Anime Examination: Time Waits For No One: Gunbuster (1988-1989)

While Hideaki Anno is best known for his postmodern mecha series Neon Genesis Evangelion here in the west, some of his best work is a bit more esoteric. Gunbuster (in Japan called Toppu o Nerae! or Over the Top!) was his directorial debut and has the seeds of many of the themes he would explore more thoroughly in later works.

Gunbuster takes place in the year 2023, in a universe where Earth and the entire solar system has been under attack from insect-like aliens. In order to combat this threat humanity builds giant mecha suits called RX-7 Machine Weapons. Young pilots are trained in these machines in academies and the cream of the crop are hand-picked to possibly pilot the newest and strongest iteration known as the Gunbuster. The story follows one such hopeful pilot, a young woman named Noriko Takaya, who is the daughter of a famous admiral in the space fleet (who went missing after a mission when Noriko was a child and is presumed dead).

Noriko is an intriguing protagonist because although she has quite the pedigree she isn't that great of a mecha pilot at first, and suffers from bouts of self-doubt. Fortunately, her instructor Coach Ota, who used to be a member of her father's ship, sees potential in her and does his best to nurture and guide her. Noriko's character arc over the six episodes is fantastic as she slowly gains the confidence to become who she was destined to be, even though she has several serious setbacks. Gunbuster also deals with the concept of PTSD and its debilitating effects pretty realistically as Noriko loses a close friend while in combat and has a lot of trouble processing the death and going back into battle.

This series also plays around a lot with the concept of relativity and time. When traveling through subspace individuals will experience "time dilation" in which the person traveling at a certain speed will perceive time at a different rate than those who are stationary. That means when Noriko goes out on subspace missions what seems like minutes to her will be hours and eventually days or years back on Earth. The farther they travel out the more time passes back at home which adds a lot of tension to the story. The way Anno uses these elements to craft the narrative is nothing short of genius. Noriko stays around the same age, but her friends age at a normal rate so every time she returns home she has to acclimate to all the changes. People grow older, get married, have children, but Noriko is stuck in a stasis--forever young. 

As for the technical aspects, Gunbuster is top-notch in all regards. The character designs were done by Haruhiko Mikimoto who also did the designs for Super Dimension Fortress Macross, a beloved franchise. Kazutaka Miyatake, another Macross alumni, provided the beautifully intricate mecha and ship designs and every sequence featuring his machinery is gorgeous. The attention to detail is astounding. The final episode is unique in that it was animated in black-and-white and grey-scale (as an homage to older mecha shows), which ended up costing a ton of money for Gainax. They ran out of funds and some of the climatic battle was rendered in manga-style slideshows, but it ended up being damn cool anyway--a sort of deconstruction of the medium.

Gunbuster also introduced a concept lovingly referred to by fans as the "Gainax Bounce" in which the animation of female characters' breasts was given....shall we say, special attention. I am personally not bothered by fan service in anime especially if the female characters are fleshed out and have agency, which they do in Gunbuster. In fact, the coolest moment in the show, the point where Noriko tears her shirt open while mimicking a similar movement her Gunbuster is doing is bad ass! One breast is exposed not unlike an Amazonian warrior. That being said, the sheer amount of casual nudity in the show might understandably be a deal-breaker for some people.

Even with its short running time, Gunbuster covers a lot of ground and manages to be emotionally resonate and action-packed. Fans of hard sci-fi, giant robots, and coming-of-age stories will find a lot to love, and it's a bummer that this show doesn't garner much attention here in the west (most likely due to its age and the scarcity of physical copies of the show).

--Michelle Kisner