I am really enjoying Top wo Nerae 2 - Die Buster. It doesn't seem to be generating very much positive buzz, but the things it does well it does very well indeed. Plus it has Yoshiyuki Sadamoto as the character designer and animation director, and I am a sucker for his work.
The first Top wo Nerae - Gunbuster OAV set the bar very high (particularly in how it meshed giant robots and emotional resonance), gathering more and more steam with each episode. The second series is only halfway through, so it remains to be seen how it will measure up in comparison.
It is my understanding that Manga Entertainment has lost the Gunbuster license. Thank God. They did nothing with it for years. I suppose that was a bit of a blessing, seeing as how any Gunbuster DVDs Manga might have put out surely would have been fucked up something royal in some stupid, easily-avoidable way. Someone talk Geneon into acquiring both Top wo Nerae titles so they can get proper releases, please. But I digress.
The first episode of Top wo Nerae 2 (Aim For the Top II) is beautifully cinematic. I suspect most of the people who dismissed the new series outright after viewing the first episode never gave it a fair shake, watching a low-res 640x360 fansub—windowed, no doubt—on a computer monitor while devoting the bulk of their attention to IRC. They missed out. Even the establishing shots in the opening minutes alone look great. I want to watch this again in a movie theater, not on a television.
Matching the beautiful Sadamoto eye candy every step of the way is a great orchestral score—nothing fancy, but quite rich and grand all the same. It is appropriately epic at times and nicely compliments a show with so much heritage before it.
After the serious opening minutes, the first episode of Top wo Nerae 2 develops a comic sensibility, introducing the viewer to its lead character Nono, a young girl with an ambitious dream of becoming a space pilot. She is a long way off from her goal, though. In addition to lacking the approximately 15 years of education and training necessary, she does not seem to have the faculties for the job. Neither is she any good at her current job (which explains her maid outfit in the first episode...mostly). In fact, her primary talent appears to be an uncanny ability to break things.
Those of you familiar with the original Top wo Nerae (more commonly known among English-speaking fans as Gunbuster) may see some similarities with Noriko in her spiritual successor, Nono. Naturally, if there is going to be a Noriko, there has to be an Onee-sama. Enter Larc (or Raruku, if animenewsnetwork.com is correct). Larc is a Topless—an elite space pilot of a Buster Machine.
Larc sets Nono straight very quickly. To be an elite space pilot, it is not the years of education and training that matter. The important thing is to be Topless—and it doesn't appear Nono has what it takes. To Nono's credit, this revelation does not crush her dreams. Rather, she quickly aims even higher by switching her focus towards becoming a Topless. (I guess you could say she decides to Aim For the Top, eh.) Although, she does initially misconstrue Larc's meaning, Nono becomes steadfast at adopting Larc as her onee-sama.
Smoothly voiced by Maaya Sakamoto, Larc accepts her onee-sama role somewhat reluctantly. Larc in general is more laid back and unassuming than her Gunbuster counterpart. She keeps a lower profile, so all this onee-sama business is new for her. Personally, I feel making the towering Nono's onee-sama so petite and understated was a good move. It is a simple way to add something new to the dynamic, but it works well here.
Top wo Nerae 2 does a lot of things very well—many of them very simple in concept, but wildly entertaining in execution. For example, Larc thrusting her arm to the sky while summoning her buster machine with a shout is perfection. Likewise, Nono's somewhat embarrassed introduction to Fraternity at the end of episode two classically closes out the episode with a couplet that seques to the very catchy ED. (The OP, "Groovin' Magic" is quite good as well. Those of you familiar with H.264 and the Matroska container can view the OP here (512x288, 7.7MB), and the ED here (512x288, 7.8MB).
Episode three arrived in the middle of June 2005. It is a character development episode, and focuses primarily on Chiko (or possibly Tykho). Chiko is awesome, although I suspect most people will probably hate her. I dunno; I guess I just keep adding to my ever-growing roster of anime characters with deep-seated emotional problems—characters that everyone hates, but I tend to favor. (E.g., Poor Flay was merely misunderstood. She didn't deserve all the animosity.)
I attribute a lot of Chiko's appeal to the quality work of her voice actress, Miyuki Sawashiro, who is playing her spot-on. I am not really familiar with her work, and was surprised to discover she voices both Puchiko from Di Gi Charat and Mint from Galaxy Angel. Chiko does not sound like either of those characters, but rather is carving out her own niche with both sharp, curt interjections and somewhat droll statements. All in all, the voice plays out very well, and adds to my conviction in insisting that Chiko receive more screen time.
I can not really predict if Top wo Nerae 2 will manage to achieve the same impact as its superb predecessor, but even if the best I can hope for is further alternation between epic cinematic moments and giant robot fights somewhat reminiscent of the last few episodes of FLCL (seriously, most of the action is very much a combination of FLCL zaniness with staples from the original Gunbuster (complete with INAZUMA KICK), I shall still be anxiously awaiting the remaining episodes, and eager for a DVD box set.