“Back in MY day we localized the hell out of Japanese stuff. We took three different shows, jammed them together, called it “Robotech”, and we LIKED it!” — Youtube commenter TheGreatLordZedd
Robotech is easy to appreciate but hard to like. On one hand, it’s a decade ahead of its time, featuring a level of complexity, realism, and ambition that Western Animation wouldn’t even begin replicating until Batman: TAS and which still hasn’t been equaled in some aspects. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s held together by nothing but duct tape and passion, and a level of amateurishness permeates the whole production, which prevents me from calling a lot of it “well-made” a lot of the time.
But damn if I don’t love it anyway. It’s got charm and guts and heart, and the way it came about was so unlikely that I can’t help but be impressed. Here’s a story composed out of three completely different–yet thematically similar–anime, stitched together to form an overarching narrative. And it works. Oh, sure, you don’t need to look very hard to find the (many, many) seams, but if you squint just right, it’s a fantastic story.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
The first segment, The Macross Saga, is perhaps the best remembered of the three, possibly because its source material–the anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross–was independently popular and managed to remain so throughout the decades. It’s also the best constructed of the three segments, not only because it requires the least change, but because the core story works on multiple levels. Yes, is it the epic story of two warring civilizations finding peace throughout culture, but that’s not all it is; it’s also the story of a city of refugees who try to rebuild their lives after a crisis. It’s the story of a young couple which slowly grows apart. They all weave in and out of each other nicely, and it’s something that I don’t think has ever been replicated–even stuff like Macross: Do You Remember Love, which attempts to condense the story into a movie and spruces it up with awesome animation, widely misses the mark.
In 1999, an alien spaceship crash lands on Macross Island, an uninhabited piece of land somewhere in the Pacific. There are no survivors, but the implications are nevertheless staggering, and it’s enough to spur warring nations to band together into an United Earth Government, which then proceeds to study the ship and to attempt to make it spaceworthy again; by the time those efforts conclude, a town of more than seventy thousand people, Macross City, has grown around the project.
Then, in 2009, just as the alien ship–now christened the SDF-1–is set to make its maiden voyage, Earth is attacked by an alien race called the Zentraedi, who seek to capture the fallen vessel for unknown reasons In the chaos, the SDF-1 warps itself and Macross City to the orbit of Pluto.
After transplating Macross City and its inhabitants inside the Super Dimension Fortress, the dreadnaught makes its way back to Earth, the Zentraedi at their heels. Along the way, the two cultures learn more and more about each other. The Zentraedi, it turns out, are a race genetically designed to have a culture based on nothing but war, which is why things like “music”, “sex”, “fashion”, and even the concept of male and female interaction are completely alien to them, and fascinating. Their interactions continue for two years, culminating in a climactic battle for the fate of the Earth, in which pop music and making out become crucial to Earth’s victory.
And yet, the series doesn’t end there. About a fourth of the series is actually spent on the war’s aftermath, showing Earth’s attempts at reconstructing their society, and integrating their former enemies into their culture. It’s heavy, complex stuff,the kind that usually gets relegated to the expanded universe novels and fan fiction, and not the actual original work. Here, however, it’s front and center, and drives home the point that winning the war means little if you botch the aftermath.
Our main point of view character for the series is Rick Hunter, an amateur pilot who had the misfortune of dropping into Macross City to visit his friend, fighter pilot Roy Fokker, the day of the invasion. The crisis happens, and Rick manages to save a young girl called Lynn Minmei. As the SDF-1 accidentally teleports to Pluto, Rick and Minmei find themselves trapped inside the ship’s bowels, where they spend two weeks until they’re found and rescued.
Now “two people are isolated, fall for each other” is an old trope, but its made out to be more complicated here. Sure enough, Rick and Minmei go from strangers to developing a bond and were they other people, this bond may have blossomed into romantic love. But that isn’t their fate. Sure, Rick is attracted to her and would really like her to be his girlfriend, and Minmei eventually comes to realize that she, in turn, loves him; by the time they’re on the same page relationship-wise, however. Rick has joined the military and is quickly rising through the ranks; Minmei has realized her dream of becoming a singer and is now Macross City’s first celebrity, and its cultural ambassador. They’re two vastly different people from the scared kids they were when they first met.
Of course, Rick and Minmei only form a small part of the Macross Saga ‘verse. The third big character is Lieutenant Lisa Hayes, the SDF-1’s executive officer, who after initially having several confrontations with Rick–he had a tendency to be disrespectful, which fell away as they got to know each other–begins to develop feelings for him. Then there’s the handful of less prominent characters: Henry Gloval, the SDF-1’s captain and top tactician; Claudia Grant, the ship’s communication officer, Lisa’s best friend and Roy Fokker’s significant other; Kim Young, Vanessa Porter, and Sammy Leeds, who fill out the rest of the bridge crew; Maximilian Sterling, whose prowess as a pilot eventually help the Earth forces score a diplomatic coup. Over on the Zentraedi side, we have relentless Breetai, who leads the initial effort to capture the SDF-1; logical Exedore, his aide; impetuous, disobedient Khyron, (nickname: “The Backstabber”); cool, dispassionate Miriya, the armada’s best pilot; and Rico, Konda, and Bron, who’s fascination with human culture turns them into the Zentraedi’s first diplomats. It’s a colorful cast, and while they don’t all work–they main three characters all become unlikeable at several points in the story, for example–they bring just the right touch of humanity to the story.
Listing the cast like that, one thing stands out: women, there’s a bunch of them. There’s not enough for gender parity, and the human side features some unwelcome role segregation–only men are pilots, only women (except for Gloval) work the bridge– but still, it’s nice to see a series that consistently passes the Bedchel test, particularly when that series is one that’s aimed at boys and was produced in the mid-eighties. What’s more, despite the segregation, it’s heartening to see that the roles filled by women aren’t denigrated as lesser by default: the bridge team is just as essential to the ship’s continued operation as the pilots manning the fighters; the pop star raising people’s morale and helping people derive a shared identity is just as important to the war effort as the tactician making the calls. There’s some niggling bits where the characters appear to be less progressive than the series is–Rick is a perfectly sexist ass at times; a lot of people see Minmei as Rick’s to lose, as if she weren’t perfectly capable of deciding who she’d like to be with; a particular episode hinges on a beauty pageant which, aside from being problematic in itself, doesn’t even pretend to be about the girl’s talents, and has judges asking questions such as “do you have a boyfriend?”–but damn if it doesn’t do a lot right, too.
Not only that, but at a time when cartoons were still comfortable with casually racist depictions of minorities, the fact that there’s characters like the Chinese-Japanese Minmei, who is informed by her background but isn’t defined by it, and the African-American Claudia, who not only manages to not be a stereotype but is actually in an interracial relationship without any eyebrows raised, makes me sad at the fact that the series wasn’t more influential.
Had it been released on its own, The Macross Saga would have been great. It was not to be, however: Executive Producer Carl Macek wanted the series to be sold as a syndication package, which required more episodes than the original Macross had, hence the original decision to attach two unrelated series. In the next post, we’ll be dealing with the second of those, which became Robotech‘s second saga: The Robotech Masters.