Let’s talk Diebuster. Warning: spoilers for Gunbuster! Also, not safe for work! Maybe?
Aim for the Top 2!, known colloquially as Diebuster, has what you might call a strange heritage. On one hand, it’s the sequel of legendary Gainax OVA Aim for the Top (or Gunbuster) and continually pays homage in ways that range from obvious to inspired. On the other hand, half of the writing credit goes to Yoji Enokido, the infamous writer of everything from the classics FLCL and Revolutionary Girl Utena to the legendarily terrible Melody of Oblivion. So instead of talking about the science, the space monsters or the constant misdirection, we’re going to talk about sex.
Fan service is not foreign to Studio Gainax. Not only did Gunbuster feature a not insignificant quantity of the so-called “Gainax Bounce” (read: extremely detailed breast movement) but it also featured a number of scenes in which the female protagonists lounged around in the nude. We’re not talking about today’s steam-obscured fan service scenes either; while Noriko and friends lounged around in the bath, Gunbuster left nothing to the imagination. So it’s both impressive and a little scary that in some ways, the fan service is even more gratuitous in Diebuster. Not only does the show dress up Nono, its heroine, in what is essentially a maid costume for most of the first episode, but it also features a scrubbing scene, “camera” shots emphasizing the various parts of the show’s female characters, and a homage to Gunbuster’s greatest moment of fan service/drama, where Nono literally tears off the front of her dress to free herself from her bonds.
Leave it at that, and this looks very much like Gainax pandering to its base. The problem is that the aforementioned Yoji Enokido, even in his lesser works, always plays a deeper game. Many of them riff on sexual imagery, from FLCL’s explosive reimagining of adolescence, to Revolutionary Girl Utena’s high-school rituals within rituals. Look at Diebuster through this lens, and it becomes pretty clear that Yoji Enokido’s love of double entendres is alive and kicking. Observe:
See that thing in the last picture? I’m pretty sure it’s a direct reference to FLCL, a show that had just as much to do with people trying to prevent embarrassing “overflow” as it did with crazy things coming out of their heads. I’m not sure whether Diebuster takes place in the same universe as FLCL, although I have heard that the so-called Fraternity mentioned in both shows may be one and the same. It’s interesting, though, to note that in Episode 2, our captain with his phallus for a hat and his oddly-designed space ships are destroyed by the Space Monsters. They may be adults, riding high in their chariots of masculinity, but pit them against the impossible and they fail. It takes someone who has not yet reached their full potential, a boy or a girl without limits, to “aim for the top” and defeat the enemy. A “Topless,” say.
The first episode of Diebuster proves in just a handful of scenes how powerful Topless can be; people who can summon giant robots from nowhere, or even INAZUMA KICK giant space monsters without a giant robot, are not to be messed with. But it isn’t until Episode 2 that we see how Topless are perceived by other people. It’s an episode filled with voyeurism, from the meta level—we the viewers are subject to continued fanservice at Nono’s expense—to the literal, with the three Martians Nono meets in the first episode obsessively watching her on a video screen as she contorts herself trying to sneak into a giant robot. But all that’s nothing to the attention that her superior and perhaps mentor, Princess Lal’C, receives from the staff of the Flagship Lalahcharn. The crowd adores her, partially because she’s good-looking but also because she’s a high-ranking, empowered official with greater capabilities than any of them will ever have for the rest of their lifetimes.
Most importantly, Lal’C is young. And in the world of Diebuster, youth brings unlimited power. The captain of the Lalahcharn—who looks very much like a certain man with impressive eyebrows from FLCL—notes that when he was young, he too aspired to be a Topless and contract with the mysterious Fraternity. When he and his men see Lal’C, they don’t just see an object of lust; they see a body of boundless, terrifying potential that is made only more alluring by the fact that they once owned and lost that potential themselves. Look at it that way, and it’s Youth that’s being fetishized here, not just Lal’C. Not only that: if you pay attention to her expression during that scene, it’s clear that feelings run both ways. The crowd calls Lal’C’s name, and for just a split second she lets her guard down and enjoys it. She knows that she is in control, and for all her great power and responsibility she’s only human.
While the original Gunbuster used its fan service without irony, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Diebuster puts us into the shoes of the voyeur. Every time Nono’s legs kick in the air and the Martians watch with glee, we do too. Every time the camera pans suggestively from Lal’C’s lower body upwards and the crew of the Lalahcharn unabashedly stare, we do too. This theory doesn’t entirely check out; the male Topless we meet in the first two episodes is not sexualized to anywhere near the same degree as Nono and Lal’C are. But think about it: if the amount of attention a character receives from the “camera” in Diebuster indicates a character’s so-called power levels, then does the fact that Nono is so far the most brazenly sexualized character indicate that she is secretly the most powerful member of the entire cast? Is Diebuster drawing attention to the fact that we, as viewers, honestly aren’t much different from the predominantly male chorus who view these girls as something beyond themselves?
Japanese anime is full of young men and women who challenge the heavens with their limitless potential. Call them champions of justice, Topless or whatever you like. Gunbuster was one such anime, and Diebuster would be another if it wasn’t for the sting in the tail: Topless who “expire,” says the captain of the Lalahcharn, are no longer Topless. If the heroines of Gunbuster found themselves trapped in eternal youth as their solar system grew old, the Topless of Diebuster spend every waking moment fighting against the flow of time. Noriko, Shinji, Naota—they are all Gainax protagonists frozen in the memory, perpetually young. But one day, the Topless of Diebuster will grow old. And then, they will no longer be heroes. The viewers, in-universe and out, will abandon them, and that will be that.
It’s shockingly grim subtext for a series titled “Aim for the Top!” That, or it’s all just a thinly veiled attempt at legitimizing standard anime sexual exploitation. But in the end, it’s all Gainax, and I wouldn’t expect anything less.