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Monday, March 02, 2015

Review: Macross

Years ago, I wrote a review of the Macross TV series. I wanted to hyperlink to it recently while writing another review, but realized that it came from an old website which I never updated and has now been lost in time. So I'm reposting this review. Macross was one of the best shows out and still holds up well today, and it turns out that my AnimEigo set is now a collector's item. Who knew?

I first saw Macross when I was a kid of about 15 in Singapore, rushing home from school every Thursday evening to try to catch the latest episode, which had been dubbed into Mandarin by the Taiwanese. My brother recently got a DVD player, borrowed the entire TV series (36 episodes) from his friend Jason, and we watched it all over again, this time in the original Japanese with Chinese subtitles. What a difference 13 years make!

Macross is a girl’s story
For some reason, when you’re a kid, you don’t notice that Macross is really a girl’s story. Sure, it’s got giant transforming robots. It’s also got space batttles, lots of neat gadgets, and a cool science fiction plot that stands up even to adult scrutiny (well, the corny parts of the science fiction plot are motivated by the romantic bent of the whole series). But the heart and soul of Macross is the romance between the main characters. Nobody’s motivated by anything else!

The plot revolves around 3 main characters. Hikaru Ichijou, a boy pilot who grows up eventually to be a squadron leader, Linn Minmei (also spelled Lynn MinMay), a school girl of about 16 who wins a beauty contest and goes on to become a pop singer, and Misa Hayase (a good translation might be Lisa Hayes, which the American "Robotech" uses), a flight controller/battle coordinator for the ship, Macross. Of course, there’s a love triangle between them, and how the interaction between the characters play out and whom Hikaru eventually decides in favor of presents the series with its romantic climax. To give you an idea of how unimportant the military climax was, it occurs fully 8 episodes before the end of the series, to give the creators more time to focus on what was obviously dear to their hearts. The science fiction elements of the plot are discussed elsewhere (see below for a collection of links to various home pages), so I won’t go into them in detail.

So, ok, Macross is a trashy romance/soap opera. But if all soap operas were like this I’d watch them. None of the characters are stilted or artificial. Hikaru seems like a dork at times, but he does wake up to his situations and corrects himself. Lynn Minmei seems like your stereotypical cute airhead at first, but even she has to suffer the consequences of her decisions and becomes a stronger person. Misa Hayase seems like a rigid, strictly military person, but she suffers from her own bouts of insecurities and when she eventually gives in to her feelings becomes such a sympathetic character that you find yourself rooting for her. Nobody’s a bad guy (or a bad girl), and character development is handled consistently and with great care. Everybody has to suffer a little in order to grow up, and the primary characters in Macross are not immune to suffering. A common theme seems to be that the characters have to let go of their desires in order to deserve what they desire. But unlike the morality plays you see in Saturday morning cartoons, these themes are handled very subtly (so subtly that they were lost on me, of course, when I was a kid).

How has Macross aged over the last 15 years for me personally? What I’ve found is that the situations I found myself in over the last 10 years or so were in some ways paralleled in Macross. There are lots of little touches, like in the ambiguous way Minmei treats Hikaru throughout most of the series was something I’ve encountered in the Asian dating scene. It is entirely possible that if you're not familiar with how Asian-Asian dating works a very few of the cultural cues might not work for you. There are some poignant moments, like the time when Misa Hayase waits a whole day at a road side cafĂ© for Hikaru, who shows up in the evening after being much delayed. While Misa is waiting, a little friendly dog comes up to her and she looks at him and says, "Hey, you’re alone too." She picks him up and starts feeding him but in the middle of it the dog’s owner (a little girl that we can’t quite see) shouts the dog’s name from across the street and the dog leaps out of Misa’s arms and bounds towards the little girl. Hikaru shows up right after that and the parallels that the preceding scene has with Misa's relationship with Hikaru and Minmei just about broke my heart. These quiet scenes become by far the most powerful ones. They have a haunting quality that sticks with you even after you’re done watching the series.

While technology mostly stays in the background, the characters in Macross are facile with it, and use it naturally as part of day-to-day life. In one episode, for instance, as Hikaru escorts Misa's shuttle towards Earth, he sends a farewell message to her by signalling (in Morse code) with the wing-tip lights on his fighter.

There are quite a number of corny scenes however. Given the series' preoccupation with romance, it shouldn't surprise you that characters find themselves working through their issues while bombs are literally falling around them. But then again, I've already told you that Macross is a trashy romance, haven't I?

One of the things I missed watching the series in Singapore was the end title credits. The end credit sequence shows a helmet, and a photo album. A hand moves in and turns the photo album’s pages, revealing photographs of Minmei, and Minmei and Hikaru. The helmet is a standin for Hikaru’s pilot’s helmet, but what you don’t realize is that the hand moving the photo album isn’t Hikaru’s (the helmet doesn't belong to Hikaru, either)! The scene shows up 28 episodes into the series. The final episode ends with a freeze-frame, and a hand turns the page over to the end of the photo album while the caption comes up "2012: So long!", giving one a sense of closure about the story as a whole. The end theme is also sung by a different performer for the last episode. It is little touches like that that distinguish the long running Japanese/Asian TV series from the American series. It is quite obvious that Macross was a story planned with a beginning, middle, climax, and end right from the start, while American series (except for the mini-series, which don't typically run as long as the Asian series) do not usually have the coherency of a single vision guiding their work.

All TV animation series have to be relatively low budget. Watching all 36 episodes in order in relatively short time gives you a very good sense as to which episodes were important to the producers. There are entire episodes that seem stitched togther from flashbacks in order to either let the audience catch up from the previous episode or in order to meet a deadline. Then there are episodes like the military climax, or the last 4 episodes of the series, where the producers pull out all stops---the machines and ships look almost real, and the women and men look gorgeous. It almost looks as if Misa Hayase underwent a facelift in the last 8 episodes of the series! Even in the best-drawn episodes, however, budget seems a primary consideration: you can definitely recognize battle scenes that have been cut and spliced from previous episodes. However, don’t let this deter you—even the badly drawn episodes have the virtue that the story line is consistently high quality. There’s an episode devoted to Hikaru’s dream sequence that is hilarious, for instance. It is not at all unusual to find humor thrown into the mix to good effect, and even the serious episodes can have a bit of farce thrown in.

Minmei's singing
A frequent source of derision whenever the Macross comes up among anime fans is Minmei's pop songs. If you like Japanese pop, there's nothing wrong with her performance. Iijima Mari is a pop/idol singer who did voice-acting as Lynn Minmei when she was nineteen (Minmei is 16 at the start of the TV series), so not only was she a good fit for Minmei's voice, she could sing as well. If your exposure to Minmei was through the American dubbed series, you will definitely find Iijima Mari to be at least someone who can hit the notes when she wants to. That said, however, even Iijima Mari is embarrassed about the most overused song in Macross, Watashi no Kare wa Pairotto (My boyfriend is a pilot). Apparently, things that weren't embarrassing to sing when you were nineteen have a way of catching up to you when you're 35. Well, you can always fast-forward through the singing without missing anything.

The background music in Macross is reasonably well-done. In fact, if you watch any kind of Asian television, you will run into some low-budget Taiwanese shows that have "borrowed" background music from Macross. (Presumably, they just cut their background music from the myriad CDs that have sprung up) If you're going to buy a soundtrack album, the movie soundtrack has the best orchestrations.

Is it worth 18 hours?
So how do I feel about spending 18 hours watching this series over a period of a few weeks? I’d do it again. I wouldn’t do it unless I could watch all of it, since you will not be satisfied without getting to know the climax and the ending, and there’s no easy way to skip episodes without missing some character or plot development. There is one catch-up episode around episode 12 that you can skip because it’s used to catch laggards up with the series, and that’s about it. If I had only 2 hours to spend, I’d definitely just watch the last 4 episodes or perhaps the last 8 episodes if I had more time. (These are the "reconstruction of Earth" episodes—other science fiction shows have the heroes saving the world, this one has the heroes failing to save the Earth) These episodes focus almost solely on the romance, but the caveat is that you’ll miss a lot without getting the setup that the first twenty-something episodes give you. For instance, Roy Fokker plays a major part early on in the series, and episode 33 doesn’t make much sense if you don’t know who he is. If you can, watch the series in the original Japanese. Not only is the voice acting much better, but you’ll get a stronger sense of what gets lost in the translation. (I’ll never forgive whoever translated "Merry Christmas" into a long awkward Chinese sentence!) There’s a surprising amount of English in the TV series, too, so you might not find yourself as lost as you might imagine.

The movie
A final word before going into the hyperlinks. The movie isn’t the same story as the TV series. If you’ve seen the movie, it will still be worth your while to watch the TV series, just as it’s worth your while to read a novel of a movie that was made from a novel. There are many plot differences between the movie and the TV series. Outright contradictions are common: in the TV series, Minmei is never kidnapped by the Zentraedi, while in the movie, she was captured and persuades the aliens to return her with her songs! Your feelings about the characters will be much stronger if you watch the TV series. If you had to choose one or the other (and given that the movie’s only 90 minutes but the TV series is 18 hours, they’re not quite comparable), the TV series is definitely better. The movie, as might be expected, has gorgeous animation, and if you want to see the characters drawn at their best, that’s a good place to see them!
Just a note. I've tried to keep spoilers away from this review of Macross in the hopes that you'll go ahead and try to watch it. Some of the hyperlinks below contain spoilers that you might not want to see. (In particular, the compendium site can be very dangerous)
  • The Official Macross Website. Hosted in Japan, this is a very poor site with relatively few stills from the movie or the TV series. However, the description of the characters in "Japlish" is hilarious! If you want to see pictures of the characters I've mentioned, this site contains no spoilers.
  • The Macross Compendium. This is the mother of all fan-sites, and has a chronology as well as explanations of all the varying Macross TV series.

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