Mankind faces extinction from giant aliens, and the only path toward salvation is giant mechs. In a twist of fate, the most vital mech is piloted by a teenager with confidence issues.
This might sound like the legendary anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion, but it’s not. It’s actually Gunbuster, the iconic mech series from Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno, now available to stream on Crunchyroll. The 1988 six-episode OVA series was a foundational title for both studio Gainax and Anno. It set the standard for what audiences could expect from Gainax’s epic mech battles, high-concept science fiction, and plentiful fan service. Gunbuster was the first truly profitable title to come out of Gainax, and provided Gainax and Anno with the cachet to explore more challenging projects, like Evangelion. Without Gunbuster, there would be no Evangelion.
While it doesn’t have the reputation of Anno’s more lauded masterpiece, Gunbuster’s influence can be seen throughout Gainax’s catalog, as it contains the foundation for all the tropes and ideas that would come to define the studio. Gunbuster is only now, for the first time, being released in the West in full, with a high-definition format and an English dub. But its influence has been all over anime in the decades since it was first released in Japan, whether audiences know it or not.
In 1988, after working on Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, Anno was preparing for his next big project when he came upon the script for an OVA series that would become Gunbuster. He was intrigued by the script’s correlation to the classic Japanese fairy tale of Urashima Taro, which tells the story of a fisherman who spends a few days with a princess, only to discover 100 years have passed. According to studio Khara’s biography of Anno, “Anno was moved to tears by the script.”
But Anno wasn’t thinking of the story as strictly a fairy tale. Gunbuster needed to expand upon that concept to become the influential giant it is today. And so the show became a mashup of a few influences of the time: Gunbuster has the competitive spirit, peer idolization, and blossoming romance from Osamu Dezaki’s tennis shoujo classic Aim for the Ace! combined with the elite training and military focus of Top Gun. And Anno didn’t stop there, throwing in other elements to up the action quota, like giant mechs, a strict military code, and interstellar combat.
As for Evangelion, the influence of Gunbuster’s story is clear. Protagonist Noriko Takaya has the same self-doubt and anxiety that would come to shape Evangelion’s Shinji. Like that character arc, Noriko has to face her fears and grow, because she’s not expected to become another adult, but rather the person responsible for saving humanity. With training sequences straight out of Rocky, Noriko must succeed by any means necessary. Although Noriko has the physical requirements to be at the top of the class, her abilities in the mech suits needed for combat are lacking.
Among those who love the show, Gunbuster is often best remembered for using faster-than-light travel to provide many of its most notable sequences. Every time Noriko and her upperclassman Kazumi Amano enter lightspeed travel, they’re made aware of the time dilation that will occur due to their travels; years will pass for everyone else in what will feel like days to them. While recent movies like Pixar’s Lightyear and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar have further popularized the well-known science fiction trope, time dilation provided a harder edge to a show that otherwise could easily be categorized as a parody of classic shoujo anime tropes.
Noriko and Kazumi must travel into the depths of a black hole to unleash humanity’s greatest chance against the space aliens. Time will take on a new meaning, and it might be thousands of years before they’re able to return to Earth. What will Earth even look like then? Would it even be worth returning to if everything you ever knew was changed and gone forever? These are poignant and heady ideas for a series that is ostensibly about young women piloting giant robots, especially considering the lighthearted fanfare that defines most of Gunbuster’s earlier episodes. Having survived their great ordeal, when Noriko and Kazumi inevitably return to Earth hundreds of years later, it’s hard to imagine anyone not tearing up at the end.
That final mission foreshadowed Anno’s tinkering with animation styles, as it was presented in black and white, and featured still images where combat would typically be animated. There have been frequent discussions as to whether Gainax simply ran out of budget or if it was a creative decision. Given Anno’s later discussions about the series and how he experimented elsewhere, it’s easier to imagine this was international. As the fate of the galaxy is at stake, elaborate sketches fill the screen while composer Kohei Tanaka’s soothing orchestral music plays under the action. And the black-and-white look certainly gives the action more of a newsreel feel, like what was prevalent in multiplexes from the 1910s to the mid-1970s.
Thanks to Gunbuster, Anno became known as a director who would experiment with the avant-garde. He would later do something similar with static sketches during the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, mixing still animation and voice-over with “Komm Susser Tod” playing over disturbing crayon drawings.
As one of a handful of mech series to do so in the mid-’80s, Gunbuster had a primarily female cast and redefined fan service in the mecha genre. As with other titles, like Battle Angel Alita, OVAs could afford bigger budgets for more fluid animation, and the format presented more opportunities for ecchi content, without being bound by regular TV standards. In addition to the grand space battles between the mechs and the almost nondescript space aliens, Gunbuster didn’t hesitate to delve into plentiful sexualized fan service. Gunbuster was able to show its heroines topless and even went a step further, defining a new term — the “Gainax Bounce” or “Gainaxing,” the unnatural movement of breasts in anime. The exaggerated movement (and its absurdity) can be seen in the opening credits of Gunbuster, as Noriko walks toward the viewer. It became Gainax’s signature, showing up in later anime like Gurren Lagann with its heroine Yoko Littner, as well as in Gainax successor Studio Trigger’s anime — not to mention non-Gainax or -Trigger shows, like High School of the Dead and Food Wars, among many, many others that followed the trend.
Along with Gainaxing, there was another term Gunbuster would add to the anime lexicon. First seen in the fourth episode, the “Gainax Pose” is an iconic pose in which the protagonist is seen with their arms crossed. The first time the audience gets a glimpse of the ultimate mech Gunbuster in action, it’s seen in the Gainax Pose. Whenever Noriko strikes the Gainax Pose, it signifies that she’s reached another level of determination and signals her intent before unleashing hell upon the enemy. The pose itself isn’t enough to define the action as a Gainax Pose, as the character must be making the action at a pivotal turning point in the anime, the scene must include strong visual effects, and they must be filled with strong determination. The pose has taken on a life outside of Gunbuster and can be seen in other Gainax anime such as Diebuster and Gurren Lagann, and even later in Studio Trigger series, like Kill la Kill.
Gainaxing and the Gainax Pose not only became synonymous with Gainax but have taken on a life of their own. Other studios were influenced by what Gainax had created, and Gainaxing would soon be utilized as a way to provide more evocative content without aggravating censors. It would inadvertently help define anime as something for adults for much of the ’90s. Diebuster revitalized the Gainax Pose in the early ’00s, and some fans latched onto drawing characters outside of Gainax’s catalog in the signature pose. Even the characters from Trigger’s Cyberpunk: Edgerunners have been drawn in the pose, and all of that can be traced back to Gunbuster. These innovations, for better and worse, have helped keep Gunbuster alive in the minds of anime fans far beyond its original ambitions.
Yet still, Gunbuster resonated with audiences beyond just those flashy hooks. Even with giant mechs and the ability to fly through space with ease, the one thing Noriko can’t have more of is time. Whether that’s time lost with her late father or experiencing her adolescence, it’s one thing she’ll never get back. This dilemma makes Noriko’s plight easy to relate to, and when her determination shines like a beacon in the darkness, casting aside the disappointments in her life, you’ll believe this young woman can save the galaxy. What Anno would accomplish at Gainax all began with a parody of a classic shoujo sports drama that evolved into a thesis about time and how fragile those fleeting moments can be. The OVA series paved the way for trends that would come to define projects made by Gainax throughout its history — both lewd and large — and continue to influence anime to this day. Gunbuster is a success not simply because of fan service, time dilation, or its stamp on anime history. Rather, it succeeds because it is all those things and more. After all, where else can you get a signature lightning kick that decides the fate of the universe?