Science-fiction animé featuring first contact with alien races, when the focus is on war, often takes a quite particular stance which at first sight seems nationalistic and imperialist. A war for the survival of a species necessitates strong leadership and heroism in the face of impossible odds, and no sacrifice is too great to further the overall cause. This is particularly clear in stories such as Space Battleship Yamato or any super-robot animé, where the rank-and-file soldiers – and even world governments – are happy to throw lives away to buy time for the protagonists to in some way meet their destiny and save the world. Yamato begins in this way, with mankind’s last stand against the Gamilans, and then extrapolates this (more so in 2199, the remake series) into a kind of post-apocalyptic resistance scenario after this is not enough to win.
Demonstrating how mankind can send its brightest and best to tragic deaths to achieve little except buying time serves two purposes in a story; firstly it provides pathos. Yamato is heavily reliant on this pathos and it is something which continues into super-robot animé in the vein of Fafner and its obsession with sacrifice or even Mazinger Z‘s repeated use of the destruction of “traditional” weapons to add tension and highlight the power of the enemy. What it also does, however, is highlight how strong the protagonist is. If the enemy are easily outclassing conventional militaries, and then the heroes in turn outclass them, then it accentuates the hero’s show of strength much like Superman may be shown grabbing a crashing plane, or outrunning a train. In this way showing sacrifice before salvation both presents the hero as all-powerful but fallible.
GAINAX’s two most renowned entries into the super-robot genre develop this idea in intriguing directions. The first is Aim For The Top! Gunbuster. In this OVA, the initial scene has the protagonist’s father fulfilling the role of the heroic ship-captain; he sacrifices his own life so the next generation might live (a reversal, actually, of the opening of Yamato which Gunbuster visually references in its fight choreography – in the former, a young officer buys the hero Okita time to retreat and fight on, while in Gunbuster Noriko’s father gives his chance to escape to a younger officer with more to live for). Yet the expected gratification of the super-prototype’s revelation, the arrival of the hero to turn the tide, does not then happen for another three episodes. Instead there is more emphasis on pathos and misery; that initial battle and the fear of death keeps returning to haunt Noriko, most notably when she finds the wreck of her father’s ship and disobeys orders to see if he survived. Here the entire plot of the OVA is based around making the loss – the moment of fallibility and mortality that is set against the triumphant counter-attack – personal. The ships being destroyed perfunctorily in a very standard last stand scene are not just any ships, they are led by the protagonist’s father and his death – and her understanding of it – define her ultimate leading of the counter-attack.
The first half of Gunbuster is unpopular with many viewers because it lays on the pathos and misery so thickly – Noriko is hopeless, victimised and cowardly and her development is framed in the terms of a sports animé not a super-robot one. Thus her development comes not through a simplistic desire for vengeance thrashed out against weak enemies on an episodic basis but through a conflict with the dispassionate outsider of Coach Ohta. Because the viewer is given all this background to Noriko’s development – and because her development, not the war with the enemy, is the focus of Gunbuster – the ultimate revelation of the titular robot is made more meaningful. The enemies in the OVA are called Space Monsters. This is clearly not a super-robot series in the vein of Mazinger Z where the villains are recognisable characters with idiosyncrasies and catchphrases, and it is similarly not science-fiction in the vein of Yamato (despite the similarities visually) where the relationship between human and alien is as important as the conflict. The enemy are implacable beasts and the war is one of survival.
Yet even though Gunbuster is a personal story, it still has the science-fiction animé ideal of multinational co-operation that underpins its inspirations. Part of Noriko’s development is coming to work with Jung, her opposite number from Russia – yet again the wider-scale archetype is made personal. While Yamato 2199 expands upon the co-operative aspects of its original series (the Yamato as the emissaries of Earth to the Iscandarians and the saviour not just of Japan as a representative of the world, as a super-robot might be, but of the world as a planet beseiged by aliens), it is on a governmental and national level; countries send economic and military aid to help a project that will save them. Humanity must put aside its traditional rivalries and nations to fight as a species. Gunbuster dials this in to a single personal rivalry between pilots – there is no time for quarrelling when there is a war to fight.
In the second part of this article I will consider an episode from Gainax’s 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion in which the idea of co-operation and unity against a threat emerges in a different way again. The fight against the Fourth Angel, especially in its depiction in the Evangelion remake film You Are Not Alone, is a very atypical kind of super robot battle and its visual depiction is very based on the idea of co-operation and selflessness that I have discussed here.
To conclude, a key underpinning theme in much science-fiction animé is the importance of a culture-less, open-handed unity; building that kind of trust can be a plot point but the combined-force last stand, or the joint operation, defines the genre to an extent. The preoccupation with last stands and one-in-a-million missions, an easy way to add tension, also works on two levels as a developmental device, simultaneously showing the nobility of soldiers laying down their lives to help a greater cause and empowering the hero as the character who can stop further fruitless sacrifice. While this usually takes place on national or at the least army-scale levels, its condensation down to very personal losses and difficulties in Gunbuster – and the use of a school sports animé framework – provides an effective form of delayed gratification of the inevitable super-robot throwdown. The arrival of the Gunbuster itself – a symbol of Noriko’s finally coming to terms with what she has to do – and its power to massacre aliens with impunity would be effective without the personal plot, but its existence – from the Yamato homage introduction to the school drama to the first rout Noriko takes part in where she loses her friend Smith – makes the scene more personal, and thus more powerful and symbolic on a level beyond a massive war machine slaughtering space monsters.