Super Dimension Fortress Macross
Before diving into the Macross discussion, I should first offer the requisite anime disclaimer. Not only am I ignorant of anime conventions and clichés, I am also not much of a television viewer, so things that are commonplace in long-running TV series are news to me. Both of these are fundamental to the discussion of Macross, because I am forced to deal with it in terms I am comfortable with, not the terms under which it was created. In some ways this may be unfair. My own ignorance means that I judge the series solely as a work of science fiction, not necessarily in the context that one should examine early 80s TV anime. On the other hand, all I really demand is good storytelling.
Some background for those not up on their anime. Super Dimension Fortress Macross is the original, 36 episode series in what has become one of three fundamental canons of Japanese SF. (The other two are the Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam universes.) The intricacies of sub-genre and historical background are best left to more specialized sites, but Macross falls firmly into the Transforming Giant Robots in Space field that Japan seems to dominate. (I have no idea why this is so – nothing in my years in Japan gave me any indication why they should like giant robots so much more than we Westerners.) The background I have read paints a confusing picture of the authors’ intent with Macross; it may have started as a satire, and seems to end as a deconstruction of warlike space opera, though I question if the ambiguity of the storyline is an indication of profundity or just too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen. Finally, some readers of a certain age may recognize Super Dimension Fortress Macross as the first season of Robotech. I am snooty, so I watched the Japanese version.
But I get ahead of myself. I watched all 36 episodes over the course of a couple of months, which adds up to 17+ hours with these characters, minus whatever time I spent fast forwarding through annoying music, clip shows, or the boring romantic bits. I am left with deeply divided opinions on Macross. On the one hand, after 17 hours, I feel an attachment to the world and characters. On the other, there is a lot of stupid crap that goes on in said 17 hours. But on the gripping hand, when Macross really brings it, awesome stuff goes down. Of course, awesomeness and utter banality often clash in the same episode, and even between commercial breaks. Each viewer will have a different tolerance level for this. (My wife hit hers before the first DVD had ended.)
The story. Actually, this can be one of the weakest parts of the experience. I am guessing that insane discontinuity is due to the vagaries of TV production, as accounts elsewhere describe uncertainty if the first episodes would lead to any more, funding problems resulting to new people getting involved part way, and eventual success requiring more tacked on to the end of the series. None of this is conducive to tightly plotted, consistent material. The core of the story is the conflict between Earth and the Zentradi, a race of giant alien invaders. The source of this conflict is poorly spelled out in the beginning and the series leaves very confusing hints about the backstory. I never really figured it out and finally jettisoned the first DVD from memory because it was interfering with my enjoyment of the middle third. Likewise, the final DVD and then some is an extended epilogue meant to tie up loose ends and end the story pleasantly. The resolution of the final conflict hits somewhere around episode 27. The epilogue is completely unnecessary, but by the time I’d made it that far, I figured I might as well see the whole thing through to the end. This despite the fact that the narrative stopped being fun once Earth and the Zentradi finished blowing crap up back in episode 27.
Continuing on the somewhat critical note, I will get my main complaints out of the way here before moving on to positives. This may be par for the course with TV shows, but I found that about one in four episodes was a throwaway. There are at least two clip shows, which I skipped entirely, the first two or three episodes that can be passed up without any lasting harm, and large swathes in the early middle that involve singing, the Miss Macross competition (every bit as horrible as it sounds), lovesick people mooning about, or awkward conversations between people who really should know better than to bulldoze through junior high school mating rituals when there is an alien invasion on. Suffice it to say that the fast forward button was my friend, as I channeled Monty Python and yelled “Stop that! No singing in my scene!” at the screen.
As mentioned above, the story tends to be a scrambled mess. There is a coherent backstory that emerges late in the series concerning the origins of the Zentradi and Supervision Army, their relationship with humanity, and the resulting power of the Protoculture. This part is pretty cool, but the bits connecting it to the story of the Macross are wildly confusing. (Maybe they aren’t and my brain was melted by the initial exposure to the theme song, but I honestly have no idea why the Zentradi are fighting or how exactly the whole mess started.) The balance of the plot is littered with holes, weirdness, and head slappers, but basically holds together. A lot of the silliness can be placed at the feet of some awfully dumb characters.
The review thus far has been somewhat harsh, so now it is time to highlight a few of the reasons why I pushed on to the end (besides having OCD). Despite its failings and incoherence, Macross pulls itself together just often enough for moments of greatness. There were just enough “wow!” moments to pull me through the stupid parts. Several of the characters are engaging and left me cheering as I watched them grow. Two points of the love triangle mature in gratifying ways and manage a far more satisfying relationship than one might expect of a Giant Robot Space War. (The third point, however, remains annoying throughout.) Several of the side characters are also well-portrayed (Claudia, Max, Global, and my favorite: Exedol), though numerous others are nothing but cringe-inducing (the bridge bunnies, Kamjin, and Kaifun, who is the biggest tool ever). Finally, the viewer can never go wrong when, spoiler alert, the Macross literally punches a battleship to death. Spoiler over. Also, Global says, with a completely straight face, “Launch the booby duck.” That won my heart.
It is the overarching theme, however, that keeps coming back to me. I don’t know if it is a result of residual Japanese ambivalence about war and violence or just the producers trying to think of a hook for the show, but the Macross treatment of war is certainly different. The whole series is a 36 episode examination of how to create peace. The Zentradi are the obvious warmongers, but there are hawks among the humans as well. One prominent character is a vocal pacifist. (He is also a moron and probably a caricature of the Japanese Communist Party.) The hero starts out with no use for the military but finds himself joining up in the face of destruction. Attitudes about the military end up deciding the love triangle central to the story. Again, I don’t know how much of the moral complexity in the series is a result of carefully placed symbolism, how much is a reflection of a culture still trying to reconcile its warlike past with its ostensibly pacifist present, and how much is just too many production companies throwing in too many side stories. Japan’s attitude about war and its military is worthy of books, but suffice it to say that watching Macross in its entirety provides the viewer with a good, if confusing, overview.
What really sets Macross apart, however, isn’t the shades of gray. Macross offers a solution, not just questions and compromises. (What one makes of the solution and its implementation is another question entirely.) If humanity is to conquer the enemy and win some sort of peace in the Macross universe, it isn’t through arms, valor, loyalty, democracy, or any such thing. The secret weapon in this story is culture. Culture was denied the Zentradi and Supervision Army and culture is the key to ending conflict. In this case, Culture is represented by music, which is heartening to a jazz musician like me. Less heartening is the fact that the music that can turn the tide of battles is crappy Japanese pop, but the Good Lord giveth and the Good Lord taketh away. To look further though, the weapons that turn the tide are not the new fighters, the neat robots, or the hilariously named “Grand Cannon,” but songs, babies and kissing. I won’t argue that these plot points are handled in subtle, sensitive, or ingenious ways, but many of the “wow!” moments that kept me coming back were related to them in one way or another.
A couple of other random asides before wrapping up. Two main characters, Minmay and Kaifun, are obviously Chinese. While there is an international cast, as it were, I would be very surprised to see any sympathetic Chinese characters in Japanese anime today. Like much anime (I am told), Macross doesn’t pull punches when killing characters. One major death was broadcast several episodes before it happened, but another was totally out of the blue. I can only imagine audience shock at the time. Destruction is also pretty unforgiving – there are a couple of things taken out that I had not expected. Like a lot of things I saw in Japan, romance is handled in the clumsiest way possible. It would be totally unbelievable if I hadn’t seen similar idiocy in real life, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
To sum up, Super Dimension Fortress Macross is a bit of a rollercoaster. The gap between sublime and ridiculous is more of a yawning chasm. I feel some attachment to the world and the characters after investing so much time in the series, though I wish that less of that time was spent groaning and hiding my eyes. There is a lot to recommend, not the least of which is the deconstruction of space opera tropes, but I would caution viewers to have the fast forward button at the ready.
Rating: Sounders-Timbers derbies. Inflamed emotion, frantic running and fighting, rabid partisans on both sides, lots of fun to be had, but a suspect product on the pitch.