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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Do You Remember Macross? Part 1

This is the first movie, TV or anime review I've done and I hope it will be the first of many. I hope you find it insightful and will make you want to watch Macross. It's on Hulu, just so you know.

Do You Remember Macross?
Part 1

The 1980’s and 90’s rocked so hard. Having grown up in the 90’s I may be a little biased but think about it just for a second. Ever since 2001, the world has kinda sucked. The point I’m trying to get at is that we had a lot of good stuff that came out in that 20 year period. Just to name a few things: The Empire Strikes Back, MacGyver, Transformers, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, new Gundam shows, Home Improvement, Family Matters, Sonic the Hedgehog, Return of the Jedi, Van Halen, Top Gun, and let’s not forget Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. I say all this because I just finished watching what I believe to be one of the gems of the 1980’s, an anime series from Japan called Super Dimension Fortress Macross, better known here in the States as the first third of the 1985 Saturday morning series Robotech.

Macross was released in 1982 and is usually considered a franchise second only to Gundam in terms of popularity and impact on the pop culture of Japan. It expanded the terms of the real-robot sub-genre of anime that Gundam had pioneered and made it even more ‘realistic’ in that the pilots all fly the same damn mech and the only deciding factor is who’s plot-armor is thickest. If you had to boil down Macross to something that most other people could understand then I would unequivocally say that Macross is Top Gun meets Batttlestar: Galactica meets Transformers with a dash of Star Wars thrown in for flavoring. I don’t want to write out the whole story of Macross so I’ll just go with the basics. It’s a long series after all.
Macross’ story was a little convoluted by the time it got to TV. Most full-length anime series are around 50 episodes or so (unless they’re based on an ongoing manga then who knows how long it could take them. Bleach is up to 310 episodes and counting). Macross was originally scheduled to be 39 episodes but was then cut down to 26. At the eleventh hour it was lengthened to a final 36 episodes. The basic story begins in the year 1999 (remember that it was 1982 when the series premiered) with a massive 1200 meter alien spaceship crash-landing on South Ataria Island in the Pacific Ocean. This ignites a chain of events that leads to the formation of a world government and a massive project to rebuild and restore the alien ship. One of the first things that is noticed about this mysterious ship is that it is built for war. Naturally, the military immediately begins to reverse engineer the technology and is able to produce Macross’ signature transformable fighter planes, the VF-1 Valkyries. These fighters are not only deadly warbirds but they can transform into a humanoid combat form called Battroid Mode and an in-between form called GERWALK Mode. The reason for this is shown later in the series.
Fast forward to 2009. A large city has been built up around the newly christened SDF-1 Macross and the people are celebrating its imminent launch. Here we are introduced to many of the principal cast including stunt pilot Hikaru Ichijyo, Major Roy Focker, Captain Bruno Global, Lts. Misa Hayase and Claudia LaSalle and bridge operators Vanessa, Kim and Shammy. Also we are introduced to civilian girl Lyn Minmei, who will become very important later on. One thing to remember here is that many of the Japanese names were changed to American sounding ones for Robotech (for example Misa Hayase became Lisa Hayes; my family name rocks so hard). Anyway, the launch of the Macross is rudely interrupted when the systems detect alien warships de-folding near the moon. The Macross’ massive main gun opens fire. Now this is one frakkin’ A gun! It shoots across the earth’s surface and then hits the warships which are still thousands of miles from Earth, unintentionally igniting humanity’s first interstellar war. The Macross launches and after some false starts manage to get into the air. But with a massive alien fleet coming to say hi, Captain Global orders that the ship initiate a space fold (Macross’ version of FTL travel). The consequences of using this still misunderstood technology are immediately made apparent. The Macross does lead the aliens away from Earth, but instead of arriving near the moon, they arrive in the orbit of Pluto… along with every bit of South Ataria island and a huge chunk of the ocean surrounding it. Luckily for the civilians they were in shelters when that happened. The civilians are brought on board, all 56,000 of them (it’s a big ship remember) and they reconstruct Macross City inside the ship. The Macross then sets out on its long journey home. Along the way, Hikaru and Minmei are accidentally trapped in the bowels of the ship for 12 days after he saves her, igniting the start of the other thing that Macross is famous for… love triangles. But more on that later.
Now you might expect that a good chunk of the show would be spent with the Macross travelling back to Earth the slow way, but it’s not. There’s some nice exposition here and you have to remember that a lot of events in the series got compressed. You begin to learn about the aliens, which are called the Zentradi. They actually look very human with one not-so-small exception: The average Zentradi is TEN METERS TALL. That’s why the fighters have to transform into humanoid Battroid Mode. The Zentradi are portrayed from the start as a warrior race but only later do we really learn the extent of that. Several Zentradi characters that we are introduced to include one-eyed fleet commander Vriltwhai (pronounced bree-tye), his Archivist Exsedol and the blood-thirsty warrior Quamzin. At one point Hikaru, Misa and one of Hikaru’s pilots, Kakizaki are captured by the Zentradi and taken to their main fleet, which we learn is roughly 5,000,000 ships strong. Further surprises are in store as we begin to learn more about the Zentradi. The Zentradi are all about war. It’s all they do, day in and day out. They have no concepts of ANYTHING else. They can’t even fix their own ships properly because there are no engineers. They have no entertainment, no luxuries, no games and no romance. The very concept is foreign to them as male and female Zentradi are strictly separated and it is a crime punishable by execution for a member of one sex to communicate with a member of the opposite sex without authorization. This leads to a highly amusing scene where one Zentradi demands that the humans demonstrate the concept of romance and then completely freak out when Hikaru and Misa kiss. The Zentradi commander calls the act ‘proto-culture’ which will become important later on. Later, thanks to one of Hikaru’s other pilots Max Jenius, they are able to escape the Zentradi and return to the Macross.
The Macross eventually makes it back to earth but the reception isn’t so warm. The admirals and politicians have thrown them to the wolves so that they can buy time to organize a counter-offensive and be able to fire their Grand Cannon, an energy weapon similar to the Macross’ main gun but on a planetary scale. They completely ignore the reports of Misa and Captain Global and proceed with their plans, which of course don’t work out and just make trouble for everyone else. The Macross tries to find shelter for the civilians on Earth but after an unfortunate incident with their prototype barriers system, they are forced to leave Earth. By now though, Zentradi spies have brought examples of human culture back to the fleet and culture shock slowly permeates its way through the Zentradi soldiers. The effect is comparable to a blind man suddenly being able to see as the Zentradi realize that there is more to life than fighting and dying. It gets to the point where many of them don’t even want to attack the Macross and some even defect to the ship. Unfortunately this just makes the Zentradi main command move humanity to the number one slot on their ZOINKS list and bring in the whole five million ship fleet.
Here’s where things get interesting. The Zentradi fleet commander Vrlitwhai realizes that his fleet is in danger of being destroyed as well because it has been infected with the ‘proto-culture’ and he is starting to become a little enamored with culture himself. In a surprise move, he joins up with the Macross, providing information that can help the beleaguered earth forces fight the Zentradi. Still it’s a five million strong fleet and even the UN Space Forces’ Grand Cannon only reduces that by 1/5. But, against the odds, the Macross manages to break through to the command ship, causing the rest of the Zentradi fleet to scatter. The day is won, but at a terrible price. Before the Macross and Vrlitwhai’s forces were able to engage the main fleet, they were able to fire on Earth, wiping most of the surface and humanity. No exact figure is given, but fro the damage shown in later shows, it seems that somewhere between 90%-95% of the human population was wiped out.

This was supposed to be the end of the series but thanks to extension, the last nine episodes go into a post-war reconstruction arc. We rarely get this sort of thing; not even Gundam showed the immediate aftermath of the One Year War. The story picks up two years later and many of the refugee Zentradi who have been helping their Terran brethren rebuild earth have started to slip back into their old ways. This is good for Quamzin, one of the Zentradi commanders I mentioned earlier who seems to be almost immune to culture, gathers these rebels to fight against the terrans. Meanwhile many of the main characters are resolving their personal issues, including the love triangle between Hikaru, Misa and Minmei (more on that later) and now-Admiral Global realizes that the only way to ensure that humanity never faces extinction again is to spread themselves out among the stars. Quamzin eventually organizes the rebel Zentradi and they fix up a busted Zentradi warship, ironically using the techniques the humans taught them. They attempt to attack the Macross and the ship launches one last time along with Hikaru and the Valkyrie squadrons. Quamzin is defeated along with the bulk of the rebels, the humans initiate their plan to colonize the stars and a lot of personal plots are resolved… mostly.

This is mostly the story of Macross in a nutshell. I’m going to go into a few other things as I talk about the production of the series and the Characters I liked and hated but this is it. If I left anything out, don’t complain, go watch the show or read about on MAHQ.net.
As I mentioned before, it’s easy to get into this show because it has such a great story. There are characters you like, some you hate, the bad guys are classically bad (until they get culture) the good guys don’t spend a lot of time moralizing and oh-woe-is-me-ing and of course there’s dogfights galore and ACTUAL CHARCTER DEVELOPMENT. You don’t get a lot of this in many American TV shows. On American TV, character development will sometimes get spread out over the whole damn show and can be subject to, how do I say, illogic. This is one of the advantages of the way many animes do things. You only have, say 50 episodes for a character to mature, so if he or she is supposed to do that, they better damn well get their rears in gear!
There weren’t many things I actually didn’t like about the show and most of those things are a result of the way the series was compressed and uncompressed which no one has any control over. I would say that there weren’t very many opportunities to hate the villains of the story. Most of the named Zentradi characters end up on the good guys’ side and the ones who don’t aren’t really hate fodder. The ‘Final Boss’ Lord Bodole Zer, isn’t in the series much at all so you don’t care much about him although the fact that he orders the execution of humanity doesn’t exactly endear him to you. Quamzin is charismatic, making him a villain you LIKE to hate, not just outright hate. Then you also learn that the Zentradi were basically engineered to be what they are/were and it throws a sympathetic light onto them. No the one character I truly despise is a human and we’ll get to him in a minute.
Continued in Part 2

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