The Superversive from the East: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross

Japan has several long-running science-fiction franchises, but few are truly global in reach. Mobile Suit Gundam is one. Space Battleship Yamato is another. Both got their start in 1979, but the third part of that era’s triumverate came in 1982: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, what many in North America may (unfortunately) know better as the most popular part of Robotech.

I won’t go into the details of what makes the original Macross great–you can read the TV Tropes article for that–so I’ll skip straight to why I’m marking this out as a Superversive work. First, and foremost, this is series is a counter-balance to the downbeat stories that the Gundam franchise often did; this was the era was “Kill ‘Em All” Tomino’s penchant for nihilism, despair, and audience-unfriendly narrative decisions were at their worst. While tragedy and loss are present in Macross, they are Things To Overcome and not You Suck Forever elements.

The story, despite the massive warfare going on, ends on a hopeful note that’s borne out before the credits roll for the final time and expanded upon in the many franchise expansions ever since. Brotherhood is rewarded, faith in things greater than oneself key to victory, beauty and culture are explicit superpowers (but that is not enough; Right Needs Might), and real love is not narcissistic delusion.

The transformable fighters and the Space Opera story are what many remember, but what gives Macross its heart is much like what we see with Gurren Lagann: an earnest, relatable hero who struggles to do what is right while doing what is necessary, overcoming his losses by keeping faith with his people (which is also difficult at times for him to do), and in time he becomes a leader in his own right. Maturity, marriage, and the embrace of responsibility are shown to benefit him and make him into the hero he saw in his big brother.

This theme persists across the series: those who embrace the elements necessary to build up a healthy culture with concern for the future are those that succeed, whereas those that embrace nihilism and succumb to despair are those that fail. Not only does this persist throughout the series, it persists throughout the franchise.

While not perfect, Macross is a beloved classic for good reasons- and if “Superversive” was a part of the vocabulary of the culture then, you would’ve seen it used prominently. Recommended.

Hard Sci-fi Made Me Cry

Tired of the remakes, the reboots, the “let’s see how much more blood we can squeeze out of this turnip” output of today’s Hollywood? I think you’ll find Passengers a refreshing change.

If like me, you didn’t rush out to see it in the theatre, it might’ve been because of blurbs like this one from IMDB: “A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.”

Sounds like a snore, doesn’t it?

It is rated PG-13, just under two hours long, and tagged as adventure, drama, and romance. What it is, however, is a story about love, redemption, and forgiveness. It’s about making the best of life, even when things don’t go as planned. It’s about the pioneering spirit, about a positive future, about what a man and a woman can achieve together.

“But wait, you said this is hard sci-fi.”

Yes, I did. And I stand by it. It’s science fiction because of the setting, a spaceship traveling between the stars. It’s hard sci-fi because it’s closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey in that it’s an extrapolation of current knowledge, than to the space-fantasy cum turnip known as Star Wars.

But what this movie actually is, is a great example of using science/setting as a trope, a literary device for delivering a character-driven story. The science is not the point of the story, but there is enough verisimilitude that it has a real feel to it (this comes from someone who can get really picky about the scientific details). Continue reading

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.

The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.

The Superversive in Film: Flash Gordon

The zeitgeist that the original Star Wars created in the late 1970s pushed a lot of studios and production companies to grab every possible property comparable and get a movie out the door. In 1980 this got us a feature film version of one of the classics of Pulp SF: Flash Gordon.

My father took me to see this film in one of the few remaining neighborhood single-screen theaters at the time,
and we both had a good time. Since then it’s become one of those films I enjoy watching from time to time, and as I get older I appreciate the earnest and sincere quality of its Romanticism and heroism (especially as the rest of society goes increasingly insane and dyscivic).

Yes, it’s campy. That’s its charm, and because of that camp approach its sincerity and earnestness gets a pass by a lot of hipsters and other wanna-bee cool kids. The storytelling is solid, and the performances played straight- thanks to the timely intervention early on of Max von Sydow taking the cast aside and advising them to do just that if they wanted to have a career after they wrapped. (They did. It works. It really works. Save for the lead, they did- some for decades thereafter.)

You’re in for a great time with this film, and the soundtrack by Queen nails the mood perfectly. (Get the soundtrack.) Flash does his best John Carter impression, Dale her best Dejah Thoris, and every major character is someone you love to love (or hate). Boredom is not an issue here, and neither is the way that the heroes succeed because of their moral qualities (and the villains fail accordingly). This is one of the most blatantly Pulp and Superversive films I’ve yet written about here, and if you want to see that old-school style presented in all its glory then this film delivers. Recommended. You should have a copy in your media library.

But wait, there’s more.

If you like the film, chances are also good that you’ll like the animated series put out at that time. It came out the year before (1979), and ran for one season; the techniques Filmation used for this series would go on to become their signature style and be employed for He-Man, She-Ra, Blackstar, and Bravestar. The presentation of Flash, Dale, Zarkov, and the rest of the cast is no less Pulp or Superversive but the differences are enough to make it engaging and it is very entertaining.

There are other, older film adaptations, which are also fun, but eventually you should go back to the original comic strips. Now collected in coffee-table sized volumes, the 1980 film’s roots in the original material becomes clear once you feast your eyes on them. Alex Raymond–the creator–made a character no less a classic than Edgar Rice Burroughs or E.E. Smith did. Action, romance, heroism, adventure- everything that the film is the distilled essence of you get the full measure of here. Start here and read every volume thereafter. You’ll not be disappointed.

I’ll let Queen play this out.

The Superversive in Film: The Last Starfighter

We return once more to that period between the late ’70s and mid ’80s when that last flourish of old-school pulp sensibility arose in the form of feature films out of Hollywood done by then-rising names in the business. This time, it’s The Last Starfighter, another Space Opera made possible due to the success of Star Wars.

This film, like Tron, falls into that “Boy’s Own Adventure” style of adventure where our hero–although an adult–still speaks and acts like the boys this film is intended to entertain. That means the film’s style of presentation is in harmony with that audience also: earnest, sincere, and uncomplicated- but not simple.

The reason this is superversive is that this film’s story, as with many stories aimed at boys, is about the necessity of accepting responsibility- not just for yourself, but on behalf of those depending upon you. For an emerging generation of boys, soon to become men, this learning how to face difficult and dangerous realities even when you would rather run because if you don’t no one else will.

A careful review of the story’s narrative shows this to be the case. The critical events that make our hero into the titular character comes about due to succumbing to that very fear and running from the responsibility that his previous actions–qualifying as a Starfighter gunner–put upon him. Today some would cry about this being unfair,
or unjust. That doesn’t matter; it’s a job that men need to do, like it or not, because not doing it means far, far worse for everyone- man, woman, and child. Stories like this are necessary for boys, because this reality is their future as men in one form or another.

Which brings up another, understated but no less critical point: at no point does our hero get dumped on for taking up his burden and doing his duty. The others that benefit by his actions appreciate what he risked for their sake, and it is this acknowledgement that completes the superversive elements of this story. No one wants to risk life and limb for ingrates, and no society so ungrateful benefits from such deeds for long as it subverts that fundamental institution of any healthy society and culture. The audience of the day rewarded this handsomely, making it one of the latter day classics with lasting influence. It still holds up today. Recommended.

The Superversive in Film: The Black Hole

In 1979, Disney release The Black Hole. This science fiction film got released during the time between the original Star Wars of 1977 and the first sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) in 1980. It was a blatant, and honest, attempt to cash in on the renewed interest in science fiction as an adventure film genre and as such held true to certain old-school sensibilities that George Lucas’s Space Opera revitalized two years prior.

It’s sometimes derided as a Haunted House movie in space, but that’s not fair. The actual speculative element–the titular black hole–literally makes it presence felt in the first reel, drives the plans (and motivations) of the antagonist, and plays the singular role in the climax of the film. For those science fiction fans looking for something scientific to talk about, you’re not disappointed; there is no story without the black hole, so don’t worry about the trappings of gothic horror used throughout.

What makes this a Superversive film is also laid out straight away: the defiance of logic, reason, and good order in favor of reckless and obsessive pursuit of a passion to the point of madness and degeneracy of character. This is symbolized by the antagonist’s reliance on robots and automation over human crewman and proper navel procedure, a symbol made literal at a critical turning point in the plot when a revelation good enough to come out of a Cyberman episode of Doctor Who hits, after which things go increasingly bad for our heroes.

At no point is the antagonist–a precursor to the ethics-lacking “science” Establishment of today–portrayed as anything but a softer Colonel Kurtz-as-a-Mad-Scientist. Each of the cast who succumb to the antagonist’s scheme do so due to critical character defects overwhelming them and compelling the doomed to their demise, while those who endure to the end do so because their fundamental decency shields them from the antagonist’s attempt to seduce them into following his scheme.

The real achievement, for you younger folks out there, is that the horror of the antagonist’s evil gets shown to the viewer without any gore whatsoever. This film, being one of the last of the old-guard Disney films, never lies to or insults its audience (or their parents) by talking down to them or relying on cheap tricks. The heroes win (as much as any hero in a tragedy does win) by being both right enough to withstand temptation and skilled enough to withstand retaliation. The antagonist is utterly undone by his own hand, learning well the price of hubris, and our heroes escape that same fate- if barely. (This is where the tropes of gothic horror get most applied, after their aesthetics.)

This is not some “villains win because Good is suck” story. This is not some excuse to parade degeneracy and moral abomination as the New Normal. This is a well-told story, where heroes are heroes, men are men, women are women, and robots are interesting (for fair and foul reasons), that (if not for the special effects) you might expect from a film 10 years prior.

Much like the Mohicans, The Black Hole was part of the last generation of a Disney (and a generation of film professionals) that faded away in the 1980s (with Tron being the last gasp). The Disney of today may, at times, echo that lost era but it is not Walt’s house anymore. Recommended, especially if you want to know why Disney rarely even tries to do this sort of thing anymore.