Diebuster: The show that was Gurren Lagann before Gurren Lagann was Gurren Lagann.
Diebuster is a show that no one watched, made by Gainax Animation Studios in 2004 as a celebration of their 20th anniversary, and is a direct sequel to the 1988 show Gunbuster, which no one watched. At face value Diebuster is your classic over-the-top mecha-versus-aliens anime, and while it goes about as far as it can in six episodes to try and be something more than that, in my opinion it falls just short of that goal, but instead serves as a herald of the greatness that would be Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, made three years later.
The basic plot of the show highlights what I feel is my main problem with it. On one side you have the military, which as most militaries do play things by the book, leave nothing to chance, everything to technology, and have no qualms about collateral damage if it serves the mathematical greater good. On the other side you have the “Topless”, a select few young men and women with the power to bend the rules of reality through the use of semi-sentient mechs, and act as the “loose cannon cop” who might do things their own way, but at least they get it done. While an external alien threat jeopardizes all of humanity, the more important and thematic conflict is this constant war of ideals between the two human modes of thought: “science” versus “magic”, predictable versus unpredictable, rules versus results, reason versus courage, what can be done versus what should be done. The ultimate message of the show is that the power of the heart conquers all, and no obstacle can stand in your way if you truly believe in yourself.
Where I feel that Diebuster encounters trouble is that it tries to do too much with not enough time. The show is presented in six half-hour-block episodes, so after credit sequences and commercial breaks are taken away there’s about two hours’ worth of actual content, comparable to a feature-length film, and could possibly be viewed as such. However, within these two hours there are countless subplots, motifs, and character motivations that all vie for screen-time. All of these are still enjoyable and further the plot, but limit Diebuster’s ability to really sell the science versus magic and reason versus courage theme. This, to me, is an important limitation, because the show spends a decent amount of the opening parts of its episodes trying to explain all its science fiction elements and ground itself in a fairly serious reality, but then it’s time for a fight scene and the need for expectation-surpassing action outweighs all else, tearing down that reality that was so lovingly just built up. I love a cool action scene, I really love an awesome action scene, and I love parking my brain at the door and enjoying the ride. What I don’t love is getting through the door first, parking my brain after I’ve been seated for a while, and then having to constantly pick it up and put it back down.
I find it very difficult to talk about Diebuster like this, because I love both of the things it’s trying to do, but they’re just not juxtaposed as well as they could be. It’s made even more difficult because Gainax did both halves independently very well in shows that came before Diebuster. The original Gunbuster was a more grounded mecha show that did the in-depth science-fiction space elements of Diebuster without all the inexplicable Topless shenanigans, yet still managed to provide awesome action which didn’t detract from the sci-fi. On the other side there’s a show like Fooly Cooly, which is nothing but shenanigans that make almost no sense, but it’s not trying to make any, so when the awesome action happens I really don’t mind, because I’ve been acclimated to the show’s tone. And that again is where Diebuster comes up short for me: it doesn’t establish a tone. Given enough time it could flesh out both sides of its coin and decide which side will come up more often, but in six episodes it just doesn’t have that luxury with everything else it’s trying to squeeze in. Compare the somewhat controversial show Neon Genesis Evangelion, which for its first half also straddles that humor/action/serious line before deciding it wants to be a more cerebral and surreal science-fiction show; perhaps to its detriment, but at least it committed to it.
This is only blind assumption, but perhaps the creators of Diebuster had a grand idea for a different sort of show, but were restrained by the necessity of making Diebuster a sequel to Gunbuster and thus had to keep the sci-fi elements the original established. I say this because of the magnificence of the show that is Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (also by Gainax, circa 2007). Gurren Lagann takes all the over-the-top action from Diebuster and expands upon it, discarding most of the sci-fi elements and focusing solely on its theme of believing in an ideal, throwing reason to the curb, and beating the odds through force of will. I would even go so far as to say it’s a spiritual successor to Diebuster because of how similar they feel and how far they will go to shatter the ceiling of awesomeness. But knowing what I know about writing, I feel that Gurren Lagann could not have existed in the form we know it without Diebuster having existed first and its creators looking at it to see what didn’t work. There’s a very precarious art to making something over-the-top yet good, and done improperly it will miss the goal of “awesome” and come off as either pretentious, absurd, or flat-out stupid. Diebuster sadly falls into this territory a few times, mainly because its desire to be awesome keeps clashing with its desire to explain itself, and each ends up feeling out of place against the other. Gurren Lagann dodges the issue by establishing early on that fighting spirit = fighting ability, and runs with that idea to the stars and beyond. A clichéd solution to be sure, but it commits to it like no other, and there’s a magic to it which Diebuster reaches for but never completely grasps.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am most critical of the things I wish were better. Diebuster is a good show, which I really like, but it had the potential to be a great show, and I can see exactly where it could have been improved. The odd thing about this wish is that, for once, the wish was granted and the improvements were all made, except in a completely different show, leaving me in the awkward position of a man that mutually breaks up with a woman only to fall in love with and eventually marry her sister. Residual bitterness remains, but were it not for the first sister I’d have never met the second, and for that I will be eternally grateful. We will remain friends, and every now and again we will reminisce about the old days, but must ultimately agree that it was not to be.