Levi watches Macross Frontier so you and I don't have to. I think this means I owe him a cake or something.
As anyone who's been reading the blog for the past several months knows, I haven't been watching Macross Frontier, the currently-airing most recent TV sequel to the classic mecha animation series -- 1982's Super Dimension Fortress Macross -- that is the cornerstone of both that franchise and ROBOTECH. I watched the first episode of Frontier back when it made its early premiere back in December, and from the very moment before the credits rolled I decided it wasn't for me. I've covered some of the merchandising and tie-ins as other sites put it out there, but since the first episode I haven't said much about the show itself because it would all be second-hand disgust.
So I present to you a little something my pal Levi, with whom I agree about most things anime-related, wrote up for the blog at my urging. He did this about a month ago, right before I became terribly indisposed with a horrible work schedule that left me incapable of spending any time reading, editing, and posting it. My understanding is that he fully intends to finish the job after Frontier wraps in, I think, less than a month's time. This is pretty negative, so if you're merrily coasting along and enjoying the show, perhaps you want to come back in a few days' time when I've got maybe a new Roboblog Chronicles video or something up.
For everyone else ... enjoy!
Macross Frontier - An Overview & ReviewBy Levi Tompkins
Part 1 / Episodes 1-12
OK, here we go folks. I'm your guest blogger Levi P. Tompkins. Jonathan asked me to write this up, because we have pretty similar thoughts on a lot of things, and so he trusts me to give you a view into the newest piece of the Macross franchise that will live up to the traditions of the Roboblog.
To start off with, let me set the tone. Take original Macross. Strip it of all of its mature characters and civility. Paint it with the "fun" modern anime colored set of Crayolas. Add in more fan service than the rest of the Macross franchise combined, and you have Frontier. This is a bitter and cynical view, but as I said it sets the tone; these are the thoughts you need to be having while reading this.
We open up with a grand view of the Frontier, a huge colony fleet of ships the centerpiece of which is Island 1, a Macross 7-type domed space city. The first episode is beautiful, even if it feels like everything in it is ripped from other Macross shows. Beautiful cityscapes and inspiring Yoko Kanno music. We are quickly introduced to our main characters. Alto is our heroic male. Think Hikaru by way of Kamille from Zeta Gundam, with a lot of the same issues. Throw in just the tiniest dash of Isamu Dyson's love of flight and we got our guy. When we meet him he and his two mates from the high school's aeronautics department, Mihail and Luca, are practicing using personal flying armors for a performance they are going to put on during the concert of the Galactic Songstress Sheryl Nome, who is coming to Frontier for the first time as the last stop on a long tour. Flying above the beautiful city, Alto angsts at the lack of a real sky and longs to fly higher.
Meanwhile, a young girl named Ranka Lee has found out from her brother that she now has a ticket to the aforementioned Sheryl Nome concert. Ranka is absolutely adorable, if you like girls who are seventeen but look like they are twelve. She also has prehensile green hair. At no point is this almost sentient hair explained. Oh, she also has the coolest phone ever.
At the same time, out in space, mysterious aliens appear. Not long after, members of the government meet in a darkened room and talk about how they have arrived as expected. How typical.
Meanwhile, Sheryl Nome has just arrived on her flight from wherever, fold lagged and annoyed. She arrives with her manager Grace, who is a cyborg -- something common in many places, but basically illegal on Frontier, at least to get the work done.
On the way to the concert, hapless li'l Ranka gets lost and wanders through a sprinkler into a changing Alto, whose pretty face she mistakes for a girl's for a second. How she does this I don't know. I know plenty of anime guys that actually look like girls -- Soap from Five Star Stories for instance, or Tieria from the recent Gundam 00. Alto, however, doesn't look like a girl without makeup assisting him. Alto dries Ranka off with the thrusters from his flying suit, and they separate, but not before Ranka makes it painfully obvious (at least to the viewers at home) that she really likes him.
The concert begins. Alto is pissed that they aren't being allowed to perform any high level stunts. As they perform their displays of aerial acrobatics above a visually stunning Sharon Apple-esque concert, Alto decides to pull a corkscrew which ends knocking Sheryl off the stage. Catching Sheryl, Alto is instructed by her to carry her as she sings. Sheryl is a professional, and this is not the type of thing that will throw her off her game. Between this and his previous encounter, Alto has met the two women who will change his life.
As this is going on the SMS, a private for-profit military organization, is trying to fight off the mystery aliens. One breaks through into Island One causing alarms and the abrupt end of the concert. Alto witnesses the appearance of one of the alien creatures, a Vajra, and watches as it slaughters the pilot of a VF-25, who had ejected and tried to fight it with his flying armor. Faced with the possibility of his own death, Alto takes the VF-25 and proceeds to completely imitate a classic Macross pose as he fires on it.
That is how we begin. Its stunningly beautiful throughout, but it lacks originality. The music is beautiful and moving, and yet ... just more Yoko Kanno fare. What we see here is technically excellent, but without soul.
Over the course of the next couple of episodes our main characters become intertwined such that they become a close-knit group. Flying the Valkyrie, Alto rescues Ranka while the SMS defeat the Vajra. After the battle, Alto is grabbed by Ozma Lee, Ranka's brother and the leader of the Skull Squadron. Entering the SMS base the various members of the SMS ask Alto to tell them about their comrade's death. He finds out from Ozma that Ranka is not really his sister, but rather a survivor of a Vajra attack from years ago. She remembers very little from her childhood, and often just passes out if its talked about.
During this time Ranka becomes determined to go see her rescuer, and Sheryl realizes that during her flight with Alto at the concert she lost her earring. Both girls head off towards where they are told Alto will be. Down in the SMS facility, Alto is surprised to learn that the other members of his flying suit team/classmates, Mihail and Luca, are members of the SMS already. Before he can really react to this, though, an alarm goes off signaling another Vajra attack. Alto asks for a Valkyrie, and gets a punch in the face from Ozma as a reply.
On their way to see Alto, Sheryl and Ranka encounter each other. Sheryl, in disguise, chats Ranka up and learns about her ambition to be a singer herself and gives her some encouragement. As they look out into space and see the fighters go out, Ranka begins to sing one of Sheryl's songs, and Sheryl joins in, revealing herself. They encounter Alto and so their triangular fate begins.
During the combat, Island 1 suffers some damage and Alto, Sheryl and Ranka must take shelter together. This mirrors the old Hikaru-Minmay scene, but is far more awkward because -- well, let's face it, this is modern anime. Ranka and Sheryl have a nice sort of relationship, but both are somewhat awkward towards Alto. When they are rescued, Ranka witnesses her brother being carried back as he had been injured in battle. Ozma had been lying to Ranka about being a pilot, and the stress causes her to faint. Later, when she's recovered, Alto and Ranka talk and Alto learns about Ranka's lack of memories, and her stress-related blackouts, he also hears her sing "Aimo" for the first time, a song which is all Ranka remembers from her childhood. We also see the presidential aide Leon Mishima taking an interest in Ranka.
Over the next couple of episodes a sort of status quo is built up. Alto manages to join the SMS and trains alongside his classmates, and trains against Mihail's childhood friend, a Zentraedi girl named Klan Klein. It must be mentioned that Klan is the most ingenious and shameless piece of fan service in years. She pilots a red Queadluun-Rau and, when in her full-sized Zentraedi form, is an extremely oversexed babe. However, due to a genetic defect, in her miclone form she looks like a kid. She is in love with Mihail, who only prefers older women. This situation makes Klan perfect for the Japanese fan-porn industry, allowing her to appeal to both guys who like giant breasts and guys who like little girls. I assume that some creative individuals will also manage to produce bad comics to appeal to guys who like little kids with giant breasts, but we'll just have to wait and see ...
Sheryl starts to fall for Alto a little and uses the pretense of her missing earring to get him to take her out. At the same time Ranka, who has already fallen for him a lot, seeks his encouragement as she enters the annual Miss Macross Frontier Contest. In an incredible (and fairly stupid) parallel to original Macross, Ranka sings "My Boyfriend is a Pilot" as Alto does battle against Klan out in space as his final test. Everyone adores her cute appearance, but Ranka trips at the end. However, unlike Minmay, Ranka loses to a ginormously endowed young woman, and sulks about losing and about Alto being called away to SMS business until Sheryl comforts her.
The fifth episode takes place in Zentraedi town, a place where all the Zentraedi live at full size, but imitate what seems like modern Japanese culture. Alto takes Sheryl there on a date to make up for losing her earring, and Mihail ends up accompanying Ranka there as an escort due to a fight she had with her brother. Sheryl has a lot of fun playing in the giant mall, and Ranka ends up seeing Sheryl and Alto sharing an intimate moment. Depressed, Ranka is comforted by Mihail, who asks her if she can really sing in front of people who don't really care about her. Ranka begins trying to sing in the middle of the crowd, but can't until she sees a paper airplane thrown by Alto. Her singing really catches people, and she is noticed by a talent agent. Also, during Ranka's song a captured Vajra corpse revives and causes some minor havoc.
Alto and Sheryl end up sharing some close moments, but before she is supposed to leave a Valkyrie from her home fleet, the Galaxy, arrives to report that they've been attacked. The SMS are called into service and find that most of the Galaxy Fleet has been dispersed by the Vajra. As they battle, Sheryl is playing her farewell to Frontier concert, and sings a song hoping to reach Alto. Ranka, in the audience, sings as well, and somehow their feelings reach Alto out in space. The SMS pilots rescue the survivors and the SMS's mini-Macross, the Quarter, debuts. This is captained by a generic psuedo-Gloval guy whose name I can't be bothered to remember, but its piloted by one of my favorite characters in the show, Bobby. Bobby is a manly homosexual battleship helmsman who is in love with Ranka's bro. He's also a hairdresser and makeup artist, and is more hot blooded than any two characters in the rest of this show. The Quarter itself is a sort of quick-strike assault Macross. Also making its debut is a mysterious VF-27 and its pretty boy pilot Brera Sterne, who is just as much a danger to Alto and company as he is to the Vajra.
With her home attacked, Sheryl stays on Frontier and joins the aeronautics course at the high school Alto and company attend to as part of a propaganda campaign. Ranka begins to get work as a singer doing odd jobs. Consequently, Ranka has to leave her school and come to Alto's as well. Oh look, now we are some other anime, complete with a campus love story! Damn you, Kawamori, why?! Sheryl steals all of Ranka's thunder just by showing up, but that's OK -- Ranka is going be on TV! Ranka leaves to go to her appearance. Meanwhile, Sheryl's panties are stolen by an alien squirrel. The entire school goes after them, and Sheryl throws on one of the mechanized flying suits to go after them herself. This eventually leads Sheryl to jump off the top of the building to get them back. She comes out of the flying suit and begins to fall, but is rescued by Alto in his suit while Pirates of the Carribean music plays. I wish I was making this all up. Also, the government investigates what happened to Galaxy, and Ranka finds out that her appearance was canceled due to a TV special all about Sheryl. Yeah, Ranka, everyone loves Sheryl more than you, sorry -- but you do get to meet the VF-27 pilot and listen to him play your song on harmonica! Yay for scenes that don't actually go anywhere!
Folks, I can go on and on about how this is a complete and total lash up of a Macross episode, and that this is just trying to emulate the success of other modern anime shows that use these tactics, but really, I'm tired of saying it, so let me sum it up this way: this is EVERYTHING that is wrong with anime today, although sadly it doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what's wrong with this show. NEXT!
With that out of the way, it's time to get to serious business, a character-building episode about Mihail. Now, Mihail is Alto's friend and a cool guy who likes older women. He's also a sniper and ace pilot in a blue Valkyrie; put that together with his sort-of love interest Klan being in a red mecha and it brings about a lot of Max & Miria parallels. This is unfair, really; Mihail is one of the few guys in Frontier who actually seems like his own character, in many ways a much richer character than Max in the original Macross. This episode is about his angst and guilt over his dead sister, who committed suicide after one of her sniping missions took the life of her ex-lover who had spurned her. The episode really just deals with who he is, but it also gives us more of Alto versus the VF-27, and a nice scene with Klan, so its okay. Mind you, still an episode that could be from just about any anime, but such an improvement over the previous week that I love this episode.
Now back to less serious business: a strange homage to Macross Zero. A movie about the events of Macross Zero is being made. Ranka has a small part in it, and Sheryl is doing the song. The Miss Macross winner is playing the part of Sara, the female lead. Alto has to pilot a Valkyrie for it. Meanwhile, sleazy-government-dude-with-bad-hair Leon is meeting with a mysterious source telling him that the Hydra animal from the planet Eden are going wild -- they are kept as pets by Zentraedi -- and that this has to do with the Vajra. Ranka gets advice from Alto on acting since hes supposedly very good at it. When the crew learns that Alto is who he is they try to get him to act in the movie but he refuses. He does agree to do the underwater stunts for them, but this means he has to have a kiss with the Mao character -- Sara's sister and the other female lead in Macross Zero. The director doesn't like the song written for the movie, and decides to change it when he hears Ranka sing "Aimo." The animals that are going wild just happen to attack the girl playing Mao, and BAM, the director decides Ranka gets the part. OH NOES, this means Ranka and Alto will have to kiss!
When Ranka is out on her own later and is also attacked, Alto shows up to save her and totally fails. VF-27 pilot Brera Sterne shows up and reveals himself as an uber-cyborg ninja dude -- I'm so tired of uber cyborg ninja dudes. Ranka, of course, passed out and fails to remember Brera at all. She thinks Alto saved her ... but, when Brera showed up she did call him brother. Hmmm.
Back at camp, they are all freaked out about the upcoming kiss, and Sheryl is all like, "It's not big deal," and lands a big one on Alto. While this makes Ranka feel bad, it also gives her the understanding needed to play Mao. At the end of the episode, Ozma comments that her getting the role of Dr. Mao (doctor, really?) must be some kind of fate, implying that this show has something to do with Macross Zero after all. Everyone loves Ranka after seeing her in this movie, her star starts to rise.
Now it's time for Alto's birthday! Everybody wants him. His sort-of brother, the man who is his family's successor now that Alto has left the stage, comes to tell him that he should come see his father on his birthday, and that all could be forgiven. He comments that truly Alto has actor's blood, because this act of his is very convincing, but that it is an act. It's rather interesting -- this is something very lightly commented on by many different characters, that the Alto we see is a sort of facade that he has created, but why he has done this and how it's different from the real Alto, have yet to be explained. Ranka, incredibly busy with her new popularity, wants to make him cookies as a present. Sheryl is going to be performing a concert on Gallia 4 where survivors from Galaxy might be located, and there is a request to the SMS to send a pilot to protect her. Sheryl is getting sick and refuses to rest, because she is a pro, and Ranka is gaining on her. Sheryl wins the "contest" to claim Alto though, offering him the chance to fly in a real sky. Poor Ranka is left arriving at the place she told Alto to come to, only to find Mihail there with a message for her. Now, don't think bad of Alto -- he never told her he'd meet her there, and didn't have time to call and tell her he wouldn't be able to come. Ranka does find that panty-thieving bug squirrel there, and feeds it the cookies she made for Alto.
On Gallia 4 there is a huge all-Zentraedi fleet of marines stationed. About half of these guys are separatists, and the concert by Sheryl is looked upon tensely. While Alto is greeted warmly by fake Breetai and fake Exedore, Sheryl's arrival goes badly as she falls sick almost immediately causing fake Quamzin (Khyron) to stage a revolt and take everyone hostage -- now mind you, these guys have names, but they really are just clones or variations of those three with slightly different appearances and names. Alto makes a plan to break out and get his Valkyrie, but little do all involved know this has been some kind of setup, and Grace, Sheryl's cyborg manager appears to be in on it. Without revealing herself to anyone, she tips off fake Quamzin and Alto is caught. The Zentraedi have managed to get a hold of a ton of reaction weapons, and there is no way for anyone from Frontier to get there in time.
Except there is! Suddenly, it turns out Alto's bud Luca is super-rich and pulls a prototype fold booster out of nowhere. He sends Mihail to rescue them. Mihail shows up on Gallia and, lo and behold, who is with him but Ranka, ready to perform the Minmay attack! The Zentraedi, both friend and foe alike, completely freak. Well ... I wish they freaked, but what they really do is act like a bunch of perverts staring at Ranka, passing out and getting nose bleeds from her cuteness. You know, in original Macross this made sense. Now, though ... I mean, have these guys never seen a human being since they joined up? I can't believe it, it's dumb and insane, and a shameless way to make Ranka into Minmay. Thankfully, fake Quamzin doesn't fall for it. He goes to blow her up, but is stopped by Alto. Alto defeats him, but as his Queadluun-Rau explodes he says that two different types of beings can't coexist in the same universe, a sentiment that mirrors certain statements from the beginning of original Macross. Alto leaves to take Ranka back to Frontier with the remaining fold booster so she can get back in time for her first concert, and Sheryl sits sick in misery that right now Ranka is taking her flight through a real sky with Alto, as well as having taken her concert here on Gallia 4. As Alto and Ranka fly off, some creature awakens on the surface causing the Valkyrie's instruments to go screwy. They crash, and end up in front of what appears to be ...
... the original Macross.
And that's the first half of the show. Did you like it, are you interested? Boy, I hope not; rewatching all this has about made me sick, I don't really want you all to have to go through it, but maybe you'll see something there I haven't.
So, what do we have here? I mean, it's supposed to be Macross, but what does that mean? When I think Macross, I think maturity, originality, conventions being turned on their heads, interesting bad guys ... do we have that here? I can't say we do.
Lets start with Alto. Alto isn't a bad character as such, it's just that there is nothing much to say about him. He is a piece of cardboard for Sheryl and Ranka to sort of compete for -- I'd say fight over, but honestly they don't really fight for him, they just sort of civilly compete for his affections, and for his part he reacts the same to either of them without really seeming to care that they like him, and without having a discernible preference.
He also lacks a certain quality other Macross lead characters have had. This is a little abstract, but the Macross leads of the previous shows have all sort of been outsiders. Hikaru came from outside -- outside the island, the military, everything. All the people and situations he encountered throughout Macross, with the exception of Focker, were completely new to him. Isamu was a guy returning to a home and to people who had changed from when he knew them before. Few things in life make you more of an outsider than that. Basara ... well, Basara isn't really like a person. I love the guy, but he doesn't fit in with anything at all; still, that makes him divorced from the world in that Macross lead sort of way. Shinn was a young test pilot for one thing, feeling out of place about his position and skills, and even more out of place on the island with Sara and Mao.
Alto's incredible skill with a Valkyrie also irks slightly. Hikaru was a stunt pilot, just the thing you need to be for piloting something like a Valkyrie. Isamu was a veteran and good enough to be a test pilot Basara was a really good guitar player ... well, OK, Basara's skills dont make a ton of sense either, but Macross 7 is a weird show all around. Shinn, to be honest, kinda sucked, but Focker was there to pick up the slack. Alto, though, is a student pilot, and yet he can pilot the top of the line Valkyrie like no one's business.
As far as Sheryl and Ranka go, there is very little really wrong with them. I actually really like Sheryl, and Ranka's only real problem stems from the fact that she's a shameless cute, young-looking character, basically designed to be super popular and merchandised. Her convenient amnesia and constant passing out are kind of a weak plot device as well. Throughout the series people comment that she's a mysterious thing, and really that's kinda stereotypical, sort of a low move for Macross, which usually doesn't go with such overdone plot points. Ranka is also just kind of a dumb girl; that's only really a problem if you dislike that sort of character, though. Her voice actress does do a great job, especially for a first-timer.
Ranka and Sheryl both have some nice songs; in fact, the battles done to the series' songs make up some of its better moments, but the larger portion of the songs are pretty forgetable. In a franchise known for its music, that's kind of a sad thing. On the other hand we have a lot of good Yoko Kanno music when they are not singing, and that helps.
The next thing to talk about is the supporting cast. This is where the BIG problems with the show's cast really start. The cast is incestuous as all hell. All of these people know each other before the series starts with the exception of Sheryl and Alto. Scratch that, Alto knows Mihail and Luca. But unbeknownst to Alto, Mihail and Luca know everyone else in the show, and really only hang out with these people. It's really weird that Alto didn't know any of these other people, given that Mihail and Luca appear to be his only friends. And his classmate Nanase is best friends with Ranka, how about that!
Putting aside the fact that this is just silly, the real problem is it makes these people seem as if they don't have real lives; in a colony ship that big, these people all knew each other beforehand, and now they're all the key figures in the battle against this alien menace. Huh.
Let's also point out that everyone at the beginning of the series seemed to be acting as if being in the SMS was an important secret, but as soon as Alto joined up it suddenly became A-OK that everyone knows. Maybe there is an unexplained reason for this, but it still comes off badly.
The characters also suffer from the fact that this show wants to be original Macross, or maybe they suffer from the fact that the viewers want it to be original Macross. Ozma, while not really being much like Roy Focker is forced into doing Roy Fokker-like things most episodes. Mihail and Klan are constantly compared to Max and Miria despite the fact that they are actually probably better characters than the original Macross versions of the two. Everyone is waiting for poor green-Valkyrie-piloting Luca to buy it like Kakizaki did despite the fact that he's nothing like Kakizaki at all -- mind you, he is a generic stock type of character like Kakizaki was, just a different type. Then there is Catherine Glass: the daughter of the president, miscellaneous government service girl for whatever situation you might need, ex-lover of Ozma, currently engaged to sleazy Leon. She happens to have both Misa's personality and appearance, but without any of Misa's charm, and I don't think anyone cares to know more about her because she's just fake Misa.
What's really lacking in this cast is villains. The Vajra are pretty cool space bugs, but they're just space bugs nonetheless, common as the day is long. I can't count the number of recent mecha anime that had giant space bugs as villains, but it's not a small number, and that's just in this decade. All the other Macross titles have good villains: the Zentraedi, the Varauta/Protodeviln, and Myung's desires twisted in the A.I. of Sharon Apple are all wonderful villains, but no, here we get mindless bugs. YAAAAWN.
Then there are the all-too-frequent callbacks to previous Macross shows. The way they're employed in this show, they aren't fun nostalgic moments for the fans. A fun nostalgic moment for fans was when, back in Macross 7, Miria showed up in her old red VF-1J, resplendent in original TV series pilot suit. In Macross Frontier, its callbacks are just unoriginal thinking paired with shameless grabs at appealing to long-time Macross fans -- or perhaps the creators are trying to make modern anime fans appreciate the old beats of Macross. Either way, the people falling for these ploys aren't appreciating the spirit of Macross shows past, they are just looking into the surface of them. Frontier is a horrible bitch with a good plastic surgeon who has managed to mold her so that she looks great to everyone, no matter their tastes.
Actually, it's interesting: this duality isn't just within the show's freakish blend of Macross references and modern anime tropes, but also in its girls. Its two female leads are a sexy, slightly more mature -- in all meanings of that word -- songstress, and a moe loli super-adorable idol singer. Klan is another example: super sexpot body and serious warrior, or tiny cute ineffectual little girl. Frontier is a show that wants to have its cake and eat it too. They want to have all these old Macross elements and story beats for old fans, and the modern anime elements and trappings for new fans, and the real tragedy is that neither of those things is in any way reflective of what Macross truly is.
Macross is about having a unique spirit, and this show is just becoming an expert at how to blend superficial elements while having no soul at all. The worst part is that everyone, both in Japan and among the plugged-in American anime fandom, seems to be buying it. I guess to put it simply, having a bunch of stuff that happened in original Macross happen in Frontier isn't what its about to be a Macross show -- it's, in fact, the wrong way to be a Macross show altogether. It is, however, how to be a bad modern anime that wants to wear the Macross name on its sleeve.
I could go on -- there are other things about the show you should probably know. For instance, you should know that the Valkyrie animation is amazing, but also amazingly hard to follow. You should know that there looks to be hope for the second half, but that its a sort of dark hope. As it stands, I still can't say you should watch this show. I'll continue to watch, because I want to know what's actually going on. They've hinted at things in the plot, and there have been some interesting philosophical statements, but all in all its not a plot that has gone anywhere or done anything. I want to know if Kawamori can at least pull an interesting idea out of all of this, if all of this somehow matters in the grand scheme of all things Macross, but I don't care about these characters. I dont care if they live or if they die. I like Sheryl, but honestly it's not that they've done such a bang up a job with her. They've just done a less shitty job with her than anyone else. For the most part, the whole of Frontier could explode and I don't think it would really make that much of a difference to me at this point, and when that's the case, than there is something wrong.
This is not my Macross, and I've watched them all, and enjoyed them all up until now. I don't know who this show is supposed to be for, because no one who appreciates Macross for the reasons I appreciate it could ever be a fan of this show. Maybe you don't agree with me -- many people don't, and that's fine. I think the end-all be-all of anime is Escaflowne and Macross 7, for cripes sake. The thing is, I've been around a while and I've watched a lot of mecha shows, and given my experience with the genre I know that this is shameless and without creative thought, and that those things are everything that the original Macross was not about.