The Stolen Sky of Alto Saotome: Macross Frontier 13 (Memory of Global)

The core motivation of Alto, from the very beginning of the narrative, is to fly in a big sky. Growing up in the Frontier Colony all his life, he’s never seen a sky higher than two kilometers. This is so important to him, that he is perfectly willing to become a soldier (risking his own life, prepared to take others’ away) just for the opportunity to fly.

Sheryl made it happen for him, by requesting him to escort her to her would-be concert at Gallia IV. Sheryl did not enjoy the fruits of her labor, because:

  • The Zentraedi malcontents staged a coup.
  • Her health failed her.
  • Ranka rescued everyone and saved the day by performing her own impromptu concert.
  • Ranka ended up going on a date with Alto in the skies of Gallia IV.

It’s starting to really suck being Sheryl. But here we talk about Alto and his sky, and how Macross distinguishes between dogfights and battles in space and those within an atmosphere. It’s pretty cool.

The Macross franchise is celebrated for its well-animated dogfights; featuring arguably the best of its kind among mainstream shows. Here’s a quick list of my favorites:

  1. Macross Plus
  2. Macross Zero
  3. Macross Frontier

I actually rank them here; Macross Frontier is quite notable that it is a TV production (to distinguish budget and timetable production considerations). I rank Plus not only for my own nostalgia (for both the show itself, and for the hand-drawn style that it played a hand in ushering out) but also for the playfulness in the actual flying, particularly that of Isamu Alva Dyson’s.

Zero, on the other hand, has the fastest pace and the most thrilling aerial scenes done in very high quality. The commonality in these three, or at least what I like most about the dogfights in these three examples, are the best dogfights occur within an atmosphere. There’s something awesome about gravity, air resistance, and contrails.

The fact that the variable fighters are primarily based on late 20th century jet fighters make atmospheric dogfights  provide ample versimilitude. I end up having a more powerful experience because it seems more real. After all, the jet fighter design is rather ridiculous for space travel and warfare (no matter how cool Star Wars is).

Star Wars wrecked the popular perception of how space fighters would move in space for a long time. The basic problem is, they move like airplanes.

There are two things about an airplane’s motion that the Star Wars fighters do, even though they shouldn’t have to. First, an airplane is always moving in the direction it is pointing. if you know Newton’s laws, you will ask, “moving relative to what?” Well, relative to the air that it’s moving through, of course! If they didn’t, they’d fall out of the sky, for they are aerodynamically designed to fly by pushing up off of the air. But there’s no air in space; the density of gas even in high earth orbit is lower than the density of gas in the hardest vacuum we can create in the lab on Earth. […]

The second thing Star Wars routinely gets wrong is that fighters in space do not have to bank. When an airplane turns, it banks.

In space, there is no air to bank off of! Once again, things work differently. First of all, these space fighters are all (approximately) in freefall. They’re either in deep space, or they’re in orbit about a planet, so there is (effectively) no gravity to fight. Second, without air, they can’t bank off of it. Want to go in a different direction? Point your engines in the direction such that the acceleration applied to your current velocity vector (relative to whatever you’re measuring your velocity relative to) will give you a velocity in the direction you want.

Rob Knop

In Macross Frontier the space dogfight dynamics aren’t as crude as Star Wars. There is noticeably far less drag, and the fighters often rely on booster positioning to maneuver, especially in non-aircraft mode. However, valkyries still fly and bank as if they had air resistance to work with, despite the apparent lack of drag.

I spoke too soon. Episode 14 showed me this:

When Macross takes a fight within the atmosphere, drag and specifically gravity is highlighted if not exaggerated (at least as much as the exceptional banking done by Alto in the succeeding ep). One can tell the difference comparing the dogfight between Brera and Alto in episode 13 as opposed to say, Alto and Klan Klan’s mock dogfight in episode 05. At least, to me it seems there is a marked difference.

It’s almost a shame that there’s precious few fights in the atmosphere in Macross Frontier, but if you can appreciate this, then you can get into the head of our lead character Alto Saotome. Alto’s fundamental desire is that of a sky, not space, a sky. He is very different from say, Hachimaki from Planetes, who primarily values space travel.

It’s an interesting desire. For it to be realized he needs gravity. Flying in the air requires a gravitational force to not precisely escape, but to ‘borrow’ some freedom from. It’s almost how vacation leaves can only be appreciated by the employed. I cannot appreciate ‘free time’ back when I was in between jobs; at least not at the level I appreciate it now when I’m loaded with work.

The events in this episode, on top of the main narrative progression, depict how Brera, the Vajra and Grace O’Connor rob Alto of his sky.  The Vajra, by abducting Ranka; Brera for getting in the way of Alto’s rescue attempt — making Alto’s flying a battle; and Grace for literally destroying the sky and the planet itself by issuing the Dimension Eater.

While it’s easy to say that Ranka is the one who lost out, or is the most at risk; being abducted and all, the personal and character-centric losses by Alto and Sheryl are the most profound in my mind.

Further Reading

Newton’s Laws in Science Fiction and Movies (Ryan Knop 2007/07/02)
Common misconceptions in science fiction c/o Atomic Rockets.
Macross Zero retroblogged at T.H.A.T. (Executive Otaku 2010)
Macross (space) warfare: an introduction [->]

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.
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15 Responses to The Stolen Sky of Alto Saotome: Macross Frontier 13 (Memory of Global)

  1. Ryan A says:

    Yea, I don’t think Ranka lost out. Sheryl for sure, and Alto yea. Now if we switched it around to where Ranka was supposed to be gifting skies with Alto, but managed to get abducted before it could happen, and then Sheryl and Alto end up flying the skies (interrupted or not), then Ranka loses out big.

    • Hmmm, not sure about the math of your switcheroo. The thing I haven’t factored here is the trend developing — Sheryl’s health and stature will decline, Ranka’s will ascend. The ‘usurping’ of the elaborate date Sheryl planned, plus Alto’s sought-after joyride, are my primary ‘victims’ of the changing circumstances.

  2. Crusader says:

    Well to be fair Macross Plus took place primarily on Eden and Macross Zero took place on Earth there wasn’t the inclination to go into space, where as the setting of Frontier is space and planets are the exotic vistas. While a dogfight in the atmosphere is nice, in space you get capital ships and the scope increases dramatically. I cannot deny the allure of space for that is the only place Macross Quarter and Battle Frontier can really show their stuff.

    I agree that Alto-hime and Sheryl were undergoing a bit more on the personal challenges front. Ranka being a damsel in distress lost the sense of danger after a while, and it got irritatingly old later on. At least Ranka scored a date off of the whole ordeal (she was struggling since the beginning to get one, but the pay off was not due to her own hard work per se) and did get rescued just like she always wanted in the end, only it wasn’t always Alto-hime in armored pack. Having found an acceptable substitute Knight in Shiny Valkyrie her discretion fell apart at the seams.

    • The real dogfights in Macross Plus took place on Earth. I was thinking mostly of dogfights per se, and not the fleet battles. The fleet battles are another thing altogether and is a very enjoyable element of the TV series in the franchise.

      I’m very critical of Ranka, but not to the extent that you read indiscretions in what seems (at least to me, for now) as errors in judgment and lack of maturity.

  3. 2DT says:

    This is a detail I totally did not catch at the time. So you’re saying they use real aerial tactics in the atmosphere for Frontier, whereas in space they have no such limitations?

    That’s… well, thinking about it, it’s not so surprising. Frontier is in all ways a labor of love.

    • I can’t really comment on the tactics, as I’m not that familiar with combat flight simulators. What I mean is the physics of atmospheric combat feels ‘right’ in Macross, but like Star Wars, they indulge themselves by portraying space combat too similarly with atmospheric combat.

      Looking at the banking done by the VF-25f in the image above — this is simply impossible in space, where there is no air resistance whatsoever. The only way to turn is to use thrusters.

      Frontier has done this too, even if only to demonstrate token attention to homework/detail; but the preferred spectacle is long banks, swoops, etc. as a plane would through the sky.

      Now pay attention to Brera’s VF-27 Lucifer, the jagged movements it does — which I assume is the product of thruster-assisted ‘lateral’ movement (as are the various unmanned ‘Ghost’ fighters); this would actually be more accurate physical movement in a vacuum I think.

      So Frontier does portray physically ‘realistic’ space combat, but cheats wholeheartedly in the name of entertainment. I don’t exactly mind, but I thought it’d be worth paying attention to.

  4. The way most science fiction fighter craft operate certainly can be annoying at times, even if those thoughts are pushed aside in favor of just taking in the experience and having fun watching it. One of the reasons why I loved the Starfury and Thunderbolt fighters in Babylon 5 was the way that they primarily relied on thrusters and use of momentum in their dogfights. Atmosphere has allowed some of the most memorable combat scenes in Macross as you say, it just allows one more variable to work with, like in the double Cobra from Zero.

    Space could have it’s own interesting additions to fighter combat, but I think people are more used to the kinds of dramatic maneuvers done in an atmosphere, it’s easier to imagine it happening that way so science fiction reflects that. Some of the most dramatic space dogfight moments in Macross could have happened using a different, more accurate kind of movement (thrusters instead of banking, etc) but the atmospheric movement paradigm seems to dominate even when it is toned down. Plus it gives purpose to the kind of fighter design that Macross uses beyond ‘well they built them for atmosphere and space so that’s why they look like airplanes.’ At least, that’s how it seems to me.

    BTW, you should keep announcing your new posts on Twitter, I didn’t see this one and the most recent until now since I’m a Neanderthal who doesn’t use a feed reader, heh.

    • All very correct.

      Fighter planes are wicked cool so I don’t blame Macross for designing the mecha around the fighter jet paradigm. If you notice the Nightmare VFs (Diamond Force) have the stealth fighter shape, hold your lulz (well, nah go laugh your ass off) — the stealth fighter design captured the imagination of the 90s.

      But indeed, Kawamori went back to the more traditional fighter plane design because he knew that there was no such thing as passive stealth in space.

      I am sometimes unable to get to twitter (or at least to a url shortening service) while I’m afk so I’m not able to announce posts. But after your request, I won’t care if the announcement is very late. I’ll be happy to tweet the posts when they come out. Thanks very much.

  5. vendredi says:

    Great analysis – and I think you highlight very well why the dogfights in Plus and Zero stand out all the more. Most of the great fighter combat stories I can think of also all take place in an atmosphere (the Ace Combat series, Sky Crawlers, Yukikaze, Area 88, Top Gun, and so forth…) I think it’s also what makes air combat shows so very rare – unlike space battles, where a bit of handwavium is expected and often appreciated, atmospheric air-to-air battles have a much tighter requirement for versimilitude and often require thinking of interactions and mechanics that audiences usually don’t catch or appreciate (such as the mechanics of banking or how gravity plays into a dive).

    Also, an interesting point on the contrast between Hachimaki (Planetes) and Alto; I wouldn’t say that space travel, per se, is the focal point of Hachimaki’s drive – it’s more the sense of going farther and faster and higher – space travel is just the end result of that. His character is all about breaking boundaries, whereas I think you highlight very well that Alto is very much about establishing boundaries and finding his own limits.

    • I think it’s also what makes air combat shows so very rare – unlike space battles, where a bit of handwavium is expected and often appreciated, atmospheric air-to-air battles have a much tighter requirement for versimilitude and often require thinking of interactions and mechanics that audiences usually don’t catch or appreciate (such as the mechanics of banking or how gravity plays into a dive).

      Yes. Nailed it.

      My contrast is rather superficial, because I haven’t finished Planetes yet. I just watched Fee Carmichael’s spectacular acts of heroism for cigarettes (I can relate very much), and while I think Hachimaki’s character is already quite rich, I didn’t want to sum him up too soon. I thought his desire was more a premise than a conclusion to his character. In any case, I look forward to him fleshing out as the series continues.

  6. gloval says:

    This episode is one of my favorite in Frontier mainly because significant developments in the characters and the plot. I felt that in this episode, Frontier finally starts to differentiate from the other Macross shows especially when it revealed the conspiracy. Too bad, as shown in later episodes, the conspiracy is not really the focus of this series.

    That ep 14 screenshot of atmospheric trail in space is real lulzy. It made the obvious recycling of ep 1 footage even more obvious.

    • Good point re the differentiation among other shows… until we see how different they all are:

      SDFM = space aliens attack earth
      + = AI breaks up a love triangle
      7 = space vampires attack expeditionary colonies
      0 = protoculture on earth
      Frontier = space bugs attack expeditionary colonies (with a twist)

      Actually Frontier is the least different, since it shares the basic story of 7, from a antagonist point of view.

  7. Product9 says:

    Wow, intriguing review. It’s nice to see someone who appreciates the depth that Frontier has, despite the naysayers.

  8. Pingback: Management Meeting - with Giant Robots | The Blog of Living Curiously

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