I watched the final episode of Top wo Nerae 2 this morning, and it was mostly disappointing, as always. The second Gunbuster series really peaks at the fourth episode, though five's not so bad. The problem with the final episode is its failure to interestingly convey the scope of what's happening--the idea of using Earth as a projectile weapon might be impossible to really show, but so's most of the really amazing things in both Top wo Nerae series. The great thing is when they make it work dramatically, even if we sense it's not quite accurately. One of the highlights of the second Top wo Nerae is its astonishing sound design, which I'd not have sacrificed for the realism of soundless space.
But the final episode of Top wo Nerae 2 isn't without its good points, the best of which being its augmentation of one of the first series' most interestingly employed plot devices, the idea of time loss for those travelling at faster than light speeds. Top wo Nerae 2 actually ends at exactly the same moment as Top wo Nerae 1, despite the fact that the sequel takes place more than a thousand years in the future. We see the escape pods of the first series' protagonists, but the show ends before actually bringing the characters on screen, which helps to underline the strangeness of these people who've come across such a vast ocean of time. The fact that the general style of character designs is vastly different in the 2004 series from the 1988 series also helps underscore the eeriness of the anachronism; what could these character look like when they emerge from the escape pods? We never find out.
I think Top wo Nerae's final episode succeeded where its sequel's finale failed. Where Top wo Nerae 2 failed to impress me with its Earth attached to a ring of jet engines, the original Top wo Nerae's massive egg shaped black hole bomb carrying the remains of Jupiter in its core towards the centre of the galaxy does inspire a feeling of awe.
There are a few different things, I think, that contribute to this success, but I'd say that primarily its director Hideaki Anno's decision to have the episode coloured in black and white. Some segments are reduced even further to rough pencil drawings and I think the impression this creates overall is of visions that strain the capacity of human perception. The big egg bomb, particularly, contrasted with the white nebulae has something of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the more washed out black and white of the earlier sequences on Earth help establish the vast amount of time that's passed for Amano while only months have past for Noriko as she fights the space monsters.
By the time one reaches the sixth and final episode of the series, it's difficult to believe it began as a parody of Top Gun and Ace wo Nerae (Aim for the Ace), a Japanese girls' series about a young woman's training to become a tennis star and her relationship with her aloof coach. On the face of it, the idea of combining the two in a single parody sounds like a rich foundation for comedy; the unselfconsciously silly, serious as a heart attack focus on learning tennis in Ace wo Nerae combined with piloting machines of war and Maverick's issues with his deceased father have the right elements of wrong and absurd to make good comedy. The image of the fighting robots in the first episode running laps around a high school like the tennis players of Ace wo Nerae is funny in itself. But for a mere parody, why spend so much time carefully designing the ships and machines and why take pains to add an air of realism to the series physics? No modern anime series works as hard on the details as the Gainax series of the 80s, Top wo Nerae being no exception.
Gainax was still a very new studio in 1988--just a couple years earlier, the studio had been six guys making what was essentially fan art, and everything they produced had the marks of passion and dedication, even if not everyone was a hundred percent sure what they were doing. So why all the details for a parody? Because someone wanted to work out all those details. The same reason the series stopped being a parody at some point and became its own thing. Probably it was Hideaki Anno gaining a director's perspective of the disparate elements and realising that the uniting factor was a love for the characters as well as a love for making anime.
It makes me wonder when Anno's going to try making something new again. Don't get me wrong, I'm looking forward to the next Rebuild of Evangelion movie, but Anno can be such an interesting and surprising director with new material. Both Top wo Nerae and Neon Genesis Evangelion are series that essentially went off their initially proscribed rails and could easily have been disasters, but Anno successfully wielded the chaos.