It's another landmark Gainax anime, not to mention the first thing ever directed by Anno Hideaki, who'd go on to do Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even twenty years later it's still well known, not just among otaku but among ordinary Japanese people. This isn't a sine non qua, by the way, since Gainax wouldn't get this kind of public profile for any of their OVA projects for more than another decade until FLCL. I've got nothing particularly against Beat Shot, Circuit no Ohkami 2 Modena no Tsurugi, Blazing Transfer Student, Money Wars and Otaku no Video, but they're not as famous as Gunbuster.
It's also excellent, by the way.
This was Gainax's follow-up project after Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise and the two have certain similarities. They're both fascinated by nuts-and-bolts SF and the technicalities of space flight, while both have a protagonist from an ordinary background going into space and thus inspiring the world. However that said, Wings of Honneamise is a two-hour art film with fifteen minutes of plot, whereas Gunbuster is about hot girls flying big robots and saving the earth from aliens. It's exciting, it's cool and it's even got quite a lot of parody, although for a Westerner to spot any of the latter these days, you'd need to be the kind of hardcore otaku who'd sooner gouge his eyes out with spoons than watch something in English.
Actually it's more fashionable to compare Gunbuster with Neon Genesis Evangelion, if only since they're both directed by Anno Hideaki. Both are mecha series in which schoolchildren have to fly giant robots and save the Earth from alien monstrosities, but are also struggling with confidence issues, jealousy and their love lives. You could even compare the two shows' core casts, with Noriko, Kazumi and and Jung-Freud having certain similarities with Shinji, Rei and Asuka. Noriko & Shinji lack confidence, Kazumi & Rei are more level-headed and Jung-Freud & Asuka are arrogant redheads. This is true up to a point, but not particularly useful. They're both bringing combining entertainment with some fairly intense emotional material, but Gunbuster is a more traditional piece of storytelling. It's nowhere near as revolutionary in what it's doing with the genre, but on the other hand it's got a proper ending and it's playing with heavyweight SF concepts rather than getting weird with religious allegory and (Anno Hideaki's) psychological problems. Look at all of Gainax's attempts to make a new version of Evangelion and rejig the ending. With Gunbuster on the other hand, that would be heresy.
What's interesting about Gunbuster is how many different things it's trying to do. It's got parody, fanservice and giant robot action, but it's also an emotionally heavyweight drama that's based around some reasonably esoteric SF notions. The first episode or two is a parody of a tennis anime, "Aim for the Ace!", as you can also see from a more literal translation of the Japanese title ("Aim for the Top!"). They're even experimentating stylistically, with the final episode being almost all in black-and-white. (I wondered if something had gone wrong with my DVD, but apparently not.)
1. As SF, it's the best relativistic time dilation drama I know. That's a big claim, incidentally. It had previously been done by the impressive likes of Halo Jones and The Forever War, but neither of those have both the dramatic strength and sustained focus on this particular idea that you have in Gunbuster. Alan Moore wove a rich tapestry of ideas into Halo Jones and time dilation was just one of them. This series on the other hand builds it into its very foundations, then makes its protagonist a cute schoolgirl of not the greatest self-confidence and forces her to watch her old life and friends slipping away as months and then years pass on Earth while she's barely aged at all. By the time we've reached episode six, Noriko's about the same age as the daughter of her best friend from school. The odd thing is that theoretically I wouldn't have regarded this as such a big deal. If the past is another country, then so is the future. I reckon it's a bit like emigrating. You're going to lose touch with your old life to some extent, but that's also true if you get a job abroad. A lot of people would jump at the chance. Nevertheless Gunbuster makes it surprisingly moving, at times coming close to being a tear-jerker.
The SF ideas don't end there. You've got freakish alien monstrosities and the fun idea that we're a galactic infection being attacked by the Milky Way's antibodies. Eventually it turns out that mankind is willing to wipe out the entire heart of the galaxy in order to strike back against this threat to its existence, which is understandable but at the very least a debatable point. The story goes ahead and debates it. Then there's the ending, which annihilated me when I first saw it about six years ago. Incidentally this is the only thing I've seen to date from Anno Hideaki with a non-experimental ending, from Evangelion and the 2004 live-action Cutey Honey film to His and Her Circumstances.
2. Next is the geek in-joke factor. The spaceship from Fantastic Voyage (1966) can be glimpsed in episode five, there's a Blade Runner reference (Tannhauser Gates) and plot points have been borrowed from Heinlein's Starship Troopers. The weapons and attacks of both the RX-7 Machine Weapons and the Gunbuster itself are genre pastiches of other SF series like Ultraman. Our heroine Noriko Takaya has up a poster from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, on which film one of the animators was Anno Hideaki and the background designer was also called Noriko Takaya. Furthermore our Noriko not only gets called an otaku, but in her various rooms has up posters of Studio Ghibli films, Space Battleship Yamato and Thunderbirds. One of the super-deformed bonus features has her dressing up as the Sailor Moon senshi. This is a series that's proud to be made by fanboys, which brings us to...
3. The fanservice is ground-breaking. No, really. This is the series that invented breast motion in anime, aka. "Gainax bounce", and the world would never be the same again. It's mildly distracting even today, but in 1988 it pretty much blew the roof off the Japanese anime industry. Do you think I'm kidding? This isn't a sad wank show, but nonetheless every so often they'll throw in a bit of nudity (with nipples!) and you'll be led once again to admire the outstanding 1980s OVA production values. This is an excellent-looking show, with character designs to make you nostalgic for the old days and lots of flawlessly animated high-tech hardware of the kind that used to be a nightmare to do until computers came along. Notice for instance the detailed way in which they use fashion and other visual clues to demonstrate the passing years.
Where I was going with all this though was that Gainax just plain likes fanservice. This is a serious story, but it's being made by playful creators. The most bizarre judgement lapse comes at the height of the dramatic climax in episode six, in which activating the Black Hole Bomb for some reason requires Noriko to tear her shirt and bare her left breast. That's a spot of unintentional comedy, anyway. Oh, and apparently the ship in episode two has gauges labelled "CHINCHIN" and "KINTAMA", i.e. "penis" and "testicles" in Japanese.
4. The silliness and the hard SF come together most surreally in those super-deformed bonus features I mentioned, which are cartoonishly cute throwaways explaining, say, Tannhauser's principles of the space warp that allow faster-than-light travel by increasing the Schwartzchild radius. These mini-lectures are entertaining! No, really.
All these things are interesting and noteworthy, but I think what I particularly admire about this series is something I've always associated with anime. They'll take a 25-minute episode and treat it as a self-contained movie in its own right, with stronger character drama and emotional turning points than you'll often get in an entire live-action series. In this case of course that's partly a consequence of the OVA format, mind you, since every episode was released separately on video and funded entirely through its own sales. Gunbuster for instance gives Noriko an entire hero's journey just in its first episode, starting out with her thinking about her dead father and being so starry-eyed about the military that it seems impossible that it won't end in tears. Her father was the aliens' first victim and he died protecting Earth, which will eventually come full circle with his daughter. Unfortunately before that she's got to deal with the giant robot equivalent of a sports anime, complete with bitch classmates and no talent for the role that the coach seems determined to push her into. I won't spoil it any further, but it's both strong and heartfelt. We're talking about a first episode that's going for the drama as full-bloodedly as anything else's finale, but that's only the start.
Anime does this kind of thing all the time, but Gunbuster is a particularly notable example. Obviously it's not without risk, though. Pumping up the dramatic intensity so early and so often requires an earnestness and a level of emotional commitment that would be hard to get away with in live-action and isn't a cakewalk even in animation. Anime can sometimes seem to be begged to be parodied. The boyfriend figure of episode 3 is arguably more of a plot token than a character, then the next two episodes are both guilty of constructing false jeopardy for their heroines to overcome. I can't believe the Exelion's captain didn't want to send out the Gunbuster during that big battle, since they're getting annihilated by a vastly superior force and it's not protecting your untested secret weapon to leave it in the hangar and let it get vapourised, then in part 5 Amano doesn't exactly pick the best time to have an emotional crisis. Guess who rallies her with a little speech? Sigh. But it's cool seeing them come back afterwards and kick arse.
Oh, and the Earth Defence HQ is in Tokyo. Obviously. That made me blink, but on reflection it makes more sense than it looks since space exploration in the Gunbuster-verse seems mostly to involve Japan and the Soviet Union. (The latter's another nostalgically eighties touch, by the way.) America? Europe? Nope, sorry. One could even construct a justification for this, given the apparent rate of technological progress. Admittedly mankind's on an interplanetary war footing, but even so it's only 2015 when Noriko's father is in space to be killed by aliens and then 2023 for the start of the story proper. Maybe next year the Japanese government's going to find a crashed flying saucer? Seriously, though, I think they had to bring the dates as near as possible to our own. The passage of the years is all-important for the story, but this would have had less impact if we'd already been starting in something random like 2872 or 10000000.
I think I've just discovered a new favourite. I rewatched it because I'd recently bought Gainax's 20th anniversary sequel, Diebuster, and I wanted to refresh my memory. I'd remembered it as having put me through hell, since I'd recently had the extreme fortune of watching Rurouni Kenshin: Seisouhen and thus been alerted to the fact that certain anime-writing bastards think it's fun to leave their audience a scarred, traumatised wreck, but fortunately Gunbuster doesn't go for the suicide-inducingly bleak ending that until then had been looking likely. It's earnest enough to tip over the edge occasionally, but there are worse crimes than being too sincere. It's powerful, emotional and not as internal and metaphorical as Evangelion. It nearly made me cry. Oh, and the fanservice is good too.
The black-and-white in episode six is deliberate, by the way. My guess is that it's a topsy-turvy equivalent of using black-and-white footage to indicate the past (e.g. 1920s).