Gunbuster & Diebuster – Classics Transcending Generations

It’s funny to think that the very first work by Hideaki Anno I ever saw was Top wo Nerae! Gunbuster, or, Aim For the Top! Gunbuster and not Evangelion, what he is better known for. It’s even more surprising that I hadn’t even watched Eva fully until this past summer when it released on Netflix.

Gunbuster was Hideaki Anno’s directorial debut. A high-concept super-robot show that in many ways was the breeding ground for concepts and character dynamics that would later be fleshed out more in Evangelion. It’s looked back on as a classic of the ’80s.

16 years later, Kazuya Tsurumaki, the director famous for FLCL, made a sequel to Gunbuster, titled Top wo Nerae 2! Diebuster, which was different and I mean, very different. However, it was just as good as – if not arguably better than – its predecessor.

Unfortunately, its hard to find a physical copy of either that has both shows, each one six episodes long. For the longest time I wondered when either show would be released in their complete glory. After seeing a photo on twitter of someone’s Blu-ray collection, I realized they already both already had. The same Gainax 20th Anniversary line of which an Evangelion Blu-ray was part of had produced a Gunbuster/Diebuster OVA collection. Upon learning its existence I didn’t hesitate to buy it.

Oftentimes with sequels to classics, there is a lot of skepticism among fans. They can be divided over which is better, and yet, both shows are not only received well on their own but as a pair. They are often seen as equals that complement each other. It’s a rare occurrence indeed. The question becomes: How did two shows from radically different creators manage such a success? Furthermore, is one truly better than the other?

Noriko Takaya wants to be a space pilot so she can be just like her father, who tragically passed away while out in space years prior. Unfortunately, her skill in piloting mechs leaves a lot to be desired but that doesn’t stop her from being scouted by Commander Ohta, who served under her father. Under his tutelage, she’ll become a pilot fit to helm the strongest robot yet, the Buster Machine, Gunbuster.

Gunbuster is only six episodes, yet amazingly, that number seems just right for how they segment each of the major plot points. However, revisiting the series has made it clear to me that the first half is the weakest of the two, at least… somewhat.

From a world-building standpoint, the first three do a great job introducing the major rules which govern the science of this show. As typical of a lot of older sci-fi anime, the imaginative, complex machinery is a sight to behold and Anno definitely put a lot of thought into how this world works to make it feel believable.

However, sometimes early conflicts and key moments in Noriko’s arc can feel rushed or bogged down by conveniences. Plus – and I’m aware some die-hard fans may disagree with me – I think Noriko can be pretty annoying at times. Deep within, there is a great underdog learning to overcome fear and become a hero, but around episode three I was kinda getting fed up with her.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Noriko was a template for what Anno would later attempt with Shinji from Eva. Anno likes portraying characters who don’t have the quickest paths to becoming the heroes we look up to, if they become that at all. This can be frustrating for viewers but makes them a lot more fascinating when fully fulfilled. In the case of Noriko though, serious traumatic hangups were dealt with mostly fine, but other times her personality could be annoying.

Episode four is where the series goes from being pretty good to an instant classic. After mostly worldbuilding, we are only then introduced to the antagonists, simply referred to as Space Monsters. And soon after, the glorious reveal of Gunbuster. The fights are awesome, the mech’s abilities are badass, the ending gives me chills every time, and the famed Gainax pose was made legendary in that very episode.

Noriko Takaya, voiced by Noriko Hidaka

Around this point is where Gunbuster pays off all of the buildup beforehand and ends up inventing tropes that would be passed down not only through other Gainax shows, but the medium as a whole. Episode five rides the high from the previous one before episode six caps the series off with such a powerful conclusion as to be cinematic gold.

The entire finale is in black and white and follows through on Gunbuster‘s most interesting narrative device: time. Throughout the show, it is explained that as the characters use warp drive to traverse deep space, they travel further into the future. A big dramatic pull of the series, especially in the latter half, is the drama of leaving behind your life and possibly never seeing it again.

In this way, it is a precursor to the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in how it takes the sci-fi concepts and uses it to challenge the characters. It’s a phenomenal storytelling tool that motivates every important moment until the credits roll on the last episode.

Looking back, Gunbuster is one of those stories that ends on just enough of a high note to make me forgive it’s earlier missteps. There’s nothing about the first three episodes that is terrible, yet there is nothing which struck me as particularly gripping either until the fourth episode.

Despite that, I recommend it, to a larger extent because the second half is amazing and a heavily influential piece of media. To a lesser extent, though, I really can’t see anyone who operates on a three-episode rule dismissing the show when there are only three more past that threshold.

Still, if a 50/50 batting average still doesn’t sit well with you, maybe 100 might suit you better because all six episodes of Kazuya Tsurumaki’s Diebuster are great. Furthermore, I’m of the mind that both of these shows are best experienced together and 9 out of 12 sounds like a good deal, don’t it?

If Gunbuster is a time capsule of of the origins of mecha anime from the ’80s, then Diebuster perfectly encapsulates the early 2000s energy of anime. I wouldn’t say the tone is lighter considering how poppy the first few episodes of the original were, but the craziness has been dialed up considerably.

Groovin’ Magic (feat. Nino) by ROUND TABLE

Nono, a mysterious young girl living on Mars runs away from home to be a space pilot just like Nono-riri, someone Nono idolizes greatly. Unlike Noriko, she doesn’t have family connections to get her into the military, however. So, she ends up being a waitress in a sleazy mars diner until she meets Lal’c Melk Mark, a Buster Machine pilot.

Diebuster takes place so far into the future of Gunbuster‘s universe that it gets a lot of carte blanche to introduce radically new ideas. It takes place around 12,000 years in the future. In this future, Buster Machines are more numerous, but the pilots have changed in nature. Now, Buster Machines are semi-sentient, semi-organic behemoths. The pilots have naturally evolved to have the mental capacity capable of communicating with them and are called the “Topless.”

From a literal perspective, this title is a kind of assertion of the limitless potential the pilots have (like many Gainax protagonists). However, I like thinking this title is primarily in reference to Noriko’s unashamed exposure of her breasts in the final episode of Gunbuster. After all, if you’re producing an OVA and don’t have to worry about TV censorship, go big or go home.

Diebuster isn’t afraid of showing boobage this time either. In fact I would say director Tsurumaki added even more fanservice, though not overdone, save for perhaps some unnecessary shots in episode two. Overall, the comedic direction, animation, and character designs all look a lot more akin to FLCL‘s style. After all, it’s the same character designer, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the same man responsible for Eva‘s character designs.

Hoshi Kuzu Namida by ACKO

There is a school of thought when producing a sequel that you should call back to the original. Nowadays, this idea is shunned for how often projects rely too heavily on it without offering something new. Diebuster does these kinds of callbacks perfectly because the stories are inherently different but follow a similar outline.

If you line up both shows, certain plot elements happen around the same time and in the same episodes. Additionally, the characters fit similar roles compared to the original series. The main duo of both shows are meant to function in the same capacities, at least on the surface.

In Gunbuster, Noriko idolized Kazumi Amano, someone who from the outset is an ace pilot and whom Noriko refers to as Onee-sama (big sis, or elder sister). It’s meant to show her respect and admiration for her. In the same way, Nono idolizes Lal’c because of her position as the highest-ranking Topless. So she also calls Lal’c Onee-sama, though Lal’c is more apprehensive of the title than Kazumi was.

From left to right: Nicholas Vacheron, Tycho Science, Lal’c Melk Mark, Nono

A big theme of Diebuster is how jaded and almost detached the “heroes” of this future have become. The Topless are young people who have been born with the ability to pilot. They don’t all aspire to be in their positions bur rather have the aptitude for it. They become famous and they achieve a status that is something to be sought after by many. So when they reach a certain age and lose their abilities, it’s soul crushing. It’s almost seen as more of a curse.

Episode three follows Tycho, one of the other Topless, after she loses her Buster Machine and awaits being assigned to a new one. However, mirroring Noriko’s rivalry with Jung Freud in Gunbuster, Tycho is rivaling Nono for who gets to pilot the brand new Buster Machine that has just been put into production. This comes right on the heels of Tycho recklessly getting her original Buster Machine destroyed at the start of the episode.

Their rivalry follows many of the same steps as Noriko and Jung’s, but the resolution is vastly different. Whereas it never felt like Jung’s desire to become the pilot for Gunbuster got direct closure, choosing to focus on Noriko, Diebuster uses this small rivalry to say something much bigger.

Nono, voiced by Yukari Fukui

In the original, Noriko doubted herself and wanted to find the strength within to meet the standards of the heroes who were higher than her. In the sequel, it’s practically reversed. Nono aspires to be like her idol, and has great respect for the Topless for their abilities. However, whenever she talks about them like heroes and how it takes “hard work and guts” to reach the top, the Topless respond as if they have no idea what she’s talking about

Tycho’s story in episode three shows how the Topless don’t see themselves as heroes, because even with their power they can’t make everyone happy. Nono, despite not having a Buster Machine of her own for the first half like Noriko, is far more headstrong in her beliefs. She is the one who is showing the other characters the way to be a hero, by instilling the philosophy of the original series into a generation that has become jaded over time.

Similar to the first series, Diebuster ramps things up considerably after the fourth episode’s climax, introducing new threats that scale exponentially, leading up to a monumental finale. Nono’s ascension as a character puts the onus on Lal’c to grow herself.

Venturing into the second half, I was worried that the friendship between Nono and Lal’c would feel underdeveloped. After all, the bond between protagonist and Onee-sama is a major one. However, they do a good job of almost retroactively emphasizing the weight of time spent together over the implicit time they had.

Lal’c Melk Mark, voiced by Maaya Sakamoto

There isn’t necessarily text denoting how much time has passes between each episode, but one of my favorite things about Diebuster is the world and how everchanging it feels. Each of the six episodes feels like we are thrown right into select parts of a constantly evolving futuristic society.

No episode takes place in the same location. Things are constantly moving and there is an implicit idea that time has passed enough for characters to get to know each other more. Enough is shown through cutaways or flashbacks to validate those implications and give weight to the emotional highs of the story.

In the same way that the Topless are jaded in regards to their powers and their role in the world, the society in general has mixed feelings about them. The shifting relationship between governments and the Topless adds to that continuous feeling of change in the world.

Despite following a similar template as the original, Diebuster sets itself apart so distinctly in its themes and characters. Even though the two stories are so separated that the sequel could do whatever it wanted, it goes out of its way to tie the two together in a really clever and beautiful way.

The end of Diebuster is one of my favorite endings of all time. The energy with which the show concludes is romantic in a way. The heartful swelling of the soundtrack by Kouhei Tanaka makes my heart skip a beat each time I hear it. It’s more than fitting that he returned for the sequel having composed an already impressive track list for the first show. The conclusion does everything right and then goes beyond to pay homage to the original.

Enjoy Kouhei Tanaka’s 20-minute performance of the best tracks from the original series

It’s no surprise Anno wanted to work with Tsurumaki on the Evangelion Rebuilds after this phenomenal sequel. While the rebuilds are far from perfect, Tsurumaki’s imagination is a great fit for an attempt to follow up a series like Evangelion.

Diebuster does a lot of things that directly harken back to the original and arguably does it in a bigger and flashier way. That’s not what makes it good, though. What I love about it is how they are contextualized differently and mean something different. Tsurumaki constructs scenes and images that capture the imagination through how tangible their otherworldly scale is. This is just as much a testament to the script by Yoji Enokido, whose scripts always impress me whether original or adapted.

Watching Diebuster on Blu-ray was like a bump of coke right to the eyeballs. This OVA is astonishing to look at. The mechanical design by Sushio, Junya Ishigaki, and Shigeto Koyama is a league of its own, especially stuff like Lal’c’s Buster Machine Dix-Neuf. Never did I think a mech with a trenchcoat would be my jam but look at where we are.

Dix-Neuf, the only mech I know of that can pull of a trench coat

There are some shows I’ll rewatch and think “how did I not appreciate this more when I first saw it?” Since I first saw it a few years ago I’ve always looked back on it fondly for some of it’s best moments but I had forgotten a lot of it. I had to have either not been paying enough attention or I was an unappreciative little shit because after rewatching it I can safely say…

Top wo Nerae 2! Diebuster is a masterpiece.

So rarely do circumstances allow a sequel to such an old classic to truly flourish and be remembered as fondly as the original. Truly a perfect sequel, but one that can only be appreciated to its fullest when measured alongside its predecessor. So make it a double feature.

Top wo Nerae! Gunbuster is not currently available for legal streaming. However, Top wo Nerae 2! Diebuster is available for legal streaming through Retro Crush and Amazon Video.

Fun fact, I was originally going to end the revew comparing Diebuster to Blade Runner 2049 in how that followed up the original. However, I suddenly remembered that I literally already made that comparison in my review of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. It didn’t feel quite right to reuse such a bold comparison. Still, if you’re interested you can always check out that review. It’s another example of an excellent sequel.

What do you think of Gunbuster and Diebuster? Have a favorite? Love them both? If you haven’t watched, have I piqued your interest? Whatever the comment, leave it below. While you’re at it, tell me what sequels have pleasantly surprised you the most.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next week!

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