Aim for the Top! / by Mark Egan

If you've been reading my articles here on UKAnifest, you have probably started to notice a bit of theme. I love space-operas, and so far it's been this sub-genre that has come to mind whenever I have selected a show to review.

I can't really put my finger on what it is that makes these kinds of shows so appealing to me. Is it the use of futuristic technology? Is it the chance to see aliens, both terrifying and wonderful? Perhaps however it is the unending possibilities that come with shooting your characters into the depths of unexplored space.

Put simply, if you present this kind of show to me, I'll probably be a fan and if you were to go through my extensive Anime collection, you wouldn't be too surprised to spot quite a lot of them in there. You'll probably be even less surprised to learn that my all-time favorite Anime is also a space-opera.

On that note I take great pleasure in presenting to you, "Aim for the Top! Gunbuster!"

Oh where to start?! How can I possibly convey my love of Gunbuster without ruining story for you? I first watched Gunbuster many years ago when the Sci-Fi Channel (I refuse to use the new name), ran Anime on Saturday nights after midnight. Back then the always excellent Jonathan Clements used to present the Anime feature of the night. Although I could be wrong, I specifically remember him presenting Gunbuster as own personal favorite, and that alone had peaked my interest. That interest was richly rewarded.

Gunbuster is primarily the story of space-cadet Noriko Takaya and is set in the distant high-tech future year of 2023. Humanity has spread out into space, has mastered the creation of giant robots, and oh yea, the Cold War still seems to be going on. On the back of all this, humanity has also succeeded in finding out that space is chock full of giant space monsters who want to wipe Earth out.

Sounds pretty standard so far doesn't it? But don't be fooled by that description, this show is far from being standard. Noriko herself makes for an extremely compelling and likeable heroine, and her struggles in in being trained as a robot-pilot makes her more endearing.

Her story begins at on Okinawa Cadet-School, which appears to be modelled off a typical Japanese High-School. The daughter of a famous admiral lost in battle, she has set her sights on living up to her father's memory and overcoming her own clumsiness, and the rivalry of the other students to become a top pilot. Though her struggles she prevails, and becomes one of only 2 students in the school who have been selected to actually go into space and join the war.

And that was just the beginning.

Gunbuster is a long-long-looong Anime movie. Actually it's a 6-episode OVA, but when I saw it on Sci-Fi it was presented as a single 3-4 hour feature. That first part in the school had enough going on to fill an hour, which it nearly does. Following that is a series of events outlining the events of the war, and Noriko's encounters with the titular 'Gunbuster' battle robot, which she has developed an uncanny talent to pilot.

Now, at this stage of the review I have to pause. Although I'm certain there a good few of you fine UK Anifest readers out there who have already seen this Anime, I am equally certain there are readers who have not. For them, I really do not wish to ruin this truly excellent piece of animation by giving away too much of the plot.

By way of attempting to cheat however, I would like to address certain themes and methods in Gunbuster that I enjoyed. (PS. If you haven't seen Gunbuster, it would be a good idea to seek it out now before reading further)

First off, the Characters:

I've mentioned Noriko a bit already, and she deserves further mention here. She's very well done as a character, and in such a fantastic situation as a space war, I totally buy her personality. Although she is gradually presented a 'natural' robot pilot, this comes on the back of hard training and learning through struggles and suffering. It takes a while for her to get good, and this makes her all that more believable.

With her we are also given Amano, her fellow student and one of the best pilots on Earth, fulfilling her role as mentor, 'Big-Sister' and friend to Noriko. She is joined by tough-but-fair Couch Ohta, who served with Noriko's father, and a feisty Soviet pilot named Jung who begins as the girl's rival but eventually comes to respect them has her friends.

Beyond the characters themselves, there is another aspect of Gunbuster that is so present in the story that it may as well be counted as another character. The Doppler Effect in terms of high-speed space travel is brought up a lot in Gunbuster. If someone travels out into space at high speed, a couple of moments experienced by them translate into days, weeks, months and even years back on Earth. Thus, every time Noriko & Co. return to Earth after a couple of months in space, many years have usually taken place on Earth. Noriko's school friends end up being middle-aged, or even after later trips, long dead.

As you can imagine, this put a lot of pressure on the characters, and it is depicted well.

As well-crafted as the show is, some shameful pleasures in the form of Fan-Service also appear throughout. In addition to a very revealing obligatory 'Hot-Spring' scene featuring the main female cast, we are also regularly treated to girls kitted out in their combat fatigues, which are really just swimsuits from the waist down. Doesn't really make too much sense to be wearing that little in the unending coldness of space…but then again Giant Robots in space barely make sense either, so who am I to complain! The Fan-Service is a little compounded by the occasionally selecting shots that focus on certain aspects of the girl's anatomies. I'm not saying it's anywhere near as bad as Strike Witches, but the Fan-Service sometimes appears obvious. That all said it does very little if anything to take away from the show and its awesomeness. Sometimes I believe that a little Fan-Service can benefit a show if done tastefully (and not at all like Strike Witches). Furthermore, I feel that my mentions of Fan-Service have probably prompted a few more readers to seek this show out. No harm in that happening :-)

I think it's time to sum up what it is that make Gunbuster my all-time favorite, and even now I still struggle to put it into words. I suppose I could say "Gunbuster has it all". It's a High School drama, a war epic, a space-opera, a sitcom, a series of love stories and well-crafted epic that tries to inspire us all to 'Aim for the Top'.

It is these things, and the animation, direction, writing, and oh yes, the music. Gunbuster's score is excellent, from start to finish and even cheekily manages to rip off 'Chariots of Fire' while Noriko was training on the beach.

At all these ingredients, beautifully come together to form one of the best ending sequences I have ever seen, which run right into the credits.

Aim for the Top! Gunbuster! Was released in Japan between 1988 and 1989, by Gainax and directed by Hideaki Anno. Just 6 years later Anno and Gainax would go on to make Neon Genesis Evengelion one of the best known Anime's in Western fandom. Looking at these awesome roots, I am not surprised at all that they succeeded.

On that note, I think I end this review. Until next time Space-Cadets…Aim for the Top!