Category Archives: Editorials

20 Years of Macross Plus: What Pioneers May Come

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“Dedicated to all pioneers..”

A wink to both the past, and maybe things to come?

It’s a difficult thing, topping what many consider to be a genuine cultural milestone. So many variables to be concerned with as markets feel the pressure for more of the same, but beefed up for the next go-round. One might almost consider it (often have) something of a fool’s errand, an exercise in futility. It’s rare that a well can be revisited, and improved upon with new vision and energy potent enough to become its very own entity. So when we look back, and consider what did exactly happen when the Macross franchise entered the 1990s, we can see both a medium come of age, and a seemingly niche-minded universe find its footing with purpose. The big budget (for its time) Macross Plus OVA series made its debut in August of 1994, featuring the talents of series co-creator, Shoji Kawamori, a young, eager Shinichiro Watanabe, Gainax designer, MASAYUKI, with a screenplay by Keiko Nobumoto. In an era where anime productions for straight-to-video fare were rarely if ever larger than say that of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s Giant Robo, this was something of a creative gauntlet. In an era where budgets for TV anime were beginning to look dire, the OVA was suddenly flirting with grandeur.

Planet Eden. Year: 2040

Brash ace pilot, Isamu Dyson is newly assigned to the hallowed New Edwards base in hopes of keeping the hot headed hotshot from causing UN SPACY further trouble. Upon arrival, he is informed that he is to participate in Project Super Nova, where two upcoming Valkyrie models vie for a spot in the future of aerial mecha combat. Having been an Eden native, Isamu’s return makes for a queasy reunion upon discovery that his competing pilot is none other than his one-time half-Zentraedi best buddy, Guld Goa Bowman. Still fuming after an incident that ruptured this once close bond, tension only rises further upon the arrival of shared childhood friend Myung Fang Lone, now producer to the galaxy’s most beloved idol singer- the virtuoid idol, Sharon Apple. The moment all three are reunited upon Star Hill, it’s very clear that the animosity from days long past is still raw. And despite the once aspiring singer’s position as the digital chanteuse’s producer, the role is closer that of puppet master, controlling Sharon’s performances via her still bruised mind. Further fueling the competition back at the base, the rivalry begins to take on dangerous dimensions as Myung’s scarring memories of those days seem to be creating a bit of a problem. An illegal AI chip has just secretly been installed into the virtual singer’s CPU, making her an interloper of the most terrifying kind.

Echoes of Top Gun aside, what truly sets this entry apart from the classic Macross mold is the eschewing of a star-spanning space war, and a greater focus on the inner lives of the story’s central leads. At the time it was a startling branch away from an already familiar formula, and it makes for what remains the most psychologically complex Macross to date.

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In fact, the central theme this time around shifts the needle away from culture, and onto our increasingly tenuous relationship each other, despite all the advancements surrounding us.To best share feelings on this theme, it’s time to share a few thoughts regarding Plus’ central love polygon. (Yes. We have shot well past the classic Macross love triangle, and have landed somewhere altogether new for the time. Needless to say, it get a little..complicated.)

It’s still pretty fascinating to experience a character like Guld in something like this. While he carries with him an often proud stocism, he is also carrying within this need to be redeemed. While he has excelled as a solider and pilot, there is something very dark and unresolved beneath being his well regarded exterior. Indeed, there is a heroism about him. But lest the truth sees itself through, this painful hurdle might never be passed. He could so easily have been written and directed as a one-dimensional obstacle, but instead it’s a dynamic portrayal of rage versus serenity.

As for Myung, we have the first deconstructive Macross lead in the guise of an idol who never shined. The story hinges intensely upon her as one who saw herself become a part of the literal idol machine. Staying far from old friends, playing behind the curtain. Matters come to a head when fate intervenes, pressuring her to reveal more and more of herself before lives are further damaged. And outside of these painful memories, none of it is truly of her doing. She is fallen by way of a most simple, yet wholly destructive secret. And as such, is one of the first truly postmodern anime characters this side of an Ikari.

Cocky, hotheaded, clueless Isamu. What to say about him? Save for him being the ultra-classic Tom Cruise archetype, he is also perhaps one of the best avatars for unbridled arrogance in anime history. Outside of his love of flying, the guy is hopelessly simpleminded. He found his passion at an early age, and not much has evolved since. More than anything, he is less the central character, and more a sounding board whom everyone else bounces off of. More an audience surrogate than an actual character, Mr. Dyson is little more than a likeable fool right out of a 1990s arcade game.

Going to go ahead and admit it. If there is any character I feel the most empathy for in all of Plus, it’s Lucy McMillan. She was just part of the YF-19 research team, doing her part for the betterment of technology, and got herself hung up on an overgrown twelve-year-old fighter jock. No intention of trouble whatsoever. Save for one understandable act of selfishness, there is much to consider regarding this character despite her brief screentime. She merely wanted to care for a guy, and was subsequently dumped for someone who likely was far from ready to pick up from where they left off. Taste in guys notwithstanding, she comes from a more direct place than most of the leads, and learns a harsh lesson as a result. Talk about your collateral damage.

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Lastly, what words can best be shared to encapsulate the conceptual leap that is Sharon Apple? Japan and the otaku dream of a virtual singer have shared DNA for quite some time before Hatsune Miku and her kin graced monitors, and car commercials everywhere. In fact, it feels very much like a straight up creative trajectory, like it was destined into existence. Anime had already been tinkering with the idea of a computer generated idol, most notably so in the classic AIC video series, Megazone 23. But when many of the same minds behind Macross and Megazone took the jump into CG enhanced animation, the timing never felt more right to create a character so definitive of her time. From large scale holographic performances, to virtual stalking, Sharon remains one of the most indelible idol characters of all time. And yes, we did just say stalking because for a being created out of code, there is an unprecedented complexity to her that is often overlooked. Long before Spike Jonze’s poetics regarding us and our technology, Sharon represents the glory and the fear of melding our worlds. While she draws us in with her abilities, there is certainly no shortage of disturbing behavior coming out of her. She is a Descartian dream gone south. Such power with such insatiable curiosity, and such a broken sample of a mind to work with. And therein lies the tragic majesty of Sharon Apple-none of it is really her fault. She is but a mere reflection of us.

Combine all the drama with some of the very best mecha and dogfight animation in a medium’s history, and you have a striking, nuanced entry in what has long been seen as an otaku evergreen . With Nobumoto and Watanabe added into the mix, there is a sobriety to the storytelling that was new to the Macross brand. (something only peripherally attempted by Kawamori’s later entry, the often-ignored, Macross Zero) With characters like Isamu, Guld, and Myung fighting amongst themselves, the war is an intimate one with a potential for many affected bystanders by way of some serious hardware (and software?). Like many of the great filmed fantasies, there is a careful blending of grand scale action with complex characterization. And within what is ostensibly a movie-length work, it’s a balancing act that hits far more than misses.

When looking deeper into the unique heart of Macross Plus, one can see a thematic throughline regarding increased connectivity between humans and machines. It could be argued that Plus is more concerned with our own will to allow technology to stand-in for our own crucial decision-making methods. While a great many shows of the time bore a more technophobic slant, there seems to be a greater emphasis on human flaws that allow certain problems to arise. This is emphasized via the character of ace pilot, Guld, who’s half-Zentraedi blood leads to an often violent temper, we witness him downing pills to bring himself back to the tranquil person required to fly an experimental machine. Nobumoto’s script harbors a love for people connecting directly, but an equal fear that equates retreating into realms of the virtual with impending disaster. Almost like a warning as the internet was gathering steam as an information and communications resource in the early 1990s. And considering the unprecedented vision of cultural pluralism on display in this series, it’s a concern that remains as prescient now as it did then. It almost feels like a pointed response to the gap that was inevitably closed in the original series. Now that culture has bound us together, now what? While it isn’t spelled out directly, it is haunting every moment of the OVA.

Closer together. Further apart?

The great concern for tech working as a stand-in for our often broken selves is ever at the human core of Plus. For all the archetypes that tend to populate the Macross universe, this is perhaps the one incarnation that chooses challenging characters with unlikeable traits over your typical romantic heroes and idols. The entire show reminds us that despite the advances happening around the principle characters, the peril of machines is simply that they will not stop where we might. Possibly a dated notion, but a potent one nonetheless. One of many firsts for the franchise.

And speaking of firsts, it even went so far as to be one of the first anime releases to have original soundtrack albums distributed in the US via JVC, which was how I was introduced to the music of one Yoko Kanno. Picked up a copy of this from my local outlet, and was instantly enamored with it. As ambitious as the world Kawamori and Watanabe were aiming to achieve, it’s the musical character of the show that makes for the full range iconography of Plus. For these ears, what makes a truly classic soundtrack is an intrinsic understanding of a film’s world and characters. And there isn’t a single track in all of Plus that feels out of place with the universe, or its leads. It promises a new, more nuanced worldview, and it delivers with a rare sense of playfulness and grandeur. From orchestral, to Badalamenti-esque bits of atmosphere, to experimental electronica of the day, Kanno’s work on Plus is the kind of debut work that could very easily signal a one-and-done scenario. The very best of one’s compositional prowess on display for one big splash, never to be equaled. To this day, it remains something of a major accomplishment for anime music, and a personal favorite.

And yet it was only a mere hint of what was just around the bend..

One of the earliest examples of iconic sell-thru anime on the VHS market, Plus reeks of artistic ambition rare for the format. I fondly remember seeing these Manga Video releases adorn the shelves of Circuit City stores, not to mention your local Sam Goodie locations, and was long a darling of rental outlets such as Blockbuster and Hollywood video. Produced with enough budget and panache to compete with even big movie fare, retailers saw Macross Plus as something of a bright spot in the then just piercing-the-surface American anime market.

It’s very rare when anime squares off beautifully with Hollywood quality storytelling, but it has happened. Through Kawamori and Watanabe, we were able to see what was truly possible. Yearning for something beyond anime’s reputation is always something worth hoping for. And Plus remains a potent, indelible reminder of what can happen when a medium shoots for the stratosphere.

True pioneers aim to do nothing less.

Through Older Lenses: Cosmos Pink Shock (1986)

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It’s the year 2206, and a bright pink spacecraft has made an unauthorized launch from Pluto Space Base #17, and is sporting its hyper rocket engines with intense haste. As authorities seek to control, and perhaps even down the runaway craft, a crucial baseball drama is unfolding. With perhaps the Tigers’ 200+ year losing streak at an end, their winning play is thwarted as the troublesome pink streak fouls up the game, rendering a mob of spacefaring fans ready, and eager to destroy the speeding interloper. Not even the denizens of Macross, or Yamato can stop this intergalactic bullet from causing all amounts of nuisance to all in her path. Seriously, she’s a real pain.

Such is the life of headband wearing, pendant-sporting Micchi, pilot of the Pink Shock. Her mission is not very complicated. And it isn’t concerned with your space wars, your losing streak, your culture. She’s having none of it. She’s seventeen years old, and speeds on for love. And not you, nor any militaristic regime can do anything to stop her from reclaiming it.

How is this hard for your to understand?

OVAs in the 1980s are pretty much a wasteland of VHS nonsense, often highlighted by your random Bubblegum Crises, or Megazone 23s, and offer very little in the way of viable historical context. Even in Japan’s anime on home video heyday, these were the shelf stocker equivalent to today’s Asylum Pictures release. They were a dime a dozen, and often made on the quick and cheap. New studios opening, and new studios closing. It was a new market, and something rife with mental images of airborne yen signs just itching for a slice of this new home entertainment pie. So why in the world do we want to talk about 1986’s Cosmos Pink Shock?

Quite frankly, because despite everything in it that is typical, there is also a potent, and perhaps even frightening sliver of prophecy embedded within. From the wet-wafer thin nature of the aforementioned “plot”, there is both a reverence for the era’s legendary love of space war tales, as well as the burgeoning of that now all too worn concept of moé. The show makes every effort imaginable to play into the fetish, and does everything possible to justify its existence. In fact, the entire point of Cosmos Pink Shock, is just that: “Space Wars are annoying, this is the era of the cute girl-STEP OFF.” It has no compunctions saying that the space heroes of the past will have to make way for all the petulant cuteness, as if the show itself were Noah’s dream of a flooded planet, and we had to prepare for the inevitable.

It even goes so far as to introduce a possible foil in the form of woman hating, Gatsupi. A handsome ball of noble whom the ladies like for his looks, but are constantly rebuffed by his declaration of disinterest. Even when the assumption is that of a slashfic narrative, he contends this isn’t the case. Yes, even fangirls of the 1980s were quick to assume this guy to be prime fantasy material. But this Sho Hayami-voiced character holds within a simple reason for his standoffish ways. Perhaps leave it to the newly captured Micchi, to weave her tale of woe, thereby thaw Gatsupi’s frozen heart?

You see, Micchi’s one true love, a boy she was fond of at AGE 4, was abducted by a UFO during the night of the matsuri. Yes. And noone seemed to remember who he was, nor was motivated at all to find him. So naturally, she stowed away on a space shuttle in hopes of finding him. Again. How is this not getting through? Are you just being stubborn?

Looking back at it now, it feels like this was a sentiment that had long been festering until it finally saw a ray of legitimacy with the original Superdimension Fortress Macross series. And from that point on, it became standard practice to keep that element as an integral part of the space war genre. That is until the conditions were right. Cosmos Pink Shock feels like a light handed back slap against the decade preceding it in all its need for hard edged militarism and samurai propriety. Featuring some neat character design work by the always terrific Toshihiro Hirano (of Fight! Iczer One & Vampire Princess Miyu fame), and some impressive animation direction by Keisuke Matsumoto & Yasuo Hasegawa, there is some visual charm happening here. Especially worthy of note are the scenes involving hardsuit armor and even a robot baseball game. There is much to see as mere distraction in Cosmos, that many may see as your typical benign japan toon, but there is just enough moxy, and outright raspberrying to all things Gundam and Yamato, to make it into something of a manifesto. A harbinger of the future.

A future that was barreling closer toward us.

Whether we wanted it..or not. Get out of the way.

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Oh yes, and it features quite a nod to fans of the Hanshin Tigers, granting it a Kansai aura that must have been bubbling in lieu of their once rumored “cursed” state. A running gag that screams “you had to be there”, but is mildly chuckle-inducing regardless.

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Forget Me Not

One Week Friends and How To Remember Love

Is it possible to forget how to be a friend? Spend enough time in isolation, and it almost seems like it is. Even for those who aren’t hikkikomori, for some who have had lengthy bouts of loneliness—through a break-up, work circumstances, travel, depression, or just a desire to be alone—the art of being with others is something that has to be relearned. To remember that others see you when you go out with bed head and the stained hoodie. To not mumble to yourself out loud when you have a thought. To show up on time when you agree with your coworkers to go somewhere, and to tell them if you are going to be early, or late. To look people in the eye when you are speaking to them.

Perhaps more importantly, to have an open heart and not assume the natural, suspicious huddle of someone who always thinks that the world is out to hurt you. To not push people away, rejecting in anticipation of rejection.

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I honestly don’t care that much about the male protagonists in One Week Friends. Yuuki is the standard male naif, perhaps even more innocent than usual (this is almost Kimi ni Todoke levels of guilelessness here), and while he’s the one seemingly learning the lessons, he’s not the one who faces the greatest struggle. His friend Kiryu briefly introduces some tension but is ultimately the faithful wingman, the best bro who will help him get the girl.

No, Kaori, the girl with memories of close friends only a week long, is the one I feel for. It’s a shame that the source material mainly uses her selective short term amnesia as a moe charm vehicle, bolstered by her perpetual blush and her soft features. So far in the anime the poignancy of her situation is not allowed to go too far down the subtext that it suggests, which is: for some people, friendship is hard, so hard that it takes a deliberate effort to not forget how it’s done.

The cruel irony is that sometimes it’s the ones we yearn to be closest to–not just potential romantic partners (as is the case here), but anyone who offers genuine vulnerability and emotional intimacy–that we treat with the most fear and confusion and hesitancy. It’s why, not very long ago, I had no trouble giving gifts to my friends–except for the one I had a crush on; why I have such a hard time opening up to my family whenever I am in trouble, and turn to isolation instead; why some phone conversations with certain people are the ones I most want to avoid.

Kaori’s plight reminds me of the desire to make life easier, just by convenient forgetting, or perhaps resetting is a better word: a constant wiping of the slate clean and reliving of the most fun part of friendship—its beginning. She has to write everything down in order to do otherwise, and when I wondered why she hadn’t thought to keep a diary and a reminder until Hase suggests it, it dawned on me: because, in a way, it is easier for her not to. She can sidestep the inevitable pain and confusion of young friendship and love. It is as close as life allows her to have a do-over. We have all wished to undo a mistake in our lives sometimes, to start a relationship over or to unsay those words.

And yet, as time passes, and she starts to record her fleeting memories, connections begin to form in her mind. That something is important about this chain of thoughts and time, reaching past the limits of her immediate memory. When she loses the diary, she feels the growing absence in her heart, even though she cannot name it until the end. To get those memories back—rain-stained and perhaps blurred over—is, by then, a gift. Because friendship, as hard as it is, is a gift, and it is sustained by the good and bad memories created by that relationship.

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And so we were made. Isolation is a kind of forgetting, a kind of amnesia. Isolation does offer a kind of predictable safety, but the kind of person it creates is, as CS Lewis wrote,

If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. 

Some of us have been there, in that airless room. But eventually, if we are not to shrivel inside, we have to remember, by writing on the tablets of our hearts, that the reward for loving others is to love itself.

Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. –1 John 2:9-11

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