Over time, and several viewings, I have reconsidered my attitude to the classic 1988 OVA Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. It is a well-constructed, entertaining and aesthetically spectacular piece of television, but precisely what it represents – to me, anyway – has changed as my knowledge of anime of its time has increased. Most viewers realise from the major genre shifts throughout that Gunbuster is a wide-reaching pastiche of numerous anime genres rich in visual homage, metatextual humour and made with a dear love of animation as a medium. It is a bildungsroman of sorts which uses genre and narrative scale as a way of depicting the maturation of someone who is almost a neoteny – a series that goes through the ages of anime history while its protagonist remains an eternal child.
Noriko Takaya spends much of humanity’s rise and fall as a teenager just left school, maturing and becoming an adult mentally while remaining young physically. That this story is told through a steady progression of anime tropes from an opening episode that begins by referencing Space Battleship Yamato (1971) and Aim for the Ace (1973) and by the end is full of 80s sci-fi anime excess – while Noriko remains the perfect age for pop culture engagement, and the perfect age to be a protagonist in these changing narratives is elegant in its symbolism. Gunbuster is, thus, well described as a very loving tribute to all those things that have inspired and driven animators – it is the very opposite of a deconstruction, creating a character shaped by, and living through, the cultural change within a medium that shaped the creation of the work itself. Thus, any sequel to Gunbuster cannot – if it is to carry the Aim for the Top title – simply rehash what has gone before. To oversimplify, Gunbuster is a nostalgic work. It is full of love and respect for the past and its inspirations. It is someone in 1988 looking back over anime from the 1970s onwards and expressing their love for it.
A sequel, years on (2004, almost 20 years later), could not simply sit and lavish love and nostalgia over anime of the 1980s and 1970s. The anime industry had changed, the genres that Gunbuster pastiched had changed: 1995 saw Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Wing quite change what could be done with a mecha anime, Giant Robo had finished airing 6 years prior to Aim for the Top 2 in 1998, and even series which themselves felt like end-of-an-era shows like Turn-A Gundam and GaoGaiGar had aired. Nostalgia for the idealised militarism of Space Battleship Yamato and the era of the big-budget OVA would not have the same impact. Thus I approached Aim for the Top 2! Diebuster with a mindset somewhere between “moderate pump” and genuine curiousity. 2007 would bring Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a series which itself was full of a certain, reserved nostalgia for the super robot as a concept – but a series accepting that the way to keep the super robot relevant was to change its focus.
Thus Diebuster episode 1. It is immediately, before the words buster machine or space monster are mentioned, an Aim for the Top series. Right from the start there is the emphasis on youth, on self-discovery and self-confidence and self-determination, the emphasis on willpower and drive to succeed. These are universal themes. These are the themes that defined Gunbuster, that its eternal schoolgirl living out over a decade of mutating power fantasies from being the star of the school sports team to saving the universe with heroic super-robot self destruction embodied. Hard work and Guts is the mantra that endures from the series and it is worshipped in Diebuster from the start. But Nono, the new hero, is a very different kind of hero. She is not the reluctant, apparently favoured schoolgirl with the “demon coach” and the military background and the prototype mech. She is a working-class girl as far as possible in an unequal society from privilege and even a good education. Noriko’s argued unearned privilege – her influential, war hero father, her continued advancement in school and in the military despite an apparent lack of talent – is what puts her against the world. She has to learn to fit the mould society has put her in. She will be the space hero that destroys the Space Monsters, who pilots Gunbuster and is the best of the best. She has to learn her hard work and guts, unleash her work ethic and achieve. Everything is there for her, she simply needs to capitalise on it. What this paints her as is someone in a (relatively) desirable position, an everywoman with prospects and relatable flaws.
Nono has nothing. She runs away from home (in a vaguely-defined rural area), boards a train and sets off to the city for a new life – finding only minimum-wage labour and inequality. It is a far less rosy outlook on youth – no matter your determination to make something of your life, class, wealth and opportunity will get in the way and the undeserving – represented by boorish workers of greater status than Nono – will profit from their limited power. The future Gunbuster presented was one where time would simply make things better – better weapons to fight a bigger threat, better ships, the optimism of untrammelled economic growth and technological advancement. A point is reached where the Exelion, the pride of the fleet, is just a missile to throw at the enemy to buy time to built its successor. This is a very 1980s attitude, in a way; sci-fi of a time of prosperity imagining prosperity without end and the power of science and modern warfare destroying everything that interrupts it. There will be sacrifice, but it will be noble, heroic, done in the spirit of global co-operation and militaristic.
Diebuster is sci-fi of a time of less prosperity. Its future as depicted in this opening episode is a gleaming atomic-age rocketship world for the “Topless,” a superpowered elite who do all the fighting to protect the little people, and a post-industrial shanty-town for everyone else. Gunbuster began in a posh school with its own mech for every student, where students went to space to graduate. Diebuster has the working-class resigned to the knowledge that even reaching space takes 16 years of tuition and the opportunity to get on a social ladder most never receive. Yet Nono begins the series saying “never put off to tomorrow what can be done today” and “wishes never come true.” She is, from the start, more self-determined than Noriko; she does not want to wallow in inequality but fight it from the off, latching onto the “Topless” L’Alc not as a patron to get her into society but as a sister and friend. And she is rewarded far faster than Noriko; she is powerful, and saves the day right from the start without even knowing how or why.
This is a much more timely and positive message – that great power can exist unknown, that social barriers and prejudices get in the way of noticing real talent. It is the diametric opposite of Gunbuster and yet it is thematically the same. Gunbuster had Coach, and the establishment, see Noriko’s potential and work and die to bring it out. Diebuster has a protagonist nobody wants to believe has potential – a poor waitress for whom a good education and career is a distant dream – go out and save the day just to save those close to her. In a time of less prosperity, great sacrifice to reveal untapped potential is less relevant, I would argue, than a story of the need to accept that sometimes true potential is being used, is being offered, but not being seen by society. Noriko cries a lot, and complains life is not fair like Hiromi in Aim for the Ace. It takes people dying and people being at risk for her to find herself. Nono sets out right from the start with everything needed to be a hero – selflessness, strength and determination – and has to prove society wrong.