Gunbuster – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness

Putting aside the hyperbole and the fandom that seems to hold hands and religiously scream about every post-digisub series (myself included), the majority of newly crafted anime is objectively mediocre and creatively flat. Realizing this, yet still hopelessly attracted to spending an inexplicable amount of time rooted in front of the stuff, it’s about time that I took charge of my senses and sat down with some anime that sticks with me for longer than 23 mins.

Gunbuster has been around since 1988 (that’s nearly 20 years, people!) and otaku are still talking about it today; sadly, it’s been festering on my hard drive for nearly as long, so rather than plow through a brain hemorrhaging 5 episode marathon of D.Gray-man (*shudders*), I resolved to try out Gunbuster instead. 6 episodes and Diebuster later, I feel like an idiot for waiting this long.

So for the uninitiated, what is Gunbuster? Sad Girls in Space, of course!
Literally subtitled “Aim for the Top!”, Gunbuster’s heroine, Noriko, is an ambitious teenage girl who dreams of piloting mecha and defending Earth against Uchuu Kaijuu (reads better than the pulpy translation “Space Monsters”). Similar to the archetypal Shonen Jump lead, Noriko makes up for a profound lack of natural talent with “hard work and guts”, her unwavering drive relates to the recent death of her Space Admiral father. At least, it is with Noriko’s colourful personality that Hideaki Anno begins to paint Gunbuster’s dramatic tapestry.

Indeed, I did just name-drop Neon Genesis Evangelion’s revered creative maestro. There was once a time when otaku respected the talent of Hideaki Anno without needing to append a disclaimer to their opinions. It’s worth mentioning that Gunbuster was his directorial cherry popping and even here, his unique artistic quality is stamped all over the series. For example, consider that the final (sixth) episode is almost completely drawn in monochrome (black and white), the animation would occasionally degenerate into black and white stills and the plot is borderline obsessed with applying hardcore, believable science fiction to what, in the end, will always be an anime about mecha and space monsters; no doubt, applying such rigid scientific rules to Gunbuster proved to be Anno’s masterstroke.

My favourite moments are almost exclusively related to the science of Gunbuster’s (and essentially, our) universe. During much of episode 3, Noriko is falling in love with a fellow male co-pilot by the name of Smith Toren. That he dies is no surprise; these days it’s a fairly typical plot device in anime to quickly develop a secondary character only to kill him off for emotional effect (see Full Metal Alchemist), it’s more the way Smith dies that is disturbing. Adhering to “Alien“‘s memorable tag line, “In space, no-one can hear you scream!”, Smith’s radio goes dead and that’s it, he is gone forever. The feeling of desolation and helplessness is chilling.

The desolation of time and space are the heart breaking truths at the centre of Gunbuster’s moving drama. Due to advances in space travel, lightning speeds can be achieved, though at a considerable cost; months spent in “space time” are equivalent to years on Earth. Noriko’s struggles are hard enough without having to deal with the devastation of her old life; her friends and family slipping away with every passing minute. Some of the saddest moments come as Noriko hesitantly reunites with old class mates, seeing how they’ve grown up, made families and settled down. The quiet and reflective tone adopted during these moments twists Gunbuster’s emotional complexity, tinging Noriko’s heroism with an inevitable sense of loneliness. It’s obvious from where Makoto Shinkai cribbed his ideas, especially “Voices of a Distant Star“.

Of course, with a name like Gunbuster, one must be expect some ripping good mecha action. GAINAX delivers, apocalypto style. Clearly influenced by his involvement with Nausicaä, Anno has the universe “rejecting humanity” in the Miyazaki fashion by sending some mind bogglingly huge insect-looking monsters after us, in their billions. Mankind’s only response is to create “buster machines”; mecha and/or weapons with incomprehensible god-like power. I could call it “epic” but that’s such a cliche word to use these days; let’s just say the final episode involves the destruction of Jupiter. Planets gets explodes. Enough said.

The animation by GAINAX is wonderful. Carefully hand-drawn, beautifully fluid and dotted with overwhelming detail, it is a story that springs to life on screen, constantly moving. Like the best anime from the 1980s, there is an overriding sense of spirit and enthusiasm pulsing through this, almost as though someone ripped out their soul and trapped it in Gunbuster for all to see. I hope more of you do, I can confirm it’s better than D.Gray-man.

Author: bateszi

A huge bloody nerd. I apologise in advance. I live in Cambridge, England. That's not an excuse, by the way.

13 thoughts on “Gunbuster – I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness”

  1. While I didn’t hate it I certainly found it below the mark considering the reviews it gets.

    My first problem with it was the intro episode which I felt wasted time considering it’s only six episodes long. The mostly female cast also struck me as drifting into the realm of haremity and made the series more light hearted than it should have been.

    My biggest problem with it however was the use of giant insects. Planet sized insects are not imaginative as an anti-human enemy. Starship Troopers worked for me on an action level because the insects were mostly invented species and tore people to pieces. Giant insects killing people by crashing into the ships or planets they’re on is lazy. The ease with which they’re destroyed at the end was also ridiculously anti-climactic to me. Though I found the emotion in it convincing I think they could have created a much better war setting.I don’t much see the point of having an enemy who doesn’t really fight. If they had used a giant cloud of space rocks instead of insects it would have looked less creative but it in practical terms wouldn’t have made much of a difference. I suppose the advantage of using giant insects is that you don’t have to explain their motivations or the origins of the conflict.

  2. @Ark: I can see where you’re coming from with the slow intro – the series hardly seems long enough and I wish some of the scondary characters could have been explored a little more. The series tries to take on several ‘themes’ in addition to the mecha combat and the shoujo high school drama of the first episode reflects this. But then, I’m a Hideaki Anno fanboy so I’m bound to defend it! :P
    I’ve always seen the whole ‘giant insects’ things as the show’s parody aspect though – it’s a cheeky and affectionate homage to earlier classics of science fiction.

    The bottom line is, I loved this series from the get-go and it’s in my all-time top ten, even though my version is the crappy R0 DVD that Kiseki released. Fortunately it’s been reissued now so my hopes are high for this old gem getting the recognition it deserves. I could go on for ages about how damned awesome this series is but I’ll just say that every anime fan who appreciates a great story, thorough characterisation and stunning visuals (for the late 80s especially) should watch Gunbuster at the earliest opportunity.

  3. Can you rant about Diebuster as well? I really love this from the bottom of the heart rant on the merits of Gunbuster.

  4. Smith Toren was Toren Smith, translator for Darkhorse (I believe) graphic novels. I can’t wait for the US dvd’s to come out, this anime still blows 90% of what is put out today away!

    Diebuster is IMHO, just as good, and well worth the time to watch it.

  5. @Ark: The "enemy" in Gunbuster is literally supposed to be nature itself, or at least that is what is hinted at. It makes sense then that nature would send organic "monsters". The fact they are fairly easy to take down is offset by their sheer number and eventually, size too. To be honest I thought it was a fairly neat concept, even if it is basically "Nausicaa in space".

    The sci-fi aside, I think the reason why Gunbuster is regarded as such a classic is because of the characterization. By the end of the six episodes we pretty much know Noriko inside out. While the first episode may seem fairly superfluous, it lays important dramatic foundations and defines the key relationships between the protagonists. For me that is what Hideki Anno is best at, building utterly captivating characters. For example, I’ve only seen Gunbuster once, but I still remember the shot of Noriko laying in her darkened bedroom, back to the camera with a "Nausicaa" poster pinned to her wall. Such images are worth a thousand lines of dialogue and really burn themselves into my memory.

    @Chris and daRAT: I’ll try to summon up the energy to write about Diebuster too, though the truth is that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the original series. The last three episodes are exceptional and showcase some wonderful animation (I especially enjoy how it eventually ties in with the original series), but I found the first three were somewhat superficial and lacking in dramatic tension. Episode 4 was probably my favourite since it gradually builds up this horrible tense of impending doom; the reawakening of the Uchuu Kaijuu (and especially that horrible sound it makes) was a grotesque sight to behold.

  6. Bateszi, it’s interesting that your critique of Diebuster (which I haven’t seen) rests largely on the lack of quality in the first few eps– this is generally what I think is the real fault with Gunbuster as well. I like Gunbuster, and have seen the whole series 2 or 3 times (most recently about a year ago), and I think a person’d have to be fooling themselves to not recognize the quality of the second half of the show (emotionally, and in re: to animation), but I’ve always found the first few eps…. lacking.

    I know they’re a parody, but they really come off as average and shallow– perhaps that’s because I was never __really__ into cheesy mecha shows, at least not enough that I’d really get in to a parody. And although the bits you mention– the "boyfriend" being lost in space, Noriko lying on her bed etc– work well, they’re still surrounded by a lot of high melodrama that never played off quite as well for me– all the stuff with coach, and the romance, and Noriko’s self-doubt– besides the endlessly scantily clad bouncing boobs….

    I always had the sneeking suspicion that Anno started this thinking he wanted to make a goofy big-knockers parody, and changed his mind part way through.

    And … well, the second half __is__ great– once they get in to the real costs of what these women are doing, the human cost, well… then the show gets much more interesting to me. Also, I thought it odd that you didn’t mention the black and white animation in the last episode– a decision purportedly made because of budget constraints, but which I thought added a very interesting directorial touch. It’s quite dramatic, and an interesting shift.

    Anyways, for all my complaints, it’s a fun ride, and well worth watching. I wish more "classics" were reviewed online in blogs, rather than endlessly blogging new subpar shows.

    Thanks for the insightful review.

  7. @Questmark: It’s interesting, when I was watching Gunbuster, I didn’t feel like I was seeing a parody at all. The only scenes that particularly shook me out of story were the random fan service moments that contained blatant nudity. It seemed fairly pointless, though doubtless earned Gainax more than a few extra video sales! Almost as though Anno pasted them in as an after thought; “ok chaps, here’s your shot of the girls bathing together!”.

    Well, I suppose the mecha are fairly amusing too. They reminded me of Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z and that whole “Kaijuu” genre of randomly invading aliens! Though I’d say Gunbuster is more of a homage to than a parody of certain anime genre.

    Perhaps the more you watch Gunbuster, the more redundant the first couple of episodes become? Since they are clearly there for character building, you really don’t need to see them once you know Noriko et all. I must admit I’m quite partial to melodramatics, especially when we have “underdog” characters with tragic pasts. I can’t help but cheer them on.

    >> “Also, I thought it odd that you didn’t mention the black and white animation in the last episode.”

    I did, re-read the 4th paragraph. :)

  8. *claps* So you finally took the plunge. And it was like taking a swim in the finest of fine wines and/or millions of 100 dollar bills — take your pick. A great review you have here and it’s interesting to see that your take on the show eerily resembles mine, right down to the scene in episode 3 regarding Smith. I felt exactly the same way about that. There was no need to see it happen physically and visually. Just knowing what was going down from Noriko’s point-of-view, in addition to the shots of empty and quiet space and the sound of a radio going dead really amplified any and all emotion involved.

    The show is somewhat of a parody in many aspects. The name itself is an homage to shoujo sports manga Aim for the Ace! The dynamic of a girl that looks up to her "onee-sama" also comes from Aim for the Ace! And of course you have all your giant robots doing workouts in the beginning, your Toren Smiths, and your insane intergalactic large-scale space battles. But I found all of that to be very mild and never found it to say "Hey look! This is a parody of something!" It fit itself nicely into the much more serious real plot of the show. I thought it was a great touch.

    The last episode was NOT made black and white because of budget reasons. This is what Anno had to say about that at the 1996 Anime Expo:

    "ANNO: When you have color, you have an extra dimension of information. Color would have gotten in the way of the sense of scale we wanted to portray with the black hole bomb. Also — no one had ever done it before."

    As for the other comments about the slow start, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the same way. The first two episodes are about average and give you a poor initial impression. However, I feel that episodes 3, 4, 5 and especially 6 more than make up for the slower first two. They are where all the praise and acclaim emanate. Group that together with one of the best endings you’ll ever find in ANYTHING and you have yourself one fine series.

    *looks at newly purchased Gunbuster DVDs* Uh oh…I’m feeling the urge…

  9. I think this is the one with the red-headed russian girl Jung Freud or something right? I remember watching this 15 years ago thinking, in the future, the military will be filled with bouncy nubile lesbians… Where’s my future, darnit?

  10. I have seen a “gunbuster+diebuster marathon” on TV a few months ago, but missed the begginning and only saw the last episode of Gunbuster. I absolutly loved DieBuster, which is funny, dramatic, with some amazing graphics and animations (my OAV experience is almost limited to Lain and Noir, which are not references…), amazing characters and extra ending.
    The other day i found Gunbuster on DVD, as they seem to have been re-edited.
    With the knowledge of DieBuster, i think that some points of Gunbuster become clearer, like the fact that monsters never really attack. And, of course, the ending (stunning) gets another dimension.
    I haven’t seen a lot of animes (but Evangelion i have), and those 2 (Gunbuster and DieBuster i mean) are by far the best.

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