I sometimes hear this opinion that Macross Frontier lacks a certain grimness and/or darkness for a show wherein the setting involves to a significant degree a war (with aliens). I think the opinion is valid and correct; however, two things:
- This lack of grimness and/or darkness isn’t a weakness of the show (The show isn’t being Zeta Gundam people).
- Instead of grimness and/or darkness, there are factors in war/wartime that are explored here that most other shows don’t.
Macross Frontier speculates on the consequences of conflict on space colony ecosystems, as opposed to the more common human drama that can be found in shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. Ecological damage (and restoration) is very much a part of the Macross franchise; arguably since SDFM, reaching full thematic treatment in Macross Dynamite 7, and Macross Zero. Frontier explores a, well, new frontier.
Space colonies in mecha anime is best represented by Gundam (possibly the originator of its use in the genre). Macross continues its remembering love for the show that inspired its creation. I’ll spend some time here talking about space colonies, wonderfully researched by Dafydd Neal Dyar over a decade ago.
In addition to being the penultimate year of the 20th Century and the 2nd Millennium, 1999 marked an historic dual anniversary. April 7th of that year marked the 20th anniversary of the popular Japanese anime series, 「機動 戦士 ガンダム」 (Mobile Suit Gundam).
It was also the 25th anniversary of the publication of “The Colonization of Space” in the September 1974 issue of Physics Today, outlining the concept that evolved into The High Frontier: Human Colonies In Space (1977, Morrow Press/Bantam, ISBN 0-553-11016-0; reprinted 1989, SSI Press, ISBN 0-9622379-0-6; updated 2000, Apogee Books, ISBN 1-896522-67-X) by Princeton University professor Gerard K. O’Neill (1927–1992), one of the principal sources on which the Gundam saga is based.
I wish I could’ve done this post last year during Gundam’s 30th anniversary, but then Gundam Unicorn is late for the anniversary too, so I don’t feel so bad. Instead I’m glad that I can do this on a post on Macross. It’s a rather special way of remembering love.
O’Neill presented three designs, which he characterized as evolutionary stages: Island One, Island Two and Island Three.
Island One was a 500-meter Bernal sphere capable of supporting 10,000 people.
Island Two was a 1.8-kilometer Bernal sphere or, alternatively, a domed cylinder 1.8 kilometers in diameter and nine kilometers long for a population of 140,000 (sphere) to 820,000 (cylinder).
Island Three was the classic “sunflower” design (now commonly known as the “O’Neill Cylinder”) that would accommodate tens of millions of people in a picturesque near-Terrestrial environment.
It’s not lost on me that Macross Frontier used a numerical naming system for its colony fleet organization. While O’Neill’s meaning of ‘Island Three’ isn’t the same as Frontier’s, who merely uses the number as part of a series in the fleet. Gundam uses the ‘Island Three’ in the spirit of O’Neill’s work, with a single island composing a complete colony.
The colony in Macross Frontier is a fleet of islands, with the main (Island One) being the primary human habitat as the others provide support services in terms of food, industry, and ecological maintenance.
Fighting within the colony is almost certainly threatening for the entire population. Throughout Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, Mobile Suit Z Gundam, and at the beginning of Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam there is a taboo-like obsession about not fighting inside colonies. But, being Gundam, nobody follows laws, rules, and regulations. Colony walls are always getting punctured by beam rifle blasts, though never have they been truly threatened unless in specific missions with the objective of using the colonies themselves as weapons: a colony drop in Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (coincidentally, Mikimoto Haruhiko was staff in War in the Pocket, and Kawamori Shoji was staff in Stardust Memory).
So how does Macross Frontier push the envelope of the space colony dynamic in popular mecha anime? Let’s look back at how the setting was built so far. First we revisit Capt. Jeffrey Wilder’s eulogy for SMS pilot Henry Gilliam in episode 03:
He was a brave soldier. A man who feared nothing, never hesitated, and fought with all his might, sacrificing his life for what was precious to him.
But this is not the end. One day, his mortal shell will become our own flesh and blood, fueling our burning lives.
So for now, rest in peace. Farewell. Let us meet again.
Gilliam’s body was thrown in a solution that breaks it down in its basest biomass to re-enter the colony ecosystem in an optimal fashion. On one level, it seems morbid to consider that Gilliam’s parts become consumed by the colony’s inhabitants one way or another, but this isn’t really different from a fully functional ecology. Our bodies die and become nutrients for the many plants and animals that eventually find their way on our dinner table.
The only difference in Macross Frontier is that the process is engineered. We learn more in episode 05 as Sheryl and Alto visit the different islands — including the agriculture and livestock sector where Zentraedi are very much part of the process; then in episode 09, where the government considers the impact of the Vajra attacks on the water supply; and furthermore in episode 10, where illegal introduction of species (a ‘hydra’ from planet Eden, an advanced predator) risks upsetting the biodiversity balance.
In episode 15, things are looking grim. Leon Mishima delivers his report on the effects of the most recent and largest encounter with the Vajra. In the previous episode, a full scale battle ensued between the Frontier Fleet and a Vajra armada. A barrage of Macross Class weapons were fired on the colony itself, resulting in significant damage. Leon Mishima gives President Howard Glass his report:
Island 15 will be frozen as it is.
Island 14 will be discarded after extracting any recoverable resources.
80 billion cubic meters of air, lost.
15,000 tons of organic material, lost.
20,000 tons of water, lost.
Over 50 areas have been contaminated, and are either pending chemical treatment or cleansing with filtration plants.
However, due to limits in processing capacity–
At this point Howard Glass cuts him off, obviously overwhelmed, and preoccupied by the Vajra threat that now seems to have surrounded the colony fleet. He lets out a nice cloud of smoke from his fat cigar, at which Leon comments,
I find the sanctity of your presidency in question when you engage in pollution yourself.
And this, is the sinister equivalent of SDF Macross‘ “There’s no smoking on the bridge” recurring half-gag. Capt. Bruno Global would try to smoke his pipe but good old Shammy would set him straight. Before I indulge myself in any further ‘remembering love’ I want to wrap up the case for the ‘faces of war as environmental impact’ idea I’m proposing here.
The world-building leading up to this episode is rewarded by the stark news. We can tell that the environmental consequence of the battle is serious business due to the hints of the complexity and balance of the colony’s biological systems. While it isn’t as in-your-face as watching war orphans act out like in the different Gundam shows, and in Eureka SeveN, it’s certainly an interesting way to communicate how war sucks.
Grave of the Fireflies it isn’t, but not being such isn’t part of the show’s problems. What prevents people from paying too much attention on these touches, is that the show does provide powerful distractions. I mean, almost everyone remembers this show only for three things (if they’re lucky):
- Grace and Macross Galaxy’s villainy and conspiracy
- That it’s a recap episode (with a twist)
- The sing-off
Well, what’s not to love about the sing-off? It’s one of my most favoritest things ever! It also obscures the plot progressions involving Ranka’s ‘conscription’ by Leon Mishima (a pawn of Galaxy’s ‘Operation Carnival’), and Alto’s ‘conscription’ by Richard Bilrer (the mysterious owner of the SMS).
All in all I feel that it’s a superb combination of recap, plot progression, world-building, and showing something truly for the viewers (and fags, and shippers).
Tracing Tomino’s inspiration for Gundam’s setting and backdrop. Mobile Suit Gundam: High Frontier is ultimate Universal Century awesomeness.
Video of the sing-off, and this episode as one of the recap episodes well worth watching (bonus: Nadesico!) [->]
Pontifus remembered love for the sing-off and other wonderful things Macross (Pontifus 2009/12/25)
Space colony photo is from the Gundam Expo in 2008, covered here in japanification.
How Gundam does ‘War Sucks,’ a very good read (IKnight 2009/03/20)