Macross Zero is a Peculiar Prequel

macross-0-04-sara-shin-waterfall-03

[This posts does not use spoiler tags, but provides sufficient warning]

I don’t believe it tells the story of how everything begins. If anything, it introduced or complicated the mysteries of the extended narrative; in particular that of the Protoculture, the mysterious ‘first race’ of beings that spawned galactic civilization. I used to recommend this show as a starting point of the franchise, given its place in the narrative chronology. After my rewatch (my first since I saw it 5 years ago), I’d actually recommend this show to people who have seen most if not all the other shows in the franchise. In any case, this is a beautiful anime.

One thing that the show provided interesting and entertaining background history on, is the development of the Variable Fighter. The VF-0 ‘Phoenix’ is a big star in this OVA. The show goes into the portrayal of the precursors of the signature mecha of the series, a nuanced presentation noting not only performance challenges eventually overcome (in the other shows), but also an appreciation of the design philosophy via analogs with biology.

macross-0-03-vf-0-aircraft-carrier-elevator

Macross Zero had the task of not only providing additional history to the overall narrative, it also had to provide fans of the franchise the tropes and elements as a ‘reward’ for waiting that long; it had been around four years (2002) since the release of the last installment in the franchise: Macross: Dynamite 7 (1997 OVA sequel to Macross 7 TV). Furthermore, fans like me were clamoring for anything about the characters of the original series. This meant the show features:

  • Backstory involving a charismatic secondary character (Roy Focker, and despite the tropical setting there are ZERO pineapples [->]).
  • Backstory involving the signature transformable mecha. This is gold. I’d watch the show for this alone. I’m a real sucker for mecha development stories.
  • Amazing dogfights; the stuff shown here are the best CG dogfights I’ve ever seen. Overall it rivals those in Macross Plus.
  • A love triangle (not that big a deal here, but charming in its own way).
  • Songs and music (there are no idol singers, which is interesting in its own way — making Zero unique in the franchise).

And Macross Zero is unique. In Dynamite we are introduced to a concern for ecology, and nature scenes begin to feature in the narrative. There have been snippets of it in Plus and perhaps 7, but in Dynamite it begins to be a big deal; in Frontier it’s quite woven through the themes. Macross Zero is unique not only because it underscores the concern for ecology, but for it’s efforts to produce moments with it.

Having seen this again and found an overwhelming appreciation for it, I look forward to the upcoming Macross Frontier movie. The Macross Franchise has historically scored high points for me quality wise in its non-TV works:

  • Macross: Do You Remember Love (Movie): This is probably how Frontier will be made. The significant improvement in terms of animation quality and character design will be very much welcome, resolution of the love triangle too.
  • Macross Plus (OVA and Movie Edition) A very mature show relative to the whole franchise, I find its tone to be a very welcome variation on the Macross tropes.
  • Macross: Dynamite 7 (OVA): A vast improvement in terms of production values compared to Macross 7 (TV), as well as an interesting direction in terms of theme (ecology and nature).
  • Macross Zero (OVA): I now think that this show is at least as mature in terms of tone as Macross Plus, despite having characters who are younger than Plus’ main cast.

I note two important changes when Macross chooses to leave the TV show format: a jump in production quality, and a shift towards a more mature tone. I approve of these highly and I do wish that the Frontier movie will benefit from both.

It may be just my subjective experience, but I do feel that Zero is a perfect bookend for the franchise. Or at least, it’s best watched before Macross Frontier which heavily referenced it and will spoil it for the viewer. Here I felt a tremendous effort to make a show that is beautiful, and in my book the effort is rewarded.

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[Spoiler Section]

In a discussion on how difficult long-standing franchises are to boil down in a single thought or theme (The Animanachronism, 2009/03/20) I made an observation in how the Macross franchise approaches music, one of  it’s distinguishing features.

In Macross, music is weaponized as much as the mecha:

-Redemptive in SDF Macross, and Macross 7
-Not so much in Macross Plus, and Macross Frontier

Basara plays along and submits to the weaponization of his music in the defense against the Protodevlin, but part of the wild rush in watching Macross 7 is how he attempts to subvert the whole exercise aligned to his pacifism/purity for music (whatever it is that runs that nutbag).

In light of all that, I can still safely assume that Macross says that ‘Music is Love!’ as much as one can assume that Gundam says ‘War Sucks!’

The Animanachronism then responds with,

Would you say that in Macross Zero music’s opposed to the technological weaponry thrown around by both sides? I’m thinking this partly because it’s tied into the whole tribal/organic/environmental stuff that’s going on, and partly because specifically at the end of the final episode when the hero’s plane has given out, music has to step in.

While I had intended to rewatch Macross Zero, his question gave me a little more incentive to do so sooner. In response, I think that the music in Macross Zero is not necessarily opposed to the technological weaponry, though its singer most likely is. However it is quite interesting in that the music here is the ‘purest’ in the sense that it was never weaponized, nor had any destructive or disruptive consequences. It was completely redemptive and regenerative (literally causing plants and flowers to grow).

That said, there also exists a song of destruction — which one never hears in the narrative as musical notes arranged in a particular form. Rather the ‘song’ takes on the form of an organic, yet mechanical being that directly causes destruction through a variety of weapons [Images (1) (2) (3)]. I find it interesting how the destruction isn’t arranged as a song, despite being named or at least categorized as ‘song of destruction.’ It tells me of an apparent inability of the franchise to present music in any way that isn’t pleasant to listen to (as far as intention is concerned). [End Spoilers]

Other Readings

Macross Plus and Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory are excellent examples of shows that feature mecha prototype development. [->]

While Macross Zero is technically a prequel, I now feel like I should revise my favorites in the Macross franchise. [->]

Here is a collection of the best resources on Macross in the blogosphere and beyond. [->]

This show is a sterling example of the ‘Itano Circus.’ [->]

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
This entry was posted in analysis, fanboy, Macross and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Macross Zero is a Peculiar Prequel

  1. gloval says:

    I think you may want to review that post of mechafetish where we have a debate on a tangential topic at the comment section. That tangential topic is the question of “weaponization” of music and its relation to the mecha. In summary, I’ve said that in Macross, mecha is the antithesis to the theme of “music is culture, culture is love, music is love,” that is, one faces awesome destruction via mecha when one rejects music/culture/love or one uses them to destroy or to deceive.

    Anyway, on Macross Zero, I agree with all of your observations. What turned off most was the supposedly heavy-handed environmental theme in it. The environment is one of my interests, so I’m fine with it, but was it that heavy-handed? Another common complaint was how the story somewhat went downhill as it entered into its conclusion. This, I think, must have been affected by production issues. Recently there’s some producers’ notes from Frontier that says Zero ended that way because they wanted to continue with it on future productions. I would hope though that it doesn’t end with Frontier, because what we got there was merely what happened to Mao, and where the Birdman designs came from.

    • ghostlightning says:

      in Macross, mecha is the antithesis to the theme of “music is culture, culture is love, music is love,” that is, one faces awesome destruction via mecha when one rejects music/culture/love or one uses them to destroy or to deceive.

      Macross 7 takes this on directly. Basara goes along with Dr. Chiba’s weaponization efforts sponsored by U. N. Spacy, but he’s really just out there to sing to the Protodevlin. So yes and no.

      In my second viewing I realize that I don’t really have a problem with how it ended. How was I prepared for this?

      In terms of continuity:

      Nobody talked about Shin Kudou until Macross Frontier, which means that no one involved in the Mayan island incident wanted to talk about it, the potential controversies, the unbelievable miraculous events, et cetera. This resulted in it becoming a ‘legend’ by the time people did start to talk about it.

      On the meta-level:

      I had just seen Dynamite 7, so I was prepared for the ecological theme. I speculate that many of the detractors of Zero didn’t like Macross 7 and never bothered with Dynamite. It wasn’t as heavy handed as let’s say, Studio Ghibli’s Mononoke Hime and Nausicaa.

      • gloval says:

        Also not as heavy-handed as Earth Girl Arjuna that was shown in Zero, one of those rare times that other animes get referenced in Macross, much less appear in it. (Another of those references is Alto’s surname, they really were thinking of Ranma when they used Saotome.)

        I read your comment below, are you sure there’s nothing remarkable about Sarah’s backstory in episode 3 and how it played out at the end of the episode in her interaction with Shin? Also how Mao contrasts with her sister provides good dynamics.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Another of those references is Alto’s surname, they really were thinking of Ranma when they used Saotome.

          Sauce please. This is very interesting.

          By saying it’s not remarkable I wasn’t implying that it’s uninteresting or mediocre. Rather, there’s nothing that stands out to me: The rape of innocence — she gave away her blood when she was tricked and yet she carried all the guilt for it blaming herself.

          Sara and Mao are supposed to be different. It’s the trap of characterization. If they were the same they’d be redundant and would form very weak points in the triangle. There’s nothing particularly remarkable in how they’re different. The younger Mao sticks true to the somewhat stereotyped behavior that the younger generation (even if they’re in the same generation) would be less in touch with tradition and are easily seduced by technology|modernity.

          But rest assured I love them both. Definitely more than when I first saw the OVA.

  2. Martin says:

    I actually found the eco-fable and mystical rather than sci-fi themes to be a refreshing change – it seemed appropriate that the ‘Zero’ designation, implying a reset or root point, takes things back to a more natural and primeval setting. I believe Kawamori is a tree-hugging hippie at heart, and in that sense Zero does very well indeed.

    I found the characterisation to be a bit lacking, which was disappointing. I guess I’ve been spoilt by Macross in the past or, rather, it’s set itself such high standards over the years that a perfectly respectable love triangle such as this comes across as uninspired.

    Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to switch your brain off and enjoy the CG mecha battles in a tropical paradise setting; like you, I love the variable fighter idea and the ‘evolution’ of the concept that ties into the evolution of the more over-arcing themes.

    Despite its flaws I still enjoyed it though. I watched it as one of my first fansubbed experiences, then re-watched it towards the end of my Frontier viewing. When it’s out on DVD, I’ll no doubt watch it again. Even more so if it comes out on Blu-ray and I’ve upgraded to HD. We can hope.

    • ghostlightning says:

      The first time I saw it, I found the characterization a bit lacking as well. I won’t say that I found the characters triumphant now, but given my total view of the franchise I’ve found a number of things interesting:

      1. Roy Focker — he still served a secondary role, which is on a level disappointing. However his behavior is consistent with his turn in SDF Macross where he is one of the most beloved characters, if not the most. The memory of the Focker of 1983 fleshes out his character. Someone who’d meet him for the first time would be left perhaps with a less satisfying experience.

      2. Shin Kudou — I think they did a great job with giving us a talented pilot (his potential was obvious) that didn’t get cheap kills when faced with real competition. This is light years of improvement from SDF Macross. After all, Shin wasn’t able to spend that much time on the VF-0 so there is no way he should be winning dogfights as if he wasn’t a n00b. And yet, we were given flashes of his talent. I found this very, very satisfying and I’m glad they used some of this dynamic in Frontier’s Alto Saotome (whose character I find to be deceptively nuanced).

      That said, Shin’s growth from ‘I don’t trust anyone but myself,’ to becoming a person who accepts and needs others is rather crude and telegraphed from oceans away.

      There are far too many characters to flesh out in 5 episodes, so I accept that the villains will remain ‘villain devices’ more than characters with narratives; and that there’s nothing truly remarkable about the Nome sisters though they serve their roles just fine.

      I watched it as one of my first fansubbed experiences, then re-watched it towards the end of my Frontier viewing. When it’s out on DVD, I’ll no doubt watch it again. Even more so if it comes out on Blu-ray and I’ve upgraded to HD. We can hope.

      Ahh, an HD version will be absolutely gorgeous. I’m hoping with you.

  3. vendredi says:

    As you noted, the non-TV Macross productions have a great deal of appeal and work well as recommendations to people who have not seen Macross before. Zero is probably tied with Plus as my favourite Macross series; however, I felt that Zero was not so much about ecology of nature per se, but rather the ecology of culture. Whereas other Macross series dealt with the sharing and creation of new, mixed cultures, I saw Macross Zero as more about the preservation of culture.

    I think that is the theme that most gripped me while watching the show: there is a palpable sense that in light of the new opportunities and amenities available in the big cities, the island inhabitants are losing their culture, their past, and consequently the collected knowledge, wisdom, and history that protected the inhabitants from unleashing powers beyond their control. This poignantly comes through in the scene where Sara, upon discovering Shin has repaired the generator that provides electricity to the island, accuses him of “stealing the stars”, as well as the methodology of the UN scientists in administering the blood tests. The show really shines in showing that tension inherent in interactions with what we consider “primitive” regions of the world, i think – tensions that Japan is not alien to either, given that the Japanese also have had to deal with aboriginal Ainu peoples as well.

    • ghostlightning says:

      This seems obvious to me, but I’m quite surprised at myself that it never occured to me to read Macross Zero this way. You make a lot of sense, sir.

      I had read it as a shallow technology vs. ecology conflict, but I may have been remiss to do so — having removed the cultural dynamic that is either the overarching factor, or may at least be the fuel to the conflict.

      “Stealing the Stars” is quite a powerful utterance, and is quite poignant come to think of it.

      But this raises a few questions. If technology is very much a culture in itself, what can we make of the Zentraedi, who is really not without culture — as some simplistic readings of them suggest. They have a cult of technology that is almost entirely about operation, but not innovation, creation, or even maintenance. In a sense, they are every bit as mystic, and ‘backward’ as the Mayans, but without songs and sexuality.

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  7. jsjsjs says:

    macross zero was very enlightening for me, it emphasized on the importance of ecology, i learnt 1 thing from this, “human’s negative feelings are the real songs of destruction” , it makes sense, if songs are a part of our culture, putting negative feelings into it results in destruction, i’m sure nobody likes destruction, well, a song of destruction might be “played” soon, if the problem with north korea continues to go worse any further, a new song of destruction will be played, and i wouldn’t be surprised if suddenly the Bird Man appeared out of nowhere and destroyed everything.

    • A figurative Bird Man? Uhh, ok. I’m not sure if I follow what you’re saying but the show does seem to lay it thick with its ecological message given the reactions of many viewers. I personally didn’t mind it.

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