Robotech: The Macross Saga – 25 years later

SDF-1

I think most American kids born in the 60’s and 70’s can point to at least one Japanese anime series as being a childhood favorite. There was G-Force (Japanese Team Gatchaman) and Starblazers (Japanese Space Battleship Yamato,) as well as Speed Racer (Japanese Mach Go Go Go) or the later Voltron, (Japanese Beast King Go-Lion.) Many American adults still don’t realize how much of their daily cartoon diet was composed of dubbed Japanese imports. A trend that continues unabated to this day.

One series stood out for me, and it wasn’t because of the transforming robots — though I’d be lying if I said the mecha of Robotech weren’t enormously exciting to my 11 year old imagination. Having already been a fan of several anime series — not knowing then that they were even Japanese — Robotech grabbed my attention with how adult the scripting and plot turned out to be. Little did I know that Robotech was a heavily re-scripted composite of three unrelated Japanese transformable mecha series — Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber M.O.S.P.E.A.D.A. Thanks to the late Carl Macek — a figure of some controversy in anime fan circles — millions of us were introduced to a complex space opera, replete with menacing giants, vast space fleets, complex love triangles, ultra-neato transforming robots, and — of course — the song stylings of the indescribably horrible Lynn Minmei.

I first watched Robotech in small hunks, from the late spring of 1985 through the autumn and winter of 1986. At the time I was never able to piece the series together coherently, instead catching it in short gulps of two or three episodes at a time. The local independent station broadcasting the series in the Salt Lake City area was forever moving the series around in their weekly schedule, finally relegating it to an absurd 6 AM slot on Saturday mornings. If memory serves, several parents had called to complain loudly about Robotech’s adult themes — because, apparently, it’s just awful to expose kids to concepts like duty, loyalty, respect, honor, the tragedy of loss, or the necessity of fortitude in the face of adversity. So the station kept moving the show to odd hours, until it was ultimately canceled from local syndication.

Thanks a lot, you 80’s parents. You killed Robotech!

Almost.

In 1990 I discovered — with great joy — that the Macross portion was available on VHS video cassette from Family Home Entertainment. At the end of that same year, Kevin Siembieda — who had produced the much-fun Robotech role-playing game, under license from Harmony Gold — began releasing the other two “chapters” of the series on VHS, so that by 1992 I had managed to collect Robotech in its entirety — for a significant hunk of my then meager teenaged monthly budget.

I ultimately jettisoned that deteriorating VHS collection two years ago during my last move, but thanks to the magic that is the Hulu television web site, I am able to re-screen the entire Robotech saga, start to finish, and in its mostly original form too.

Tonight, I capped off the Macross portion during a mini-marathon. Something I used to do when I was a teenager: just pop the tapes in sequentially and watch them for hours. I had forgotten a lot — and yet remembered far more than I could have expected. Such that re-screening Macross was a very literal trip in the wayback machine. I can clearly recall very vividly in 1990 watching portions of this part of the series, and wondering to myself: where will I be in 1999, or 2009, the two most significant dates in the Macross (now alternate universe) timeline. I must admit to being a bit stunned at some of the parallels.

Like Rick Hunter, I never had any intention of being in the service. In fact, I can recall trying to talk a good friend out of the military when he opted to join the Air Force after college. Little did I know that 9/11/2001 was not too far off, nor that I’d be signing up with the Army roughly one year later. Now I’m sitting on an Army installation, about to complete my Basic Course for Warrant Officer education. There is no Robotech Defense Force and no super-awesome mecha to pilot — a shame — but my reasons for joining seem more or less be consonant with Rick’s. He felt he had to do something, because events beyond his control were changing his world and he didn’t want to just sit around and watch other people act while he did nothing.

Rick, however, was never the Macross character with which I most identified. That person was actually Max Sterling, the bespectacled best friend of Rick, who not only somehow found a way to bypass every military regulation in the book, regarding pilots with poor eyesight, but was the best pilot in the series, and managed to win the hand of the fiery and beautiful Zentraedi war ace, Miriya Parina. My Annie is not an ace pilot, but she’s every bit as fiery as Miriya, and given the fact that I am white and she is not, there is a degree of “otherness” in the equation that reminds me of the Max-Miriya duo. Especially when I consider the fact that Max and Miriya had a daughter — just like I’ve got a daughter. To quote Miriya in a late episode, “Behold the power of love!”

In the end, Max was the nice guy nerd who won the heart of the hot chick, and married her!

Just like me. Or am I just like Max?

Speaking of which, the entire Macross Saga revolves around the often-maddening love triangle between Rick Hunter, his fellow military officer Lisa Hayes, and the previously derided Lynn Minmei.

Now, speaking plainly, the fact that Rick could never correctly see the value of Lisa’s affection — versus the flighty infatuation of the two-bit wonder ditz that was Minmei — reminds me that Rick Hunter was (is?) a complete dumbass. It wasn’t until the final episode that Rick finally pulled his head from his fourth point of contact, and only after Lisa had been near super-human in putting up with his idiocy in the matter. In reality, a woman of Lisa’s caliber would have kicked Rick to the curb early in the series, and never looked back. Fortunately for Rick’s stupid self, she stuck with it long enough for him to clue in.

Meanwhile, the complicated pain of Claudia Grant — portrayed wonderfully by actress Iona Morris — serves as excellent ballast, compared to the sometimes silly aspects of the show. It was the on-screen death of her lover Roy Fokker — something that generated particular parental outrage — that was a slap-in-the-face reminder to me when I was 11 that war is not a game. Roy’s demise, and Claudia’s sorrowful and lingering romance with him, still provide the Macross Saga with a degree of gravitas that even many live-action science fiction series have never managed. Again, largely thanks to Iona Morris, who was without question the strongest of all the female voice actors hired for Robotech’s production.

Perhaps appropriately, Minmei’s anti-military and politically radical cousin, Kyle, is even more of a resounding prick than I remembered him being. Mostly because I’ve had the (dis)pleasure of seeing people just like him — for real — in my own short military career. As in reality, much of Kyle’s resentment against the military seems ill-placed, and he treats their constant efforts and interventions on his behalf with disdain and contempt. Wow, sounds like the Seattle Public School Board personified! In the end, Kyle is true to form as a shallow, narcissistic, self-centered and egotistical asshole. He treats Minmei as his personal property — lacking the talent to have his own performing career — and betrays most of the high-minded ideals he claims to espouse. Yup, right down the line, for today’s contemporary anti-military radicals.

Which is not to say that Robotech is pro-war, or even gung-ho military. Indeed, a large factor in the show’s depth is that it explores — far more than any other militaristic cartoon of its television era — the morality and ramifications of war and fighting. Whereas contemporaries like G.I. Joe made war seem like a harmless adventure in Lazer Tag, Robotech put forth the human toll of conflict. Lives and loves lost. Destruction on a huge scale. The scenes of Earth being incinerated by the Zentraedi fleet — the nameless NCO who covers down on the little girl whose name he asks just as the beam strikes and obliterates them — are almost shocking in their unflinching portrayal of the bloody cost of battle.

Robotech’s Macross Saga even suggests that war without peace — war for its own sake — is evil. As personified by the malevolent and miscreant Zentraedi warlord Khyron, who revels in destruction at every turn, seeming to have no regard for any other life but his own. In fact, much of the program’s moral weight rests on the idea that the Robotech Defense Force — Captain Gloval, and Lisa Hayes, and Claudia, Rick, Max and everyone else — are desperate for peace. They’ve had a bellyful of fighting, and know the horror, and they’re determined to use their weapons to disarm the Zentraedi invaders and, in the end, bring the Zentraedi around to their side.

Placed in a contemporary perspective, some aspects of the Zentraedi leaping to the human cause, might seem simplistic. The Zentraedi are a one-dimensional and child-like enemy who, once exposed to “micronian” human culture, swiftly fall for its allure. Al-Qaeda is not now, nor will it ever be, innocent in the way the Zentraedi are innocent. The men who flew the planes into the Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11 had been fully immersed in the “micronian” life for years, yet apparently hated it enough to die trying to destroy it — something Robotech also addresses when it portrays the after-war reversion of many Zentraedi to their xenophobic, war-for-war’s-sake ways.

Of course, much of Robotech’s emotional impact could not have been achieved without the often-excellent orchestral score. Yes, the electric guitar infusion somewhat dates the production, but some of the other passages are brilliant to this day. Especially the ones laden with pathos. Click here to sample “Reconstruction Blues,” a piece that is recurrent and masterfully employed throughout. As is “Desolation,” whose solemnity is often used to underline poignant scenes of the aftermath of total war, many of which come later in the Saga.

As for the actual singing tracks — featuring Minmei — they can be trashcanned with no ill effect. The only Minmei song even remotely worth your time is the once-heard battle ballad, “We Will Win,” which occurs only once during the entire Macross arc, whereas the other, atrocious songs are used and re-used endlessly — and to the chagrin of Robotech’s fans everywhere.

At the end of Episode 36 I was reminded ultimately of just how deep an impression Robotech — especially the Macross Saga — made on me during my formative years. It was and is my most favorite of all Japanese animation imports, surviving the test of time against many challengers. It is not a perfect product. The script struggles often to put English words into animated mouths which are clearly speaking another language and following another plot arc. Especially as the Saga wades towards its conclusion, which Macek had to somehow find a way to mesh with the Southern Cross episodes, occurring a generation later and employing footage from a totally different series, related to Macross only in that both feature transforming mecha and alien invasion.

I am looking forward to screening Southern Cross. It’s the portion of Robotech I remember the least about, mainly because I saw so few Southern Cross episodes during the original 80’s run. Yes, I generally know the plot, because I know the Invid Invasion portion very well, but I’m hoping to compare a fresh look with what my memory tells me about that portion of the Robotech story.

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10 thoughts on “Robotech: The Macross Saga – 25 years later

  1. Wow, Brad, you have grand taste, my friend. Robotech was my absolute favorite television program as a child. They showed it in reruns on Cartoon Network’s Toonami from what must have been somewhere around 1997 through 2000, and damn that show was influential to my future.

    A couple years back, I picked up volumes 1-3 of the “Macross” DVD collection, which are basically re-translations of the original Japanese storyline. So, while they somewhat follow Robotech, they are slightly truer to the source material, and are therefore less “Americanized,” and feature the original Japanese names (Rick = Hikaru; Micronians = Miclones). Good stuff, nevertheless.

    Much, much better than the stuff they feed children of that age group these days. It always seems very Star Trek-inspired, in a way.

  2. Hi Brad. It was G-Force that first got me into anime and Robotech that solidified my love for the medium. I also went back and re-watched Robotech from Macross through Mosepedia during this past year. While I found myself cringing through the second and third generations, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Macross has stood up to the test of time. It’s still a joy to watch.

    PS: Do you mind if I link to your blog? I’m adding a link list on mine to our fellow WotF XXVI winners.

  3. Brad, Like Alex, I was introduce to Anime via G-Force and Star Blazers in the first and Second grade and then when Robotech hit somewhere around 5th or six grade, I remember just sitting in front of the TV that First episod rivited.

    There have been in recent years several good follow ups that if you have not seen you should realy check out.

    Macross Zero,5 episods that takes place at the time right after the SDF crashes, and before the unified earth is unified. Very good graphics in this one.

    Macross 7, which I have not seen, but trying to find which tells the story of Max Sterling in charge of a colony ship and his youngest daughter.

    Macross Frontier, 25 episodes and I belive the latest in the series. Another Colony fleet, that encounters a species that is being controled by a renegade colony fleet.

  4. I enjoyed the original Macross: Do you Remember Love? movie — not the American-dubbed Clash of the Bionoids, which was horrible. In many ways, Do you Remember Love? is the definitive visual ‘Robotech’ experience, at least if you enjoy 80’s mecha battles rendered superbly, along with terrific music and a space-opera setting that seems halfway compelling. As with all Japanese stuff, I prefer original Japanese actors, with subtitles.

  5. Alex, thanks for the link! I am finding the Southern Cross portion much more tedious than Macross. So much so I am not sure I can finish it. The animation doesn’t seem as high quality, and the writing is just terrible. Maybe the Japanese version of Dana Sterling is a ditz, but the way she’s portrated in the Robotech version… Yowch. Makes it tough to get through.

  6. I have seen Macross II: Lovers Again, but it didn’t hold me the way the original Macross movie did. I’ve also seen Macross Plus, which again failed to hold me. The whole bit about the holographic AI that takes over both the SDF and the people in it… I dunno, snapped my suspension of disbelief like a dry twig. I also thought the fight between Isamu and Guld was tiresome, as almost the entire plot revolved around it, and while a love triangle somewhat worked for the original Macross, there are only so many times you can dip your bucket in that well before it’s a stale plot device.

    In both cases, animation was very good, though the computerized bits weren’t as seamless as I expect them to be with today’s animation technology.

  7. I watched the Japanese version recently, and she’s pretty ditzy there too. That and at the series’ beginning she is a seventeen-year old sergeant major. ..

  8. You know I recently purchased the whole series box set and threw out the old VHS that you copied for me back in the early 90’s.

    Congrats on your success. Its awesome to see someone I used to talk about comics, roleplaying, and sci-fi/fantasy on a daily basis break through. (I’m still trying) 🙂

    Josh Garner — that kid from high school.

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