The Bonds Formed Through Time; Gunbuster

STAND UP AND FIGHT THE FIGHT

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. 

One of the most heartbreaking moments of Gunbuster isn’t just that Noriko and Kazumi will have to wait 12,000 years to come back home. It’s the fact that Takami will never see Noriko, a once-loved and cherished friend, ever again.

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.

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4 responses to “The Bonds Formed Through Time; Gunbuster

  1. Sure, exams are tough; all the same, it’s nice that you responded. And don’t mention it; I don’t compliment when I don’t thoroughly mean it.

    Hmm. Let me ramble on for a bit, then, at the risk of being off-putting. By no means should you feel a rushed need to reply.

    Reading a new and original view on a subject can be engrossing; part of the game, I guess, is figuring out what you like and trying to find more of it. I like lit theory as much as the next enthusiastic college kid, but it bugs me when we never discuss how the hell it moves us. I mean, what’s the point of studying style/structure otherwise, other than for the social history?

    I’m with you, as you know, on the topic of “questions” and “answers.” Of course, society explores them; we have to decide SOMETHING, and they’re a big part of how norms, cultures, and such take form. Realizing that there’s always a margin of error (and perhaps tweaking our worldviews in order to better recognize them) is a huge part of the “aha!” moment for me. I think both –buster series accomplish this in spades. Maybe this is what you’re talking about when you use the word “heart.” I also think the best stories pull this off, fairly clearly and sympathetically.

    If you do feel that way about Diebuster, I know I could appreciate a post on the topic. Even disregarding my intense wistfulness toward the series, I really do like it a lot; I found myself enjoying the more “crippled” presentations of characters, or more accurately, musing about their “arcs” and “issues.” In the end, though, I ended up bummed because it seemed that most of them got tossed aside as “how not to be” examples, whereas I wasn’t yet convinced that they had ever really behaved all that badly, given their circumstances. Sure, they may not have taken responsibility or shot high enough; still, I wasn’t so willing to put them aside, even as the writers seemed to. I found Tycho-the-Observer to be a remarkable, yet subdued, exception to the trend. Also, you know how I feel about Nono’s ep 5 “change.”

    I guess I (like many people) disbelieve the notion of believing in your power to the end, because even without a robot and mutant powers, it’s never the case. I tend to think that scary and dark, noble and flawed forces do all push you along; you really do have to believe in yourself, for yourself, and that there’s a simply massive range as to what that looks like.

    Gunbuster could get away with “less emphasis on characters/alien-nuking plot” and such, if it needed to: the tone is impressionistic and driving. You could almost imagine a DBZ narrative voiceover amping up the feel. All of that comes to a screeching halt in ep 5 (foreshadowed in ep 4’s return to the Exelion), causing the viewer to do a double-take, rethink what he or she has rashly assumed or forgotten to consider. Overattachment to verisimilitude (Noriko’s mom, Smith’s backstory, episodic explorations of Kazumi/Noriko feels, back-and-forth, constant raising-the-stakes battles against varieties of alien, excessive war room drama, essentially forcing other characters into becoming more significant than they were), rather than snapshot focus on the “matters at hand,” most likely would not have been the right choice.

    On the other hand, Diebuster seemed to demand “deeper exploration,” and sometimes I did the whole “Fffffuuu” meme face, because I wanted to see more than I did—see a “new sort of story,” if you will, with a “new sort of exploration.” Dunno—always the possibility I wasn’t looking closely enough. Or maybe I felt like I was seeing more content, than I was seeing close attention and wrap-up.

    But! I need to be as fair as I can. In retrospect, I think Diebuster does cover more ground, because humanity’s protection takes a more immediate role: I had forgotten that, apparently, time dilation’s no longer much of an issue. Space really is a world away (like you wrote), and the acknowledgment that there’s always a sense of removal to the matter is a plus for me. I got really creeped out and wide-eyed at Lal’C’s, “Let’s become stars together” comment, because a viewer immediately and cringingly knows that something’s really off with that way of thinking (we feel the same when Noriko goes badass in ep 4 of GB). Not evil, per se—but twinge slips up on you, and you almost miss it. The Topless behave like children in every connoted sense of the word—“struggling toward adulthood,” I guess, although I get to wondering how they could get away with having those tendencies. Does nobody manage or keep them in line? You’d think that child soldiers would be more subdued rather than less so. You can easily say that the teenage Exelion soldiers haven’t been facing active warfare for more than a couple of years. Maybe one can say the same about the Topless; I suppose they are just that skilled, powerful, and unchecked. Also, Diebuster is “more involved” in exploring minor character trajectories—something I very much appreciate.

  2. May I be frank?

    The hope of coming across this sort of post is the *only* reason why I really even bother to try connecting with other blogs, rather than just take ephemeral interest in the subject matter. I suck at writing the kind of thing you just have. Partially because I’m not good at the “feelings” thing with respect to blogs; I’m pretty great at clarifying ideas (I…think), but when it comes to describing introspective growth or whatever, I obsess over abstractions/theory so much I end up saying too little. Occasionally too much.

    But this post happens to be so sharply-aligned with what I wrote in my post. I don’t even know if you intended it, or if that even matters. The point is that, with half the space, you managed to get to what I couldn’t.

    On to some greater points. Firstly, your take on the series is level-headed. Discussion of Gunbuster seems to get carried away with focus on budget limitations, nostalgia, or genre. Few deny that actually these things play or should play something of a role whenever we engage a work. But in this post, you focus on the message and its implications—or rather, explicate its arguably careful attention to the implications. This is a *valuable* element of 2-D analysis/criticism that I see so little of, I barely read blogs or write posts anymore.

    So even when I admit that the GB’s budget constraints were likely real, for example, it doesn’t become a crutch or an excuse; in my gut, I get to really feeling that I can honestly say, “Wow, they (the writers) did the best that they could. They deeply cared about this.” That’s HARD WORK AND GUTS for you. Then again, maybe that’s just a personal standard.

    Secondly, the honesty of your confusion kind of moved me. Sometimes we just don’t know for-all-time answers to our “what-if” and “what should” questions.

    My conviction is that this is what fiction at its “noblest” (I’m raking my mind for an alternative to “best”) tends to inculcate. It shows us a fair and honest range of debatable actions taken by fleshed-out characters. We get a vague sense of, feel our way toward, “better” and “worse” ways to behave; but we ultimately understand that there’s always a bit of good or bad luck to it all, that tragedy is real, that we rarely lose or gain totally. We understand that responsibility exists, neither “all begins with us” nor “all depends on them,” and is really a tough thing to execute. Problem is, a lot of people take this notion to be way too vague.

    I’m reading your Katanagatari posts, by the way—I’m just holding my tongue ‘til you’ve seen the whole thing. It’ll be nice to read your thoughts once you finish.

    • (I’m so sorry for the late reply – exams have been going on, ugh)

      I honestly don’t know what to say! I can begin with a deep thank you – I’m truly honored to receive such praise and I’m really glad you liked the post. That said, I also share your feeling with the reason of why I read other people’s posts; there’s always something new and original in their writing that I love to read about, and it gives me a great pleasure to stumble upon these new things and ways of thinking!

      I think we could all possibly nitpick at Gunbuster – or any anime, for that matter – all day long, but like you said, what it really boils down to is what the show tries to send? This applies more strongly in the case with older anime, where budget use isn’t going to be as strong and consistent as more recent anime, but there’s also a lot of heart in the older shows that the new seems to sweep across without really looking at. In this case, Gunbuster has a LOT of heart, which clearly shows with the writing and the execution rather than the flashy animation. And while I prefer Diebuster more just because it aligns itself more with my frame of thought, Gunbuster no doubt, did exactly what it was supposed to do: “hit me with feels” I guess you could say, and it made me realize how much anime is really about enjoying the medium rather than looking at every technical aspect of it (which is still really fun!). Gunbuster exemplifies this because technically speaking, there’s nothing groundbreaking about it, but it, like you said, focuses on those subtle, nuanced details that gradually build and take root inside your heart, and I absolutely adore it for that.

      Friendship is always one of those things I think we can never really find the right answer in life – Am I a good friend? Is this person a good friend? What am I doing wrong? It creates joy but it also creates a lot of self evaluation and sometimes confusion. If anything, I’m glad Gunbuster raised those memories deep within the well of my subconscious; I think it’s important sometimes that we understand that not every question has an answer, and that’s okay! Maybe we’ll never find the right one for ourself, maybe we will. But it’s always good to remember things once in a while, and Gunbuster in that way, taught me a very valuable lesson. And it’s THAT sort of fiction, like you said, which is the best to me; not the ones that are ‘deep’ and pack as many biblical or philosophical allusions in a narrative, but the endearing, honest and simple narratives that really connect to the audience, and Gunbuster did a great job with that, in my perspective.

      As for Katanagatari, haha, you’re not alone – everyone seems to be carefully keeping quiet and smirking at my posts. We shall see why soon enough, it seems….:)

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