Aim for the Top

I don’t expect your sympathy. Anime for you is a free choice. You find something to love and then you love it day after day, hour after hour. Modern technology has created binge fandom, consuming entire serials in marathon sessions. Some anime, like Gantz, seem tailored to this market, designed to be watched in real-time, without week-long gaps between episodes. Which is great, if you like it to begin with. Some anime, however, feel like you are trying to pull out your own teeth.

You can switch off. You can dismiss the awful Schoolgirl Milky Crisis and move on to something else, all memory gone of your wasted 25 minutes. I have to keep watching; it’s my job. Which is why I do my very best not to pull the term “classic” unless I’m really going to use it. A classic shouldn’t be some antique show the distributor acquired by accident and feels obliged to hype. It shouldn’t be some old has-been, shuffled onto a small screen where the age doesn’t show so badly. It should be something that stands the test of time. Something like Gunbuster.

For its wartime echoes and its maudlin pathos; for its superb voice-acting and peerless script; for its kamikaze students and its red-haired Russian bad girl; for the misleadingly dumb beginning, which lurches into a gripping space war drama; for all these things and more, Gunbuster is my favorite anime.

Gunbuster has shadowed me through every step of my career, all around the world. When I was at college in Japan, Gunbuster was the anime shown in Sociology as a discussion point on the Japanese school system. When I lectured on anime translation in Scotland, the US edition of Gunbuster was my object lesson in excellence; at an animation conference in Wales, I used it to demonstrate jiggling fan service at work; at a Norwegian film festival, it was my clip to demonstrate wartime analogies; at a Finnish convention, the last episode was used to show the power of black-and-white filmmaking. Ten years ago, Gunbuster was the litmus test of my independence, when, much as I adored it, I refused to work on a UK version that I disapproved of – missing footage, with pathetic extras and a poor transfer.

It was only a few years ago that a translator told me Tokyo audiences would simply not comprehend my references to Gunbuster. It was old news, he said. It was an obscure video show from the late 1980s, gone and forgotten. Now that the otaku generation are running the anime business, the latest edition of Gunbuster comes complete with scholarly sleeve notes calling it a landmark in anime history. Critic Ryusuke Hikawa argues that Gunbuster is the grandfather of much in modern anime – it has the passion of Evangelion, the yearning of Voices of a Distant Star, and the “fan service” and self-referentiality of Genshiken. It placed the token female of anime cliché front and center, cunningly twisting the traditions of girls’ entertainment for a new and unexpected purpose – entertaining boys.

Gunbuster has been hard to find for many years, tied up in rights issues. I’m glad it’s coming back. It feels like I’ve been waiting 12,000 years.

This article originally appeared in Newtype USA, October 2006. Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.