Aim for the Top! Gunbuster

Cast from left to right: Jung Freud, Coach Ohta, Amano Kasumi, Noriko Takaya, Kimiko Higuchi and Tatsumi Tashiro.

In Short: As Hideaki Anno’s directorial debut, Aim For the Top! Gunbuster (1988-1989) is a groundbreaking Original Video Animation series and was the first anime series by the then-fledging Studio GAINAX (creators of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, and later Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL and others) to become a commercial success. Gunbuster is an amazing series and a must-see for all anime enthusiasts.

Synopsis: Set in an alternate near future in which humanity has achieved space flight, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster is a science-fiction mecha series (for the uninitiated, ‘mecha’ are giant fighting robots) following the machine weapon pilot Noriko Takaya (voiced by Noriko Hidaka), as she and her comrades attempt to defend humanity from a seemingly infinite fleet of gigantic aliens known as Space Monsters, a species that seems bent on the eradication of humanity and is steadily drawing nearer to Earth.

Starting in 2023, Noriko is undertaking training at a pilot’s school for RX-7 Machine Weapons, however she is finding it to be extremely difficult and is failing to equal the standards of other pilot candidates, such as the beautiful and extremely talented Amano Kasumi (voiced by Rei Sakama), whom she idolises. Enter Koichiro “Coach” Ohta (voiced by Norio Wakamoto), a survivor from one of humanity’s first encounters with the space monsters and a former officer of Noriko’s deceased father Admiral Takaya. Coach Ohta comes to believe that Noriko has a special talent that she has yet to realise, and so he shows her the additional training that Amano creates for herself – inspiring Noriko to find strength the within herself to become the best pilot that she can be.

Noriko is soon selected as a pilot for the elite machine unit Top Squadron alongside Amano, and with Coach Ohta they transfer to the flagship Excelion – however, the Top Squadron is yet another screening progress, this time for the new Gunbuster – an incredible machine that may be humanity’s best hope at combating the space monsters. This new assignment and responsibilities will test Noriko’s and Amano’s abilities, their inner strength, and their belief in ones’ self.

Supporting characters include Kimiko Higuchi, Noriko’s school friend; the curiously named Jung Freud, a female Soviet machine pilot; the hardened Tatsumi Tashiro, Captain of the battleship Excelion; and Smith Toren, a machine pilot serving aboard the Excelion.

The Top Squadron, assembled for a training exercise.

Review: As an original video animation, Aim For the Top! Gunbuster consists of a total of six episodes that were originally released in two-episode volumes over a span of nine months. Initially carrying a fairly light-heated and optimistic tone – an example being the cuts of mecha performing push-ups and other exercises in the first episode, and a bath scene in the second – with each new episode the tone steadily shifts to express the hardships of Noriko’s new life: in the series’ second episode it becomes clear that director Hideaki Anno intends to address some realities of space travel, notably the sense of separation and isolation from being apart from humans on Earth and also from the time-dilation effect of faster-than-light travel.

It is from these ideas that Anno crafts the drama of the series into an eye-catching, attention-stealing cascade that leaves you yearning for more. Although each of the characters central to Gunbuster are carefully and excellently treated by Anno’s use of framing and timing, for the benefit of this review I’ll focus my analysis on Noriko Takaya. In the first episode she is shown to be too carefree, too undedicated and somewhat selfless for the machine pilot training – a fair statement seeing that by the episodes’ end she has become aware of the potential within herself and rises above these obstacles – yet this is merely a staging ground for Hideaki Anno’s character study techniques.

A photograph of a young Noriko Takaya with her father, Admiral Takaya, is used as the opening shot for the first episode and sets the tone of Noriko's personal history.

Anno knows that no seed for the story should go unplanted. The second episode opens with a flashback sequence in which a young Ohta offers to stay behind aboard the dying spaceship Luxion and offer a last remaining space on an escape shuttle to his commander, Admiral Takaya. Three brisk cuts: a close up of the Admiral, telling Ohta he’s too young to die; the shuttle departing the launch bay of the Luxion, and a wide shot of the Luxion’s bridge, with Admiral Takaya looking out through the viewport as the shuttle escapes.

Fast Forward. Halfway into the episode, Amano and Jung abandon a training exercise to have a contest inside the Excelion’s construction works; Noriko too abandoning the exercise to follow them. Soon they stumble upon the contained corpse of a space monster. Its ghastly appearance reminds Noriko of her father – “My Father… was killed by this? By such a creature?” Breaking into tears, Noriko flash backs to when her father returned to Earth for her sixth birthday – in contrast, it was stated in the first episode that since he died aboard the spaceship Luxion he was never able to return for her eighth birthday.

Fast Forward. Noriko and Amano are sent to intercept an unknown object that is passing at near-light-speed through the solar system – upon contact Noriko recognises it as the body of the spaceship Luxion, her father’s ship. As soon as this is revealed, Anno cuts to a still frame of Noriko’s bewildered expression and fades it to greyscale. Cut to Coach Ohta’s desperate “No! Don’t let Takaya go near it!”, and soon enough Noriko’s machine is shown making contact with the Luxion’s hull, scrapping alongside it and pulling its way inside under Noriko’s control.

Realising that there is still air inside and that only two days would have passed for the Luxion in its near-light-speed relativity, in a rush of emotion she wanders its dark corridors, shouting ‘Papa! Papa!’, in desperate uncertainty, until she opens the door to the bridge – and she is greeted with its remains and the pitch blackness of space (she screams “Papa!”). Here Anno cuts to show Noriko’s machine inside the door frame, and steadily shifts the frame outward to show it relative to the wreckage of the Luxion’s bridge, and that relative to the emptiness of space. The episode ends with a juxtaposition of Noriko leaning against a window, briefly recalling a memory of her father, and states that although it has been six months since her birthday, “… you came back to me, just like you promised.”

All of these sequences by themselves are merely interesting, yet stringed together in this order and in this nature they capture your complete and undivided attention. And it tears at your heartstrings. Anno uses a similar seed-planting idea in the third episode in which Noriko meets Smith Toren, and in the fourth episode when Noriko is initially unable to return to space, yet when the fleet comes under attack from a superior force of space monsters she finds it within herself to pilot the Gunbuster and ensure that her comrades survive.

Although I’ve only highlighted a few key instances here, there are a fair number of scenes in Aim for the Top! Gunbuster when you can’t allow yourself to take your eyes from the screen. Hideaki Anno is at his best when he centres his efforts around/on characters and uses the camera (or framing, if you prefer) to establish them and allow them to drive the narrative, and create a connection to the viewer on a personal level. It is worth noting that he would later use these techniques and ideas as framework for the characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Hideaki Anno is cunning in his use of framing to convey a character's state of feeling.

Speaking of eye-catching, the uniforms – or should I say ‘outfits’ – worn by Noriko, Amano and the other members of top squadron are certainly flashy and umm, figure-hugging. And by figure hugging, I’m not simply referring to the absence of leg-warmers, but also that fan service animation quirk that has come to be known as the ‘Gainax Bounce’ – and now that I mention it, apparently Gunbuster was the first series to use jiggling breasts as a form of fan service. And did I mention there a couple of topless scenes? There are a couple of topless scenes, but personally I found the dialogue to be more interesting than the topless female characters.

And while it isn’t something I suspected during the course of the series, I’d like to note that the characters were originally created by Haruhiko Mikimoto (also known for the character designs in The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross) before being adapted by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Similarly, Kazutaka Miyatake and Kouichi Ohata, creators of the mechanical designs in The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and Macross II respectively, also created the mechanical and space monster designs for Gunbuster – hence the aesthetic similarities between the two shows.

Nonetheless, these designs are eye-catching and incorporate various science fiction technologies that make sense within the context of the series’ alternate future setting. Curiously, Anno’s directorial style means that a fair bit of this fictional science goes unexplained – and that is where the series’ ‘New Science Lessons’ shorts fill in the gap. Another directorial debut, this time by Kazuya Tsurumaki, each two-minute omake New Science Lesson features super-deformed versions of Noriko, Amano and Coach explaining the series’ science fiction in an entertaining way.

Although no English dub of this series exists, the Aim for the Top! Gunbuster’s Japanese voice cast is perfect alongside Hideaki Anno, Toshio Okada and Hiroyuki Yamaga’s engaging story and GAINAX and Studio Fantasia’s superb production. I can think of no higher praise than to say that is a Gunbuster is a cornerstone of late ‘80s and early ‘90s anime and that it is extremely unlikely I will forget this series and the impact its characters have had on me. Go watch it. Right Now.

While the majority of the OVA is set in space, Earthbound scenes such as this are given a visual serenity of their own - all the more reason to watch Aim for the Top! Gunbuster.

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About Matthew Kehoe
Matthew Kehoe is a multimedia enthusiast currently attending a Bachelor of Writing course at the University of Canberra.

One Response to Aim for the Top! Gunbuster

  1. Mac Colestock says:

    Nice review, Gunbuster is certainly an all-time favorite of many an anime fan. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the absolute formalistic craziness that went into the last episode compared to the other five, though. If Gunbuster was largely a tour-de-force of Anno executing his style (it wasn’t quite Anno’s directorial debut, since he did an ultra-low budget kaiju homage/parody flick with his buddies back in ’84), the last episode was a complete opposite; “Anno being Anno” suddenly becomes “Anno doing Kurosawa” in terms of, well, just about everything. Not only does the narrative dive into “lolGAINAX” territory, the form itself follows suit. It certainly displays the whole crew’s remarkable versatility with presentation.

    And come on now, were you REALLY more interested in their dialogue than their jiggling breasts? The fanservice has always been one of my favorite parts…

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