A Franchise Retrospective: Macross Part 1

Shoji Kawamori’s Macross is one of the most experimental and varied franchises of it’s time. From the way it helped popularize idol culture in Japan, to its introduction of the Itano Circus. As expansive as the Macross Universe has proven to be thus far, it does have a simple formula to it all, and that’s to see how many ways you can build a story out of transforming planes, aliens, “the power of music” and love triangles. So far, the experience has been a mixed, but very intriguing one, so with all that said, here’s a rather extensive run-down of everything Macross I’ve seen thus far. Hopefully, those of you who haven’t taken the plunge into Kawamori’s crazy world will find what I have here to be helpful with regards to making an informed decision on where to start and what to watch.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross

What is it? The original 1982 series that started it all.

The original 1982 series that started it all.

How is it?

The original 1982 series that started it all.

How is it? Anyone who has some basic knowledge of 80s anime trends won’t find a whole lot surprising about SDF Macross at 1st. After all, the basic premise seems like a combination of Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Battleship Yamato. Sure there are some unique flourishes here and there early on, like how the enemy aliens are actually large enough to fight human-made mechs one-on-one in hand-to-metallic hand combat, and….umm…this. After about ten or so episodes, the show really begins to show it’s true colors by revealing the reasons why this has proven to be an enduring franchise. You’ve all heard that barfworthy, cliche phrase “love conquers all” of course, but you haven’t seen is how that would work if played up in the most entertainingly absurd way imaginable until you’ve watched Macross. You see, there’s more to this war than cool space dogfights and contact between the Zentradi and the humans has more to do with wanting simply to gain possession of the Macross. Interspecies relations between the two sides tend to be very awkward as humans enjoy the benefits of living in societies that aren’t solely defined by military might. The Zentradi, on the other hand, are all bred for and die for the sake of war. As a result, for many generations, they have neglected all aspects culture that is unrelated to living a life of battle (including things like music and mingling between genders) so as to not distract themselves from their duties as members of a warrior species. Observing how humans embrace these taboo “distractions” simultaneously invokes a variety of responses from the Zentradi, such as curiosity, fear, and even the outright rejection of their ways archaic ways for cool stuff like pop music and kung-fu flicks. This to me is where the true heart of SDF Macross lies, and what really set it apart from its predecessors. Seeing battle-hardened warriors lose their shit over innocuous things like kissing and music is pretty hilarious after all. On top of all that, the series also addresses the struggles of the aliens that do want to turn a new leaf and adjust, yet have trouble doing so for a variety of reasons in later episodes in a way that felt rather believable and poignant. You can’t just take a bunch of tigers out of the jungle and throw them in a daycare full of children and expect them to simply “adjust” after all, and I’m glad that Macross actually addresses such issues in its own way.

Another notable aspect of the original series, of course, is its character drama. Whilst love triangles aren’t exactly a fresh idea, it made sense for this show to have one (this is a series about fighting war literally with love after all) but that doesn’t excuse the series for dragging it out far longer than it had any right to, unfortunately. Too much of the ensuing drama is born from how emotionally dense the characters tend to be, and whilst I could tolerate seeing some mistakes between young people in love, it gets particularly aggravating in the final due to how central characters like Hikaru and Minmay won’t learn from past mistakes. That said, the third wheel in the love triangle, Misa, happened to have my favorite character arc in the series. The growing affection between her and Hikaru goes surprisingly far considering the nature of their relationship was when they 1st met (one being a somewhat naggy superior officer, and the other a newly recruited soldier that isn’t used to having to respond appropriately to authority). Another thing I liked was how my answer to the question of “who will win Hikaru’s heart” was always in constant swing, as the series made fairly balanced cases for and against both Misa and Minmay. The love triangle felt like a real, unspoken competition after a while with both sides making gains at the expense of the other regularly. After a while, you just can’t call it.

On top of the hit-or-miss drama, there are a number of other caveats as well. The character art, for instance, is great when it can actually do the unique designs justice. Most of the time, however, it ranges from amateurish to downright awful with facial features (especially the eyes) moving around from shot-to-shot like a bunch of billiard balls. There’s also the existence of Lynn Kaifun, because seriously, f*** that guy and his annoying, self-righteous platitudes. With all that said, I still believe there’s enough new to offer here to make up for the aspects that have aged horribly.

Should you watch it? Well, of course! I wouldn’t have wrote this post I didn’t think so after all. Is Macross cheesy? Certainly. Stupid? I guess. A blast to watch? You bet.

Well, of course! I wouldn’t have wrote this post I didn’t think so after all. Is Macross cheesy? Certainly. Stupid? I guess. A blast to watch? You bet.

Macross: Do You Remember Love?

What is it?

A 1984 film version of the above TV series, that serves as a retelling of the story found in the 1st 27 episodes.

How is it?

Yes, I Remember Love. However, what I don’t remember is it being this bland. I tend to have a general bias against films that condense popular TV series for a couple of reasons. 1st, their either a complete waste of time like the Berserk trilogy, or they’re downright bad like X/1999. Whilst Macross: Do You Remember Love? Actually has a couple of new things to offer that you can’t get in the original (unlike the Berserk films), without having a total trainwreck of a script like (X/1999), there still is very little to write home about this take on the Macross mythos. The real problem here lies in the characters for a number of reasons. 1st of all, if there were any characters you liked from the original that weren’t Hikaru, Misa or Minmay, you’re outta luck here since everyone else essentially gets their screen time and relevance scaled down to almost nothing. I could get by that if the characters that did receive focus were handled in an interesting way, however, the versions of Hikaru, Minmay and Misa we get here are essentially stripped of whatever qualities they had before minus their most basic functions in the original story. I never thought Minmay and Hikaru were the most interesting of characters to start with, but what really knocked this movie down several notches for me was Misa’s portrayal. Gone is the strong-willed but tender personality that had to strip layers off of her comfort zone before getting out her true feelings. Instead, here she’s all googly-eyed for Hikaru from the get-go and……that’s all really ever get to know about her since all other factors that went into making her a great character are gone. By simplifying the characterization of these three to such an extent, the romance feels rather standard. It may have removed some aspects of the drama that were aggravating in the TV series, but much of what worked there is also nowhere to be found.

The actual plot doesn’t fair much better either. The beginning, in particular, lacks crucial context provided immediately in the TV series as it entirely skips over the events of the 1st few episodes. People who opt to watch this won’t get any details as to what the Zentradi’s history with the Macross is for example. The Zentradi themselves also come off feeling far less memorable this time around. As I said earlier, what made the original distinct from some of its sci-fi contemporaries was at the time was how deep it plunged into the ever-changing relationships between the alien invaders and the humans. Almost all of that is gone too, and that sucks much of humor as well. So what does that leaves us with? The one part they not only got right with this film but knocked out of the ballpark, that being the production quality. I don’t think it would be much of an exaggeration to say that Macross: Do You Remember Love? was easily the best-looking anime ever made when it came out in 1984 and remained so until Akira hit the scene 4 years. The final 20 or so minutes are a non-stop assault on the senses in the best way imaginable. Although the film only adds one new notable track at the end (the rest of the soundtrack was recycled from the TV series, which is also a tad disappointing) it is easily the best piece of music I’ve heard from this franchise thus far. Enough to make up for the rest of the films shortcomings? Not in my eyes. You can say my constant comparisons to the TV series are unfair as properly squeezing down a 36 episode series into two movies whilst retaining all the juicier bits of characterization and worldbuilding is impossible and I would agree with you on that much. That begs the question: Why try to do the impossible anyway then? It’s not like I’m opposed to everything DYRL did differently since as a new take on the franchise it had some cool ideas to work with. This really ought to have been a film series, much like the Gurren Lagann or Mobile Suit Gundam movies if it wanted to retell the original story with some altercations. Or hell, even The Evangelion Rebuilds if it wanted to have its own entirely unique spin on the story. As is, the film bit off way more than it could chew.

Should you watch it? 

For the visuals? Absolutely. For a good story? Probably not. As an introduction to the franchise? I guess you can? I mean if you really aren’t down for a 36 episode series. Though, I’d urge you not to do so

Macross: Flash Back 2012

This is mainly a compilation of music videos comprised of Minmay’s songs being played over a random string of scenes from SDF Macross and Do You Remember Love? with a lot of random live action shots mixed in. It’s nice if you’re a fan of Minmay and all, but the reason why I think this is worth bringing up is the fact that the last third contains dialogue-less scenes that essentially serve as an epilog to both the SDF Macross and the film version. It’s a nice send-off for the original cast and worth a look for that alone. The whole thing is only 30 minutes long after all.

Macross II: Lovers Again

What is it? 

A 6 episode OVA from 1992. Meant to be a sequel to both the original SDF Macross and it’s film counterpart.

How is it?

As a sequel that’s 80 years removed from the original, Macross II has a couple of interesting new ideas on display. Most notable is the way in which leadership on the Macross has changed over time. You see, back when the Macross first launched, the power structure responsible for calling the shots on the Macross was essentially limited to the lone Captain of the mighty fortress, Bruno J. Global. What we can see here, however, is that the decision-making process on the Macross resembles a much more complete, typical military industrial complex. This leads into a new thematic pathway for the franchise regarding media and war, as the heads of the military are not above manipulating the former to mask the truths of the latter. This leads to our new protagonist, Hibiki Kanzaki, a reporter that lives for getting the juiciest and  most scandalous of stories, especially ones that call into question the integrity of military personnel (who he happens to hate). Hibiki one gets the opportunity of a lifetime to discover the truth behind the ongoing battle between the humans and the Zentradi as a war correspondent. Said truth ends up being the catalyst of his development from a reporter hunting for sleazy headlines to an independent journalist who believes the people ought to know the dire truth behind the conflict, not the selectively edited truth overseen by the military. There’s also big developments going on with the opposing side as well. Apparently, another alien hominid species known as the Marduk has entered the scene and are now manipulating the Zentradi with their specific mind control methods. Said methods even include having their owner singers (or emulators as they call them) play music that sort of triggers a pheromone- like response that emboldens the Zentradi whilst blocking out the distracting pop idol songs played by the humans.

If these developments make Macross II sound interesting and worth your time, then I’m sorry to say that I’ve misled you. Bluntly put, this OVA series doesn’t really push any of these ideas in any interesting direction. Hibiki’s character could’ve been used to open some interesting questions regarding whether or not the public’s need for accurate information should come at the cost of their illusion of security and military secrets. Unfortunately, the script just devolves into a boilerplate “aliens vs humans” conflict with characters you’ll forget immediately after finishing. Not even the Marduk turned out to be interesting since they weren’t different enough from the Zentradi to justify writing an entirely new species into the setting. If that wasn’t enough, Macross II isn’t even considered canon to the overall Macross lore. You see, Macross II was the 1st and only installment of the franchise to have not involved Shoji Kawamori. As a result, it was retconned out of the main timeline when Kawamori took the franchise back up. Just think of what happened to Dragon Ball GT the moment Toriyama started to write Battle of Gods and you have the idea. This essentially renders Macross II as the sole occupant of its own continuity branch.

Should you watch it?

Not terrible, but not great. Being just a lukewarm alternate continuity makes it 100% skippable.

Macross Plus

What is it?

The true sequel to SDF Macross. A 4 Episode OVA originally meant to be a movie.

How is it?

Whilst Macross II’s problem lied in its creative stagnation, Kawamori taking the reigns back up saw the creation of a follow-up that his imitators could never come close to. In Macross II, despite being 80 years removed from its predecessor, nothing has really changed which doesn’t really make much sense. The humans are still aboard the same Macross, fighting the same Zentradi with the same strategies. It makes you wonder just what the hell the two sides have really been up to all that time. With Macross Plus, what you get isn’t quite what you’d expect based off of what came before it. There aren’t any epic space battles with the Zentradi with pop idols singing in the middle of total carnage. It’s a more character-centric piece that does a good job of showing the direction the Macross Universe has taken since the original series. It’s also noticeably more #adultstuff then anything from the franchise before and since as the central love triangle isn’t made up of teenagers. The story takes place in 2040, an era in which humanity flourishes within their separate colonies far away from Earth. The UN is currently testing two new valkyries to see which of them is functions better in battle by using a contest known as “The Supernova Project between representing pilots. The contest reunites two ace-pilots and former friends on opposite sides. The once-fighter pilot (demoted to a test pilot for reckless behavior), the cocky Isamu Dyson Guld, and the more mature half Zentradi, Guld Goa Bowman. As if tensions between Guld and Isamu as a result of past conflicts wasn’t enough, another childhood friend in music producer Myung Fang Long enters the picture and rounds out the tumultuous and obligatory “love triangle” of this installment of the franchise.

Macross Plus has its attention split into a couple of directions. The being the strife between the three friends and  the dangerous implications it carries as a result of Isamu and Guld being trusted to not kill each other during test flights. Then there’s Myung as well, whose occupation as a producer is merely a facade. Recreation in the Macross universe you see isn’t quite what it used to be with girls on stage in frilly dresses singing corny songs. Now we have the concept of virturoids, which are essentially AIs that perform with enchanting music and a bombardment of visually stimulating holograms. In order for Sharon Apple, the 1st true virturoid, to function its Myung’s job to supply it with her “emotions” by hooking up her brain to a supercomputer. The 2nd direction Macross Plus shoots for is the idea of said AI becoming a complete and sentient being of its own and causing havoc. Whilst these two ideas seem like entirely different stories, you really can’t have one without the other because of how strongly linked they are by the characters. Sharon’s actions are based mainly off of Myung’s love for both Isamu and Guld after all. Macross Plus is pretty much entirely driven by the flaws of its characters, from

Macross Plus is pretty much entirely driven by the flaws of its characters, from Guld’s anger issues, to Isamu’s lack of responsibility, to Myung’s habit of pretending she’s OK with what’s going on when she isn’t. What we have here is an effective character piece that does suffer from a couple of issues, like how one of the antagonists felt like a shallow plot device, or how the Isamu and Guld’s rivalry wasn’t resolved in a way I found particularly interesting. The latter alone, unfortunately, was enough to disqualify Plus from being my favorite entry in the franchise to date. That said there’s still plenty to be impressed with here, and a lot of that comes from the fantastic production quality (asides from the chins, which look like they can put you eye out at times). It has some of the most fun-to-watch dogfights I’ve seen not only from the franchise but in anime period. The director also employed some great, atmospheric lighting whenever appropriate that always matched the tone of any given scene rather well. The soundtrack also leaves its mark with Yoko Kanno’s bizarre, but extremely fitting and ethereal techno synth to accompany the trippy concert scenes.

Should you watch it?

Absolutely! It’s not essential or anything as the story is rather self-contained, but on its own merit there’s more than enough to merit a watch. It works great standalone too, so if the idea of “Top Gun, but set in space with a yandere Hatsune Miku antagonist” sounds cool to you, then feel free to hop in even if you aren’t acquainted with the franchise. Between the OVAs and the film, I don’t think it matters too much regarding which you ought to watch 1st. Just know that even though the film has fewer minutes than the OVAs, it has about 20ish minutes of different content. The changes were improvements overall if you ask me, with some obscure plot details making a bit more sense there. The story was originally intended to be a movie anyway before being repurposed as 4 OVAs. I’d say watch the film version if you only want to see one, but I enjoyed comparing the two versions so watch them both if you can.

Macross Zero

What is it?

A 5 episode series of OVAs that work as a prequel to the main series. It depicts the final days of Earth’s Unification Wars

How is it?

Despite my feelings towards the work as a whole, a prequel like this is sort of what the franchise needed to have. For starters, it retcons the idea that the wars on Earth all ended at once as a result of the Macross arriving on Earth, which in retrospect, was kind of hard to buy. Here, though, we can still see some squabbling amongst the UN and anti-UN militaries over a newly discovered object on the Mayan islands that gives off an energy reading reminiscent of the Macross. Our main character, Shin Kudo, is a UN pilot that is shot down and crashes on a Mayan island. He ends up staying there to recuperate whilst discovering the islands through the head Mayan priestess, Sara Nome, and her younger sister Mao. From there, we get a rather rushed and unconvincing love triangle between the three characters I just mentioned. I would have a hard time believing that characters from such different walks of like would hit it off as quickly as they do here.

Roy Focker from the original series shows up here as well and has his own little romance with a scientist named Aries, but his appearance seems like it was shoehorned in because Kawamori realizes how badly shafted he was in terms of screentime. His side-romance suffers not only because the series already was having a hard enough time juggling it’s convoluted story and love triangle to a lot enough time for the audience to care about them. The very fact that Roy is a part of the original Macross series with an entirely different girlfriend pretty much reveals that it just isn’t going to work out for the two of em here. The antagonists suffer the worst from the frantic pacing as a result of barren characterization that makes them feel less like characters and more like ideas for potentially interesting characters. The production values without a doubt are far better than the actual script with some of the better examples of CGI integration then much of what you’d find since 2002. The OST isn’t half bad either. No pop idols but the Mayan folk songs are pretty good (just don’t ask why they’re in French).

There’s nothing terribly amazing about Macross Zero. It moves at a blistering speed through complicated plot points, romance, and a ton of heavy-handed New Age environmentalism.

Should you watch it?

I don’t think you’d miss anything important by skipping it. If you want to see the franchise take an entirely different direction, or if you’re a completionist, then go for it I guess. Just warning you, Macross Zero is to James Cameron’s Avatar and Dances with Wolves what Macross Plus was to Top Gun, bleh.

That does it for part 1 of this overview. I’ll be back as soon as possible with write-ups on everything from Macross 7 and up!

 

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