I’m someone who can immediately get behind any character that is so passionate about doing what they want to do that they try their damnedest to see it through, with hard work and sheer determination. A lot of Gainax’s and Studio Trigger’s shows tend to have these audacious characters, and love putting them center stage to show off how awesome and endearing they are in trying to achieve their goals, and of course gloriously showcasing them when they do, usually with that trademark pose of epic win.
Watching Gunbuster was an experience for me to say the least. I didn’t feel particularly emotionally invested with the story or characters, but I was still rooting for Noriko as she trained her butt off and felt an immense sense of satisfaction seeing her pilot the Gunbuster and grab hold of the action scenes with all her might and sheer force of will.
As much as I will praise and appreciate Gunbuster for its merits in both the strong themes it presents through its characters, and the awesome mecha action scenes and animation that remarkably still hold up decades later, it wasn’t until the last two episodes that I felt something tragically sad. Noriko and Amano getting sent off to space for the first time early in the series obviously felt like story progression to the viewer and we wanted to see them have those space adventures and pilot giant mechs in that Gainax stylistic fashion.
But what I wasn’t expecting to be explored was the idea of the distance of light years and the difference between space-time and earth-time to be visited not once, but quite a few times in only a handful of episodes. Transience is treated with an almost quiet somberness that doesn’t need any dialogue or exposition for us to understand its weight. We realize it without needing it being told to us. When Noriko and Amano arrive back on Earth the first time it’s a striking revelation to them to see the classmates that were previously the same age as them, now looking years older and it comes as a shock to Noriko especially when she sees Kimiko again for the first time since her send-off into space, because she’s evidently a different person than last remembered.
While Noriko is technically the same age in a legal sense, Kimiko has lived more years than her and definitely appears to be an adult, with a daughter to boot. All of this is being processed by Noriko who only recently arrived back on Earth after only a couple months of space exploration and a few key events that still feel fresh in the back of her mind. This idea and Noriko’s surprise are understandable. Coming to grips with something as striking as this is not something easily comprehensible. In fact, it only gets harder as time goes on in the series, when fifteen years later, Amano is shipped off to space after Noriko (approximately fifteen years prior) and their reunion is again, as evident by the wide-eyed, dumbfounded look on Noriko’s face, still staggering to try and grapple with. When they get some alone time to catch up, Noriko bursts into tears just thinking about it, and without us the viewer being told what she’s thinking, it’s clear that this is a reflection on the whole concept as something so strange and also so melancholic.
And finally in the last episode, upon both Noriko and Amano’s long-awaited return to Earth, it has been roughly twelve thousand years since their last departure. Could you imagine what that must feel like? It seems so haunting and sad of an experience to go through, that I completely get why anyone in this scenario would shed tears.
At this point it’s an astonishing accomplishment that the characters’ minds haven’t been utterly devastated beyond repair, but considering their willpower was more than enough to pilot the Gunbuster and survive the last resort bomb, it’s still totally believable that these two characters in particular, would only be so strong willed enough to endure the mental stress and incomprehensible super transience (for lack of a better word) on top of all that. Hard enough that they experienced the dissonance of being consistently younger than they’re peers, but now coming back feels like a bittersweet victory. Earth may be saved, but all the people they’ve ever known are gone for good.
At least they made it home.