#1 The insufferable main characters
Starring a cast of young girls tasked with piloting space mechs in a war against aliens, Gunbuster lured me in with the promise of great female heroes, only to then deliver the complete opposite. Main girl Noriko is an inept crybaby, her role model Kazumi Amano is just there to act cool and aloof despite not achieving anything either, and Jung Freud just exists to add an additional pair of breasts to the line-up.
My companion and I actually started betting on how often Noriko would cry in any given episode. She cries about being terrible at controlling mechs, she cries because she is afraid of the enemy, she cries because people are dying, it’s absolutely insufferable. Any amount of independence would turn her into a scared, little girl, desperately begging for friends to come rescue her. Any challenge would reduce her to tears and yet the plot kept insisting that she has to be the hero, even as the titular robot would appear to be perfectly functional with any other pilot.
Of course, there is development here, but Gunbuster goes downhill for a long time before making the slightest ticks upwards. Those last few moments don’t salvage characters I couldn’t otherwise stand.
#2 The neglected plot
Gunbuster is a story that is presented as very serious. Humanity faces extinction at the hands of a mysterious enemy, a foe that is so powerful and has such numbers that defeating them seems impossible. And yet, these young cadets have to try. Add in that drama and a recurring plot point about the characters being torn up over how quickly time on earth passes compared to how they experience it in space, and you got the recipe for a serious space opera.
Until they chose to name their enemies the “Space Monsters”. A name that is not only difficult to take seriously, but also betrays how these foes are honestly just generic enemies to act as a threat. There is no proper introduction or lore to them, there are just Space Monsters and the plot is not over until all the Space Monsters are dead. Many episodes feel like a proper ending to the show, only to then reveal that there are EVEN MORE space monsters, rendering the achievements of the previous episodes pretty much useless. Space Monsters just randomly appear when the plot demands it, transparent attempts to continuously make each episode more apocalyptic than the previous.
Gunbuster is only 6 episodes long and still manages to feel like it’s dragging on and trying to prolong itself with cheap plot twists.
#3 Shoddy animation
Episode 1 has a scene in a bathroom at about the 18-minute mark where half the main character is missing and we instead see part of the background. This would set the first example for what became an OVA that suffered from frequent animation mistakes or poorly-directed scenes, often so obviously that it would be hard not to notice.
At first it was fun to see and we had a laugh about it, but Gunbuster depleted our goodwill quickly. After that, the animation just became frustrating. Most obnoxious of all was the final episode, shot entirely in black & white for no reason, and reducing much of the final battle to still-image shots of concept art. I am uncertain if this was all due to the director’s vision or if the budget had simply run out and they needed to cut expenses, but I do know it puts a damper on what should be a great send-off to the series.
Considering this was Hideaki Anno’s first gig as director/screenwriter, I could honestly believe that things just weren’t right towards the ending, considering Neon Genesis Evangelion suffered similar problems. However, NGE resolved everything a lot more gracefully and at least made it look trippy.
#4 Overbearing fanservice
The fun thing about original video animations is that they don’t have to adhere to the rules that apply to regular TV anime, which many take as an excuse to put in full nudity that would otherwise have to be censored until physical copies hit store shelves. Gunbuster follows this same trend and takes every opportunity to strip its characters of their clothes.
Characters hit up beaches and showers, their breasts bounce as they exercise, a lot of effort was put into animating all of it, but fanservice for characters that are so obnoxious doesn’t really work, at least not for me. Despite the quality animation, having to see Noriko and her friends naked so often didn’t contribute anything to my enjoyment of the OVA. In fact, it had the opposite effect and even made me less fond of the characters.
#5 Diebuster and NGE exist
I have never been the kind of person who feels that newer media, even if they closely mimic something that came before, can necessarily replace the old. However, Gunbuster really does feel like the beta version for two anime that would follow in its wake.
In 2004, Gainax began releasing Diebuster, a sequel to Anno’s original directed by his former student. It features a new cast of pilots forced to do battle with the Space Monsters, but this time around the story initially takes itself a lot less seriously and has a more lighthearted protagonist to match the tone. It then eases you into the more dramatic events of the story and has a big finale that feels deservedly epic. It does all this with enjoyable characters, entertaining animation, and even fan-service I could laugh at. It even goes out of its way to recreate scenes from Gunbuster in a manner that walks the line between homage and parody.
Hideaki Anno himself would, of course, go on to create Neon Genesis Evangelion, which took Gunbuster’s concept of apprehensive mech pilots, an apocalyptic scenario, and infighting within the only group capable of saving humanity, and improved it all significantly. There is no comparing Noriko to Shinji, or even Space Monsters to the Angels. Neon Genesis is an improvement on so many levels that it’s hard not to see Gunbuster as a piece of history.
In its defense, I would say that Gunbuster is worth seeing for the sole reason of making your experience with Diebuster even better.