Macross Plus

Macross Plus

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.

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Super Dimension Fortress Macross

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.