Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Three)


The episode kicks off with a 90 second sequence with a dual nature: visually it consists of white script scrolling on a black background, a detailed and ultimately nonsensical account of the science and mathematics behind the space engineering of the show. Aurally, we are treated to the launch party of the new space battleship Exelion and in particular to Kazumi and her beloved coach Ota singing karaoke together. The song they sing is an actual enka hit from 1986 called 男と女のラブゲーム (A man and a woman’s love game). The lively audio commands our attention and is in control of the sequence, thus rendering science itself prey to Japanese culture.

A Man and a Woman's Love Game

The text onscreen is in Japanese as expected. A great number of non-fictional scientists and mathematicians (and their theories) are mentioned, but instead of transliterating the foreign names into the Japanese katakana alphabet or simply leaving them in the Latin alphabet (both of which strategies are common in Japan) the writers of the series have “translated” them into a new rendering, still in the Latin alphabet, but more closely approaching the way an ignorant Japanese person might spell these names upon hearing them. The strategy is not consistent, however, and the name changes often suggest nothing more than a perverse desire to transform these names into something unrecognizable in order to appropriate or overcome them [see 11]. Thus:

CORRECT SPELLING:                                            SPELLING ON SCREEN:

Yang-Mills                                                                    Yann-Mylls

Gauge Theory                                                             Gaze Theory

Weinberg-Salam                                                        Wineberg-Salamm

Hilbert                                                                            Hilvel

Bose-Einstein                                                              Boze-Ainstei

Fermi                                                                              Felmi

Cauchy                                                                           Corsey


The last name pair is a good example of the mutations that take place in this sequence. Japanese people tend to pronounce the Western “or” as a long “o” [o:], therefore English “Cor” and the French “Cau” are equivalent to them. The Japanese language does not have the sound combination “[s] +[ i:]” as in “see” but will turn all such instances into “shi” (pronounced like English “she”). Therefore English “sey” and French “chy” are equivalent to Japanese ears and we end up with “Cauchy” becoming “Corsey” [=kooshii]. The only two Western names that do not undergo change are Higgs and Dirac.

In the fictional science of Gunbuster, Einstein’s relativity physics have been superseded by the fictional scientist Tannhäuser’s “modern physics” which provide the foundation for warp travel. But not even Tannhäuser, derived from the semi-legendary German poet via a reference in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, escapes this transmogrification: in the sequence the name becomes “Tanhoizer”, with “oi” here being the Romanized Japanese equivalent of the phonetic value of German “äu”.

There is a playfulness to this mutilation of physicists’ names.  The aim might be to make fun of foreign influence as a preliminary to obliterating it. The choice of a German name as the harbinger of the new physics instead of a Japanese one is the exception that proves the rule. It might have been considered too flagrant to have a Japanese scientist at the head of this development when the ten or so names listed from actual physics history include not a single Japanese individual.

The choice of a German, instead of any other nationality, echoes Japan’s Axis alliance during World War II. That this choice is no mere happenstance is made clear by Hideaki Anno’s subsequent project Neon Genesis Evangelion, where the two main organizations are called Nerv and Seele (the German terms for “nerve” and “soul” respectively) and one of the main characters is of mixed German-Japanese descent. The Axis motif is also present in works that influenced Gunbuster, such as Space Battleship Yamato (1974), where the alien villains are patterned after Nazi Germans: the leader Dessler (whose title of  総統 in the anime is the standard Japanese translation of the Nazi German “Führer”) and General Domel (nicknamed the space fox, in clear reference to Rommel the desert fox). Although we might be tempted to view Yamato as portraying Germans in a bad light by casting them as the villains, the evidence suggests otherwise. Not only does Dessler switch sides and help humanity before dying a heroic death in the sequel Arrivederci Space Battleship Yamato (1978), but the the fact is that the sequel’s director Leiji Matsumoto is most famous for his series of works dealing revolving around the friendship of two characters, Harlock and Toshiro, who are German and Japanese respectively.


Japanese subjugation of the new science in Gunbuster is emphasized at the very end of the sequence when we discover that the source for the scientific essay on screen is Kazumi Amano’s speech at the “National Japanese High School Physics Speech Competition” of 2021. Thus this essay, the only sustained explanation that fans will receive of the mechanics of space travel in the six episodes of Gunbuster, happens to come out of a Japanese high school girl’s notes. As Kazumi and Ota’s crooning fades into the background, we can be sure science has been totally mastered by futuristic imperial Japan.

The subtitlers do a solid job here as usual. The audio is subtitled at the bottom of the screen, while translations for the rolling white text are inserted below each line (in contrast with the “digital panic” fansubs which leave the screen text untranslated). The interlinear translation is as easy to read as it is accurate. I am critical, however, of the translators’ handling of the scientific names. Instead of keeping the names in their correct (European) spelling, they adopt Gunbuster‘s version of the names without question. Einstein becomes “Ainstei” in the English subtitles, just as in the Japanese text. If I were to suggest a strategy of resistance to the show’s imperialist gesture, I would probably opt for a third way: I would transform the Western names to conform strictly to Japanese phonology. Since Japanese is phonologically poor, the change will be self-explanatory and since many anime fans outside of Japan are already acquainted with the basics of Japanese phonology (lack of [l], addition of [u] at the end of final consonants), they will readily realize the clumsy Japanese adaptations for what they are. This will expose the appropriation without confusing the fans. Thus:

CORRECT SPELLING:                                             MY SUGGESTED SPELLING:

Yang-Mills                                                                      Yangu-Miruzu

Gauge Theory                                                               Geji Theory

Weinberg-Salam                                                          Wainberugu-Saramu

Hilbert                                                                              Hiruberuto

Bose-Einstein                                                                Boze-Ainstain

Fermi                                                                                Ferumi

Cauchy                                                                             Koshi


After this first sequence we listen to the opening song and arrive finally at the episode proper. At approximately minute 5:25, Noriko passes by an Exelion ship guide map which the subtitlers do not translate [see 12]. The first words on the map, roughly at the top-center of the screen, read 地球帝国宇宙軍軍艦, which can be translated as “Earth Imperial Space Army Battleship” [I labeled the title as 1 in the image].  The entity 地球帝国 (Earth Empire) makes an appearance here and Japanese fans can begin making a link between the Imperial Space Army and this Earth Empire. Those who cannot read Japanese will probably still think this is some cooperative effort by a futuristic United Nations.


The name of the ship itself, Exelion, is written in Japanese エクセリヲン. The Latin alphabet version “Exelion” appears often as well, and phonetically there is nothing wrong with the pair Exelion/エクセリヲン. The Japanese name is anomalous nonetheless. The word is written in katakana, which is very often used for foreign words, and indeed Exelion does not sound at all Japanese. The problem is that the sixth kana in the word, , is virtually obsolete in the Japanese language. It used to be pronounced [wo] in distinction to pronounced [o]. Eventually the kana came to be pronounced as [o] and in the spelling reform that occurred at the end of the war all instances of (except for the case of a single grammatical particle) were switched over to .

Because of the special history of this kana, it is never used for foreign names. As such, any word with in it will be de facto considered as a native Japanese word spelled in the old style [the neologism "ota/ヲタ" to refer to pop idol otaku is an interesting example] . The origin of the word Exelion/エクセリヲン becomes problematic with this spelling. Is this a Japanese word or is it a foreign word? To a Japanese person it will sound very foreign, and yet the presence of the obsolete kana will add an old Japanese flavor to the word and put it firmly in the set of Japanese names. Hideaki Anno is credited with this kana usage and fans consider it simply a playful habit of his. It also happens to be a neat way of instantly appropriating an exotic hi-tech foreign-sounding name into a Japanese milieu.

Around minute 8:12 the Exelion captain is seen drinking tea from a teacup that reads ヱクセリヲン (Exelion), where now the first kana (pronounced [e]) has been replaced by, another obsolete kana which used to be pronounced [we], then became simply [e] and was totally eliminated from the language after the war [see 13]. It is very difficult to keep these linguistic peculiarities from being lost in translation; after all, the show uses the word “Exelion” in Latin letters in various scenes.

Let me suggest a somewhat radical strategy, playing on the fact that Okinawa is at the center of the show. Instead of accepting the Japanization of Okinawa and its employment as a tool for Empire, the translator can support the island group’s native Okinawan language, which possesses three vowels [a] [i] [u] as opposed to standard Japanese’s five. Following the general rule that standard Japanese [e] and [o] become in Okinawan [i] and [u] respectively , the translator could turn the tables on Gunbuster and render Exelion/エクセリヲン/ヱクセリヲン into a more Okinawan-friendly “Ixiliun”. The act would subvert the original movement of “foreign-sounding word → native Japanese word” into a “foreign-sounding word → Okinawan word” flow, and this would be warranted under the notion that Okinawa is at the heart of the diegetic project. Whereas the original creators would subsume this center, the translator would be empowering it.


The strategy suggested here might be perceived as elitist and self-defeating. If the viewers are reading English subtitles because they do not understand the Japanese language, what are the chances that they will be acquainted with Okinawan phonology? The criticism hinges on a misunderstanding of the (hoped for) strategic effect of the translation: the point is not to have viewers immediately relate what they read to Okinawa but to trigger in them the question of why this obvious vowel change (from “Exelion” in the soundtrack and video to “Ixiliun” in the subtitles) is occurring, a questioning that might lead them to research the subject subsequently.  [In a similar way, if a subtitler translates "oneesan" with the name of the character, viewers might be struck by the disparity between what they hear and what they reas, and they might research the topic and find out "oneesan" means "big sister" and is used as form of address etc...]

Episode Three concerns itself largely with Noriko’s first love: the American space pilot Smith Toren. Smith is a hip, American guy with spiky hair and a broad smile [see 14]. Noriko develops a crush on him and only finds out the feeling is mutual before he is killed in an alien attack. As we study this plot line, we come to realize that what has happened here is equivalent to Kazumi (Japan) beating Jung-Freud (Soviet Russia), in this case the victim being the United States. Smith Toren and Jung-Freud’s personalities are introduced as naked representations of their respective countries. Both of them fall in love with a Japanese person (representing Japan) and neither of them is able to possess this person. In short, while both countries’ representative characters admit Japanese superiority they are not allowed to approach it, but must admire it from a distance.


One key to understanding Episode Three is the fact that the character of Smith Toren is based on a real person: Canadian anime fan and manga translator Toren Smith. Toren was living with the Gainax creators at the time and this character is considered an homage to him. Visually the transformation is radical.  As far I know, the original Toren wears glasses and has a beard, and of course, he is Canadian. The switching of his names is highly significant. In Japan, China and Korea the name order is first surname and then the given name. The Japanese will maintain this order for Chinese and Korean names, but they will respect the Western order for Western names. Thus Barack Obama will still be Barack Obama in Japanese (バラク・オバマ, pronounced Baraku Obama) and not Obama Barack/Obama Baraku. The switching of Toren Smith’s names signals that this American character is being tamed and transformed for Japanese consumption.

To summarize: the sole representative of the U.S.A. in the world of Gunbuster is modeled on a (pioneer) anime fan. He comes off as a good foreigner insofar as he plays by the rules, although he is never in the running to pilot the prized Gunbuster weapon. Just as we saw with Jung-Freud, his desire for a Japanese mate will not be fulfilled, although now, since his desire is reciprocated by the Japanese female, the only way to stop its consummation is to kill him off, which is precisely what happens before the episode is over.

~ by animekritik on November 29, 2011.

18 Responses to “Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Three)”

  1. Is Toren Smith by chance the white guy shown in Otaku no Video who is dubbed over in Japanese by a voice proclaiming how amazing Japan is again and again, despite him clearly not saying those things in the background?

    • No, the Wikipedia article says it’s a guy called York. But that’s a great case to compare this with. And Otaku no Video came out 3 years after Gunbuster and right when the economic bubble was bursting.

  2. Even more telling is how he is practically forgotten by the end, even by Noriko, who remembers her school friend with more fondness, and of course Kazumi.

    Not Smith, not Jung-Freud.

    Japan all the fucking way.

  3. How cool is it to have your name in an anime, and not just any anime but Gunbuster!

    I’ve always viewed with fascination how well ‘Germans’ come off in anime in general. From Harlock through Legend of Galactic Heroes, to Hetalia, there sure is some sort of sympathy or quiet admiration from a lot of japanese creators towards the culture of their old ally. In the case of Gunbuster, even though no German characters are present, the choice of a German as the father of the new physics is significant as you already point out.

    • Yes, and I think it boils down to two separate, but intertwined factors: 1) admiration for German pride, bravery and steadfastness; 2) admiration for German engineering. And of course the idea is that Japan and Germany are similar in both of these.

    • Well, when Japan refashioned itself as modern country in Meiji era they took quite a lot of influence from Prussia too, particularly in fashioning their military (navy of course was based on British Navy). Both countries had Russia as a pertinent threat and foe.

      The bonds go back a long way.

      As a finnish the large German presence has always been quite easy to handle as the cultural influence of Germany in finnish history is very high too. I’m pretty sure only in 60s-70s English became the dominant first foreign language learned in schools

      • I suspect Finns get along with Germans better than with Swedes, huh.

        Yup, Japan had relations with Prussia, England, America. The enemy was always Russia, because Russia was the only Western power who was truly a neighbor, and so struggles over Korea and Manchuria were bound to happen.

  4. One part of this entry that stuck out to me was the use of ヲ in “Excelion”, as the new Evangelion movies have changed the titular spelling to ヱヴァンゲリヲン. Previously I’d only thought of it as a way to differentiate it from the Neon Genesis Evangelion of the ’90s without considering the connotation.

    • This is a curious topic and I’m glad you brought it up. From what I’ve read online, this usage of archaic kana is one of Anno’s little quirks. I haven’t been able to find it before Gunbuster, though, and so my best guess is he began it with Gunbuster and then he used it for Evangelion. (I could be wrong though). Anyway, the Evangelion case is great because it does carry some connotations.

      Evangelion is supposed to be a Greek word. Now, the two archaic kana are used for the first “e” and the “o” in Evangelion. What for? Hard to say. The two kana used to be pronounced “we” and “wo”, so if the Greek word were actually “Wevangeliwon” it would make perfect sense to use those kana and everything would be fine. But of course Evangelion doesn’t have “we” and “wo” anywhere and so the only possible use of the kana is to make it cooler or distinguish it somehow. At the same time, though, since these archaic kana are never used for loanwords, it makes the word look native Japanese. As if the Evangelion were an ancient Japanese concept.

  5. Inserting Smith Toren as part of the imperialist scene is, while logically possible, not sufficiently strong case to make. He is more a device for Noriko’s character development than anything else and there’s nothing distinctly “american” about him apart from his name (the hair style and personality is of a typical hotshot mecha pilot) which is just another one of those GAINAX nods all over the place in their works. It has about as significant meaning as Nausicaä and IIRC Van Halen poster in Noriko’s room.

    I’m not really buying this as intentional representation of Japan-USA changed power dynamics, in other words.

    As for the kana deal, it’s Anno’s quirk and in this case it also helps to bring up associations with ye olde Japan.

    • I might agree with you on Toren and America if it weren’t for episode 2. Episode 2 was all about Jung-Freud the Soviet threat. I just find it natural that episode 3 would deal with Smith the American threat. This is 1988, when so much fiction deals with the USSR vs the USA. Gunbuster has Japan take on both powers and beat them. This interpretation makes sense to me. But I could be utterly wrong of course~

      • USA however has been neutered and castrated already back in World War III – I also see Jung as presenting the West in general, not merely USSR. As such this would’ve been completely superfluous exercise lacking the visual strenght of ep 2 (the moon landing background, christian cross etc.) that is crucial for making the case.

        Noriko’s attraction to Toren also fits poorly in this interpretation as does the fact she has Van Halen fan poster in her room in ep 5!

        So I’m not saying this interpretation is impossible or implausible, it just isn’t certain enough for me to advocate fully – in contrast to the language games and such Gunbuster plays very intentionally.

        • Ahh, yeah, if you take Jung-Freud as the West in general, yes… The Van Halen poster is also a point in your favor, definitely.

          On a side note, how I wish Van Halen had been an instrumental band…

          • I got the impression from your episode 2 post you were arguing for that end. The moonlanding imagery is distinctly “american” and Christian cross doesn’t exactly fit USSR image anyway. Her personality is that of aggressive gaijin hotshot rival anyway, which is not particularly Russian.

            On top of my previously made points the whole ep 3 deal plays so true to tragic first love format it’s difficult to me to see in this angle. Noriko’s behaviour, reactions etc. through eps 3 and 4 hardly fit in at all in such scenario. Noriko doesn’t in any sense come to dominate Smith and if Smith falling for japanese girl is enough to make it acknowledgement of japanese superiority or whatever it doesn’t really work when one sees how lovestruck this japanese girl Noriko is for…american guy. I mean if there was triangle with Smith, Noriko and japanese guy who won in the end I’d be more open to it but like this it just doesn’t convince me in anyway.

            As for Van Halen I’ve never been much of a fan anyway… :D

            • Oh yeah, I did make the point that Jung-Freud was more than a Soviet image, she was a Western image. That’s a good point about Noriko being so smitten with Smith..

              I like about 12% of every Van Halen song. So I guess that makes me a fan?!

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