Written by Richard Brown
Macross is best known in the UK as the first part of the heavily-reedited compilation cartoon Robotech, but let’s not get into that. It’s my favourite rant, but I’m here to review an anime, not vent. Macross is often credited as being as important as Gundam was in making the Mecha genre. However, does that mean you should watch it? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
In the far future of 1999, an alien spacecraft suddenly crashes on Earth, triggering the Unification Wars. The victor, the new UN government, sets about reverse engineering and restoring the wreck, dubbed the “Macross”. A decade later, Hikaru Ichijo, an amateur pilot has been invited to its launch ceremony. However aliens hunting the ship, the Zentradi, choose this moment to investigate, and war breaks out. Matters go from bad to worse as the ship, Hikaru and a large chunk of the local geography are accidentally transported to edge of the solar system. 70,000 civilians soon take up residence in cavernous bowels of the ship, and the Macross sets course for Earth. Naturally, the Zendradi pursue, and the Macross must fight its way home.
Up, up and away
A big, big part of the series appeal are the VF1 series Valkyries, the transforming jet fighters that most of the characters pilot. These were possibly the first transforming robots that made any level of practical sense. The simple fact that these are treated as planes first, and mecha second gives the series a very different feel. The VF1s spend most of the time in jet form, animated with a good sense of speed and the huge missile volleys which would become a trademark of the franchise. The combat sequences are still good today and quite far removed from the style of Gundam; the norm is combat between dozens of different mecha, not a handful. It’s almost realistic too. The fact that the VF1 series is continually modified, rather than replaced is inline with how a real military would operate, as is the total absence of super prototypes. However, something that will turn people off is the often poor animation, a result of a minimal budget and sub-contracting (a major factor in the creation of Robotech). Even accounting for age, the lack of money behind the series is obvious, and animation errors dog it from beginning to end. The series seems to have bitten off more than it can chew in places, but few animes attempt the sheer scale of combat seen in this series. It deserves credit for being almost sensible with its combat scenes and plotting, while still coming across as exciting. Many big names can’t claim that today.
However, the series really isn’t about blowing stuff up, its more about life and love against the background of war. Macross is not, like so many of its contemporaries, a “monster of the week” show; instead we follow Hikaru as he goes from talented amateur pilot to full blown officer. Something of an everyman character, Hikaru is not cast as the best pilot, or indeed as being vital to events. He’s just there making the best of things and trying to do the right thing. He’s not an especially distinctive character, but he seems to be a fairly human one, as most of what he deals with are common wartime problems (even if the foe isn’t human). Rather than focusing on the war as the sole plot of the anime, instead it’ used as a context for the characters. Macross is not especially romantic, but the nature of romance in wartime is a recurring plot thread, and a notable number of the cast end up with someone, however briefly. What this means in practical terms is that a love triangle is just as much credence as the actual war. Hikaru is soon finds himself torn between Minmay, a young girl he saved, and his older superior officer, Misa. In this respect the series is a little old fashioned, but character scenes are enjoyable as the action ones. A solid cast of likable and interesting supporting characters is another asset to the series, bridging the gap between the action and romantic aspects.
The Queen of Marmite Characters
However, your enjoyment of the quieter bits will depend on how you feel about Lynn Minmay, a character who can be hard to like. There’s a tendency for Hikaru to spend much of an episode pondering over her actions, as she is largely unconcerned with dangers of living on the Macross and is constantly sending mixed messages. This is a girl who shares a life and death situation with Hikaru, suggests he become a fighter pilot, uses this as inspiration for a song, “My Boyfriend is a Pilot”, annnnnddddd still claims he’s just a friend. It’s tempting to dismiss her as an immature girl with the socio-political awareness of a lemming, and her tendency to sing her Eurovision grade songs provide another reason to dislike her. But then, Minmay lives in a very different world to the rest of the cast. Like most of the refugees, she managed to rebuild a little copy of her old life within the ship, and ignoring the war is very a popular pastime in real life. Minmay also becomes a singer successful beyond anyone’s dreams, and this would understandably warp her perspective. The likeability of the character, and her tendency to split the audience, seems to be deliberate. While Minmay the person may be a little dumb, Minmay the storytelling tool is a work of genius.
From an intellectual perspective, Macross is about conflict between different societies, Alien and Human, Military and Civilian, and that old chestnut, Man and Woman. What makes Minmay so important to the anime is that she is the major catalyst for all three of these conflicts. By comparison her rival in love , Misa Hayase, is a decidedly more rational, by-the-book character, meaning that she is less likely to provoke dislike in the viewer than Minmay, but is probably less interesting overall. Misa’s attitude to Hikaru is more consistent, maintaining a professional demeanour while she tries to work out how to express her feelings, and getting irritated when she can’t. It’s not surprising Hikaru found choosing difficult; the two are very different without being obvious opposites, and the relationship works well because of this. It also helps that the series largely predates the harem romance genre, and so avoids some of the odious clichés that have developed over the years. Its clichés are however still old and obvious, the most notable of which is the fact that the love triangle seemingly goes on forever before anyone makes a move, thanks to a lack of brains on all sides.
The love triangle is typical of a wider pattern of minor weaknesses that bring the anime down. Its not the case that something notable is wrong, other than the animation, and that’s excusable. It’s the pacing of things more than anything else, as many ideas seem a bit rushed or sudden. The last nine episodes see the aftermath of the war, and while it is welcome to see a mecha anime deal with such things, the arc feels a little unnecessary in places (like the last season of Babylon 5). Part of the problem it is how the characters don’t drive the plot as such, and events are often beyond their control and very sudden. There are a lot of very clever things in this series, but execution is perhaps not what it could have been, which is probably due to the low budget nature of the anime. Of course, this is where people can go wrong; taking Macross as serious piece of science fiction, and then judging things harshly. SDF Macross simply isn’t that serious, it has a tongue in cheek, knowing tone. The anime is not a comedy, but often it seems to be winking at the viewer, whispering “Yes, we know this is silly, enjoy it anyway”.
The Macross itself is a salvaged heap of a spacecraft, whose poor state of repair has a direct and almost farcical effect on the plot. This is a series which sees a baby being used as psychological weapon, a 12 metre robot ambushing someone in a toilet, a several spaceships being punched to death, and, of course, the trio of Zentradi spies. The marriage episode is notably daft, and I would like to single out Max Jenius as one of the jammiest men ever to pilot a robot. The Zentradi are a case in point. Militarist warrior races are ten-a-penny in science fiction, but its how the anime uses these giants is what makes them special. In the first of several big ironies, the opening episodes see the crew of the Macross fighting what they believe is a desperate struggle. The Zentradi are however far more bemused than belligerent, deliberately holding back as they wish to capture the vessel intact for its lost technology, and are generally confused by the actions of its crew. As the series progresses, it becomes clear they have no concept of a life beyond warfare, and contact with the Macross has a powerful and divisive effect on the Zentradi. The “what is this earth thing called kissing?” joke is soon played out on a massive scale, some Zentradi going native, and others reacting like religious fundamentalists. The scenes which see them trying to understand or adapt to human life are some of the most interesting and endearing. Its something Macross keeps coming back to, the idea that’s there is more to life than fighting. It’s a good idea for an anime to have.
In Macross we see first steps towards the romantic/comedic mecha animes, where the focus was not on war drama or the robots, but rather the characters as people. Without it, we might not have got the likes of Escaflowne, Nadesico and Full Metal Panic. It offers solid entertainment, although you do have to be prepared to push past the obvious age of the anime. Macross may not have aged well in places, but the series has a good amount of charm, thanks to some quite inventive ideas and a subtle sense of humour.