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"GunBuster" Aims for the Top and Nails It

by on May 19, 2007

Fans of certain classic anime can often be heard wondering, “Where’s the DVD already?!” One show long on that list has finally crossed the Pacific. The names Gainax and Anno Hideaki are popularly associated with the milestone anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. However back when Anno was looking for his first project and Gainax was a bunch of otaku new to the world of professional anime production, the two collaborated on a classic giant robot anime. The original Japanese title of the show is Top o Nerae! (Aim for the Top!) but fans know it as GunBuster.

In the not too distant future Earth is threatened by monsters bent on the annihilation of humanity. These beings, who originate in the core of the galaxy and number in the billions, are living creatures with the ability to warp between stars and release energy attacks like starships. They were first encountered by the starship Luxion and her escorts, all of which were destroyed in the resulting battle. Six years later, Takaya Noriko, the daughter of the doomed fleet’s commanding admiral, trains to be a space pilot in order to follow her father’s dream and determine what happened to him. Noriko is a typical anime heroine, a general klutz who lacks confidence but also possesses something special that marks her for greatness. Her inspiration is Amano Kazumi, who is everything Noriko is not. They are trained by Coach Ohta, a survivor of the Luxion fleet and the last person to see Noriko’s father alive. Humanity’s hope is the new battleship Exelion and its special weapon, the Buster machines #1 and #2, which combine to form the super robot GunBuster. For cryptic reasons Ohta selects Kazumi and Noriko to pilot the GunBuster. The resulting adventures ultimately span the galaxy and the millennia.

The GunBuster universe is very detailed and well thought out. In one of many of the show’s unforgettable sequences, the Soviet genius pilot Jung Freud introduces us to the concept of “gainaxing” during a low-g bath scene on a space station. The producers give us no respite, though, as shortly after this bit of fan service Kazumi and Noriko are sent on a mission to investigate a mysterious object hurtling toward Earth. Here we get the first glimpse of the consequences of space travel in this world. Kazumi and Noriko accelerate out to intercept the object in a very carefully planned and timed mission. While the mission itself lasts only minutes for the pilots, weeks pass on Earth due to the effects of time dilation. What they find out there traumatizes Noriko to the point where she is almost lost to the void of time.

An air of desperation and tragedy hangs over the entire enterprise as the show piles on new encounters. Comedy, tragedy and horror freely intermingle as the girls make new friends, find new loves and confront the realities of war and combat in space. In addition to surviving grueling battles against an implacable enemy, Noriko and Kazumi must also deal with the fact that while they age only months on their missions, years pass on Earth. Noriko meets her former classmate Kimiko and is startled to find she’s married and has a three-year-old daughter. The final episode is rendered in black and white, and while this was done as a cost- and time-saving measure, it also very effectively conveys the drama of mankind’s final confrontation with the space monsters. Noriko and Kazumi have separated: six months for Noriko, fifteen years for Kazumi. They are called back together again at the center of the galaxy for one last desperate battle, using the biggest Buster machine ever devised and a black hole bomb that uses the planet Jupiter as its core. Their final mission together will ask an incredible price of them. I will not spoil it beyond that, but never in the field of drama, animated or otherwise, have the words “welcome back” ever been so touching.

The creators of GunBuster were hardcore otaku who grew up watching the classics of Miyazaki (saluted by the posters of Nausicaa and Totoro in Noriko’s room) and action epics like Uchuu Senkan Yamato (known here as Starblazers). These fledgling producers formed Gainax Studios and produced their first project, Wings of Honneamise, in 1987. The GunBuster OVA series followed to keep the studio going and pay some bills. While the idea of cute spunky girls piloting mecha seemed stereotypical even then, Gainax gave it twists that turned a highly marketable yet forgettable show into an enduring classic. The animation holds up well against contemporary standards, reflecting the money and care that went into it. GunBuster is very much a handcrafted product, produced as a labor of love by members of the first generation of anime fans whose intent was to honor the shows they grew up watching and loving.

Many of the trademarks associated with Gainax can be found here in prototype form: Jung Freud is largely recreated as Soryuu Asuka Langley for example. Many a Gainax heroine is a continuation of the line established by Noriko, Kazumi and Jung Freud. Many of the techniques and much of the cinematography pioneered in GunBuster would find its way into Evangelion. GunBuster remains a thrilling ride, a touching drama and an historic artifact in the development of modern anime. This is not a show to be missed. Once kept alive in fan’s hearts by multi-generational VHS copies endlessly passed around, it’s great to finally have GunBuster on DVD in the U.S.

GunBuster is the first product of Bandai Visual’s North American arm, Honneamise. (Note that Bandai Visual is not the same as Bandai Entertainment, whose name is familiar to anyone who browses the anime shelves of their local video outlet.) Other Japanese firms have attempted to enter the North American market directly (such as Toei) with lackluster results. But Honneamise seems to have beaten that trend with a release worthy of the material. If they can maintain this level of quality they could give our domestic firms something to be concerned about.

Clearly they did some homework. The release itself is packaged in a quality cardboard sleeve featuring the majestic GunBuster machine in the background with Kazumi, Noriko and Jung Freud dynamically posed in the foreground. The title is embossed on the cover in silver lettering. Inside the sleeve is a fanfold case containing the three DVDs of the series itself. Each DVD is orange and decorated with the images of each of the three heroines (Kazumi on disc 1, Noriko on disc 2, and Jung Freud on disc 3.) The fanfold itself is again of high quality card stock with wraparound art of the GunBuster machine in its dock while the inside has a composite portrait of Kazumi, Noriko, Jung Freud and Coach. Included is a booklet containing production art of the characters, mecha and monsters as well as analysis of each episode of the show. In addition to the series itself, the DVDs scraped together every extra surrounding GunBuster including that most beloved of GunBuster omake, the Science Lessons: Chibi Noriko, Kazumi and Coach (or more properly “kou-chee”) explaining the scientific principles of the GunBuster universe. Watching Noriko name the planets of the solar system while cosplaying the corresponding Sailor Senshi is absolutely adorable. Funnier still is the realization that this segment apparently predates the introduction of the Outer Senshi (Sailors Saturn through Pluto). The show itself has been remastered in Hi-Def and looks magnificent. If there is a downside to this release, it is the lack of an English dub. While I realize that the subject of English dubs is still controversial even in the age of the hybrid DVD, the realities of the domestic anime market make English dubs practically mandatory for the lucrative television broadcast market. While GunBuster could still turn up on a premium channel, heavy hitters like Cartoon Network won’t touch it without a dub.

If you’re an old time otaku looking for a tear of nostalgia or one of the new generation who wants to see what a bunch of hardcore anime lovers can do with pencils, paint and nary a computer, then I urge you to pick up this release. With GunBuster 2 on the horizon this is a perfect opportunity to get familiar with the original epic.

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