Life as a Macross fan is hard. Harmony Gold’s copyright jerkery makes it difficult to obtain in the West. Installments are infrequent, usually years apart. (Compare that to the Gundam meta-universe, which appears to have a new series in some continuity every other season.) When those installments do come, I, for one, start this whole emotional rollercoaster: Yay, a new Macross! But what if it sucks? You’ve still never watched Macross 7 because it kind of sucks! Oooh. Pretty airplanes. It should at least have good dogfights…. And so on. Macross Delta was no exception, and, to make it worse, Delta‘s initial episode painted the weaponized idol group Walküre in a very magical girl sort of light. That’s fine and all. I’ve enjoyed at least one magical girl show, but Macross is a mech series. I’m here for the giant robots.
I have a suspicion, but can’t prove, that the non-preview version of that first episode was edited to cut some of the techno-magical girl vibe and emphasize the mech combat when the series began airing in March. Now that the show’s over, I can certainly say that it got to be much better than I was expecting it to be based on that first episode…. and then it ultimately fell a little flat again. Spoilers ahead!
Those who know my family well know that we practically bleed jet fuel. I’m a USAF brat with a lot of formative memories involving the F-15 and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia during the last 10 years or so of the Cold War. and then worked for almost a decade in the airline world. I cannot only tell a military aircraft from a civilian aircraft by the sound of the engines (not that hard to do), I find the sound soothing. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising to anyone that I am rather obsessed with the Macross franchise, a Japanese space opera that blends a semi-realistic approach to military aviation with the power of song. If you’re not familiar with the franchise, the gist of it is this: Macross is essentially an alternate history where the Cold War spiraled out of control, and after a decade of all out global warfare, humanity was on the brink of extinction when an alien battleship crashed into a remote South Pacific Island in 1999. A number of discoveries come alone with this crash, but the two most important ones are reverse engineered, ridiculously advanced tech, and the fact that there’s a race of giants out somewhere in the galaxy that feel the need to build giant, armed-to-the-teeth warships. A seriously frightened humanity unites, rebuilds the warship, fights the inevitable conflict with the aliens (the Zentraedi, who can be “micronized” to human size via special cloning-ish tech) and discovers along the way that music has some sort of special power to it. After the initial conflict, which results in the near extinction of both races, the new human/Zentraedi civilization begins colonizing the galaxy.
Humanity colonizes the galaxy– and from the look of it, one of the Magellanic galaxies.
It’s hard to call it a realistic depiction of fighter aircraft, because, y’know, despite the fact that Valkyries (The transforming fighters of Macross.) are treated realistically in the hangar, they turn into giant robots. And defy physics. And maneuver in space like they’re World War II dogfighters. But Macross understands the soul of flight, and it understands how aircraft– particularly military aircraft– speak to the people that love them. In addition to understanding aviation, it understands characters– the shows are at least as much about some fantastic character drama and love triangles as it is about explosions. In a good way, typically, not the cheesy literary-SF way.
Anyhoo, you’re no doubt wondering why I’ve called you all here. Or not. You’re wondering where the review of the special preview episode of the newest installment, Macross Delta preview review is. Well… it’s right here.
Macross Delta: AD 2067
Macross Delta continues moving the meta-story forward: the threat from Macross Frontier‘s Vajra has been met, and expansion has continued, and in the opening moments of Delta‘s first episode, we see that humanity has now left the galaxy– but all is not necessarily well. People are becoming randomly hostile and aggressive due to something called “Var Syndrome,” causing them to lash out in highly destructive ways– everything from the suicide bombing we see in the first minute or so to the rampaging Zentraedi mecha in the back half of the episode. No one knows what’s causing this, but they know, in typical Macross fashion, that music will stop it. To that end, the idol group Walkure works with the UN Spacy to combat the Var syndrome. Walkure has either partnered with the military or been formed by it; it’s hard to say at this point, but there’s a clearly military tone to Walkure’s operation. When the series introduces us to them, they’re staking out a planet that’s had a high concentration of Var outbreaks, culminating in a rampage by some full-size Zentraedi in shiny new Zentraedi mecha. (Not just the new power armor we’ve glimpsed in Macross Plus and Frontier, but three or four new variations on the Regult, their frontline mecha, and even the officer’s Glaug mech.) Unfortunately, even as Walkure is managing to contain the outbreak, a group of unknown Valkyrie fighters appears in orbit and begins attacking the UN forces. Dogfights ensue!
On the character front, we’ve got a whole slew of new characters to get to know. Hayate Immelman, a lazy dock worker who appears to have a knack for mecha piloting. Freyja Wion, a teenage girl escaping from a backwards life on a bucolic farm planet with hopes of joining Walkure. The quartet that make up Walkure itself, and Delta Squadron, the UN Spacy pilots who protect them. And a Mirage Farina Jenius, who appears to be the granddaughter of Max and Milia, two aces from opposing sides in the original Macross. (Milia was one of the first Zentraedi to defect to the UN.) It’s tough to get a read on any of the characters yet; we’re twenty minutes into what will likely be a five to ten hour saga.
What’s good? What’s bad?
I’m gonna start with the bad. Delta‘s central conceit is an idol group supported by the UN Spacy. This isn’t the first time music’s been weaponized in Macross; it literally happens in just about every installment of the series, for good or for ill. It’s the show’s shtick, and it’s long since established the music in the Macross universe has a semi-supernatural sort of force to it. What’s tough for me to swallow, as a guy who came in to it when it was a deadly serious war drama, is the sight of idol singers riding around on the shoulders of Valkyries. Flashy concerts in the midst of a war aren’t anything new to the series, but it’s one of those things that can turn from awesome (spoilers for Macross: Do You Remember Love?) to terrible if you’re not careful. And currently, I feel like Delta is treading on some thin ice in that regard, particularly given the decision to give the girls in Walkure a magical girl feel, of all things.
It’s a battleground, I swear.
But, on the other hand, I sort of like that. One of Macross‘ unappreciated strengths is in its worldbuilding. Some of the best examples of how changing one thing in a society changes everything come from throw away sequences in later installments of Macross. When the series starts chronologically with Macross Zero, it’s essentially a Cold War setting that gives way to giant robots and an alien; in Frontier, we see people with ridiculous cellphones, interactive tables in restaurants, holograms everywhere, and civilian power armor-styled wingsuits. It’s a bunch of neat little touches that give the universe a sort of veracity; all this alien tech injected into our world affects things in little ways and big ways. By the time of Macross Frontier, both the human race and the Zentraedi are changing drastically. Interbreeding is so thorough that the show sometimes doesn’t even remark on characters with obviously alien traits anymore, and posthumanism is becoming a growing issue. Delta‘s treatment of the magical girl shtick feels almost posthuman; the “magic” is accomplished with drones and force fields, and it’s clear that they’re either implanted with tech or have a lot of wearable tech. And the Macross universe is one in which they know that some problems have to be dealt with by music. Why wouldn’t they weaponize an idol group? It’s all so logical… which is a shame that I have to keep reminding myself of that while watching the show.
Another nice touch– the 360 degree view cockpit glimpsed in Frontier’s antagonists makes a return in the SV-262.
And the good? Well, there are things you expect from a Macross, and Delta doesn’t disappoint there. There are insane amounts of missiles and dodging of said missiles. The new UN Valkyries, the VF-31, are beautiful, and the Valkyries used by the unknown aggressor that shows up towards the end of the episode are unlike anything the franchise has shown us before in some ways– single engine delta wing?!– but in other ways, they hearken back to the strangely gothic proto-Valkyries used by the anti-UN forces of Macross Zero. (And in fact, share a designation. Zero‘s antagonists flew the SV-51; this new Valkyrie is apparently an SV-262.) As I said earlier, I loved seeing Zentraedi mecha again, with newer, more advanced designs. Dogfighting is nice; the VF-31s appear to be terribly outclassed by the SV-262, and I look forward to seeing the protagonists struggle to get an edge on the newcomers. There hasn’t been a ton of music, but man, what’s there has been both unique and catchy. (Ska in my Jpop? Madness!)
It’s hard to pass judgement on Delta right now. So much is up in the air, and the rest of the show won’t air until this spring. I have my concerns, but I was all wrapped up in the episode despite them. I also have my hopes– Will it tie back to certain events in the Frontier movies? “Var” certainly calls to mind the Vajra, and we momentarily glimpse an ominous figure associated with the Var Syndrome…. But I guess we’ll see come March-ish.
Japanese animation can be a tough sell for some people. Big eyed waifs with improbable hair, a strange mix of comedy and drama, and even the idea of taking a cartoon seriously (Hi mom!) can be a barrier to some folks, which is a shame. There is some absolutely fantastic science fiction to be found in anime.
If you’re in the market for some good scifi, I now present a non-exclusive list of fantastic scifi presented in no particular order, all of them available in the US:
Rebuild of Evangelion
Perhaps one of the most popular anime series of all time, Neon Genesis Evangelion came about in the mid-1990s and took one of Japan’s most familiar tropes– teenagers piloting giant robots into battle– and asked why, exactly, you’d hand over that kind of power to someone as emotionally unstable as a teenager. The show follows three teenaged pilots as they struggle to fight off invasion by a powerful and increasingly obscure force with humanoid weapons systems that are more than they seem, all while an international cabal pushes its own mysterious agenda.
The original series is both thoughtful and grim, and unfortunately dives into abstract territory that are not entirely to my tastes. A notoriously unlikable protagonist further complicates matters. But fear not! One good point of the reboot-craze is that sometimes, we get to see a flawed work that actually needed a second pass get that second pass. The Rebuild of Evangelion film series is less abstract, and potentially less grim (we’re still waiting on the final installment, due in the next year or so) than its television predecessor, and the protagonist has been tweaked subtly but effectively. Where Shinji was once abhorrently whiny, he now feels like he has legitimate abandonment issues. An examination of alienation and broken relationships has always been central to Evangelion, and, like most everything else, it works better in Rebuild of Evangelion than it does in the TV show.
RahXephon feels, in a lot of ways, like Evangelion‘s brother. Once again, a highschooler finds himself tied to a mysterious giant robot that he never asked for; once again, an unknown force is attacking the world while an ancient agenda is unfolding. RahXephon, however, trades the Judeo-Christian and Cabbalistic imagery for musical symbolism and Mayan imagery. Where Evangelion‘s mysterious can be frustrating,RahXephon‘s are more approachable, if just as mysterious.
Again, like Evangelion, RahXephon puts a premium on its characters and its relationships. Where Evangelion‘s characters are often fairly (and intentionally) abrasive, RahXephon‘s are more nuanced. Brokenness is less a theme and more of an opportunity for growth in the characters.
It’s also a subtle show. If Gene Wolfe were to sit down and write a giant robot show, he’d write RahXephon. It’s not a show to watch with half your brain; its one to sit down and pay attention to. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts. (As a plus, it’s available on Hulu for free.)
There’s an interesting vignette that I remember reading about Gasaraki. When the creator was pitching the show, he told the studio that there would only be two types of robots in it.This caused a mild panic attack on the studio’s marketing, who anxiously wanted to know how they’d sell models with only two types of mecha.
If RahXephon is Gene Wolfe’s theoretical entry into giant robot shows, Gasaraki is Tom Clancy’s. There aren’t a lot of flashy robots, and the drama is heavily political. But it’s an interesting look at a more realistic portrayal of what mechs might be to our military. As with the previous two shows, though, there’s an ancient conspiracy unfolding in the background. Giant robots, after all, are never exactly what they appear to be.
Ahh, the big one. The finest anime ever made in a lot of people’s eyes. Mysteriously free of giant robots, Cowboy Bebop feels like a Japanese Firefly, although it preceded Firefly by a few years. Nevertheless, you have a quirky crew of likeable ne’er-do-wells just trying to make a living– although, in this case, if they ever crossed paths with Mal and his crew, they’d be hunting them. Spike and company are “Cowboys” (bounty hunters) hunting down criminals at the edges of the solar system.
The show features an excellent soundtrack from famed composer Yoko Kanno, and masterful direction by Shinchirou Watanabe. It also features a genetically engineered hyper-intelligent Corgi, who, although lacking a voice or thumbs, is clearly one of the most intelligent members of the crew, even if most of them have no idea.
Cowboy Bebop wasn’t Watanabe and Kanno’s first collaboration. Back in 1994, they collaborated on the first official sequel to one of my favorite space operas, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. Macross in the US has a long and contentious history (The legal battle is so bad that none of the trailers for Macross Plus on Youtube have sound– at least, that’s what I assume is going on.), due to the fact that it forms the first generation of the show Robotech, and Macross Plus is one of the few shows set in the Macross universe to make it here. Fortunately, it’s one of the best.
Macross Plus is another show with a focus on its characters. 30 years after a catastrophic war with the alien Zentraedi, Isamu Dyson is a hotshot fighter pilot reassigned to test pilot duty after one too many gloryhound stunts in combat. The UN Spacy is developing new variable fighters (Giant robots that are also fighter planes!) to replace their current aging planes, and Isamu is reassigned to his home colony world to fly one of the candidate fighters in the trials. The problem? The competing fighter is piloted by an old friend that he hasn’t spoken to since he left planet Eden– and the girl that came between them has just returned to Eden as well.
In lieu of a trailer, here’s the first minute or so of the first episode:
Trigun is a bit of an odd duck. It’s highly comedic. It’s cyberpunk. It’s a western. It starts off following a pair of insurance agents trying to find the legendary Vash the Stampede, the planet Gunsmoke’s most wanted gunslinger. To say too much about what it’s about would be to ruin it, but suffice it to say: Vash is a gunslinger who holds life to be the most important thing in the universe, and the show’s plot stems from the collision between Vash’s morals and a universe that doesn’t respect them.