After a long wait, let’s talk Diebuster again. Now 200% more safe for work than the last post. FLCL and Revolutionary Girl Utena may also be discussed!
If the previous two episodes of Diebuster established the meaning of the word “Topless” as those invested with the infinite, but paradoxically fleeting, potential of youth, beloved by the populace and resented by adults, episodes 3 and 4 completely subvert and/or eviscerate everything we as the viewers thought we knew about what the word Topless actually means. It’s a reversal of expectations far above and beyond anything in the original Gunbuster, but one not too far removed from the ceaseless reinvention and carpet-pulling in Revolutionary Girl Utena, also written by Enokido. In fact, if these two episodes proved anything, it’s that while Diebuster is a clear successor to Gunbuster in the thematic sense, it is also very much imbued with Enokido’s trademark style and concerned with his chief obsessions as a writer: the pressures of male and female adolescence, the difficulty of “breaking the world’s shell” and the seemingly unattainable heights of maturity.
Pay attention to that last word: maturity. Much of Enokido’s work has struggled with what maturity actually means, how it can be quantified, and what separates the arrogant self-confidence of adolescence from the real thing. Utena revolved around a game played by typically dramatic teenagers in search of a means to “revolutionize the world,” organized by a so-called adult marooned in the gulf between childhood and adulthood. FLCL dealt with the age-old dilemma if whether it was better either to submit to the mundanity of the system and become a dumb, stupid adult like everybody else, or attempt to destroy it without care for the consequences and sacrifice everything you hold dear. Diebuster contains elements of both, but while tone-wise it might be closer to the surreal science fiction of FLCL than the groundbreaking shoujo of Utena. But thematics-wise, I think it might actually be the reverse. This is because FLCL was primarily about middle schoolers blindly reaching towards sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But Utena was set in a high school, and for all their supreme mental capacity and piloting skills, I’d be willing to bet that Diebuster’s Topless are essentially high schoolers.
Nono’s treatment at the hands of the other Topless makes this clear. For all her clumsiness, she isn’t a bad person. She’s sweet, loyal and extremely handy in a pinch. But simply because she lacks the “spark” to become a Buster Machine pilot like the rest of them, they exclude and even bully her. Even Lal’C, the girl who recognized her talent and brought her to the attention of the Topless unit in the first place, refuses to talk to her in public. This seems mean-spirited and out of place until you realize that Lal’C is probably doing this in order to keep up her perfect, unassailable image, at which point you realize that for all her skills, Lal’C really is a high schooler just like the others. In the end, Nono ends up doing the dirty work, sweeping out the pool by night while the rest of the Topless party inside of it by day. But don’t hold it against them; as the series continues, it becomes more and more clear that just like Utena’s supposedly elite Student Council, the Topless are, for all their social graces and piloting ability, profoundly limited.
“But wait!” you say. “I thought Diebuster established earlier that Topless are champions of justice, elite protectors of the people!” As a matter of fact, Lal’C says something very similar in episode three.
Despite the fact that they fly around in giant robots fighting “space monsters” (which are not actually space monsters at all; will be discussed later) the Topless are no less inclined to give heroic speeches than the rest of humanity. This little exchange here reveals that the Topless position isn’t just a boon, it’s a job. People aspire to it, and then once they attain it they rapidly become bored with the pomp and ceremony that enraptured them in the first place. What Nono sees as a grand and noble organization devoted to the safeguarding of humankind is quickly revealed from episode three onwards to be a very competitive and hierarchical game of one-upmanship, with leaderboards. That’s not saying that the Topless don’t care about human lives, or their comrades–yes, as we see multiple times in these two episodes, of course they do. But it becomes rapidly clear nevertheless that the Topless are no more enlightened or empathic than the next person. They remain trapped within the boundaries of society, expectation and their own heads.
In the end, the Topless almost ruin everything. Following the words of twin sisters with serpent tongues and selfish intentions, they attempt to excavate a so-called Variable Gravity Well and retrieve an extraordinary powerful long-buried Buster Machine. Lal’C and Co. do so believing that it will help them in fighting back the space monsters (more on that in a second.) The twin sisters do so because eating the Well’s flesh has granted them long life, and they believe actually riding the thing will grant them immortality. But as it turns out, both sides are wrong. The Variable Gravity Well is not a Buster Machine, but instead an extraordinarily powerful true space monster a la Gunbuster, which Diebuster’s so-called “space monsters” died by the millions in order to seal. By subscribing to the belief that to own a Buster Machine equals power and maturity, and that to own a stronger Buster Machine brings correspondingly greater power, the Topless show an inability to think of anything outside their own social standing and well-being and, in doing so, doom themselves along with the rest of mankind.
On the other hand, the solution is not necessarily to become an “adult.” Casio, who has become too old to be a Topless, aims in episode four to take Nono’s place and pilot a rumored Buster Machine hidden somewhere in the far reaches of the solar system. He has just enough life experience to know that the Topless are too short-sighted, and too focused on cultivating their own power while their time in the sun remains. But he is too clouded by longing for the good old days of his youth to realize that he himself has fallen into the same trap of associating power and influence with maturity. In the end, of course, his grand attempt to turn back time and reclaim his youth fails. The Buster Machine is a skeleton, the game was a wild goose chase and he never had a chance from the very beginning. Casio may not be a high schooler, but in a way he might be something even sadder: a man who pines for high school, having never felt comfortable in his own skin or having realized what the term “maturity” even means.
So to sum up: the Topless, despite their youth and potential, are so constrained by their own obsessions and fears that they bring about their own doom through sheer greed and self-absorbedness. Those who are too old to be Topless, on the other hand, are so caught up in nostalgia that they are incapable of seeing things for the way they truly are, forever lost in the great, seemingly unassailable chasm between youth and maturity. Both ways bring ruin to the self and to others. There is only one method to enlightenment, understanding and true, no-shit maturity, and that is through, true to Enokido style, “breaking the world’s shell” and “revolutionizing the world.” Only by transcending the limitations of society, leaping far outside the box into the great unknown, can the self come to understand what being a responsible, empowered human being actually means.
Of all of Diebuster’s Topless, only two characters by episode four have come to this point. The first was Tycho, initially troubled by her deeply-ingrained belief that the Topless were useless, that she was useless, that people could not be saved and that it was impossible to make miracles happen. In a possible mirror of Ninamori’s own realization from episode three of FLCL onwards, the climax of Diebuster episode three gave her a massive burst of self-confidence and, for a short while, the ability to make it snow in space. Granted, her powers remained tied to the faculties of her Buster Machine, but it is obvious from the fourth episode onwards that having already worked through her issues, she is nowhere near as constrained as the rest of the Topless. She is also, after that point, the only Topless other than perhaps Lal’C capable of seeing Nono as a human being meant to be respected.
The second person, of course, is Nono. Looking at episodes one through four of Diebuster, her arc of growth becomes evident: from humble beginnings, to becoming a member of the Topless, to serving as an inspirational figure to one in need and then: as she is chafing against the meaningless politics of the organization she is barely a part of and struggling to find her own identity, finally erupting through the barriers laid by many years of infantile back-stabbing and personality games. For all their supposed youth and limitless potential, the Topless are, in fact, horrifically limited. Those who are no longer Topless long to be Topless, incapable of finding their own path in an uncaring universe, and they are limited too. But Nono is not limited. She is, in fact, limitless. If the Topless define themselves by their Buster Machines and records, Nono learns that what defines a person is not either of these things. It is empathy, it is inner strength, it is the ability to grit your teeth and keep going even when the entire universe is against you. Because in the end, Nono never needed a Buster Machine in the first place–in fact, she herself was a Buster Machine all along.
In the original Gunbuster, Noriko never revealed herself to be a truly great pilot until she took control of the titular mecha and saved the day. Nono (a.k.a. Buster Machine Number 7)’s grand unveiling in Diebuster episode four is a direct homage to this moment, but in a sense it is also a confirmation or even an evolution of what Noriko’s first fight in the Gunbuster actually meant. In the end, what is most important is not the mecha you pilot, the grades you receive or what other people think of you. Neither is it the car you drive, the size of your eyebrows or the brand of your guitar. What is most important is being able to see yourself outside of your self, liberated from the system that once enclosed you, a living, breathing fire-bringer knit of flesh and blood. And in the end, as hard as it is to define, that might be what maturity is all about.