Friday, December 14, 2012

Not Wishing for Grit: Words from a Softy who Dislikes Macross 7

Macross 7 has apparently undergone a change of fortune. Once the black sheep of the Macross franchise, now it seems to be embraced by a large amount of the fandom, with all the role-reversal of fandom arguments that that suggests.

However, I'm still comfortable with disliking it: we can't all love everything. No problems…except that some associate a dislike of Macross 7 with certain traits that are the exact opposite of mine. The assumption is that those who dislike Macross 7 do so because they assume Macross is, or should be, a gritty, military-driven franchise.

This sucks, because I actually love the ideals and themes of the Macross world.  Themes about the life-affirming power of song and art are usually guaranteed to float my boat, and I'm a sappy, sentimental sort of girl. I even regret the prevalence of military hardware discussion on the fandom, when I would rather discuss plots and characters instead.

But I just don't like Macross 7. In fact, I really hated watching it, and haven't been back to watch it since I finished it three years ago. The way the themes and ideals of the series are presented just do not appeal to me, and I either dislike the characters or haven't any strong feelings towards them. I also don't like the style and look of the series, and I don't even find it appealing in an ironic, "look-at-this-crazy-shit-oh-my-god" way. It all adds up to one unappealing cartoon.

Let's start where most stories start, with the protagonist. Basara Nekki is the lead, and he's the type of character who only makes the world change, and never has his own world changed.
Basara's determination to "listen to his song", and his commitment to peace are both unwavering, and all that is needed is for the rest of the world to catch up to him.

I'm not saying a character who starts the story with everything he needs to succeed can't be an effective lead, but Basara is just so fucking obnoxious…. He's a loudmouth, an idiot, but one who's always proven right. He's always "on". It's both offensive and boring at the same time, and never gets any better.

And once again, I get it. I get that Basara is meant to embody the force of Art, the way that a creative person can become so passionately devoted to their work, and how this passion can change the world. I understand it because I'm into the creative arts, too, and usually I love artistic characters—but not now.

Just because you enjoy a theme, doesn't mean you enjoy all representations of it. I don't dislike Basara because I want a more "manly", rugged lead who thinks with his weapons: I do because his mannerisms are so irritating, and his strong convictions don't move me. It's nothing to do with a lack of appreciation for the power of music.

And yes, I don't believe that Basara was meant to be taken ironically, that viewers were meant to laugh at him for being bull-headed and/or he was meant to spoof a pompous "rock star" attitude. Macross has never been short on comedy, but it's never been about that kind of vicious, cutting humour.  In fact, one of the main characteristics of the Macross universe is earnestness: no matter how silly its premises are, they are presented with conviction, which is what I think is going on here.

While Macross 7 isn't short on comedy, it's comedy of the straightforward kind: slapstick and jokes and faceplants, without any criticism of the series itself. We are meant to see Basara as a great hero, a maverick whose methods may be bizarre, but who will be vindicated. As further proof, the name "Basara" refers to a mentality of freedom and forward thinking. That could be a joke, too, but it's even more doubtful.

Macross 7 is not an ironic series, in short. And even if there were, even if this was actually an ironic series, it doesn't excuse any visceral dislike a viewer might feel. "It's supposed to be funny" is never an excuse if you don't actually find it funny.

I don't have a problem with the rest of the new cast of heroes. I don't hate Fire Bomber at all, just Basara and his...Basara. Dr. Chiba gives me the willies, though, since he's a little too close to that particular kind of otaku that exists in real life.

I don't have anything against Gamlin Kizaki either way. He's a cool guy, but he never clicked with me. I guess he's popular because, despite his comic moments, Gamlin is a pipeline to the militarism that some desire from the Macross franchise. I'm not in need of anything like that.

Of course, I don't strongly like any of the newer characters, either, but that isn't enough to make a series repulsive. Veffidas Feaze has grown on me a bit, but just as an unconventional female Zentradi. I still consider her to be a shallow character; I know a character doesn't have to speak to have a strong personality, but Veffidas still doesn't succeed at it.

The second major reason I dislike Macross 7 has to do with the antagonists, the Protodevlin. At first mysterious aliens with their own ships and mecha, they are gradually revealed to be energy vampires inhabiting stolen human bodies or alien constructs made by the Protoculture. They feed on "spiritia", and Basara's music holds the key to defeating them, or at least making peace with them, partly because his life-energy is particularly potent.

I can buy that the "spirita" generated by music can be so intense, so powerful, that it could stop the Protodevlin in their tracks (among other things), but the Protodevlin just get on my nerves. They're hideous to look at, or to listen to.

The construct bodies, without fail, look ridiculous and ugly, like enemies from a Super Sentai show, or Inuyasha, all done up in garish, awful colours. Particularly bad is Gabil, a moth/elf/angel thing who always screams about "beauty!" There are plenty of attempts to make these characters sympathetic, but they never get through to me.

To make things worse, the Protodevlin are overhyped. It is said that they caused the downfall of the Protoculture, the mysterious galactic civilization that is responsible for creating artificial life and countless technological wonders. And yet, all it takes is Basara's music to make them realize peace, that they could create their own "spiritia" through the group. Even if these are only a handful of Protodevlin out of past legions, it's still so hard to believe.

There is also a personal reason for disliking the Protodevlin, and it ain't nothing to dismiss. Protodevlin apparently invoke an instinctive fear or anger response in the Zentradi, turning them into violent terrorists or complete cowards—except for Milia, for some reason, which makes the idea  less credible. It's so brainless, when the Protodevlin don't live up to their hype, and when it means that humans have to save the Zentradi, instead of both races working together, using what they've earned through previous stories.

The odd thing is that the Protodevlin can be considered parallel to the Zentradi in a number of ways, not only because some of their stolen bodies were originally designed to replace Zentradi. Still, this just proves my point that the presentation of a theme is even more important than the theme itself. I dislike the Protodevlin so much, while the Zentradi are one of my all-time favourite things.

Despite all this, I never believed that the Protodevlin would be blown away, destroyed, defeated in that standard manner expected of antagonists. I understand is not how Macross functions: it's a media franchise where a key motif is making peace with one's enemies. I accept that, but it doesn't mean I accepted the Protodevlin anyway. Their embodying a valuable theme made no difference.

Besides the new heroes and the antagonists, there's also the three returning older characters: Max, Milia, and Exsedol. Some viewers have said they watched the series for Max and Milia, while I watched it for Exsedol. I'm not proud to admit it, because watching a series just for a character, and not its plot or themes, always felt shallow to me.

Especially with this character. I know I've talked about this before, but it needs repeating to get the whole picture of my reaction to Macross 7. Exsedol is my favourite character in the franchise, and his form and personality were changed for no reason. Furthermore, Macross 7, he's not much of a character.

He's a talking prop, a background object who is too big to have any meaningful interaction with the characters, not that Exsedol is meant to. He's also virtually useless, with very few of his deeds things that could not have been accomplished by another character. All of this puts me in a bad mood for the whole series.

At the same time, Exsedol was also the only thing I ever cared about while watching the series, which proves how screwy my relationship with it is. I don't view fixation on a minor character as a personal problem, but the result of the larger stuff not being interesting. And while there's  nothing wrong with preferring a tertiary character, in this case I feel it's not "earned", because it's not about qualities Exsedol has now, but only what he used to have, back when preferring him to major characters was justifiable.

Max and Milia's portrayals are much better. They have lives outside of their military role, feel like actual characters who matter to the story. Hell, they even look (almost) the same after decades of life. I don't believe the difference in these portrayals is totally due to the relative differences in popularity—Exsedol's portrayal is just an unusual execution, and being tertiary doesn't necessitate making him less a "person". I don't mind Max and Milia getting more focus, just wish Exsedol were more "human" in his function and living.

There are problems, though. One is that Max and Milia are estranged at the start of the series, and it is never explained why. Many fans are content with making up their own explanations, but that never works for me. Stories shouldn't make fans do the mental legwork to fill in their background.

Many believe that Max and Milia's breakup was a commentary on the impossible nature of their relationship. These were two characters who had been bitter enemies, but Max defeated Milia on and off the battlefield, and they were married almost on the spot. There are many practical objections to this scenario, but in-universe there was never the sense that this was anything but a grand love story.

If their estrangement in Macross 7 was meant to be a biting commentary on the previous series, it would have been clearer. The only hint we get as to the reasoning behind the breakup is that Milia complains an "elite pilot won't take care of domestic matters" in the OVA Which One Do You Love?—which is a surprise, when Milia used to be the one tossing babies and blowing up kitchens. It looks like the writers went for the standard gender roles rather than the characters' roles, clearing up nothing about the individuals themselves.

In fact, a huge problem with Milia in Macross 7 is the way she's turned into a comic relief figure by drawing on ugly stereotypes of older women. Zentradi have, ideally, been a mixture of comical and serious traits, but Milia's portrayal relentlessly mocks her in a way that becomes uncomfortable, since it's tied to very real attitudes towards women.

She's portrayed as the meddling mother (pushing her youngest daughter to pick a suitor at age fourteen), the nagging wife, the insecure woman who snaps when you call her "old" or anything similar. While Milia in the original series could be hilariously vain and petty, you never get the impression that was what the writers drew on: instead, they went straight to stereotypes again.

The plot construction of the series also does it no favours. The plot of Macross 7 drags and cycles, with a lot of filler, stagnation, and other messes that are uninteresting if you don't care about the characters. The climax also depends on Geppelnitch, a human-bodied Protodevlin, becomes a "spiritia black hole", a monster that must be stopped...because why the hell not, right?

I realize that newbies are encouraged to just watch Macross 7 in small doses to avoid burnout, but if you need a set schedule to make yourself enjoy a series, that defeats the point of watching something for entertainment. A series should be enjoyable no matter how you take it in.

Also, while Basara's ability to affect the Protodevlin can be defined as an abstract power, Macross 7 attempts to make it literal, in the form of song energy that can be quantified, measured, and implemented. This does lead to some silly visuals, like rocker-piloted mecha with giant speakers, but more than that, it spoils the ideal of music being transcendent, suggesting it's all about a superpower rather than artistic passion. I've backed off over the years, to see that one view of music's power doesn't necessarily cancel out the other, but it does chip away at the power of the concept.

Just as the Protodevlin are ugly to look at, so is the rest of the series. I don't mind the low animation quality so much, or the reused footage, because TV animation has always had those limits. The character designs are good as with all Macross series, but the colour palette of Macross 7 has so many garish blues, pinks, yellows, and purples it just becomes unpleasant to witness. Some of the futuristic outfits and stage clothes are also hard on the eyes, too.

Whatever other problems my dislike might suggest, I know my differences with Macross 7 are not due to wishing for a more gritty Macross franchise. I like the idea of music being able to change the world, of making peace with one's enemies, and of sticking to ones' convictions: I just don't like this particular series. I like the themes Macross embodies, but Macross 7 takes them to unappetizing extremes, and has several specific problems that further bring it down.

1 comment:

  1. Really, really enjoyed reading your take on Macross 7. Great read.

    While it's far from my favourite Macross serie, I think that it's biggest forte within the francshise, is that it is here were the themes of space exploration and colonization, that are brought up as the future of the human race in the last episode of SDFM, are portrayed in their fruition. Macross Plus portrayed in Eden a planet that was already colonized and nothing more than a second Earth. The large colonial fleets operating independently seeking out new worlds is first shown in 7, and later re-used very effectively in Frontier. I think that whole setting is what appealed the most to me together with Fire Bomber's music.

    What was done with Exsedol though was unforgivable. In general I don't like that Kawamori and co. so liberally mix the SDFM/DYRL "look" and behaviour of the Zentraedi. I wish they would stick to the series version of them. It makes for a much more interesting portrayal of the characters.