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.