Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Noriko Takaya is a student at a military training academy in Okinawa, determined to follow in the footsteps of her father, an officer in the war against bug-like aliens who was killed in action. She's a bit clumsy, which gets her bullied by her classmates, but she's determined to succeed. To everyone's surprise and most's chagrin, the new instructor, Couch Ota, selects her to go on a real mission, along with the beautiful and gifted Kazumi Amano. Training was one thing, but will Noriko be able to prove herself in a real life or death situation? Or will she end up a liability to everyone around her?
I wasn't in the room when Discotek announced they licensed Gunbuster at Otakon in 2021, but I have a feeling that if I had been, my eardrums would never be the same. See, this six-episode OVA from 1988 brings with it a virtually unsurpassed amount of history, both in terms of production and the mercurial nature of international licensing. After a decade of being nigh-impossible to find legally in the U.S., despite being highly sought-after, fans would finally have the opportunity to have it in their collection once again.
I suppose it's nothing new that highly influential anime that are older than 1990 can be hard to find in English, but not being able to watch Gunbuster always felt particularly criminal. It played a major role in putting Gainax on the map as their second major work, and its credits are stuffed with contributors who would go on to become major industry players, not the least of whom is the director, Hideaki Anno. The so-called “Gainax pose” – the protagonist standing tall, determined expression, arms crossed over their chest – comes straight from Noriko herself. Funnily, the story of such an influential series is itself, largely a pastiche of the shojo tennis series Aim for the Ace! and the U.S. military action flick Top Gun, as reflected in its original title, Aim for the Top!!.
But to consider it just in historical terms would be to make a huge mistake; even removed from that context, the series is an arresting mix of hard science-fiction, mecha action, and coming-of-age drama. In what was the near future at the time of production (now the near past), Noriko enlisted in the space force to find answers about what happened to her father, who came home once a year on her birthday until he was supposedly killed in battle against the invading forces. Although she's not great talent as a mech pilot, she is selected by Coach Ota to go on a real mission along with her senpai, Kazumi Amano. Although it's a great honor, nobody thinks Noriko is ready, including Noriko herself, and everyone suspects that Coach picked her because of her father rather than her ability. Noriko must cope with the huge demands placed on her as a pilot defending the Earth, the doubts that taint her relationships, and the growing isolation of time dilation, remaining a teenager while everyone she cares about grows up without her.
Yes, time dilation. If you've ever cried to Queen's '39, this story is for you. Although early in his career, Anno's directorial style was already well-formed and perfect for imbuing a short science-fiction story like this with poignancy and pathos. Sure, there's lots of on-screen text and old men shouting jargon in boardrooms. Those are as central to Anno's style as anything else. But to me, the real soul of the series lies in the juxtaposition between the weighty Buster battles and Noriko's desperation to find her father and save him due to the effects of time dilation; the cold efficiency of the space base where Noriko lives and the tropical nature sounds of Okinawa where, after graduating high school in an empty auditorium, she encounters her old friend, Kimiko, now a mother; the tragedy of her isolation and the courage she finds to push through, arms crossed over her chest.
By necessity, the characters other than Noriko stand somewhere between ciphers and fleshed-out humans; outside of Noriko and Kazumi, most have one or two defining traits rather than full, multifaceted personalities. This is fine, considering the show's short length, but it does cause some relationships to feel abrupt or poorly sketched. There are also some dynamics that would be considered abusive by today's standards, but go unquestioned in the story. Despite this, Gunbuster pulls on the inherent emotions of the situation, aided by Anno's impeccable direction, creating something powerful and resonant. Rarely is there a dry eye in the house by the sixth episode's final moments.
Discotek has put together an excellent release, as has come to be expected of them. I can't comment on the particulars of the technical specs, but the picture is bright and crisp, and the sound – so important, with how Anno uses sound to create a sense of time and place! – is clear. The extras are a bit sparse: creditless openings and closings and the original Japanese promos. By far, the most remarkable thing is the premiere of a brand-new dub; as many times as Gunbuster has been released in English by different companies, none of them have ever included an English track. Although it's unlikely to convert sub-purists – but let's be honest, what will – the dub stands well against its Japanese counterpart. Noriko's actress, Kiane Chula King, is a newcomer with only a few minor credits to her name before this. Despite her inexperience, she plays Noriko, with all her grief, determination, and adolescent complexities to perfection. The other standout is Melissa Sternenberg, who brings a great deal of complexity to Kazumi, struggling to balance her own vulnerability with her responsibility as a role model and a soldier, as well as the intense competitiveness that occasionally rears its head.
I've watched Gunbuster through twice: once without having seen Aim for the Ace!, and once after. If you can, I recommend trying this out; it really does feel like watching a completely different show. Gunbuster is good enough to stand on its own merits without needing to refer back to its source material. It's a human story, well-told, and that's all it needs to be. However, once familiar with Aim for the Ace!, you can dig into the transformative nature of what Gainax did with it: taking a story where tennis is the characters' entire world, and transferring it to a genuine life-or-death situation, keeping the rivalries, tensions, and messy emotions intact. It manages to do this in a way that treats the shojo original with respect instead of trivializing or scorning their preoccupation with sports as frivolous. It's a fascinating experiment with wildly successful results.
Gunbuster is a true classic in every sense of the word: historically important, influential, and a fantastic series decades after it came out. With this gorgeous release, it deserves a place on every anime fan's shelf.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A-
Animation : A
Music : B+
+ Gorgeous remaster of an important historical series; excellent direction that brings out the most powerful emotions of the story; brand-new dub is well-acted
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