Friday, February 8, 2013

Animation Appreciation: Super Dimension Fortress Macross

In January of 2008, Space: The Imagination Station (the Canadian equivalent to the ex-Sci-Fi Channel), started airing Robotech at a breakneck pace of two episodes every weekday afternoon. This didn't last long, but kicked off a long and happy interest in the first component of this anime mash-up: the 1982 giant robot series Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

Make no mistake, while there is a something which drives my interest in all things Macross, the entire show is worth watching and worth praising, and I am entertained by all of its facets.

In the year 1999, an alien war fortress crashed to Earth. Ten years later, the remains of the fortress have been rebuilt into the Macross. On the day of the launch, the fortress is attacked by aliens called the Zentradi. Hikaru Ichijo, a young stunt pilot, finds himself accidentally recruited into the army and decides to stay there, while he gets involved in a love triangle between Misa Hayase, his older military superior, and Lynn Minmay, a young up-and-coming pop star.

Meanwhile, it seems that the war with the Zentradi won't be won by guns alone. The Zentradi develop a fascination with human culture and the male soldiers start defecting, beginning a chain reaction that leads to a military alliance and the Zentradi striking back against their superiors.

Very few works can hit that sweet spot of appealing to multiple audiences while staying true to a single story and motif. SDF Macross appeals to fans of war and mechs, to fans of romance and character drama, and those in between. Both of these sides feed off each other, work together, and make the story stronger.

But if you tried to define the tone of SDFM, it would be easy. SDF Macross is, despite its images of war, violence, and death, ultimately an idealistic series. It's one where love and music and accidentally appealing to mutual humanity are what win the day.

The series is also capable of slapstick comedy and pessimism, which only enhances the idealistic parts. When a series is capable of moving outside its "comfort zone", that informs us that it is capable of looking at the world from many viewpoints, and becomes richer for it.

But while I appreciate all of SDF Macross, my main interest is in the Zentradi, who have been a minor obsession of mine for several years, and probably will stick out as one of my favourite things ever. All of this wouldn't be possible except that SDFM had a well-developed secondary cast that was as able to capture the imagination of viewers as the main characters did.

The Zentradi are essentially giant humans, and at first appear to be your standard "Warrior Alien" types. But after a while, we find out that they don't have a "warrior culture" but in fact have been grown and shaped into this role like bonsai trees, without any choice on the matter. Their new option to shrink down and become "human" is not always easy, but it's something worth chasing.

The Zentradi story arc combined goofy comedy with genuine feeling, told us about the power art and imagination can have to captivate the deprived, and that even comical characters don't just have to be comic relief.

All of this was like catnip to me.

My favourite character was Exedore Formo, who was sort of the Spock of the group but not really (making "Messenger" my favourite episode). However, I loved all of the allied male characters. The only allied female character who gets any screentime is Milia Fallyna, and I have issues with how she was handled. I don't consider myself a fan of her, but wish I did, and wish that the female Zentradi were more explored.

SDF Macross fizzles near the end, as the series suddenly had an order of new episodes after the conventional climax, while originally the series' running time had been cut down. Some of the material in these episodes work, but some does not.

Restarting the love triangle in order to create drama just makes Hikaru look like a cad and Misa look passive-aggressive. I don't mind the rebellion of allied Zentradi, but the almost complete sidelining of the secondary cast, and the pointless lack of success that certain characters had at fitting in, was very unappealing. This material had to be rushed out, and not meant to reflect the mentality of the series.

Super Dimension Fortress Macross was adapted into an animated film in 1984, called Super Dimension Fortress: Do You Remember Love? For most, it's a feast: lavish new animation, a story rewritten and compressed so that it fits the pacing of a film instead of being a clunky mess. It's darker and edgier, but one done well.

I don't refute any of these claims, just that the film has never gotten along with me. The Zentradi story is reduced by necessity, and they are all given ugly new designs and personalities, ugly in different ways for the genders and which spread to later Macross media. I can't care enough about anything else to enjoy the movie otherwise.

Furthermore, I find that no other Macross production has captured a similar "spark", and in fact until the very recent Macross Frontier movies, there was nothing I actually felt I was a fan of. I found things to like in many of the other Macross works, but never enough to declare myself satisfied. I wasn't looking for a new SDFM, but something to enjoy on its own terms, and didn't find it until then.

Despite how much I love Super Dimension Fortress Macross, for various reasons the Macross universe feels like an "incomplete" media universe, with a lot of things left unexplained, and a lot of older characters getting the shaft for no apparent reason. I don't apologize for this anymore, and treat myself as having always been open-minded.

I don't think SDF Macross needs a remake, for the usual reasons. The re-animated footage for the Macross Fever game is a thrill to watch, especially because "my" Zentradi are back for the first time in decades, but the principles stay intact. What we have here is a gem of an anime, and it's also better to concentrate on new things. Anybody wants to see the old SDFM, it's there for the taking, evergreen and tremendously fun.

Oh, and the Robotech dub was okay, too. If it weren't, I wouldn't be here.

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