In the 21st century, the Earth is threatened by an alien menace that has the potential to wipe out all of humanity. All over the Earth, various young people are tested and trained to see if they can contribute to the war effort. In Japan, young Takaya Noriko, daughter of one of the first officers to encounter the aliens, is having a tough time in a mecha academy. Taunted by her peers and full of self-doubt, she
I would be surprised if, after reading my synopsis, a person could not easily predict the general plot course of this OAV series. In terms of simple plot progression, there are no huge surprises here and on the surface it seems that it is the very embodiment of formula: mecha, aliens attacking the Earth, a school setting with a bullied girl of hidden potential. With all that in mind, it might easy at first to simply shrug a shoulder and say, "Whatever. Another formula mecha show, why bother?" In many ways, the first episode doesn't do much to disabuse people of such a notion and I could easily see people not watching the rest of the series based on that. That unfortunately would be their loss.
You see, Gunbuster is an excellent example of how to take a formulaic storyline and still tweak it just enough to produce something that is entertaining, engaging, and still fresh seeming. Allegedly when this show was first being produced, the idea was to make it more a parody and later the creators changed their minds. The very title is a direct homage to Ace o Nerae! (Aim for the Ace!), the classic 70s anime that seems to the basic model for Gunbuster's plot and elements. Gunbuster even has a sun glasses wearing coach and sempai character very similar in general idea and execution to that show. A few other elements, such as a little bit of gratuitous nudity, also make it seem like Gunbuster may looking more toward, initially, being fluff rather than anything decent.
Once we get into the meat of second episode though, it becomes apparent that Gunbuster is going to be far more than some simple formulaic romp. After the background work is laid out and Noriko gets into space, we are treated to a show that uses the science fiction backdrop for dedicated character development of Noriko and a number of the side characters. Noriko, being the center of the show, of course gets the most character development and it was a pleasure being able to watch her grow from a timid and unsure girl to a dedicated young woman willing to make huge sacrifices to do what was necessary. None of it comes off as forced or abrupt, but all as a logical result of her experiences.
This OAV series is full of a number of extremely well crafted scenes of unusual depth. This in turn is one of the reasons it is so effective at its character development. When I recently watched this title again, I was struck by a lot of the scene pacing and the active choices in terms of how and what they chose to show in certain scenes. Anime is a visual medium and active visual style choices can heavily influence mood and impact of a scene on a story. Hideaki Anno (and yes it is the same Anno of Evangelion fame) and his team on this project demonstrated the sort of artistic sense that helps to transform the potentially mundane into something more.
Another characterization area in which this show pleased me had to do with some of the antagonist characters. While we have your standard jealous enemy, eager to take down Noriko (and some of her friends), we get to see how the priorities of some of these characters change, particularly as they grow older. It was a particularly nice touch and there were a few scenes that held special poignancy involving characters that initially were very easy to dislike.
One aspect of Gunbuster that is rather uncharacteristic, and does a lot to help break it from being a simple formulaic action story, is the show's treatment of time dilation in relation to matter accelerated to speeds approaching the speed of light. It is unusual to see such an element appear in visual science fiction in general, let alone anime, and it is used to good effect here. This show isn't exactly "hard" science fiction by any means, but the issues raised by the temporal displacement issues are interwoven into the plot to help considerably enhance the drama of the show and raise some interesting thematic and philosophical issues particularly in relation to what personal sacrifices people are willing to make to protect those they care about.
Though this series is getting on in age, good production values at the time haven't caused it to age particularly badly. The character design work is good, and all the action scenes are well animated. Honestly my only real technical beef is with the mecha design, which I didn't particularly care for, but that is more a stylistic quibble rather than a qualitative one. Amusingly enough, the show does somewhat date itself by the presence of a Soviet character. However, considering that more recent shows (such as Full Metal Panic!) are actively using alternative histories where the Soviet Union is still around, I'm not going to particularly knock Gunbuster for such an element. It is easy enough to simply interpret as "alternative future".
The last episode is highly unusual in that it was done in a somewhat different style than the others. The entire episode is in black and white and also utilizes a 16x9 aspect ratio. Perhaps it was just my psychological interpretation due to the general tone of the episode, but the general animation quality and particularly the music seemed a step above the previous episodes as well. Of course, this episode is the emotional climax, so it might be more plot momentum that is making me think that, but the technical experimentation helped give that final episode a different almost more cinematic feel to it that I felt enhanced the overall experience.
Gunbuster was one of the first OAV series I saw when I shifted from being merely a guy who occasionally saw anime here and there to a serious fan. Often I've found that when I go back and watch some of the older titles that I used to like that they seem to have lost some of their luster to me, particularly given the sure volume of just gorgeous and intriguing titles that have come out in the past few years. When I watched this title again last year, I found though I had seen several hundred titles in between that initial viewing and the later viewing, I found that Gunbuster still was a engrossing high quality title. It also has perhaps one of my favorite endings in an anime series ever. Honestly, it made me want to cheer.
Though not as hyped up as some of Gainax's later work, Gunbuster is an anime classic that manages to take what should be formula fluff and work with it to produce an unusually strong character driven and engaging show. If you absolutely positively cannot stand mecha action or science fiction well you probably want to subtract a star or two. Killjoy. — Jeremy A Beard
Recommended Audience: Nothing terribly objectionable here. There are a few rather extended scenes of casual nudity scattered throughout the anime, and most of the deaths are fairly clean ones, except for one later in the series.
Version(s) Viewed: VHS, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (6/6)
Gunbuster © 1988 Bandai / Victor / Gainax
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