It's late November, so time to mark another year's passing at AICN Anime. This one's a round number... hit the big 1-0. Counting the years when I was contributing to the defunct AICN Asia column, not counting the various efforts I was making elsewhere online the three or so years up to that point, it's been ten years. Given how rocky the anime/manga industry has gotten and given the nature of AICN, I'm mildly surprised that I made it to this point. To mark the milestone, I've decided to offer some insight into my questionable taste. These aren't what I consider to be the best in the field, and I'm very fond of other works. I'm just indulging in some talk of my favorites. The third and final part will be delayed a bit while I catch up some covering some significant manga releases.
Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex
The world in which we live is looking more and more like Ghost in the Shell. During an appearance on the Anime World Order podcast, translator/author Matt Alt made the point that scenes of Ghost in the Shell's brain-wired cast sitting and quoting philosophy at each other in the original movie resemble nothing so much as people checking references on their smart phones mid-conversation. Julian Assange and Wikileaks... how GitS:SAC is that plot? Cyber Monday recently took on a life of its own in which nobody participated, but everyone did, such that sales records were broken. Ghost in the Shell follows the work of Public Security Section 9, an elite group, the chief operatives of which includes Major Motoko Kusinagi, a hyper-competent chick philosopher /super-cop with a human brain in an artificial body (Jonathan Clements makes a great point; she has an unremarkable first name and shares a last name with a mythical swords... she's pretty much "Jane Excalibur"), Batou - a veteran soldier and law enforcer with cyborg augmentation, and Togusa, a younger former cop with a family and a natural body. The role of Section 9 is a bit nebulous, something that worries government officials whose paths they cross, but, generally, their work focuses on the cases where the mechanisms of law enforcement haven't caught up with the possibilities of technology. As the episode procedurals follow Section 9 on their post-information age threat investigations, the concepts explored by Ghost in the Shell run from small techie ideas, like the answer to the problem of video conferencing in your underwear, to heady philosophical concepts like god zero, defining existence through something whose existence is, by definition, impossible to quantify. Some are left for the viewer to digest, such as the implications of a money making AI program that will heedlessly play the capitalist markets, and some are addressed directly, such as the development of its intelligent mini armored vehicle/field support Tachikomas (delightfully characterized seeing sedan sized, heavily armed spider robots with chirpy voices) Sci-fi may have promised us a future of jet packs and flying cars, but Akira and the old Manga Entertainment promos promised us that anime like Akira would take us into "the 21st century" "bizarre, twisted and uniquely imaginative" "extraordinary futuristic science fiction from the next dimension.". This catalog included the Patlabor movies, Wings of Honneimise, Giant Robo and the original Ghost in the Shell movie, so, maybe not the most unbacked boast. Still, anime and that audience split. For anime's part, if you saw Akira and asked "what next?" there was never that much "next" to go to. Movies and direct to video OVAs that offered inventive approaches to sci-fi were finding funding during the height of Japan's economic boom. Post bubble, anime's focus largely collapsed towards safer targets, namely kids and people whose love of the medium was such that they identified themselves as fans. If you insisted on the next big, smart spectacle, it's been a long time between works that would satisfy the expectation. And, the consumer hasn't exactly encouraged production of more unconventional sci-fi material either. Series like dark, prosthetic body part involved Texhnolyze were created with the hope of piquing the interest of global sci-fi fans, but, by the time they hit, the attention of media consumers with an interest in violence sharpened sci-fi was directed elsewhere. (Largely, towards games) As has been proclaimed, anime might not just be for kids, but intelligent works seeking to engage adult audiences in speculative discussions are still rare. For example, if you were looking for a mature politically engaged anime last year, I'm not sure what you could find beyond Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex writer/director Kenji Kamiyama's "fantapolitical thriller" Eden of the East and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex animators Jun Matsumoto's Senko no Night Raid, about the Imperial Japanese Army in 1931 Shanghai - the political content of which earned muted responses in both cases.
Production I.G, anime makers with some global savvy, recognized that Ghost in the Shell was an exceptional case. Along with the likes of Akira and Ninja Scroll, it's one of a handful of titles that still cause people who aren't typically anime watchers to perk up. And, that global interest enabled Production I.G to create two anime series and a movie in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex continuity. While I was once impressed by the manic enthusiasm of its military sci-fi, I now can't divorce my opinion of Masamune Shirow's original 1989 Ghost in the Shell from my opinion of MS as the guy who draws cheesecake postcards of cowgirls getting fondled by horsemen and buries his manga in footnotes. The movies are quintessentially Mamoru Oshii, a teaser for genre fans chained onto a pillar of Oshii's philosophical and cinematic vision. Stand Alone Complex is more broadly involving and exciting than either the Masamume Shirow or Mamoru Oshii version of Ghost in the Shell. Plot, social and techie exploration, characterization and action spectacle are all coherently aligned. While whether it is a superior vision to the other versions is certainly debatable, being more accessible than the other two doesn't diminish Stand Alone Complex. With Yoko Kanno music swelling, Major Motoko Kusinagi dives from a helicopter, and hits the ground hard. Stand Alone Complex's thoughtful speculation does find a place in the action, as it applies next generation technology to a look into what shifting variables like weight and ballistics would do to the complex dynamics of its confrontations. The anime launches into Michael Mann shoot outs turned multi-dimensional coordinated battles. Sometimes behind Kusinagi and sometimes extending as her proxies is Batou at the head of a team of black suited, heavily armed operatives, with snipers, 'copters and mecha behind her, cyber warfare and political jiu-jitsu raging in the background; how can you not be jazzed? Make no mistake, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex is not a strictly action driven series. Most episodes are structured around investigations. It's often talky. Frustration is an essential component of the narrative. And, there are quiet bits. The 2nd Gig even features a Sideways wine as a metaphor episode. And, yet, the plot channels into a violent feedback loop. The first season has a mini-war between Section 9 and Japan's Drug Enforcement agency, and though that looks like a columniation, it's quickly surpassed as both Section 9 and the resource rich, implicated government officials find themselves with their backs to the wall. 2nd Gig has Section 9 discontent and wary in the wake of the events of the first season, increasing their person-power and shifting their focus towards operations in a more active trouble shooting mindset. They find themselves working to defuse or mitigate situations involving a powder keg refugee population and a group known as the Individual 11 whose agenda seems to be trying to light the fuse; all of which puts them at odds with institutions such as governments or corporations with huge reserves of resources and advanced technology. Particularly in 2nd Gig, urban guerilla warfare is a component of these new conflicts, but the key distinguishing characteristic is the osmosis of information. Institutions still press resource advantages. Because they funded the development, they have access to the most advanced edge of technology. Though contentious, they are interconnected and often supportive of each other. While the movements from revolutionaries and especially the outsiders do not have this access to resources, the battle field is leveled by the flow of information. Going outward, the media and internet gives them the ability to infect outsiders with their ideas. Taking information in, both the key manifestos and secrets are available either freely or illicitly. And, in the battles depicted by Ghost in the Shell, even the materials are available as arms and uranium can be purchased from failed states. Given the kind of visual presentations anime lends itself to, this is the perfect fit for the medium. It's the material for building big and smart. Because I admire it when it's done right, I'm inclined towards to react to this sort of action heavy, speculative concept exploration with some mistrust. Hiroki Endo's Eden: It's An Endless World is a favorite example of this. I've been a vocal fan and proponent of that manga, but I've also questioned the extent to which the shockingly extreme violence contributed to the stew of international politics and Gnostic metaphysics being evoked or whether the sensationalism was to make sure that the manga maintained the popularity needed to keep its place in the anthology serializing it. More episodic, Stand Alone Complex didn't need to get to the resolution before validating how well it was developing ideas. But what's immediately discernable in the anime is the palpable confidence in what it constructs. In the realm of ideas, the series is both willing to offer a go-for-broke barrage and not afraid to be pinned down. The word "robot" has been used in sci-fi since 1921, with "android" coined in the previous century. Since then, the themes of reconciling of flesh and blood humanity with its artificially create duplicates has become rote. We've all been so inundated with these stories, the philosophical core passes through us without engaging intellectual thought. At best, the stories that engage this high level re-creation can be effective at an emotional level and not an examination of their metaphysical core. Besides the familiarity, the trouble with these works is that for better than half a century we have witnessed the efforts of building these creations being pursued in earnest, and with that demonstration of the limitations, no one expects to bump into R. Bob at the office.
What can be fascinating is the area that can be studied with some technical depth. Informed speculative thought can be applied to information networks and cognitive studies as well as artificial limbs and organ treatment. Stand Alone Complex drafts a credible argument as to how technology bridges humanity to new streams of information, and what the consequences of those developments might be. Not an indictment or vehicle for a specific metaphysical concern, Stand Alone Complex presents a holistic examination of how these technologies change human interaction through the lens of the people working with the fall out of its cutting edge. The physical elements like the satellite hook-up for a snipers eyes and the super-human strength of bionic arms set the stage for the anime's action, but the connectedness launches a examination of how ideas are disseminated that drives not only Ghost in the Shell's plot, but informs the series itself. The series' magnum capers, the Laughing Man and the Individual Eleven, relate to propagation of ideas, and Stand Alone Complex itself follows suit, recursively demonstrating ideas imprinted on and replicated in its own construction. As the Laughing Man's smiling logo, which has projected outwards, becoming a real-world internet meme, quotes from Catcher in the Rye, Stand Alone Complex itself quotes from other sources with overtures like injecting One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Nurse Ratched into an episode. Kamiyama drops in action choreography with obvious nods to the Mamoru Oshii Ghost in the Shell movies, but, beyond that, the Oshii protégé picks from Oshii's pet themes. Particularly important, and reflecting this cycle onto itself is the Oshii fascination with a prominent character who is absent, but who imprints themselves on events, seen in the villain of the first Patlabor movie, Oshii's unrealized plan for a Lupin III-less Lupin III movie, and in figures like The Laughing Man in Stand Alone Complex. While the constellations of ideas in Stand Alone Complex series can look disjoint, as some thread leads to the discovery that blows the cases open, the ideas do ultimately culminate - and they do culminate with consequence, dealing with politics with real relevance and history such as Japan's Article Nine and with larger social movements in a world where the flow of information is softening borders. Even the best anime seldom resolve themselves with a satisfactory ending. Which is why Stand Alone Complex has to be a contender for the best scripted anime series produced. It gives the viewers what they want, and makes that resolution the logical extension of the foundations previously laid out. It pulls in pieces left hanging, and leaves substantial material to think about.
As my anime/manga generalizations go, this one has far more counter-examples than most, but here goes... Younger audiences works are about aspiration... I'll be strong... I'll find love... I'll be the best, ect. Older audience works are about reconciliation, accounting for how matters got to their current state and how to live with that. Two of the principals of Macross Plus think that they're in the former situation, but find themselves to be in the latter. Produced by an all-star staff, Macross Plus proves to be a compelling, mature story. As a child, I didn't catch much of Macross' localization, Robotech, and as such never really had much of a nostalgia allegiance to the series. But, the strength of the character and the anime's production really won me over in this mature follow-up/side story. The three pillars of Macross are 1) Valkyries - Shoji Kawamori and Kazutaka Miyatake's variable fighters - jet-ish craft that transform from planes to robots to something in-between. 2) music - young idol singer and once anime fandom bête noir Lynn Minmay was a fundamental element of the the original Macross and singers have been similarly key in its follow-ups. 3) Love triangles - the original had the evolving, surprising dynamic between young pilot Hikaru Ichijyo/Rick Hunter, Minmay and bridge officer Misa Hayase/Lisa Hayes. Rather than abandon them, Macross Plus offered a thoughtfully grown up reworking of these ideas in a cast that included arrested development case daredevil Isamu Alva Dyson, intensely self-control focused Guld Goa Bowman (descended from a "micronized" giant alien Zentradi antagonist of the original Macross), and once-local idol Myung Fang Lone. The trio grew up together on peaceful backwater planet Eden, and the anime opens captures these good years with a teen Myung singing the unforgettable Voices as Isamu and Guld race down rolling green hills to launch a flying machine. Even stumbling and a bit reckless they all wind up smiling as Isamu coasts over a sea shore. From that beautiful greenery, the anime cuts to deep space in the year 2040 (the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross starts in 2009), where a fast, savage, disorganized mecha dog fight is raging across an asteroid belt. After a falling out, Isamu wound up in the military, fighting rogue Zentradi, racking up a record for impressive combat skill and infuriating behavior, Guld became a developer and test pilot for General Galaxy and Myung sublimated her own dreams to become the producer for galactically famous virtual idol Sharon Apple (released in 1995, a precursor not only to the current vocaloid craze, but to William Gibson's Idoru).
The career/life trajectories of the three collide again on their return to Eden. U.N. Spacy launches Project Super Nova to choose a replacement to VF-11 Thunderbolt. Washed out of the military, Isamu's becomes the test pilot for Shinsei Industries' candidate YF-19, while Guld is the pilot for General Galaxy's candidate YF-21 - outfitted with new-tech Brain Direct Image controls. Coincidentally, Myung is home on a leg of a Sharon Apple tour. While Guld devotes his considerable focus to the work, Isamu crashes simulations and rushes off with a pretty researcher for some of his daredevil stunts. With Isamu's inclination towards agitating behavior and Guld's internal battle with his own propensity towards rage, that pair was bound to exchange paint over the course of a head-to-head competition, but simmering resentment keeps pushing their meetings towards near mortal combat. With Myung present, unresolved issues put them in an inescapable nosedive. Those Macross tenants are integral into what makes Macross Plus a classic. In this case, the love triangle defines the parameters of the story. Rather than the sprawling conflicts of other Macross entries, this one is bound by the very personal relationship between a trio of people who grew up together. There are juvenile underpinnings to the Isamu/Guld dynamic. In large part, they're adults continuing a child's squabble with advanced military weapons; given something of a long leash to do so because of their considerable talents. The third point of the triangle, Myung complicates the situation. Guld tries to protect her and treat her how he believes he should. Isamu acts in typical ego driven way, ratcheting up the trouble. Myung is the person who steps between them just as punches are about to be thrown. But, the three personalities aren't simply cut and dry. As right-acting as Guld attempts to be, he is also willing to engage Isamu in his competitions. Myung also tries to play roles, as the professional and the adult friend, but like Guld, she can't just rationally decide to be something without emotional consequences. Isamu for his part is not entirely the sociopath that he allows himself to behave and appear like. While proximity causes the trio to act out, all three have plenty bottled up. It's a fascinating relationship to watch play out, well written (by Keiko Nobumoto - Cowboy Bebop, Wolf's Rain, Tokyo Godfathers) and well directed such that all the comments and gestures of the meetings of the trio has layered meaning with different implications once the whole history has been revealed.
In terms of the Valkyries... likely, there will never be another anime like Macross Plus. There is CGI used in the dog fights, relating to the Brain Direct Image system, but those models and trails of vectors hold up well, especially given the context of what they represent. When Oshii made Sky Crawlers, he had to use 3D animation for the movie's fighter planes because he simply could not find the talent to staff the production 2D mecha animation. That art wasn't what it once was. The cel animated Valkyrie combat of Macross Plus is a marvel from a passed age. There is no need to be an aviation enthusiast to feel exhilaration from watching these characters rattle as their mecha jet through the skies, the quick, complex movements; transformations and explosions that really look special, outside normal experience, just topped by the spectacle of the plumes lefts by storm of missiles in the Itano Circuses aka Macross Missiles Massacres. Specific engagements, like the duel turned humanoid form mecha brawl in a urban environment modeled simulation zone have a firmly staked out position in anime's highlight reel, but even simple scenes of planes flying over barren landscapes stand out as beautifully rendered work. Macross Plus is the second anime soundtrack composed by the much admired Yoko Kanno (after Please Save My Earth, which was a collaboration with her now-ex husband Hajime Mizoguchi). It's no accident that the four episode OVA has four soundtrack albums (which don't correspond to specific episodes). Music is essential to Macross Plus. Maybe it's because I hit the anime in the formative years of my adult anime watching, but I found Myung and Sharon Apple's singing to be the most compelling idol work in anime. It's mesmerizing stuff, including the songs sung in the made-up made-up Zentran language. What makes it even more beautiful and disquieting is the accompany animation from Studio 4C co-founder/Akira Assistant Chief Animator Koji Morimoto. I've always found it weird that anime fans were still comfortable with virtual idols after watching those sequences. But, the influence of music on Macross Plus extends beyond the in story idol work. For a while, Macross Plus was seen in North America as Shoji Kawamori's serious counter-point to the decidedly goofy, fight vampire aliens with music Macross 7 (named for the colonization ship Macross 7, not the seventh Macross series). Then, something called "Cowboy Bebop" came along. Well, that brought attention to the name of Macross Plus' co-director, Shinichiro Watanabe. Watanabe anime is often structured around music. In this case, that structure is informed by Kanno's orchestral score. The breathtaking dog fights, the tension between the principals and their dissolute moments, Macross Plus has the moving highs, lows and swells of its score.
Too few anime really aims to or succeed in agitating its audience. Instead, you get works like Elfen Lied of Gunslinger Girl that indulge in ornate or would-be shocking spectacle tragedy. The woe is part of the appeal. This is why I admire Shoji Kawamori's generally reviled spiritual environmentalism agitation piece Earth Girl Arjuna. True, the spiritualism undercuts the ecological message by making it easily discountable, (the classic being the observably false message concerning the needlessness of pesticide, suggesting that insects only eat the already dead parts of plants), but at least Arjuna actually aimed to make its audience uncomfortable and move them to action. Director Akitaroh Daichi gets the gold star for being able to construct characters who can smile in the face of physical and mental torture without looking like a Mel Gibson shifty masochist. There is something of Leiji Matsumoto's hope and defiance shown as a reaction to post World War II devastation filtered through the pop culture genki/energetic characters that Daichi specializes in. Without ever exploiting its subjects, Now and Then, Here and There delves into deeply disquieting material. Unlike a lot of anime, the anime is never encouraged to wait in hopeful anticipation to see the shocking horrors of its apocalyptic situation. And, that's genuinely effective. As sappy as it sounds, it's anime that makes you appreciate your life. While my enthusiasm for spasmodic, staccato paced, reference humor driven anime comedies was ground down by the middle part of the last decade, I was impressed by Akitaroh Daichi's elf Princess Rane at the time. He then proved surprisingly capable of integrating fast twitch humor with genuinely heartfelt moments in his adaptations of shoujo manga Kodomo no Omocha and Fruits Basket. His chambara homage Tsukikage Ran was made a bit dull by formula familiarity, but applying that quick dynamism to the action made for some spectacular fights scene. The two Jubei-chan series, about a magical girl whose lovely eyepatch turns her into legendary swordsman Jubei Yagyu chained brilliant fights, character comedy and odd pathos for a pair of frequently overlook gems. His Makasete Iruka! (Grrl Power!) OVA was way too earnest, but Animation Runner Kuromi OVA remains must sees for their behind-the scenes look at the anime business.
Now and Then, Here and There takes a familiar anime trope - a school kid transported to a strange land, and turns it into something provocative and crushing in a way that is both true to and unexpected from someone as inclined to exuberance as Daichi. Shu, a school boy whose head strong optimism frequently lands him into trouble (bizarrely, the character is reused in Pokemon-esque Legendz) sees a strange girl watching the sun set from the top of a smoke stack, and he wastes little time climbing a neighboring stack to find out what she's doing. A military retrieval team arrives, and caught up in the confrontation, Shu is transports to a time of thin resource supplies and brutal strife. He ends up in Hellywood, a mechanized fortress housing a largely child conscript army that hopes to use the girls connection to water resources to fuel a final push in wiping out any opposition. Despite these familiar conceits, there is little sci-fi or magic in the anime. Instead, it concerns itself with the struggle of living under what are brutal, regrettably not fantastic condition. Interrogated then conscripted himself Shu sees and is subjected to humanity's worst; from abduction, rape, beating and torture to genocide. All the while he clings, at times desperately, to his optimism that if he can only live a bit longer, good things will happen. The 13 episodes are enough to form a long journey. Without resorting to graphic gore or salacious details, it doesn't shy away from the full force of the brutality being depicting. There is a sense of the flesh consequences of the action. Even the mentally resilient Shu is torn up physically, sporting the evidence of his abuse. Daichi makes it disturbingly tactile, with beads of sweat and small gestures; the way that head of Hellywood runs his fruit juice stained fingers over the face of the mystery girl before violently grabbing her by her hair or the scenes where Shu is seemingly left to die are about as abrasive as anything in anime. However, the most chilling depictions are of characters reactions and how they are changed by their trauma. This isn't the typical anime stress cracks, but a believable depiction of people who have deeply affected by abuse. A small, credible fascist system is put on display with children showed being bound into its mechanisms. Fan of Daichi's other work will find his brilliance in expressing human emotions in this series. He's mastered using pacing to set the tone of a moments. In the speedy hilarity of Kodocha or the drumming impact of Now and Then, he knows how to conduct the progression of a scene to bring the viewer along to the emotion he's looking for.
Maybe rivaled by the hate kicked up by my Guyver TV series review (who'd a thunk that THAT series would inspired a vocal response), the review of this column that prompted the most feedback was Gunbuster, which makes sense to me. Gunbuster is anime that trades in enthusiasm. It was made by anime fans, for anime fans, depicting an anime fan, blowing all that up to galaxy cracking scope. Like what I recently mentioned with the in a Dirty Pair review, and, before that, Fist of the North Star, my fondness here is not based on a nostalgia connection. I'd caught come Gunbuster in my early adult anime watching years, but I wasn't terribly impressed by its early parody of tennis anime Aim for the Ace that saw girls running laps around their school field in mecha, doing push-ups and pulling tires. It wasn't until the Bandai Visual DVD release that I saw the whole six episode OVA (if you think anime on DVD has had some iffy value propositions, particularly when priced by Japanese entities like Bandai Visual, you should have seem what you got for the price on VHS. Beyond not being sold on it, I think the price was the main reason I dropped Gunbuster the first time around. ) Gainax (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gurren Lagann) grew out of a university sci-fi club that jumped into anime by producing the still remarkableDaicon conventional opening shorts. (See Yasuhiro Takeda's Notenki Memoirs for something approaching the complete story). Cementing their reputation as the geek studio, after Gunbuster, Gainax would go on to make Otaku no Video, a fictionalized indoctrination into the world of obsessive anime fandom. Given this background, Gunbuster can be said to be an early example of a work of anime from talent that came into the industry after growing up as fans. Enabled by the funds flowing into direct to video OVA productions, Gainax were able to produce giant robot anime that was a passion project and not just that season's commercial for the latest toy release. As a result, from start to finish, Gunbuster has the hallmarks of anime driven by, as Gunbuster's characters would put it, "hard work and guts", rather than over-conceived marketing dictates. I've been critical of the anime being made for people who have grown up as anime fans by people who grown up as anime fans. In its over refinement, the product of that echo chamber has grown stale. And yet, while it waries the hard core audience for anime and pushes out non-hardcore viewers, it’s what the industry is fostering. On one hand, given the low wages in the field, only anime zealots go into anime these days. On the other, the risk and difficulty of creating anime has meant that producers need to go for perceived sure-fire bets... such as devoted fans. However, that's now, about three decades into that movement, while Gunbuster (1988) was far closer to its inception. (An earlier work like 1982's The Super Dimension Fortress Macross looked back to staff-admired series like Space Battleship Yamato and could be thought of as step on that road.) Gunbuster is clearly the fruits of an imaginative genre-fan's mind. The central conflict pits enormous, in size and quantity, fleets of human ships against legions of space creatures. Gainax allows themselves a carte blanche for what they can put onto the screen and then they deliver on the promise. With a host of "it would be nice if..." scenarios played out on screen, as immense gun banks open fire on Lovecraftian scale insect/sea creature/bacteria organisms, Gainax lives up to the potential of knowing, talented fans, heading a genre production.
The Japanese name for Gunbuster, Aim for the Top! or Top O Nerae! even looks like the name of tennis anime Aim for the Ace! or Eesu wo nerae!? The spectacle of girls running around a high school track and performing calisthenics in boxy robots is at least as silly as it was intended to be. However, most American anime fans don't have the familiarity or the least the affection for sports anime that original Japanese viewers might. Not knowing Aim for the Ace! from Happy! (Naoki Urasawa's tennis work), it is hard to get more than mild baffled amusement out these early scenes. The protagonist Noriko Takaya is what you might expect from a sports anime: hammy and earnest, a slow learner at the tail end of the pack (also an anime fan), but also evidently gifted. And, she's the daughter of a hero, an admiral killed in one of the first battles in space.) Perhaps because of this connection, the coach pairs her with the school's "Rose Queen" Kazumi Amano, an older, more graceful, genius mech pilot. Even when Noriko and Kazumi are sent into space in preparation for fighting, the tone is still initially irreverent. Their foes are called Uchuu Kaijuu or Space Monsters (and in later, extra-anime sources, referred to as the STMC or Space Terrible Monster Crowd), a name that is both silly and in keeping with 80's "Evil Empire" rhetoric. The sports/school rivalry metaphor is maintained with the introduction of Jung Freud, an arrogant, fiery, Soviet-by way of the moon (literally), prodigy. Then Gainax, and Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno begin turning everything on its head. Almost 20 years later, it's no new trick to start an anime series down a comfortable formula path, then subvert the formula by getting into the heads of the leads and demonstrating the devastating toll that those formula events would yield. With Evangelion later invoking the same serious minded look at its characters' psyches, Gunbuster retroactively became thought of as the proto-Evangelion. It's hard to argue Evangelion wasn't one of the most important anime titles of the 90's. In its wake, it left an effect similar to that of Watchman and Dark Knight Returns on American comics. Dark and tragic became the obvious mode for stories and implementations became lazy. For Gunbuster, not only is its evolution no longer novel, for viewers who became tired of post-Evangelion anime, it has reservations to overcome. Yet, after having seen the derivative works, holding it up against its descendants, by powerfully telling a very human story through science fiction, Gunbuster still commands attention. Still devastatingly effective, it is still a classic. The power of Gunbuster is in its vivid demonstration of the decisions these characters make. It is difficult to think of its conclusion without getting choked up to some degree. That the characters aren't brilliantly unique or likable is beside the point. They are well realized personalities, and what the anime does do is convincingly display what their mission does to them. The viewer can see that these characters know what they are doing and know the consequences of their action on their own lives. The universe of Gunbuster is subject to a lot of knowingly inventive physics. Post episode science lesson shorts feature stubby super deformed versions of the characters giving "everyone knows" inside-joke filled lectures about ether and near light speed travel. Yet, what affects the characters most deeply is the hard sci-fi-ish effects of relativity during high speed travel. Early on Noriko and Kazumi spend a few minutes too long engaging the enemy on a moving, deserted war ship. When they return to their staging location, six months had passed. Returning home from their first campaign in space, a decade had passed. Their friends were older, and had new outlooks on life.
While this sounds a bit like Forever War and more recently the anime Voices From a Distant Star, the dramatic nature of time dilation is different for the protagonists of Gunbuster. From their point of view, the war is not a protracted conflict. In Noriko's perspective time frame, the whole series covers about a year. Fighting the enemy is not without its loses, but for the protagonists, the journey is more of a sacrifice than the fight. Every time they engage the enemy, they leave the world they knew behind. The foes, the Space Monsters, are said to be the universe's version of white blood cells, seeking to wipe out the infection of humanity. For the people on Earth, it does seem like an unending war. Perpetually in fear of extinction, the Earth-bound humanity who aren't actively fighting do change to a degree that might shock Noriko and even her commanding officers. While I regret that you only get to watch Gunbuster for the first time once, I am pleased that it retains plenty of residual impact that can be recalled by just hearing the march that accompanies the titular giant robot's entrance. Gurren Lagann looked a bit like Gainax's attempt to supersede Gunbuster's blow up the planets, blow up solar systems, blow up the galaxy, blow up the characters' lives escalation, but this original screams and holds off the assault. Gainax mastered their tools. They had sci-fi concepts established in the genre, like time dilation and bug aliens. They had the conventions of other anime, such as all the giant robot stuff. Taking full advantage of the medium's ability to match the scale of their imagination, they erected a monument. Macross Plus opens by proclaiming "dedicated to all pioneers..." Gunbuster might as well be dedicated to all enthusiasts. Maybe not so important, but still thrilling.