Macross Frontier

You may recall that I used to maintain an anime blog. Becoming disillusioned with modern trends in animation and fandom in general, I cut down my consumption and severed myself from all involvement with the community. Since then I’ve become a little more comfortable with my place and figure that it can’t hurt to say a little every once in a while.

These words exist in my own canon, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to participate on a world stage once more. I’m absorbing future anime writing into the body of Batrock.net for a less splintered presentation of my interests.

The original Macross series is one of my favourite of all time. The combination of civilian life with space warfare and compelling villains, with more emphasis on music than was usual at the time, made for a memorable series that has endured far longer than its arbitrary “brothers”, Southern Cross and Mospeada. Due to the convergence of several sets of circumstance, a couple of weeks ago I got the chance to watch the 25th anniversary series, 2007’s Macross Frontier.

My stance on Macross Frontier is complicated: sometimes I thought that it was a Macross series only cosmetically, and at others I thought that it captured key themes perfectly. Despite the lack of depth to the villainy and the frequently workmanlike action sequences, I think that overall it captured very well the essence of animated science fiction.

I do not consider the following to contain very specific spoilers, but I do comment on the outcome of the love triangle.

In 2059, fifty years after humanity’s first contact (and war) with the Zentraedi, they have made their peace and spread out across the galaxy in colony ships.  Macross Frontier is one such ship. When galactic pop star Sheryl Nome visits the colony to perform, it is attacked by the insectoid Vajra race. Young pilot Saotome Alto is thrust into SMS, a government contracted quasi-military operation, to fight the Vajra and protect Frontier, all while personally befriending Sheryl and meeting singing hopeful Ranka Lee.

Where Macross originally showed both sides of the war, Macross Frontier is steeped in mystery: who are the Vajra? Why do they come after Frontier? Why does Ranka have no memory of her childhood except a haunting song that she sings in time of worry? What is the deal with the several layers of intrigue being conducted and counteracted aboard the Frontier?

The mystery exists in the sense of modern intrigue. While you can broadly “spoil” Macross, the unravelling of secrets if central to the essence of Macross Frontier’s story. A lot of programs will maintain viewer interest by presenting them with a puzzle to solve through clues and gradual revelations. It’s up to the writers to make the solution to the puzzle gratifying enough for the audience to have weathered the intrigue in the first place.

I’m not entirely certain that Macross Frontier was wholly successful on that front; as the series progressed it seemed that the “true villains”, such as they were, had vague motives that were never explained beyond power grabs. There are some amazing and shocking set pieces but, as the action is “man versus bug” more than it is “intelligence versus intelligence”, any combat is overcrowded, busy, and not particularly interesting. It’s no coincidence that an uprising at the midpoint is among the series’ most engaging conflicts: it’s the only one presented with satisfactory and clear motives.

The characters feel this frustration, too: as they blow wave after wave of vajra to pieces, they shout “why do you keep attacking us?” Then they find out, and they’re like “oh, okay!” and then a sing off between the two featured pop stars ensues in the finest Macross tradition and everything’s okay. That sounds critical, but it’s not: the series’ climax is great, pumping the atmosphere with the final episode adrenaline that so many other series can’t produce.

Macross Frontier also effectively plays up many important themes: music being appropriated from entertainment into a weapon of war is typically strong and presented in a very blunt fashion. One of the primary weapons for use against the Vajra in the series’ second half is a ship that looks remarkably similar to the Enola Gay. It’s hard to say that Japanese people would have an ambiguous approach to that particular aspect of their history, so we’re given a shorthand guide of how to judge the situation if we are that way inclined. Zentraedi culture also gets a look in, although not as much as I would have liked, and it’s both impressive to see how well they have integrated and been allowed to forge their own culture from nothing – and then to contrast that to the Zentraedi who had no choice but to align themselves with humanity.

The music is all around good and modern, effortlessly converting Minmay’s songs of old and combining them with new offerings from the likes of “Gabriella Robin” (ie Kanno Yoko) and others. Sheryl’s concert style is akin to that of Hamasaki Ayumi: all spectacle and S&M. Ranka is deliberately positioned as a more “down home” songstress. The term “idol” is used to describe Sheryl in a derogatory fashion; Ranka is “the songstress of hope”, and is therefore cuter and more innocent.

These two characters embody the modern form of anime: boobtacular and confident versus loli and meek. Ranka is allegedly seventeen but she very deliberately looks much younger. Apparently her “Nyan nyan” dance became a sensation when the show first aired – and this, again, is symbolic of quite a bit of what is wrong with fandom, if not anime itself.

Sheryl, for being outspoken and feeling herself entitled, is supposed to be less liked by the audience. The love triangle is left deliberately ambiguous, but I think that the answer is fairly clear: the producers were simply insuring themselves against any possible backlash from fans of “the right girl”.

We’re not really allowed “in” to this love triangle, and it’s strange that the “choices” on offer are so alike: both singers, and both, to a degree, pawns. Minmay, in her day, was airheaded and never understood the gravity of any of the situations she was thrust in, but she was very self assured and it never seemed as if she was forced into anything until the time her cousin tried to micromanage and macromarriage her; Misa, who was always the clear winner, was a career woman with a firm sense of right and perhaps a bit too much patience for men. I’ve long held the conviction that Do You Remember Love? was made for the express purpose of depicting Minmay getting slapped on screen – back then, that was by a man, and that wouldn’t fly in the modern world. In Frontier, all of the slapping is done by women, against men or other women. Balance is restored to the universe.

The times that Macross Frontier falters are when it attempts to be something so far outside of the circle of “proper” civilian science fiction that it defies belief:  the Macross franchise was never about chasing panties around a high school and it never should have been allowed to become one. The innocent fan service of 1982 here frequently edges too close to the boobisphere for comfort; Ranka’s best friend Nanase turns out to serve very little purpose beyond being a boob delivery system. Shower scenes are frequent but not inelegant, and one gets the impression that sometimes Macross Frontier is really trying to keep its head above water in an age that wants its women bustier and more scantily clad, while paradoxically also wanting them to appear more youthful, more underdeveloped and more scantily clad.

This dichotomy is perfectly and literally embodied by Zentraedi warrior Klan Klan, who is a well developed woman in her macrone form, and a bratty twelve year old when micronised. It is hard to explain the excitement that I felt when I saw that Zentraedi were being blended into the fighting force (in a totally different way to that of Macross Plus), and the crushing disappointment that followed when Klan Klan was soon thereafter reintroduced in her loli form. The character was later fleshed out enough to justify this, but it was a sour first impression. A concept should never be thwarted or diluted through pandering to fans, and Klan Klan very nearly ruined everything through no fault of her own. It’s probably more depressing that the character turned out as she did not through the intervention of writers or directors, but because she was perceived and conceived as “what the public wants”.

Most of the lesser characters aren’t as well developed as in previous outings; even those with comparatively similar screen times, like Ozma to the original’s Roy. One of the greatest aspects of Macross was the bridge crew: the interplay of the three technicians alongside Claudia, Misa and Captain Global was a major strength. Macross was a strategy show that gave almost equal time to the scheming of the Zentraedi forces that the Macross found itself up against every episode, but there’s very little in the way of tactics required here. All of these characters have analogues on the Macross Quarter – right down to the captain being very suspiciously like Global’s twin – but they’re pale ghosts and not shown nearly enough. The strangest addition is the ascot wearing Bobby, who is not very subtly gay. He hovers between being horrifically stereotyped and harmlessly amusing, and I don’t know which way to feel about him.

Having Alto’s flight club classmates already as members of SMS is cheap and lazy: it means that two previously established characters (and barely established, at that) are featured, yes, but it also beggars the questions of why and how they were keeping their military involvement secret – and why Alto wasn’t a part of the dang thing in the first place.

Further to that, there are many character threads to the plot that aren’t explored as well as they could have been: Alto’s biggest, most important character aspect is that he is a disinherited kabuki actor. This is resolved largely off screen and with a smirk. It’s very late in the piece that Alto can adequately express why he has taken up flight over kabuki – and his disinheritance is never really explained, except that he maintains he never ran away. Alto wins points for not being a thoroughly unlikeable modern protagonist over whom girls swoon for no reason, and he definitely is not without intelligence or resolve. He’s typical in his romantic cluelessness but overall he’s okay – but could have been better.

Ozma, Ranka’s older brother, is poised along with Cathy (this series’ hybrid Misa/Claudia!) to be one of the best characters, but he is too peripheral to get his due. It might be the hallmark of a good SF series that the characters are interesting enough to leave the fans wanting to know more, or it might be a hallmark of a good SF series’ wasted potential that a lot of the characters are mere thumbnails that hint at far richer back stories for each of them. Luca, for instance, is supposed to be part of the intrigue but he’s edged so far out of proceedings that he may as well be floating lifeless in space.

Macross had one of the best final episodes ever presented in anime;  however, the series proved so popular that the network extended it by twelve episodes, which led to an epilogue that was nowhere near as good as the series proper but that I appreciated nonetheless. Macross managed to tell an excellent story in the space of 22 episodes (it ends at episode 24, but two of the episodes in the teens are made of recycled animation: a clip show and a bizarre dream episode that involved Hikaru riding a bike into space to save Minmay).

Macross Frontier is frequently at its best when it evokes memories of Macross past: some of the music choices are both nostalgic and so perfect that tears involuntarily sprang to my eyes. Alto having an important conversation in front of a window to the war in episode 24 was highly evocative of the first series at its highest peak of drama. The final episode of Frontier was similarly perfect, to the point that one could forgive the series its weak villains and action in deference to the spectacle and emotion being broadcast.

There is a danger in deliberately paralleling your previous efforts, not least of which is that it makes you subject to direct comparison.  Episode seventeen here is a direct homage to the infamous “Pineapple Salad” incident, here given new life as “Pineapple Cake”. Because I spotted the reference pretty soon, I was expecting something to happen that I knew the series hadn’t earned. Perhaps the writers knew this, too; they deliberately created an expectation based on nostalgia and then subverted it, creating a much better product than a cynical cash-in could ever have allowed.

So how is it possible that Macross Frontier can at once be so good but also in the league of things that I rail against? A lot changed in the twenty five years since the first series: female protagonists became de rigueur, fan service became more brazen, and focus has (sometimes) shifted from great feats of tech supported by human stories, to human stories sometimes backgrounded by semi-important action sequences. This, of course, is over simplification of an entire medium’s trajectory, but Macross Frontier seems in many ways “typical” of this decade in animation. It does it well but it’s disappointing that it doesn’t blaze a trail, and that its greatest moments are retreads of a glorious past.

Of course, if you love something, you can become very critical of it. I loved Macross. I suspect that I may love Macross Frontier, but not as much or for the same reasons. That I can think of so many arguments against it speaks not ill of the show itself, but demonstrates both what it could have been and what it is. This is a show where I literally shivered with excitement at some of the developments on offer. I gasped on a train. Tears sprang to my eyes. That’s no objective measure, but I can tell you that it subjectively means one thing: all told, Macross Frontier was pretty awesome.

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