“Like a trash can fire in a prison cell,
Like the search lights in the parking lots of hell.
I will walk down to the end with you
If you will come all the way down with me.”
– The Mountain Goats, Old College Try
Set eleven thousand, nine hundred and ninety years after Gunbuster, Diebuster tells the story of a new hero – Lal’C Mellk Mal, who befriends the chipper robot Nono. Unlike Noriko, Lal’C begins our story a hero – not just one of the rare Topless, adolescents who pilot Buster Machines to defend the human race, she is the “curve breaker,” envy of her peers. A bright star, casting a light for all of humanity. And she’s proud of this – though she feigns indifference, in truth she exults in her position, cherishing the adulation she receives. Lal’C Mellk Mal exemplifies the power of youth, and in Diebuster, youth is not simply something to be coveted – it is a tangible power in this world.
The Buster Machines are the vehicle for youth, massive robots that can only be fueled by those young enough to still manifest their Topless abilities. Through their channeling, the impossibility of childish potential is made real. Their powers are absurd – they defy reality, defy perspective. Adults cannot see beyond the world as it exists – they know too much, and ask too many difficult questions. But children? They can dream the impossible, and believe in things any adult mind would dismiss, in spite of any and all tangible evidence to the contrary. And their hopes all the more fervent for the knowledge that dreams will someday end.
In the world of Diebuster, where adulthood may as well mean death, the power of youth is something worth clinging to. Everything in Lal’C’s world confirms this separation, this fear – though she lives in a world of grandeur and play, there is always the specter of adulthood, waiting, looking in. The adults speak of nostalgia, and talk enviously of the powers they can’t recapture. The very world they inhabit sags with exhaustion, built on the ruins of dead ancestors. If FLCL represents the youthful edge of adolescence, Diebuster represents its end – it knows we can only seize life for so long, and it fears what lies on the other side. Fears aging, fears uselessness. Fears death, but also idolizes it – because if a life of decay is worth nothing, a beautiful death may be our only solace.
As with Gunbuster, death’s specter hangs over the heroes of Diebuster. Not just the loss of others this time – Diebuster’s heroes are both older and perhaps more selfish, and the fear of their own obsolescence hangs heavy in their minds. With her identity so contingent on the praise her Topless abilities win her, Lal’C sees death as an inevitability, something to be engaged with before time’s arrow steals her youthful glory. To live forever is the ultimate punishment – no other fate could be so cruel. Lal’C’s initial wish is to die well – die proudly, as a falling star. Die with her friend beside her. But Nono changes her.
Caught in the maelstrom of their final battle, with her Topless abilities and external pride run dry, Lal’C ultimately admits she has come to terms with aging. She could stomach the burnout, stomach the decay – as long as Nono were there beside her. Laid bare in the honesty of her friend’s hands, she admits it’s not the glory she needed – that any of us need. It’s the feeling of worth, of connection. It’s to not die alone. And as Nono sacrifices herself to save humanity and her friend, Lal’C is abandoned – left in the cold grip of time, the former hero fades to one more fallen star.
But as with Gunbuster, the truth is, we are never alone. We cling to imperfect connection, but the beauty of our fractured, short-lived, individual nature is that we are not robots, doomed to float in oblivion. We are bright stars, who burn out and die young, but who even in our aging contribute to a grand network of life. The great works of our ancestors are not grave markers, but contributions to our eternal living document. And though nostalgia and decay are inevitable, they do not make life any less beautiful or worth clinging to. Becoming an adult isn’t easy – purpose isn’t given to you, and accepting your own life’s passing with grace requires embracing the unselfish humanism that Nono’s sacrifice represents. But as Lal’C awaits the return of the girl who inspired her friend, we see in her smile the greater spirit of humanity that bathes us in brilliant light. Our triumphs are necessary because they offer a hand to the next generation, and the sky is full of falling stars. We are never alone.