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.

Review: Macross Delta Preview Episode

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.

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 logoMacross 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.Regult (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?

magical girl valkyrieI’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.

magical girl concert

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 from Frontier's antagonists makes a return in the SV-262.

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.