Ain't It Cool News (
Animation and Anime

AICN Anime-Macross Frontier - Deculture!

Logo handmade by Bannister Column by Scott Green
For the last six months, plenty of North American eyes have followed an anime series airing on Japanese TV. While that's not too unusual, few anime have received as many blog posts and as much English language chatter concurrent to their original TV run as Macross Frontier. And, though the likelihood of a North American release is in doubt, there is no denying the considerable interest in the 25 episode series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross. From the franchise's opening episodes, in which transforming fighter planes attempt to fend off a full out alien invasion, only to be pulled into space along with the titular SDF-1 Macross battleship and an island full of people, the reasons that sci-fi fans get excited about Macross are evident. It's mix of love triangle and galactic war, along with the extent to which it is willing to realize the explosiveness of both facets, has been a winning formula over the last two and a half decades. In this column, I've been reluctant to speak too much about the Macross franchise or the localized creation Robotech, the composite of Tatsunoko produced mecha anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada, other than to relay facts. Few segments of anime fandom have enthusiasts who are as passionate or as exactingly precise as Macross' fans. A Gundam fan will correct you on the difference between a mobile suit and a mobile armor, or let you know when you're calling the wrong make of mecha within a Gundam anime series a "gundam." Still, you can still get away which watching and talking to an insolated entry in the Gunam franchise. In contrast, if you're not familiar with the full history of the character Rick Hunter and his adaptation from Macross' Hikaru Ichijyo, then you probably don't have the background to write the informed Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles review that fans would expect. Then, there are the convoluted legal entanglements that plague the franchise... Though I'm sure I caught some when it aired in syndication, the roots of my personal anime fandom owe more to Voltron, Force Five and Tranzor Z (and Transformers!) than Robotech. Given what I voracious cartoon watcher I was in 1985, I'm not quite sure why I didn't watch more of the series. While I've seen a good, representative sample of Macross and Robotech since then, I've never felt that I got a good handle on the franchise. Currently, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982) is available on DVD in North America, as is its Robotech (1985) form, which is also available through iTunes. Many fans are ambivalent towards The Super Dimension Fortress Macross II: Lovers, Again, (1992) a sequel with a new cast living 80 years after the events of the original Macross. The movie compilation (1993) of the six episode OVA is currently available in English. Then, there is Macross Plus (1994), a more mature, more distilled version of the Macross love triangle/martial conflict featuring a pre-Cowboy Bebop collaboration between director Shinichiro Watanabe and composer Yoko Kanno as well as the return of creator Shoji Kawamori. As a moving and impressively animated short series, capable of standing on its own, of all the bits of Macross I've seen, Macross Plus is the entry that I'd most strongly recommend. Macross Plus is available in a two disc set, featuring the original four OVA episodes or in its partially re-animated/re-scripted movie compilation form. (1995) After Macross Plus, the franchise's potential for North American release gets tricky, with Macross' path towards international distribution complicated by legal disputes between Big West Advertising, a primary sponsor for Macross, Studio Nue, the design studio to which creator Shoji Kawamori was affiliated, and Tatsunoko Production, the production house that licensed Macross to Robotech creators Harmony Gold. Court decisions have failed to clear up matters, keeping well regarded entries in the franchise, such as The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984), the re-animated, re-telling of the original Macross, out of international markets. In 1995, Ashi Productions produced Macross 7 (7 is the designation of a key space craft within the series, not the iteration within the franchise). Lead by heroes from the fictional rock band Fire Bomber, Macross 7 was a very musically focused work. The series was not produced with international distribution in mind. Consequently, rights to its music were not held by a single entity or package, and as the years have passed and the music rights holders have changed, Macross 7 has increasingly become a more difficult, if not impossible anime series to license. Despite contradictory statements, there is evidence that the Big West/Studio Nue-Tatsunoko Productions/Harmony Gold dispute has at least dampened commercial enthusiasm for a North American release of the five episode prequel OVA Macross Zero (2002). Will Macross Frontier be released in North America? The strength of the North American anime market is certainly not what it was five years ago, but still, theoretically, anything is possible. Yet, it wouldn't be quite as surprising to see Frontier released as it would be to see Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale film, but it would still be a surprise.

Fortunately, Macross expert-reader GodMars DX was willing to send in his thoughts on Macross Frontier...

Macross Frontier is the third television entry of Shoji Kawamori and Studio Nue's Macross series, following 1982's Super Dimension Fortress Macross and 1994's Macross 7. Produced by Satelight, Frontier marks the 25th anniversary of the original show, and it does its best to tie together themes spanning the entire series, including the disowned Macross II (which Kawamori and Studio Nue had no involvement in). It mixes standard 2D animation with beautifully painted backgrounds and some truly stunning CG mecha sequences. Over this plays a strong soundtrack by Yoko Kanno, with songs by Maaya Sakamoto, May'n, and Megumi Nakajima. Weighing in at 25 episodes, the quality of of the animation is fairly average and consistent throughout, really only suffering toward the latter part of the first third of the show. From time to time you'll see animated sequences reused, and even more so when it comes to the CG mecha. It works, but it shows how strained the show's budget was by the heavy CG demands. The show opens in the year 2059, 50 years after the events of "Space War I", which were depicted in the original Super Dimension Fortress Macross. Mankind was brought to the brink of extinction by the Zentradi, a giant humanoid race genetically engineered and bred for war by the long extinct civilization known as the Protoculture. Those who survived this war knew that their best chance to insure the future of the species would mean spreading out amongst the stars and colonizing other worlds. The "Frontier" in the show's title referrers to the Macross-25 "Frontier", the flagship of the 55th super-long-distance emigration fleet, and the main setting of the series. The Frontier is a clam shell inspired New Macross Class vessel, towing behind it several pill-shaped colony pods known as "Islands". They are escorted by a fleet of carriers and cruisers from the New UN Spacy (NUNS), under the command of the Frontier's civilian government. The fleet is also home to the SMS (Special Military Services), a private military contractor owned by the enigmatic Zentradi, Mr. Richard Birla. Trailing not far behind the Frontier is another emigration fleet, led by the Macross-21 "Galaxy". While the Frontier fleet is known for its self-sustaining natural ecosystem and biological processing plants, the Galaxy fleet has a sterile environment, relying instead on chemical processing plants for all of their air and water. Corporately owned and funded, the Galaxy fleet is a technological marvel, known for its research into and development of cybernetics and artificial intelligence, both of which are frowned upon, if not outright illegal, in most of UN controlled space. It also happens to be the home of Sheryl Nome, an interstellar pop superstar and idol, whose claims of being "all natural" make her a rarity amongst the citizens and crew of the Galaxy fleet. Together, these two fleets slowly make their way toward the galactic core, using space fold drives to traverse the long distances between star systems, searching for a habitable world to colonize. It is here they will encounter the Vajra. The Vajra are a mysterious, insect-like alien race first encountered 19 years prior to the beginning of Macross Frontier. Their very existence was kept secret, as the UN government took steps to further investigate and study them. 8 years later, the Vajra attacked and decimated the 117th Research Fleet, an event which, along with their existence, has been kept secret from the general public. While their capital ships are rarely seen, their smaller units, capable of space fold, attack in swarms. They are led by the larger, tougher red Vajra, affectionately known to Frontier fans as "Lobsters". The smaller, yellowish-green units tend to be little more than cannon fodder. The NUNS command learn fairly quickly that their main forces are not much of a match for the Vajra. However, aboard the Frontier, the forces of the SMS are better equipped and funded than the NUNS, flying the VF-25, a brand new front line variable fighter they battle testing for its manufacturer. The SMS become the vanguard in the fight against the Vajra. Without a doubt, one of the main draws of Frontier, and every Macross production, is the mecha. More specifically the variable fighters that made Shoji Kawamori famous, known generically as "Valkyries". The star mecha of Macross Frontier is the VF-25 "Messiah", the variable fighter flown exclusively by the SMS. Also shown frequently in the series is the NUNS's current front line fighter, the VF-171, an updated version of the stealth fighter inspired VF-17 seen in Macross 7. Later on we are introduced to the VF-27, a secret variable fighter developed aboard the Galaxy. These three fighters represent some of the best work Kawamori has done in well over a decade. Of course, the fighters aren't the only variable vehicles in Macross Frontier. The "Battle" ships of the Frontier and Galaxy fleets both have the iconic, humanoid "Storm Attacker" mode made famous in the original SDF Macross, as does SMS's smaller warship, the Macross "Quarter". While Battle Frontier and Galaxy will seem familiar for those who have seen Macross 7, the Quarter is a little quirky, a mix of various Macross capital ships of the past incorporated into a new design. The other hallmark of the Macross series, the music, is once again at the center of everything in Frontier. Yoko Kanno, probably best known for her work on Macross Plus and Cowboy Beebop, handles the composing duties in Macross Frontier. As usual, she does not disappoint, though some of the background music is at times less than original. Frontier also features two different singers whose distinct styles are matched to their character's design and personality. Megumi Nakajima is not only the singing voice for but also the voice actress of Ranka Lee, Frontier's younger female lead. Her songs tend to be more sweet and innocent, including her light, nonsensical lullaby, "Aimo". May'n provides the singing voice for Sheryl Nome, the other female lead. Sheryl is an established superstar whose songs are harder driving, with a definite edge. Also featured is Maaya Sakamoto, who sings Frontier's first opening theme, "Triangler", along with a small role as Ranshe Mei. All of the music is good, but I found that Shery's songs held up with best, with Ranka's coming across as typical catchy jpop. This soundtrack may be at its best when Sheryl and Ranka duet, which happily occurs more frequently as the story progresses. While Macross Frontier has its share of new mecha, big aliens, and great music, what would it be without a love triangle, the cornerstone of every Macross production? Our male lead and hero, one Alto Saotome, is a fighter pilot trainee at the elite Mihoshi Academy aboard the Frontier, and later an ace pilot for the SMS. What is not widely known amongst his peers is that Alto was once a famous kabuki performer, starring as the female lead in "Sakurahime azuma bunsho". This led to him being given the nickname "Princess", a name he is not too fond of. Vying for his affections are Ranka Lee, a survivor of the 117th Research Fleet disaster living aboard the Frontier, and Sheryl Nome, the touring idol singer known as the "Galaxy Fairy". Ranka Lee is an aspiring singer who idolizes Sheryl and lives with her adoptive brother Ozma Lee, also a survivor of the 117th Research Fleet and the leader of the SMS's Skull Squadron. Sheryl Nome arrives aboard the Frontier with her manager, Grace O'Conner, for what will be the end of a 7 1/2 month tour. It is at her opening concert on the Frontier that Alto meets both girls, setting them all on a path that will effect not only their lives, but the lives of everyone aboard the Frontier fleet. The first ten or so episodes are spent introducing the audience to the cast and trying to give these characters some depth before the main plot kicks into high gear. This is probably the weakest aspect of Macross Frontier. With the exception of the love triangle, I simply did not care about most of the cast. When they do attempt to flesh out a character, as in the case of SMS's cocky sharpshooter Michel Blanc, the story presented has little to do with anything outside of what is going on in that one episode, and it just doesn't resonate with any his actions in the rest of the series. Most of the cast is simply built upon tried and true Macross archetypes. Like the Macross Quarter ship design, these are all characters you have seen before, just playing different roles than you were used to. The one real standout is Sheryl Nome, whose confidence and strength are not just some facade covering up inner doubt and weakness. And when she finally seems to be breaking under the crushing weight life has put upon her, the second wind she receives allows her to absolutely soar. Once the main plot takes hold, the story moves along pretty quickly. Perhaps almost too quickly. It doesn't help that there are plot holes the size of a space emigration fleet that left me asking questions long after the credits of the final episode rolled. Overall, I think the plot serves those new to Macross much better than the long time fans. New fans come into this series without any preconceptions, without the knowledge of what has come before, and the story should play out much more naturally for them. Older fans will see echoes of the past in everything, which may cause the storyline to come off as a bit convoluted and confusing. This carries on until the very last episode, where it is all explained away with a few lines of dialog. All of that said, the plot is interesting enough and the story is engaging enough that you will keep watching because you will want to know what happens in the end. And the ending does not disappoint. The two episode climactic battle is as action packed as any seen in previous entries in the Macross series, perhaps even more so. Macross Frontier's combination of sound and CG mecha, the hallmarks of the series, make for one hell of an final act, and another enjoyable journey into the Macross universe.

On a non-Macross note, going to be at the Providence Anime Conference this weekend? Look for me there!

Readers Talkback
comments powered by Disqus