Spoilers ahead, but this show is at least 30 years old so I have no qualms.
Streaming services seem to be the in thing these days. The BBC has been muttering about becoming streaming-only in the not too distant future. Of course their iPlayer service has been around for a while now (the interface is still terrible), and is now much more than a catch-up service. The independent TV channels here in the UK have been offering catch-up for a while, but now ITV has launched a full-scale streaming service, ITVX. There is loads of material there, much of which I have no interest in. I suspect that if you want to binge-watch Coronation Street from the very early days then you can do so. But what about SF&F content?
Much to my astonishment and delight, I see that they are offering some Gerry Anderson shows. You can get Season 1 of Captain Scarlet, and even a selection of Fireball XL5 shows. There is also some anime, and the reason I know about ITVX at all is that someone on Twitter mentioned that they have Gunbuster.
I know very little about anime, but Kevin occasionally tries to educate me. Also I have Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy whom I can call upon if I need an expert opinion. Years ago Jonathan told me that I needed to watch Gunbuster because it was something of an ur-series as far as mecha stories are concerned. I’ve been looking for it ever since, and now, thanks to ITVX, I’ve been able to watch it.
Wikipedia, which is probably correct on this as there are too many anime fans out there eager to pounce on errors, tells me that the series was the directorial debut of Hideaki Anno, who went on to produce Neon Genesis Evangelion. The Japanese title of the show was Aim for the Top!, which was in part a nod to a tennis-based anime called Aim for the Ace!, and partly by the Tom Cruise movie, Top Gun, both of which were inspirations. The tennis thing explains a lot of the weirdness.
The basic plot is that Earth has encountered a race of space monsters (Uchuu Kaijuu) that is bent on wiping out all other forms of life. Earth’s defenses rely in part on space-ships in the form of giant robots piloted by teenagers. It doesn’t have to make sense.
The story begins with Noriko Takaya at high school learning to become a robot pilot. She’s useless at it, but because her father was an admiral in the space navy who died in the first contact with the aliens she gets to be one of the two girls from Japan selected to go into space. The other successful pupil is the beautiful, competent and talented Kazumi Amano. The decision as to which girls to send is made by their trainer, Koichiro Ohta, a survivor from the first contact battle, whom the girls all call “Coach” because this is a tennis-based TV show.
Much of the rest of the series is centered around Noriko learning to let go of her fear and embrace self-confidence. Once she does she will become a champion tennis player, er, robot pilot. Kazumi is mostly an ally, but she fears that Noriko’s lack of confidence will get people killed. There’s also a hot-shot Russian girl pilot with the somewhat ridiculous name of Jung Freud who is sometimes a friend and sometimes desperate to out-do the two Japanese girls. And there’s a boy pilot called Smith who gets fridged to give Noriko some motivation.
Much to my surprise, the show only has 6 episodes. The story is mostly wrapped up in the first five as Noriko evolves from frightened kid to savior of the solar system. Eventually she and Kazumi get to pilot the new, experimental mecha called Gunbuster which is two separate spaceships that can combine to form a giant robot. Billions of alien spaceships stand no chance against them.
Although the tennis anime and Top Gun are cited as influences, it is clear that the scriptwriters were SF fans. The Earth spaceships are armed with photon torpedoes, so someone had been watching Star Trek. They had probably also read The Forever War, because issues of relativistic time feature large towards the end of the series.
I’m assuming that the show influenced a lot of later anime shows, but you can see themes from it cropping up in modern SF too. The ending of the Valerie Valdes space opera trilogy I’ve been reviewing happily has a big nod to mecha stories. There may also be a plot point from Gunbuster in Charlie Jane Anders’ Unstoppable! space opera series.
If this is all there was to Gunbuster then I’d be telling you that it is kind of fun, probably important historically, and has a few unnecessary soft porn scenes, and ridiculous costumes for the female pilots. But there is also episode 6.
By this time the issues of relative passage of time have come to the fore. Noriko’s best friend from school, Kimiko, does not go into space. When our heroes return from saving the solar system, 10 years have passed on Earth and Kimiko has a young daughter. This sets the scene for the final episode.
After episode 5, Kazumi goes back to Earth to marry Coach Ohta, who is dying of radiation sickness. Jung takes her place in the Gunbuster. Episode 6 is set 15 years later, after Ohta has died. Earth has turned Jupiter into a giant black hole bomb, with which they plan to destroy the aliens once and for all. Kazumi volunteers to pilot it. Inevitably Noriko and Kazumi end up risking their lives to ensure that the bomb goes off as planned. They are caught in the shock wave, and when they get back to Earth 2000 years have passed.
The entire episode is in black and white, as if to indicate that this is the serious, adult episode, and it thoroughly warrants that treatment (save for an entirely unnecessary flash of naked boob). The contrast with earlier episodes is stark, which makes the ending all the more effective. I was impressed.