First-time director Hideaki Anno and his ragtag band of proto-otaku created Gunbuster to prove, once and for all, that no one had more geek cred than them. They succeeded. The ota-boys had a secondary goal—to perfect the mysterious and multifaceted world of animated breast physics. Again, they succeeded. Alternatively known as “Gainaxing,” the “Gainax Jiggle,” or the dawn of modern fanservice, the lads flex their animation muscles by depicting the buoyancy of the female bosom with painstaking attention to detail (or Anno’s ideal vision of a teat in motion—a logic-defying, asynchronous bobble extracted from a cheeto-fueled fever dream).
As expected, ecchi overtones tremor through the opening episodes as we meet Noriko, our ditzy heroine (prone to jump-roping). But the inclusion of Kazumi (the talented role model), and Coach Ohta (the hot-headed war vet) serve to parody a classic tennis anime–both Gunbuster (Aim for the Top!) and Aim for the Ace! feature underdog-loving coaches with no regard for authority, talentless protagonists who succeed through hard work, and world-class, holier-than-thou rivals (who quickly devolve into BFF fodder). Unlike Aim for the Ace!‘s heroine, Noriko never masters any skill besides crying on command. The quintessential whiner, Noriko proves herself lacking in any redeeming quality whatsoever. Indeed, we must assume that Coach picks her to lead the fight against the space monsters due to her uncanny propensity for jiggling.
As Noriko propels into space (to honor her father’s memory and slay intergalactic behemoths), she further solidifies her status as the most spineless character in the cast—rejected by her partners, propped up by her “first love” boyfriend, always sobbing and moaning while the other girls prove their worth as pilots. After her big-haired beau, Smith Toren, leads her like a lamb onto the battlefield, he ends up dying from her incompetence. Anno accomplishes his goal of conveying Noriko’s fear and uncertainty but negs any sense of dignity or likeability in her character. Despite her inability to operate her robot for twenty seconds without melting into a puddle of self-pity, and due to every anime space captain’s refusal to lock their vessel’s hatches, Noriko pilots the titular mecha with ace pilot aplomb. Thanks to Coach’s punching and kicking exercises, our protagonist can annihilate a five-million-pound space beast with a few well-placed bashes to its snout.
Coach Ohta, scarred and leg gimped during his time on the front lines, must’ve also developed an extreme sensitivity to sunlight, since he refuses to remove his shades regardless of brightness level. He cannot bench Noriko because of her off-the-charts potential. Grousing, cowering, and risking everyone’s lives with her incompetence—the qualifications give one chills. “Hard work” morphs an atypical schoolgirl with below average intelligence into a killing machine—her weaknesses become important contrivances for a dubious “crank-it-to-eleven” display of badassery later on. Our Coach, allergic to all truths and rationality (and prone to wall-staring and/or pontificating about milk), will not abide any feeble attempts to downplay his girl’s raw potential.
Gunbuster gained a reputation not for its depth of narrative, but for its titacular achievements in fanservice. The infamous bathing scene impresses, featuring the most unrealistically designed locker room in the history of anime (completely windowed out to the public). Anno trots out his entire female cast (including the fantastically-named porn star Jung Freud) so the audience can ogle their nude forms, just in case the clinging outfits and/or jiggling didn’t reveal enough. Anno dedicates a substantial amount of his debut to panning and zooming into money shots. The director even signals to the audience when the next round of service will arrive—a Pavlov’s Otaku experiment. “Next stop, Girls Locker Room” the intercom blares, jolting any bored watchers awake, priming us for some crucial expositionary scenes that incidentally showcase women snapping their underwear off. The Exelion engineers designed the shower stall doors to climb high enough to frame a view of the girls’ buttocks—but don’t worry, more nip-slips later. In fact, the first half of episode five consists of lingering shots of Noriko’s strategically compromised body, Jung Freud’s forever-exposed breasts, and other assorted frame-hogging genitalia shots. Gainax earned their Supreme Fanservice Overlord status thanks to this OVA. 1989 marked the year that Anno irreparably corrupted the minds of many a youngin.
Gainax not only stresses over its fanservice finesse but slaves over animation details and a steady stream of pseudo-science word vomit. The staff infuses the mecha battles with fluidity and kineticism, rarely missing an opportunity to depict movement and energy in fresh and exciting ways. Gunbuster established Gainax as a household name for otaku—each cel of animation confirming the staff’s personal enthusiasm for the medium. Anno and his crew load the background art with as much technical mumbo-jumbo as humanly possible. The cockpits and bridges flash with charts, graphs, numbers, panels, interfaces, wireframe projections, and meticulously animated reticules. Characters spout jargon, coordinates, questionable physics principles, and all manner of calculations for the express purpose of proving the studio’s geekdom to even the shrewdest of skeptics.
The artists behind Gunbuster handcraft their mechanical settings with striking accuracy–tasks now exclusively done with CGI (mecha models, ships, and any machine movement). The pre-digital aesthetic makes the whole production look streamlined rather than the mixed-media hodgepodge that plagues most modern anime. The shoujo-styled characters embody a depth of color and personality that expose the hands of their creators. The episodes took time to construct, and the visual nuances and quirks betray the production teams toil in enlivening every small robotic twitch or character gesture. Special effects and various animation tricks exhibit the staff’s creativity—some of the warp animation, background design, and space battles still inspire awe to this day. Evangelion‘s technical mastery has its origins here—a testament to the power of sci-fi and geekdom.
Anno exercises more creative control during the final episodes, morphing Gunbuster from a sports anime parody to a full-blown time travel space opera. He heightens the OVA’s emotionality through Einsteinian time-skip sacrifice. As the Gunbuster crew throttle into the unknown, the chasm between Noriko and her now-aged classmates she left behind widens. She returns to earth to graduate high school—young, spry, and bouncy as ever. However, she cannot relate to her friend and classmate Kimiko, now a grown woman experiencing motherhood and the challenges of adult life.
Poignant themes notwithstanding, Anno never relinquishes his penchant for melodrama. He laces the final battle scenes with a heaping helping of cheese, ironically named signature moves, theatrical romances, the vanquishing of a googolplex of space monsters with one fell Gunbustication, a foray into the wubbulous world of black and white, and 80s synths a-plenty. Yet the flashy battles and cheesy dialogue write out like a love letter to otaku. To fully appreciate Anno’s vision requires setting one’s reason aside and allowing the lizard brain to take over. Once possessed by the spirits of “fun,” one can participate in the otaku dream—to bathe in camp, flamboyance, and the pleasures of the animated flesh without shame.
Fans of Anno’s later work will find Gunbuster an overwhelmingly charming experience. Not only do we witness, for better or for worse, the nascent beginnings of modern fanservice, but also the beloved Gainax conventions which influenced many copy-cats to come. This OVA heralds the birth of a star—the Gainax spirit—a celestial nursery which would one day churn out Evangelion, Gurren Lagann, and, spiritually, Darling in the FranXX (thanks a lot). We also witness the first “Gainax Ending”—a haphazard volley of ideas which somehow settles into a denouement equally messy and iconic.
Nerdic charms aside, anime aficionados should carve out some binge-time to take a trip on the Gunbuster Interstellar Highway. To experience the passing of time with Noriko—her childish beginnings matched in tone by the goofy mech aerobics and adolescent awkwardness, then a journey into space and innocence lost, and a return back, but a lonely return—a disconnected and hollow visitation to a space once filled with wonder and hope. Now Noriko’s nostalgic haunts have become an alien planet—a land of ticking clocks and bodily decay. Yet she floats, forever young, towards the final battle. Her last space monster showdown less an obligatory series-ending boss fight, and more a requiem for love lost. Our jiggling juggernaut of justice has nowhere to go but up, up, and away to the Top in a blaze of glory.
Good For: jiggliophiles, make-believe science lessons, Gainax completionists, otaku history appreciation.
Bad For: gynophobics, actual science lessons, physics majors, childhood innocence.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger