Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Reflections on Macrophilia Part 7: General Portrayal of Post-SDFM Zentradi

When considered beyond the annoying treatment of my favourite characters, the status of the Zentradi in the post-1982 Macross productions looks like a gift: they live human lives, with human bonds, and none of Robotech’s messiness. Yet despite the race’s general happiness, I just don’t find much that is compelling about later Zentradi characters, and there are a few additional difficulties I have with it. In this discussion I include hybrid characters, though some of those characters of course are portrayed as more “Zentradi” than others.

At this point in the timeline, the thematic appeal of the Zentradi passes on to other characters and antagonists. It up only to the characters’ individual appeal to create an interest in them, which they can’t seem to do. Instead, Zentradi introduced after 1984 trigger a variety of responses in me: they are mildly objectionable, or good for a few laughs, or fulfill my personal ideals for Zentradi-dom but without much characterization. I don’t want to take up a great deal space in this essay discussing them; I do genuinely like a few of the newer Zentradi characters, but not as deeply as I did the original ones, not enough to have any strong emotional investment in their respective anime.

Human characters remain the primary driving force of all new Macross narratives, with full-blood Zentradi as secondary, tertiary, and background characters who may or may not be treated poorly by the plot. Sometimes part-Zentradi characters receive major roles, but they also never turn out to be very gripping, and their heritage has superficial or negative relevance.

That’s not to say I’m not cheered by Macross 7 and Macross Frontier depicting crowds of Zentradi (now distinguished by their retconned pointed ears) dressing and acting just like modern humans, because that represents their freedom in the most obvious, immediate way. However, there are more complex possibilities than choosing between an image like that and a monotonous life of war.

Another bugbear is that strong double standard of characterization when it came to the Zentradi genders, going right back to the original series and then extending it. Male and female Zentradi are treated very differently by the narrative, and seem to both fit into separate but dubious moulds.

Male Zentradi characters are usually depicted in either a purely military or a purely pleasure-seeking/civilian context, and are side characters without much development. When they are full-blood male Zentradi, there is also a tendency to recycle or riff on their predecessors’ obsession with female pop stars, as if being a pop star fanboy was part of the Y chromosome.

Minmay was important to Zentradi, yes, but it’s strange to think that her image still dominates their lives to that uniform a degree. For one thing, it seems to suggest that male Zentradi characters are underdeveloped and unchanged, instead of being the product of generations of societal change. That they'll always look at her the same way.

It further suggests these characters are not to be taken seriously, as the writers reference the older “Minmay cult” but take away the heart in it, leaving just the comedic aspects. The original Minmay fanboys balanced being goofy fanboys with some characterization, and the high command had different reactions to her. The newer characters do not possess this range, and seem to be acting like fanboys because the writers want a homage, never mind how little sense it makes. There were reasons why male Zentradi loved Minmay, but they just don't apply anymore, and shoudn't transfer to any pop star.

One of the worst examples is probably the episode Fastest Delivery of Macross Frontier, which reduces the Zentradi characters appearing in it to grim threats or ineffectual “good guys”, almost all of whom are total fanboys anyway, and swiftly killed even after they avert a crisis situation. It looks like they're not "real" characters and don't matter.

In the same series there was also Richard Bilra, whom, despite his name, was a full Zentradi and a powerful mogul in his own right. He also had a dream to create a galaxy-wide communication network, showing just the kind of ambition, intelligence, and initiative that I wanted to see out of the latter-day Zentradi characters.

However, the end of the series shows that Bilra may have wanted this only as a method to find Minmay, who in the Macross continuity was literally lost in space. It is never made clear if this really was Bilra’s only reason for wanting what he did, and I’d really like to believe it wasn’t, because it makes him defined solely by Minmay, and not as a character himself.

Whenever there is danger from rogue Zentradi, it is usually from males. And it is Guld Goa Bowman, a male part-Zentradi character, whose heritage is shown to make him tragically dangerous; viewers are obviously meant to sympathize with Guld, but judging him as a character rather than being under the “fault” of anything, I disliked him intensely. Later male hybrids such as Michel Blanc or Brera Sterne at least mitigate this by having some Zentradi blood but being heroic and likeable, but their heritage gets less of a mention at all.

It often seems like male Zentradi characters can be slotted into a few character types, with difficult implications throughout, and are usually not given as much prominence as characters. Yet for all this, the series also depicts them in a wider variety of occupations and character types than female Zentradi.

In contrast, female Zentradi characters are often part of the main cast, and have lives with both military and domestic aspects. Nonetheless, most female characters that have Zentradi blood are either “perfect” hotshot warriors, happy, bouncy cute girls, or some fusion of the two types. Exceptions are rare: Milia certainly fit this mould in her youth, but her older self is a different sort of character. Stoic, muscular Veffidas Feaze of Macross 7 is a more notable exemption, but she is a character who rarely speaks and is not well-developed.

Danger from female Zentradi is also rare; when they display wrath, it is usually righteous. Most part-Zentradi characters are female, but they are all tractable as well. “Fleet of the Strongest Women” provides some exceptions to this trope, but it’s not enough.

Both of these portrayals have their bad points. On the male side, I wish that the Zentradi gender populated by what is in some ways a more varied range of characters would get more prominence, and that there would be some challenge to certain memes about male Zentradi. On the female Zentradi side, while “strong female characters” are a good thing, here such portrayals seem driven by a desire to idealize women instead, and you get a sense of dull standardization rather than something worth cheering. Female Zentradi characters are not interchangeable, but they often seem very close in looks, personality, and roles, which makes them uninteresting.

Ultimately, the best thing would be for a range of Zentradi characters of either gender. There would be some room for aggressive male hybrids, shameless Minmay fanboys, sexy female pilots, and adorable hybrid girls. But I just wish that they did not dominate Zentradi portrayal. They are restrictive images, and some of them were expressed better in the original series.

The issue of internal danger from seemingly assimilated Zentradi was also a difficult thing in itself. I do not want the Zentradi to be portrayed as saintly, but I want characters to be responsible for their actions, instead of making them out just poor things that can’t help it. If the Zentradi are always dangerous, never able to overcome their warlike urges, why tell a story of their escape? It’s just as bad when Macross implies it as when Robotech states it.

I interpreted Super Dimension Fortress Macross’ depiction of some Zentradi turning on humans to be attributable to the Zentradi’s personal failures to adjust to a new world, something that humans would have experienced in similar situations of radical transformation. However, later Macross works seem to spin it into a “natural” Zentradi predisposition towards aggression that makes them dangerous. An uncomfortable subtext, it undermines the optimistic themes of the TV series, not to mention the complexity when Exsedol once implied that humans and Zentradi may be more alike than they thought. This phenomenon’s virtual restriction to male characters also damages its credibility.

I could tolerate these things much better if I had strong emotional investment in later Macross productions. I simply don’t enjoy anything as much as I did Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Yet the strongest reactions I have to anything post-SDFM, positive or negative, frequently end up tied to my pet interests from the original series, with my being largely superficial or spiteful towards anything else.

Some might attribute it to hurt feelings over how the franchise handled my favourite characters, and that is part of it. Yet it is not the only reason I feel detached from the Macross franchise as a whole. To detail more would go beyond the Zentradi parameters of this essay, but there are many issues related to individual series that all accumulate together and make me “less” of a Macross geek than I should be. I just gotta think that it's not me, it's them.

However, in more recent years, I at least found some interest in the Macross Frontier films, which were more enjoyable than the TV series. Not for the Zentradi characters, but for presenting the storyline out in a more palatable way, with some amazing concert visuals and triggering a liking for Sheryl Nome, who is now my favourite human character in the franchise. It wasn't a matter of being open to liking different things, but for something just coming out that I happened to like. None of my opinions have actually changed.

And, though I didn't get to see it, Macross: the Musicalture, an original Macross story represented as a stage musical, sounded like it offered up some of the diversity for Zentradi characterization that I was looking for. It makes me hope that more interesting and different things will come out in the Macross franchise in the future.

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