take on the original story and feels disjointed, which might have benefited instead being it's own unique story rather than trying to tie it in as a sequel. In fact, all the discourse over Diebuster kept me from watching it for years. Gunbuster was so close to my heart, I'm a little embarrassed to admit I was afraid that this sequel would somehow ruin it for me. But now that it's on Crunchyroll, I realize that it was just plain silly of me to think that way. The original will always be the original, and a sequel will never change that. And while I can now see the things in Diebuster that some fans didn't like, I saw a lot of things in it that really brought back a lot of memories as someone who's been watching anime for so long. If you've seen a lot of Gainax's catalog of work, you can see shadows of many of them in Diebuster. The world building of The Wings of Honneamise, the inescapable influence of Evangelion, the stylish quirks of FLCL, and even some seeds of what would later become Gurren Lagann are present. While I wouldn't call Diebuster perfect, the final episode still managed to evoke some of the same emotions in me that the final episode of Gunbuster did. It was then I realized that Diebuster had actually been an excellent way for Gainax to celebrate it's 20th anniversary. It wasn't just an anime tied to Gunbuster, but a showcase of everything they'd accomplished up to that point. And a taste of what was yet to come.
It's a shame that something so iconic to many anime fans as the original OVA release of Gunbuster is currently out of print in the US. Bandai released an excellent DVD of it back in 2007 with a booklet jam-packed with information on not just the story, but the production as well. If you can manage to track down a copy, it's by far the best release of Gunbuster we've gotten in English as of this writing. We do, at least, still have the theatrical movie cut of Gunbuster in print (and on bluray, too!) thanks to Maiden Japan. It cuts out a lot of character development (and almost all of some characters completely!), but it's an easy and cheap way to see it if you've never watched it before & want to try it out just in time for it's 30th anniversary. Discotek Media currently has Diebuster out on DVD, and it's streaming on Crunchyroll too! So if you were like me and had been stubbornly putting off watching it, you can now do so with hardly any effort.
No matter which version of Gunbuster you prefer, I think we can all agree that it's something very special, and rightfully thought of as a true anime classic that has withstood the test of time through hard work and guts. Happy 30th Gunbuster, and never stop aiming for the top!
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