What it’s about: For ten years, Humanity has been at war with an alien menace, a space-borne race with innumerable ships and whose only aim is the consumption of stars and the destruction of mankind. Noriko’s father was killed in one of the first fleet actions of the war, and now she trains in the hope of fighting back from the cockpit of a combat mech.
Why you should watch it: Gunbuster’s main claim to fame is being the directorial debut of Hideki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion). This sells it a bit short, though – the show stands on its own two legs as a great example of 80s “giant robot” battlers. Noriko’s journey from her time as a trainee to her final battle is well mapped-out, and the audience gets to see her struggle and overcome her fears, feelings, and failings, as well as the various perils of space combat. One particularly impressive element is the show’s use of realistic time-dilation as a plot point. On top of the dangers they face in the fight itself, they know that every battle drags them farther away from home.
Caveats: The first episode is a deliberate parody of the tennis show Aim for the Ace!. If you haven’t seen it before going in, this is the reason for the absurd mecha gymnastics and sports-show storyline. Things do pick up in later episodes, but it exacerbates the problems of a short run-time – the emotional impact that events have on Noriko doesn’t match up with the audience’s experience because we’re not given enough time for things to soak in. Finally, Gunbuster is very much a product of its time; the soundtrack and the visual aesthetics are pure 1980s. Be prepared for cheese. And random nudity.
Themes: Mortality and the transience of life. Even in a worthwhile cause, time is spent faster than you might think. But the relationships people forge are truly eternal.
Similar works:* The follow-up Diebuster is a good place to start. Otherwise, Knights of Sidonia for another standard mecha vs alien show, or Neon Genesis Evangelion for more of Anno’s vision of how the genre should work. Outside of anime, Ender’s Game bears a lot of similarities.