Sound Force: The Tactical Use of Music in Battle (Macross Frontier 16: “Ranka Attack”

Music is not a foreign concept in war. Music is a cultural expression, and war is also part of a people’s culture. Songs and poetry often depicted great battles and the acts of heroes. It is easy to imagine that the performance of these pieces have a positive effect on an audience that most likely composing at least in part, the fighting force of that people.

Martial music (from Mars — the Roman god of war), is often played during marches, parades, and reviews. It celebrates the strength of the fighting force, which in turn emboldens it, fills it with pride, and other positive mental effects. In game terms, these ‘buff’ the fighters so that they’d fight better. In naval mythology however, sirens sing songs that drive mariners mad. In The Odyssey, the protagonist Odysseus had his sailors plug their ears so that the sirens won’t get to them.

Odysseus himself wanted to hear the call, so he had himself fastened to the mast so that he wouldn’t harm himself or others. The poet Homer didn’t (as far as I know) have a martial application of the siren’s call. But Rhodius in his Argonautica tells of Orpheus beating the sirens in a musical battle, ensuring the Argo’s safe passage.

In literature, my favorite example is from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth books; Finrod Felagund battling Sauron (yes, THAT GUY) in a battle of ‘songs of power.’ Luthien put Morgoth himself down with a song, so Beren could wrest a Silmaril from his iron crown.

These are awesome examples, but they don’t seem to be military engagements. Theoretically, a bard character in a role playing game could be powerful enough to affect enemies using musical ‘spells.’ But it took Macross to take this idea to ridiculous(ly entertaining) levels. While ultimately music (c/o Minmay) is a way to peace with the Zentraedi; no greater example other than Richard Bilrer, who was one of the first to be ‘cultured’ by Minmay and is now is a powerful ally of the human expeditionary fleet; it was significantly used to shock them during battle, making them easier to shoot.

This post is mostly about Macross Frontier‘s treatment of the trope, but here I present how the dynamic works: Someone sings, someone gets shot. However, it’s different across the different Macross shows. Observe:

I mean, we already know that the Vajra follow a hive structure and society, therefore we know that most of its workers and soldiers are incapable of sex. Only the Queen and specialized drones may engage in reproduction. So if you haven’t figured out why these Vajra are confused and horny, Ranka will explain it to you at the finale. In the mean time, what’s important is that the Vajra respond to the singing, in a way that makes them easier to shoot at.

There are several distinctions in Macross Frontier. It is notable how Ranka is deployed as a tactical weapon in the context of a conspiracy. She’s being manipulated, as opposed to Minmay who was compelled, and Basara who had his own ideas. It’s also interesting how Sheryl was a failed model for this project (set by Grace) — the failure being the lack of ability to affect fold waves at a high level and therefore affect the Vajra directly.

Even while oblivious to the manipulation by Leon and Grace, Ranka proceeds hesitantly towards this role. She is thrown by the currents of history, as opposed to shaping it with her will or by her voice. Her power level is at least the equal of Basara, but probably much higher, but her personality is the meekest of all the idols involved in such an attack.

Despite the meekness, weakness, and lack of self-agency; the narrative revolves around Ranka right now, playing notes of chaos and uncertainty. When Minmay did her ‘attack,’ she was already a star. Here Ranka’s participation becomes some kind of stepping stone, as if it were an incentive for her. Meanwhile, we have Sheryl fighting her worsening condition (I don’t think anyone believed she was getting better in the hospital), losing ground to Ranka in terms at almost every turn.

Then we have Alto, seemingly forced into another pointless rivalry (with Brera this time). Rivalries to me are between more or less evenly matched participants. Again Alto has his ass handed to him. Also, Brera keeps him away as if he were pursuing Ranka. Alto only wishes to protect her. It’s just moe.

Alto for the most part in this episode is an angry lump of confusion. It’s become difficult to distinguish where is obsession for protecting Ranka (a commitment he made as he decided to pilot a fighter), and where his disapproval of Brera begins. It’s not that he isn’t thoughtful — Ranka’s attraction to him is due in part to his thoughtfulness when she needed to hear something true. Well, youth. It’s like how some of the smoothest dudes I know lose their shit while driving Manila’s asshole infested roads. Aggression affects people of all ages, but it’s amplified during adolescence.

So yes, I’m not calling Alto a clueless angry, teen. This show avoids such characters in its cast. Even stronger than Alto is the defiant Sheryl, who never meekly resigns to the circumstances she’s given. She accepts the hand she’s dealt and plays it all out. Sure, she makes too much of an effort to show Alto that she’s not into him, but she throws herself at him anyway — not as a damsel in distress, but as someone who gave it all, and may need a hand part of the way.

She makes her way to the restricted Macross Quarter bridge, and wins permission to observe the battle. She knows her prestige and privilege is threatened, but she made use of it while it’s still there. Even Capt. Jeffrey Wilder acknowledges it. Sheryl wanted to see this operation, thinking that it could’ve been her role, and should’ve been asked first. But, this is not to say that she approves of it. Someone who writes her own songs may have a different set of scruples as to how her music is to be used.

I cannot stress this enough. The ultimate result of song, despite its tactical use, is that of bringing people together (Macross Plus notwithstanding). Richard Bilrer, as I’ve mentioned is most likely a veteran of the first Space War and was one of the Zentraedi exposed and ‘converted’ by Minmay. From a limited perspective of life that leads only to battle, he is now a person who pursues and shares his own dreams.

Who among the protagonists in the Macross franchise has ever dreamed this big? Outside of galactic monsters like the Protodevlin, only Grace O’Connor matches this kind of ambition. Bilrer makes for a subtle counterpoint to her: Grace has the idols, and Bilrer moves with the boyfriend who is a pilot. Very, very Zentraedi.

Further Reading

Macross: Do You Remember Love? had the most iconic delivery of this trope [->]

Macross Plus did a pretty cool inversion of the idealization of this trope (ExecutiveOtaku 2010/03/03)

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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18 Responses to Sound Force: The Tactical Use of Music in Battle (Macross Frontier 16: “Ranka Attack”

  1. Crusader says:

    You know music brings people “together” in other ways like when charge is played…

    Alto-hime wasn’t particularly lacking in anything when it came to drive and purpose, but certainly Brera had more of everything vis a vis Alto-hime. In almost everything Brera came out on top, whether in combat, piloting, and Ranka Brera almost always won out. Alto-hime wanted to be a tough guy, but hime was just never cut out to be one.

    Bilrer is also a nice counter point to the Miclone leadership in general. For a guy who didn’t know anything but fighting he ended up more civilized than Leon and Grace. It’s funny how everyone thought Bilrer was some ruthless business man, even Luca, and yet in the end he wasn’t marred by the kind of greed and negative ambition that Leon and Grace had.

    • I can’t disagree with your reading of Alto, and I find it rather interesting how he can’t be the tough guy no matter how much he wants to be.



  2. drmchsr0 says:

    Music and military engagement? Easy.

    There’s this story in the Bible where King Hezekiah (I think it’s him) needs to defeat an army much larger than him. Guess what he did? He sent his singers and musicians as the vanguard, singing songs of praise. The enemy was completely routed.

    Also, can’t we all pretend that Sheryl is the love child of Basara and Mylene? Yes, we pretend Basara and Mylene got married some time after he sings to the bloody space whales. I mean, she’s got the NEKKI.

    • Oh yeah, Jericho was besieged by horn-blowers IIRC.

      No, I don’t indulge that interpretation. Sheryl isn’t even human I think. She’s one of those clones in the population replenishment project.

  3. gloval says:

    Just a clarification about the musical “power” in Macross 7 and Frontier. I believe we couldn’t compare the “powerlevels” of the singers in the two series basically because they manipulate different stuff in the galaxy. Basara can manipulate Spiritia while Ranka, Fold Waves. We also have no idea yet on how the two are connected.

    In the Macross universe, songs may be used to pacify and unify the galaxy in culture and love, but it is also used to distract, deceive and destroy. Ultimately, however, it is the former use that will be rewarded while the latter will be punished with awesome mecha destruction.

    • Well, Ranka don’t need no sound boosters or speaker pods to cause an effect on her target species.

      As for punishment, can we say that Sharon Apple was punished? Is Grace truly dead? Isn’t her existence an electronic consciousness? Is Macross Galaxy truly destroyed? Are all the servers wrecked?

      • gloval says:

        Well, AI and cybernetic characters in Macross doesn’t seem to be that good with backup systems, I should say. (It’s rather ironic because one of humanity’s survival strategy is to spread around the Galaxy in various colonies, each colony being a sort of backup copy.) Based on what we’ve seen so far, Sharon hasn’t returned, and it’s unlikely that Grace and her Galaxy co-conspirators will, too. Maybe “punished” was an exaggeration, as I was only trying to be poetic in my comment, but it’s clear that they don’t succeed with their plans.

        • Ok, but Sharon can’t revive herself because she exists only in that box. If Galaxy isn’t completely destroyed, then the virtual existences of Grace and co. are still intact. Honestly I’ve never considered this until now.

          • gloval says:

            I think the Galaxy colony has been destroyed by the Vajra as of ep 7 and its Battle Galaxy by Battle Frontier in the finale. Besides, I think Grace had been storing her backup in in Frontier ever since she arrived there with Sheryl.

            What I’m more curious about is the fate of her idea of a fold quartz network/hivemind. If ever we see such a network in a later series I think what we’ll see would be more of Bilrer’s idea.

          • If it’s indeed in Frontier, then she’s definitely not done for. Also I realize why Sharon wouldn’t have been backed up… The internet wasn’t a huge thing yet during the early ’90s when Plus came out, despite the popularity of Ghost in the Shell anime hasn’t really done much with the concept of networks the way they’re taken for granted now.

          • gloval says:

            Yes I also considered that for Grace. Of course that’s assuming she had a backup ready. If you compare her demeanor when she “died” the first two times with that in the final episode, it seems she doesn’t have a backup ready for the latter. I could agree that this seems to be out of character for her, but that’s what we’re shown in the series. Maybe the movie would clear this up.

            The thing is, Sharon couldn’t have hacked other systems without a network, wired or wireless, so there’s the idea of a network back then. But the idea of hacking there seemed to be taking control via a centralized powerful system, rather than taking control in a decentralized manner by installing local copies of yourself. The latter would’ve led to the idea of having back ups.

  4. Swampstorm says:

    While elements of culture may find their way into war, cultural expression in itself is a form of warfare. In SDFM, the Zentradi are a case in point; the series denies that they have a culture of their own (their military lifestyle in itself is a form of culture), and they are ultimately assimilated into Earth’s culture. As such, for all the “love conquers war” rhetoric that the series spouts, SDFM merely substitutes imperialism in the classic sense for cultural imperialism.

    MF brings out a slightly more sophisticated take on this by having humanity appropriate elements of a foreign culture (i.e. “Aimo”) and give it new meaning in its various reincarnations, whether it be as a lullaby from mother to child, a pop song for a movie, or a form of martial music. In so doing, however, MF establishes that both humanity and the Vajra have their own distinct cultures, and lets each go their separate ways.

    I think this episode and the next one are amongst the slowest episodes in the show; Alto and Ranka have settled down into and are relatively comfortable (although not necessarily happy) with going along with their respective roles, but neither really has a sense of direction yet.

    • Good stuff here. I agree that there is no real ‘zero’ level of culture, the absence in culture among the Zentraedi actually means the absence of popular human culture.

      Great catch on the appropriations made by the humans of the alien cultural unit (‘Aimo’). I didn’t see this and I’m very pleased to find out about it. Thanks!

  5. donkangoljones says:

    Had to laugh at your chart! No matter how horny, or what kind of horny, you’ll still get shot. In a way, humans in Macross specialize in lowblows. Regardless of whether you have a penis or not, we humans will make that the center of attention– and then shoot you.

    This post made me want to go back to some of my old high school reading. Who could ever forget about the sirens. The Odyssey had a way building up the protagonist by pointing out how you would’ve fallen.

    Episode 16 of Frontier was a bit of a sad episode for me. By this point, I was firmly in the Nome camp. And while I still cheered for the humans to live (quite the obvious choice), I was still hoping with every moment that Sheryl would claw her way out of her (perceived) fate.

    • Thanks. This episode got me thinking about the functions of culture as a whole. Culture in Macross is some kind of universal lubricant that makes everyone happy. The function I see in culture supports a biological, genetic drive: to successfully reproduce and ensure a genetic continuity.

      In Macross, most songs, or at least the important ones, are love songs. This I believe supports the idea that culture promotes sex (i.e. reproduction). I just thought I’d make fun of the idea as well.

  6. Pingback: Swampstorm on Alien Cultural Appropriation in Macross Frontier « The Ghosts of Discussions

  7. Pingback: Waltzing Macross – Song, Motivation, and Conflict in Anime

  8. Pingback: Did Macross Frontier Open a Frontier for the Macross Franchise? | We Remember Love

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