Sacred Cows: “Robotech” (Part 2) (Spoilers)

agosto 16, 2012 at 10:49 pm (Animation, Anime, Sacred Cows) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

The second cycle of Robotech, known as The Robotech Masters, The Masters Saga or simply The Masters, is often considered the black sheep of the series, and it’s not hard to see why: it takes longer to find its footing; its character and mecha designs don’t have the immediate appeal of Macross or MOSPEADA‘s; and the conflicts between the script and the footage are far more pronounced, since Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross‘ overall scenario–about the two-mooned planet Glorie, which was immigrated to and terraformed after Earth became uninhabitable,  and which is now being attacked by its previous inhabitants–had to be changed completely for it to fit Robotech.   Things like the nature of the antagonists and what the characters are supposed to know change from episode to episode; footage is rearranged in ways that contradict the established continuity (particularly in the first episode, a clip show made from scratch to tie the cycle with the one that preceded it), and in short, it just doesn’t make that sense a lot of the time.

Still, it’s not hard to see why it was chosen as a follow-up for Macross, despite everything.  It turns Robotech into a story that is not only multi-generational—The Masters stars the children of the first Robotech warriors–but cyclical, as events repeat themselves and allow for a deeper thematic exploration than was available in the original Japanese material.  Here we once again have romance between earthlings and aliens, unity through music, bellicose leaders whose belief that hard power is the only worthwhile power ends badly for them, and the near destruction human civilization, in ways that are interesting in their own right.  They suggest that even with The Macross Saga’s hopeful ending, humanity is still humanity, and happy endings are something you can only find after spending time digging in the rubble after the smoke clears.

Fifteen years after the SDF-1’s destruction at the end of The Macross Saga, Earth is still under the rule of a military government– specifically, the Army of the Southern Cross (ASC), under control of Supreme Commander Anatole Eli Leonard.  The heroes of the First Robotech War have long since left Earth as part of a diplomatic mission in an attempt to forestall future conflict, which means that they aren’t available when the Robotech Masters arrive, ready to retrieve the Protoculture Matrix which they need in order to replenish their own dwindling supplies of the power source and keep their civilization going.

While The Macross Saga was as much about the civilians as it was about the soldiers, this one is all about the latter.  Our three protagonists all occupy positions in the armed forces, and in fact, the only civilians we properly meet are all part of the attacking alien fleet—a reversal of the previous arc’s dynamic.  First and foremost is Dana Sterling, half-human/half-Zentraedi daughter of The Macross Saga‘s Max and Miriya Sterling, who leads the 15th Squadron of the ASC’s Alpha Tactical Armored Corps.  Cheerful, optimistic, and only vaguely acquainted with any concept of military discipline, she is a pain in her superior’s asses, a fact which she makes up for by being a crack hovertank pilot and a capable leader.  Attempting to keep Dana in line is GMP (“Global Military Police”–The Masters is awash in initialism) officer Nova Satori, whose basic competence would perhaps be more evident in a story in which she wasn’t set out as a foil, but whom I really like anyway.  Rounding up the triumvirate is ace pilot Marie Crystal, unit leader at the ASC’s Tactics Armored Space Corps, whose role is to give a face to the numerous space battles and to provide Dana with a friendly rival.

The rest of the main cast consists mostly of Dana’s 15th Squadron comrades.  There’s  Bowie Grant, Dana’s best friend and Claudia Grant’s nephew (a connection which I’m totally conflicted about, given its problematic undertones; those will be the subject of a different article on Robotech and race); staid Angelo Dante, who attempts to be by-the-book until he realizes that approach totally doesn’t work with Dana; womanizing Sean Phillips, the 15th‘s former leader, demoted back to private after hitting on a C.O.’s daughter; and Louie Nichols, the coolest geek ever to pilot a hovertank.  Higher up the ranks are General Rolf Emerson, Bowie’s godfather and the ASC’s Chief of Staff, who serves as a foil to the bellicose Anatole Leonard.  They’re a fun bunch, managing to feel like they were supposed to be archetypes but somehow managed to grow beyond that, and while none of them really grow to be awesome, they don’t get to be unbearable, either (ahem, Lisa).

On the other corner are the eponymous Robotech Masters, creators of the Zentraedi and reluctant inheritors of their mission.  They are, frankly, a bit uninspiring in both personality and design, and only two of their number approach anything akin to three-dimensionality.  There’s Zor Prime, a failed clone of the scientist who originally developed Protoculture as a power source, only to then flee on what would eventually become the SDF-1; born without the ability to replicate his progenitor’s achievement, he is made to join the ranks of their warrior class until he is brainwashed and sent to infiltrate the humans as an unwitting spy.  Then there’s Musica, who along with her sisters Allegra and Octavia (they’re musicians!) serves as one of the Tirollians muses, a role of some (unexplained, like a lot in this cycle) importance to their culture; more importantly, however, an encounter with Bowie and an ensuing wave of emotions it spurs causes her to begin questioning everything she ever knew.  It’s a re-exploration of the themes suggested by the Max and Miriya romance, but one that works considerably better: not only does it not occur in the span of minutes within a single episode, it actually feels like something they’ve both chosen (Max and Miriya is unsettling in its coercive undertones) and which carries visible stakes for both of them.  Not only are they both forced to go on the run after they return to Earth, Musica’s defection, dooms her sisters, who are now emotionally and culturally adrift, and worse, turned into pariahs.

And yet, even without a Breetai, Exedore, or Khyron to call their own, the Robotech Masters work, in ways that are far more interesting than they would have if they’d simply been the Zentraedi redux.  Part of this is because they are convincingly alien while still allowing one to feel empathy for them—blogger Lisa writes an excellent article about this in her blog, Blame the Shapings–but more personally, because the series effectively sells them as a people in decline.  Where the Zentraedi fleet at its peak numbered millions of capital ships, the Masters have less than twenty.  Their supply of Protoculture, already dwindling during the SDF-1’s time, eventually becomes so scarce that it makes sustaining their culture impossible.  In the face of such pitiful circumstances, the fact that the continuing war against humanity places them in ever more dire straits makes them strangely sympathetic, despite everything.

There is a sense, throughout the series, that the destruction that ensues throughout the series Could Have All Been Avoided.  The Masters, after all, only ever wanted one thing, something that humans didn’t even know they had and would have likely given up or shared, given that the whole point of going to their homeworld was to establish diplomatic relations.  And yet, the communication that could have led to that is never established, as the leadership of both groups just doesn’t see a solution in that.  And yet, it’s hard to blame either group for that lack of foresight, as things are, as always, more complicated than that.  After all, all the Masters knew about the humans was that they’d defeated 99 percent of the Zentraedi army, and diplomacy’s failure to prevent most humanity from getting wiped out is undoubtedly still fresh in the minds of those leading the armed forces.

In the end, the wheels of war, once set in motion, prove impossible to stop, until both species are decimated.  The Masters, their leadership shot down, their morale depleted, and their way of life no longer sustainable, can do nothing except await their doom at the hands of either the humans or the their mortal enemies the Invid, who, drawn by Protoculture, approach Earth to reclaim it; only a small handful or refugees cast adrift by their leadership until rescued by the humans and Musica, survive.  The humans get their capital city destroyed, and their government is once again left in shambles.  While the war has ended, the cycle’s final episode has none of the optimism of The Macross Saga, or even catharsis.  Instead, everyone is weighed down with a sense of impending doom.   Heavy stuff, even considering what had come before.

A World Without Women

Although largely forgotten in Japan, Southern Cross holds a particular place in history as the first anime in the “real robot” genre to star a female protagonist (*1). What’s more, a look at its opening shows that it considers itself  to star three, as Jeanne, Lana, and Marie, are given spots which indicate “stars”.  It’s enough to tempt one to read feminist messages into the show—A work that states that the world won’t end if women are placed in combat positions! That a show with a male target audience can have female stars!   More than one, even!

Unfortunately, even if one can, in fact, take away those messages, watching the show makes it clear that those are, if anything, accidental.  Of the three women, only Jeanne/Dana has screen time commensurate to her implied importance; the other two are supporting characters living in the shadow of the 15th Squadron and lacking in enough agency to move the plot. In the end, even Dana gets reduced to being a bystander, as it is Zor Prime who in the end is most responsible for eliminating the Robotech Masters.  Part of this may be due to the fact that the series was cancelled before reaching a resolution, but even if that were the case, it doesn’t mitigate the immediately apparent fact that these three women are, from the looks of it, the only women in the Army of the Southern Cross.  Seriously, take a look.  I’ll wait.

Now, this phenomenon, where an organization which in theory doesn’t bar women from serving in any of its positions is still depicted as being all male (with the exceptions of characters we know), isn’t particularly restricted to one era, genre, or medium of fiction—one only needs to take a look at The Dark Knight Rises or One Piece to see modern day-examples.  And yet, it feels particularly egregious here, given how Southern Cross suggests loftier aspirations for itself: as nice as it is to see that Mary/Marie’s status as the ASC’s best pilot, The Robotech Masters still feels like a step back, coming after Macross—while the older work felt like a story that was as much about the women as it is about the men, women here appear to be exceptions, rather than fifty percent of the population.

In fact, this is one of the areas which the fusion of all three series into Robotech helps, because it turns an intentional absence into an accidental one; while there’s evidence that Harmony Gold wouldn’t be much better left to their own devices (more of this when I get to their non-adapted material) the Robotech verse is still one where women can be pilots, captains, bridge officers or doctors, even if we don’t know their names, while the same can’t be said about its component parts.

What’s more, I give Carl Macek a lot of credit for deciding that having a female protagonist was not an obstacle when it came to folding Southern Cross into Robotech.  While I don’t particularly believe that feminism was the primary or even a significant reason for the decision, the fact that it happened, and that Harmony Gold didn’t attempt to hide or alter this fact, makes me want to give them major cookies, even as I despair at the fact that something like this has to be considered exceptional.

And so…

While it’s sometimes tempting to view Robotech as That Macross Dub With The Other Two Series Attached, this is, I feel, ultimately shortsighted.  What makes Robotech important and enjoyable and interesting is fundamentally distinct from the things that make Macross those things, and a lot of those have to do with The Robotech Masters saga.

Coming in the heels of The Macross Saga, The Robotech Masters exemplifies the moment when Harmony Gold said, in no uncertain terms, that the usual rules regarding Western Animation were actually suggestions, and that there was no need to follow them.  If The Macross Saga proved that was possible to tell stories where Things Mattered, The Robotech Masters proved that it was possible to do things like completely changing a status quo, writing a sequel that’s not simply a bigger version of the original, and have stories that had emotionally ambiguous endings and complex themes–all of which help make it the most interesting (although not necessarily the best) Macross sequel to date.

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Related Links:

Other Robotech-themed articles:

Footnote!:

(*1) As semi-confirmed in an informal polling at selectbutton.net!

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