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Noriko's father dies in space in the first encounter with an alien race that is preparing for an all-out assault on Earth. Noriko overcomes great difficulties at her school in Okinawa and qualifies as one of the pilots sent to defend the planet. She falls out with her partner, "Big Sister" Kazumi Amano, and teams up with Smith Toren, a handsome American pilot who soon dies in action. The predicament of the human race looks bleak: the "aliens" are really the galaxy's natural defense mechanisms, and humanity is merely a virus on the face of the universe. Coach Ota devises the Buster Machines to help the reunited girls turn the tables, and the first major assault is held off with heavy losses. Though only a few weeks have passed for the girls, the effects of relativity mean that several years have passed on Earth. Kazumi marries the dying Ota, and Noriko goes on another tour of duty. Six months later (for Noriko, whereas 15 years have passed on Earth), an older Kazumi rejoins her with Buster Machine Three, a super-bomb designed to wipe out the heart of the galaxy in the final conflict.
Beginning as a sci-fi parody of Aim for the Ace, Gunbuster eventually transforms into an homage to Kihachi Okamoto's live-action war film Battle of Okinawa (1971), complete with onscreen notes detailing the numbers of "ships sunk" and a background cast of dozens of generals, each only gaining the merest moment of screentime. Foregrounded through all this is the spunky Noriko, who only ages a year as her friends near retirement age and is eternally in a world of childish things, much like the semiautobiographical heroes of the same producers' Otaku no Video. Wartime allusions abound: the human race (i.e., Japan) is fighting on the wrong side in a war it cannot win, while the last-ditch attempt to hold the home islands launches from Okinawa, and schoolchildren age before the viewer's eyes in a variant of the "time travel" of 24 Eyes. Gunbuster is also a loving pastiche of the anime serials of its creators' formative years, from the martial heroism of Star Blazers (seen on one of the posters in Noriko's quarters) to the super-robots of Gigantor. The in-jokes reach staggering levels: Smith Toren was, for example, a tip of the hat to future Studio Proteus boss Toren Smith (see Dirty Pair), who was staying with the Gainax animators at the time, while shots of spacecraft under construction often show breakaway sprues as if they were model kits. Played deadly straight no matter how silly the onscreen visuals, it is the ultimate video anime, and, though outlines existed for a full 26-episode series, the story seems perfectly suited to its humble three-hour running time. It also set the pace for many 1990s anime, from the jiggling bosoms of Plastic Little to the tongue-in-cheek posturing of Battle Athletes, though none of its imitators came close. Sadly, it never quite achieved its potential abroad, despite an excellent subtitled version. It was never dubbed, hence losing the large audience it truly deserved, a feat achieved by the same studio's later Evangelion. The series was screened on Japanese TV after Gainax's more famous follow-up and rereleased on Japanese DVD with some bonus footage in 2001. Gainax chose to mark the company's 20th anniversary with Kazuya Tsurumaki's six-part video series, Aim for the Top 2 (aka Diebuster, 2004), focusing on Nono, a hapless waitress on Earth who is co-opted into a psychic anti-alien squadron called the Topless. As with the original, early episodes appear trite and shallow, only to take a turn toward the dramatic and gripping later on, most notably in a fourth episode storyboarded by Hideaki Anno himself. The 1994 laserdisc box set included two new "Science Lessons" for episodes five and six (the humorous short segments attached to the episodes which provided explanations about the Gunbuster world), which had not been in the original releases. The series was then screened on Japanese TV after Gainax's more famous follow-up, released on Japanese DVD in 2000 (including the new Science Lessons), and ultimately remastered and rereleased on Japanese DVD in 2004. Gunbuster Perfect Guide, containing interviews and other ""Making Of"" information, was also released on DVD in 2004. NV