This is the final installment of a 5 part series about the Robotech novels. Click here for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
I’m departing a bit from talking about books here, and I’m going to talk about some TV shows and films today. I waffled a bit on doing this originally, but there was some interest expressed a few posts ago, so here goes.
Twenty-three years or so ago, I stumbled across the Robotech novels and fell in love. I was in my early teens, and it took a couple of birthdays and Christmases to get the whole series, but eventually I did, and I foisted it off on every person I could to get the vicarious first time thrill. Friends. My karate sensei. (A motorcycle riding, scifi reading Baptist pastor.) My sister. Even my parents. (To no avail.) And then…. there was nothing. I was done. Couldn’t even get it on VHS, except for the few episodes older kids at church had recorded off of TV in the 80s. At the very least, though, Robotech had introduce me to anime, and so I was very slowly exploring that brave new world. And at what a time! The 90s were a golden age for anime. But my first love was Robotech, and Robotech was done.
But, thanks in part to the Palladium Robotech RPG books that the aforementioned older kids at church had given me before leaving for college, I began to piece together the idea that the best part of Robotech was something else in Japan. This was before search engines were good, and definitely before internet was in every house, and information was scarce. But I found that “Macross” was something more than the name of a fictional South Pacific island. Macross was a show, and someone had done a sequel. Someone, actually, had done two sequels, Macross II: Lovers Again and Macross Plus.
And this is where it gets complicated.The continuity of the Macross franchise is… convoluted. If you include Robotech and its branches as a continuity for Macross, there are three separate universes– and the official one is actually the third one to arise. The first expansion on the original source was Robotech over here in the 80s. In Japan, after making a film version of the original series, Studio Nue, the folks responsible for creating it, were done with the franchise. However, their sponsoring company, Big West, decided they wanted to make more, and created Macross II. Shortly afterwards, Studio Nue decided to get back in on the game and make the official sequel, Macross Plus. Since then, all Macross shows and films have followed from the Macross Plus continuity. So three separate universes: Robotech, Macross II, and official Macross.
A couple of notes about differences: “Robotech” and “robotechnology” are never mentioned in Macross, and pretty much straight up don’t exist. There’s an “overtechnology” that’s mentioned once or twice, and all the fancy variable/reflex technology is clearly derived from reverse engineering the crashed alien starship in Macross but that’s about it. “SDF-1,” similarly, is a designation for the original starship, but it’s mostly called “the Macross.” “Veritechs” are “Valkyries,” and for the really nerdy, the “guardian” mode of a Valkyrie is “GERWALK,” which is some complicated acronym about the thing’s legs. Most importantly, Protoculture isn’t an energy source, and the Protoculture Matrix doesn’t exist: The Protoculture is, instead, an extinct, galaxy-spanning forerunner civilization that created (or influenced the evolution of) humanity and the Zentraedi. The big mystical force in the Macross universe is instead (For better and for worse, depending on the show) music in general and song in particular.
This isn’t going to be exhaustive. If I covered everything, I’d be up in the 4k words range. I’m going to skip Macross II, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, and Macross 7. (Which I haven’t managed to watch for more than an episode.) And, as a note: most of this is difficult to find in the US, because Harmony Gold is insanely aggressive with copyright, essentially claiming that anything called “Macross” belongs to them rather than to the people that made Macross. A lot of it’s worth the effort of finding, however. Also: I’m going to address these in chronological rather than publication order. Call it a suggested watching order.
Macross Zero is one of those rare prequels that actually add something to the existing story. Zero is the story of Shin Kudo, a UN pilot fighting anti-unification forces after the initial crash of the Macross. On a fairly routine combat mission in the Pacific, Kudo’s F-14 is shot down by a strange transforming fighter and washes ashore on a remote Pacific island. (Not Macross Island.) The inhabitants are peaceful and primitive (because why wouldn’t they be?) but their legends harbor a truth about the Protoculture civilization that is drawing both UN and anti-UN forces to the island.
One of the best things about Zero is that it brings us back to fan favorite Roy Fokker, who acts as a mentor to Kudo. It also gives us a glimpse of the early versions of a lot of the Macross mecha– not just the transforming Valkyrie fighters, but also some of the non-transforming destroids. Plus, the anti-UN Valkyrie, the SV-51 is absolutely gorgeous. It’s a little weak in the character department outside of Roy and Mao Nome, a young island girl. I found Shin Kudo to be more or less forgettable, but at least unoffensive.
In lieu of an actual trailer, here’s a dogfight that will give you a look at the VF-0 and SV-51 in action.
Macross: Do You Remember Love? has an interesting status in the canon. Technically, the TV series is closer to the actual historical events of the war against the Zentraedi, although subsequent Macross installments have borrowed some things from it and treated them as canon. Primarily in its portrayal of the Macross and the Zentraedi– much of the Zentraedi culture made it into Macross Frontier.
In terms of continuity, Do You Remember Love? is a film inside the Macross universe, a historical war drama that is mentioned from time to time. It’s a new perspective on the original series done in a really satisfying way. (For Robotech fans, word that Minmay gets slapped should be enough of a draw.) It’s also aged fairly well– the animation is definitely early 80s animation, but it’s gorgeous early 80s animation. Some content is trimmed on either end– the movie assumes you know why the Macross is making its way very slowly back to earth, and there’s no details about the post-war reconstruction, but let’s face it. Those were the slow parts of Macross anyways.
In lieu of a good trailer, here’s the first three minutes or so. No subtitles, but, as an aviation guy, I was pleased when I heard them speaking English, the lingua franca of aviation.
Set 30 years after the first Macross, Macross Plus follows three estranged childhood friends Isamu Dyson, a talented Valkyrie pilot whose career is hampered by a anger and a rebellious streak; Guld Bowman, an exemplary pilot with a dark secret; and Myung Fan Lone, who gave up on her dreams of song to work as a producer for the galaxy’s first truly aware AI musician, Sharon Apple. Their careers have taken them back to the world they grew up on, Eden (Earth’s first extra-solar colony), forcing them to confront the trauma that drove them apart when they were young.
If you don’t do anything else with this post, if you ignore everything else I’ve said, do yourself a favor and hop over to Hulu to watch this. It’s only four episodes long, and it’s Macross‘ equivalent to The Wrath of Khan. It excels on almost every level that I can think of; it’s action packed, it’s got great music, the animation has aged well, and the characters are fantastic. This was probably the first Macross I actually watched, purchased very slowly on a $5 an hour minimum wage job from Suncoast video, one episode at a time. (Yay VHS.) As a teenager, I came for the dogfights; as an adult who’d moved away from his hometown, I realized how well it captured the feeling of trying to reconnect with childhood friends you’ve grown apart from. If that sounds too literary, rest assured: the last forty minutes is almost entirely glorious explosions and dogfighting. Macross Plus doesn’t lose its soul to character drama.
As an added bonus, it’s available for free on Hulu. Even in the US. (FREE. It’s going to take you two hours. Go watch it, for Pete’s sake.) Also, I tend to be an original language and subtitles kind of guy, but the dub here is actually pretty good– I just found out recently that Bryan Cranston voices Isamu.
There are two good ways to approach Macross Frontier: the original TV series or the movie duology. Like DYRL, The False Songstress and Wings of Goodbye (It sounds better in Japanese.) give us a new perspective on the Frontier story. I greatly prefer the movies (which definitely and appropriately resolve the love triangle), but I will admit that it gives one of the secondary characters I really enjoyed the short shrift.
Anyways, the UN’s really very serious about avoiding the whole “human extinction” thing that nearly happened during the war with the Zentraedi and so they’ve dispatched colonization fleets to start settlements across the galaxy. Twenty years after Macross Plus, things are humming along quite nicely aboard the Frontier fleet, home of aviation buff and former child actor, Alto Saotome, and his classmate Ranka Lee, an aspiring singer. Also aboard the Frontier fleet: Sheryl Nome (granddaughter of Zero‘s Mao Nome), the most popular songstress in the galaxy. Also aboard the Frontier fleet: transhuman spies from a rival fleet. And then there are the vicious space-going bugs known as the Vajra that are being drawn to the Frontier for reasons unknown.
There’s a lot of good in Frontier. Amazing action sequences and good characters. Great music, especially if your secret shame is a fondness for cheery pop music. But it’s also set a goofier tone for the universe that makes it feel more like anime and less like something different and special the way previous Macross installments were. Not that I dislike anime; I’ve watched a lot in my life. But there’s something about most of the modern stuff that doesn’t grab me the way it used to. Cutesy is starting to set in in a way that I don’t like. NOW GET OFF MY LAWN. AND TAKE YOUR DUBSTEP NOISE WITH YOU.
Here’s a trailer.
One of the great things about Macross is the world itself. There’s a sense of definite progression, with lots of nice little world building touches. In Zero we start out with an F-14; by the time Frontier rolls around, we’ve got thought controlled fighters in common production and transhumanism as a concern. But it’s not just those big things: the world is built in lots of little ways. Strange cell phones. Neat ways of transferring files. Concerts that use more and more elaborate holographic technology until they’re practically live music videos by the time we get to Frontier. The subtle suggestion that more and more human and Zentraedi are becoming a singular species; they rarely even call attention to the fact that a character is half Zentraedi anymore, but you see an awful lot of folks with the elf-ears that the Zentraedi picked up somewhere along the line.
On a philosophical note, one of my complaints with Robotech is that the non-novel (and official) continuity has become fairly grim. It’s war after war, with humanity being worn down to exhausted survivors with no real victory to be seen. Macross, on the other hand, maintains a certain sense of superversive optimism: the next series, Macross Delta (due to air in April), follows about ten years after Frontier and suggests that humanity is so widely settling the galaxy that we’re moving on to the Magellanic Clouds. Setbacks and pyrrhic victories are all fine and good, but Robotech has become a bit of a one trick pony in that regard.
I’m gonna leave off here. I’ve run long today. Thanks for putting up with me while I gush about this stuff.
And seriously. Go watch Macross Plus.
Josh Young is a seminary student, Castalia House author (the forthcoming Do Buddhas Dream of Enlightened Sheep) and blogger at Superversivesf.com If you enjoyed this, we’d love to have you visit our main site!
Glad you decided to do this Macross overview, Josh. Like you, after Robotech was done, I tracked down what Macross I could – though I haven’t seen Frontier or Zero.
I always thought Macross II was interesting just because you had the Zentraedi who had their own singers to counteract UN Spacy’s pop star of the year. The story wasn’t great, but I did like the bouncy music. Macross Plus is definitely the better of the two storywise.
I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re right. Robotech has gone from an optimistic “We Can Win” to a rather grim and gritty you can’t trust anyone franchise. It’s a shame.
Thanks again and feel free to gush more. You do it very well.
I saw Macross Plus not long after reading Gibson’s Idoru; it was kind of a one-two punch of awesome, and a combination I strongly recommend.
Macross Frontier had one of my favorite moments in SF, when Ranka’s singing a song about how there’s a new god in town, this is our homeland now, forward to the victory. There’s something deliciously evocative about a democratic city-state entering a sector like the children of Israel and devoting their ultra-processed pop music to something that martial.
Cheers for Macross Plus! One of the few anime I’ve actually found myself going back to watch, one that I don’t feel that I’ve outgrown.
Woah, you really saved the best for last. I had no idea that the rest of this stuff existed. You know… I can no longer call myself a Robotech fan in good conscience. Heck, I could never even finish putting my “Condar” model kit together.