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Gunbuster vs. Diebuster: Aim for the Top! - The Gattai

Bandai // Unrated // December 9, 2008
List Price: $99.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted December 18, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
I guess it can be looked on as comforting in a way to know that the straight-to-video knockoff is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Japan, too, is into home video product that never saw the broadcast or theatrical light of day, as evidenced by the strangely popular Gunbuster series, which first came out on VHS in 1988 as what is perhaps optimistically and colorfully described as an OVA (original video animation). The original six episode OVA was then recut as the Gunbuster "film" in this collection, which also includes the sequel Diebuster and an extra Blu-ray of bonus features. While the two OVAs (OVUMs?) are at times charming and fun, anime has come so far so fast since 1988 (and even 2004, when Diebuster in its original incarnation was released) that only die(buster)-hard fans are going to find enough in this set to make it a worthwhile purchase.

I've long felt there's some sort of sociological treatise waiting to be written on some of the standard operating plotlines and characters used in so much anime. Gunbuster and Diebuster have many of these in abundance. We have, for example, the young female heroine(s), the icky hoards of space monsters about to attack earth, as well as the mechas (AKA giant fighting robots), into which our spunky distaff warriors clamber in order to take on the various alien invaders. The problem is, while Gunbuster at least may have been among the first wave to deal with all of these elements, it seems hopelessly passé and out of date now, left in the dust of such visually superior fare as Vexille, which covers much the same territory. Cultish fans of Gunbuster have long held it up as a paradigm of an anime that traverses generations (more easily than some, as Noriko, the main character, experiences "time dilation" by flying at the speed of light, aging minimally while decades pass on earth). Gunbuster also posits a competitive high school academic pilot training environment that's been seen since in several other animes, but again, by this time, a lot of the ingenuity and originality has simply lost its luster, for better or worse.

Gunbuster, cobbled together as it is, and not very artfully at times, is also hampered by its full frame image which too often curtails what its creators obviously hoped was an epic scope of the production. This simply looks like a mid to late-80s Japanese anime television production, which for all intents and purposes it was. Making Gunbuster all the more unfathomable is the final "episode," which is suddenly in an enhanced 1.78:1 aspect ratio, but in black and white. It may have been a stylistic choice that seemed good on paper (so to speak), but it robs the climax of the story from being totally involving, especially when the final few moments dissolve once again into color. Was this a budgetary issue? Otherwise, what was the point? The climax is also strangely static, due to some still frames, that just had me scratching my head for most of the segment.

Thankfully things pick up considerably in Diebuster, a 2004 OVA sequel that at least moves the franchise visually into the 21st century. Following much the same storyline as Gunbuster (with a neat little denouement that ties both of them beautifully together), Diebuster follows the exploits of Nono who, like Noriko in Gunbuster, wants to become a space pilot to fight off the bad guy aliens. The mecha in this outing are considerably more advanced, almost conscious, creatures that rely less on the humans inhabiting them than they did in Gunbuster. Diebuster is head and shoulders above Gunbuster in its visual presentation, with everything from some very evocative looking snow scenes early in the production to some cool, if not overwhelmingly so, space battles featuring laser cannons taking on huge jagged beasts that reminded me (I'm about to date myself, sorry) of "The Invisible Monster" in a long ago episode of Jonny Quest.

Both of these features offer a smattering of science fact mixed in with the more standard anime tropes. The theory of relativity's conclusions vis a vis time standing still if you travel at the speed of light is handled with quite a bit of intelligence, and indeed even poignance, in both Gunbuster and Diebuster. In fact, without posting a spoiler, the final scene of Diebuster is an ingenious little riff on various timelines that gives some unexpected emotional punch to the wind down of both stories.

What both of these films lack, Gunbuster especially (probably due to its age), is any really innovative take on its subject matter. While both films certainly do well at depicting "girl power," and how belief in oneself can overcome formidable odds, it's not enough to sustain events, let alone consistently entertain. I'm sure that those who got Gunbuster when it first came out saw it as a breath of fresh air, but time really has not been kind to it. Though its original voice cast members returned to help rerecord segues for this edited version, the whole thing has a sort of patchwork quilt feel to it that repeatedly keeps it from becoming as involving as it might have been. Frankly, I wonder if releasing the six episode versions of both of these OVAs would have been the better choice. If Diebuster hangs together decidedly better than its "parent," it, too, has an episodic feel that seems to lurch from battle to battle with little if any character development in between, something that the longer version at least touched on.

Sometimes the passage of time lends a certain charm to shows that are otherwise too redolent of their eras. As trailblazing as Gunbuster may have been in its day, it's simply been ripped off and/or built upon (depending on your frame of reference) too often since the late 1980s for anyone to be very surprised by anything that happens in it. With so many shows coming after it that featured a more compelling visual component, as well as frankly cooler mecha and aliens, Gunbuster seems as cliché-ridden as one of the films it alludes to in its title--Top Gun. At least in the anime we don't need to suffer through Tom Cruise and "Take My Breath Away," so there's always something to be thankful for.

The Blu-ray

You get a little this-a and a little that-a with this release, offered in a 1080p MPEG 4 AVC codec, but with various aspect ratios. Gunbuster arrives mostly in 1.33:1, with the final few minutes in 1.78:1. Diebuster is entirely in 1.78:1. Both of the films are fine looking, though Gunbuster is simply unremarkable, frankly, owing both to its less than compelling animation and its full frame aspect ratio. Diebuster is much more involving, with some beautiful moments sprinkled throughout more run of the mill fare. Colors and fine line detail are very strong in both of these features, with Diebuster's palette considerably more varied and engaging than Gunbuster's.

In an unusual twist for anime released stateside, there are no English audio tracks, simply two quite excellent Japanese tracks, a True HD 5.1 and a PCM 2.0. The 5.1 track shines best in the battle sequences in both of these films, with lots of ambient sound effects and occasional good use of LFE. Dialogue in both of these features is directionally well handled, if at times surprisingly boxy sounding. There's a noticable change in the newly recorded bridging segments not entirely due to the changes in the voice artists' voices in the intervening years since the original productions. The PCM 2.0 mix is actually quite excellent, if obviously not as immersive as the 5.1. English and French subtitles are available.

A third bonus disc of extra features is included which offers some background on both the OVA themselves as well as the adaptation efforts that resulted in these "films." There's nothing exceptionally interesting here, other than some interviews with the voice artists that rabid fans will no doubt enjoy, but overall a good, solid overview of these projects is given for those that want the whole story. Strangely, although this is a Blu-ray, most of the features are in an unenhanced 1.78:1 ratio.

Final Thoughts:
Gunbuster fanatics are going to snap this one up no matter what paltry l'il me might say about it. For the rest of you with perhaps a less obsessive interest in anime, the second outing Diebuster probably has more of what the casual fan might be looking for. Gunbuster, unfortunately, simply hasn't aged that well, no doubt exacerbated by the many intervening films that have utilized a lot of its ideas. Curious videophiles will probably want to Rent It to gauge their particular interest level before springing for an outright purchase.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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