Recently, the international anime community has been buzzing a bit about Macross and Robotech (which is partially an adaptation of the first Macross series), and how the companies that own them (the Japanese company Big West and the American company Harmony Gold, respectively) have worked out a deal that appears to clear aside the legal issues that have dogged both series for a couple of decades now.
Most of the articles I’ve seen about the announcement have focused more on the Robotech side of things, so I thought it would be worthwhile to write an introduction to Macross, since I think that that’s the series that can present more pitfalls for the uninitiated viewer. The various series and movies that make up the Macross franchise are not as tangled and confusing as, say, Gundam, but there’s enough of them that it can be daunting, so this is meant to cut through the confusion, and present all the series as clearly as possible.
We still don’t know what the agreement between Big West and Harmony Gold entails, exactly, nor what Big West will do. They say that they CAN release most of Macross worldwide now, but whether they will (or if they do, when) is still an open question.
As for viewing order, I strongly recommend production order. Each series builds on the previous one, and there will always be some spoilers for earlier shows.. That said, each series is essentially its own thing, and can be enjoyed on its own. (And speaking of spoilers, A WARNING: most of this posts in this blog are meant for people who have already watched the shows. If you’re a beginner, you should avoid the rest of this blog for now.)
Also, each Macross series has its own tone, themes, and focus. So if you try one and find that it’s not your thing, try another one. Likewise, if you find that you really like one of the series, that’s no guarantee that you’ll like them all.
Finally, most Macross shows have inspired theatrical movie retellings, which often contradict the events of the series. Some fans get caught up in questions of which one is “canon,” but I’d advise against that. “Canon” is Macross is extremely fluid… it’s not much on the creators’ minds, and it doesn’t have to be on yours. The movies are always meant as a compliment to the series, not as competition, which is why I’ve listed them together.
Still with me? Okay, let’s get into it — you’ll see Macross variously get described as a mecha anime, an idol anime, or a love story, and it’s all of those, to one degree or another. But most of all, I think of it as a space opera in the grand old tradition: traveling through space, exploring new worlds, meeting new alien races (some hostile, some not), all of this is central to (nearly) every Macross series. Over the decades, it has become a true multi-generational epic, not just for the characters, but for the audience as well. I know several people who got into newer Macross series because their parents liked the older ones, and I don’t see that stopping any time soon.
But for starters, let’s go back nearly forty years to where it began…
SUPER DIMENSION FORTRESS MACROSS
(36-Episode TV series (1982-83), a movie (1984), and a music video OVA (1987))
In the far future year of 1999, an alien battleship crashes on earth, with no survivors on board. Over the next ten years, humanity repairs the ship, but then the aliens who shot it down come looking for it…
This series is extremely important in the history of anime, a true classic, and it remains a wild, fast-moving ride. No “monsters of the week,” no formula episodes, even the two recap episodes push the plot forward.
It’s VERY ‘80s in its designs and its story, as well as in its inclusion of a teen idol singer as a main character (since Japan was going through its first “idol boom” at the time). The show was aired on Sundays at 2:00 PM, a time slot when the entire family could be watching it (and which had never been used for anime before), and thus tried to make it broadly appealing for everyone. The young kids could groove on the robot and fighter plane action, older kids and adults could enjoy the pop music and the soap opera style love story. It’s lighter and more comedic than a lot of robot anime of its day, like Mobile Suit Gundam, but it does get pretty serious at times.
The biggest flaw of the series is its inconsistent animation. The good scenes look REALLY good, but getting that quality meant that they had to farm out some episodes at the last minute to another animation studio, and those episodes are among the ugliest you’ll ever see. That was addressed in the 1984 movie, Do You Remember Love, a completely reworked retelling and expansion of the series that is one of the most beautiful anime films ever made.
Then, for the series’ fifth anniversary, a music video compilation OVA, Flashback 2012, was released. It’s mostly clips from the show and the movie, but also features some gorgeous new animation that provides an epilogue to the series and its characters (and as such, it’s a terrible place to start).
AVAILBILITY: the TV series WAS streaming on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Tubi, but has since been removed from all of them. It’s the one Macross series that’s still being handled by US company Harmony Gold, and is probably included in their recent deal with Funimation, so I expect it’ll appear on their streaming service sooner or later. It’s also on out-of-print DVD sets from AnimEigo (released in 2000, subtitled only) and AD Vision (2006, which also includes a pretty bad English dub. Go with the subs). Do You Remember Love has some thorny rights issues that may prevent it from being released anytime soon, which is a tragedy. No official DVD or blu-ray releases of it have subtitles. There’s also a legendarily bad English dub that will probably never be released officially ever again. Flashback 2012 is, as of this writing, temporarily on YouTube, on the official Macross Channel. It doesn’t have subs, but it doesn’t really need them. And again, it’s a TERRIBLE place to start, if you’ve never seen Macross before.
SUPER DIMENSION FORTRESS MACROSS II ~LOVERS AGAIN~
(6-episode OVA (1992))
80 years after Do You Remember Love, a new alien threat attacks, and they’re impervious to earth’s tried-and-true defenses…
The only sequel to be done without the involvement of Macross creator and main mecha designer Shoji Kawamori, this was seen as underwhelming when it premiered, but it does have its own fervent fan base. To its credit, it’s got great character designs, lots of space battles with huge capital ships, and some wonderful Masami Obari mecha animation, as well as excellent music by future Evangelion composer Shiro Sagisu, but the plot is a little thin.
AVAILABILITY: For the US market, the six episodes of the OVA were combined into a nearly three-hour “movie.” Nothing is cut, except the opening and ending credits for each episode. As of this writing, it’s available on Amazon Prime. The English dub is bad, but kind of hilarious, too.
(4-episode OVA (1994-1995) and a movie (1995)
Three old former friends find themselves gathered together during a competition to decide on the next mass-produced variable fighter… with tragic consequences.
This OVA series was aimed at the people who loved the first series when they were kids and who were now in their twenties. As such, the story is darker, with more mature themes. One of the most expensive OVAs ever made, it was a failure in Japan, but the beautiful animation, solid English dub (starring a not-yet-famous Bryan Cranston as the protagonist), excellent music by then-unknown composer Yoko Kanno, and some of THE best mecha action ever shown on screen made it extremely popular among American anime fans of the time. Much of the staff, including director Shinichiro Watanabe, screenwriter Keiko Nobumoto, and composer Kanno, went on a few years later to create the famous series Cowboy Bebop.
The movie, a slightly different retelling, mostly features animation recycled from the series, but has some new scenes, including a much-ampflied (and clearer) ending.
AVAILIBILITY: Well, it USED to be on Amazon and in the iTunes Store, but I can’t find it there anymore. Old DVDs shouldn’t be hard to find, but they’re just dumps of the VHS tapes, and so the picture doesn’t look great. Only the OVA series has been dubbed, though. The movie was only ever released subtitled. The gorgeous (but expensive) Japanese blu-ray set includes the English dub for the OVA and passable subs for the movie.
(49-episode TV series (1994-95), twelve short films, a half-hour movie, a two-part OVA (all 1995), and an “unaired episode” (1996)
Traveling near the Galactic Center, the Macross 7 emigration fleet encounter a mysterious enemy…
Easily one of the most popular Macross series inside Japan, this also used to be (?) one of the most divisive series outside of it. It’s the most direct sequel to the original series, tying up some loose ends and answering some of the most-asked questions about it. But also, since it was designed to air on Sunday morning TV (which is like what Saturday morning used to be for American TV), it’s made for a younger audience than any other Macross series. As such, it’s a lot lighter and more comedic than any other installment in the franchise, although (like the original) it’s not afraid to get serious when the story requires it.
With the “idol boom” having ended a decade prior, the music here is provided by the fictional rock band Fire Bomber, who are just as mid-‘90s as the music for the original was early-‘80s.
But about that divisiveness… fans who watched the original series as Robotech when they were kids often hate this show. Younger fans (and by “younger,” here in 2021, I mean “forty years old and under”), by contrast, tend to love it. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen over my twenty years as an online Macross fan is the rehabilitation of Macross 7, from something that “everybody knows is garbage” to one of the most beloved anime series of the ‘90s.
The big problems are the pedestrian animation, the sometimes formulaic plotting (but that’s really a “feature,” not a “bug”), and most of all, the show’s length. There’s an astonishing amount of Macross 7 material; along with the already-long TV series, there are the short films that were initially added to the retail laser discs and VHS tapes (some are essential, some are a waste of time), a short movie, The Galaxy Is Calling Me, that ran as a double feature with the Macross Plus movie, and an OVA called “Macross 7 Encore” containing two thematically-linked episodes. These are all set during the TV series (although exactly WHERE is an open question), but are probably best watched afterwards.
AVAILABILITY: Well, this one has never been picked up for international distribution, although no one’s quite sure why. A persistent rumor states that steep music licensing fees are to blame, but there doesn’t seem to be any truth to that. The whole series has been adequately fansubbed, but I’d love to see an official release someday.
MACROSS DYNAMITE 7
(4-episode OVA (1997-98))
Further adventures of the band Fire Bomber as they discover a breed of massive Space Whales and their ties to an alien world…
Made for the 15th Anniversary of Macross, this the only direct sequel in all of Macross, a “one-year-later” follow-up to the Macross 7 TV series. Beautifully animated, it carries on the sense of adventure and fun from that series (although one plot line is especially ill-considered, and should’ve been left out) and features some of the best Macross 7 music there is. That said, its brevity and the low stakes of the story might leave some viewers unsatisfied. And it’s not really recommended until you’ve finished watching all the previous Macross 7 material.
AVAILABILITY: Like Macross 7, it’s never been released outside of Japan.
(5-episode OVA (2002-04))
A year before the events of the first Macross series, two opposing factions discover an artifact of possibly alien origin near a peaceful island…
This OVA, the first to use CGI for all the mecha, was (like Macross Plus) aimed squarely at the now-thirty-ish fans who watched the 1982 series when they were kids, going so far as to bring back fan-favorite character Roy Focker. The music and the love triangle aspects were downplayed here in favor of a gritty war story…
…and it totally flopped, nearly killing off the Macross brand for good.
These days, it tends to be prized by those fans who watch Macross for the fighter plane and robot action (which is EXCELLENT here) and like the more somber tone of the series. For people who prefer the lighter Macross installments, Zero can be kind of a bummer, but there’s no denying the beauty of the lush island backdrop.
Also, although it’s often called a prequel to the original series, it does assume that you’ve already seen it, and is more of a side story than a genuine prequel. It doesn’t set up any of the situations we see in the 1982 series, but instead is quite directly related to the following series, Macross Frontier.
AVAILABILITY: This was at the point when the lawsuits over Macross were being prepared, so although there were rumors that it was going to be released internationally, rumors are probably all they were. At this point, the US company Harmony Gold started trademarking the name “Macross” and everything associated with it, effectively blocking Macross shows from being released outside of Japan. It has been fansubbed, but not very well.
(25-episode TV series (2007-08), two movies (2009 and 2011), a music video OVA (2010), as well as several live concert videos, and an upcoming short film)
Traveling through deep space, the Macross 25 fleet is attacked by by the most bizarre, inhuman alien species yet discovered…
After the failure of Macross Zero, the creators knew they really had to make the next series a big hit, and they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. With excellent music by returning (and now-famous) composer Yoko Kanno, great mecha action, and a love triangle that had passionately-argued flame wars erupting all across the fandom, Macross Frontier was well-loved by nearly everyone, has eclipsed even the original series in popularity, and even kicked off the “Anime Song Boom” that continues to this day.
Created as a celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Macross, it was a late-night show (Thursdays at 1:25 AM), and thus aimed primarily at college-age women), but it also includes self-conscious homages and references to every previous Macross series (some quite obvious, others quite subtle) that even drew in the old fans who had, five years earlier, turned up their noses at Zero.
The music became extremely popular, with every single released for the series hitting the Top Ten in Japan, but also the two pop idols in the show (Japan was experiencing a resurgence in pop idols at the time), Sheryl and Ranka, became famous in their own right, and have devoted followers of all sexes and ages even now, almost fifteen years later.
After the series came the inevitable movie retellings. The first movie, The False Songstress, is partially recycled footage and partially new animation. The second movie, The Wings of Farewell, was all new animation and led to a shockingly different conclusion than the series. Between the movies, a fun-but-inessential music video collection, Nyan-Kuri, was made.
And if you want to see the Frontier fandom at its most ecstatic, there are two live concert videos of the singers performing with Yoko Kanno to sold-out crowds at Budokan. And the upcoming short film will be playing in theaters (in Japan) with the next Delta movie.
AVAILABILITY: With the Macross blockade in full effect by this point, there was no chance that Frontier would ever get an international release, which is a tragedy because it probably would’ve taken the world by storm. In an audacious move, however, English subtitles were added to one of the Japanese blu-ray sets of the movies (but not the series). The series itself has been fansubbed by many groups, with varying degrees of competency.
(Feature-length OVA (2012))
The Macross Frontier cast starts finding clues that might help them unravel the mystery of what happened to the Macross 7 fleet, nearly a decade earlier…
I’m really only giving this its own entry because I’m not sure whether to place it with Macross 7 or Macross Frontier. For the first-ever animated crossover between Macross series, it’s surprisingly weak, more of a showcase for the newly remastered Macross 7 blu-ray set than an interesting story in its own right. However, the music video at the end, featuring Sheryl and Ranka singing a medley with Fire Bomber, is pretty great.
AVAILABILITY: Ha! As if!
(26-episode TV series (2015-16), nine short films (2016), one movie (2018) with another coming soon, and several live concert videos)
In Macross, music usually saves the day, but what happens when an enemy who CAN’T be swayed by singing attacks…?
And, finally, we reach the present era of Macross. Delta switches up the formula A LOT (especially as opposed to the “back-to-basics” approach of Frontier), which a lot of people responded to, and a lot of people didn’t. In Japan, it’s definitely been a hit, but it really exposed a huge generation gap internationally: younger fans (by which, again, I mean “forty and under”) generally seemed to like it (especially the target audience, which, like Frontier, was college-aged women), whereas for older fans it seems often to have replaced Macross 7 as the series they despise the most. The requisite Macross love triangle is barely there, and most of the combat scenes are aerial dogfights rather than robot battles.
Much of the focus is instead as much on the idol group/tactical sound unit called “Walküre” as it is on the combat pilots in Delta Flight. It also has a very large cast, which leads to some fan-favorite characters getting the short straw, development-wise.
But the characters are appealing, the music (by Saeko Suzuki, Mina Kubota, and the group TOMISIRO) is excellent (yielding more Top Ten hits, and several sold-out concerts at the massive Yokohama Arena), and the world-building across several different planets is the best ever in Macross. There’s also a kinda/sorta pandemic that’s a major plot point in the series, which I think gives the show an added resonance that wasn’t there in 2016.
The movie is a retelling of the entire series, with a fair amount of new animation. The next movie (due out, last I heard, sometime this year, but of course COVID-19 makes such things unpredictable) will be an all-new sequel.
AVAILABILITY: In an effort to get around the Harmony Gold blockade of Macross, the Japanese DVD and blu-ray releases came with excellent English subtitles, far better than the (awful) fansubs that were done while the show was airing. Unfortunately, the subtitles don’t cover the comedic short films included with each volume.
So that’s it, at least for animated projects. This turned out much longer than I would’ve liked, but I hope it’s clear and helpful., and encourages you to check Macross out as it finally returns to the international stage!