Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode One)


The series opens up with an 85 second sequence preceding the opening song. In this sequence we hear Noriko talking about her father, his role as space admiral, his death at the hands of the aliens, and her vow to become a space pilot and emulate her father. The images we see are, in order: (1) a photo of Admiral Takaya with little Noriko; (2) a newspaper article with the story of Takaya’s spaceship Luxion; (3) a newspaper article on Admiral Takaya with his color photograph; (4) the same photograph (this time black and white) of Takaya at a funeral parlor; (5) a newspaper article reporting the destruction of Luxion; (6) another article detailing the fate of its crew; (7) a junior high-school career questionnaire form and (8) an envelope marked as containing the application form to the Okinawa Girls’ Space Pilot High School.

The subtitlers have translated all of Noriko’s speech and even some of the newspaper headings, but they have missed some basic details that happen to be the most revealing. In the second of the 8 images the Japanese reader will note that the newspaper is the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s Big Three. The name is exactly the same and the banner design is that of its real life counterpart. The date reads: August 24, 2013, Monday. And immediately to the right are the words:(日本版)(or “Japan edition”) [see 01]. This is a departure from the usual Asahi Shimbun header. Usually Japanese newspapers have international editions or country-specific editions (e.g. Thailand edition), but a Japanese newspaper will not be marked with the words “Japan edition” in Japan as this is redundant for a flagship paper.


[1 – August 24th, 2013. Monday. (Japan edition) / 2 – Asahi Shimbun]

A reasonable interpretation could be that in Gunbuster the newspaper is headquartered elsewhere than in Japan. But the fact that it is the Asahi Shimbun, with an identical logo, confuses us. The Asahi Shimbun is a Japanese paper, but somehow in the year 2013 its structure is such that Japan’s is but one of a number of major editions.  What does this mean?

The third image gives the viewer more clues, provided that he has read the Japanese in image 2 and is thus seeking to understand the situation. Admiral Takaya’s photo is set against an array of international flags. We can see the flags of Great Britain, Brazil, South Korea, Finland, and others including, of course, Japan. However, whereas each country is represented by a single flag, there are three Japanese flags in view. [see 02]


The questionnaire in the seventh image we see is very formulaic and therefore even though it goes completely untranslated in the subtitles there is really no loss for the non-Japanese fan. The same cannot be said for the four lines written on the envelope in the eighth and last image, which I will label (a) (b) (c) and (d) [see 03]. There is a single line on the left running top-down that reads (a) 願書在中, and then at the bottom three more lines:

(b) 帝国宇宙軍付属

(c) 沖縄女子宇宙高等学校

(d) 沖縄県嘉手納市金柱一丁目


The subtitlers here placed translations to the right and below lines (b) and (c) respectively. This in itself is an effort above and beyond what most subtitlers usually make, because Noriko’s voice is speaking in the background and it is considered acceptable to focus on her words. In fact, one of the popular fansubs of Gunbuster, by a group called “digital panic”, leaves all four lines untranslated. But the omissions in this translation are still momentous.

As you can see from the screencap, the translation to the right of line (b) reads “Application Form”. In fact, this is properly a translation of line (a), which I could translate more precisely as “Application Form included.” Of course, the placement of the subtitle next to (b) will lead the viewer to assume that “Application Form” is the translation of line (b) when this is not the case. My own translation of line (b) would be: “Attached to the Imperial Space Army”.  The question “What is attached?” is immediately answered in line (c) below.   The official translation for (c) reads “Okinawa Girls’ Space Pilot High School.” This is a fair translation of line (c) except that the word “pilot” does not appear in the original. Line (d), the address of the school, remains untranslated. My own literal translation would be “Kanabashira 1-chome, Kadena City, Okinawa Prefecture.”

A Scene in Kadena (2010)

Again, what is left untranslated is vital to understanding the jingoistic flavor of the show. The Japanese fan will know before the opening song comes up that there is an Imperial Space Army and that although it includes many nations Japan likely has a leadership role. Moreover, the nationalistic gesture of basing the high school in Kadena (currently the site of a major American air base) will not go unnoticed. I consider the English subtitlers’ failure to note this address as particularly regrettable, because the name and significance of Kadena are widely known among students of Japan, and including it would have gone some way to alleviate the international fans’ ignorance of the imperialist subtext at work here. There is also a small but interesting detail: Kadena is currently classified as a “town” and it is 85% under American control. Judging from the address in the envelope, in the future of Gunbuster Kadena has been promoted to “city” status and our best guess is no American troops remain within in the area.

My suggestion to subtitlers would be to avoid translating line (a) altogether and focus on (b) through (d). Line (b) should definitely translated. The address in line (d) could be compressed into English as “Kadena City, Okinawa” and these words put to the right of the line.

The rest of episode one is taken up with classic tropes from the shojo genre: the heroine as the new girl in school, her trouble with older girls, the appearance of a beautiful, kind sempai who helps the heroine, and so forth. The imperialist text comes to the surface again in episode 2.

~ by Haloed Bane on November 25, 2011.

28 Responses to “Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode One)”

  1. Amazing stuff. You really can’t call this subversive anymore can you? I mean this was the ’80s and Japan was super macho about things.

    A post-colonial jerk-ass reading of the translation work won’t stop at calling it ignorance, but rather a covert castration of a rival power by means of language.

    • ghosty: For most of the 80s, Japan was a dominant superpower. Fueled on by the stupendous success of their post-war reconstruction plan, Japan wholeheartedly adopted Western materialism (a process that started at the beginning of the Meiji Era) and puffed out their chest with pride and arrogance. It was kinda unsurprising that Japan would be so “macho” about these things.

      As for the jingoistic flavor, well, I’m not sure how or when the Japanese extreme right-wing was formed, but Anno was probably one of it’s adherents by this time.

      Japanese culture is… interesting, to say the least. I’m very interested in studying it, it’s history and it’s effects and implications on Japanese society as a whole. (It does help that I have to fully grasp this as soon as possible.)

    • You could even maybe start to think of it as counter-subversive, since the show takes the shojo genre (which in some ways was subversive and anti-conservative establishment) and subverts it in favor of imperalism!

      • Haha LOL

        Yeah, it takes… it co-opts, it grabs the shoujo tradition… and it takes its boobs and affixes it to the robot anime’s giant balls. Or, you can read it as a rape metaphor… but I’ll leave that to the undergrads LOL

  2. Just a little extra tidbits to put all of this in perspective.

    1. If one notices the OP, all the English names have been converted to it’s Japanese equivalent, and there is literally no, well, English in the show.

    2. Anno has been identified with the Japanese right-wing and has even gone so far as to attend it’s functions and give speeches. I do believe that Crusader ranted on this issue some time back.

    • 1. Interesting. I have to confess I didn’t really look at the OPs and EDs, so it’s good to hear about it.

      2. Do you remember the link to that rant?? This is the first I ever heard of Anno actually attending meetings.

      BTW, I’ve thought of a good analogy for the Okinawa deal. It’d be as if Cuba were doing a sci fi cartoon, and in that fictional universe they set up the Cuban Space program training grounds in Guantanamo. Even if the cartoon didn’t mention the name Guantanamo once, as long as it was on some sign in one of the episodes, it would be met with a lot of excitement (and probably hostility) in America.

    • “Anno has been identified with the Japanese right-wing and has even gone so far as to attend it’s functions and give speeches.”
      While I’ve sensed some bitterness from the man about Japan’s waning power on the global stage, what drmchsr0 wrote is not true.

      • The problem with the THAT posts is that, as drmchsr0 says, they’re so incoherent that you can’t tell how much is sarcasm, how much exaggeration and how much truth. It’s kind of a pity, because it’s a serious subject.

    • “Anno has been identified with the Japanese right-wing and has even gone so far as to attend it’s functions and give speeches.”

      The picture in that blog you linked to does not actually show Anno at a right-wing rally despite what the text says unless Cuety Honey was an extremely subversive and subtle form of agitprop. (It’s from a press conference. You can see the poster in background).

      And if Anno really was that close to the right it has somehow slipped past his critics on 2ch who has accused him of being everything from zainichi korean to a feminist and social democrat… Which isn’t to say that he can’t have nationalistic sympathies but what drmchsr0 says simply isn’t true.

      I think Anno like so many other of the “Yamato-generation” has an affinity for militaristic ideals on an aesthetic level but how far this extends to real world ideological positions I don’t know. The only political organization whose meetings Anno has attended that I know of is JAniCA, a labor union for animators.

      • Yeah, that pic on top did not look like a right-wing rally at all..not that I have a good picture of what one would look like!!

        You’ve honed on a great point: militaristic ideal at the aesthetic level. This defined Mishima, and lots of animators run this way too. Japanese politics are so bound to a narrow margin of what one can or should support, that even if an artist wanted to get involved in politics for real he’d probably have to give up rather quickly…or stage a coup like Mishima tried to do.

  3. I haven’t seen this before, and decided to watch it along with your posts. Due to the translation I missed everything with the letter, so very interesting.

    On the comment before about there being no English, isn’t the トップ in the title itself English? Although it’s written in katakana.

    • I took drmchsr0 to mean was precisely that, that the English was hidden (by katakana and such)..

      I’m sure you’ll like the anime, but I should warn you, there might be some spoilers in my discussion. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum though..

      By the way, what did the subtitles you used do with the envelope? Anything at all?

      • Your right, I completely misread his comment. Don’t worry about spoilers, I’ll probably end up getting excited and breaking ahead of you anyways. The subtitles I watched said “Application Form: Okinawa Girls’ Space Pilot High School,” the same as yours, but it was at the top of the screen instead of next to the letters.

        • Cool, cool. It’s such a short series, actually, you could watch it in one sitting no problem 🙂

          Thanks for the intel on the subs. It’s amazing how that essential “attached to…” bit seems to be missing from all the subs out there.

    • I recommend going ahead and watch it all, then come and rewatch it in time with these posts. Because I sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted my MANLY TEARS(tm) of first viewing obstructed by knowledge of its LOLtastic jingoism.

      re: Okinawa location it’s likely that these things were decided before Anno entered the project and we know he didn’t come up with the script for first two episodes. Which is not to say Anno wouldn’t have been sympathetic to the “case” made here, I’m just noting that his fellows at GAINAX are just as much in “fault” here.

      • Really?! Darn, they were all super in tune then!! I thought for sure the Okinawa choice was Anno’s, though come to think of it, if you wanted to stick it to the Americans Okinawa was the best choice bar none.

        • yeah, I know. It would fit perfectly. But as a director he of course made the choice of having all this stuff in it so you can still put a partial responsibility on his shoulders.

          the GAINAX crew of the day were men carved of same tree anyway to quite the degree and choosing Okinawa as a location to really stick it at Americans…well, you don’t have to be Anno to do that

          re: show turning into Battle of Okinawa homage, while it’s true to extent I think ep 6 is really more vibrantly in mood of old school SF. The black and white and formalism employed makes me think of 50s films and the monochrome was chosen specifically to draw attention to the “grandness of ideas” in scifi storytelling or something like that (as opposed to the colourful explosions etc. that would’ve drawn attention like in ep 5). The Buster Machine III certainly feels even bigger as such pitch black object…

          I still remember the uneasy feelings I had when I first learned of the “japanese pearl harbor”, details about WWIII and the like in Gunbuster’s backstory and realized how much a jingoist piece of japanese power fantasies the series I loved was to such extent. I’ve come in terms with it since, but the initial shock was really something. It’s like finding ouy Star Wars was The Patriot all along or something akin that

          • I agree with you, we need to take the quote in a limited sense. It’s not that the show is mostly an homage to Battle of Okinawa, but that there are elements in it. Instead of “homage to”, “nod to” or “influence from” might be a better way to put it.

            I will cover the WWIII aspect later on in the series. As to your shock, I’ve felt it too, especially with some of the more obscure Matsumoto manga. It’s part of the growing process.

  4. This seems like a very cool series, I’ve saved it to Instapaper so I’ll be getting to it at some point soon. Gonna have to revisit Gunbuster at some point soon I guess…

  5. About the Asahi Shimbun reference, it may or may not be relevant that the newspaper happens to be the most prominent left-of-centre publication in Japan and thus a frequent target of nationalist vitriol, including accusations of anti-Japanese sentiment and representing foreign (usually Korean) interests. Thus the reference to the paper having a “Japan version” immediately jumped out at me as a less-than-stealthy jab. Granted, I’m not sure to what extent the vitriol towards the paper existed back in 1988: the two major retraction scandals of 2014 obviously hadn’t happened yet, but some of the later retracted articles about the Yoshida memoirs (concerning the “Comfort Women” issue) had already been published, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the paper had already earned the ire of the right.

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