More Than A Coincidence: Notes on Xardion and Gunbuster

When I pitched my Xardion article, I was interested more in the substance of the game than its production. That soon changed. As I began untangling the myriad of threads that led to its creation, I was hooked and realized that was the story. However, my decision to focus on the talent who contributed to Xardion doesn’t erase the depth of its story or the similarities it shares to other Gainax productions, namely Aim for the Top! Gunbuster.

As a Gainax employee, Yoshimi Kanda had the privilege of contributing to both projects. Even though he worked in a more clerical fashion on Gunbuster (as an advertising manager), he was no doubt influenced—and possibly inspired—by the flurry of activity taking place in that cramped Osaka office building. So, it’s no surprise that less than three years later, Kanda took on a more creative role to produce the design documents for Xardion, a side scroller for the Super Famicom.

At first blush, Xardion shares a lot in common with Gainax’s breakout OVA. Like Gunbuster, it tells the story of a group of pilots who must put aside their differences to repel an alien invasion. Textbook stuff, right? But the connections run deeper.

Gunbuster introduces viewers to a galaxy-wide conflict. In the not-so-distant year of 2023, an insectoid race of invaders threatens the existence of humanity and it’s up to the remaining superpowers—in this timeline, Imperial Japan and the U.S.S.R—to come together to combat this menace. The show centers on three teenage pilots (Noriko Takaya, Kazumi Amano, and Jung Freud, respectively) who volunteer to avert catastrophe.

As the first three episodes suggest, this is easier said than done. Nationalistic tensions (and big egos) color the relationship between Amano and Freud, preventing them from cooperating. Eventually, this resentment reaches a boiling point, which instigates a battle between the two aces in a still-in-construction space station. While not as dramatic, Amano initially keeps Noriko at a distance, skeptical of her battle readiness and therefore unwilling to treat her as an equal.

Of course, this status quo isn’t tenable. The pilots need to work together to defeat the galactic menace. Thematically, Gunbuster is all about setting aside prejudices, be they cultural or personal, and embracing the Other. Having overcome their differences, the three women, backs against the proverbial wall, fight as friends. Coach, their commander, puts it best: “You and Amano, alone, are mere flames. Together, you are an inferno.”

Xardion shares a similar premise. A costly war has ravaged the Alpha 1 Solar System, as three planets battle for supremacy. However, seven months into the conflict a new threat arises from NGC-1611, an artificial ecosystem. An army of monstrosities (also vaguely insectoid) spread out, threatening all sentient life in the sector. In response, the world powers end hostilities and send champions to work together to defeat this evil.

Cooperation is built into Xardion, figuratively and literally. The game features three characters—Triton, Panthera, Alcedes—who must be used to clear each level. As the manual states, these “robots are…learning mechanisms. The more experience they have, the better their ability to carry out the desired task.” Only by leveraging each of their skill sets (Panthera can navigate narrow corridors, for example) can players gain experience and obtain the best equipment. This collaborative approach reinforces Xardion’s themes. Like in Gunbuster, they can’t do this alone.

Neither could Kanda; he had help. Kohei Tanaka, famous for his work on the Patlabor and Sakura Wars series, composed the music for Gunbuster and Xardion, a connection that’s apparent after an initial listen. Tanaka’s known for his sweeping orchestral scores and brassy percussive pieces and his Gunbuster OST is no different. Compositions like “Sakusen Kaichi,” “Kiki,” and “Gunbuster” elevate the drama and punctuate the action. Likewise, despite the hardware limitations of the Super Famicom, Tanaka manages to provide a few solid battle themes.

However, Tanaka isn’t a one-note composer. He also excels at quieter, more heartfelt pieces. Memorably, Gunbuster’s third episode opens with Noriko narrating a letter to her friend. She compares her journey to nautical travel—“it feels like we’re cutting through the wind”—which is such a romantic ideal, buoyed by Tanaka’s understated yet still ethereal piece. Unlike other mech shows which treat space as an empty battleground, Gunbuster goes out of its way to showcase the majesty, wonder, and sublimity of the cosmos. And the music plays a big role in this. While Xardion’s tracklist is nowhere near as robust, Tanaka delivers in this regard, too. The water planet theme (titled “Beach Ball” on the arranged album), and the ending piece, are equal parts contemplative and mysterious—both ooze atmosphere.

These more enigmatic qualities aren’t limited to the music, either. Gunbuster and Xardion make the (smart) choice not to debut the titular mecha until later. Gunbuster, the crown jewel of Japan’s military and humanity’s last hope, isn’t introduced until the end of the third episode. And even then, it’s only a glimpse (the full reveal happens later). Similarly, Xardion, in all its ostentatious glory, doesn’t appear until the second-to-last stage, at the end of a galaxy-wide search. In both cases, this creates a sense of mystery that’s captivating.

But perhaps the most affecting parallel remains the use of time-skips. Gunbuster, known by fans for its tear-jerking moments, uses the theory of time dilation to establish a sense of verisimilitude and elicit an emotional response. As Coach explains, “For every minute that passes out there, 3 months pass by on Earth.” This means that Noriko’s friends age dramatically whenever she’s traveling the galaxy, creating a disparity that’s poignant. This reaches a crescendo in the last act when Noriko and Amano, after having vanquished the alien force, float listlessly through space. After being stranded for over a month, they reach Earth, where 8,000 years have passed. But even still, they are embraced by friends and celebrated as heroes.

While never reaching the emotional highs of Gunbuster, Xardion takes some similar swings. Before the events of the game, the Fiera-ians, “a race of highly intelligent beings,” came to a distressing realization: in less than 300 hundred years their planet would become uninhabitable. In response, a professor by the name of Dr. Sim U made it his life’s goal to create an artificial ecosystem. Its codename: NHC-1611.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure and systems that Dr. Sim U put in place eventually break down. The artificial habitat “began undergoing violent changes [and] became a nest of monsters.” By the end of the game, players return to NHC-1611 and defeat the scourge, whereupon they are treated with a final scene that jumps 200 years into the future. The landscape, now devoid of monsters, remains barren and desert strewn. However, a single tree has grown around the rusted and worn plating of the Xardion. The narrator asks, “I wonder if life will return to this planet? Someday it may be green and beautiful again…”, ending on a melancholic, reflective, and surprisingly emotional note.

Now, it’s true that Gunbunster and Xardion employ archetypes and plot points that are common to the mecha genre. In no way does either work buck trends or subvert tropes. However, these commonalities suggest—to me, at least—that Kanda either drew directly from Gunbuster, or at the very least, pulled from the same cultural influences. Which is in no way a criticism. In fact, it’s fascinating.