Bullbuster Anime Series Review – Review

Yes, this is an anime named Bullbuster that was produced at Studio NuT. Two things that sound like a testicle reference! Dohohohoho. Now that we’ve gotten that sensible, if slightly puerile, chuckle out of the way, let’s move on to talking about the actual content of the series, because Bullbuster does a lot of things that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an anime pull off—even in the hundreds of series I’ve watched over the years.

To avoid disappointment, though, it’s best to know what kind of series you’re getting into when you start up Bullbuster. It’s part of the “real robot” subgenre of mecha anime, focusing more on plausible robot design performing everyday labor, rather than superpowered robots battling it out. The most famous example would be Patlabor, but even then, Bullbuster puts a much heavier emphasis on workplace antics and shenanigans. The protagonist, Tetsuro Okino, a starry-eyed engineer-slash-super-robot-otaku, rolls up to the pest control company Namidome with the Bullbuster, a state-of-the-art mech he designed himself. He’s transferring to Namidome alongside his robot—thus achieving his goal of piloting a giant robot.

However, the gap between his dream and reality is huge. Namidome, a former construction company and a subsidiary of the larger corporation Shiota Chemical, is not a glamorous, high-tech operation. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a tiny outfit of just a half-dozen employees operating out of a run-down warehouse. The “pest control” they perform is fighting off Giant Beasts—mutated animals that have overtaken Ryugan Island and driven the residents out after installing a desalination plant. In addition to freaky mutated monsters, Namidome’s scrappy crew must face down budget shortages, social media snafus, and hostile parent corporations. In short, their greatest enemy isn’t the Giant Beasts; it’s capitalism.

I adored Bullbuster, but like many series I feel that way about, the reaction of the larger anime community ranged from indifferent to negative. I do kind of get why—if you’re going into it hoping to see cool robots fighting monsters, it’s a huge disappointment. The mecha designs by Jūki Izumo place most of their emphasis on function over form, with purposefully clunky and inelegant results. While I like that (since it fits in with the series’ utilitarian aesthetic), it’s unlikely to drive the people seeking out mecha series in the wild. The Giant Beasts, on the other hand, look bad. The CG animation is about on a level with PlayStation 2 graphics and never melds with the hand-drawn elements. It looks like they’re coming from a different dimension.

The hand-drawn animation, on the other hand, overall looks great. The character design work especially stands out, as each expresses the characters’ personalities clearly. Okino’s freckles convey youthful energy, while Tajima’s rumpled hair and unshaven face give the impression of a tired man—working so hard he has little time to care for himself. Nikaido’s tank top and tied-up jumpsuit express a very different personality from Shirogane’s traditional office lady vest, blouse, and pencil skirt. Even Namari’s bad haircut tells us he’s an awkward young man who doesn’t care what people think of him.

In addition to their different looks, each character has their physicality and way of moving that comes through even in small gestures—like Okino fixing his hair before recording himself piloting. Although they are more or less archetypical—the fresh-faced newbie, the cool girl, the grizzled veteran, and so on—the little details about their lives humanize them, like Muto talking about his daughter. These bits and pieces are important, because while it is an ensemble show, it is ultimately driven more by story and ideas than the characters themselves.

Although Giant Beasts and battle mecha are the stuff of fantasy, Bullbuster uses them to examine modern-day corporate culture. The folks at Namidome consider their mission essential to getting the folks of Ryugan Island back home, but it’s not profitable. As their accountant, Kataoka constantly reminds them that things like ammunition and the power to charge the suits cost money, which is in short supply. The lab manager at Shiota isn’t inclined to research the beasts because Namidome doesn’t have the cash to pay for their time, and no amount of appealing to his emotions about the displaced Ryugans will move him. However, as the plot moves, it starts to look like the reason for his refusal may be a bit more nefarious than it originally appears.

As the story grows, a small company’s limitations become increasingly clear in the face of an apathetic—even malicious—corporate culture. It’s painfully real and doesn’t currently have a real-world solution. Well… except maybe communism (but the good folks of Namidome aren’t equipped to overthrow the government). Instead of reaching for a pat ending, Bullbuster is unafraid to leave things unresolved, even as the characters celebrate their temporary victory. Fiction is an excellent tool to explore real-world issues, but creators are often unwilling or afraid to leave loose threads. Instead, they whip up something fantastical that may fix things in the story’s world but isn’t actionable for viewers. It takes courage for a story to feature characters who fight back while acknowledging that alone may not be enough.

In the beginning, it looks like Okino is the protagonist, but as the plot develops, the focus shifts to other characters. This both helps and hurts the story. Okino is a convenient audience entry point as the new hire; however, he also has the least personal connection to Ryugan Island. His fresh-faced idealism also quickly grates in such a grounded setting as he fights against necessary pragmatism and other important issues. After a time, other members of the ensemble become point-of-view characters in his place—especially as their investment in the conflict becomes clear—rather than tying everything to Okino’s limited perspective. This allows for greater story development but makes many of his early developments, and other details about the characters’ lives feel like a narrative cul-de-sac. I wonder if this is a result of it being an adaptation of a series of novels—where changing perspectives between volumes feels like a more natural transition—but comes across a touch clunky in the context of anime.

The music overall is quite strong, but the opening theme song, “Try-Lai-Lai” by Tom-H@ck, deserves special mention. It’s a major bop with high-energy visuals to match that never failed to get me excited and energized for what followed.

If you’re looking primarily for exciting mecha action, Bullbuster will not give you what you want. However, if you’re looking for a story that uses giant robots to do something different, something smart, maybe even something a little political, this is worth your while.