It’s October 2006 on a freezing Monday in St. Louis. I’m 14, wearing three layers of clothing, hand shoved into my pockets, waiting at a nearby Starbucks with my mother. We’re sixth in line, and as I tap my feet against the tile impatiently, waiting to order my hot chocolate, my eyes catch a familiar face. At first, it’s nothing but a flash, but when I glance again, my eyes widen in disbelief: the figure is none other than a childhood friend I had lost contact with many years ago, since we were in fifth grade.
I tug on my mother’s sleeve. She shakes her head and says in a stern voice, “Only for a few minutes. We have to get back to the hotel after this.” But her voice is lost on deaf ears; I’m already calling out my friend’s name. To my relief, she turns in response, reacting the same way as she rushes forward. As we meet, I ask her how she’s been and what’s she’s been up to – the typical questions, nothing new. She shrugs a little, and I notice that she’s wearing makeup, a fashionable purse, and has her nails painted. The image shakes me a little as I try to remember the messy, disorganized girl I had befriended in middle school. Part of me knows already that something’s a little different about her, but it’s only when we start talking that I realize how much she’s changed. When I ask her about the things we used to share in common – our unabashed love for fiction, our obsession with Tokyo Mew Mew or Furuba – she wrinkles her eyebrows, and then laughs it off. “That was a long time ago,” she tells me. My heart sinks. Five minutes pass, and we end up exchanging numbers, but I never call her again. That’s the last time I see her – a girl with neatly tied hair, a pink strap on her cellphone, and bowties on her shoes. As I run to my mother’s side, she asks me how it was, and it’s my turn to shake my head and mumble something she doesn’t hear.
Six years later, and I’m on my bed watching Gunbuster, a GAINAX anime about mecha, girls in short pants, giant plant space monsters, and INAZUMA KICK! For all it’s worth, the show has a basic premise: humanity is at war with aliens who want to wipe them out, and our last hope rests on a robot named Gunbuster. Unfortunately, it can only be piloted by two teenage girls, who must Aim for the Top (literally) and use their guts, heart, and will to defend the Earth. With only six episodes, there’s not much background development: we only know about Noriko Takaya’s life and how she aspired to reach the stars as well as the fact that the aliens are a threat to our race. The other major and minor characters are nowhere near as developed. The main plot doesn’t even kick in until the latter half, and the last episode is in black and white format, leading to theories about the show being on a restricted budget. But despite this, Gunbuster has a heart – formed not through groundbreaking development, but through the examination of relationships which are skewed by the perception of distance and time.
It’s easier for human beings to connect and empathize with one another through repeated efforts of interaction as it takes up time and proximity. First contact is always the most difficult. We ask the simple details: what’s one’s name, where one’s from, what he or she likes or dislikes. We connect their face with an identity, separate from the six billions of faceless people that crowd the earth. With further interaction, the ‘individual’ becomes something more meaningful: a friend. Memories and experiences are shared. Just like wine, friendships grow more precious and valuable with age; our closest friends tend to be the ones who we’ve shared the most intimate feelings and moments with, or have spent the longest time with. Noriko’s relationship with Takami Akai at the beginning of the show is ultimately dependent upon these factors. Since Noriko’s friendship with Takami (from what we’ve seen) is focused around the classroom – a setting where there is a lack of distance and interaction is necessary – and is long-lasting, it is one of the strongest in her life. Noriko divulges her deepest fears and secrets to Takami, and Takami encourages Noriko to try her best and head to outer space. As Noriko bonds with teammate Kazumi Amano and rival Jung Freud, she too becomes close to them, and a friendship sprouts as they share their insecurities, dreams, and battles together. The more times they interact, the closer they grow. Eventually, Noriko’s best friend becomes Kazumi, the person whom she spends most of her time with. Isolated from Earth, the two warm up to each other in the closed locations of spaceships, Gunbuster, and mecha.
But just as friendships grow stronger through close proximity, the opposite can tear apart even the strongest of friendships. As Noriko departs for space, she also leaves Takami behind. Time in space functions different as it does on Earth; for Noriko, space life is only a matter of a couple years. To herself, she is still 16, having only aged about a year. But for Takami, 15 years pass without much contact from Noriko. She ‘grows up.’
The minute this happens, everything changes. When Noriko returns from space on a temporary vacation while humanity prepares for one last battle against the aliens, she doesn’t even recognize her best friend, who has become a full-grown woman, now a mother with one child. Noriko is stunned; how could the klutzy girl she spent so much time with change so much? As the two ironically sit on a children’s swing, awkward silence is shared, not intimacy or secrets. Takami only has one thing to say to Noriko: protect her child. The atmosphere is much more awkward, much colder. The audience has witnessed Noriko’s story from beginning to end, but it’s Takami who’s changed the most. And as such, what was once a definitive friendship has now collapsed into something vague and unsubstantial.
The reason for this isn’t just a lack of contact and physical separation. It’s about how society has defined their relationship through constructing variables and meanings to the idea of ‘distance’ and ‘time’. Noriko and Takami are metaphorically and literally a world away from each other, separated by the influence of time as both a physical and mental factor. Human society is ultimately dependent on time as a variable for relationships and meaning. Our schedules are set to an according time. We are able to connect to the other side of the world knowing that time is skewed. Society also assigns certain privileges, responsibilities and meanings to the most important time of all: our age. At 15, we can drive a car. At 18, we’re legally an adult. Around 30, we’re supposed to be married with a job – at 50, in retirement. Takami has gone through half of these stages. She has experienced things Noriko has never had to face – pregnancy, marriage, a relationship and perhaps more. On the other hand, Noriko hasn’t grown up properly in terms of Earth time. She’s technically the same age as Takami, back on Earth, but from her point of view, it’s only been a few months since she left, not fifteen years. Though Noriko in our eyes has matured, she hasn’t really aged, and thus, she’s still a teenage girl according to society, Takami included. Takami’s treatment of Noriko is distant and quiet in comparison to the time they shared as classmates – as expected. In society’s image, she is the ideal version of a mature human being now. Her age as well as her mindset and duties are associated with her maturity.
It’s because society plays a large role in defining our lives that it also plays a large part in structuring our relationships to one another. As we grow up and try to fulfill what society demands of us, we find that we have little free time like we did when we were younger. And as that window of time slowly grows slim, so do our contacts with the people we love and care about. At the same time, we’re expected to hold in our feelings as part of ‘social etiquette’. Actions like playful hugging, sleepovers, or even watching movies together no longer exist in the ‘adult’ world. And that’s exactly it: Noriko and Takami are world away, separated by the idea of maturity and the influence of ‘time’. Society and its stress on the idea of ‘time’ have defined their relationship for them, rather than themselves. For Noriko, she is exempt from all of these social expectations. Her status has risen from just another ordinary high schooler to defender of the earth; a privileged VIP. But ultimately, Noriko is still a teenage girl. She doesn’t look after any children. She doesn’t have to. Noriko is rooted in a world of idealism and heroism, whereas Takami lives in a world that is quite realistic and heavy. She doesn’t give any jokes or comfort Noriko; she only has one simple but very brutal wish, and doesn’t think about herself but the future. Takami just asks for her child to live. She puts her own daughter’s life into Noriko’s hands – the same Noriko who was her best friend, is her best friend, just not the way that she or Noriko expected. It’s a sad but poignant ending reminding us that even if Takami and Noriko’s relationship had changed, it still stayed.
But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Anime has always encouraged me to look past any restraints when it comes to personal desires, and the motto of Gunbuster – Hard Work and Guts! clearly represents this. At the same time, Gunbuster pokes at these subtle definitions that are constrained by our world, physicallly and mentally. It stirs something deep in me – a conflict I can’t get over, a memory that I don’t often think about. Gunbuster makes me look back and wonder, what if I had kept in touch? Would we be best friends? Would we still share our enthusiasm for some old FLCL and Tokyo Mew Mew? Heck, would she have been a blogger with me? Is it my fault? Or is it society’s? Is every friendship I create doomed to be nothing but a tool to the merciless hands of time? Or do I follow Gunbuster and believe in HARD WORK AND GUTS! It’s a question that will stick through my entire life – one that may never be answered.