The story of Hideaki Anno’s tumultuous times with Gainax, the fan-created animation studio he helped found in the 80’s, is one that is usually dominated by continuing disappointments, the first of which being the box-office failure of their first feature, 1987’s Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Anno had plans to create a sequel to that film, and though those ideas and themes would later lay the foundations for his magnum opus in Neon Genesis Evangelion (as would his musings to create a spin-off from Miyazaki’s Nausicaa), at the time he was forced to accept a much more humble and profit-motivated project to stand as his directorial debut. At a first glance, there really shouldn’t be anything overly special about Gunbuster (also known in Japanese as Aim for the Top, a pun on the classic tennis manga/anime series Aim for the Ace), and indeed resembles nothing more than just another giant-mech OVA set in outer space with pretty girls piloting big robots in some kind of do-or-die conflict against an alien race bent on conquering and/or destroying mankind. The savvy viewer might spot echoes from anime of the 70’s and 60’s all throughout its early run, with special emphasis on the influence gleaned from the likes of Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato (better known internationally as Star Blazers), as well as the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of various well-worn cliches prevalent throughout the mecha and shojo genres. Probably the closest thing most Western otaku will have to this in their experience would be Katsuhiko Nishijima’s Project A-ko, and if that kind of action-packed, fanservice-drenched schoolgirl adventure/satire were all that was amounted to here, there would already be plenty of reason to recommend it as an overlooked little gem from the yesteryear of 80’s anime. Something fun and funny, if not terribly important.
But then, this is Anno we’re talking about, the guy who would go on to turn seemingly meager premises like Miyazaki’s hand-me-down Jules Verne notion for Around the World Under the Sea and the seemingly dead-horse of the giant-mech genre in general into mind-bogglingly new places with Nadia and Evangelion, respectively. Even this early on, accepting an assignment to script and direct a six-episode OVA based on the increasingly commercial demands of the young Gainax enterprise to mix robot-themed action in outer-space with comely young schoolgirl pilots, it’s easy to see the changing course of the director’s ambitions and witness the creative growth of a creator who would later go on to make a regular habit of delighting and confounding his audiences with equal measure, earning the trust to indulge in so many artistic experiments on the back of countless instances of the most naked fanservice. For a dedicated viewer of the director’s work, it’s not really surprising to see the directions he winds up taking the simple premise of teenage girls conscripted to fight hostile aliens in outer space from the cockpits of giant robots– rather, it’s surprising to see just how much he dedicates himself to the simplicity of that premise, to begin with. There’s a jokey playfulness to the first episode that feels a bit jarring, at first– as in Project A-ko, we see girls piloting giant “Buster” robots during their gym-classes, performing tasks that would seem completely absurd from a practical standpoint. Running laps, jumping-jacks, weight-training– it’s a caricature of the mecha-genre with pretty girls in tight-fitting uniforms and technicolor hairdos that would feel like a winking satire of the whole of 80’s era anime if it weren’t played for straight. Even the disappearing of physical backgrounds into pastoral imagery of roses and lens-flares has to be taken at face-value, at first. All those earnest morals of “hard work, and guts” and the slow blossoming of friendship gleaned from one-time tsundere competitors– it’s hard to take it seriously due largely to how seriously Anno appears to be taking it, himself.
On an immediate, commercial level, it’s not hard to understand why Gainax would want to shove teenage sex-kittens into giant robots for interstellar action, and thereby maximize their profits by catering to the newly burgeoning otaku-demographic. At the same time, one has to acknowledge just how easily guys like Anno and assistants like Kazuya Tsurumaki fit into that very same generational fan-identity, and in that sense it’s easier to see how lovingly rendered are all of these sublimely ridiculous sub-genre artifacts. Still, it’s in the first omake short that Anno and Tsurumaki create that we begin to get a glimpse of the brains behind the outfit– though at first it seems the chibi-cartoon character renditions of the main cast are spouting off nothing but a rote science lesson, gradually it sets in that we’re being lectured on wholly artificial accomplishments, and ones that are tied in directly to a whole world’s worth of sci-fi. If you ever wanted to know what a Tannhauser Gate was, this will probably provide the very best explanation you could ask for– the anime as all-purpose fanfiction. This hardened intellectual approach to the material becomes more noticeable in the second episode, albeit with a heavy amount of bare-faced fanservice when our heroines enjoy a not-so-private trip to the onsen-spa. Yet even when Anno parades his girls’ nudity so brazenly on the screen (the OVA providing more license for full-frontal exposure than he would have access to in the milder stuff of the televised Nadia and Evangelion), he still finds ways to chide his audience for enjoying the titilation, drawing attention to the viewer as voyeur by having a fleet of Buster-piloting young men pass by a window to peek in on the baths (a much more discrete indiscretion than the infamous “hospital scene” between Shinji and Asuka). The fact that one of the girls here, a supporting tsundere with fiery red hair from the Soviet Union, is named “Jung Freud” should be signal enough that we’re moving into different territory, perhaps something even headier than we should have any reason to expect. Anno’s stuff can be intelligent, after all, and at the best of times even find a scientific rationale for all the neo-religious psychobabble that drives home the best of his emotional apocalypticism, but hard sci-fi? That would seem just a little out of his bounds, or that of most anime in general.
And yet, that second episode introduces the dominant theme of the series, and one that helps make it one of the rare treasures of the animated form. For when these girls go out into stars, at extremely high-velocities that take them well past the speed of light, they’re not only traveling through space, but also through time. Though she’s been our protagonist the whole time, it’s only when we witness the pain and anguish she experiences when suddenly finding her long presumed-dead father’s spaceship rocketting through space, mere days older after the years she’s suffered without his presence, only to suffer his loss anew all over again, that we really begin to appreciate the character of Noriko Takaya. A girl who steadfastly keeps listening to the same J-Pop tunes and watching the same 20th century anime (Miyazaki and Sailor Moon are both mentioned variously), she is a child who refuses to grow up, and moreover is given the opportunity to do just that by living her life in outer space, constantly losing track of how quickly all her friends and associates keep growing older thanks to the Rip Van Winkle effect of faster-than-light travel. It’s an apt predictor for the Peter-Pan syndrome of the otaku experience, the prolonged immaturity that would become an obsession for Anno’s work and punctuate itself in more and more hostile attempts to wake his audience out of their doldrums. As with the novel and film incarnations of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, there’s an impulse to use science-fiction as a vehicle for expressing the adolescent angst of girls growing up in modern Japan, and it’s important to note here that in Gunbuster we have the one work of Anno’s career that is almost solely focused on heroines, instead of heroes. There is no plucky boy-inventor, no depressed Charlie Brown-equivalent feeling sorry for himself– there are only three girls and the various men who either stand in for generic authority or initiatory romantic figures in their lives. The fact that Noriko and her friends wind up missing out on sharing their lives with the loved ones they fight for back on Earth makes for an intriguing bit of sci-fi melodrama in fitting with the immaturity of their characters, and the whole enterprise itself.
That disconnect from the everyday life, the thing that everybody else on Earth takes for granted, is a common theme in Anno’s work, usually finding itself expressed in more and more aggressive modes of alienation. Nadia goes out of her way to isolate herself from the world of adults; Shinji and the EVA pilots find themselves running away from reality just when it needs them the most; even the overachieving high-schoolers of His and Her Circumstances seem to have lost touch with a more carefree existence that their classmates never lose sight of. For Noriko and the pilots of Gunbuster, this alienation is registered in a more somber kind of disconnect, felt more in the missed opportunities of spent time and lost friends than any kind of explicit social difficulties. In the third episode, she winds up making friends, and even developing a crush on a boy of her age that she gets into trouble with, stealing a few moments before battles on intraship subway cars (interstellar crafts do seem large enough to warrant public transportation services) and in a vending-machine area, where we get about as close as the series comes to a scene that very easily could’ve been snatched from any other, contemporary shojo anime. They sit together, order Cokes from the soda-machine, and wind up accidentally drinking from the same straw– a “second-hand kiss”. Almost everything in the sequence would be right at home with a depiction of everyday life in Japan or almost any other country of the 1980’s– yes, the soda comes in something other than a can, but the fashion and hair-do’s fit right in, and there’s something quaint and comforting in the idea that something as reliable and dependable as Coca-Cola will remain as popular a soft-drink in the future as it does today (one can’t say the same thing of the USSR, but whatever). The fact that this comes right before Noriko’s first battle, one in which her enemies will fly through space to quickly for her (or us) to see, makes the sequence all the more touching. Anno reaches through the divide of sci-fi speculation for a moment that would’ve even meant volumes to viewers decades into the past. When Noriko visits that same spot later in the series, to remember her fallen friend, the presence of that recognizable brand-name keeps the feelings fresh and relatable for us, as viewers– we may not know what it’s like to lose someone in a giant-robot battle, but we can probably remember drinking a soda with a girl or boy we liked way back when. As Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Anno uses product placement here as a kind of commercial realism, but one that packs a far more emotional punch than the gimmicky sight of a Howard Johnson’s orbiting the Earth. Furthermore, it underlines the ongoing theme of alienation by placing such a powerful reminder of all they’ve left behind, letting it serve as an intimately personal and strangely epic totem. It recalls one of Martin Sheen’s lines of narration from Apocalypse Now, overlooking the party atmosphere of a pre-battle barbeque held by the Air Cavalry– “The more they tried to make it feel just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.”
At the same time, Anno also displays a tremendous scope of visual and conceptual imagination when it comes to rendering the outer-space exploits that the girls face, especially when it comes to the alien-threat they come into conflict with and the temporal leaps-and-bounds that are necessary to combat them over an astonishingly long stretch of time. There are plenty of anime and live-action works set in the farthest reaches of the universe, but at times Gunbuster feels like one of the few that really takes full advantage of the bottomless wellspring of ideas that can result from totally divorcing one’s creative drive from the confines of planetary thinking. The monsters opposing our heroines are true cosmic threats, immense biological organisms devoid of any semblance of anthropomorphism, bearing more in common with some hypothetical mating experiment between WWII battleships and H.P. Lovecraft creature-features than the likes of anything one might see in Star Wars, Trek or Blazers combined. They are extra-terrestrial not only in the sense that they come from a planet other than Earth, but that they do not come from any planet at all, and instead have somehow grown in the vacuum of space devouring cosmic energies and laying their eggs in the stars themselves. Evolving along a biological-imperative not unlike the ghastly, but strangely beautiful speculative beings that Carl Sagan hypothesized in his Cosmos series, they are among the few alien beings in science-fiction that I can believe in whole-heartedly as completely alien, and having as little to do with the source-material gleaned from our own planet’s history as humanly possible. That they have evolved in such a way to be able to combat giant-robots and starships on their own terms seems only natural, and that these beings themselves have managed to adapt to their environment enough to be capable of faster-than-light travel themselves feels completely fitting, in its own utterly surreal way. Why should time or space be of any boundary to a being that has seen fit to make the sky itself its own primordial birthing pit?
As a species that exists on a timescale that doesn’t correspond to a single human lifespan, and travels naturally through the time-space continuum as any mere terrestrial being might walk from one city-block to another, it makes sense that fighting them off would become an aeon-spanning enterprise, a generational affair for so many individual lives to be dedicated to. And yet, thanks to the time-defying ways in which Noriko and her allies find themselves living their lives in piecemeal over the course of so many decades, remaining eternal teenagers in the face of everyone else aging into adulthood, seniority and beyond, we are still able to keep a hold of the emotional continuity of the adventure. Those last two episodes, which make longer and longer strides in time than the previous four, also take a major leap forward in terms of production values. The animation is cleaner, sharper, the colors brighter and more vibrant. The designs feel more characteristic of the later works from Anno and character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, more comfortable in how they lean into their extreme angles and punctuate their angularity. In one sense, it feels as though a long stretch of time has passed between the completion of the first four episodes and the production of the last two, which increasingly feel more like a sequel to an already completed series than the mere continuation that they are. Is it Anno’s creative voice finding its true shape late in the game, or is he bringing his animation up to the date of late 80’s standards only in the final two installments, giving his viewers a feeling not unlike the temporal displacement of his heroines?
Those early episodes all begin to resemble something from the animated programs of the late 70’s that Gainax was modeling itself after, in its first efforts, and it’s appealing to imagine that Anno might’ve restrained himself this long in order to give us all the feeling of being lost in the timestream ourselves. Given the studio’s legendary budgetary problems over the years, there’s probably a much more practical explanation, but it remains an attractive notion, and one that provides an impressive conceptual context to the slowly evolving mis-en-scene of the series. By the final episode, it really feels as though Anno has pushed Gunbuster into something completely different, composing the entire last-act in crisply animated and sharply framed black-and-white, with letterbox-bars giving us the feel that we’re no longer watching a mere OVA but instead have purchased the home-video release of some anime art-project. There’s a keen resemblance to Mao Lamdo’s Cloud short from the Katsuhiro Otomo anthology film Robot Carnival, and that visionary elegance has a poetic quality that ranks among the most lovely and unique stuff that Anno has put to screen. It reminds us that we’re watching an animated product while at the same time turning up the realism, giving us an abundance of detail that’s all the more clear and noticeable without the distraction of color (or perhaps, it’s simply that a surplus of detail is necessary to excite the eye when resorting to monochrome). And obviously, there’s also the nostalgic factor, portraying the far-future of mankind in black-and-white, giving it both the appearance of old photographs and the painstaking exactness of antique engravings come to glorious life. It lends a weight to all this galactic warfare and temporally confusing mumbo-jumbo, and helps you understand the dire purpose to which our heroines have been conscripted.
Plenty of anime are all about teenagers plucked out of obscure, unhappy lives to save a humanity that they’re never really connected to on a personal level, but Gunbuster makes those stakes feel intimate, palpable and real in a way that perhaps only Evangelion ever managed to outdo; or perhaps, only even match. At that moment, at the end of time and space itself, after all the silliness on Earth and heartbreak beyond the stars, there’s a mythic reverberation to the way Anno gives into that last, heroic bit of fanservice, as Noriko tears open her uniform and bears her breast to rip open her mecha’s hull and rend its heart unto the universe. I can only see the moment with Western eyes, and though there’s plenty of Judeo-Christian elements in his next two series, I can’t help but wonder if the director was reaching back even farther at this moment, a transcendent site of personal sacrifice that puts Noriko somewhere between the twin pillars of Vestal Virgins and Diana’s Amazons. Is there an equivalent for these brave, unreachable young women in Japanese folklore, an echo for the archetype’s impression we see upon the screen? Does there need to be? In the swirling flux of time and space, when nostalgia for the past and expectations for the future comingle and blend like the stardust of so many glowing constellations beyond the farthest reaches of our most farsighted telescopes, must not the present then become a time precious enough for all the untapped hormones of humanity to stand up and fight for? Even if you’re trapped in the grip of a black-hole, and staring down the pit of what may be an invitation to a gateway or else an absolute oblivion, take heart, at least, that at the end of the universe lies that very event-horizon that all tomorrow’s parties have scheduled.