Macross is a space opera classic, and thanks to its inclusion and re-editing as part of Robotech, it is perhaps the most famous anime of this genre in the West as well as a well-known name in Japan. In fact, a fourth TV series, Macross Delta, is airing right now. However, even if you’ve seen Robotech, there is a lot for you to get caught up on before watching Macross Delta.
To help me do this, I’m joined by my ever-reluctant partner: the Disembodied Voice that I use simply as a writing device, and who is totally not an entity that haunts the corners of my mind constantly and won’t seem to go away.
‘Sup. So, we’re doing anime now, huh?
That is indeed the case. Care to lead us into the topic with the simplest of questions?
Do I have to?
Well, it’s kind of why you’re here…
Fine. Let’s get this over with. What is Macross?
So glad you asked. Macross is a long-running anime franchise that started way back in 1982. It’s basically the story of an alien spaceship that crash lands on Earth and the various intergalactic wars and crises that follow over the next century.
All right, that sounds like a solid plot setup.
Indeed. But what sets the Macross franchise apart from many other anime franchises is how it has been designed. While each iteration is vastly different from the last–as they often feature entirely new casts of characters–a Macross anime is guaranteed to have three main aspects.
Well, the first of these is fighter planes that transform into robots.
Wait, do you mean like Transformers, where the robots are alive, or like Gundam, where the robots are inanimate objects piloted by humans?
Like in Gundam, the transforming fighters are just machines.
In that case, next question. Why would you bother with all the effort required to make a transforming plane?
To fight thirty-foot tall aliens, of course.
We’ll get back to that in a bit, I promise. The second common aspect of Macross is the presence of a singer who is the only one capable of saving humanity (or destroying it), and all through the power of song.
Hold up. There’s a lot we need to unpack there. By singer you mean, what? Like a pop idol?
Sometimes. Over the course of the franchise there have been several pop stars, two bands, and even a virtual idol at the center of the various conflicts.
Wait… So is music like a superpower in Macross?
Kind of. If you think about it, music is pretty much a superpower in our world, too. After all, it’s just a series of sounds, but it can greatly affect your emotional state. It can make you sad and depressed to the point of tears or raise your morale enough to help you overcome great danger or hardship.
So, Macross does what? Weaponize music?
Basically. Though, not in the way you’re likely thinking. Okay, not just in the way you’re probably thinking.
Huh… leaving that to the side for a moment, you said there were three aspects that make Macross. So far we’ve talked about transforming planes and singers. What’s the third?
That would be a love triangle.
What you’re telling me is that Macross is a series full of war, music, and romance in equal portion?
That is exactly what I am telling you.
You wouldn’t think they’d take the term “space opera” so literally.
Apart from these core aspects, everything is up for grabs, especially when it comes to the themes the anime explores.
All right, shall we start at the beginning?
By beginning, do you mean broadcast order, the series in chronological order, or at the start of the entire Macross fictional universe?
I didn’t realize I’d asked a multiple choice question. Let’s just follow broadcast order.
In that case, the first is The Super Dimension Fortress Macross.
You probably have no idea how weird that name sounds to the uninitiated, do you?
What do you mean?
Okay… Anyway, after a heavily damaged and all but abandoned alien warship crashes on Earth in the year 1999, the world comes together as a united force in the shadow of such a looming threat. Over the next ten years, the alien warship, now rechristened the SDF-1 (Super Dimension Fortress 1), is rebuilt, and technology from it is used to create an air force of transformable fighter planes.
World peace, new technology, and our own alien spaceship? Things are looking up for Earth.
Well, for about five minutes. On launch day, an alien armada arrives in orbit, breezes through our newly-built defenses, and the SDF-1 can’t even lift off as its anti-gravity engines rip right through the hull when turned on. With no other choice, the SDF-1 initiates a space fold to behind the moon, only to end up beyond Pluto instead.
Okay… that’s a mess. At least it couldn’t get much worse.
You know, unless sixty thousand civilians and the surrounding city were teleported out of the solar system along with the ship.
Luckily, the civilians are all in airtight fallout shelters because of the attack, so most survive. And after doing their best to salvage all they can and rebuild the city inside the SDF-1, the ship begins its long journey home, under constant attack by an alien race of giants the whole way.
Wow. So that’s a pretty terrible situation to say the least.
Yep. And you can see why the people are looking for any way to raise morale.
Oh, I see. Hence the singer aspect.
Right. But before that, the characters. The love triangle in the original Macross is between Hikaru Ichijyo, a stunt pilot who reluctantly becomes a fighter pilot; Misa Hayase, the super-serious flight controller and first officer of the SDF-1; and Lynn Minmay, a waitress turned pop idol.
…Why are you making that face?
The one of abject loathing.
Oh… That face. In all of fiction, there are few characters I dislike more than Minmay. It’s not that she’s poorly written–quite the opposite actually–It’s that I am revolted by her as a person. She is self-centered to the extreme and manipulative without being self-aware enough to know it. And to top it all off…
…To top it all off…?
More than any other character, she’s the one responsible for the continued existence of the human race.
Basically, as a way to boost morale, the civilians put on an American Idol-style talent show. The winner of said talent show is, of course, Minmay. Her songs become hits and she gives numerous televised concerts. She’s constantly in the limelight.
And how does this save the human race?
Well, as her music is constantly being broadcast, the aliens eventually intercept the signal.
I don’t get it. Why would it matter if they saw it or not?
Well, let’s dig a bit into the aliens. The “Zentradi,” as they are called, are a race of thirty-foot tall beings genetically engineered for war. Their entire society is built around that purpose. They’re either fighting or traveling, on their way to do some fighting.
Well, surely they have some down time. I mean, they have to propagate the species, right?
Actually, no. The Zentradi are cloned. They don’t mate (though they are physically capable). In fact, while there are females of the species–the “Meltlandi”–the respective genders are kept completely segregated from one another on separate fleets of ships.
Alright. So the Zentradi eat, sleep, fight, and nothing else. Got it.
So what happens when they encounter a culture so different from their own? One where not only things like leisure and sex exist, but something like music as well.
Well, they wouldn’t understand it.
But you don’t have to understand music to be affected by it. And the Zentradi have no defense.
Wait, I see where you’re going with this. You’re saying human culture–music, specifically–is a WMD to the Zentradi?
Yep, it’s culture shock turned into a cultural plague. Minmay’s song, for example, infects everyone who listens. It makes them feel emotions besides pride and anger. At first taste, it throws them into confusion. But the more they feel these new emotions, the more they long to feel the same way again.
Not only is music a plague, but a highly addictive drug as well?
You got it.
So the humans on the SDF-1 are destroying the Zentradi on a cultural level and it’s purely by happenstance?
That’s basically the long and short of it.
Wow. So it really is about the power of music.
So what else do I need to know about the first Macross series?
Well, for all its music and love triangles, Macross is a war story. And as a war story, people die.
Sure, sure. I bet nameless characters bite it all the time. Introduced in one episode just to die at the climax.
No, I mean a lot of people die, and main and supporting characters alike fall as easily as anyone else. In fact by the end, you can count the surviving main and supporting characters on your fingers alone.
Oh yeah. Some go out in a blaze of glory, others just take a bullet mid-battle with no warning whatsoever. Absolutely no one is safe.
Yeah. Another thing that’s great in the original Macross is the idea that even after the climactic battle, the story isn’t over.
Well, I don’t think that theme is exactly unexplored in anime.
Yeah, but I can’t think of another series that spends its final ten episodes on what, for all intents and purposes, is the epilogue.
Really? Ten episodes?
The fallout of the war is as interesting as the war itself. The survivors, both Zentradi and Human, try to find a new place in a world decidedly different from the one they began in. And the growing pains, while minor at first, slowly grow into violent outbursts that could easily throw the planet once more into war.
And more than that, the epilogue really sets the stage for everything to come.
What do you mean?
Well, the settings for the subsequent Macross TV series are either colony ships flying amongst the stars or established colonies on far-off worlds. The last chunk of episodes in Macross shows why mankind leaves our home world for hope of a new life among the stars.
Can you be a bit more specific?
Well, without going too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that humanity comes close to extinction. Very close. Knowing that there is little to stop something similar from happening again, humanity has only one choice: to spread beyond one single planet so that a single event can’t extinguish the entire human race.
Oh, well, that makes sense.
So with that, we’ve done a pretty good job covering the original Macross. Well, except for…
Except for what?
The movie, of course: 1984’s The Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love?
What is it exactly? A sequel?
Do You Remember Love? is a… I’m going to call it a “re-telling” of the original series. Unlike the anime films of today based off of popular TV–which are often compilation films that simply touch up the TV series animation for the big screen–Do You Remember Love? is a version of the story rebuilt from the ground up (and with a chart-topping song still known in Japan to this day). While a fair amount of the same events happen that we see in the series, several events and plotlines are brand new. It’s different enough that fans have argued for years about which version is the canon history for the rest of Macross as costumes and character designs from the movie show up in many of the subsequent works.
So… is it?
Is it what?
Oh. Well. That’s not exactly a simple question to answer. But to be as brief as possible, no, it’s not.
Well, that seems pretty cut and dried–
And neither is the TV series.
According to Macross‘ creator in a 1998 interview, all the anime in the franchise are fictionalized versions of the true events that took place in the Macross universe.
How does that work!?
It’s like if you make a movie about World War II. The war is a specific event that really happened. However, in making the film, you’ll probably change more than a few things about history to make it easier to understand, to hit a specific runtime, to make it more romantic, or to push some sort of message.
Wow… that’s really meta.
Yup. But what it basically means is that he writes each iteration of Macross trying to make the best possible story for that specific anime. In other words, some obscure plot point from three series ago will be ignored if it contradicts the story he is currently telling.
I get it. That sounds like an understandable policy… if an odd one.
Well, with that, we’ve pretty much covered all there is to say about the original Macross.
So, with that I know all I need to know about the Macross franchise?
Dear lord, no. But you’ll at least have a base to work from when starting Macross Delta.
You don’t inspire me with confidence.
I assure you, that feeling is mutual.
Macross Delta airs in Japan on Tokyo MX, Mainichi Broadcasting, TV Aichi, TV Hokkaido, TVQ, BS-11, and the d Anime Store. It is not currently streaming outside of Japan.