CHAPTER 1: The Sea and the Wind…
ICONIC SCENE: The sexy, sexy VF-0.
STORY DATE: September 2008
RELEASE DATE: December 21, 2002
1. With the release of this series (one day before my birthday, although I didn’t realize that until now), it becomes a little easier to see the marketing strategies involved with Macross. Taking their cues from Gundam, the TV shows are meant (mostly) to bring in new viewers (and mostly placate old viewers, Delta’s first episode notwithstanding), while the OVAs are (again, mostly) meant to cater to fans of the original. This is made EXTREMELY clear for Macross Zero in the goofy TV commercial for its release: a thirtysomething businessman (played by celebrity and genuine Macross fan, Hiroyuki Mayasako) is in a restaurant, depressed. Suddenly he notices that his sandwich can be rearranged to look like a gerwalk, which excites him past the point of reason. A voiceover shouts, “Our youth! Macross Zero!” before it cuts back to the guy, exhausted but happy, as he murmurs “Deculture…”
And yes, this series is definitely meant to grab the guys who saw the original Macross on TV back when they were kids, who are now (circa 2002) in their late twenties and early thirties. Exactly the same people that Macross Plus was aimed for, except that they’re now eight years older than they were then. And exactly the same crowd that Yamato and Hasegawa were targeting, with their VF-1 toys and kits (because those guys are probably feeling nostalgic for their youth, and MAYBE they don’t have kids of their own yet and can afford to spend time and money on expensive toys and model kits).
Macross Zero pretty much failed to capture that market (or ANY market). So much so that they haven’t tried anything like it again in the fourteen years since its debut.
The question, as always, is WHY. Why didn’t it capture the imaginations of those guys who saw the original as kids? I’ll try to answer that as best I can through the next few posts, using both comments I’ve read online, conversations I’ve had, and my own feelings about it (since I’m mostly part of that demographic it was aiming towards, except that I’m not Japanese).
2. The staff is great, and features Hiroshi Ohnogi (from the original series, as of Episode 16) as scriptwriter and Ichiro Itano (from the original series, and probably the reason you still love some of the mecha scenes from it) as battle choreographer. It also features Hidetaka Tenjin doing “mechanical art.” He is the quintessential “fan-made-good,” as he started off drawing Valkyries as a hobby. Then his website was noticed by people of influence, and he was chosen to make the gorgeous cover pictures for the Hasegawa Macross kits, and eventually went on to Satelight to work on Macross Zero, Frontier, and now Delta. As well as drawing box art for virtually EVERYTHING else, mecha-related (seriously, if it exists, he’s probably drawn it at some time or another). And that brings up an interesting point about the “aesthetic” of Zero: figuring that Yukikaze had done extremely well portraying realistic aircraft, and that Zero couldn’t compete with it on those grounds, it was decided that the inspiration for the Macross Zero fighters would be model kit box art, rather than reality. It’s not meant to look “real” or even “anime-style,” It’s meant to look like a really dynamic ’80s model kit box (again… NOSTALGIA, NOSTALGIA, NOSTALGIA). Anyway, if you love the realistic “grime” on the VF-0, thank Tenjin. Likewise, if you’re a Robotech fan, any pic of the mecha that you’ve seen (and maybe added the word “Robotech” to) anytime in the last fifteen years, it’s probably a Tenjin pic. Seriously, Harmony Gold should pay him a commission.
The character designs are by Takuya Saito, and it’s weird… if you looked at the Macross Zero website that was up and being updated during the two years this series was a going concern, they looked awful. Simplistic and sloppy. In the show itself, though, I think they look really good. They seem, if I may say so, to really be ANIMATION designs, in that the characters look best in movement. And they’re capable of a wide range of facial expressions, which is paramount (Macross Zero has some of the most expressive facial movement EVER in a Macross series, no disrespect to Mikimoto or Masayuki).
3. Thematically, it’s got some very different concerns than previous Macross shows (as I’ve said before, there’s no such thing as a “cookie-cutter” Macross series). First off is the encroachment of civilization upon a “primitive” island tribe. The second is fighter pilots learning to adapt to changing technology, just as prop plane pilots had a difficult time transitioning to jets (or the first-ever fighter pilots had to adapt to a battlefield that was three-dimensional, rather than fought purely on a 2D “plane” (in the Euclidian sense) of land or sea). Now, that second theme could easily have been part of the original Macross, except that the concern was getting Hikaru into Valk combat as soon as possible, thus glossing over his training by using a montage in Episode 6. If they had shown Hikaru getting used to gerwalk and battroid modes, it would probably have been much like this.
4. Another point of note before we get into the episode: this is the first series that came out AFTER Macross “began,” since the SDF-1 was supposed to have crashed on earth in 1999. I remember wondering, before watching this series, if they were even going to mention the date, or change it, or whatever… but no. The date of the crash remains 1999. Macross is suddenly an alternate history rather than a vision of the future, although this entire story still happens in 2008, which was still (barely) the future when the series was released.
And right from the outset, it’s clear that this is NOT a prequel in the usual sense. The first Macross series started in 1999 and then jumped forward ten years. This is, again, set entirely in 2008, although it shows 1999 through Shin’s memories. The first few minutes of “Booby Trap” still happen earlier than any part of Zero. Likewise, Zero is not a usual prequel in that it doesn’t set up the conflict and events of the first series. It’s more a side-story that happens to occur before the main story starts, much like, say, “MS Igloo.” Now, very few Gundam fans will suggest that you should watch MS Igloo first, even though, chronologically, the first episodes happen before the first Gundam series. So I don’t know why there are apparently so many people who decide to start watching Macross with this series (at least, I’ve seen many people online asking if they should start with this series, and other people suggesting that people start with this series). Let me be blunt: If you’re going to systematically watch all of Macross, production order is the most satisfying and least confusing way to go. Especially since this series has many more connections to Frontier than it does to any other Macross show.
I mean, really, if you’re going to be strict about chronology, at least watch the first few minutes of “Booby Trap,” and THEN pop this in when the date in the SDF-1 rebuilding montage gets to “2008.”
5. So we start with our new hero, Shin Kudo, and he’s definitely A Guy Who’s Seen Too Much, although we won’t find out WHAT until later. He remembers 1999, when the (still, as of this series, unnamed) Macross crashed (the word “Macross” is never uttered by anyone in this show at any point). For a twelve-year-old boy in 1999, he’s got some curiously old-fashioned toys on his shelf. He says he sees the crash site to the west, which makes me wonder where, exactly, he lived. If he’s in Japan, it should be to the south, rather than west. Maybe he’s living in Hawaii…? Was the explosion so big that one could even SEE it from Hawaii…? Maybe Guam…?
The Unification Wars also look vastly different here than they did in the first episode of the original Macross, mostly because these scenes can show actual war machines of the ’90s, rather than projecting 1983 ideas of what would be in use in the ’90s. That said, the F-14s here are clearly thrown in because of resonance with the VF-1, as all the real F-14s had been grounded (and *sob!* trashed) well before 2008.
Oh, and a note about Shin. While watching this series the first time, back in 2003, I couldn’t help but think, “Man… they should revive Area 88 and make it look like this,” since Area 88 is near and dear to my heart. To my utter shock, they actually did that exact thing a year or so later, although it didn’t end up looking nearly as good as this does. Anyway, apparently, I was just following a subliminal hint: I’ve been told (by a fan… so make of it what you will) that Shin Kudo was named “Shin” because the main character of Area 88 is also named Shin.
6. The opening dogfight is really good. It impressed me back in 2003 and still holds up well. There’s still something that seems a little… off… about the CGI models, but damned if I can figure out what it is, and it’s not TOO distracting, anyway (maybe it’s just the “box art” aesthetic…? I’m not sure). Honestly, it could just be that, during this rewatch, after six months of watching (mostly) hand-drawn Macross animation, the sudden shift into (mostly) pure CGI is a little jarring.
Plot-wise, it seems to hearken back to the opening battle in Macross Plus Episode 1, where Isamu manages to rescue his teammates in ways that scare the living shit out of them (in most other ways, Shin and Isamu are virtually nothing alike. Shin is emotionally completely disconnected, whereas Isamu is nothing BUT a bundle of emotions). Then Nora’s SV-51 shows up and makes short work of Shin’s team, and it’s excellent, showing just how outclassed normal jets would be against a variable fighter.
Anyway, everyone gets shot down, their aircraft carrier is destroyed, and Shin is apparently the only survivor.
7. Then we’re introduced to the island of Mayan, where most of the story will take place. It seems pretty sheltered from western civilization, at least at first. It later turns out that they DO have electricity and things of that sort, but all the people who could work that stuff have left (or died in the war).
They also have some very suspicious-sounding legends that seem like corrupted versions of actual (Macross) history (NOTE: I would like to render “Tori no hito” as “Bird-man,” and indeed, I did for a few years, and so did everyone else. But Frontier shows “Bird-Human” as the accepted translation. That, to me, seems to summon a very different image, since what we get here doesn’t seem the slightest bit “human,” but oh well… like “Focker” (rather than “Fokker”), “Glaug” (rather than “Glahj”), “Michael” (rather than “Mikhail” and “Michel”), and now “Freyja Wion” (Rather than “Freya Vion”), that’s a lost battle… (I don’t look forward to meeting people who talk about how much they like “Fray-Ja Wee-on”). Primarily, there’s the legend of the Bird-Human coming down from the sky and meeting the Fish-Human. The Bird-Human cuts off the Fish-Human’s tail and legs sprout out. Again, a metaphor for the Protoculture arriving and messing with genetics to create the human race. A bit later, it also appears that Mayan Island itself might be the remnants of a Protoculture space ship, but that legend (about a turtle shell from the sky getting cracked and becoming the islands) never gets expanded upon (When I first saw this episode, I figured that that ship would be reactivated so the Mayan people would escape the destruction of the earth by the Zentradi, but nope).
Now, I’ll be honest: the “history disguised as legends” idea is a pretty common one in science fiction (and sometimes fantasy), used in countless stories and cropping up in the most unlikely places. And I have always been a complete sucker for it. Anything that can really impart a sense of a vast abyss of time will pretty surely activate my “sense of wonder and awe” that I think we can all agree is a major (THE major…?) appeal of any work of speculative fiction. And how better to achieve that, really? If I ever start writing science fiction (unlikely… but you never know), you can BET that this will be a rich vein for me to tap.
So already, this series had me hooked. And yes, I realize this is just my personal quirk.
(We also see Mao for the first time in this scene, looking bored and irritated with the story, although we don’t know that she’s important yet.)
But yeah, there are really only two important Mayan characters: Sara Nome and her sister, the just-mentioned Mao Nome. Sara is the stern, unfriendly one. Kinda like Misa, but less likable. And a little more savage. And always worried about “Kadun,” which seems like some kind of curse or demonic spirit (there appear to be many “Kadun”s). Mao is the young, spirited, carefree one (and is much TOO young to be a serious contender in the love triangle here). Between them, there’s a lot of discussion about traditions and about modernization, which actually turns out to be much more interesting than it sounds. Sara, in her role as the priestess of the island, stands for the “old-fashioned” Mayan culture, whereas Mao is all for westernization and modern conveniences (like that new-fangled thing called “electricity”). What’s interesting about it is that it SEEMS like it’s being set up that Sara is “right” and Mao is “wrong,” and if you’re not paying close attention (or if you’re Sara), that’s exactly how it turns out. If you REALLY look at it, though, it’s WAY more complicated than that. I’ll go into it more later, but for now, let me point out that Sara isn’t JUST a priestess, she also has a part-time job making and selling the fish-spear sticks that boys use to make passes at girls (and which are meant to be carved by the boy himself. That’s part of the tradition, and she’s breaking it, in order to get some extra cash).
Mao, for her part, is rather adorable in her childish way (and I get the feeling that she’s JUST discovering boys for the first time as the series starts, and that’s charming in and of itself… seriously, once you’re “above the fray,” so to speak, seeing teenagers falling madly for each other is kinda fun, kinda sad, and will always bring a smile to your face… unless it’s your own daughter, I guess). She’s also animated much more fluidly than any other character in the series. Clearly, a lot of care and work went into getting her movements right, and it shows. She’s dynamic and always interesting to watch.
Oh, and one of the scenes, of Mao’s table, got revised for the blu-ray edition, which came out a few years later (during Frontier’s run), where a pair of earrings that will eventually belong to Sheryl have been added. To me, this makes very little sense (one of the reasons I prefer the DVD version… which is the one I’m watching for this post). Since the earrings are made from Fold Quartz, when exactly were they made? I understand they were passed down to Sheryl, but I always assumed they were (relatively) new… that is, made after humanity and the Vajra made contact (which would still have been when Sheryl was a child). Having them on Mao’s table, though, makes me think that that they (or at least the Fold Quartz crystals they’re made from) are hundreds of thousands of years old. I suppose you can make it work, but it really raises more questions than it answers.
8. But no one cares about all that… Hey, we’ve got Focker again! Interestingly, he’s calling Aries “Sempai” and she will later even call him on his piggishness (quite a change from the smooth ladies’ man we saw in the original Macross. At least, I assume that making out with Claudia in the middle of a restaurant while totally wasted was meant to be “smooth”… I wouldn’t know).
Seriously, getting Akira Kamiya back is a major coup for this project. He’s more of a veteran than Macross is, since he started way back in “Space Battleship Yamato” in 1974, well before he became Roy Focker (or Kenshiro, or Ryo Saeba, or King Arthur…). He’s a god among voice actors.
Anyway, we learn here that while he can charm Claudia, Aries is a tougher nut to crack. I mean, Claudia never shows up, nor is she even mentioned, so Aries is Focker’s love interest here, but it takes a while for things to get moving on that front. I’ve heard the theory floated that this series is meant to happen during the time that Focker disappeared and didn’t communicate with Claudia (as told in Episode 33 of the original series), but the timeline doesn’t match up (they would’ve been reunited for at least six months by the point this series takes place). And, in fact, it doesn’t match up AT ALL with the TV series, thanks to one line from Focker in Episode 1 of the original series: “Another war, huh? It’s been two years…” Considering that this series happens about four months before the Macross launches, that line makes no sense (and it has nothing to do with any cover-up or anything, since he’s murmuring to himself). Little wonder that that line was cut from Mikimoto’s manga, Macross the First. If you view Zero as happening before Do You Remember Love, though, all such dissonances vanish. Except for the fact that he’s two years younger here than he should be (26 here, 28 in the series and movie).
But back to Aries, she talks about the “Protoculture theory,” which is not quite the same as the Protoculture we’ve been talking about for the last few shows. Here, it’s the idea that aliens intervened in human evolution, and I guess it’s just a coincidence that the name for the theory also happens to be the name of the alien race that did so…
9. I think for anyone watching this around the time it came out, there was always going to be one big “make-or-break” moment with the CGI: how the VF-0 looks when it transforms. Definitely, that was the part that I was waiting for, and it seems pretty clear that the animators knew it was a big deal, because they knock that scene out of the park. Seriously, as I said before, I was pretty iffy about CGI Valks when I started watching the episode, but I was sold on them by the end.
Now… it’s not perfect. The lack of “anime magic” means that the VF-0 (and pretty much any Valk from 2002 on) has some slightly odd proportions in battroid mode, most notably skinny little arms, but at least it makes for more accurate (if more fragile) toys (unlike, say, the Bandai versions of the VF-19. The toy makes a great-looking fighter and a much-too-slender battroid, whereas the 1/100 transforming kit looks perfect in battroid, but is much too chunky in fighter mode).
That said, the way the battroid has to catch its gunpod in mid-air seems like the biggest accident-waiting-to-happen since the original VF-1’s leg delivery panels.
But yeah, other than that, nothing but thumbs-up from me for the VF-0. And the eye-movement tracking is pretty awesome, too. I think that the implication is that the VF-1 probably has the same system, we just never saw it. Or maybe the Zero really IS more advanced in some ways (not in its engine, though. It still runs on conventional jet fuel, rather than the nuclear reactor the VF-1 has). Sometimes prototypes have better systems than the production models.
And yes, the VF-0 theme music has a passage shamelessly lifted from the Starship Troopers score. Funny… I thought Yoko Kanno (much as I love her music) was the only Macross composer to plagiarize so nakedly (although she only does it once that I know of in Macross. Most of her, *ahem*, “homages” are in Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell).
10. So yeah, this episode gets things off to a good start. Animation-wise, it’s the most experimental Macross series ever, really embracing CGI after the brief tests with it in Plus and Seven. And the computer stuff still holds up pretty well, nearly fifteen years later. Mayan Island is an exotic and appealing locale, and the characters are… well, not fun, exactly… but interesting. And it’s always great to get more Roy.