I wrote a series of 6 posts on the final Macross Frontier film and realized too late that I had said nothing about it as robot anime.
Sure, the Macross franchise is built on love stories set against the backdrop of great battles. However, it is easy to forget that its creator is primarily a mechanical designer than he is a writer and director of anime. Arguably he is far better as a mechanical designer than he is an animator, writer, and director. Not many people get to make Macross at the onset of adulthood. At 22 many people are still just starting on their major subjects at university. I only had a year of lecturing at university under my belt at the time.
But let me present a macro view of the mecha anime aspects of the Macross franchise in terms of how it features in the narrative.
Warning: Incredibly huge image for this chart
The chart I made lists the broad contributions each installment makes into the robot anime tradition. By no means is the chart comprehensive, but I wanted to present something to organize my observations. Ultimately these are: transforming robots in grand scale, and with a lot of technical depth (and by this I don’t mean scientific plausibility; I just mean as a franchise it really gets into the transforming mecha); and the aircraft dogfight aesthetic of combat.
It distinguishes itself by what it doesn’t do:
- Tell stories of “I want to be the best fighter ever.”
- The “heroes” aren’t about I want to defeat the bad guys with my skill and power, and with my incredible super machine.
- Tell stories of schooling the enemies about JUSTICE and PEACE.
Instead it has a lot of singing and love triangles. The love story is at the foreground, scored by the all the singing, which is interwoven with the battles that form the backdrop. Despite all this, the franchise is blessed with more interesting and superior mecha concepts and design from more dedicated real robot anime.
Macross’ Regulds, Quadlunn-raus, Destroids, and Glaugs may fail to be as interesting or compelling as the Mobile Suits of the Gundam franchise, the Armored Troopers of the VOTOMS franchise, Evangelion units, Heavy Metals from L-Gaim, Mortar Headds from the Five Star Stories, and the like… BUT, Macross units have a justification for their sizes!
The Zentraedi are a giant alien race, who use powered armor and mecha that aren’t conspicuously sized relative to their own humanoid proportions. But them being a giant alien race prompted the humans to consider infantry scenarios wherein the human machine must contend with. Thus, giant humanoid robots!
And THEN, Macross has the Variable Fighters, easily the most interesting and most influential innovation on the mass-produced military real robot concept. It’s not just the imaginative leap of having two forms, but having three! Furthermore, the variability extends to the multiple modular configurations that can be affixed to the base unit (FAST, Strike, Super, etc.) – something Gundam would also adapt (for the Jegans, as an example – see Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn). The Variable Fighter concept is indeed the hands-down best thing to happen to military mass-produced mecha, even if only to consider the examples being followed by ground-based units like the mecha in Guilty Crown, the engagement suit in Sacred SeveN, and the various units in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn. Macross has in this concept, out-Gundamed Gundam.
Macross Frontier builds on this tradition by covering many bases:
Hand-to-hand Battloid vs. Monster Battles
This took more from Evangelion than anything else, especially with the use of the “Progressive” Knife as a standard Battloid weapon. The Gundams prefer the use of duelist weapons like the saber, or the Gundam Hammer (LOL, a spiked ball on a chain), primarily because mobile suits engage in one vs. one duels in the open, while the Battloid only has the dagger as an emergency CQB measure.
Otherwise, it has its smaller guns as more effective point-blank responses and in the very first close encounter with a large type Vajra soldier Ozma’s Armored VF-25 demonstrates this. Acknowledging the reach disadvantage he suffered vs. the giant insectoid, he transforms to Gerwalk and fires at the Vajra with top-mounted guns at point-blank range then executes a tackle powered by extra boosters to create distance, so he can rain missiles without giving up position on the ground. Badass use of the VF, especially considering this is happening at a much higher speed than mobile suit duels in Gundam.
One vs. Many Battle Scenarios
The VFs ever since the first Space War had to contend with numerical disadvantages. It’s not much different dealing with the Vajra swarms, with various levels of shielding and imperviousness. The Vajra rely on structural shielding for defense instead of flying skill. As such they do not have an easy time evading the missile barrages of the VFs. Still, given the speeds at which the battles transpire the Vajra are quicker opponents that Zentraedi in Regulds, or mobile suits from the Gundam franchise for that matter. This makes the VF one of the most powerful and cost-effective units.
A different fire support unit is introduced in the form of a sniping specialized VF. It doesn’t seem to be a complete prototype given how Jessica Blanc was a known sniper VF pilot, but definitely a new variant in the way mecha combat is conducted in Macross. I personally find this refreshing as opposed to the semi-automatic rifles used in the VF-171 Nightmare Plus and the ubiquitus Gundam beam rifle. It is incredibly difficult to shoot accurately at fast moving targets while moving very quickly yourself. Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn episode 02 did very well to keep the Unicorn Gundam stationary while it attempted to rifle the fast-moving Sinanju. You will never find this kind of verisimilitude in most AU Gundam shows.
Semi-automatic beam weapons are useful as fire support or for targeting capital ships. I am very pleased at how Brera Sterne’s VF-27 Lucifer never used his large beam weapon against other VFs in dogfights. The show knows he wouldn’t hit, despite his cyborg enhancements that make him more than an equivalent to a Gundam Newtype in combat situations. He used his beam weapon when he attacked the Vajra Frontier, exactly what such a weapon is good for: capital ships.
The Macross (by extension UN SPACY) on Offense
The SDF-1 primarily fought a defensive war. It took part in exactly TWO offensive operations (and the second was a BIG one), but still it was pretty reactionary. In Macross Frontier we see an offensive rescue operation, a planetary assault operation, and in both the TV series and the films — Macross vs. Macross operations. Macross Frontier is insane when it comes to this. As amazing Sayonara no Tsubasa’s final battle is (with its fleet of Macross Quarter ships), the TV series had a slugfest between two battle class Macross ships. Galaxy and Frontier truly fought point-blank and toe-to-toe. Unfuckingbelievable.
Macross Frontier knows that the best fight will be between top-of-the-line machines. In the TV series it was very clear how Brera’s VF-27 Lucifer had all sorts of disadvantages over the VF-27 Messiah. All of Alto’s incredible human talent could not keep up with Brera’s cyborg implants that also allowed him to withstand the Gs the Lucifer put on him as it pulled improbable feats of maneuverability.
In The Wings of Farewell Alto got to pilot a prototype YF-29 against Brera and it was short, but good. YF-29 vs. VF-27 Lucifer with 3 AIF-9V Ghost Fighter slaves… it hardly seems fair, given how the YF-29s supposed enhancements are anti-Vajra in nature. The more powerful weaponry doesn’t make for a direct solution against the maneuverability of the Lucifer.
One of the things I truly enjoyed about the Sinanju vs. Unicorn battle in Unicorn 02 is how Sinanju’s speed gave the Unicorn fits and depleted its beam cannon. That was one of the best mecha duels I’ve ever seen. One thing remarkable about the very short dogfight between Alto & Brera is how they easily fired more ordnance at each other while flying and dodging at higher speeds.
It’s one thing to dodge a single shot beam firing at less than semi-automatic rates, but it’s another thing to dodge multiple weapons firing at the same time while evading guided missiles fired in groups of eight plus. This is the kind of fighting you get from a Macross anime. Sure the Gundam fight was drawn out and intense and was the centerpiece of a great episode, while this dogfight is basically fanservice as a backdrop to the culminating love story. But it’s faster, if not as intense; it requires higher levels of skill, without Newtype abilities. If you slow it down, if you break it down, Full Frontal will gouge his eyes out.
And how’s this for innovation: Alto detaches modular parts of his YF-29, which is par for the course in Macross as a counter-measure for the Itano circus; only that, the detached part is a missile pod itself that launches its own circus… a missile pod funnel if you will, in Gundam fashion only improvised in an awesome way. This is how he takes out the third of the AIF-9Vs (making him easily thrice the pilot Guld Goa Bowman was, or that the YF-29 is thrice the VF the YF-21 was).
Of course, this being Macross, the fight isn’t quite resolved in a straightforward way: that is, by the prowess of the mecha or the pilot. Vajra “rescue” Alto from Brera who eventually breaks free from the mind-control of the Galaxy villains and destroys the same by attacking the command center of Battle Frontier. It remembers that no human, in any VF, can overcome the the ability and technological advantages enjoyed by Brera and the Lucifer.
Alto on the other hand gets to save the day with piloting by doing his “kabuki dance” aerial show over and around the Battle Frontier/Vajra Queen combination. The combination of these two acts free the Queen who then listens to Sheryl and Ranka’s song, and bears witness to Alto’s dance, and accepts the feelings of the humans – choosing to leave their home planet for them (and taking Alto with her – fair trade? Ask Sheryl).
Certain things held that I’m happy with:
- Fighting many vs. 1 is difficult, no matter how high-spec one’s machine is.
- High specifications (VF-27 Lucifer) doesn’t translate to invincibility vs. conventional weapons.
- Capital ships are vulnerable to attack craft (VF-27 vs. Battle Frontier).
- There is a minimum of shouting over the tactical net while fighting. No actual conversations (let alone debates) transpired.
The bottom line is, that unlike really good Gundam mobile suit battles, Macross fights and especially here in Frontier are very quick and end quickly. The Gundam Unicorn way is drawn out and long… and I love it for being such. Here in Macross you get, most of the time, a very well-thought out fight that ends as quickly as it starts. It is ironically, much like the samurai duels (only messier with lots of ordnance) that Gundam more overtly goes for. The pressure is really intense for the pilots, though you won’t really feel it because of the excitement of the idol concert playing over the fight.