Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Five)


This episode concentrates on the Earth government and the military decisions that set up the final battle against the aliens in episode six. The imperialist imagery and text multiply and proliferate in this episode, and the subtitles finally reflect this trajectory somewhat. For the viewer knowledgeable in Japanese, this episode is but the inevitable climax to what has preceded.

The first shot is of the island of Okinawa as seen from a distance, with the name written in large white characters on the screen. The second shot is a bird’s eye view of Noriko’s high school, with the year 2032 written in the same manner. The third shot shows the school gate and a large sign proclaiming that a graduation ceremony is going on. The date July 31 is written on the screen. The subtitlers give us translations of the island’s name, the year and the date, and even the words “Graduation Ceremony” on the sign, but not the words locating it at the “Okinawa Girls’ Space High School Attached to the Imperial Space Army” [see 16].


[1Okinawa Girls’ Space High School Attached to the Imperial Space Army]

The omission becomes somewhat irrelevant as the next sequence takes us into the graduation hall where an old man is handing Noriko and Kazumi their diplomas (because of the effects of time dilation and the girls’ multiple space flights, all of their classmates graduated several years ago). The man calls out the proper name of the school, which the subtitles render as “Earth Imperial Space Force Okinawa Girls’ Space Pilot High School”. This is the first time in the entire series that a fan relying on the subtitles will be exposed to the term “Earth Imperial”, whereas the Japanese reader first saw the combination around minute 1:20 of Episode One!

At this point let me bring in Tom Conley’s study on text in film, Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema. In the introduction to the book, Conley states that “allusive snatches of writing often arrest the narrative by summing it up long before it comes to completion. The ambiguities of a film’s design are set in miniature or are enclosed in the whole”. Conley goes on to study movies where filmic writing is cinematographically exploited to shift or create new meanings. For example, a scene in Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938) has a “FUMEURS” [French for “smokers”] sign that becomes partially covered to read “UMEURS” (possibly suggesting “HUMEURS”, French for “humors”) and then “MEURS” alluding to the characters’ preoccupation with death [“meurs” = French “die”]. In another example, from Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946), the gas station sign “TRI-STATE STATION” becomes, depending on the angle of the shot and the position of Burt Lancaster’s head: “STATE STATIC” and “ATE STATIC”, both richly allusive to the diegetic situation at hand [and though Conley does not mention it I think the vertical “TIRES” sign is relevant too, if read as a verb!!]. Gunbuster will see similar strategies.

Gas Station in "The Killers"

Back to Gunbuster.  Minute 2:10 of Episode Five gives us a close-up shot of Noriko’s newly acquired diploma and graduation album. The album is behind the diploma, and so the first character of the Japanese word for graduation (卒業) is covered, leaving only [see 17]. This character, which can be read as “gyo”, “go” or “waza”, is most frequently found in compounds, but when alone it means “karma”, “vocation” or “a great deed”. It is even used to speak of the workings of divinity. As such, it could be read as pointing to Noriko’s vocation of saving humanity and the great sacrifice that this will entail in this episode and in the upcoming final one.


There is brief reference to a new spaceship in minute 2:37 officially named Eltreum in Latin letters and ヱルトリウムin Japanese katakana with the obsolete [we] kana at the head, and a translator following my Okinawan strategy could subtitle this as “Iltrium” [see 18].


[1 – “Eltreum” in Japanese / 2 – “Eltreum” in Latin letters]

Minute 3:30 begins a sequence in Noriko’s bedroom. To the left are many large boxes and to the right is Noriko’s bed. The label on the first box on the left reads 帝国宇宙軍 (Imperial Space Army) but as the “camera” is panning from left to right this box quickly disappears from our view. The camera settles on Noriko as she sits on the bed. To the left of the screen we can see another box, but the label is partly covered by a chair and the only characters visible are 帝国, or “Empire”. This image stays frozen in place for a full 20 seconds, as Noriko telephones a friend. The word “Empire” is impossible to miss here, although once again the subtitlers do not translate it [see 19].  This is significant, because even though the phrase “Imperial Space Army” denotes a patently fictional entity, the Japanese word for “Empire” is very much a reality in Japanese history and culture.


Next, Noriko hangs up the phone and plops down on the bed. This is another classic instance of fan-service, as we can see the pilot’s breast bouncing for a split-second as she settles on the bed. More importantly, the sexual fan-service is coupled with a view of a poster for the celebrated anime Space Battleship Yamato, of which the only character not covered by Noriko’s face  is 宇 (the first half of  宇宙 = “Space” in “Space Battleship Yamato”) [see 20]. Space Battleship Yamato, an animated series whose plot consists of the resurrection of a Japanese World War II battleship and its use to save Earth from alien invaders, is a precursor to Gunbuster both thematically and politically. A reference to a classic sci fi series in a current sci fi show is a well-accepted form of non-sexual fan-service, and therefore the fan-service for the nationalist Japanese fan is doubled here. 

There is also an important link between the drifting characters 帝国 (on the box) and 宇 (on the poster) which are highlighted in this scene.  This is because 宇 by itself means “roof” or “house with a great roof”, and the wartime slogan of the Japanese Empire was 八紘一宇 = “The eight directions under one roof”, meaning that the entire world would be under the rule of one  (Japanese) Empire.  Thus in Japanese wartime rhetoric 帝国=宇.  And no doubt that equation becomes a reality in the fiction of Gunbuster.


The middle sequence of the episode (minutes 11:00 to 12:30) consists of a high level meeting of government and military officers to decide how to best defeat the aliens once and for all. Incidentally, it is this sequence that made me interested in the issue of imperialism in Gunbuster. I wrote a blog post on it earlier called Deconstructing Gunbuster.

First we see a couple of images of a busy metropolis at night. The first image bears the caption 帝都東京 and the second one 地球防衛庁, which the subtitlers translate as “Imperial Tokyo” and “Earth Defense Agency” respectively. These are accurate translations as far as they go. The Japanese phrase for Imperial Tokyo, though technically correct as long as the Chrysanthemum Throne stays in place, has been out of use since end of the war. To some Japanese the phrase will evoke nostalgia for an imperial past.

Our focus lies on the naming of the Earth Defense Agency and its roots in recent Japanese history. According to the postwar constitution imposed by the United States, Japan renounced the right to aggressive war and the establishment of a regular army. To signify this stance, defense matters in the Japanese government were demoted to “agency” () status rather than the regular cabinet level ministry () status. From 1954 to 2007 the Japan Defense Agency was in place, and in 2007 the agency was finally upgraded to ministerial status. The term “defense agency” is therefore historically contingent and the Japanese would never dream of using it to refer to other countries’ defense ministries.

The fact that the creators of Gunbuster in the year 1988 called the world government’s defense organ an “agency” exposes the systematic identification of Japan and world empire in the tale. The mistake, or “slip” if we may call it that, is really not a mistake at all, unless the entire story is to be seen as a mistake. Just as in the case of the Lark cigarettes aboard the Exelion, the existence of an Earth Defense Agency instead of an Earth Defense Ministry reveals just how Japanese this “world” is supposed to be. As I wrote in my earlier post, the fact that this important meeting is taking place in Tokyo is not necessarily damning, because we are used to fiction writers placing their own countries in center stage. What is going on here, however, is far more insidious: it is not Japan at the head of humanity, but Japan as humanity itself; it is not that the heroes are all Japanese, it is that the action itself (both in its performance and in its perception) is Japanese. This is extreme imperialism.

19 years after Gunbuster's release, the Japan Defense Agency becomes the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

The phrase 地球防衛庁 is eminently problematic for a translator interested in laying bare the imperialist implications I have just explained. The original subtitlers take a literal approach: “Earth Defense Agency”. This translation has the advantage of coming off as strange and it may prompt perceptive viewers to ask why this important government organ is not called something more dignified like “Ministry”. The drawback is that it allows the Japanese “slip” to go by unchallenged, in a way contributing to the imperialism of the show. The fansubs by “digital panic” translate this phrase as “Ministry of Earth Defence”, a solid functional translation that makes sense, but which happens to conceal the imperialist “mistake” by using the word we would expect (i.e. Ministry). My suggestion to a translator would be to steer between masking the peculiar phrasing and just condoning it. A rendering of “Earth Imperial Defense Agency” might do the trick, as it puts into relief the word “Imperial” even as it maintains the incongruously weak-sounding “Agency”.

All of the members of the meeting are introduced by captions indicating their ranks and titles, and excluding all personal names. The man leading the meeting is a 軍令部総長 and the official subtitles render this as “Chief of General Staff”. This is not a literal but a functional translation, as Chief of General Staff has been a preferred title for the leader of the military staff (sometimes only of the land component) in many Anglophone countries not including the United States (Australia up to 1997, Canada up to 1964, Great Britain even now) as well as being the standard English translation for similar positions in major states such as Israel, Russia, and Turkey. The original Japanese title, however, is neither generic nor fictional. Instead, it corresponds precisely to that of the leader of the highest organ in the prewar and wartime Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN).

The IJN enjoys a clean, romantic image in nationalist circles in Japan due in large part to the fact that most military atrocities happened on land and thus under the jurisdiction of the Army. In anime the IJN has been glorified since at least the time of Space Battleship Yamato, whose poster we saw earlier in the episode, and will continue to be referenced in Neon Genesis Evangelion in the form of the characters’ names. Furthermore, in Gunbuster all of the ranks featured in this episode hark back to IJN originals. The official subtitles obliterate this connection between the IJN and Gunbuster‘s Imperial Space Army, but it is hard to see how one could improve on the translations. The standard translation of the IJN title we introduced above (軍令部総長) is “Chief of Navy General Staff” or “Chief of Naval General Staff” but both of these would inflict a metonymic violence on the plotline by injecting too much, as there is no mention of a Navy in the series. The best option I can think of is to use “Chief of Imperial General Staff”, which at least has the benefit of maintaining the subject of Empire in full view, as well as creating a resonance with the title of the leader of the British Army during the latter part of the British Empire (1908-64) who was also called “Chief of Imperial General Staff”.

~ by Haloed Bane on December 3, 2011.

32 Responses to “Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Five)”

  1. No mention of the Nausicaa poster there? I want to believe it means something just for being there in the scene with all that other stuff going on lol. Man, Noriko is a serious oldfag to be into 60 year-old anime.

    • There’s also the Totoro poster.

      Hey, she likes Ghibli!

      In all seriousness, didn’t Anno work on Nausicaa back in the day?

      • Yes; the god-warrior scene, I always heard.

      • Right, Anno was an animator on Nausicaa, and so I didn’t mention it because I didn’t see anything in that poster other than a reference to earlier work. Then again, who knows? I only saw Nausicaa once long ago and promptly forgot all about it.

  2. > I wrote a blog post on it earlier called Deconstructing Gunbuster.

    Just me or is this not actually hyperlinked?

  3. “In anime the IJN has been glorified since at least the time of Space Battleship Yamato, whose poster we saw earlier in the episode, and will continue to be referenced in Neon Genesis Evangelion in the form of the characters’ names”

    This was changed in the Rebuild series, at least as far as the new names are concerned.

    “Anno:[…]“Makinami” comes, not from the former Imperial Navy, but from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Ayanami class of destroyers [escort ships]. “Shikinami” is the same.”
    (translation from evageeks)

    I leave it to others to ponder whether there’s some ideological significance to this.

  4. As you say, the fact Gunbuster exists within a romanticized and (in that it projects into the future) revanchist conception of the Pacific War would have been clear to its original Japanese audience in 1988. Its background atmosphere was also not difficult for many foreign fans to discern at the time, just as they were aware of the symbolism of Space Battleship Yamato. When Gunbuster came out, I was in high school, and (although it was unusual) even then some students had parents who had fought in the Second World War. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, the 1980s were seen as a period of Japanese resurgence in the world. But the idea of Japan being a serious rival to America is now long distant to today’s younger anime fans, and some may no longer have any living relatives who fought in the war. I think your article is valuable in noting cues and motifs that are not so obvious to a younger generation, or to those who may not have studied that period of history.

    As an American, I would not like to suggest it is only Japan that has a selective view of the war, and the desire furthermore to extend its moral affirmation into future conflicts as well–indeed, the difference between Japan and America in this aspect is that America has actually done so, not merely made cartoons about it ^_^ To an extent this must reflect not only Politik but human nature, and nations are after all made up of millions of human beings upon which war and its consequences are a life-upending experience. One wants to believe there are heroic and noble aspects of one’s past, whether one’s purpose is to glorify that past, or merely to somehow redeem a portion of it. Even in Germany, there has been a Normalkrieg aspect to the war in historical consciousness.

    At the same time, I think you are wise to bring up Mishima early on, as, like GAINAX, he presented this war and its nationalism in a sensual and openly eroticized (in the instance of Gunbuster, sometimes openly comic as well) fashion that would not have had a place in the actual propaganda of the period. Nor do I think it had or would have a place in the actual propaganda of postwar and contemporary nationalist right-wing groups; it would be as if gaisensha were staffed with race queens, not stony-faced dudes in suits.

    Beyond that, it seems that to the extent Gunbuster echoes Japan’s imperial era (I say “to the extent,” as it does this, but this is not the only thing Gunbuster does) it is not so much a selective aestheticization of the war itself, as in Mishima’s case (he was, after all, of the war generation), but a further aestheticization of the anime and live-action films and TV echoing the war that Gunbuster’s creators watched as children in the 1960s and as teens in the 1970s. In other words, it is an aestheticization of an aestheticization.

    Noriko, as the heroine, is therefore appropriately enough not a militarist nor even a military otaku (like Kensuke in Evangelion), but an anime otaku, including both anime that are arguably revisionist, and those such as Nausicaa and Totoro that would be difficult to read as justifications of imperialism. The scene is noted where Noriko bounces down onto her bed, and the Yamato poster is in the background. Not mentioned is the poster she is actually looking up at in that scene; not Yamato, nor an anime or indeed anything Japanese, but of Van Halen (with its text and numerals in English), an American band with a Dutch background (and thus covering half the “ABCD” powers against which Imperial Japan fought). She has in fact not one but three posters of Van Halen above her bed; needless to say, what teenagers tend to put above their bed are idols that they truly care about.

    When Noriko rips out the collapsing generator at the end and bares her breast, there is time for one more solemn bounce. The wish-fulfillment in Gunbuster is, at its heart, not for an imagined Japan or imagined empire, but above all else for an imagined girl, a cute, sexy girl, who has it in her to save the Earth, but just by coincidence happens to also be a hardcore anime fan. This kind of character, who might be termed postmodern (that term would fail to grasp the emotional sincerity with which she was received) is normal today, but not when GAINAX did it in 1988, and that was why Noriko made such an impression. GAINAX was making their appeal to otaku, not to the guys on the sound trucks. Smith Toren dies not so much because of his race or nationality, but for the far more important cause of her remaining boyfriend-free for the sake of the audience.

    I think there is an ironic danger of interpreting Gunbuster as more of an active and organic expression of political nationalism than it actually is (indeed I would question whether its twice-removed aestheticism permits it to be taken seriously as an expression of political nationalism at all). After a certain point, one risks advocating rather than discovering a propagandistic interpretation, as a previous generation once advocated Nolde and Kirchner as volkische. For example, Toren Smith is spoken of as being “tamed and transformed” into “Smith Toren,” and that the changes between the actual person and the anime person are to be understood as an expression of nationalistic ideology. They might instead be, and more likely are, an expression of humor and (once again) of aesthetics. Toren has mentioned that Toshio Okada ribbed him at the time about the luxurious hair his counterpart by contrast enjoyed, and of course, it was the style well through the 70s and 80s for male anime characters to have big hair, whether foreign or Japanese. It should be recalled that Gunbuster is full of in-jokes referring to GAINAX and their associates, from the very first minutes of the anime (in which we see that Hideaki Anno and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto were on board the ill-fated Luxion).

    • My primary goal in doing this post series is laying out all this stuff so that people can interpret it. I’m really happy it’s working. But of course, I can’t help but put my own interpretation as well, and I’m glad people like you can separate the two aspects of the thing and judge by yourself.

      There’s no doubt that America is as guilty of selective historiography as are Japan, Germany and pretty much all the other nations. I guess the peculiar thing is that a lot of consumers out there are very aware of Hollywood bias, so aware that they sometimes think other countries films and products don’t carry a similar bias. It’s like the whole tribe of people who worship French films and claim for them a certain fairness or purity lacking in Hollywood (as if French did not have their own biases LOL).

      You make a great point about Van Halen…I definitely need to think about this more.

      As for the wish fulfillment issue, I think there are many wishes being fulfilled here. I do think the hero thing is there of course, but I also think there is power wish fulfillment. “The imagined girl saves Earth”, you’ve got it right there, but I think the extra phrase “the imagined girl is Japanese” is also essential to the whole fabric of the show.

      It’d be interesting if it turned out that Noriko was a grandmother of the K-On phenomenon, where anime heroines are not allowed to have boyfriends. The otaku are a jealous lot indeed! Yes, it wouldn’t do for Smith and Noriko to go on to live happily ever after, but I also think you need to pair him with Jung-Freud and frame it in the context of the 1980s: you have the two Cold War superpowers (and Japan’s historical foes) being taken out of the picture with a one-two punch.

      [As for Smith, if I wrote that Toren Smith was tamed and transformed into Smith Toren then I totally messed that sentence up. That’s not what I meant at all. I meant that the “American male” was tamed and transformed into the figure of Smith Toren. And Toren Smith was an ideal conduit of this process because in Japanese eyes he was already halfway there: 1) he was a fan of Japanese things, especially anime; and 2) he was Canadian. I can tell you from personal experience that Japanese employers prefer hiring Canadians over Americans because Canadians are judged to be more pliant and compliant with Japanese cultural norms.]

      Ultimately I cannot claim (let alone prove) that Gunbuster is an active expression of nationalism (meaning a deliberate nationalistic statement). For all I know none of these facts might have anything to do with nationalistic aims: 1) placing the pilot school in Kadena, Okinawa; 2) having Jung-Freud fall in love with the Japanese coach and aim to pilot the mecha and fail miserably at both; 3) showing Hawaii under Japanese occupation (according to extra-anime sources, after a reversal of Pearl Harbor); 4) having the Earth Defense Agency officers all have Imperial Japanese Navy ranks and titles etc etc etc. But I think there’s probably something to my suspicions 🙂

      Thanks for your thoughts~

  5. Superb work.

    A lot of things to talk about, for now let me focus on the Yamato poster. I find it intriguing that Space is the only character spared. Surely this is just creative blocking so that the name of the show doesn’t have to be shown. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if Space was the only character blocked?

    Carl is also right about a number of things — notably keeping Noriko boyfriend-free, but these aren’t mutually exclusive to your interpretation anyway. The truth is more than one thing, etc.

    The world is only Japan.

    Macross preceded this, in 1983. While Macross City’s post-apocalyptic location isn’t geographically emphasized, and its first head of state is a Russian, (much, much later a Zentraedi will become the head of the UN SPACY)… there is one telling thing: a monoculture centered around a Japanese singing idol. This will persist in the sequels… all the way to Frontier.

    • Thanks!

      On the Yamato poster, the name of the show is seen initially (at least “Space Battleship Ya-” is shown, with the same font as the original) plus TOTORO is clearly shown as well. So I don’t think they’re worried about copyright issues or anything like that.

      Macross sounds a bit more balanced at least. The idol is Japanese, but the head of state is Russian… That last one is pretty significant (especially the fact that he is Russian, a nationality associated with “danger” and “leftism” in Japan), even though the idol might be more important, sure. It’s difficult to gauge this sort of thing because again, anime is Japanese and it stands to reason that main characters and powerful figures will be Japanese.

    • >Macross preceded this, in 1983. While Macross City’s post-apocalyptic location isn’t geographically emphasized, and its first head of state is a Russian, (much, much later a Zentraedi will become the head of the UN SPACY)… there is one telling thing: a monoculture centered around a Japanese singing idol. This will persist in the sequels… all the way to Frontier.

      The “monoculture” is about power of song, that Minmay was (chinese-)japanese is nonissue. Macross has one of the most international casts I can think of, in fact. As for sequels, the native language on Frontier seems to be English and only character of japanese descent at all is Alto… and as Kawamori emphatized in interviews, there’s no such thing as “Japan” anymore. Looking for cultural imperialism in Macross of all things is seriously illguided at best, given Kawamori’s politics and opinions his works reflect. SDF Macross is pretty close to being the only 80s SF anime I’ve seen without even a hint of japanese chest thumping. Captain Global came from Eastern Europe too IIRC. There’s no nationality or country “in lead” in Macrossverse, it’s a huge difference to likes of Yamato.

      In Macross Plus there’re no japanese characters at all, ditto for 7 IIRC. Zero’s only japanese character is the protagonist Shin Kudo.

  6. I don’t think it is remarkable that Noriko is Japanese; by default heroes and heroines in anime are Japanese, as they are made by Japanese creators for Japanese audiences–just as by default the protagonists of Hollywood films are Americans. Toshio Okada went as far to say of Gunbuster that “this is not a creative work but a commodity”–probably, meaning in comparison to Royal Space Force, a decidedly un-fan service-y (and de-nationalized) work.

    I certainly agree with you that Gunbuster portrays a romanticised Japanese Imperial Navy of the WWII era having become the dominant space power of the human race. Gunbuster’s future history involves another war between Japan and America that breaks out in 2008 (i.e., twenty years after Gunbuster’s release) and ends in 2012 with an American defeat. There is no doubt that the anime portrays a world in which, when it comes to military power, it is now Japan and not the United States that is ballin’ and shot-callin’.

    I personally think it was more good than bad for Japan that we defeated and occupied them. I also think that our continued military presence there is not a quasi-occupation but a geopolitical convenience for Japan. In part I might be inclined to think this because I am American, but it is also my personal analysis.

    Nevertheless…if the shoe was on the other foot, I doubt all Americans would have been happy over having lost a war to Japan, and they certainly wouldn’t all be happy about having foreign military bases in the U.S. Therefore I feel I can understand when anime, and other Japanese pop culture, comments on the situation, wishes to make it not so, or even reverses the fortune. I don’t take it to mean the animators are committed right-wing neo-nationalists. I note it, but I don’t take it as something necessarily designed to call people to political action. I don’t take it seriously, and GAINAX didn’t either.

    Historically there have been many people in Japan who did take nationalism seriously–deadly seriously. That’s why I touched on the differences between the actual propaganda of Imperial Japan and its revanchists today, and Gunbuster. You can get a glimpse of what Gunbuster would have looked like had it been, from a nationalist perspective, “politically correct” (a concept at work in political factions of both right and left) in the first scene; Noriko’s old photo of her dad in starched naval uniform, the cherry tree in bloom, but most of all, Noriko in a old-fashioned, baggy sailor suit. That is to say, both of them are dressed in a conservative and wholesome fashion, reflecting “traditional values.”

    But the intent of Gunbuster was not to sell a neo-nationalist message or impress the uyoku with GAINAX’s bona fides, but to sell video tapes and get people drawing doujinshi. Thus Noriko, child of Imperial Japan, is given no more personal dignity than the Soviet Jung-Freud; under heaven they share a common role: to bounce and to be spied on in the bath. The most notorious bit of fan service in Gunbuster were the few frames cut from several versions of the release where Noriko rises from the bath in episode 5, after contemplating the words of the mortally ill Coach. It is one of the most dramatic moments in the story–so dramatic, GAINAX wants us to be unsure over whether we just saw her pubes. A serious Japanese neo-nationalist, still angry over the Kuriles and Nakhodha, might have portrayed Jung as a slattern but would have kept Noriko’s clothes (and sports bra) on. They’re a conservative and humorless lot in their propaganda. The sacred gaze in Gunbuster’s future is always kept in mind–no, not the Emperor, but the otaku watching.

    The reason I make a point of this is that some people tend to run with things, and the tremendous success of Evangelion has led some to seek master keys to understand it, and–in what is a revisionist and reductionist view–Anno and GAINAX as a unified whole. To take an extreme (but not uncommon perspective), Jung-Freud must now be seen as a rough draft of Asuka, and Noriko a rough draft for Shinji, because Anno directed both works. An appealingly shiny key, of course, is the idea of Anno as a committed right-wing, anti-American neo-nationalist, whose every political motif must be taken as full of sincere meaning, just as his every religious motif must be taken as full of sincere meaning ^_^

    I’ve known Toren Smith since 1985, before he went to Japan. He is a Canadian in the same sense that GAINAX is Japanese–that is, Toren and GAINAX are people who pursued their individual passions and were nobody’s national archetypes. As Tanaka said to Kubo, “Welcome, comrade–this is our homeland”–not a tidy Shinto shrine of Dai-Nippon, but a dubious-smelling abode stuffed with fan gear. It’s not like Matsushita taking in a bright young Canadian off the street and into their company housing as “ah, unlike Americans, he will be malleable to our norms”–it wasn’t like that at all. They were no respectable conformist salarymen–they were a subculture within a subculture.

    GAINAX, like Toren, were entrepreneurs, small businessmen, not people who joined established corporations. They certainly didn’t fit (nor would they have ever been selected to represent) the image of a resurgent 1980s Japan, exemplified by a man in a suit with neatly combed hair and a degree from an elite university, working for MITI or Panasonic. This was years before “Cool Japan.” To say that the nationalism of Gunbuster is fanciful and not serious is to point out in 1988 there was, by contrast, real nationalism at work in Japan, whether the kind voiced by LDP conservatives, looking to a world economically dominated by Japan, or the darker sound-truck version wishing to redeem territories and reputation lost in the war. Neither version would have found in Gunbuster, its creators, or its audience a respectable presentation of their ideas.

    • As I wrote in my last comment: “anime is Japanese and it stands to reason that main characters and powerful figures will be Japanese.” I cannot agree with you more that it’s natural for Noriko to be Japanese. But I think in this case her nationality is an essential part of what the show is all about.

      I will mention the 2nd Japanese-American war in my last post, actually 🙂

      Whether it was good for Japan to be defeated in WWII depends wholly on what you consider “good”. If you think in terms of “good for the anime industry” then it was definitely a blessing! But of course there are numerous other standards that could be brought up and the assessment would be more mixed.

      I would never claim Gunbuster is a call to political action. I see it more as an artistic expression of a nationalist feeling in many quarters that was sweeping the Japanese until it got utterly bombed and squashed circa 1991. So I guess I take your distinction of serious vs fanciful nationalism in 1988 and make it into two sides of the same coin: content and expression.

      As to the right-wing in Japan, you definitely have your humorous, raunchy types as well. Yoshinori Kobayashi is one that comes to mind. If you read the manga High School of the Dead you’ll find quite a bit of nationalist themes discussed, and this is as fanservice-drenched a series as they come. The right-wing has evolved as much as the rest of Japan, believe me! (The black truck right wing with their speakers and their maps including Sakhalin island under Japanese rule seem to be pretty humorless, definitely, but they’re only a part of what constitutes nationalist thinking in Japan).

      One can be outside of the establishment and still hold romantic views about the establishment, in particular about its foundations. There has always been a kind of artist who does just that. Just as you can see with Mishima. Back in the 1960s, which political conservative would have embraced the man as a solid proponent of right-wing views? No one. The fact that he designed his own wacky uniforms certainly didn’t help. But of course his political writings are still around today, and he shows up in manga such as HOTD.. It’s funny how these things work. We’ll see what happens to Gunbuster in the long run…

  7. Really interesting post and fascinating discussion afterwards with Carl pointing out some very interesting facts. I certainly will watch Gunbuster again with the critical (and better informed) glasses on when I have a spot of holiday.

    I also have to find the Van Halen poster! Haven’t caught that one before. I always thought sweet Noriko was a Tracy Chapman fan. I can certainly see how ‘Jump’ would be a more relevant song for the Gainax bounce than ‘Fast Car’.

    I just have a slight correction on the Macross comments and that is that the first post war leader of the UN Spacy and de facto head of state Bruno J. Global, is actually Italian. It was in the american Robotech version were he was Russian. I can imagine that Italians are a bit more harmless than the Russians in the japanese psyche. Having said that, Macross does a good job of spreading the nationalities around in its character base even when the idols or top heroes are japanese (which is totally fine if you ask me. It is made for their market after all.).

    • Right. The song is very slow and mellow considering it’s about a fast car.

      Bruno J. Global, what a name..what a name! Italians are less threatening, to be sure, were allies during the war etc. whereas Russia and Japan have yet to sign a proper peace treaty!!

  8. Excellent and interesting read. Never thought that much about the “agency” issue.

    As for the discussion with Carl above there are many good points made. One should not overreach in “seriousness” of Gunbuster’s imperialism and main focus of work is entirely elsewhere. Nevertheless there’s still imperial vibe in the bottom that can be slightly disturbing if brought under the spotlight.

    Personally speaking it’s nothing more than some idle fantasies and wish fullfilment on part of the authors leaking in during a period in japanese history when that was expectable. It’s entirely harmless daydream for likes of Anno to put in their silly happy go lucky SF story a political background where Japan has risen from its childish, weak current state. It isn’t crucial for understanding the main storyline or anything but it’s still nice insert. Just like many atheist SF authors as a rule liked to imagine a future where there’s no religion in their works. I see Gunbuster’s imperialism as similar fluffyness, not as a serious “call to arms”.

    Nevertheless I don’t think it should be shrugged off as entirely inconsequential because it reveals somewhat questionable aspects of the work that I personally find offputting and it does contribute to the nature and “messages” of the work in reasonably significant way.

    As for Gunbuster having Eva character prototypes…the truth is found from Nadia. Anno basically split Nadia in two to Shinji and Asuka (while giving vegetarism to Rei) – which is not surprising as Jean and Nadia were based on Anno as “positive” and “negative” sides of his 14 year old self. Since Eva characters and Nadia share root in Anno’s own personality overlaps are given.

    • Thanks for your take.

      I guess the reason I’m more open and prone to reading more nationalism and a more central role for nationalism in the show is because it doesn’t bother me. My main interests have always been the history of ideas and philosophy, and I’ve come to grips with the fact that the greatest thinkers in history come from aggressive, warlike, arrogant nations even when they themselves might not share in those qualities (though very often they do too!). Japan is what it is. Thus with anime too.

      • Oh, I’m definetly in agreement with your overall case and most examples you cite through these posts. It’s definetly there and not to be ignored. When I say this subtext isn’t crucial for understanding the story that’s all I mean: if it was the western viewers would’ve had big troubles in following the storyline which just isn’t the case.

  9. I have some admiration for Yoshinori Kobayashi…not for his views, necessarily, but for the fact he is willing to say what he thinks. He also established himself as a talented manga-ka before he became so polemical (at the time of Gunbuster he was still doing Obocchama-kun, and The Arrogance Manifesto lay a few years in the future). I’ve also noticed that while Japanese are used to seeing foreigners read manga by now, you can still get a double take if you’re seen picking it up at Kinokuniya–where it’s not shelved with the rest of the manga (probably because it runs in a non-manga magazine). He’s been doing some affecting pieces in SAPIO lately about the emotionally wracking task the SDF has had in the tsunami zone–recovering the bodies of the dead. Of course he can’t resist contrasting a shot of a jietaiin humbly eating rice in his tent with burly U.S. soldiers in a their base cafeteria, chowing down on hamburgers and fries…

    I guess one reason I am able to take less offense at Gunbuster’s romanticism of the war is that it seems to stick more to the Pacific War aspect of it, and that limited to Japan’s fight with the U.S. (ANZAC forces played an important role, and of course, Japan actually bombed Australia). A showdown between navies and aviators. Kobayashi, by contrast, is more of a Greater East Asia War type, who wants to not only respect the courage and fighting skill of the past, but say that the war itself was a noble, anti-imperialist effort by Japan for the benefit of the oppressed peoples of Asia. I don’t get the impression that Gunbuster is trying to justify that side of the war. It would have been darkly amusing if there had been a show like Space Battleship Yamato, but inspired by the Imperial Army and not the Navy–raping, killing and burning their way to Iscandar…

    When I say I feel it was better for Japan that we defeated and occupied them, I mean better for the average Japanese person, as opposed to the elites–land reform, democracy, civil liberties, the opportunity for Japanese industriousness to be used for the sake of a better life rather than a war machine. This sounds like the kind of justifications we made about Iraq (and of course, Kobayashi had fun with that), but for various reasons (not least of which was better planning and experience on the American side) it worked. Having said that, some Japanese still feel it was a blow to pride to have change forced upon them–and, of course, many honestly don’t care one way or the other about a war that is now sixty-six years past and has little to do with Japan’s current challenges. Think of how long the ghost of Vietnam has haunted American politics…

    I think, based on some of his statements, that Anno may have a personally romanticized idea of what it meant to be a soldier–that Japanese women are stronger than men because of several generations of war. If he took Kobayashi’s revisionist view, such a statement would risk being grotesque (if you consider the way men in the Japanese army showed their “strength” over women in occupied zones), but again, I don’t think Anno is supporting the empire in its more sordid aspects, but the “cleaner” fight out in the Pacific. I sometimes feel that Japanese conservatives have it backwards about the war; they think it was a noble cause, but they are ashamed they lost. I don’t think it was a noble cause, but there was no shame in their defeat–Iwo Jima, Saipan, and Okinawa are hardly testaments to Japanese cowardice. Even after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, morale was still high among the survivors there. People felt, understandably, that they had to get their revenge for this terrible attack.

    As a citizen of the country that has dominated the planet militarily for decades, I would like to tell Anno that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and there are other ways “to be a man”–show courage, live up to your responsibilities. Yes, sometimes military service does make you better person–more of a man, if you will. Sometimes, though, it makes no difference, and sometimes people come out of the military worse off than they were. Sometimes the military is protecting its people against a true existential threat (as in Gunbuster) and sometimes it’s just fulfilling political or economic objectives of the elites. Much of the time, it’s boring and bureaucratic. Plenty of Japanese servicemen in WWII found little ennobling or uplifting about the experience. That scene where Coach slaps Kazumi was getting a bit closer to the reality of being a Japanese soldier in WWII. If he hadn’t just made Noriko run laps, but punched her and beat her with a shoe or swagger stick as part of her training, that would have been more realistic still. Gunbuster is a romantic view of the war not only in its aims and outcomes, but in its everyday details.

    • Very cool. I used to read SAPIO all the time when I lived in Japan (a decade ago). I found it easy to read (in terms of practicing my Japanese) and just plain fun when they came with various scenarios of war with China etc. I can relate to what you say about it very well. I remember talking to a Japanese person who was quite drunk at the time. He was making somewhat risque’ nationalistic statements. I quipped “Oh, I think I read that in SAPIO.” His jaw dropped. He was shocked that I knew of the magazine and looked very uncomfortable after that.

      I read Kobayashi’s Sensoron manga, and I think a lot of it is factually wrong (he keeps harping, as you mentioned, that the war was primarily about freeing Asia from Western colonialism, for example), but it’s still refreshing to see people writing about how they feel, just as you say.

      I find what you say about Kobayashi’s contrasting Japanese and American soldiers very interesting, because as a fan of Leiji Matsumoto I have seen that mangaka do exactly the same thing again and again in his war comics. Japanese and German soldiers are always stoic, Americans are always drinking. It’s amazing how this stereotype from the war (and even before) still exists today! It makes you wonder how the Japanese figure they were beaten~ Marines in Guadalcanal were certainly not romping about getting drunk all the time!!

      Another part of the allure of the Navy (besides lack of atrocities) seems to be a thesis (myth, I guess I would call it) that the Navy was somehow against the war and it was the stupid Army that plunged the country into it. I’m not really an expert on this stuff, but from what I’ve read the Navy might have been at times more cautious and calculating than the Army, but definitely not anti-war.

      The only manga/anime I’ve seen starring IJA soldiers belongs to Leiji Matsumoto. I’ve only read about 10-20% of his war manga, but so far it seems to me he has a very simple strategy to avoid dealing with the more controversial issues the Army has: all of his stories take place in 1944 and 1945, Japan was on its way down and being beaten, not doing the beating. I’d love to see a mainstream anime actually focus on the first 6 months of the Pacific War, not on the end like Grave of the Fireflies etc etc do all the time. I don’t know how they would deal with the whole thing.

      My pet theory about Japanese acquiescence in the occupation has always been this: the anti-American propaganda was so pervasive and the Americans were portrayed in such evil, demonic terms, that once the Japanese realized that the propaganda was not true, then something in them just gave in. I don’t know, that’s always been my idea.

      I like your view of the war, its nobility (or lack of) and the defeat. I totally recommend a book on Midway called Shattered Sword. The writers I feel have exactly this view and the book is pretty awe-inspiring (blow-by-blow account of the battle from the Japanese side). They also run the website .

  10. Sorry; I meant “several generations *without* war.” ^_^

  11. There is one anime TV series I know of that dealt with the beginning of the war–at least, the Pacific War–1971’s Ketsudan. GAINAX’s Hiroyuki Yamaga (who, of course, wrote much of Gunbuster) has cited this show as a personal influence on him. I don’t know what sort of ratings it received, but it aired at 7:30 P.M. on Saturdays, I believe, suggesting it may have been targeted at adults as well as children.

    I’ve read (possibly in Dower) that most of the U.S. occupation forces in Japan during 1945-52 tended to not be actual combat veterans of the Pacific, but newer recruits. When the war was over, those American soldiers who had seen the most combat got to go home first (at least, that was the theory). But it also makes sense from a policy standpoint not to ask soldiers who had fought the Japanese, and lost friends, to serve in the occupation forces. It was wiser instead to use newer soldiers, who may have grown up hearing all the anti-Japanese propaganda and war news, but never personally experienced conflict with the Japanese.

    So manga-ka such as Matsumoto might have not bothered to separate the U.S. occupation soldier (or in later years, the base soldier)–with his liquor and Japanese girlfriend around his arm–from the U.S. combat soldier (whom would probably have liked those things too, but as you say, didn’t necessarily get them while under enemy fire!). It is the occupation or base soldier they would have seen or met, not the combat soldier. Of course, as you mention, the manga-ka should have thought of that, and put the same accuracy into depicting the enemy servicemen as they would into the enemy’s ships or planes…

    It’s interesting what you say about the allure of the Navy relative to the Army. This is a phenomenon that may have existed in more than one nation. George Orwell wrote about how traditionally the British Army was not respected at home relative to the Navy, in part because the Army was also seen as a force for domestic repression, whereas the Navy was not; Orwell said that unlike ground forces, you rarely hear about a country being oppressed by a “Navy dictatorship.”

    Perhaps in a weird way, the “Manga WWII” of the younger generation (I’m thinking Hetalia and Strike Witches) is a bit more equitable to each side than the manga of the past–that is, moe demands that every nationality is now expected to be likable and charming in their own fashion.

    • Never heard of Ketsudan, just read a bit on it and noticed it’s actually meant to be non-fiction. Interesting.

      I’ve never read Dower (yes, shame on me! I’ve been told so much about his books I feel I’ve already read them).

      So I guess the image of the drunk American soldier is a conflation of some events in the occupation with the wartime propaganda that portrayed them as hedonistic and spiritually weak.

      The only Navy with a terrible, even evil, reputation that I know is the Athenian Navy back in the day. Talk about ruthless! Then again the geography in that part of the world is such that navies operate like armies in some sense.

  12. […] Hideki Anno (Gunbuster, Neon Genesis Evangelion) is storyboarding the OP.  Now, as I wrote in my Gunbuster post series the Yamato series is an important one for Anno and so I guess it must be pretty rewarding for him […]

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