After following this series via fansub I was keen to revisit the second Gainax tale of Angsty Girls in Space battling hoardes of invading alien space monsters in order to save the Earth. As with the 1988 OAV Gunbuster: Aim for the Top!, Gunbuster 2 is a six part series with epic battles, personal drama, questionable science and cheeky fan service; with the high production values and big names in the staff credits it is a fitting celebration for the studio’s twentieth anniversary too (more so than the forgettable This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, it has to be said). Unlike the first series the director’s chair is occupied not by Hideaki Anno but by FLCL’s Kazuya Tsurumaki so the end result is, in the simplest of terms, an old Gainax story retold in the style of the new.
Gunbuster 2 is indeed a direct sequel of the first series but has the same bold artwork and frenetic, exaggerated but gloriously fluid animation that gave life to FLCL; long-standing Gainax fanatics (the key target audience I suspect) will immediately recognise Yoshiuki Sadamoto’s character designs as well. Overall it’s stylistically very different from its predecessor but nevertheless I have no complaints in that respect at all: the colours are vibrant, the characters expressive and the attention to detail paid to the mecha and backgrounds are all very impressive indeed.
Story- and concept-wise this series intentionally borrows a lot from the first while also going to great lengths to set it apart. You still have the clumsy female lead (in this case the pink-haired android Nono), the much-admired older-sister figure (Buster Machine pilot Lal’C) and swarms of bizarre, insect-like space monsters; this take on the Gunbuster story however takes the idea of the Fraternity organisation and its team of elite Topless pilots (the name not referring to their dress sense but…I don’t know actually. Certainly not the way they dress at any rate) fighting against invading aliens but turns the premise cleverly on its head.
The story really comes into its own in the second half: exchanging comedy and generic plot devices for genuine drama and gleefully over-the-top space combat, the somewhat weak and shakily directed introduction is made up for by this fight for survival that does the original proud. The sheer scale of the conflict is staggering: I don’t want to spoil things but I would like to draw attention to the title of the fifth episode being ‘Mover of Planets’.
Gunbuster 2 also pays loyal homage to the first series by keeping up the tradition of references, in-jokes and name-dropping; it has nearly sixteen years of potential parody material on the original of course so includes some inevitable Evangelion and FLCL lampooning moments as well. Sometimes this works in the show’s favour, such as the eyecatch jingles and Kouhei Tanaka’s musical score, all of which feature familiar-sounding tunes amongst some new pieces; not to mention the fantastic way in which the storyline ties up with the original towards the end. Sometimes though the new series, perhaps inevitably, cannot escape the original’s shadow. It is all well and good recreating character dynamics in honour of what went before but this restricts them to the tried-and-tested situations and archetypes of the clumsy girl, aloof girl and competitive girl (remember too that the first had strong parody and homage elements to even older shows too) that were explored the first time around.
If you haven’t seen the first Gunbuster series some of these details might fly over your head; the full implications of the final episode or two would certainly be lost on you. As a stand-alone series it is still recommended on a superficial entertainment level, but the close-up character introspection and tender moments that made the first series such a masterstroke as a character piece are lost in the visual spectacle. Interestingly it was the fourth episode, the turning point for me at least, whose storyboard was drawn by none other than Anno himself – whether or not the emotional power of the original Gunbuster would have transferred to this one had he been more closely involved I honestly couldn’t say but by the end my enjoyment of the series it on its own merits was tempered by comparisons with the series it was celebrating.
All this may sound as if I was disappointed by Gunbuster 2 but as a fan of Gainax and ‘old school’ dramatic science fiction I still found it immensely entertaining – the visuals look wonderful, the technobabble makes much more sense the second time around and I was still grinning like an idiot at the references and the experience of seeing the story take space warfare to unprecedented – not to mention implausible – levels.
Bolder, brighter and more colourful than the first series, Gunbuster 2 nevertheless loses some of the subtlety and character depth that made the original such a fan favourite. Those who are familiar with the 1988 OAV will get the most out of this but it’s still a fun tribute to the classic tales of the human spirit. It seems that hard work and guts are still what matter most…especially in the face of millions of Space Monsters.