Having made my way through the Big Three of sci-fi anime (Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Battleship Yamato, and Super Dimension Fortress Macross), it is time to dig further into the major franchises. Macross II is widely regarded as a failure and was promptly disavowed by the franchise creator, so I skipped that and headed straight for the next in line, Macross Plus. This four-volume OVA (Original Video Animation, direct to video in our parlance) gets rave reviews in the anime community and is often cited as must see anime. I have yet to settle on an opinion; I hope that in writing this I will be able to make sense of it all. As always, please read the Anime Disclaimer before leaving scathing comments.
The easiest place to start, and least difficult to untangle, is production values. Macross Plus was apparently made with a massive budget for its time and it shows. From the opening titles, the art and animation are light years ahead of the original. I’m not much of an animation connoisseur, so if the difference is clear to me, it must be the equivalent of getting slapped in the head with a full-grown tuna for true anime fans. I especially enjoyed the cityscapes and wondered if they borrowed at all from Blade Runner (which is, of course, modeled on Osaka). As an art-related side note, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of fan service. I am told this was remedied in the movie version, and an appropriate number of breasts are on display. (Unconfirmed.)
Music is, naturally, the other area where Macross Plus shines. The franchise has always given music a central place in the narrative, though I spent most of the original series irritated at the songs and wishing that Minmay (the dopey idol singer) would go away, or at least shut up. Plus, however, does the music right. I’m more impressed by the breadth of the soundtrack than by individual tunes, as it swings smoothly from Sharon Apple’s pop songs to driving electronica to traditional orchestral movie scores without ever missing a beat. There is even a musical Star Wars Easter egg that made me laugh out loud during the final battle. I won’t go so far as to buy the soundtrack on CD, but the mere fact that it is available in the States gives some idea of importance the franchise places on music.
Those are the easy things to praise. Once I start to think through the plot, ambivalence rears its ugly head. With four episodes of about 40 minutes each, Macross Plus is mercifully free of the bloat that haunts many TV series. No clip shows, no weird side stories, no random filler. In spite of this, the pacing and overall arc feel a bit off, considering the lean narrative style. The first episode sets the stage and introduces the requisite love triangle, the second and third fill out the details and allow the conflict to develop, then the fourth unexpectedly veers off in a new direction and blows a bunch of stuff up (literally). In the negative column, this really feels like the producers needed to balance the last bit of the plot more, or find some other way to resolve the initial conflict. It felt very strange to go from “Top Gun, only Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise hate each other and have always loved Kelly McGillis” to “Holy crap the AIs are EVIL” so abruptly. On the plus side, this didn’t occur to me until later. While watching, I was fully engaged and caught up in the story.
The characters are another set of mixed feelings. The ostensible Hero isn’t very likable. He doesn’t just start out arrogant and condescending, the story never forces him to stop being a jerk. Usually these characters show a better side, or at least take a moment for self-reflection at some point in the narrative, but not Isamu. It’s hard to cheer for someone I would punch in real life. His rival, the bad guy until the Real Bad Guy appears, is actually more sympathetic than the good guy. Yes, Guld is rigid and distant, but he’s also honorable and shows a protective instinct. In almost any situation, the viewer can count on Isamu to be a self-centered wanker, while Guld does the responsible thing. And yet, we’re supposed to cheer for the jerk. The point opposite the hypotenuse of the love triangle, Myung, is relatively unremarkable. She’s nice enough, though I would have told her to get her crap together before looking to me for love and support.
The development of this triangle is the biggest hole in the story. I suppose it’s a love triangle (because this is Macross, and it has to be a love triangle), but one point of the triangle never really shows up. Guld hovers over Myung and appears to make it to at least second base, but Isamu is a non-entity. He’s busy flirting with other people, and I suspect there is little room in Isamu’s heart for anyone but Isamu. Guld is constantly threatened by him, though, and Myung apparently loves him anyway, though we are only told that, not shown. At the end, there is a big reveal of why the two men hate each other so, but this just raises more disturbing questions about them. The exact order of events is never clarified, but either this violent hatred arose from a medium-sized misunderstanding and argument, or someone got raped/abused and the two guys laugh it off as “just something that happened in the past.” This is either somewhat trivial or exceedingly troubling, which may be why the show shies away from clear explanations. Finally, the end of the series fails utterly to resolve the triangle. This was alright by me, though, since I didn’t really care about it anyway.
To sum up: While the Macross franchise is generally seen as a love triangle involving musicians against the backdrop of interstellar war, Macross Plus replaces interstellar war with pilots in a training program. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it focuses the viewer on a character study. Music’s role in the narrative changes also, downgrading itself from a key factor in the end of war to a somewhat relevant plot enabler. Finally, Macross Plus removes most of the silliness from the first series and stays in much darker, more adult territory. How viewers feel about these three factors will likely determine their response to the series. In my case, I enjoy the adult tone, kind of wish that music was restored to its pedestal, and much prefer spaceships blowing up to half-formed relationship quandaries involving people I don’t care about. However, as I said before, as long as the tape was rolling, I was caught up in the story and couldn’t get it out of my head.
Rating: Tottenham Hotspur. The club has moments of high drama, triumph, and pathos, enjoys passionate support of a certain group, and puts a respectable team on the field every match. They don’t win championships though, and I’ve just never gotten into them.