Tag Archives: Original Video Animation

20 Years of Macross Plus: What Pioneers May Come

windmill

“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.

macross-plus-guld-myung-isamu-triangle

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.

sharon

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: Urban Square – Kohaku no Tsuigeki (1986)

 

“For years, I didn’t understand the concept of writer’s block. I was like, “what’s that?”, you know? And then I realized a few weeks ago, it was like, “Oh! That’s every day!”

-Jonathan Nolan
(Co-writer of The Dark Knight Trilogy & Creator Of Memento)

Pretty amusing to ever think that scribe, Kazunori Ito has ever experienced that oft-blamed phenomenon, but apparently it (along with a great love of 1980s Hollywood) was enough fuel for this rare, and infectious one-shot OVA from the very early days of EMOTION – IE,  Bandai Visual that places the writer amidst a whole mess of trouble. Ryo Matsumoto is a hapless screenwriter, who has been unable to get traction for his latest action opus, when he is witness to a murder on the street, and somehow finds himself in possession of some sensitive documents. And just like that, it’s a writer’s 1980s action fantasy wet dream as Ryo finds himself not only pursued by dangerous thugs who look bizarrely like a more Bruce Lee-like Kenshiro, but befriends a classic “cop-on-the edge”, and possibly finds enough time for love? Urban Square – Kohaku No Tsuigeki (AKA – In Pursuit Of Amber)is the kind of OVA that in its day would have made a fun addition to my localized collection in the day, but was likely considered not “anime” enough to sell here.

 
But personally speaking, there are enough things happening here that only anime could deliver.

 

So when we begin the film, Ryo is quickly established as a very young writer who seems to be hurting for a script sale. It’s apparently not going very well, which leads to him out in the rainy streets, where fate intervenes, forcing Ryo, and everyone else around him to live out a reality that is far more exciting than fiction. This is made even more complicated by the two-time chance meeting between Ryo and Yuki, a local art student with indirect connections to the envelope that has come into their possession. With both their lives instantly in danger, a burgeoning relationship might have to wait, as noone can be trusted. Thankfully, they find an unlikely ally in tough cop, Mochizuki. A grizzled detective with a seeming obsession with bringing down Goda Geese, a long untouchable criminal figure with an eye for art fraud. Classic “noir” tropes abound, Urban Square is less a parody of the more hard-boiled action genre of film that was before matters went full Schwarzenegger in the ensuing years.

 
Looking back at it now, 1986 seems like a banner year for anime in regards to their reverence for all things “American Action”. Where California Crisis established a grand love of all things Spielberg, Urban Square seems happy with being a fun little ode to the ever-reliable 80s cop thriller. From the cold blues of the city at night, to Akemi Takada’s classy character designs, the 55-minute OVA screams pre-Lethal Weapon police pot-boiler, complete with often weird jazz score. Most egregiously, the aforementioned grizzled detective, Mochizuki, is a dead ringer for a Sharkey’s Machine-era Burt Reynolds! Heck, while were on that, tow headed assassin, Henmi is a bit of a Moke clone himself. Hair breadth escapes, coincidences, and just plain heaven’s luck play a major part of the film’s disarming aura.

And his hair is perfect..

But a lot of it wouldn’t be as much fun, if it didn’t have itself a likeable guide through this odyssey of familiar. This is where Ryo fits in more than fine enough as a guy who has seen all of this done on screen, and can’t believe that the real deal is in no way any more imaginative. The closest things to ability he has on his side are his movie cliche knowledge, and pure dopey spunk, which becomes a fuel for many surprises throughout. Like many writers, he’d sooner not write about his own life. But when the reality is this good, and with friends caught up in everything, perhaps life can surpass art just this once. It doesn’t hurt that the new lady in his life is ideal in more ways than one. Yuki becomes that additional spark that makes this non-action hero into something so many outside of the original John McClane fail to be, tangible and likeable.

 
A few years later, John McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero attempted to subvert what the action genre had become over the years, to often middling to lesser results. Urban Square excels by strictly avoiding such cynicism, and playing matters as light and reverent. What could so easily be a simple parody, becomes an appropriately charming little piece of bubblegum noir. Director Akira Nishimori and Animation Head, Hideyuki Motohashi are clearly having a ball taking on the kinetics of western action, creating a surprisingly flowing visual narrative of hand-to-hand, gunfights, and vehicle chases one must see to appreciate. The tired, almost disdain-coated feel of Last Action Hero, is  a vibe that is completely absent in Urban Square, where all we have, is a big, charming ode to the salad years of an american cinematic pastime.

 
Inspiration does indeed sprout from the strangest places..

 


This is a title that has never experienced an American release, and has remained long out of print in Japan. But can be found by way of many of the old channels. Happy seeking!