Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.
It’s not uncommon for an anime to pay homage to its predecessors, but when the homage becomes a source of inspiration itself, then you have something special. That’s Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. The image of Gunbuster rising up from a ship with its arms crossed is especially famous, and for anyone to whom the phrase “female robot anime protagonist” is relevant, Takaya Noriko and the Gunbuster carry great significance. As I even use it in my introduction, it was only a matter of time before Gattai Girls got around to Aim for the Top!
In the future, mankind is under siege from massive alien creatures. In order to combat them, young cadets are recruited and trained so that they may travel through space and confront the aliens directly. One such pilot is Takaya Noriko, who appears to be lacking, but the school’s coach sees potential in her and makes her a candidate for mankind’s strongest weapon, the Gunbuster. As she trains alongside her “big sister,” a talented, beautiful, and hardworking upperclassman named Amano Kazumi, Noriko learns and matures. However, because battling the enemy requires faster-than-lightspeed travel, those who fight must live in a different time frame from those they care about.
First released in 1988, Aim for the Top! is in many ways an anime for anime fans, which should come as no surprise when considering that it’s an early Gainax production. Gainax is famous for being the anime studio created by fans, and when you look at this OVA series and even the fact that it bucks the trend by going for a fierce and powerful female protagonist in Noriko likely stems from these origins. The series fuses the melodramatic shoujo sports setting of the tennis manga Aim for the Ace! (of which the OVA is at first clearly a parody) with both the hot-blooded nature of the super robot genre and the devil-may-care atmosphere of Top Gun. One thing that strikes me about Aim for the Top! is that, even though it has its basis in shoujo, the character designs and overall art style are quite far-removed from Aim for the Ace! and really embodies that 80s look.
If I had to pick a more modern series with similar tendencies (aside from its sequel Aim for the Top 2!, of course), it would be Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and the way it takes the magical girl concept traditionally aimed towards girls and combines it with an almost mecha-like aesthetic for the enjoyment of male fans. Same goes for the treatment of male characters: like in Nanoha, guys are clearly less important, even to the point of being more plot devices than anything else.
The reason why I bring all of this up is because I can’t say that Takaya Noriko is intentionally a progressive character. Giant robots and cute girls are two popular tastes among otaku, and Noriko is a notable example of that. It also should be noted that Aim for the Top! is notorious for popularizing in anime the concept of incredibly jiggly breasts, the girls’ outfits emphasize their legs like crazy, and casual nudity is somewhat common in the series. Nevertheless, in some ways I would argue that there are very clear benefits to the fact that Noriko is a very strong female protagonist regardless of feminist intentions. Aim for the Top! asks, why can’t the girl be the lead? Why can’t she save the day? And why can’t she be the one yelling with fury at the top of her lungs as her robot plants the spiked treads on the bottom of its foot on alien creatures ten times its size and tears straight through them?
It’s not like Noriko at her core is a very original character. She’s not much different from her predecessor Hiromi in Aim for the Ace! (and Kazumi is still clearly based on Ochoufuujin from the same series), but just by shifting the activity and context, it changes the responsibility given to the lead character away from the relative safety of “sports as a female activity.” Where Hiromi learns to utilize a more “masculine” style of tennis which better suits her, Noriko ends up exceling in the traditionally masculine role of super robot pilot. In that capacity, “preventing the extinction of the entire human race” is a pretty big accomplishment.
I think the one thing which really captures Noriko’s appeal is her screaming. Noriko’s cry as she launches attacks is so distinct and memorable that, in terms of the ability to generate sheer excitement through her passion and intensity, she is possibly unmatched among female robot pilots in all of anime. By the end of the series, Noriko has more than proven herself as not only powerful in her own right, but a source of strength for others. Noriko’s strength is such that guys may not just want to be with her, but actually be her as well.