At Anime Expo 2015, we talked to French-born Thomas Romain, an animation creator working at Shoji Kawamori’s Satelight Studio in Japan. He is noted for being the co-creator of basketball-influenced anime Basquash!, and has done designs for Space Dandy and other shows. He brings a unique perspective to working on the ground of the anime industry, often with some of the greats like Shoji Kawamori, Tatsuo Sato, and Shinichiro Watanabe. He’s also been on record noting concerns about the pay situation for animators in Japan–though you may be surprised on his thoughts about possible solutions to the issue.
The interview was conducted in English, and was edited for clarity.
Tell us about some of the Japanese anime you liked growing up.
When I was a kid, there was a lot of on tv, classics likeDragonball and Captain Harlock. And then when I was a teenager, I watched the Ghost in the Shell movie. It was pretty awesome. [I also watched] Ghibli movies, like Hotaru no Haka (Grave of the Fireflies).
It was my generation—French comic artists who are about 30-40 years old, are like me very influenced by Japanese comics, because we were all watching anime in the 80s.
Tell us how you got involved in the anime industry. I know it was through Oban Star Racers…
Oban Star Racers was an anime influenced TV project, and we made a small trailer which we released on the Internet. We had a lot of very good responses from all over the world, and from Japan too. We got a message from a producer from Bandai Visual, and we realized that maybe it was possible to work with Japan.
And I was really into anime at that same time: I was watching Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, things like that. So we tried pushing in that direction and we succeeded in financing the project and convincing European investors to produce the series in Japan, with a Japanese studio, in 2002-2003. We moved to Tokyo and started producing the show. It was a really awesome experience. I wanted to stay there, and so I became a Satelight employee, and here I am.
You mentioned in an earlier interview [with Anime News Network] that this was an opportunity to meet your heroes, the luminaries of the industry, like Shinichiro Watanabe…
Actually I met Watanabe quite recently for Space Dandy.
And Tatsuo Sato for Bodacious Space Pirates.
The first time I met Sato was when I did Basquash!—I co-created Basquash! with Shoji Kawamori, and Sato was handling all the writing.
But youknow, I wasn’t really aware of that. Because I wasn’t an anime fan; I was just trying to create my own stuff, and draw cool drawings. I was aware of some of the bigger names like Miyazaki, or Hideaki Anno. But Shoji Kawamori, when I met him, I wasn’t really aware of his career. So when I met him for the first time, I wasn’t really nervous. I was just really natural.
So it’s only later you found you found out this guy created Macross, and that he’s a legend.
Are there any funny stories of you working with some of these people?
Kawamori is really a character. There are a lot of stories about him. He’s really mystical, [interested in] old beliefs and religion and healers…healing people with their hands. That sort of thing.
We went to France two years ago, since we were invited by Japan Expo. Kawamori loves travel, and we went in some places in France, like the very old house where Leonardo da Vinci died, [where he spent] the last two years of his life. So we went to the room where Leonardo da Vinci died, and Kawamori just stayed there for one hour, without moving, trying to connect his spirit with da Vinci’s. He’s that kind of person.
Turning to a more serious matter, you’ve been quoted about some of the working conditions that animators face in Japan. Since that’s gotten some more publicity recently, have you seen any changes, or maybe a new discussion in the industry toward making some changes?
Some people are trying to make things better, but first it’s good to generate some publicity and to let people know that being an animator in Japan is really, really hard. Then maybe the audience will respect even more the work of the animators, who are doing an amazing job with nothing, with a piece of paper, with a very low salary.
But to make changes, we have a difficult problem. We don’t want animation to disappear from Japan, because if we make the costs too high, the investors will prefer to outsource the animation. Like France and US did…there is [now] almost no more 2D animation in France, Europe, or America. So I don’t want the same thing to happen to Japan.
And also, animators like to be free. They don’t want to be employees of [a particular] company. They want to stay freelance, work at their own rhythm, their own pace, and with the people they want to work with. It’s a very complex problem. It’s too hard. And I’m really worried—it’s becoming more and more difficult to get new talent interested working in anime. All the young people want to become seiyuu, not animators or background artists.
I wonder if you ever saw–there is a show called Shirobako. I highly recommend it to you.
I haven’t seen it, but it’s a very popular show. Back in the day there was an OVA called Animation Runner Kuromi. Also there was an episode directed by Satoshi Kon, in Paranoia Agent, with one episode about the animation industry.
I bring up Shirobako because there was a famous salary chart that was published, that basically published that annual salary of each of the characters.
I saw that. Yeah.
The difference between a regular animator and an A-list voice actress is such a gigantic gulf. It’s exactly what you’re talking about.
It’s like Lady Gaga vs. the guy checking the mics before the live shows. Like stars vs technicians.
Since you mentioned that most animators want to be freelance, do you think unionization is at all a solution to the pay problem?
I had this discussion with Lesean Thomas, the American creator I’m working with right now for Cannon Busters. He told me that unionization destroyed the animation industry in the US. There are no more animators.
We talked also about…doing storyboards for feature films. In Japan, usually the director does the storyboards for the feature film by himself. But in the US, they are working with a team of several storyboarders for each feature film. And he told me it was impossible in the US to ask only one guy to do all the storyboards because of the unions.
As a non-Japanese person in a Japanese industry, do you think you are primarily called upon to bring a non-Japanese perspective into the work that you’re doing? Is that something that you thought you’d be doing when you came to Japan?
Absolutely not. I just wanted to almost become Japanese, to work exactly like the Japanese creators. But because I cannot remove the fact that I am French, sometimes people want the skills…for example on La Croisée, the setting and action is in Paris. Or probably Space Dandy, Watanabe wanted something very different with the designs…
[The producers] just want to work with me, because I do great, solid designs, because I have strong skills, and I work very quickly and respect the schedule. So sometimes they ask me something because they want something different, but otherwise just because I’m just a skilled designer.
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.
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.
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.
Taking a most unusual detour from its previous home at UCLA, I took a short trip from home to spend a few hours as part of american anime lover history celebrated 30 years of mecha, music, and love at Macrossworldcon 2012. This time, taking place deep in Arcadia (no, not that one), CA. , and within a modest-sized business & shopping center, virtually hidden from any manner of public view. After badge pickup, and a colorful yet narrow walkway leading to the heart of the event, I found myself surrounded by a virtual cityscape of toys and items commemorating decades of the Macross franchise, from the original groundbreaking series, to the candy-heavy Frontier. UN S PACY heads from numerous generations and backgrounds convened in what remains a remnant of the anime con that once was..
We arrived just in time for a “Free Art Contest” where a group of talented sketch artists tried their hand at delivering a memorable Macross image with only two stipulations; A) Image must contain an audience-selected character from the franchise, and B) they only had ten minutes to make it so. (Sadly, my idea: An image of hapless Valkyrie pilot, Hayao Kakizaki–a character often characterized as a plate of steak, or a ball of flame, was never voted in.)
Couldn’t help myself from being knocked nostalgic, and also expressing deep excitement at the evolution of character and mecha goods on display. There were times when it felt like member-owned toys and items would never stop coming in to take residence on one of several counters set against the main event room’s walls. Was wonderful enough just to be in the presence of it.
But toys, raffles, and art aside, the major centerpiece of my trip occurred when beloved singer, songwriter (and inimitable voice of Lynn Minmay herself), Mari Iijima took to the main floor, and performed a short and potent set of songs. With Sunset Beach, and a haunting rendition of the legendary Ai Oboete Imasu Ka as the only Macross tracks, we were host to two of her personally written songs which were equally, if not more impressive. True to her ever-self-defining nature, the set was both emotionally charged, and wildly disarming. (Fave track of the day, “Anatano Tame Ni Jibun No Tame Ni” offers up both a charm-filled sense of longing, and a dramatic sense of real knowing that was impressive. A stirring hint that her latest recorded effort, “Take A Picture Against The Light” may be her most deeply personal to date.)
So in all, my day in Arcadia was one filled with smiles, melancholy, and togetherness. A strange feeling again filled me as I stepped out of the venue, back into the real world that we all share, aware that I had just left a room of shared dreams and memories so many would never see. Perhaps just as well, as the event itself embraces something that is far too often missing from modern cons, a sense of unseen, yet solid community.
As they say, familiarity breeds contempt. So when it comes to celebrating a quarter century-plus of one of animedom’s most iconic creations, what can one do, but wonder what could have been if those in charge (and this is also considering the franchise’s fractured, litigiously spotty past) retained some manner of focus regarding their legendary property, and didn’t let the beast of expectation overtake them. Then we may have had something truly fitting as a continuation of the saga originally begun in 1982. Instead, we have ourselves a sort of scatterbrained byproduct disguising itself as a nod to all that had come before. Granted, it isn’t for lack of trying. Much more the opposite. Much like the 2008 television event that inspired it, the film versions of Shoji Kawamori’s Macross Frontier are exercises in threshold tolerance the likes few anime have ever experienced. As I share these words by way of a sleek and sexy laptop, it is an interesting analog for the films as they are by design, functional only in the way a rigid marketing machine views its product; as merely extensions of a brand, not to be concerned with the human element, and moreso about furthering familiarity, often to the exclusion of sense, business, and relatability.
Heck. It could even go so far as to say that at the offset, the films admit what they are despite all the production value surrounding it. Much like the most garish, noisy spectacles, it is satisfied with checklisting over worldbuilding, types over actual characters. And all the while, the thinking must have been mostly of what target audience was being missed. Because at its core, this rendition of the already standard “love triangles and pop idols amidst star-spanning warfare with converting planes” remains at best a party for fans, and at worst, the kind of party that while fun-sounding at the offset, wears out its welcome when one realizes there’s more important matters to tend to at home, like reading…soup labels.
Having grown up a helpless devotee of the original Macross as part of Robotech in those halcyon days, it has been a constant source of excitement, to check out the latest incarnation of the tale that began in the series’ rendition of 2009, when an alien presence made itself known to the human race, hot in pursuit of an spacecraft that had landed here only to be retrofitted and helmed by a grizzled captain, and an inexperienced crew. What followed, was something of a fantasy relevation for this starstruck 10 year old. The meshing of disparate genres and tropes, including the “realistic” robot war tale, and soapy space opera was almost too much for one kid to handle, and yet became one of the foundations of his love of all things Japanese cartoon. On top of this, it is a bold marker of a time when Japan’s reach seemed limitless. This feeling emanates heavily from the series as well as the 1984 classic, “Do You Remember Love?” in ways that few animated works have ever achieved. It transcends beyond the confines of the budget and technological limitations of the day, and remains emblematic of all that was hopeful in anime. Even more important, it helped usher in the rise of the anime otaku as creator, and even did its part to rib the newly emerging superfan phenomenon that had come to prominence in the wake of Uchu Senkan Yamato, and Kido Senshi Gundam. At its best, the legacy of Superdimension Fortress Macross is a time capsule that gave rise to an entirely new form of fandom.
But oh, what a difference a change in industry focus, and a little mental breakdown makes…
Looking back at the television series of Macross Frontier, perhaps as a fan of the property, I was completely blind to the glaring hints staring me in the face. That as a 25th Anniversary project helmed by Kawamori & Yasuhito Kikuchi, along with Studio Satelight, that this was to be an obvious cash-grab akin to just about any other rehash/sequel ever made. But perhaps it was my unwavering love for the 1990s OVA, Macross Plus that kept things out of focus. After all, Macross 7, while not a complete loss, was in many ways a sign that the franchise was primed to go into latter-day Gojira self-parody phase from then on out. And yet, Kawamori dialed back with Macross Zero, a prequel so mired in new age gobbledygook, that it seemed that the property was dead set on becoming the vessel for whatever strange inklings its noted co-creator would bring into it. So when the news came that Macross F would feature a story more centered within the “classic” Macross framework and timeline, and featuring an impressive battery of talent, a part of me was ready to once again believe.
And while the results were more than a little mixed, there were at least parts of me willing to accept it on its own absurd terms.
For the unfamiliar, Frontier is set 47 years since the beginning of the original series as mankind and Zentraedi have continued their search for a new home deep in the recesses of the Milky Way galaxy. Centered within the massive convoy, is the Frontier, where much like the original series contains an entire city and surrounding environment which is home to countless races and cultures. And amidst this voyage is the core tale surrounding a young daredevil pilot running from his kabuki past, and his feelings for two distinctly different idol singers. One, the fiery and often spoiled-seeming Galactic Fairy, Sheryl Nome, and the other, innocent, and struggling vocalist, Ranka Lee. All the while, a new alien threat in the form of the seemingly faceless and fierce Vajra has appeared, which is merely a conduit within several levels of intrigue that threatens all involved.
Now with that oversimplified synopsis, it may seem to be more than ample material for a single season tv series. However, once it gets going, it became clear that as much plot is implied within the first few episodes, a bulk of the series is a play on fan familiarity with tropes and concepts long-since become cliche for this series. And as serious as some moments were, it was almost always done with a wink of the eye, and with a much larger emphasis on all-out spectacle than actual character development, let alone a truly comprehensible narrative. What Frontier DOES contain, is a virtual army of demographically targeted characters, carefully constructed for nearly every anime obsessive fetish imaginable. Imagine it off the tip of your mind, and this series has it. If Itano Circus was designed for target marketing, this series is a full-on missle strike. In fact, it could be said that this is perhaps the series’ sole reason for being. When all the smoke cleared from the end of the show’s run, it is this element that remains it’s most interesting, despite anything that really happens to anyone. Mindless fun, featuring yet another memorable soundtrack largely composed by the always reliable Yoko Kanno. Frontier remains a largely underseen series in the west, and while many may still lament missing it during its initial run, I will opine here that it is virtually a “fan’s only” venture, and must be approached with discerning eyes.
All this said: Shame on me, for assuming that a two-film retelling would do for the series what Do You Remember Love? did for the original, which is break down the best elements of the initial creation, thereby offering a simple, exciting and resonant new addition to the Macross canon. What should have crossed my mind was that upon filtering out all of Frontier’s filler moments & dopey subplots, that the movie versions would have the more egregiously goofy elements cranked up to 12. Sometimes a strainer doesn’t do the trick apparently because as of this writing, I am still attempting to get my head around these films. Outside of their clearly nostalgia-geared, money-centric origins, there is simply no good reason for them to exist. It’s that simple. Imagine being a silver sphere, ricocheting down the loudest, most complex & colorful pachinko machine known to humankind, and that’s the Macross Frontier movie experience.
Macross Frontier: Itsuwari no Utahime (2009)
Right off the bat, the changes to how our characters are introduced sets in motion a much more aggressively paced version of the tv story. Relationships are mostly already established, particularly between the hopelessly bishounen lead, Alto Saotome and Ranka Lee whom already seem to be good pals, along with his friends who eventually reveal themselves as members of the private “for hire” squadron, SMS. Having Sheryl again as the galactic celebrity outsider offers much in the way of not only romantic complication for our leads, but also a window into the workings within other ships and associating governments faring this distant in space. And as the attacks from the mysterious vajra race become more and more dangerous, it comes to the attention of many that it is perhaps the presence of the Galactic Fairy that has brought about trouble to Frontier. Staying mum on the matter, is Sheryl’s endlessly busy & confident manager, Grace O’ Connor, who’s intentions clearly span beyond the idol legend’s concert itinierary. All the while, friends and allies begin to turn suspect, and it is up to the ensemble to seek out the truth regarding the Vajra, and the role both Sheryl and Ranka hold to the destiny of the Macross Frontier- as well as Saotome’s heart.
Again, a Frontier film distilled of it’s more drawn out elements ends up backfiring in many ways when the revelation creeps in that perhaps it is those very drawn-out elements that kept the whole series from being a completely unwatchable mess. With this limiter out of the way, the sheer spectacle of a San Francisco-like city on a deep space vessel, is far from enough to numb away the pain of being essentially browbeaten into looking for some sense of comfort in whatever character obsession one might possess. Subtlety is far from considered when every opportunity is milked within scenes in order to sell us the catalog of “goods” this universe contains. Much like previously mentioned, this telling of the story becomes less about story, and much more an excuse to revel in the spectacle of potential merchandise this particular film carries. Designed with at times incredible detail, and an unerring sense of the theatrical, Utahime attempts to establish the films as quasi-musical exercises in pure service. The problem comes, when that pesky plot (and an at-times byzantine one for a work of this kind) rears its head again, reminding us that it wants to have its cake and steamshovel too. So when the plot has to stop for either a quiet character moment in a park, or even a colorful music sequence, the end result is messy at best. Not satisfied with just telling a straight story, Frontier lives and dies by way of stuffing as much service-worthy material into a single charge and blasted out of a shotgun.
But one of the first film’s most curious qualities, is perhaps one that many won’t catch amidst all the hi-speed dogfights, and pretty people. Among the film’s most repeated conceits, is initially brought about between Sheryl and Alto, when she asks him why he wishes to fly, where he asks the same of her singing. While this may seem to be atypical Macross chatter, the assertion she makes regarding being a “Pro”, establishes an interesting precedent, when the visuals of the film come into play. As mentioned, there is a park “date” sequence within the first half that displays her use of a taiyaki-shaped all-purpose device not unlike a smartphone/camera. Given that this is a device one would carry around wherever, it becomes all the more curious when upon a later scene, we are witness to a line forming outside the city’s massive performance dome, with sales vendors shelling out the latest Sheryl-centric items for fans to snatch up. And amongst the bevy of merchandise, hanging on hooks, the very same taiyaki-shaped smartphone device. The implication being that Sheryl only uses items direct from her marketing line. Idols can’t be bothered with tasting anyone else’s chicken but their own.
Including the fact that while this takes place, the younger, more underdog of the duo, Ranka has just taken up singing with a shady manager, and is now doing an incredible number of adverts to sell various services and products with her often donning ludicrous to downright disturbing costumes all in the name of being a struggling would-be idol. Don’t let the cute and at times leeriness fool you, these are clearly there for a reason. Which brings me to perhaps the core of what makes the film fascinating, at least to one who has done his fair share of market work for certain similar industries. The implications brought forth within that initial park conversation come from the simple fact that these are children borne within domed worlds, only familiar with limits presented to them not ever having lived on a planet of their own. Alto’s wish for the freedom of flight, is as natural to him as Ranka and Sheryl’s wishes to sing. The ingrained need to expand beyond imposed boundaries. When transposing these as words of those creating the film, there is a longing, and almost resentment of feeling confined that permeates the entire piece. (the film even goes so far as to have Sheryl’s finale concert take place on what resembles an oil rig!) Because when even idols are reduced to salarymen, where else can culture truly thrive?
So when the film’s climax takes place by way of something as bizarre as a credit card transaction, it becomes pretty clear that not all involved in making films of this ilk are completely happy with the current state of affairs. Especially being that these films were made as the moe boom was hitting its apex. When those who wish to dream are beset with the reality ceiling called becoming cogs in a tired wheel, it becomes more crucial than ever to rebel. This sly bit of satire would almost work, if the film lived up to what it longs for. However, Utahime is satsfied with playing matters passive aggressively for the time being which makes for a mixed experience only made tolerable mostly by the packaging- which in itself almost serves to derail itself by being just plain overbearing.
So in all, the Frontier’s initial foray into the cinema is something of a lumbering, shapeless beast. To be fair, there are occasionally amusing moments that harken toward the best that the franchise has to offer. It’s just too bad that as a film, Itsuwari no Utahime, outside of some great songs, lacks anything resembling a beating human heart. And that loss of memory, is the biggest tragedy of all.
Macross Frontier: Sayonara no Tsubasa (2011)
Two years later, and perhaps this time was required for my assumptions to brew, because when this continuation of the story kicks into high gear, it’s like something out of a Takashi Miike film; out of left field, and possibly out for blood. The story deepens, as Ranka’s career has taken off to unexpected heights as Sheryl has begun exhibiting signs of a terrible illness. With suspicions growing around Sheryl’s connection to the Vajra, Alto’s role is put to the test as not all allegiances are what they seem, and Ranka’s missing past begins to reveal itself in ways unexpected. The Macross Frontier tale concludes once again, and this time with a wholly new, and in many ways challenging finale. But true to previous statements, this is an alternate ending built out of possibly years of pent-up anger, because this is the only way to explain away the amount of hard lefts this piece takes.
Beginning with the first of several major musical numbers, and delivering on the already questionable wedding-dress motif offered in the teaser attached to the previous movie, Sheryl suffers a spell and collapses during a show-setting in motion the final movements for the series as Alto and the SMS are now closely watching over her in lieu of continuing espionage charges. And it is here that it is revealed just how closely related both singers are in regards to the Vajra, and the ultimate goal of the villains, which is admittedly pretty bland upon further consideration. Galactic conquest, as potentially interesting as it might be on paper, or word processor, only works best when the stakes are felt. The problems again having to do with all the arbitrary silliness going on around the plot that ultimately renders much of what is at stake not terribly impactful. But again, as already established, plot having very little place in this work, it isn’t as if the main story is anywhere near as important here as the reactions of the characters to it, which range from logical to just plain, well…the opposite.
And no sooner does this become the film’s ultimate thrust, as when the entire story takes an unexpectedly hyperdramatic turn, merely for the sake of itself. That’s correct, the entire second half of Sayonara seems ripped from an entirely different playbook. It hardly resembles the previous film in tone, and just goes for hyperbolic self-parody- in a series that already has reserves of self-deprecation. Right from the offset, it feels as if those in charge (Kawamori included) opted to hijack the established storyline in order to execute some of the most patently ridiculous moments in the franchise’s history. By this point, one has to be with matters full-on, or the film will leave them wholly in the dust. When one sees an opportunity for not only a scene set in Space Alcatraz, followed by a male lead in Gothic Lolita garb, followed by a huge battle culminating with a converted battleship surfing on an island, one has to ask onesself just what is it they want out of a classic franchise, when absolutely nothing is happening in any believable manner? Granted that the Macross franchise has prided itself on embracing the absurd, but this takes it to unforeseen levels of goofy. To make matters even worse, is the increased used of the post-cutaway flashback. Hair-breadth escapes that happen offscreen after leading the viewer to believe that a character has died. Every time it seems ready to dive full-on into risky territory, the film remembers that it has quotas to make, thereby relieving it of any stones it might have had in its pocket.
One has to imagine that all that had been implied in Utahime, was merely a hint at what was to come. It’s the only way I myself can rationalize what takes place here. It doesn’t even attempt to match the tone previously established, which was already relatively unstable to begin with. But the biggest problem that comes with this sudden Damn The Torpedoes shift, is simply that it is hardly any fun to experience. Much of it continues to feel put upon, and joyless. An action like this can work if a film sets itself up with enough careful development, but as it stands, the entire change-up hangs precariously like a bumper held to the grill with duck tape. And again, some truly fun musical numbers do little to undo this problem. Of note is Ranka’s early concert sequence employing a storybook motif that is both visually impressive and charming. It’s just too bad there’s so little else holding the entire film together. As visually and sonically impressive as these films can be, they are at the end of the day, products about products and little else. And it’s a real same since as a lifelong fan of the original, I find a lot of potential in many of the characters in this rendition.
And again, the questions continue regarding reasons as to the whys of yearning, and dreaming for the seemingly unattainable. Much like what the Zentraedi rediscovered decades before with one young girl’s song…the answers are simple. It’s just too bad that many involved with Macross Frontier were in little position to take that advice.