There are plenty of legendary people who create anime, but there are really only two animation studios that stand out in most fans' minds as the best of the best: Ghibli and Gainax. Ghibli, the studio that has created masterpieces like My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa, and Princess Mononoke, is driven primarily by its renowned founder Hayao Miyazaki and two other well-known directors. In comparison, Gainax is incredibly unique. A studio essentially founded by fans, its first real project was the awe-inspiring Wings of Honneamise. In its relatively short history, Gainax also created what many consider to be the ultimate mecha show ever, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Although certainly some people behind Gainax are now famous, the studio itself stands out as a bastion of quality. This high calling of quality holds true for their six part OVA series Gunbuster. Although it's not Gainax's crowning achievement, it is an entertaining, genre-busting ride that stays with you long after the screen's gone dark.
As Gunbuster starts, it appears that it might just be another "unlikely heroine makes good" story. We are introduced to Noriko, a teenage girl haunted by the death of the father she idolizes. It turns out that her father was the captain of a space cruiser destroyed in the wake of an alien invasion that still threatens Earth, and she wants desperately to follow his lead. Although she appears less talented than others who want to be a part of the space defense forces, Noriko is chosen to be the pilot of a secret weapon mech known as Gunbuster. Facing derision from her classmates, she eventually grows into a woman as she pushes herself, knowing that the whole of the human race may depend on her. With her coach and only real friend constantly pressuring her, Noriko must face her fears if she is to succeed.
At this point in the description, it would be easy to groan and turn away, but this framework actually holds up a story that gets better with each episode. The key to the epic nature of this tale is time dilation--the theory in physics that time slows down as you approach light speed. Thus, a few days spent on a spaceship at near (or surpassed) light speeds could happen while months or years passed on Earth. The idea that comes into play, then, is this: to save humanity, would you risk losing all those you love who would age and die back home while you remained young in space? It's a dilemma that science fiction cinema has neglected almost entirely (though it's not that rare a concept in print). As Noriko and the others get deeply involved in thwarting the alien invasion, they also start to realize that their hopes and dreams may truly get lost in time. Gunbuster starts off as if it were going to be a cute, simple retread and winds up becoming one of the most unique, compelling anime I've ever seen. The last episode, which for artistic reasons is not only letterboxed but also presented in black and white, is simply stunning. Though there are a few minor issues, which I'll mention in a moment, it's hard not to like Gunbuster. I'd love to write more about it, but doing so would spoil the surprises.
Gunbuster succeeds on many levels, primarily because there are virtually no physical distractions to the story. The artwork is excellent, and the animation does a superb job bringing Haruhiko Mikimoto's character designs to life. Mikimoto, who became famous due largely to his designs on the seminal Macross series, is a superb artist with a distinctive style, and it's rare to see his designs fleshed out so beautifully in animated form. At no point does the animation ever detract from the storytelling. The music is excellent, and it provides a significant backdrop to the events portrayed. It really is a perfect package in that way.
Although this is a great show, Gunbuster has a few flaws that keep it from joining the ranks of the absolutely top tier of anime. The first is that, for a show that has females in leading roles and has a strong appeal to women, it has too much fan service. Although the few scenes with nudity are "harmless", with no sexual connotations, it feels unnecessary. This show also features women's bodies strictly obeying the laws of physics even with their clothes on--this show was the reason the term "the Gainax bounce" came into existence. Unfortunately, it may turn off some sensitive viewers who would otherwise find a great deal to enjoy in a program that in many other ways celebrates women. Secondly, the show changes its personality a bit too much over its three hours. I was not really impressed by the first episode, and it wasn't until the third episode that I really started to become enamored with the show. This comes about from the fact that the Gunbuster was originally going to be a parody of Aim For The Ace, a popular show about a young tennis star who goes through many trials trying to become the best woman on the court. The start of Gunbuster still reflects the essence of that parody. Thankfully, this angle was abandoned, and by the time the show ends, the viewer is so absorbed that the early episodes are forgotten. Still, the show doesn't have the best start in the world.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed Gunbuster a lot. I haven't felt many of the emotions that this show dragged up since watching Macross many years ago, and the concepts of love and loss that are familiar to viewers of that series are present in some ways here. I truly hope that somebody will release a DVD of the series in the near future; it'd be a no-brainer to pick up. Unless you can't stand space epics or strong heroines in your anime, you really need to see this one.
Gunbuster -- violence, nudity, some mild adult themes -- A