This post serves as the culmination of the episodic feature series on Macross Frontier here on We Remember Love.
What would constitute a ‘Frontier?’ The answers should be at least relative to the Macross Franchise.
- Appeal to a new generation of fans.
- New plot direction.
- New world-building elements.
- New animation/production methods.
- New elements (characters or character types/mecha and related technology/weapons).
This post will attempt too answer this question, and will serve to communicate my thoughts on the show and what it means in the larger context of the Macross franchise…
…or at least what it all means to me, a pre-Robotech Macross lifelong fan (not that I wasn’t a fan of Robotech during its time). So how does Frontier do at opening frontiers?
|Parameters of a ‘Frontier’||Met?||Remarks|
|New plot-direction and/or premise||No||Expeditionary fleet runs into alien threat – already done in Macross 7, which also had the internal problem within NUNS subplot (even if very, very minor). Idols still sing, and now more magical than Sara Nome in Macross Zero (well maybe not more magical). Robots still transform, most of them still have pilots. Evil tech mind control already a sub-plot in Macross Plus.|
|New world-building elements||‘Qualified’ yes||‘New’ aliens, with a new kind of intelligence. Complex artificial ecosystem – then when threatened turned humans into xenophobic predators. Ambiguity between ‘disease’ and ‘power.’|
|New animation/production methods||No||At least, none in a significant (much less groundbreaking) way. The use of CGI was pioneered by the franchise 15 years prior (1994) with Macross Plus; and the peak in quality (and extent of use) was reached in 2002’s Macross Zero.|
|Novel developments of in-universe technology/character types||‘Qualified’ yes||Some refinements were done, but most of the changes were manifested as mass production: unpiloted mecha, reaction weapons, dimension eaters. Among characters, the Minmay prototype got two versions; but the real new stuff is with Klan Klan – the ultimate fanservice character (see ep 20, 21).|
|Appeal to a new generation of fans||Yes||This is probably the most important, though I won’t quantify this here. The core audience is still the long-time fans of the franchise, but it would be a mistake if the audience isn’t grown. Ratings, merchandise sales, music sales, concerts, news and informal journal (blogs) coverage all indicate presence of fans who discovered Macross through Frontier.|
It is rather underwhelming. I’m sure there are grey areas that make the ‘no’ answers a bit problematic, but it is very lack of slam dunks that make it underwhelming. Mind you this is not a review of the show. I’m not here to tell you if it is good or bad. To save you the time, in no uncertain terms: watch the show.
What follows is a more involved look at what I think the show did and didn’t do. Feel free to skip to the postscript and comments, if you feel you want to discuss my findings above, especially if Macross Frontier is the first or only Macross show you’ve seen so far.
But if you can, do read on, and feel my charging heart of love for the show and the franchise.
Macross Frontier Refined in communicating certain themes, and featuring certain elements.
Ecological conservation, IN SPACE
When do the gun-toting, love-confessing characters take time to smell the flowers, literally or figuratively? Rarely. But Shoji Kawamori’s realms of Mayan or Zola are places where characters can go to feel a “comfortable wind” against their faces. And that translates to us.
Even if the “save the whales” thing is a little silly, tell me you didn’t desperately clench your teeth when Mayan Island came under attack by missile-spamming Valkyries. Sometimes it’s best to show a message, not tell it, and though it might still get preachy, the impact of the no-nukes/pacifist message is stronger for being visually presented.
–otou-san, on the ecological themes of Macross.
Otou-san rarely gives Frontier credit, but among the shows he mentioned it satisfies the near-literal pausing to smell the flowers. The show put in a commendable effort in world-building, standing on the shoulders of Gundam’s space colony work. This is delightfully showcased in epsode 05, where Alto and Sheryl go out on a ‘date’ and thereby get to explore the Frontier Colony itself.
But Frontier doesn’t stop at ecotourism, the fragile balance is highlighted through the consequences of warfare (ep 15). In lieu of humans as collateral damage in war as well as the psychological fallout of such (a theme explored often enough in media), Frontier spotlights the ecological impact. This time, it’s no parable about keeping a natural environment pure (as in the case of say, Macross Dynamite 7, Macross Zero, or the film Avatar); the environment is entirely constructed by humans.
Something we fashion with our own hands is something we are responsible for. Interestingly, part of the conflict involves how the Vajra are viewed as ecological rivals to be exterminated and their home world to be wrested from them within the context of natural selection, as the Vajra did cause critical damage to the artificial human ecosystem of the Frontier Colony.
Minmay as character (iterations from the archetype)
Ranka and Sheryl are versions of Lynn Minmay of SDFM, and play very similar roles. The original Macross love triangle became a competition between an ‘ordinary’ woman vs. a pop idol. Misa was the heroine of the story, but Minmay was undoubtedly the star of the whole show. Isamu Alva Dyson became the overwhelming favorite vs. Guld Goa Bowman in Macross Plus, and Basara is indeed the star of Macross 7 even if Gamlin Kizaki was the most admirable hero.
This time, there will be TWO stars in the story, and Macross Frontier was very successful in making this happen. However, it remained consistent in how one of the characters ended up being less mature, a loser, or was left holding the retard stick, relative to the other. Minmay, Guld, Basara, and now Ranka are perfect examples of this. While Basara wasn’t competing, and Ranka’s loss was bailed out by the narrative – both happily swung the retard stick (like Minmay before them).
Sheryl on the other hand, is a revelation. Sheryl had the career dedication of Misa, the courage and resolve of Gamlin, and the sexual dangerousness of Isamu. When the narrative needed a hero, Sheryl stepped up. If she needed to confront her demons, she did so using her own powers. She never needed to be slapped (had she known she could be cured, do people actually believe she’d be depressed?), which is why Ranka slapping her in the finale is one of the worse missteps sacrificed in the altar of narrative symmetry.
Sheryl also shares some characteristics with Millya Fallnya Jenius, haughty but capable; tsun-tsun but dere-dere. Both aren’t just lovable, they are admirable.
The New UN Spacy continues to be portrayed as a degenerate xenophobic organization, now with more internal corruption! This is not a new thing by all means, as the arrogance in how the SDF Macross was refused to disembark its civilian population in the original series attests, which continued to farcical proportions in the ‘unaired’ episode part of Macross 7 Encore: Fleet of the Strongest Women. In that episode, Earth command disregards the actions of 7’s commanding officer and insists that Exsedol Folmo open fire with Battle 7’s main gun at the rogue Meltran fleet even if it compromises the work and the lives of both military and civilian commanding officers of the fleet/colony.
In Frontier we see the Zentraedi part of the colony become the first choice for scuttling during the crisis situation (ep 21). Grace thought less than nothing of the Zentraedi garrison in Gallia IV when she detonated a Dimension Eater on the planet. I like this broad-level depiction of the troubles with integration, because on the individual level, it’s very positive.
Elmo Kirdanik represents the ‘anything can happen here’ ethos of democratic capitalism, that a wholly militarized society cannot accomodate. He discovers Ranka and becomes her agent, loses her to big business/big government, but bounces back with Sheryl – only more awesome for doing philanthropic work. On the other hand, we also have Richard Bilrer, owner of the SMS. To date, he is the most successful known Zentraedi, who went beyond mere integration because he is so rich that he can ‘afford’ to have Howard Hughes types of eccentricities.
It is Bilrer who nurtures a benevolent and progressive use for the fold crystals (uniting the galaxy; ep 16), in turn nuanced by a covert goal of finding Minmay again, who is lost with the first expeditionary fleet.
Taking a Step Backward
Critical lens towards the idol industry/phenomenon
From the rather subversive approach in SDFM, where the seedy underbelly of the idol industry is portrayed – and the innocent perfection of the idol celebrity is turned on its head, we have a very optimistic and somewhat naive portrayal of the same. Not completely optimistic and naive, after all Sheryl for all her belief in her own powers is a manufactured idol, created by Grace.
Ranka’s story is far more friendly despite how she was undermined by Grace (and Leon) eventually. In any case, there is a simplistic dichotomy: Grace is technology-enhanced, manufactured, artificial, and evil; Elmo represents being natural, valuing effort, love and culture, and (therefore) good. Compare this to SDFM’s Minmay wherein the flaws (evils, imperfections) existed within the industry itself, and in the idol herself.
The technology and artifice as evil, as manifested by a pop idol is duly portrayed in dark and effective ways via Sharon Apple (vs. Myung Fang-Lone) in 1994’s Macross Plus.
As far as I can tell, Macross as a franchise has fared best when it came to consistency of weapons damage, something that bugs the hell out of me (especially in Gundam, whose beam spam in its alternate continuities is/are deuxes ex machinas in themselves; but also in UC – contrast the nuke in Stardust Memory vs. those in Char’s Counterattack). I credit this to Macross’ avoidance of beam weapons in lieu of kinetic or explosive ones.
But even when Macross uses it (e.g. Macross grade cannons), I’m not certain it’s free of suspicion. But when the reaction weapon damage (loose equivalents with nuclear missiles) started getting dodgy: Alto’s damage is far greater and covers vast amounts of space, while NUNS personnel need several to destroy one Vajra carrier (ep 14). This blows.
Limitations not overcome
There are many interesting things within Macross Frontier. The more attention I pay, the richer the rewards. This show has shown me an ability to be dark and cruel (ep 20), painstaking with its world-building (eps 03, 15), a renewed (or newfound) interest in strategy and tactics (eps 07, 16, 24), and an ability to forward and complete many plot threads at once (eps 09, 20).
I am fairly confident, in my review of related commentary on the show, that very few (if any at all) took note of the above. Why? This is due to two kinds of superficialities.
The first kind is the color palette. It’s too bright and flashy. Never mind the events that take place within the Macross Frontier Colony, but the space battles. ed Strictly in the context of use of colors related to special effects (lasers, contrails, booster flames), if Mobile Suit Gundam is the equivalent of the Tim Burton Batman movies, and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (along with is the equivalent of the Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films, then Macross Frontier would be the Joel Schumacher edition. Seriously, there’s so much neon.
What this does is take the grimness out of the violence. It makes the life and death part of battles out of the forefront, replacing it with excitement and visual spectacle. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and this is common to most contemporary robot shows (Gurren Lagann, Code Geass, Gundam 00). However, there is a cost. It costs the shows dramatic gravitas.
I have high expectations for Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn to overcome this ‘handicap,’ as I expect narratives set in the Universal Century continuity of the Gundam franchise to keep the tradition of portraying war as serious business; graphically violent, beyond an unambitious visual spectacle, despite its use of the flashy effects I’m resigned to expect from something like Gundam 00.
If there is a show/franchise that overcomes this, it’s Neon Genesis Evangelion. The animation in Rebuild can get bright colors, but the effect is weird and alien – and in keeping with its unnerving effect, as opposed to the rather cheerful fighting in Macross Frontier (in the context of colors).
The second kind is the narrative focus.
From “the word of God:”
[it depicts] a love triangle against the backdrop of great battles
The series creator was talking about the originating narrative at this point, but there is no reason to think that Macross Frontier is any different. This isn’t Legend of the Galactic Heroes wherein you find love stories amidst a narrative of war; here the love story is paramount. The war narrative is background, the robot battles are fanservice. The many wonderful details and touches I’ve discovered blogging this show sit at the back of the bus. They’re like Easter Eggs for fans willing to hunt for them.
The cost is how these are obscured from casual and non-partisan viewers. I don’t blame people from missing out on the environmental disaster as an essay of dread in a nifty piece of ecological world-building (as reported by Leon in episode 15). The flashy recap episode dynamics highlighted by Sheryl in concert (‘Welcome to My Fanclub’s Night), then the Sheryl vs. Ranka sing-off for Alto’s love will make people forget just about anything else in an episode.
This I think, is representative of the issue. The original series, particularly the Robotech incarnation somehow made viewers think that Macross isn’t so much about a love triangle; that the love triangle (and pop music – especially in the Robotech version of the Macross saga) are sub-plots to an alien vs. human space war. The expectations were then set for future installments. It is no surprise how fans introduced to the franchise (and perhaps to anime in general) via Robotech reject Macross 7, and Macross Frontier; which are shows that are actually more consistent with the silliness of the core conceit of the franchise.
…and this is why the TV series fails…
It fails due to the ambiguity of the love triangle resolution, for all its importance over all other narratives and elements in the show. As much as I want to take the textual evidence in episodes 23-24 in favor of Sheryl x Alto, the withholding of the declarations of love and terms of engagement, then the whole business of Ranka and Sheryl being Alto’s “wings,” then Ranka’s promise to Sheryl that she will do her best to fight her for Alto, then ultimately, Alto’s seeming indifference to both of them relative to the resolution of his own dream to fly free in a natural atmosphere… the triangle remains intact in a state of romantic tension.
The narrative actually forced the re-introduction of the romantic tension at the very end precisely when it was supposed to conclude it, rendering a lot of the build-up (towards Alto x Sheryl) impotent.
Why? Or at least, what does this tell me? Ranka is nothing without the triangle. Ranka as a character cannot stand on her own narrative. Sheryl lives, and is free to love. Alto has his Sky, and Sheryl waiting for him. Ranka has reconstruction – the rehabilitation of her relationship with the Frontier population (she is branded as a traitor), the connection with the Vajra… all are interesting narratives and in my mind very necessary ones to complete the characterization of Ranka. But no, the overarching narrative doesn’t see past her as a point in the love triangle. She is nothing without it, so it seems.
Ranka is the character whose story till has legs. Alto got his sky, Sheryl is no longer dying from the V-Type disease. They can now make babies like the Jeniuses. Ranka has a redemption story all in front of her, and yet instead it won’t happen unless in the context of the re-balanced love triangle. What would be ideal in my mind if the story would continue, is for Ranka to move on and be the focal point of a new love triangle involving new characters – more like Myung and less like Mylene.
And finally, my personal stand
Despite what would seem to be damning observations and conclusions, Macross Frontier will forever be awesome to me.
I cannot experience Macross Frontier outside my own context. I am a lifelong fan of Macross, having loved it as long as it has been in existence (28 years now). I’ve seen all the animated installments, canon and otherwise. After my initial disappointment with Macross Zero (now reversed), this show was my long-awaited gift. After watching Frontier for the nth time in the service of this blogging endeavor, I’ve never failed to enjoy myself with it. It reminded me why I love Macross so much, and why I love anime so much.
It introduced me to a character as remarkable as Sheryl, the Perfect Version Minmay (but it should go without saying that to me, Minmay will never be replaced) and a character as irrationally adorable as Ranka. It gave me an amazing musical score that reminded me of how much I love Kanno Yoko, who also gave me an improbable abundance of pop songs that are I find so improbably catchy. It made me remember love, and is the inspiration for this blog and my pursuit of this hobby.
Alto is better for Sheryl as a man, as he is better for Ranka as a brother. Sure, Brera beats him there, but Alto never wins against Brera, ever.