Gunbuster Review [Collaboration with Ashley from The Review Heap]

AKA: Gunbuster: Top O Nerae!, Gunbuster: Aim for the Top!
Genre: Mecha/Action/War Drama
Year Released: 1988-1989
Distributor: Unlicensed (DVD formally available by Bandai Visual USA/Honneamise)
Origin: Japan
Running Time: OVA, 6 episodes, 27-31 minutes each
Rating/Recommended Audience: 16+
Related Films/Series: Diebuster, Gunbuster vs. Diebuster
For Fans Of: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gundam series, RahXephon, Saikano, Pacific Rim, Divergence Eve, Galaxy Express 999, Noein, Voices of a Distant Star
Notes:
-Please check out Ashley’s blog The Review Heap.
Fun Facts:
-Gunbuster is the directorial debut of noted animator Hideaki Anno. Before there was Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, His and Her Circumstances, or even Neon Genesis Evangelion, there was this little OVA in Gainax’s early days.

-Hilarious in Hindsight: Noriko Hidaka and Rei Sakuma voice Noriko Takaya (note the first name) and Kazumi Amano respectively, so it’s as if Akane and Shampoo from Ranma ½ became mecha pilots on the same team. Jung Freud wouldn’t be the last feisty red-headed European mecha pilot in an Anno work who also gets to use a “production model” robot (**Cough** Asuka! **Cough**).

-The esteemed composer Kohei Tanaka worked on the music for Gunbuster. Some of his other work consists of Sakura Wars (both the games and anime series), G Gundam, and One Piece where he still scores that series to this day. Interestingly enough, He graduated Berklee College which oddly makes sense given how renowned of a music institution it is.



-The Coach is voiced by Norio Wakamoto. He’s also responsible for playing Cell in Dragon Ball Z, Mechazawa from Cromartie High School, and Vicious from Cowboy Bebop.

-The name of this OVA is a reference to both an anime and a very certain famous 80s film. The subtitle is a parody of tennis anime series Ace O Nerae (Aim for the Ace) and the full title rearranges the title of Hollywood blockbuster film Top Gun. Even Anno admitted that the famous Tom Cruise movie’s plot inspired the story of Gunbuster.

-Anime Fan Bonus: When returning from space, Noriko is seen in her apartment with a Nausicaa and My Neighbor Totoro poster. This was fascinating because Anno helped animate the former. Gainax would reference Hayao Miyazaki’s big movie again with Otaku no Video where the Otaku club waits in line to see the debut of that movie as an actual plot point.

-Gunbuster would be featured in the Super Robot Wars video game series starting with F Final.

-Film Buff/High Art/Culture Bonus: In one of the chibi sci-fi educational segments, Noriko and Kazuki talk about Tannhauser’s Gate. That’s actually not a real scientific term. It’s a reference to something mentioned in Roy Batty’s famous “Tears In Rain” monologue from Blade Runner and it’s named after Richard Wagner’s opera involving a German poet/knight who has a fall from grace in the opera version of that story.

O: Hello, dear readers at Iridium Eye! Here’s the first collaboration review of 2021. For this go around, we’re going to go into anime history with the debut work of Hideaki Anno as well as the first original screenplay OVA series from Gainax.

For those that have never heard of Gunbuster, it’s a mecha story that takes place in the very near future (especially in this current timeline). In 2015, interstellar travel was possible via time dilation, but at the same time there were giant space aliens who were wreaking havoc on several planets while making their way to Earth. During that year, Admiral Takaya sacrificed his life during these space battles. Flash forward to 2023, his daughter Noriko is at a mecha piloting school down in Okinawa. While her father was a top pilot, she didn’t exactly inherit his techniques as she’s clumsy with robots and is often bullied by the other girls at school. The class is led by Koichiro Ota AKA Coach who is very stern. However, he sees hidden potential with Noriko’s talent as well as having a secret connection with her late father. Noriko also idolizes an upperclasswoman by the name of Kazumi Amano who is adored by the other students by her beauty, grace, and her prodigious talent at piloting the RX-7 machines. Two pilots per school will be able to go to space to help fight the alien invasion as part of the secret Gunbuster program. Noriko is motivated not just to be a top mecha pilot to represent Japan, but also to be on par as Kazumi while also trying to avenge her father’s death from the alien horde. How will she be able to prove her worth when she struggles at being a pilot, go into space with missions involving time dilation (what could feel like minutes in space could be months and even years on Earth), and dealing with rivals on Earth as well as space?

Once again, I get to collaborate with the talented blogger Ashley Capes from The Review Heap! How’s everything going? Do you feel like it’s a change of pace this time around by covering a longer OVA for once much less something that doesn’t take place in Tokyo or animated by Madhouse?

A: Hahah! Yes, breaking the pattern we had going there 😀

Thanks for the welcome too! It’s nice to work on a longer show, yeah – I’m glad we’ve found a way to write on a Gainax anime too. There are so many hints of things to come here and though it had been a fair while since I’d seen it last, this time around I was more forgiving of the few elements that might have been compressed too hard. In fact, this time I thought the pacing was kinda perfect (with one notable exception).

How did it compare for you upon re-watch?

O: I know, right? It doesn’t hurt to expand one’s horizons even though the previous examples had coincidental similarities. 🙂

No problem. This was totally doable. If there’s a thing I like about reviewing OVAs is that it’s long enough to cover a story, but short enough to not marathon everything at once. Gainax hasn’t gotten as much attention on my blog with the exception of Otaku no Video, but it’s good to cover another old-school work from that studio (or as I sometimes call this period Pre-EVA Gainax). It has been such a long time since I’ve watched this series which I didn’t even know was Hideaki Anno’s directorial debut until doing research for this review. Of course, I would’ve never heard of this anime had it not have been for playing Super Robot Wars Alpha on the Dreamcast during my teenage years. Funny how life works. Going back to Anno, I can definitely see the shadow of this OVA influencing so many of Gainax’s later works. Neon Genesis Evangelion definitely has some of those elements and not just the hilarious in hindsight moments. Think about it, there’s a catastrophic alien invasion, a cowardly lead pilot, a more lighthearted story at first before being dead serious in the end, and 3 core pilots on the team (hey, one of them happens to have blue hair, too!). The design of the title mech is definitely an archetype for the robots in Gurren Lagann as well as the insanely high stakes of the space battles in the last two episodes of the series.

Watching Gunbuster the 2nd time around was interesting as there were things I didn’t notice the first time around. Some were more brilliant in hindsight, but some parts haven’t aged well which I’ll describe (one fact involves a certain character). I did like how it told a whole story in only six episodes and paced decently for it’s run time. No, I haven’t seen the entirety of Diebuster at this time since I only watched the first episode a long time ago. What I do find to be a bit strange is how Gunbuster isn’t talked about as much compared to Gainax’s later works. Maybe not as obscured as the aforementioned Otaku no Video, but still doesn’t get mentioned in the same frequency as Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, FLCL, or even His and Her Circumstances to name a few.

A: Dreamcast, yes! Still waiting for a mini-Dreamcast to be announced. Then I’d maybe get a chance to check out ‘Super Robot Wars Alpha’ without emulation 😀

And I definitely agree re: the directorial trademarks and tropes being foreshadowed here – things we later see that you’ve mentioned in those more well-known texts. I especially enjoyed the use of black and white in the final episode, which is something I remember Anno using often to great effect. That episode hits so well too, but not just because of the monochrome.

I was also wondering about that critical attention too – I wonder if there’s ever a big budget re-release or if Gunbuster hits a popular streaming service, folks might ‘re-discover’ it? I’d like for that to happen, as I think it’s a pretty great OVA.

I wanted to ask you about Toren – upon first viewing I thought he didn’t get enough screentime. It seemed that he was rushed in and out of the series… but then I started to wonder, now that I’ve seen Gunbuster again, maybe it’s enough after all? Of course he has a strong impact on Noriko because everything is new to her and that suits the ‘coming of age’ aspect to the series. So now I’m not sure, did he have exactly enough screentime?


O: Oh, Dreamcast. You were so underrated as a console and had wonderful games on there. I’d be fine with a mini-DC (sounds like the reversed name of the dream device in Paprika) and if Super Robot Wars Alpha got ported with a full English translation, then I would be fine with playing that game. I hope it wouldn’t be a licensing nightmare even though other games like Project X Zone or the Jump Vs. fighting games were ported worldwide, but that’s a topic for another day.

Yes. You can really see the archetypes of Anno’s directorial style permeate in his later works, so it was fascinating seeing this again with him as well as Gainax really finding their identity as an animation studio. The black and white monochrome in the last episode worked so well. Interestingly enough, that episode had the highest budget and a significant portion of that was because of the lack of color in most of it’s runtime. I didn’t realize it was more expensive to animate in black and white in the 80s, but that was an interesting effect. There was a huge emotional element to that episode as the stakes got much higher and the aftermath was so bittersweet. It really felt like humanity was on the line at that point of the story.

The closest thing to a re-release was the abridged movie that Sentai Filmworks managed to license in North America. I haven’t seen that version of Gunbuster, but I feel that things could be quite compressed putting six episodes of story into a short amount of time. Sure, Bandai Visual USA rescued it from the defunct U. S. Renditions company stateside with their Honneamise imprint, but Bandai shut down their anime division in America. I’m surprised Sentai hasn’t rescued it since they have the rights to the movie or even Discotek since they have Diebuster much less the fact they’ve built an entire company at this point of rescuing once-expired anime licenses like Jungle Emperor Leo, Key the Metal Idol, Dai-Guard, and so many more series I could name. RetroCrush or even Crunchyroll could benefit having this series widely available for streaming instead of some viewer trying to find the old out-of-print DVDs. Trust me, renting DVDs on Netflix or buying used copies can be a bit time-consuming and even costly at times. It’s a miracle I was able to find Shinesman and The Place Promised In Our Early Days on DVD at decent prices when I was getting back into anime or starting up Iridium Eye (I sold my old copies years ago).

Good question about Toren Smith. I do agree that his introduction was quite rushed especially since it wasn’t that long after they introduced Jung Freud or the other characters while they were in space. He did leave enough of an impact for the Noriko character as it directly and indirectly affected her character development. I think they could’ve used a few more minutes at minimum, but I see what they were trying to do for the most part.

A: The stakes rise so well across the episodes, yeah. And I felt the same about earth by the end, had me on the edge of my seat especially since it was linked to the sacrifices the girls make. And that final message always packs a punch – I missed the purposeful error in the wording though, which was great to read about afterwards. (Though I will try not to spoil it of course).

And the budgeting you mentioned, I hadn’t realised that either on first viewing. I wonder if it comes down to time? The extra time it might take to select and use the various shades of grey etc to really get the contrast working? It’s maybe not the best example, but even the close-up of Kazumi (at a certain grave) looks to have six or seven shades which is cool.

(I guess the colour scheme also has those links to the idea of ‘history’ that suit so well. I wonder about the reception back then, to the episode too. I know today, some people erroneously claim that it was a cost cutting move by Gainax but that’s of course not true.)

Yeah, it definitely feels like RetroCrush or Discotek would suit for a home. In the extremely statistically unlikely event that I win some sort of lottery, I would consider licensing out of print titles for sure. Sounds like fun… and a lot of work. But this would be on the list and Shinesman (nice work on finding that at a good price :D) and something like Monster, as I still want to see that one day!

But getting back to Gunbuster I nearly forgot to bring up the obligatory bathing scene – it certainly puts the show into a certain rating but I did laugh. Sure, the characters are all in great shape but the dialogue is unnatural enough to become quite comical 😀

This leads me to the ‘bounce’ trope which we know Gainax pioneered here, but I also hadn’t realised that the OVA was also known for the ‘Gunbuster Pose’ which Gainax uses again, like in TTGL for instance – but I missed it then. Still, I guess it’s nice to be able to adjust and refine a trope across the decades.

O: Exactly. The beginning was just the training even including a montage scene (because the 80s) before things escalate when they finally go up into space. The concept of time dilation really brings some of those realities home. I’m going to minimize whatever spoilers I can, but when the pilots go back to Earth the first time, you can see how they literally haven’t changed while everyone else starts careers and families as well. That final message certainly was powerful. I never noticed the intentional misspelling when I first watched it, but I saw it this time around even though my memory of Japanese writing was fuzzy.

Good eye on those details. This isn’t just limited to Gunbuster, but to most other OVAs back then. Unlike a TV show where one has to make episodes on a week in/week out basis, the animators have more freedom and time to work on each episode which is why they can have a higher animation quality on average. Having that extra time with the Gunbuster episodes certainly showed more often than not and they could add the extra details. If this was a TV mini-series, I don’t think this would’ve looked half as good especially with the increased production values in the final two episodes. I didn’t even think about Kazumi’s close-up scene that way. Wow!

It does make me wonder about what the critics said back then and if they’d backtrack now that the information is out there with the increased budget in the final episode. Gainax may be a low-budget studio (I know it’s a tough pill for some anime fans to swallow, and I’ll get into that when I discuss the flaws), but they can be good when they really try.

I know, right? Discotek has the rights to Diebuster as well as it being streamed on there, but they don’t have the original anime that started it all? I think that’s a very weird choice. Dude, if you started your own anime licensing company, I would support it as well as giving suggestions as to which shows or movies that should be rescued. Maybe we have a potential international business in the future? Hahaha! Shinesman and Monster definitely deserve to be re-licensed among other series I could mention.

Yeah, that and other scenes in Gunbuster certainly prevent younger viewers from watching it. The dialogue does get very weird and I know most humans wouldn’t talk like that.

This is Gainax, so there was bound to be some fanservice up to and including the “bounce” in it. That’s right! TTGL did use the “Gunbuster Pose” and you can definitely see the direct influence of that anime on that 00s Gainax work with the robot designs and the high stakes space battles. Okay, the battles don’t spiral to THAT level of absurdity (See what I did there?), but there is that epic feeling happening with these confrontations which only increases episode by episode.

A: Haha, nice 😀

Must come up with a name for that company! 

Gunbuster does escalate really well, huh? Great point too re: if this was made for TV rather than OVA. If I compare it to say, Nadia, then you can see how they’ve had to make the budget last. (Cool to see some black and white use again there too, actually).

You mentioned some weaknesses, what jumped out for you?

O: Yeah, I’m sure you can make a good name.

The animation holds up for the most part. While I wouldn’t say it has the best animation as far as 80s anime is concerned, it does hold up more often than not especially with the last two episodes. Given how this started out in 1988 which came out the same year as Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, and My Neighbor Totoro, that’s steep competition from both a production and storyline standpoint.

Weaknesses, you say? Going back to Gainax animating things, there are some budget constraints in the production like reused footage from the opening theme into the actual episodes, overusing still shots in most episodes, and some drops in quality earlier on. The ending theme animation was nothing but stills which I thought was a bit annoying. One production aspect that was bizarre and inconsistent for me were the vocal effects of the RX pilots. In the first few episodes, the pilots in the machines talked in this weird robotic/voice mutator tone that felt off, yet later on, they sound normal or at worst with some natural static in the effects. I preferred the latter and I never understood why they did the change up. One could argue it was just the RX-units instead of the Gunbuster or other robots later, but I really wasn’t a fan of that vocal effect.

There were things that came off as extremely dated. Since it was made in the 80s, you can tell with the music, fashion, and hair designs. Sure, the opening theme and the insert song in the 2nd half of the series are fine with it’s 80s charm, but the ending theme was way too peppy for my tastes. Because it takes place in the then-future of the early 21st century, it becomes more dated in hindsight. I certainly don’t remember alien attacks or interspace travel in 2015 during Noriko’s backstory and everything. The story proper starts out in 2023 which is weird thinking how it’s just two years away from this review. Maybe those neck gaiters they wear in the RX suits could be unintentionally appropriate if COVID is still a thing then. The one thing that was the most laughably dated thing was the existence of Jung Freud with how she’s a SOVIET pilot complete with the hammer and sickle on her RX-unit. Her name doesn’t sound like something from a country in the former Soviet Union (I’m aware she’s named after Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud who are Swiss and Austrian respectively) unless you count East Germany having satellite/ally status back then, but the Soviet would collapse only three years after Gunbuster debuted which aged like milk from a real life geography standpoint.

Since we’re talking about a Gainax work, the elephant in the room in this case would be the fanservice. While I’ve seen worse examples from them, it still got too much with the trademark “bounce” and the nudity in certain places. The last episode really didn’t help with that scene where they try to save humanity as it cheapened a very dramatic scene and easily the part of the anime with the highest-amount of stakes involved. While I’ve only seen the first episode of Diebuster which was a long time ago, that led to such a tasteless English-language pun for a certain type of character in the sequel because of that scene which I won’t spoil. Besides the fanservice, there was one scene that I did facepalm in watching which was one of the chibi-space lessons that would happen after some of the earlier episodes. Most of them were funny and even make some of the fictional elements sound plausible from a scientific standpoint, but the one clip involving the Coach putting black marks on Noriko’s face for getting answers wrong got problematic when she got multiple errors. The end result is very cringeworthy as she gets Al Joelson’d, if you know what I mean.

Have you noticed any other flaws or things you wish would’ve improved in Gunbuster from your perspective?

A: Yeah, I could add to these and especially the fanservice but I missed the chibi bits, woah.

I know we’ve touched on Toren Smith re: his screentime, but I think the other thing that I wonder about is the power balance between Coach and Kazumi, as it seems a little off for a healthy relationship. By the end of the series it seems like age and power imbalance wasn’t an issue for them… but at the beginning maybe not. It certainly matches other typical male-fantasy elements in the show.

O: Most of the chibi bits were funny and even informative (well, the ones based on real science and not the in-universe science featured), but that one was pure cringe.

Very good call with the Coach/Kazumi relationship dynamic. I thought it had questionable dynamics. Sure, she confesses her love when Kazumi would’ve been in her late 20s due to the time dilation effect for being in space that long, but it partially came out of nowhere. It wasn’t developed all that much partially due to the Coach’s condition in the latter half of the series. You have unintentional implications with her coming off like some low-key gold digger (although for status/rank/power dynamics and not necessarily money) and there’s a creepy factor when you realize that during the episode where they get back to earth after being in space for a decade is that she still looks the same due to the effects of not aging in space. This also makes Kazumi look more immature in hindsight and one would think she would know better after battling aliens as well as dealing with the fate of the world throughout the rest of the series. Thankfully, you don’t see anything sexual between them, but the fridge logic surrounding that plot point really makes things harsher for me. I think it would’ve been better if her admiration of the Coach didn’t amplify itself to romance.

A: So, I thought I’d swing things around to a fav or similar – do you have a favourite scene or moment from the series?

O: No problem. I would say the first battle with the Gunbuster robot where Noriko and Kazumi team up against the space monsters. You really get to see how epic of a mecha it is and the insert song “Top o Nerae -Fly High-“ (also sung by Noriko Hidaka, interestingly enough) used really pumps up the viewer. That song was better than both the opening and ending themes with the upbeat 80s J-pop vibes and even the background “woos” in the intro of that song added a ton of excitement even with how dangerous that battle was. Even though Gainax may have budget issues, they still know how to make something look and feel bombastic and it was just the right amount of it to really make that battle feel important and dynamic. How about you, Ashley?

A: Maybe when Noriko is trying to adjust to life after that first big time skip? The loneliness always strikes me as being shown really well and that conversation on the swings always sticks in my mind.

Kinda  bummer note as a fav moment, huh? 😀

(Upon reflection, that song is a great choice, yeah.)

I literally just realized they misspelled Jung’s last name. [Facepalm]

O: Very interesting choice. That scene does have that sense of loneliness and distance as she’s trying to adjust to a world she left behind for a decade. That’s something I didn’t expect, but it is a poignant moment of feeling detached from everyone.

Yeah, that song is certainly wavy and so appropriate for that battle scene if you don’t mind me using a random British slang word. 🙂

A: Nice 🙂

So I’ve been thinking about your excellent “add/subtract” section and wanted to offer one of each for Gunbuster.


O: Thanks, Ashley.

That would be great if you wanted to make additions to the Adjustable Point System. It’s always fun collaborating with you, good sir.

To all the readers out there, I’m glad you were able to check out our thoughts on this particular anime with Hideaki Anno’s directorial debut. I wouldn’t call Gunbuster the best anime ever, but it is a good part of anime history especially that with Anno and Gainax.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of Gainax and/or Hideaki Anno.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer modern mecha series.
-Add 1 point if you like underdog stories.
-Subtract 1 point if you aren’t a fan of bittersweet endings.


Pros:
-Improved animation in the last two episodes
-Hard sci-fi elements were handled plausibly (the time dilation aspect being a big one)
-Has an epic feel with the high stakes of the plot

Cons:
-Some elements are very dated like the music, some parts of production, and the Soviet background of Jung
-Fanservice can get overboard at times
-Unfortunate implications with the black mark chibi scene

Final Score:
7/10 points (Curtis/Ospreyshire)
8/10 points (Ashley/Review Heap)

Content Warning: Gunbuster is something I would recommend for older teens and above. There are lots of space battles where people and aliens die, but there isn’t that much blood. There is swearing, but it never gets excessive. The biggest issues would be the fanservice (this IS a Gainax work), sexual innuendo, some yuri subtext with some of the students including how they go overboard to call her “Onee-sama”, and some nudity including a scene in the last episode where it oddly becomes part of a plot point in the final battle which I won’t provide context for that scene. The themes can get quite dark with Noriko’s backstory with her dead father, the fate of the world being quite dire, and the negative effects of time dilation where there’s a possibility that time can fly by to the point where the pilots could outlive their loved ones (Kazumi becomes freaked out by that plausibility at one point).

Written by Curtis Monroe and Ashley Capes

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Gunbuster is property of Hideaki Anno and Gainax. The DVD cover is from eBay and is property of Bandai Visual USA, Honneamise, and Gainax. The screenshots are from the Gunbuster DVD (Thanks, Ashley!) and are property of Hideaki Anno and Gainax.

14 comments

  1. It’s a funny thing about the budget is that Gunbuster was fighting with production committees for resources vs the Oshii Patlabor ovas. There is an interview somewhere with Anno complaining about this fact.

    Anyway, great job guys 😁. This was a very fun read.

    Liked by 2 people

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