Some Basic Information About This Legendary OVA Series
Title: Gunbuster ~Aim for the Top!~ a.k.a. ~Top wo Nerae!~ Gunbuster
Series Length: 6 OVA
Release Dates: 10/7/1988 through 7/7/1989
Age Rating: 15+ (frequent partial nudity of questionable necessity)
Summary: As a child, Noriko Takaya has always wanted to be a space pilot like her father, but years later, when her father died in a mysterious attack by monsters out in the far reaches of the void, her determination to become a pilot only grows stronger. Unfortunately, as a first-year at the girls' military academy, Noriko is among the worst in her class, barely able to control her giant robot without the auto-balance feature. One day, a military official arrives to choose and coach for two skilled cadets to join an important mission to be undertaken in the coming days--the two chosen are the popular Kazumi Amano and, to everyone's surprise, Noriko Takaya. Unable to pilot her machine without falling face-first, will Noriko have what it takes to participate in a mission that may determine mankind's future?
The Good: Timeless, classic Gainax aesthetics; an epic sci-fi adventure overflowing with authenticity and unabashed joy
The Bad: Extremely quick pace and short length hamstrings character development
The Ugly: Noriko is a first-year high-schooler, and now we're watching her bathe...oh God, I hear the sirens again! YOU'LL NEVER TAKE ME ALIVE!!
Why did it take me so long to get around to this series, again?
This really has been a long time coming--the epic OVA series that directly spawned both Evangelion and Gurren Lagann while also influencing nearly every action anime made ever since. But I haven't watched it until now. And I have no reason why I waited so long. Everything I love is about anime is right here, packaged neatly in a little box: Hideaki Anno's directing style, that iconic Gainax art style, cheesy and epic music, big action scenes, heroic sacrifices, final gambits, LOTS OF INSPIRATIONAL SHOUTING, classic cool clichés...but I spent 19 years of my anime career avoiding it for reasons I can't even identify. But that has come to an end. I have finally crossed Gunbuster off my list of unseen classics, and now I'm going to tell you why you should avoid repeating my mistake and why you should basically drop whatever you're doing and buy it right now.
What makes this legendary OVA so...well, legendary?
Gunbuster is famous among old-school anime enthusiasts as Hideaki Anno's directorial debut, and he had control over basically everything, which includes the series' visuals (which he probably did mostly himself, given his habits). And without a doubt, the man knows how to craft an appealing art style--he helped to pioneer Gainax's trademark tall, angular style, he and his crew have spent an ungodly amount of time designing every aspect of every ship and robot to make them look as plausible as possible, the color palette is super bright and colorful and attention-grabbing without being garish or obnoxious. I love all the texture lines on everything, the curvy lines signifying cheeks, the hash marks on a rough surface, and all those little things that give Gunbuster's artwork so much personality.
There is also Anno's idiosyncratic directing style, where he'll shoot a single scene from a thousand different angles with a lot of focus on inanimate, industrial objects prominent in the frame, as well as just utilizing unorthodox framing techniques in general. Every shot is deliberate, and even to this day I find myself wowed over various shots and wondering how in the hell they managed to do these amazing animation cuts on plastic cels in the 1980s with next to no budget. In episode 4, when the titular Gunbuster robot finally makes its appearance, it's set in front of billowing smoke clouds amidst a chaotic space battle, and the utter majesty of the scene--this massive behemoth emerging from the dock, arms crossed as if it knows it's already won the battle--is just overwhelming. It's so cool, you guys. As much as I love the modern techniques that make so many anime nowadays look spectacular, I can't help but be a little bit sad that we'll never again see an anime that looks like Gunbuster. Or anything else Anno worked on.
Early Gainax may have been known for its sharp visual style (and its revolutionary inclusion of bouncing boobs), but the other big thing I take away from their works is the sheer amount of fun they are to watch--from Gunbuster to Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water and Otaku no Video, there is just so much obvious joy that went into making them, and a lot of that same joy is transferred to the audience. You can tell, right from the very first frame, that, like those other titles, Gunbuster was a tremendous labor of love, and its brisk pace takes us from memorable scene to memorable scene, crafting a tale that is at once archetypal and monumental. Noriko's struggle to live up to her father's reputation as a captain is one we've seen before, even back in 1988, but her character arc feels just as fresh as if she was the first character to have ever undergone it. Watching Noriko grow from a crybaby rookie to a strong, inspirational figure we wouldn't see in anime again until Gurren Lagann (conveniently another Gainax production...) is nothing short of glorious.
And I really must stress this point that Gunbuster is 100% genuine in everything it does. Nothing feels forced, nothing is perfunctory, there is not a cynical bone in the bodies of everyone who worked on it--this is the story Hideaki Anno and his crew have been dying to tell ever since they themselves were nothing but teenage anime fans making fan animations in their basement. There is nothing but excitement and enthusiasm to be found here, and it's so, so refreshing to watch. Seeing Gunbuster is truly a revitalizing experience for the old-school anime fan inside all of us, and if somebody told me this was their favorite anime of all time, I wouldn't be able to blame them.
Where does the legend fail to live up to its hype?
One word: Pacing. Gunbuster moves along at a run, making it a very exciting and enjoyable watch, but it comes at the cost of its own characters, making the series' exciting pace a double-edged sword. I've already mentioned how Noriko is an excellent character with a legendary arc, but she could have been even greater if the series just stopped to breathe every once in a while. To delve into some spoiler territory, the third episode in the series, "First Love, First Sortie," revolves around Noriko splitting from her partner Amano (because Amano worries that Noriko would be a liability in combat), and so Noriko finds a new partner: Smith Toren, a spiky-haired cool guy who takes a liking to her. They train together for a short while before several enemy aliens make their appearance and everyone assumes combat positions. Smith tries to get Noriko to relax and keep a cool head, but the battle is too much for her and Smith ends up dying in the fight, causing Noriko to blame herself as she laments the loss of her short-lived romance.
Wait, did you catch that last part? That's right, there was, indeed, a romance buried in Noriko's character arc, and we only got to see a tiny glimmer of it! She gets the hots for Smith and his awesome hair, and I wanted to know more about Smith himself (he's so cool, you guys)--moreover, I wanted to see the relationship between him and Noriko blossom some more before he unceremoniously gets shoved in the fridge. And poor, poor Kazumi Amano--she got it even worse. She apparently has been romantically pursuing Coach Ohta the entire time, but we don't get to see any traces of that happening until near the end of the series. At only 6 episodes long, Gunbuster obviously had to make some tough calls on what it could and could not include, but I feel like it was a mistake for the loser in that call to be essential character development. It holds back a bunch of great characters from being exceptional characters, and that's always a tragedy.
So, does this mean Gunbuster is certified legendary after all?
Yep, it certainly does. Even if the brisk pace and short length make it hard to include enough downtime to make the characters more fleshed-out, to imply that makes Gunbuster an inferior anime would be a grievous mistake. I put off watching this series for far too long, and it's a damn shame I didn't see it all those years ago--it would've been as foundational to my growth as an anime fan as Slayers or Cowboy Bebop were. Many fans of old-school anime, especially Gainax's stuff, hold Gunbuster up as the gold standard of ambitious action anime, and now, having seen the light, I can concur that there is truth to be found in their assertion.
Final Score: 9 out of 10. Gunbuster is high-flying, adrenaline-fueled giant robot action done right, with stylish visuals and an inspiring lead character that help to make this series one of anime's all-time classics.