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Bandai // Unrated // February 20, 2007
List Price: $64.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted December 26, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Background: Fans of anime are often grouped into a limited number of sub-categories based on their favorite shows and viewing habits. I tend to like a lot of different types of anime so my own tastes are difficult to define (having been raised on Americanized versions until the 1980's; with Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Star Blazers, and Force Five, being among the titles I enjoyed over the years until then). Still, as the market expands, marketing niches make it easy for companies and reviewers alike to describe some of the tenants of a particular title in an easier form, noting that your mileage may vary considerably. One of my favorite mech-robot titles from the mid-1990's was Neon Genesis Evangelion, a series that explored a darker version of anime, one where not only were things not as they seemed but even the good guys had serious instabilities and faults. When I researched the title for review, I found that its director, Hideaki Anno, had started out with a title only now making it to the USA on DVD, an OVA title called Gunbuster. Having watched it on VHS years ago (the show came out in the 1980's), I recalled that it was centered on a couple of high school gals bent on becoming space pilots but little else. Well, this advance review (the 3 DVD set comes out in February) reminded me of why I like the DVD format and why I remember the original releases being one of the first subtitled shows I ever watched.

Series: Gunbuster is a six episode OVA that started off with a glimpse into the life of Okinawa Girls' Space Pilot High School (OGH) in the year 2015. The main character is a clumsy gal by the name of Noriko Takaya, whose father was the commander of a space fleet wiped out in the Cygnus constellation by a ravaging horde of Space Monsters. The Luxion fleet was thought to be extremely powerful yet the short battle left only a sole survivor, Koichiro Ohta, a man who later plays a valuable role as the Coach and head instructor at the school. Noriko seems to be unable to handle the most basic of moves in her training robot but some spark of potential is evident to the coach, who then places her with the top student of the school, a gal named Kazumi Amano. The talents of the two gals are woefully mismatched but the coach insists on elevating them both to become the newest pilot candidates for the Top Squadron.

Due to Noriko's poor skills, there are cries of nepotism and favoritism made over her appointment, with Noriko herself unable to grasp why she was picked by the quiet, single minded Coach. A Russian upperclassman by the name of Jung Freud challenges Noriko to a fight, with the obvious result being the younger candidate feeling even more inadequate. On an early mission to explore an approaching vessel, Noriko and Kazumi eventually find out more details about the Luxion Massacre but ultimately, the enemy forces continue to amass a large number of creatures to attack the Earthlings. The response by the humans is predictable, build more weapons and train more pilots, with an early engagement costing the fleet tremendous losses yet again, Noriko never even firing a shot to defend one of her newfound friends that she was backing up.

The back and forth between Noriko and Kazumi continues as they are selected to pilot the massive robot weapon called Gunbuster; a device comprised of two separating ships with more firepower then any ship before. When the enemy comes close to wiping out the fleet, Noriko pilots it alone and manages to stave off the forces of evil for a short time, leading her to train ever harder for the coming larger battles. Without going into too much detail, the battles were not as exciting as current anime robot fighting shows are known for but as an early attempt at some decent battles, particularly battles starring female pilots as the leads, this was a ground breaking enterprise by most standards.

Another thing that enhanced the show was how it attempted to combine hard science with the science fiction plots; providing the first look at the concept of time dilation in a series. This means that as Noriko and some of her peers travel at extreme velocities, they are aging less rapidly then friends that are planet bound on Earth. A few seconds extra at the speed of light translate into months for those not moving so quickly, making lengthy journeys costly in terms of the human factor; those you've left behind aging increasingly fast compared to you. As an early anime embracing such concepts, I have to hand it to those involved for going the extra mile and making it work better than expected.

The down side to the show for me was how many of the formerly tough alien space monsters start to fall by the wayside when it comes to the later battles, they start to number in the billions (Yes, with a "B") and the human fleet, led by the Gunbuster, start mopping the floor with them easily, losing much of the impact of the fights. Further, the tactics employed to destroy wholesale numbers of the aliens struck me as unconvincing at best given the numbers and relative strengths involved. Still, this was one of the first anime titles well worth looking for nearly twenty years ago and a shame that it has not been available on DVD in region 1 sooner.

There was some fan service and the similarities between the robots, space monsters, and space ships to other contemporary titles has long been noted but this became a template of sorts for numerous shows by companies for years, including the aforementioned Neon Genesis Evangelion where the director fine tuned some of the concepts to flesh out for a full season of episodes. If you're an anime fan that likes giant robots, space travel, shojo anime, and climactic battles, you'll really appreciate Gunbuster enough to agree with me that the 3 disc set was worth a rating of Highly Recommended. When it finally comes out next year (in February 2007), I think a lot of fans are going to start hoping Bandai Visual acquires the rights to other classic series based solely on how solid this one looked for such an old show. You won't have to wait 12,000 years for it and the quality levels were such that I hope the OVA makes a number of new fans for the industry.

Picture: Gunbuster was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color for the first five episodes and a letterboxed widescreen black & white for the majority of the sixth episode as it was originally shot by director Hideaki Anno. The material being almost twenty years old and an early project for the newly formed Gainax studio (who were considered to be the second generation of anime lovers; having been raised on the previous, commercially driven titles of the time) so I wasn't expecting much but I was pleasantly surprised most of the time. There were some effects that bled on the screen and it wasn't always perfect but it was better looking than I remember the show years ago on tape. Exactly how much work went into restoring the OVA to as good looking a show as possible is unknown but it was decidedly crisper looking then sounding; owing to the reports that the original audio tapes for the show were long lost.

Sound: The audio was presented in 2.0 Linear PCM (pulse code modulated) Japanese with optional English subtitles (in two forms; regular subtitles or the sign versions only). There was no dub this time but the up side was that the remastered audio was clearer than I've ever heard it before, with a lot of cleaning up done to make it sound the very best. There was some separation on the channels, particularly during the battles and on the final episode of the OVA set, and the dynamic range was enhanced as well. The score was effective at conveying the mood of the characters and their surroundings, elevating the effectiveness of the show all that much more.

Extras: Most anime these days has weak extras; making me almost feel lucky when I get a production art gallery, some trailers, and a brief featurette. Well, Gunbuster has a lot to like with some promotional trailers being the least of the lot here. For me, the 24 page oversized booklet with character descriptions, artwork, and a detailed rundown of the six episodes was really well made. It provided some anecdotes and was made on glossy paper so it should last all but the clumsiest of fans. There were six short featurettes (two per disc) called Science Lesson's that attempted to explain some of the fictional science of the show, using the super deformed style of characters with Noriko and Kazumi as the leads (Coach jumping in routinely too). Each disc had a clip using a montage of images and animations from the series too, made separately but providing some background on what was going on. I only wish that the budget had allowed the final episode of the OVA to have been done in full anime rather then use a black & white series of static shots and voice over's to finish up the story (dramatic it might have been but it still looked cheap). All of this was contained in a fold out style case that went inside a cardboard box, making it an early runner for next year's top anime list in my opinion.

Final Thoughts: Gunbuster might not be as complex a tale or as brilliant looking as some of the newest series coming out of Japan but it was a true classic in the sense that all fans of large, mechanized robots should want to purchase a copy of their own. It helped to establish some of the archetypes of later series and further refine some of the concepts that are in use in current series even today, so going back to our roots helps us to truly understand where the industry has been and where it's going. I've seen some of the lame bootlegs available at conventions and in China Town's across the country that looked terrible by comparison, making this the definitive region 1 release of the material so it is with great pleasure that I suggest to you to prepare to pick up Gunbuster when it comes out in February. I think you will be happy with the amount of hard work that went into the 3 disc set; making it one of the best titles to start off the new year with.

If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.

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