Everything Under The Sun... And Then Some!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Right Into The Danger Zone!

Originally in my SDF Macross review I said the macros was Top Gun meets Battlestar: Galactica meets Transformers with a dash of Star Wars thrown in. Well no where does the Top Gun analogy become more apparent than with the 4-episode mini-series(or OVA) Macross Plus, released in 1994. The story features two rival jet fighter test pilots in a setting that is highly reminiscent of the classic Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer flick. There’s planes, space, dogfights, pretty girls, but unlike Top Gun, Macross Plus features a psychotic AI pop star, a kinda-sorta love triangle and a futuristic setting.

Macross Plus marked the return of Shoji Kawamori to the Macross franchise. Initially he hadn’t wanted to do anymore work on Macross after DYRL and Flashback 2012 were finished, which is why Big West went ahead and made Macross II without him and the others. In making Macross Plus, Kawamori had originally wanted to do a show that was just about test pilots, probably in a more modern setting. It sounds like the studio then made the stipulation that it had to be a Macross project and so, Macross Plus was born. I guess Kawamori must have been feeling very creative that year because 1994 was also the year that the full-length series Macross 7 premiered.
In order to properly capture the art of fighter combat for the animators, Kawamori, choreographer Ichiro Itano (famous for the Itano Circus missile animations) and other staff members travelled to Edwards Air Force Base in California to take lessons from dogfighting school Air Combat USA. This is reflected in the absolutely awesome fight sequences in the anime. Even just the animation of the Valkyrie variable fighters flying around is superb.
Famous director Shinichiro Watanabe was also hired as a co-director for the production. He’s probably most famous here in America for the series Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo and, of course, Macross Plus. Watanabe always makes good stuff and this is reflected in the quality of the animation. Watanabe also believes very heavily in the ties between the film and its score and the power of music (one of the central themes of Macross). So, it’s not so surprising that the composer of Macross Plus is the prolific Yoko Kanno. Kanno is pretty much the Japanese equivalent to John Williams. She’s worked on some of the most famous and successful animes in Japan as well as live-action movies and television. Some of the most famous projects she’s worked on include Macross Plus, Cowboy Bebop, The Vision of Escaflowne, Wolf’s Rain, Turn-A Gundam, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Macross Frontier. She would probably most famous here in America for the jazz, blues and funk-inspired themes of Cowboy Bebop. As for her work in Plus, her talent shines through especially in the songs for Plus’s idol singer Sharon Apple. Three of Sharon’s songs are in English, one in French and four are in the fictional Zentradi language. There’s only one Japanese song in the whole soundtrack and that’s Myung Lon Fang’s “Voices.” (which actually got dubbed into English but is still very good; sounds a lot like an Enya song.)
 "Voices"-Japanese Version
"Voices"-English Version

With all this star talent in place, it was time to make the series. Macross Plus takes place in the year 2040, 30 years after First Macross. It starts off on the colony planet Eden where childhood friends Isamu Dyson, Guld Goa Bowman and Myung Lon Fang are introduced. Isamu and Guld are trying to fly a self-propelled glider that they’ve built. Fast forward to 2040 and Isamu finds himself back on Eden to be a test pilot for Project: Supernova, a competition being held between two rival companies, Shinsei Industries and General Galaxy, to field a new variable fighter for the UN Spacy (United Nations Space Navy). The two competing designs are the YF-19 and the YF-21. Project: Supernova is based on the real-life Advanced Tactical Fighter competition that the US Air Force held between the Lockheed YF-22 (which became the Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor) and Northrop’s YF-23.
In any case, Isamu is assigned to be the test pilot of Shinsei’s YF-19 and finds out that his childhood friend now-rival Guld Bowman has been assigned to be the YF-21’s pilot. Here’s where a lot of the similarities where Top Gun come into play as you could very easily say that Isamu, with his recklessness and cocky attitude, is Tom Cruise’s Maverick and Guld is Val Kilmer’s Iceman. It’s clear right from the get-go that these former friends have a clear dislike of each other for some reason and this is magnified even more when they find out that their other friend, Myung, is on Eden also and is now the producer for Sharon Apple, the known galaxy’s hottest entertainer… and supposed fully-functional AI. 
Both Isamu and Guld are somewhat confused by this as Myung was a fantastic singer in youth. Concerns over Myung fade somewhat as the two engage in multiple aerial duels with each other as the testing of the two prototypes heats up. Also, we learn that Sharon isn’t as advanced as we claim. When Isamu and some friends attend her concert on Eden, we find out that Myung actually provides the emotions for Sharon as an emotions program is the one thing that Sharon still lacks. Things begin to get a little suspicious when the holographic Sharon shows an inordinate amount of attention to Isamu. Sometime later both Isamu and Guld get a strange electronic phone call saying that fire will break out in the concert hall. Isamu chooses to ignore it but Guld races to the concert hall and rescues Myung from certain death in a fire… exactly as predicted. From the way that the cameras were moving and how the fire just started up, it’s pretty clear that the Sharon AI started the fire. Things get even more tense as the rivalry between Guld and Isamu results in an accident. Even though it’s a fairly serious matter, the General in charge of Eden’s New Edwards Base sweeps the whole thing under the rug. As Myung and her team depart for Earth so that Sharon can participate in the UN Spacy 30th Anniversary celebration of the end of the Human-Zentradi war, we learn that the reason the General swept the accident under the rug is that UN Spacy has been secretly testing the unmanned Ghost X-9 fighter, which seems to be superior to both the YF-19 and YF-21. A furious Isamu decides to go to Earth and screw up the ceremony where the X-9 will be unveiled. The YF-19’s designer Yan Newman goes with him and Guld is ordered to go after both of them in the YF-21. This turns out to be a good thing as Myung discovers at the eleventh hour that Sharon has indeed become self-aware and like all advanced AI’s that gain self-awareness
 Hint, hint.
she restrains Myung and tells her that she is doing what she is doing because Myung’s thoughts have given her life. She loves Guld and Isamu even more so and wants to give him the ultimate emotion that he is seeking. This is sort of going to involve killing him. Isamu and Guld at this point are doing their level best to blast each other to smithereens in one of the most kick-arse dogfights in the whole series. Guld has a slight advantage due to the YF-21 having the Brain Direct Interface, which allows Guld to control the YF-21 with his thoughts. But just as Guld closes in on Isamu and fires the killing shot, the BDI breaks through the mental barriers Guld had in his mind. He finally remembers what the incident was that drove him, Isamu and Myung apart. As a half-Zentradi, Guld had lived with those fighting instincts his whole life but then things began to change in their little circle of friends. Myung and Isamu became more than friends and when Guld burst in on them during a tender moment, he lost control. Guld attacked Isamu and pretty much sexually assaulted Myung before he regained control. After that incident, Myung and Isamu left Eden and Guld blocked the memories out as he regained control of those instincts. Thing is as part of that he blamed Isamu for supposedly hurting Myung but Isamu let him go on thinking that, not wanting to let his friend, who truly loved Myung, to remember what he had almost done to her.
Guld thinks this realization has come too late but Isamu managed to survive the missile barrage. As the two friends are about to reconcile, the Sharon Apple-controlled Ghost X-9 comes screaming out of the sun, guns blazing. Guld, who can more easily manage the X-9 with his YF-21 tells Isamu to go rescue Myung. Guld then heroically sacrifices himself to destroy the X-9. Isamu arrives in Macross City and realizes that the holographic projection of Sharon has hypnotized the whole city and the AI itself has infected every computer. This is no more evident as the good old SDF-1 Macross has been launched from Lake Global to intercept him, even though it’s been lying there for thirty years. Dodging anti-air laser fire at every turn, Isamu tries to destroy the central core that Sharon has infected while trying to rebuff her holographic hypnosis. Kind of a hard task considering that Sharon can take the forms of various hauntingly (literally) beautiful women! At one point he looks like he’s about to give in when Myung starts singing her song “Voices.” Isamu snaps out of it and in true Luke Skywalker-fashion, pulls off a hundred to one shot and destroys the central core. Sharon’s AI unit explodes and the day is saved as Myung watches Isamu soar over the city.

Now first of all, I have to say that after the disappointment that was Macross II, Plus was about 10x, no, 100x better. I seriously wanted to have Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone or Cheap Trick’s Mighty Wings come blaring out of the speakers as the YF-19 and -21 danced across the sky. I mean, I enjoyed this so much I think there was only two things I really want to have them improve. They could have explained Sharon’s self-awareness a bit more and also why she seemed so intent on hypnotizing people and why she wanted to kill Isamu.
I also didn’t care much for Myung as well. I don’t dislike her but I think to myself “Gooooossshhh! Get off the pity wagon and stop being so damn depressing, especially when you’ve got guys like Isamu and Guld around." I don’t really blame Isamu for being more interested in Lucy when he got back to Eden than Myung.
Other than that this was solid, first-rate, no holds-barred, thrill-riding fun. I would not be embarrassed to say that I enjoyed Macross Plus more than Transformers 3, and that’s saying something. The characters, planes, visuals (none of that damn moe crap), music and sounds all come together beautifully. The fact that this was a good dub as well is an extra plus. With the talents of VA’s like Bryan Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad), Richard Epcar and Beau Billingslea, it’s actually a joy to listen to as the actors actually emote. What a concept! All in all, on the MAHQ scale of stars, this gets five gold stars! Now if only it had Danger Zone…

Historical Note: The Ghost X-9 was deemed too dangerous if its controls were ver hacked, so the YF-19 won Project: Supernova. The -19 was mass-produced as the VF-19 Excalibur Main Variable Fighter and was the plane of choice for Macross 7’s Basara Nekki. The YF-21’s dangerous Brain Direct Interface was removed and it was produced in limited numbers as the VF-22 Sturmvogel II. The BDI would show up again in the VF-27 Lucifer from Macross Frontier.

The first word in my
Dreams I could clearly
See, Planet Eden right
Beyond the skies.
Beautiful and sad is
This story I tell of the
Winged travelers eager.

'Twas one day the wind
Guided him where to go,
like an eagle high above
He flew.
Waving from down below
He flew out of sight
Into the mystical darkness.

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