Reviewby Theron Martin, Feb 26th 2007
Noriko Takaya's father was the captain of the Luxion, Earth's first light-speed ship, but he was killed when a race of space monsters apparently intent on wiping out humanity attacked and destroyed the Luxion. Trying to live up to her father's love for space, Noriko enters a girl's space academy when she's old enough, where she finds her mecha training quite difficult, but that doesn't prevent her from ultimately being chosen to be part of the Top Squadron by the newly-arrived Coach (one of the few survivors of the Luxion), much to the consternation of others, including her idol and fellow Top Squadron member Kazumi. Being part of the Top Squadron takes Noriko into space duty, where she gradually learns to overcome her inadequacies and fears and eventually pilot the mammoth Gunbuster, a 200 meter tall mecha which ultimately may be mankind's last hope against extermination by the prolific space monsters.
Many older anime series and movies have seen new life in recent North American DVD releases, but few have been more highly-anticipated than this classic 1988 OVA series, which for years stood as one of the most-requested unlicensed titles among veteran American anime fans. Bandai Visual finally picked it up last autumn and has now released it under its Honneamise label. While they apparently thought it would be too much of a niche title to merit an English dub, they otherwise went all-out on the production values, providing a beautifully remastered HD 24P print spread across three discs, which are encased within a high-quality trifold case inside a sturdy slipcover, all featuring incredibly sharp cover and interior artistry. Even the accompanying 24-page booklet features an eye-catching holofoil cover (one whose cover words won't make complete sense until one has finished viewing the series). At $64.99, the base price is much higher than one would normally expect for a 6-episode OVA series totaling 180 minutes, but you can certainly see where the money went.
And the animation itself is also worth it.
The series has a noteworthy pedigree, as it was not only the first anime series by then-fledgling studio GAINAX to be a commercial success but it also marks the directorial debut of Hideaki Anno, whose passion and devotion to the project becomes increasingly clear as the series progresses. Knowing that GAINAX originates from a bunch of hard-core otaku who got together to create their own animation explains a lot about the look and feel of the series, as it could accurately be called one big work of fan service. This is anime made by otaku for otaku, as evidenced by the pervasive presence of anime, sci-fi, pop culture, and monster-movie parodies and homages if one watches closely; look for posters of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Space Battleship Yamato, and My Neighbor Totoro, a Van Halen calendar, and an homage to the American sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage, among many others. Even the original title of the series (Top O Nerae!, aka “Aim for the Top!”) is a parody of the name of a '70s-era anime series combined with an homage to the American movie Top Gun. It also fits in a fair amount of figure-flashing scenes and actual nudity, and offers all the intense space battles and dramatic mecha action scenes one could ask for.
The plotting and writing has all the elements one expects of classic mecha, such as training regimens, mecha posing, shouted special attack forms, and an emphasis on developing resolve, overcoming anxieties, and discovering natural talents. What separates Gunbuster from other series of its ilk is the dramatic content and character development linking these scenes. The ridiculous early images of mecha doing push-ups, running laps, pulling tires, and other traditional training exercises may given one an initial impression of this being a light-hearted series, but those elements fade as the series presses on and Anno exerts greater influence over the tone and course of the title. The weightier nature becomes abundantly clear when the series starts dealing with the impact that time dilation resulting from near-light-speed travel has on the characters, especially Noriko, who at one point has seen only a couple of year pass from her vantage point while decades have passed for those she knew back on Earth. The sense of loneliness and isolation this can bring on is an effect not normally dealt with in anime or sci-fi in general. The death of one prominent character becomes all the more awful for what isn't seen and heard, and the trials and difficulties that Noriko faces feel much more real than they would have were this series handled by lesser hands.
So well does the series handle the scope of its endeavor and the build-up to its feature scenes that even the utterly preposterous extremes achieved in some key fights – such as foes numbering in the billions, or an immense bomb with a condensed planet at its core – are not only eminently satisfying but occasionally quite emotional, none moreso than the appeals by Noriko's school friend Kimiko to return from her final mission and how that is reflected in the last scenes of the final episode. For all its fan-pleasing elements and typical structure, the story has real depth, although it does dodge around some of the trickiest plot potholes and plays as fast and loose as any mecha series with certain basics of physics.
Most of the series features artistry that was quite good for its time, with shojo-influenced character designs that not only make the characters look eminently distinctive but age them quite effectively. Mecha designs blend elements of the boxy feel of classic mecha with the “knight in armor” effect popularized by the Gundam franchise, spaceships are heavily influenced by classic designs, and the space monsters are, well, monsters. Background art doesn't shirk on detail, and coloration is vivid without being glossy or overly bright. Or at least it is that way until the final episode, which was done almost all in black-and-white despite the use of color film. Appearances to the contrary, the monochrome effect was actually a deliberate artistic decision by Anno and not due to the budgetary issues GAINAX is almost legendary for; according to the accompanying booklet, the move was done to focus the final episode more on the “immensity of ideas” of sci-fi storytelling on display (and there are a lot of them) than the quality of the visuals. Whether or not one will get that point without actually reading about it in the booklet is debatable, but such a move does command attention. For those with less artistic interests there is the quality nudity, which is handled in the more casual way typical of '80s OVA series rather than the in-your-face feature-scene approach more common in recent titles.
Gunbuster also manages quite well on its animation, which is somewhat surprising given that animation quality has often been a weak point for GAINAX titles. Both human and mecha movements are relatively smooth and use minimal short cuts, and some of the visual effects in explosions are quite effective. And it bears mentioning that even breasts in the fan service scenes are animated, which is notable because the series is credited with introducing the animated “jiggle” into anime.
The soundtrack, though not available in remastered 5.1 surround sound, also works well enough. It is at is weakest in more silly earlier fare but makes great strides by the time it hits its classical music-influenced dramatic peaks in later episodes. The mundane and heavily synthesized '80s sounds of the opener and closer are not especially noteworthy. The Japanese voice acting hits all the right notes for its characters, especially Noriko Hidaka (better-known to American fans as the seiyuu for Akane in Ranma ½ and Kikyo in Inuyasha) as the like-named Noriko. As mentioned before, though, there is no English dub, which stands out as a glaring omission given the high production quality of the release.
The feature extra is the accompanying booklet, which provides character and equipment profiles, an English translation staff and cast credits, and several pages of commentary on the content and themes of each episode that are actually worth reading. Each volume has a short side piece related to the events of the volume that is offered in 2.0 or 5.1 sound as well as promotional videos, while accompanying each episode is a Science Lesson concerning topics raised in the series; think “Azmaria's Lessons” from the Chrono Crusade DVDs or the “Naze Nani Shana” bits from the Shakugan no Shana DVDs. Also contained on the inside of the trifold case are assorted key quotes from throughout the series.
Gunbuster is a must-have title for any fan of mecha, but it's also one of those rare titles that should probably be in the collection of any serious anime fan. Its quality shines through all potential distractions, telling a story which manages to carry a lot of weight even while being thoroughly entertaining on more visceral levels. One can see in it shades of the later Neon Genesis Evangelion if one look hard enough, especially in the arcane scientific references and convincing-sounding technobabble, but this is its own series and a treat to watch on no other qualities but its own merits.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Exceptional production values on packaging, great storytelling and otaku appeal.
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