There isn’t enough focus on actual mecha in mecha anime. Strange? Yes. Despite the propensity of these shows to act as advertisements for their respective merchendise, I find a lack of actual detailed focus. In recent shows like Macross Frontier and Gundam 00, there are exciting battles and daring maneuvers involving the respective Variable Fighters and Mobile Suits. However, these to me actually serve the narrative more rather than the other way around. As they should, perhaps.
What I’m asking, is whether the mecha in a series be an ensemble dark horse? Do fans of mecha have separate relationships with the mecha and their pilots and related characters? I’m tempted to say yes, as I like certain mechain a show even if I don’t like the show itself as much (i.e. the MSN-04 Sazabi from Char’s Counterattack). That said, I’m quite capable of enjoying a mecha anime show while remaining indifferent or even negative about the mecha (Xam’d, Code Geass).
The mecha, (at least those of the real robot variety) aren’t characters in the show (even if they are sometimes humanized by their pilots, i.e. Ogata Rin and her RideBack Fuego). If this is so, perhaps at my most charitable I could say that if the elements or factors that make the show enjoyable are analogous to an ensemble cast, then the mecha or one of the mecha would be such a dark horse. This only means one can be a fan of the mecha without having to like the other factors (characters included), or even the show as a whole.
Are there anime where there is tremendous love for the mecha without compromising the narrative? Love in the sense that’s played out in the development of prototypes, the conduct of field tests, implied and overt devotion from characters, of course live combat… these are the things make real robot anime exhilerating for me. I have two examples, from both of the big real robot franchises: Gundam 0083 Stardust Memory, and Macross Plus.
Until Macross 7 broke me, Macross Plus was my favorite sequel in the franchise, and my re-watch of Stardust Memory resulted in my elevating it to the top of my Gundam favorites list. I reflected on this and concluded that among the other installments in their respective franchises, here the machines were given more love than in any other. In Macross I can be very sure about this, but I am less confident about Gundam as I’ve still yet to see a number of shows in its metaverse (though I’ve found no evidence in my readings to contradict my impression).
At this point I will speculate on a few things. Shoji Kawamori, Macross’ original creator and mechanical designer spent his student years as a Gundam fan. Some trivia: In episode 2 of the original SDF Macross, after dealing with the first wave of fighter pods, Major Focker radios “Skull Leader to Gunsight One.” Gunsight, besides being the tactical call-sign for the bridge of the SDF-1 Macross, also was the fanzine title of the Gundam fan club that creator Kawamori Shoji, character designer Mikimoto Haruhiko, and writer Oonogi Hiroshi (Members #1, #2, and #3) founded while at Keio University. His work on Macross, Do You Remember Love, and Flashback 2012 had Sunrise assign him on 1991′s Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (as mechanical designer). Personally I find this story rather heartwarming, as there’s nothing like a fanboy getting to work on his dream project, despite what some industry veterans say. The idea that Stardust Memory has some of the franchise’s best-looking mecha (I definitely concur) only makes this story more satisfying to me.
I daresay that 1994′s Macross Plus took a lot of elements from Stardust Memory, and I’ll lay that on Kawamori himself. In any case, the similarities are all good things to me. Here’s the list:
- Prototype mecha
- Field tests
- Adult characters
- Regret as a theme (unfinished business)
- Love triangle (albeit a Macross staple, and Macross Plus did it much, much better; or perhaps Stardust Memory really just did a slipshod job)
- Glorious duels (both shows to me, are the best showcases from each franchise)
I’ll look into the above elements in detail, and add a few more: how each show contributes to their respective continuities, and franchises as a whole.
Stardust Memory introduced a good number, all of them winners:
All but the Neue Ziel are Earth Federation Gundams. The links lead to Mecha Anime Headquarter’s detailed profiles. These prototypes are very bad boys. No doubt that they are powerful relative to the average mobile suit, but what I like about the pace of the arms race that created them is that the resulting abilities aren’t too fantastic or over-the-top (relatively speaking of course!). The technology and application are ‘grounded in real robot reality.’ The Gundam franchise will go on and make ‘overpowered’ prototypes in Wing, SEED Destiny, and now 00. While there’s nothing wrong with such paths, my taste favors the ‘technological aesthetics’ of Stardust Memory.
To give a picture, beam weapons borne by the prototypes are as powerful as those mounted on capital ships – making these ships very vulnerable and the prototypes very dangerous. What would make them overpowered in my view, is when the mecha themselves become impervious to such beam weapons.
The most advanced prototypes eventually did, through force-field like implements. However, never did it seem like a prototype can just ‘stand’ in one place and take continuous fire with only the force field/energy barrier protecting it. Along with the energy barrier’s weakness against kinetic projectiles, the resulting duels and battles never felt like static barrages but rather feverish scraps and passes. More on this later.
For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Gundam 00′s GN005 Virtue. Size wise it’s smaller than the Dendrobium Orchis and the Neue Ziel, but it’s nowhere as quick and maneuverable. Mind you I am very fond of the Gundam Virtue. It’s so slow relative to its enemies (even those who aren’t in its class) that it has no choice but to rely on its energy barrier to protect itself. It compensates for this lack of speed and maneuverability by having a beam weapon that’s relatively (non-technical analysis wise) much stronger than any of those in Stardust Memory, even if only to look at the width of the beam fired. The Virtue’s particle cannon can destroy an entire unit of mobile suits. This makes watching it fight boring after a while.
The revelation of the technology upgrades in Stardust Memory is very fast, given the length of the OAV (13 episodes). But even so, it never felt like there were gigantic leaps. And yet, the prototypes were indeed decisive weapons in the field (the Neue Ziel in particular had a stupendous kill count). I can’t help but find this a triumph for the show.
In the case of Macross Plus, you get a powerful sense of how wonderful it is to be flying one of these machines. In SDF Macross you had Hikaru Ichijyo who was a flight nut. He was obsessed with flying and his personality was crippled without his being able to fly. Macross Plus continues this tradition by making the show revolve entirely on the piloting aspect of its characters. It had the impetuous Isamu Dyson who visualized his flight behavior with his body. From his youth, his entire personality is about flying and when he is flying – the kind that is distinguished from fighting, you are taken for a ride into his character, connected to the joy of wind carrying him high above the clouds.
Did I playact this to myself over the last 15 years? You bet.
When they’re in their machines, nothing feels for granted. The show makes a big deal with how the mecha is controlled. Not in terms of realism, but rather thought and effort went into portraying the nature of flying the mecha. In Stardust Memory you had the pilots give feedback as to how different the performance of the prototypes are in terms of output and handling, in Macross Plus you had the YF-21 prototype run with a different primary control system: one that is directly connected to the brain.
Ironically, this system is a conceit made by the Robotech novels – when they described how the mecha were controlled using ‘thinking caps.’
In both anime, a good deal of attention and detail is devoted to the mecha themselves though never to the distraction of the main narrative. Rather, they set up the narratives: Stardust Memory had a Gundam prototype with a nuclear warhead that was the objective of the remnants of the Principality of Zeon. Macross Plus had two rival prototypes vying for the singular military contract, piloted respectively by former friends and current rivals. The resulting stories are bigger than these premises.
Given that the mecha herein are prototypes, it makes absolute sense that a large amount of effort is put in to test and ensure their performance. In mecha anime such as Zeta Gundam, Gundam 00, and Code Geass, lots and lots of new prototype or one-of-a-kind mecha are introduced almost every other episode. However, very little attention is dedicated to the development of these weapons. Macross never made a tradition of narrating prototype development (though one gets a sense of such in Macross 0) as there aren’t that many new mecha that debut in the middle of the show, but Macross 7 rolled out a lot of new models without getting into their development.
I’m not saying that the lack of attention to weapon development is a weakness of a show. It’s just that I do personally find them very interesting, and I credit both Stardust Memory and Macross Plus for showcasing the development aspects, the work behind the scenes that goes into making these beatiful and terrible war machines.
Field Trials on the moon, hot female development team, lots of pseudo-scientific technical jargon, 18-meter tall giant robot, WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
The space-outfitted GP01 is taken through its paces by Nina Purpleton and her team, and pilot Kou Uraki. I find it very interesting that when Kou did not use specific adjustments to allow for the vacuum of space, the Zephyrantes performed quite poorly, which resulted in significant combat damage. I really, really liked this touch. What does it really accomplish? It adds a layer of atmosphere, of setting. It’s as if it were a slice of the lives of these people in the context of a technological arms race. Furthermore, it gets us accustomed to Kou doing well as a pilot – such when he actually produces very good results in battle, it’s not completely far-fetched. In the case of Macross Plus where the test pilots are already servicemen of some repute, the field tests provide the necessary view for us to see how good they are.
What’s better than a Field Test? A Field Test involving TWO sexy Variable Fighters, THAT’S WHAT!
Furthermore, and for better or worse, the personal rivalry of the test pilots play out in their antics in the Field Tests. The conflict in Macross Plus is a personal one, as the whole narrative plays out in peace time. The resulting hijinks (as these conflicts would appear if the slices of their lives were played out in a school setting and not in a aeronautical test course) become a visual feast that showcases the mecha and the talent of the pilots.
Test trials are given much importance in Macross Plus given that these prototypes are competing with each other for the exclusive military contract. Macross just made an interesting military anime while in a setting that is entirely in peace time. Watching these trials is a thrill because the machines are really showcased well, and benefit from spectacular action choreography (Itano Ichiro). These trials are arguably more exciting than many other dogfights in duels in mecha anime.
Adult Characters, Love Triangles, and Regret as a Theme
While SDF Macross‘ primary characters are of high school age, the Macross Plus triangle averages at 24 years old (with all three within a year of each other in age). Still much younger than I am but at that age a person is fully capable of regret.
Stardust Memories‘ triangle (ugh) averages a little over 21 years old, but has larger gaps (Kou is 19, Nina is 21, and Anavel is 25). The older characters have lived long enough to have a history with each other, leaving Kou as the wet-behind-the-ears rookie.
What is the significance of this? The temptation is to think that these characters will be less emotional. This is a trap. Characters who are subject to external stress can get emotional. However, older characters are less prone to whine. While there is indeed less whining apparent in these shows, this is also due to the scenes that don’t linger on the tears, the brooding and anger.
While crying out or shouting, weeping or wailing are inevitable human expressions of emotions, it doesn’t mean that these are entertaining. The narrative pace of both series being short allows for the abbreviation of scenes where I expect a character to be indulged his angst-ridden emoting. But equally important is how they are given wonderful toys to work out their emotions through. I mean, I wouldn’t cry so badly if I had a Variable Fighter, or a Freaking Gundam to pilot.
Kou Uraki is not the flight-obsessed character that Isamu is, and his orientation is really towards combat as there is an ongoing conflict. Factor in his youth he is the most emotionally um, vocal among the pilots in these shows. Nonetheless, he manned up quite well – and easily is the only character that had genuine growth (as opposed to resolution) that plays out in the narrative: from s0mewhat whiny old kid to MAN OF DESTINY.
Anavel Gato, a character who is already a legend at the onset of the narrative, behaved consistently ruthless yet honorable, and entirely dedicated to his ideals. I seriously enjoyed almost every scene he’s in.
Nina Purpleton doesn’t fit the normal conventions of leading ladies in mecha anime, in terms of character design. I really think she’s played well enough, though her distress and tears escalated and more plentiful as the series progressed. In the final episode however, I almost thought she’d ruin the whole show for me.
Between the three, Anavel and Nina carry regret. Anavel Gato wished to die during the last stand of Zeon in the One Year War, he’s here because he has unfinished business with the federation. Nina’s regret has something to do with Anavel.
In Macross Plus, the anguish and tears are borne mostly by Myung Fang-Lone the successful ‘producer’ of the superstar idol Sharon Apple. I’m not going to give anything further away, only that the three leading characters (Isamu Alva Dyson, Guld Goa Bowman) all have unfinished business with each other, and it affects their work in powerful ways, perhaps Myung most of all. They were all friends from their youths, with Myung apparently favoring Isamu over Guld, who played the dedicated friend. He didn’t get in their way, until some violence that occurred that estranged all of them from each other.
Perhaps it’s also important to note that both shows, but particularly and awesomely Stardust Memory, have mature side characters. You’ll meet the likes of South Burning, Eiphar Synapse, and Cima Garahau; and all of them are badass, despite their sillly names that the Gundam franchise is so full with.
Glorious Duels and Battles
Stardust Memory has both very good and great duels, mostly between the prototypes and the rival pilots. The technology between the prototypes is quite even so no one really enjoyed an unfair advantage. The duels played out on the ground, in the air, and in space. I never felt wanting for more, and was quite satisfied. In classic Gundam fashion, the characters shout at each other a lot about ideology and perhaps philosophy during the battles – as the pilots make attacking passes at each other (Macross does this too, particularly in Macross Frontier). This isn’t as corny or distracting as it sounds. Rather, one feels that the pilots are powered by their beliefs, and they punctuate their arguments by their attacks. Good stuff.
But where Stardust Memory truly shines, is in its big set-piece battles. Operation Stardust itself, the code name of this massive undertaking of the remnants of the Zeon forces, is sheer pleasure to watch unfold. I felt that the show paced it brilliantly, and when the big weapons came into play, the dramatic effect was very good.
It also featured some really good combined arms warfare: from submarines to capital ships to asteroid bases fighting with and against mobile suits. The fleet sizes don’t amount to those in say, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but each casualty, for whatever reason I felt that it counted. It never felt that each side had inexhaustible ‘mooks‘ or ‘red shirts.’ What this makes me feel is that each mobile suit is important. Each piece of mecha and each pilot are valuable and limited resources. Gundam really does well with this. In the Macross franchise I can’t help but feel that there are way too many ‘cheap kills’, particularly in SDF-Macross and annoyingly in Macross 7.
Also, battle damage. The prototypes never feel immortal. It makes the feats accomplished through them so much more satisfying. In a heated fight, whether a duel from a skirmish or an out-and-out battle, armor and shields get punctured, mechanical limbs get lost, weapons get destroyed, ammunition needs replenishing, pilots get injured or killed, and so on. It’s quite good to note that in contemporary sequels such as Gundam 00 and Macross Frontier, these things happen as well if perhaps not at the regularity or grittiness found in Stardust Memory.
Furthermore, and perhaps my favorite aspect of the anime (mecha aside) are the sustained battles. Here we have battles that take a long time, where pilots get very exhausted. Two images come to mind: a pilot falling asleep in his cockpit in while his mobile suit was being serviced between sorties, and Kou rolling up his sleeves and injecting himself with some kind of drug which I assume keeps him in fighting form.
Fatigue is palpable. Sweat, heavy breathing, tired talk… what a rush.
Macross Plus doesn’t have grand set piece battles, but it does have the most spectacular dogfights in anime. They’re really that good. You get a taste of such during the the Test Trials, but when it got really serious the choreography, the animation quality deliver really strong stuff.
In the end, one particular capital ship is involved, and it’s really special. I purposely did not provide video clips for this section because they’ll just spoil the experience. If you can get the remastered editions of these shows, go ahead and do so.
Stardust Memory has my favorite OPs in the franchise, though its BGM is unremarkable – after two viewings I can’t recall a single melody. The 2nd OP is just so badass.
Men of Destiny
Macross Plus has no proper OP nor ED, though it enjoys a ridiculous advantage: it’s the anime OST debut of one Kanno Yoko. The very start of the first episode, as well as the closing credits of the finale, is accompained by Voices, one of the first songs in an anime that I really truly loved. The first three episodes is scored by a track that hardly any Kanno fan talks about: Torch Song/After, in the dark. The video below also includes some exciting footage from different parts of the OVA.
Contributions to the Franchise and the Meta-Narrative
I’ve spoken about the mecha being the premise in both shows, but they aren’t the core conflict. The heart of the narratives are in other things, things that are substantial to a fan of fiction in general. In Stardust Memory we have a story of nations, the side story is a very interesting origin piece that sets up the geopolitics in a larger story (Zeta Gundam). It does this very well, in my opinion. The contributions of the players may be obscured by history (as seems necessary since this is a prequel made nearly a decade after its ‘successor’), but their struggles within the narrative are quite notable.
The elements that characterize the franchise are given much focus and are presented impressively: the mecha and the technological arms race, the use of WMD (including a colony drop), large-scale and sustained fleet battles, the wear of war on those who take part in it, rival ace pilots, the evil inherent in the machinery of war organization (politics), and even ideology. One thing remarkably absent is the concept of Newtypes – part of the evolution of the human race that is quite central in the Universal Century’s list of themes. I’m not a fan of it at all, and I acknowledge this absence contributes to the enjoyment I have of Stardust Memory.
Technologically, the presence of an energy barrier particularly in the Neue Ziel presents a problem in the continuity. While records of the Gundam prototypes did disappear, those of the Neue Ziel have no reason to. The problem here is that these prototypes have the I-field – an energy barrier effective against beam weapons. This technology is wholly absent in Zeta Gundam, the next show in the continuity. There is no reason for the manufacturers of the Neue Ziel to not have the capacity to produce this technology for the contemporary mobile suits circa Zeta Gundam.
Stardust Memory takes most of the elements of the Gundam franchise and showcases them in a very impressive way. This is why I think this show is important, despite it not necessarily being the pinnacle of the Gundam metaverse.
Macross Plus’ core conflict is that of people. It’s a more character driven work. The initial premise that parallels the human rivalry with that of the prototype mecha is made moot by the emergeance of a third prototype, an unmanned fighter – the Ghost X-9. The external conflict then becomes a human vs. machine one. The rivalry, once resolved (quite triumphantly) frees the characters to fight agains the artificial intellegence antagonist (It is said that Shoji Kawamori is an admirer of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Oddysey and the names Bowman and Dyson are some of the shoutouts to that film).
Like Stardust Memory, Macross Plus showcases many of the distinguishing features of the Macross franchise: the love triangle, idol singers, ace pilots, dogfights (as opposed to Gundam’s duels), battles scored and edited to seem like music videos, and of course the transformable mecha. There are a number of things that this show did differently. In this instance, music wasn’t a positive force. It was very much a part of the problem. Also, there was no alien race or culture to tame, it really was more an exposition on how the great space war resulted in the initiation of galactic colonization.
It’s contributions to the greater narrative however, are minimal. This is the case of the sequels in Macross anyway. Unlike Gundam, which creates ‘new’ stories that are situated within a larger narrative that has already been resolved for all intents and purposes (the Universal Century), Macross comes up with deliberate sequels – expansions of the narrative, for better or worse. The constraints of the Universal Century narrative rein in the elements which provides specific boundaries to fantasy and results in very consistent shows. Except for the prequel Macross 0, all of Macross is new, which results in very alien elements (wherein the only consistent thing is that the aliens are alien, and are affected by music in some way). I personally think Macross side stories will be interesting though, but I sense an aversion from the creators to re-visit past material beyond re-telling it through new characters, and through homage.
Can one have a fulfilling experience of the Macross franchise without watching Macross Plus? Yes. Despite the linear narrative, Macross Plus contributes very little to the overall thread, as do most of the sequels. It’s contributions internally and externally are technological: A. I., mecha (internally), achievements in animation and specifically CG (externally).
Nonetheless, I do think both shows can stand on their own merits. The production values are very high, and the narrativs move along at a brisk pace, aided by the conciseness of both series (13 episodes for Stardust Memory, 4 episodes for Macross Plus). But if you like mecha anime, and like real robots these two OVAs are a real treat, they really let the machines shine very very bright.
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