Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Six)


The action starts on the island of Okinawa, as Kazumi is recalled after many years to pair up with Noriko again. This sequence is followed by a series title screen and an episode title screen. There is no opening song in this final episode. After the titles, we have a shot of an island seen from the skies, and the caption indicates we are not in Okinawa anymore but in Hawaii (minute 2:17).


[1 – Simoraku Milk / 2 – Bloomingdale (tax-free store)]

Hawaii happens to be the starting point for a new orbital ropeway, which we learn is essentially a futuristic cable car system that shuttles passengers from Hawaii all the way to a station in space. When Kazumi enters the ropeway station we can see that the wall behind her is full of advertising signs in Japanese [see 21]. The sign on the right reads ブルーミングデールin Japanese katakana writing, a word clearly coming from the English “Bloomingdale”. What is remarkable is that the katakana word is lacking the final kana (, pronounced [zu]) that would make it equal to the accepted Japanese translation of the American department store Bloomingdale’s. The ad is then ambiguous (a parody?) alluding to the American chain without necessarily identifying with it.

The sign on the left reads シモラク牛乳, or Simoraku Milk, an actual brand from director Hideki Anno’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Simoraku Milk also makes an appearance in Anno’s hit series Neon Genesis Evangelion so its presence here is clearly deliberate. Its non-translation in this scene is understandable from the point of view of the conventions of the subtitling genre. As a popular textbook on subtitling explains: “Subtitles always give priority to dialogue over written text or songs, although they must also try to cover any relevant information rendered visually” (Díaz Cintas’ Audiovisual Translation: Subtitling). It would be hard to argue that a milk ad constitutes relevant information!

The next shot inside the ropeway station has the Japanese word “Omiyage” (meaning “souvenir”) in Latin letters. There is still more advertising inside the ropeway car: for Kerorin, a Japanese brand of aspirin; for Otokoyama, a Yamaguchi sake brand based in Anno’s home city of Ube which we already saw on a vending machine aboard the Exelion back in Episode Four [see 22]; for an eye doctor named Murata.

[1 – Kerorin / 2 – Otokoyama Yamaguchi sake]

Each of these ads might not merit a translation, but the cumulative impact on the Japanese viewer of all of the ads together is significant and the fan relying on the subtitles will completely miss it. The scene here exemplifies the way that the use of written text in this show conveys a message of Japanese dominance over futuristic Earth to Japanese viewers while remaining practically invisible to others, despite the series been ably subtitled.

The reason Hawaii is so utterly “Japanese” in this episode is never explained in the show, but it is discussed in the diverse array of print media (artbooks, factbooks, comic books, novelizations) that have appeared since the series first aired, none of which have been translated other languages. According to an officially produced fictional timeline only accessible to Japanese fans, Hawaii was bought by Japan in 1996. America regretted the transaction and attacked Pearl Harbor in 2008, ushering in a second Japanese-American War. The war ended four years later with an overwhelming Japanese victory followed by a sweeping plan for an Earth Empire. This timeline is widely available online in Japanese (for example, on this site) but it is not usually found or discussed in foreign language fansites. According to the Gunbuster timeline, then, by Episode Six Hawaii has been under Japanese occupation for 52 years, which somewhat justifies the saturation of Japanese elements in the islands.

[Briefly, the Gunbuster timeline indicates that in the year 1996 Japan buys Hawaii from the U.S.A.  In 2008 America regrets the decision and attacks Pearl Harbor, sparking the Second Japanese-American War.  The invaders are eventually crushed and the war ends in 2012, with Hawaii remaining in Japanese hands.  I will let the reader digest this “history” at his or her leisure.]

The final sequence of the show (from about minute 24:30 on) is very memorable and particularly interesting to us because of its skillful (and subtle) use of written text to make a point. Noriko and Kazumi have managed to wipe out the invading alien race, but the battle and subsequent trip home has consumed 12,000 years back on Earth. For all that they know, humanity could have become extinct, and even if humans are still around, they might have forgotten about the Gunbuster and might look upon them as a threat. When they approach Earth they find the globe is completely dark. But then a great number of lights appears on the surface of the planet (minute 25:40). It is a message written in Japanese, and it reads オカエリナサイ, or “Welcome back”.


Initially only オカエリ, the first part of the message, appears on screen [see 23], and then the “camera” slowly pans to the right revealing the rest. The sequence is very deliberate: the last kana () is revealed at the very end and if the viewer is paying attention s/he will notice the character has been reversed [see 24]. In this subtle and concise fashion, the show gives us a sense of the weight of 12,000 years and how humanity has done its best to employ what must now be “ancient Japanese” for the sake of Noriko and Kazumi, and gotten it almost right. The reversed kana is charming and effective. I am not bringing this up as evidence of the the imperialist nature of the show, but as corroborative evidence of the creators’ deliberate use of written text to convey specific messages and not only to embellish the action and dialogue. The subtitlers translated this as “WELCOME BACK”. I would have reversed the “K” to achieve an analogous effect to the original.



The case of Gunbuster presents us with a sustained fantasy of Japanese imperialism. It is very much a work of its time: in 1988 Japanese economic power was at its height and Soviet Russia was on the verge of collapse. Emperor Hirohito was still alive though ailing (he would die the following year), and no one could have guessed the economy was about to crash. The late eighties were also a booming time for Japanese animation at home and abroad and Gunbuster was a smashing success in both fronts.

Gunbuster’s acceptance in markets like the U.S. occurred despite its heavy imperialist rhetoric and imagery.  This imperialism is expressed subtly, often textually, in ways that even a highly skilled translator will have a difficult time dealing with. Gunbuster‘s treatment of Okinawa can be seen as a precursor to the Okinawan boom in Japan in the 1990s. Although Western scholarship tends to focus on Okinawan folk music and its penetration of the Japanese market, the bulk of Okinawan “influence” during this boom was masterminded by entrepreneur Masayuki Makino, who had this to say:

“Okinawan children are superior to children from other prefectures in the arts of singing and dancing. The entertainer’s blood runs in their veins. This may be the result of Okinawan history. Ever since the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawans have mixed with people from many different corners of the world–Europe, Cambodia, the Philippines, America–you name it. This historical background has given Okinawan children artistic and musical talent that is understood internationally. I always say to them, ‘Believe in your heritage, and you can make it in the world.” [article in the Daily Yomiuri Online]

Namie Amuro - Pop Superstar and a Makino alumnus (Is Okinawan influence the Best Fiction?)

Whatever we may think of the merits of this statement, the fact is that Makino’s Okinawa Actors’ School, founded in 1983 by the Kyoto native, churned out a great number of hits in the 1990s which had  no Okinawan element to them beyond the place of birth of the performers. This was and remains Japanese pop, the Okinawan boom to a large extent being nothing more than a Japanese fad created by Japanese producers for a Japanese audience, just as Gunbuster uses Okinawa as a pretty background and as a way to score points against rival imperialist power America. It is ironic that the live-action version of Space Battleship Yamato, appearing in cinema theaters in December 2010, features a half-Brazilian pop star from Okinawa named Meisa Kuroki. Meisa’s image is as Okinawan as Gunbuster‘s, which is tantamount to saying the Okinawan element is purely cosmetic.

Translation scholar Antoine Berman speaks of an opposition between the ethical aim of translation (opening up to the Other) and the reductionist aim of culture (self-sufficiency and narcissism) and how it is complicated by the translator’s drive as translator, which is fundamentally pro-other language oriented. Gunbuster as a text insists on opening nothing more and nothing less than its jaws in order to incorporate the Other, not as an independent equal actor but as an enemy and as a threat. One of the strategies I have suggested in this post series is based on the notion of being resistant to both sides (Japanese source and English target) in order to open up a space for the minority voice of Okinawa, which has suffered at the hands of both cultural/linguistic milieus.  Fans of the show may come to question these names and begin to research the issue. If this seems a poor and convoluted way to resist the imperialism in the text, it is to the credit of the Gunbuster creators who seem to have so cunningly worked on precluding our efforts at resistance.



~ by Haloed Bane on December 5, 2011.

20 Responses to “Imperialism, Translation, Gunbuster (Episode Six)”

  1. Thanks for pointing out the untranslated text and its significance. I never really pay much attention to text in the background anyway so these things always slip.

    >>[Briefly, the Gunbuster timeline indicates that in the year 1996 Japan buys Hawaii from the U.S.A…The invaders are eventually crushed and the war ends in 2012, with Hawaii remaining in Japanese hands. I will let the reader digest this “history” at his or her leisure.]

    You know, the US ‘bought’ the Philippines from Spain (via Treaty of Paris) so it does have a historical precedent.

    This alternate history reminds me of The Man in the High Castle, Philip Dick’s take on an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese are triumphant. So the political climate of the Gunbuster world doesn’t really surprise me. What surprises me is that it doesn’t come up in discussions (or in wikipedia lol).

    • Hey, being bought is better than being given up for free, which is what happened to Puerto Rico 😀

      The politics of Gunbuster don’t show up in discussion because, in a way, they’re never discussed in the show itself. Pick up a transcript of Gunbuster and you won’t hear any discussions of empire or anything. It’s all silently portrayed, and this is what makes it so interesting.

  2. This was a wonderful series or posts! It was wonderful and illuminating to read. I will bear these points in mind the next time I see Gunbuster.

    The remarks after your episode five post about historical revisionism prompt me to ask if you have ever watched Nadesico? In many respects, I think Nadesico‘s subtext is the opposite of the one you find in Gunbuster: the series is about memory and history in its many forms — the personal, the institutional, and the national. This starts happening in the very first episode, becomes significantly embodied in Ruri (almost all the Ruri-centric episodes hinge around Ruri and her memories, and, indeed, one of Ruri’s final lines of dialog concerns the preservation of her memories). If you’ve never seen it, I don’t want to spoil the major reveal that happens well into the series, though I think it’s worth remembering that as the series was in preparation, Japan was going through one of its periodic history-text controversies.

    • No, I’ve never watched Nadesico. I have it on my to watch list though. It’ll be interesting to see what you think when rewatching Gunbuster.

  3. Bravo.

    Excellent end to noteworthy effort. I just finished downloading a new Gunbuster sub and I will rewatch the show soon, perhaps early next year and explore the things you took note in your posts.

    If we’re to take Diebuster into consideration, even Mars is Japanese.

    Consider now an American take: The Karate Kid II

    • Is Karate Kid II the one they go to Okinawa? Yeah, that’s a pretty interesting film right there (and awful too!).

      I’d be curious to see if the subbers you use next time use different tactics from the ones I covered in this post series…

  4. Good job! Have two thumbs up d ^__^ b

  5. Hawaii, of course, is not ideally situated for a space elevator, but, I mean, look at it…it’s not like it’s trying to be hard SF ^_^ I always felt weirdly honored that the war ended with the Treaty of Long Beach–my home town…and of course, three Anime Expos would later be held there. One wonders if there was a Japanese equivalent of the U.S.S. Missouri on which the surrender was signed.

    Having said that, I’m not sure, actually, if the Gunbuster future history went into such details as a distinction between the surrender and the peace treaty; the 1945 signing on the Missouri is famous, but the actual peace treaty between the U.S. and Japan came some years later in San Francisco.

    Is it meant to imply that the U.S. didn’t surrender per se (and wasn’t occupied?) but instead just accepted Japan’s dominant military position on Earth? If so, such “easy” terms may have been another way Gunbuster wished for a retroactive “happy ending” to WWII, as what most of the Japanese high command wished for in 1941 was not literally to conquer the American mainland a la Philip K. Dick, but “merely” for the U.S. to cede supremacy in the Pacific to them.

    • I’ve never been able to read in detail about the Gunbuster future timeline (beyond the bullet points and red-letter dates), so I can’t say. I imagine there’s not that much detail in there but I can’t be sure.

      I figure America wasn’t occupied except for Hawaii, Guam, Samoa etc.

      Ideally we’d get a map!! 

      The timeline states in the first decade of the 21st century the USSR and Europe form a federation (under Soviet control, apparently) and South America unifies under one government as well.

      Then in 2012 “the era of federations ceases to be.” This is code for the rise of the Earth Empire, since we get told in 2012 Japan beats America and in 2013 the Earth Empire is constituted (and we know the capital is Tokyo). After this it seems that the Soviet-Europe federation and other nations still exist in name but they’re all de facto parts or vassals of the Empire. This is what can be so confusing about Jung-Freud and her uniform etcetera.

      On Japanese goals, one wonders if Midway had been won, and Hawaii had been threatened (and maybe even taken) would the Japanese have stopped themselves from planning an eventual invasion of California? I’m sure the leadership would have been divided on this issue, but I get a feeling cooler heads wouldn’t have necessarily prevailed at this point~

  6. It strikes me that Gunbuster “rematch” of WWII, by choosing to focus only on replaying the U.S.-Japan aspect of the war, not only neatly sidesteps the real war’s most brutal theater, but avoids explaining how, exactly, it figured into 21st century Japanese supremacy–I mean, of course, China. The CCP didn’t accept the Japanese Empire when they were just a bunch of guerrillas on the Long March; why would they accept it when they’ve got a bunch of Long Marches tipped with nukes? ^_^

    Maybe Gunbuster’s idea that by putting the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in check, Japan has somehow made itself invincible reflects a 1988 hubris and blindness toward the rise of China. But even though in 1988 China was well behind Japan economically, there is no way, politically or militarily, they would have ever gone along with Japanese hegemony. Of course, to acknowledge this fact in Gunbuster’s future history would also be to acknowledge the decidedly unromantic face of WWII for Japan–the Greater East Asia War.

    • Right. China doesn’t show up once in the timeline. I guess since the trend in the near future was supposed to be larger federations around the world, maybe we’re expected to assume that China joined Japan in an East Asian federation before Japan whacked the U.S. But that’s not stated. Yup, I don’t think they wanted to get anywhere near talking or thinking about that!

  7. Thanks and massive appreciation for pointing out the meaning and possible significance of the untranslated background texts in Gunbuster. My next viewing of it will be more informed for sure.

    The ¨Welcome back´ scene is one of my top ten anime moments for all its significance. Having said that, despite the fact that Kazumi and Noriko were japanese, it always struck me as slightly odd that the entire planet would welcome them in their language but I guess its not that surprising after reading your entire series of posts.

    Hawaii being bought up by the japanese back in the good times, was somewhat of a fantasy that I’d read before somewhere (can’t put my finger on where though!). Actually the purchase of land/territory was quite commonplace up until the 20th century. From the Lousiana purchase (which doubled the size of the United States) to the Gadsden, Florida and Alaska purchases, it was simply not an unusual transaction between the superpowers of the time. It would certainly be much harder to pull off buying entire territories nowadays (having to actually respect the wishes of the local inhabitants and all that ) 🙂

    Having said that, in these uncertain economic times, it would not be improbable for cash strapped countries to consider selling large pieces of land to foreign investors. It’s already happening with agro-business companies in sub-Saharan Africa. Iceland has actually just rejected the purchase of 120 square miles of land to a Chinese investor for political reasons and a couple of German politicians have argued that Greece should sell some of its uninhabited islands to pay off its debt.

    • In that last case, though, you’re talking about selling property rights without surrendering sovereignty, right? But you’re right, it used to be a common thing. I wish I had money to buy a Greek island~

      Hmmm, I do tend to think that Japanese was the official language of the world in Gunbuster, yup.

      • Yes. The recent trend I’m referring to to is exclusively property rights without transfer of sovereignty. It’s basically like any other property deal or farmland deal, just the scale of it is what is somewhat eye opening. The Daewoo deal with Madagascar for example, was for the equivalent of 1.3 million hectares of land (till a new government pulled the plug on it).

        • Darn, that’s a huge deal. It’s really hard to determine for sure if local governments gain more than they lose by this kind of deal. I know China has a huge hydroelectric project going on with the Mekong and it’s getting involved very heavily in Laos. Now, it’s kinda stupid to tell the Laotians “Don’t do it!” when their economy will be improved, but one still worries…

  8. I wouldn’t read too deeply into the presence of those signs. To someone from Hawaii or a Japanese viewer who has been to Hawaii they aren’t unusual. While it was more prevalent in the 1980s, Japanese language signs and advertisements are very common in any kind of transportation or business setting in the state.

    • Including ads for dentist clinics?? That’s pretty amazing! By the way, it’s not only the existence of the ads, but also their shape and positioning (exactly like the ones in train systems in Japan)..

  9. I finished Gunbuster today and had a chance to read your posts. It was very edifying, I missed out on pretty much everything involving the signs. Thanks for doing this great series of posts! (Yeah, I know, I’m a bit late)

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