Judge Geoffrey Miller would really like to cosplay as Lynn Minmay one day...but he just doesn't have the hips for it.
"Piercing through the mighty sky
-- Macross theme song
It wasn't the first giant robot show and hardly the first space opera, but Macross casts a long shadow over the anime world. It's a seminal show that continues to be hugely influential. Not only did it up the ante in terms of narrative complexity in anime TV series, it was the first real breakthrough for anime in America as the first (and most popular) section of the tripartite Robotech (albeit in edited form). Nearly 25 years after Macross debuted, ADV Films has started to release the original uncut show on DVD in America with all-new English dub. Macross Vol. 1: Upon the Shoulders of Giants features the first six episodes on two discs.
Originally aired on Japanese television in 1982, The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (typically shortened to just Macross) begins in 2009, on the day that the titular battleship is about to take its maiden voyage into space. Ten years ago, the ship, presumed to be from an alien civilization far more advanced than humanity, crash-landed on Earth. While war broke out in the immediate aftermath, the people of Earth eventually put aside their differences and formed a planetary government to restore the ship and defend against attacks from hostile aliens. A city is built around the SDF-1 Macross ship on South Ataria Island, the small island in the Pacific Ocean where it crashed.
As the Macross is about to lift off, it suddenly unleashes a powerful weapon into the air, much to the surprise of the ship's crew. The ship is reacting to the ships hovering over Earth piloted by the Zentradi, an alien race of humanoid giants. The Zentradi respond to the Macross's attack by sending waves of fighters down to Earth. The Macross tries to launch into space, but is unable to stand against the Zentradi forces. In a last ditch attempt to avoid being destroyed, the Macross crew initiates a "space fold." They do this by using a mysterious system on the ship to transport at faster-than-light speed through space. Their efforts backfire, improbably stranding them, along with the civilian survivors of the city built around the Macross, at the edge of the solar system (and breaking the space fold system in the process, so they're unable to fold back to Earth). Now the Macross and its passengers need to make their way back to Earth while fending off the Zentradi.
Our protagonist is Rick Hunt—I mean, Hikaru Ichijyo, a young pilot who's gifted at acrobatic flying. He has been invited to the ceremony dedicating the restored Macross ship by Roy Focker, a hot shot fighter pilot who's also Hikaru's sempai (kind of a cross between an adopted big brother and a mentor). Hikaru isn't really interested in fighting, but finds himself in a Valkyrie military plane when the Zentradi attack. Unaware that the Valkyries have three forms (a traditional plane, an upright mecha robot, and a transitional stage that has legs but can still fly), he soon crashes into a residential neighborhood. It's there that he meets Lynn Minmay, a teenager with dreams of making it as a singer; there's an almost immediate attraction between the two. With the help of Focker, he escapes the Zentradi attack and flies away with Minmay. But they too are transported along with the Macross when it initiates the ill-fated space fold.
The thing that makes Macross stand out from a bajillion other similar anime shows from the early '80s is that it's as much soap opera as space opera. Time is divided evenly between the interpersonal relationships of the ship's passengers and the serious military action on the bridge, presided over by Captain Global and Misa Hayase (a major character who only plays a supporting role in these early episodes). In the fourth episode, "Lynn Minmay," there's no fighting at all, as Hikaru and Lynn get to know each other while trying to escape from an isolated section of the Macross that they got stuck in after the space fold. It's the first real hint of Macross's focus on romance and character development, which comes to play an even larger role later in the series.
It's also one of the first anime series to truly showcase the possibilities of serialized storytelling. Anime has always been a little less episodic than Western cartoons—remember all the multi-part episodes of Speed Racer? Macross dispenses with standalone episodes almost entirely: It's more like one long movie divided into 36 chapters. The first six episodes on this disc introduce the major characters and set up the premise, but there are countless twists and turns throughout the series, right up until the end.
Macross has a way of speaking to my inner 13-year-old. Cool robots, cute girls, and lots of space battles—what more could a boy beginning the long, awkward odyssey through puberty want? It's straight-forward enough that my middle-school self didn't have any problems understanding it, yet it has enough underlying complexity that it still keeps my adult self's attention. Macross doesn't pull punches—characters die and the grim reality of war hangs over even the brightest moments—but it also has a sense of innocent adventure, embodied in both in the ship's literal journey and Hikaru's personal journey to manhood. It's about finding who you are and where you belong in the world, wrapped up in a sprawling science fiction epic—no wonder why it resonates so deeply with so many people.
For newer anime fans who haven't seen the show before, the biggest barrier to enjoying Macross is its dated, stilted animation. Like many anime shows from its era, Macross had an extremely low budget and a cramped production schedule. As a result, even the best-looking scenes rely on crude, limited animation. There are many noticeable problems: backgrounds that don't loop properly, missing overlays (characters make motions to press buttons on control panels that aren't there), and constant recycling of footage. It was par for the course at the time, but it's something modern audiences will have to look past.
Many otaku and fanboys decry the alterations Carl Macek and Harmony Gold made when turning Macross into the first third of Robotech. While there are changes, it's tough to fault them for being detrimental to the show's quality. Besides the obvious new English dub, the names were changed to ones more suitable for American audiences; a new soundtrack was composed; the opening and closing sequences were completely overhauled; and several scenes inappropriate for American TV were removed or edited (mostly things of a sexually suggestive nature). The plots are almost completely identical, except for the end, where Robotech diverges to set up the transition into the "The Robotech Masters" section that's based on another anime show, Southern Cross. Considering the high quality of both versions and the minimal differences between them, there isn't much reason for fanboys to complain about Robotech "ruining" Macross—or for the average Robotech fan to watch Macross, for that matter.
This is not the first time the original Macross was released on DVD in North America; AnimEigo previously released its own version several years ago, without an English dub. (Those DVDs are now out of print.) I don't have the AnimEigo DVDs available for comparison, but I do know that the generally well regarded AnimEigo transfer is different from the one presented by ADV on this disc. That being said, ADV did a fine job with its restoration, except for a few minor issues. Frame jitter and scratches are the worst offenders, although the video is otherwise sharp and vibrant. The Japanese audio track is muffled and grainy; its quality issues are especially obvious when compared to the new English 5.1 track.
The English dub itself is quite good and faithful to the original. In what's being heralded as the first time a Japanese voice actress has reprised her role in English, Mari Iijiima returns to the part that made her (and her music) famous, Lynn Minmay. Iijima, who speaks fluent but accented English, does her best, but sounds a little out of place against the rest of the American cast. ADV has included several exclusive new extras, including interviews with Iijima and translator Javier Lopez; commentary tracks from Matt Greenfield (ADR Director) and Lopez (episode 3), and Monica Rial (the English voice of Misa) and Iijima (episode 4); detailed liner notes; and the original aborted dub for Macross from 1984 before it was scrapped and reworked as Robotech. This is good, informative stuff that will please fans; I would have liked to have seen interviews and commentary from some of the original creators, though. (Hopefully, we'll see them surface on later volumes.)
Without a doubt, Macross is a classic, landmark anime series. While wearing nostalgia-tinted glasses certainly helps, the superb storytelling still holds up despite primitive production values. Newer anime fans who aren't familiar with the show are advised to check it out, if only to see where their favorites stole all their ideas. The big question is, do we really need another version of Macross? Not really. Purists who curse Carl Macek's name have probably already snatched up the AnimEigo releases, and they're also the group most likely to turn their noses up at an English dub, however faithful it may be. More casual fans who grew up on Robotech are better served by the many releases of that show on DVD. Regardless, this is a high quality release worth checking out for anyone who wants to take yet another ride on the SDF-1.
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