[Script] Gunbuster, Diebuster, and the Nature of Sequels

I see a lot of fear surrounding sequels, both in the anime fandom and among viewers as a whole. They’re frequently derided as cash grabs, unnecessary works thought up in the depths of corporate boardrooms. I don’t see this as much for ‘second seasons’ or continued adaptations, but wholly new works that come after a concluded story usually get this attitude thrown their way. This is only amplified when new staff members are working on the sequel, as it leads to the idea that the new project is being made with no concern for the quality of the original work.

This is even truer when the sequel or continuation comes many years later. Lots of people are quite worried about the new FLCL anime and it’s easy to see why. The original FLCL told a complete story, doing all it needed with its characters and themes and there’s no reason to revisit it. I’m not a huge fan of FLCL so I’m pretty neutral on the subject but I certainly understand why people are worried about the new installments because it would be so easy to ruin everything.

That said, there is one example the proves sequels can be excellent, even if they’re made well over a decade later: Aim for the Top 2, Diebuster.

The original Gunbuster is a great OVA from the format’s golden age in the 80s. Standing tall as Hideaki Anno’s directorial debut it delivered excellent super robot action and animation alongside fun characters and a cool plot. Particularly noteworthy is the way that Gunbuster dealt with time dilation. Rather than ignore the perils of light-speed travel as so many anime do, Gunbuster dealt with it head on, from Noriko’s encounter with her dad’s ship, to her stretched friendship with Kimiko, to the famous and wonderful finale. This blend of super robot absurdity with hard sci-fi concepts makes for an odd but brilliant combination.

Gunbuster is absolutely a series deserving of praise. It’s been very influential on anime and would have been held up as a great OVA whether Diebuster came along or not. Its focus on the power of hard work and guts is just as strong today as it was back in 1988 and its final episode is easily one of the best endings ever put to animation.

Gunbuster was not a series that needed a sequel. Its legacy stood strong without one and its ending was hardly inconclusive or lacking in any way. And yet, Diebuster was created anyway. Not only did Diebuster get made, it got made with almost totally different staff, 15 years after the fact. So how did Diebuster manage to continue its predecessor in an effective way without feeling pointless and offensive? Well, it managed to do the one thing that a sequel truly needs to do in order to work: it copied the core spirit, not the tangible details.

First of all, it’s probably important to note that having a different staff can be a positive thing. The new staff has to be talented of course, but it can greatly benefit projects when used well. By the time the sequel gets made the old staff won’t be in the place they were when making the original. Can you imagine Anno directing Diebuster, a decade after creating Eva? I can’t and I don’t really want to, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have benefited the OVA. By bringing on new people with new ideas you allow the work to meaningfully move forward and try new things. Bringing on previous staff only makes it more likely for the sequel to be a rehash of what was done in the past, ending up as nothing but a poor copy.

The first thing Diebuster did to make itself work was to not even attempt to emulate the style of Gunbuster. Gunbuster is 80s to the extreme. It’s gritty, it’s got hot athletic girls in that oh so 80s way, the fashion couldn’t come from any other decade, and the machinery is hyper-detailed even when it’s totally unnecessary. It’s an anime that can just nonchalantly have the rival character be a German with a hammer-and-sickle on her mech. Gunbuster is a series that was made by 80s otaku for 80s otaku. It’s not that it’s a work which couldn’t be made at any other time, but it wouldn’t be made at any other time. It would easily be my go-to when asked what kind of works were popular among otaku in the 80s.

It would be silly for Diebuster to try and emulate that. 2004 was not the 80s and it did not have similar aesthetic sensibilities. Rather than try and shoehorn in a style that’s incredibly out of place in the modern state of anime, Diebuster decided to do what Gunbuster did but for the 2000s.

This is all very clear from the first episode of the show. The colors are brighter and more vivid. The staff at Gainax was clearly more aware than many of their peers about how to manage the shift into digital animation. The word ‘moe’ is used multiple times and the generally more “cutesy” style of the 2000s is apparent in the character designs. Even the mechs make this change clear, as they demonstrate less realism but far more flashy and unique personality.

Everything is cute and cool, something which was true in Gunbuster but in very different ways. I prefer Diebuster’s style, but that likely just comes down to the era in which I grew up. Both works stand as excellent demonstrations of what super robot anime looked like in their given decades.

Like I said though, Diebuster did keep the core of Gunbuster, only ditching the tangible details. This is most clear in the fact that both shows have the same central themes: the power of ‘hard work and guts’ alongside the connection between two women. That said, the way it approaches these themes is totally different.

Gunbuster is a series entirely about the relationship between Noriko and Kazumi, with little attention given to the other characters at all. That’s not to write off the series of course because the attention it does pay to our leads is excellent. Noriko’s struggle with living up to her father’s legacy is well done, especially once we see her fail to meet him one last time in the second episode.

Her struggle to maintain human connections and deal with the fact that she’s outliving so many of those she cares about is particularly interesting. Her talks with Kimiko emphasize this; while she’s plenty willing to fight and give up her life in order to save the human race, she’s still sad that she couldn’t live in an ordinary life as well. Even when she’s finally achieved her dream of becoming a space pilot and succeeding her father, she’s left in a deeply bittersweet scenario. Seeing her go from an ordinary girl to savior of the human race purely through ‘hard work and guts’ is so incredibly gratifying and I doubt I’ll ever forget it.

The same applies to Kazumi. Seeing her shift from a somewhat haughty but ultimately hardworking and kind young woman into a much more down-to-earth person is fantastic. Just look at how much she softens up from trying to get rid of Noriko to becoming a ‘Coach’ for students herself.

By the end of the first episode, both of them understand that ‘hard work and guts’ are what they need to move forward. They only get into space because they put in far more effort than any of their classmates and it’s Noriko’s endless ability to push herself forward that causes Coach to support her in the first place. Seeing Kazumi come to appreciate this is excellent and brings their relationship from imbalanced to equal.

Only with the two of them working together, using all of their effort and giving all of their souls, are they able to do what they have to in order to save the human race at the end of the series, with their only reward being the Earth’s continued existence millennia after their loved ones are dead.

All of that is very good, which is why I consider Gunbuster to be a great OVA. Its core is absolutely excellent. But I do think that Diebuster retains that core but showcases it in a much more interesting and fun way.

Noriko and Kazumi get tons of focus in Gunbuster but the other characters are honestly somewhat ignored. Jung is way too flat and basically just comes across as an inferior proto-Asuka. Coach is decent but still lacks the depth that I need to really be invested in his story. The other characters are entirely archetypes and lack any memorable traits. Kimiko is good because she enables Noriko to become a deeper character but on her own, there’s nothing really there. Smith is the worst example of this, as we’re given no reason to care about him whatsoever.

This is not the case in Diebuster. While Nono and Lal’C are definitely the leads in this story, the show hardly hesitates to give time to fleshing out the rest of the cast. Doing this makes it a totally different work from Gunbuster but that’s a good thing. The show still manages to focus on the main relationship and the importance of ‘hard work and guts’, it just also manages to fit some other stuff in there. This general focus on a broader cast in many ways reflects the other shifts that the OVA takes to fit the 2000s.

Even before touching on Nono and Lal’C, Diebuster has a lot of great characters. Take Tycho for instance, a character who’s given a whole episode to shine. As we first meet her she’s a highly competitive and somewhat bratty girl who constantly aims for the top kill count purely for the sake of it. As we glimpse into her past and see her traumas, we realize she’s become this way because she’s no longer able to hold any hope, in herself or in others.

However, due to her competition with Nono to take the new Buster Machine, she realizes that she has to believe in herself in order to continue forward, allowing her to activate it. This ties directly into the theme of ‘hard work and guts’. The guts in that phrase refers to determination and it’s determination which allows Tycho to succeed. Following this we see her accept her place, becoming friends with Nono and Lal’C to the point that she’s one of the only Topless that we see in the final sequence. This is more depth than is given to any character other than the main 2 in Gunbuster and it rivals Kazumi’s development while still tying into the shared core themes.

Most of the other characters don’t get quite as much focus as Tycho, but they hardly slack either. Casio’s desperate attempts to ignore his growing up tie into Diebuster’s theme of moving forward while also making him an incredibly sympathetic character. Nicola is incredibly hateable, but he’s still given enough time to seem real in his disgusting, repugnant, and pathetic actions and ideas. Hell, even total side characters like the twins or Hatori get more depth than most characters in Gunbuster while contributing a lot to the ideas surrounding the Topless.

There are a bunch of other areas where the core is the same while the peripheries differ. Take the approach to suicide. Both shows make it clear that suicidal sacrifices should only be made when entirely necessary. Both Jung and Lal’C are stopped from suicidal missions because it’s not a good thing to kill yourself alongside those you care about just so you can avoid the pain.

The world itself is another area worth looking at. It’s initially quite hard to even tell that Diebuster’s world is that of Gunbuster but as time goes on that becomes more and more clear. For all their differences though, one thing remains the same: both feature a humanity which is hesitant but willing to fully utilize its environment for its own protection. Both series feature a plan wherein a planet shall be sacrificed to save the world and both times there are characters who voice disapproval with such an idea.

The Buster duology clearly doesn’t consider the sacrifice of planets to be a good thing, which is why the Earth’s destruction is prevented in Diebuster, but it does seem to consider it acceptable when necessary. In both shows, our leads make it clear that the righteousness of the action is something to be decided down the road, as no one will be there to judge if the action isn’t performed in the first place.

Ultimately though, it’s the relationship between Nono and Lal’C that proves Diebuster’s creators knew what they were doing. Even from the very beginning, Nono is a very different character from Noriko, but the show initially aims to deceive the viewer into believing that the relationship between the two of them will reflect that of Noriko and Kazumi.

However, it becomes clear after a short bit that their relationship is vastly different. Nono often comes across as childish and naive but she’s not stupid and plays a large part in helping Lal’C to grow up. Much like the other Topless, Lal’C clings to her powers as a way to make her special, refusing to grow up in fear of what she’ll lose. It’s Nono who allows her to see that she’s special even without her powers.

In coming to love Nono for herself, not for her powers or any persona, Lal’C becomes a stronger person. This is best demonstrated in the once again perfect finale. The two of them defeat the space monster together, something Lal’C is able to do even after losing her powers because all it really takes to succeed is hard work and guts. Noriko and Kazumi weren’t special and neither are the protagonists of Diebuster. In that respect, the two series are quite similar.

Lastly, I think I need to touch on the finales in more detail. Gunbuster’s final episode is historic and memorable for a great reason. That brief moment of horror where the lights are off and the Earth seems dead is terrifying, making the moment where they all come on so strong. The simplistic, poorly written Japanese makes it clear that this was a serious effort on the part of those remaining on Earth. I will judge you if this moment doesn’t make you feel emotional. It would be practically impossible to follow this amazing ending up without disappointing.

And yet Diebuster doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. By setting the series just prior to Gunbuster’s ending it manages to perfectly parallel it. The knowledge that Nono and Lal’C’s relationship is what led to the ‘welcome home’ statement just makes it that much sweeter. That moment where you see Lal’C walk along the Okinawan shore as the lights come on and the two of them descend is literally perfect. Diebuster made the impossible possible and improved an already perfect ending by giving it even better context.

Ultimately, which work you prefer will come down to which style you prefer. I do like Diebuster more and I’m sure that comes across in this piece but I also believe Gunbuster has a lot of value and I wouldn’t fault anyone for preferring it. They’re simply different styles of anime and that’s a good thing. Diebuster knew that making a sequel to a work like Gunbuster involved changing almost everything and I’m very happy that it did so. Direct sequels made years later rarely live up to the hype and while works like Diebuster are a lot riskier, when they work out they pay off in spades. I understand that every sequel can’t be like Diebuster but I hope that its most important lessons can be learned. Copy the core, not the tangible details. If you do that you’ll have a shot at making a work which lives up to or surpasses its predecessor, which is something worth aiming for.

 

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