Thursday, February 16, 2017

Anime Archive - Robotech

Introduction

There is a certain generation of anime fans that were pulled into Japanese animation by a show called Robotech. The series has recently returned to Netflix download and I gave it a full viewing. This inspired me to write a few posts about it. As happened in the case of Urusei Yatsura and Lupin III I realized I was spending a bunch of time on history, plot and characters of the series instead of what I wanted to say specifically. So that means it is time for another anime primer.

Robotech is a strange case, because it is actually three different anime series that were edited together, rescripted and dubbed to create a unified story. Why take three perfectly good shows and smash them together? At the time (1985) you needed to have at least 65 half hour episodes for your show to get syndicated. So the company behind this, Harmony Gold, found three anime series from Tatsunoko productions that had a similar look and feel to them for the project.

The SDF - 1 flying into adventure.
The first was the 1982 series called Super Dimension Fortress Macross which focused on an alien invasion of earth and the mecha pilots of transforming fighter planes who attempt to stop it, with some help from a pop idol of course. The series was a big success in Japan and created its own spin offs including the very entertaining Macross Plus which features one of my favorite homicidal virtual idols - Sharon Apple. But I digress.

The middle series came from Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross made in 1984. This series deals with human colony on a distant world dealing with an incursion by aliens who use clones to further their technology. Our heroes pilot transforming tanks and find themselves battling aliens who seem obsessed with obtaining a bioluminescent flower.

The third series used to make Robotech is Genesis Climber Mospeada (and no I'm not making these names up). This one takes place on a post apocalyptic earth. Alien beings have invaded the planet and enslaved humans. The human colony on Mars tries to help, but only one soldier makes to Earth. He gathers a rag tag group (is there any other kind of group in a post-apcolyptic story) to find out why the aliens are on Earth and the best way to stop them. You've got transforming planes in this one, but the real highlight are the motorcycles that transform into cool body armor.

When Dana has her helmet on,
she is all business.
Harmony Gold took these three series and turned them into a single saga spanning three generations. This required some editing of the actual episodes. For example the planet in Southern Cross has two moons and scenes showing those moons had to be snipped or modified to make it appear that the action was happening on earth. Carl Macek, a founder of one of the first American anime distributors back in the 80s, worked on the overall script and concept for Robotech. This makes him loved by fans of the series and grumbled at by anime purists.

In many ways this was an innovative undertaking. I can't think of any animated series at the time (in North America at least) that had one continuous story that spanned 85 episodes. And yeah, if you missed an episode or two (especially of the first series) you would end up pretty lost.

Robotech aired in March of 1985 and for most of us who grew up with the series, it was like nothing we had ever seen before.

The Story

The first series of  Robotech is called The Macross Saga and sticks pretty close to its source material. An alien ship crashes into earth near Macross island. Humanity researches the vessel and discovers an amazingly advanced technology called Robotech inside. They also discover that the aliens who piloted this vessel her war-like giants called the Zentraedi.

Fearing that the Zentraedi will come looking for the downed vessel, humanity bands together to create new weapons to defend earth combining this alien technology with human ingenuity. The result are amazing transforming fighter jets and mecha war machines. But the crowning achievement is to refit the downed alien vessel into the SDF - 1, a massive space going battle fortress that also transforms and has an enormous cannon that can cause massive destruction.

All too soon the Zentraedi arrive and begin to wage war with earth. As the story progresses we discover they are looking for something called proto-culture. Turns out the Zentraedi are a warrior race being used by beings called the Robotech Masters who are after proto-culture for their own purposes.

Human resistance is spearheaded by the brave crew of the SDF -1 and brash mecha pilot Rick Hunter. But surprisingly the best weapon is actually pop singer Lynn Minmei. Her music has charms to sooth the savage Zentraedi. But just when he battle seems to be turning in earth's favor some extremely passionate Zentraedi unleash a final attack on earth. Many sacrifices are made and much of the earth is laid waste, but the Zentraedi are defeated. The series ends with Rick Hunter leaving earth with the surviving SDF -1 crew to find out more about the Robotech Masters and proto-culture.

Series two picks up with the next generation of heroes and is known as The Masters Saga. Humanity is attempting to survive on the rocky harsh world the earth has become. They also have developed Robotechnology with proto-culture to create new and more powerful weapons. This include amazing transforming tanks and hover bikes.

Once again earth is invaded by a massive fleet of warships. This time it is the Robotech Masters who have arrived looking for proto-culture. Turns out they are running low on their sources, and need it to keep their civilization from dying. They are desperate especially since they are being pursued by an infamous group of aliens called the Invid, who are out to wipe out all other users of proto-culture.

The Masters come in with guns blazing and humanity answers in kind. Soon all out war erupts between the two factions. Earth forces have Dana Sterling on their side. She's an fearless and brave commander of the Southern Cross brigade, but she is also reckless and hot tempered. This gets her and her crew into all kinds of trouble outside of the battle field.

The two forces get closer and closer to destroying each other, when a mysterious Flower of Life is found on earth. It opens up and dispenses proto-culture all across the earth. The Masters know this is the end of them, because that will cause the Invid to attack earth. The Masters are defeated, but humanity is so weakened from the endless war, that they are easy pickings for the new alien threat.

Sure enough the Invid arrive in the third series called The New Generation. The weakened Robotech forces are no match for the powerful Invid, and soon enough humanity on earth is enslaved. But a colony on Mars still exists, and Rick Hunter returns from his galactic tour with fresh weapons and equipment. They launch an all out attack on the Invid on earth.

And it fails pretty spectacularly, but one heroic soldier Scott Bernard makes it to earth with a clear objective, find and destroy the home base of the Invid on earth, called Reflex Point. Scott starts on his mission and brings with him a group of misfits with various skills that come in very handy. Nearly all of them can pilot transforming mecha too, so that helps.

Along the way to Reflex Point they have all kinds of adventures and mishaps. This post-apocalyptic world is dangerous enough, but the Invid pursuit is relentless. It also becomes obvious that the Invid are using proto-culture for some unique purpose - to further their evolution into an ultimate life form. Can Scott and his team stop the Invid before they become unbeatable and all hope for humanity is lost?

Characters

With a series this sprawling it would be silly of me to cover all the characters. I'm going to focus on the key ones for each series and ones that were pretty innovative for 80s television marketed to kids.

The Macross Saga

Rick Hunter
Your typical young rash hero, Rick started out as a skilled pilot who ended up behind the controls of a mecha fighter by accident. He took to it quickly and rises up the ranks of the Robotech forces. Rick actually evolves as a character, starting out brash and impatient. As the series continues the war's devastating impact on the lives of those around him causes him to grow up a bit. While he isn't the greatest pilot in the fleet (Max Sterling takes that prize) Rick is the natural leader. His heroics and planning help save many lives by the end of the story. Rick is also the center of a love triangle with Minmei and Lisa. Can't have an epic without one of those, right?

Lynn Minmei
Cute as a button but always managing to get into some kind of trouble Lynn Minmei wins Rick's heart early in the show. She also has some singing talent, and quickly becomes a pop idol for all of Macross and the crew of the SDF - 1. Minmei's popularity starts to create some problems for her relationship with Rick and things get more complicated when Rick realizes that he is falling for Lisa. Through it all Minmei feels herself trapped between what she wants and what life as a pop star demand. This becomes critical when it turns out there Minmei's songs have an unforeseen impact on the alien invaders - who have never experienced emotion expressed through song before. Is Minmei the secret weapon Earth needs?

Lisa Hayes
Lisa is the voice of the bridge crew of the SDF -1, relaying critical information from the bridge to the forces supporting the SDF -1. She is no-nonsense, loyal to her duty, a strategic thinker and determined to ensure the safety of earth. She takes everything pretty darn seriously, so when hot head Rick Hunter shows up they take an immediate dislike to each other. But things change a bit when the two are captured by the alien invaders and spend some time together. At one point they use a kiss to distract the aliens (the aliens have never seen kissing before and it horrifies them). Well this seems to kindle some kind of chemistry between the two, because they start to fall for each other. But Rick seems enamored with Minmei, so Lisa shifts her focus on her career in the military instead... at least she keeps telling herself that.

Captain Gloval
Global is the stoic but brave commander of the SDF - 1. His iron will leads the Robotech forces in many victories, but also sees them through some of the darkest times Earth faces. He is the kind of commander you want at the head of a super powerful battle fortress. He uses tactics and daring to pull off some very dangerous missions. But for each victory, humans lose more and more lives. He begins to look for a way to stop the war before everything goes out of control. Gloval ends up being a mentor to several of the characters in this series. During the climactic battle for the fate of earth Gloval makes the ultimate sacrifice to save as much of earth as he can.

Miriya
The invading aliens have some pretty interesting characters on their side to. But the fan favorite has to be Miriya, the piloting ace working for the Zentraedi. Once she appears on the scene she starts to outmaneuver the Robotech forces tactically and in the air. No pilot stands a chance facing her down, and she takes pride in it. Until the Robotech ace Max Sterling shows up one day and nearly kills her. This causes Miriya to obsess over this human who defeated her. She eventually is shrunk to human size and infiltrates Macross city to find Max. It doesn't take long for hate to turn into love and the two fall head over heels for each other. They actually marry and this causes both civilizations to stop and wonder if they are so different after all. Miriya takes to the skies along side her husband against her own people as the war moves into its final stages.

The Masters Saga

Dana Sterling
The daughter of Max Sterling and Miriya, Dana is half Zentraedi, and seems to have retained the battle hungry nature of her mother. Instead of piloting flying mecha, Dana is the leader of a tank brigade, the Southern Cross. They defend the war scarred earth from any further invasions. Wouldn't you know it, the Zentraedi's bosses show up in huge warships and attack. So Dana and her team are thrown into the fray. Dana is brash, impulsive and has no problem telling you exactly what is on her mind. She can come across as flaky at times, but when she's at the controls of her tank she is nearly unstoppable. She is also fearless, and will stop at nothing to ensure earth doesn't fall to The Robotech Masters and their army of bioroids.

Bowie Grant
The youngest member of the Southern Cross team, Bowie is a musician at heart. He joined the army because his godfather expected him to. But also because he grew up with Dana and as her best friend he figured he might as follow her lead. Probably not the best reason to do anything and as the series progresses Bowie starts to regret his decision. He's not a fighter and the pressure gets worse as the war rages on. He eventually encountered a lovely alien musician aboard one of the Robotech Masters' ship and realizes that these invaders may not be as different as everyone thinks. Can this connection with music ease tensions in the war, as it did in the previous generations?

Zor
A mysterious man found on the battlefield with severe memory loss. What memories he does have point to him being at the site of an attack by the Robotech Masters. But it becomes clear that he is a manufactured being that somehow escaped from the Masters. The Robotech forces feel he could be the key to discover a weakness to the new threat. They allow him to join Dana's brigade and his skills as a warrior and pilot are impressive. Dana also thinks he's hot, so there is that. But the rest of the brigades doesn't trust Zor and it is soon revealed that he may be a puppet to the Robotech Masters who are just waiting for the right moment to reactivate Zor for their own purposes.

The Masters
This alien race pioneered Robotechnology and the use of proto-culture to power their technology and civilization. But as they used up all their resources they started to spread into the universe searching for new sources. This lead them into direct conflict with The Invid who also use proto-culture and are determined to destroy everyone who would take it from them. The Masters found themselves outmatched and fled after nearly being destroyed by the Invid. This leads them to earth in the hope they can obtain enough proto-culture to face and destroy the Invid once and for all. But these stupid humans keep getting in the way, first destroying their Zentraedi army and now refusing to be beat down in the second war. The Masters clone themselves in trios and their whole civilization seems focused on maintaining order through threes. They don't put stock in emotions and see it as a taint that starts to infect their clones the further the war rages. The Masters are desperate to win and this could end up costing both civilizations dearly in the end.

The New Generation

Scott Bernard
A member of the forces under Admiral Rick Hunter that returned to earth to set it free from The Invid. Scott is a fearless pilot and natural leader. But his single mindedness often leads him to conflict with others on his team. Since Scott was born and raised in space and under the military command, he is often at a loss when it comes to dealing with people on earth who experienced constant invasions, war and two doses of apocalypse. Scott is a excellent pilot of the flying mecha as well as the transforming motorcycles called Cyclones. He can be hard to get along with, but he loosens up as the series progresses and he comes to realize how hard life on Earth has become and how battered its people are.

Lancer (aka Yellow Dancer)
Originally part of the military forces that attempted to wrest the earth from the grip of the Invid,  Lancer was the only surviver of a massive attack, and to escape undetected he dressed as a woman. He leveraged this female identity and turned it into a popular idol singer, Yellow Dancer. She has a growing fan base across the war torn earth. Few people know that Yellow Dancer is a) a man and b) a freedom fighter. Lancer joins Scott in his attempt to liberate the earth, and can often get them access to areas as Yellow Dancer. Lancer is a hell of a fighter in both types of mecha as well. He also finds himself drawn to one of the Invid mutations named Sera. Will their connection be a key to stopping the war?

Annie (aka Mint)
A kid who has grown up under Invid attack and occupation. She's a big fan of peppermint candy and seems obsessed with finding a cute guy to marry. Annie is a bit silly but is braver than most of the adults they run into. She want to see Earth freed and finds comfort with her new friends, who treat her a bit like the team mascot. But Annie is constant reminder of what is at stake in this war. When she first shows up in the series, you pretty much sigh and roll your eyes. But as we get to know more about her life and see how much the team means to her, she really becomes a character that you connect with. She also has red hair, is an orphan and has a hat that says E.T. on it, so that makes her so 80s it hurts.

Ariel (aka Marlene)
Like the Zentraedi and Masters before them, the Invid are disturbed but intrigued by humans. They feel the best way to understand them is to make one of their own. The Invid are masters of physical mutation and are able to warp their very being into new forms. The first experiment is Ariel, an Invid that has a human female form. She was supposed to collect data and bring it back to the main Invid force, but some twists of fate caused her end up with Scott and his team. She can't remember her name, so they dub her Marlene after Scott's old fiancé. This is just asking for romance to happen, and so Scott starts to fall for Marlene, not knowing she isn't human. But Marlene doesn't know she's Invid and things start to spiral out of control as the series nears the conclusion. Marlene is a demonstration of the Invid's power as well as their desire to perfect their bodies into a ultimate life form. But is love between a human and Invid even be possible?

Conclusion
They are still making detailed
models of the mecha for
current fans.
This show started out as a way to sell some very cool transforming robot toys to kids, essentially a way to jump on the Transformers and G.I. Joe bandwagon. But by creating this sprawling epic it did something else. It introduced the concept of a long running science fiction story to a bunch of kids who had never seen anything like it before. These kids would grow up looking to Japanese animation to continue that tradition. Beyond that there are a lot of Robotech fans who are now creating their own work and let that inspiration peek through. It isn't any wonder why there is a group of anime fandom who considers themselves part of The Robotech Generation.

4 comments:

  1. Apparently much credit is due for clever editing. Usually mix, match, and paste jobs are unfortunate, e.g. the scenes with Mamie Van Doren and company spliced into the Soviet film “Buran” to make “The Planet of the Prehistoric Women.”

    For generational reasons this series slipped by me, but I can see how it would have appealed to its target audience when it arrived on the scene.

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    1. Yeah this really shouldn't have worked as well as it did. I think the fact that they used three series from one production company really helped. It gave the Robotech a consistent look overall. I've got a couple more blogs coming up where I talk about the impact it had when I saw it and the impact it had when I revisited it. Sad to say those didn't line up.

      Yeah, don't remember me of "Planet of Prehistoric Women". That movie... ugh. And I like Mamie Van Doren! But I'd take "Girl's Town" over that mess any day.

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  2. Good review, Roman. Yeah, this for me was one of my earlier introductions to anime. It was around the time that the SciFi Channel was also showing some of the anime movies on TV. I really enjoyed all these new SF shows that opened up the genre of SF. I remember too going to the Dallas Comic Cons and they would have makeshift rooms set up for anime as well.

    I've actually never made it through all the Robotech saga. I wish the Cartoon Network would start showing these over some of the things they show instead. I have a Roku device and I've noticed that they show some Robotech, but (and I could be wrong) the episode are random which would be really hard to understand what's going on. I guess one could just watch them for grins, which is what I may end up doing.

    At the time I didn't find it so noticeable, but it does seem like a SF soap opera. Some SF action with some love interest. Still it can be a fun show to watch if you're in the mood. For me, this and Starblazers were the predecessors of what was to come later. That said, I'm sure the next generations might feel the same about Dragonball or some other franchise. I've only watch some of the first season to Dragonball, and I can see why that would be a hit. Pretty fun and colorful.

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    1. Yeah the serial format of the story does let it get kinda soapy, especially the Macross saga. But it does add a different dimension to the feel of the show.

      I remember hearing that Cartoon Network was rerunning the series at some point. I kind of wonder how much it would hold up for folks who were used to stuff like "Cowboy Bebop" or even "Outlaw Star". Robotech does a lot of good stuff, but some of it doesn't hold up too well these days.

      Ah "Dragonball Z". That is one show I just can't get into. I tried, but it was just too much time spent shouting and powering up for me to get too invested in the series. I was actually more engaged by "Sailor Moon". Me and Stuckmann can agree on that. :)

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