Monday, February 20, 2017

Nostalgia Nugget - Talking 'bout My Generation

Love the colors and sweep of this fan art for
Robotech: The Macross Saga.
I’ve always been an animation fan. Animation allows the creators full freedom with they’re imagination, bringing almost anything to life. When animation is used to maximum effect it can present fantastic worlds and truly bring dynamic visuals to the screen without having to worry about budget limits for special effects. One of the places where this is most apparent is in Japanese animation or anime. Unfortunately much of the recent stock of anime has been suffering the same issues we see in Hollywood entertainment – a fear of moving beyond what is established as a money earner. This has lead to endless sequels and pale imitations of older series and movies.

I won't say that there isn't anything new or exciting going on in anime these days, mostly because I'm not following it with the same passion I had for the medium back in the mid 1990s and early 2000s. But one of the reasons I stopped following it was because it was starting to feel a bit stale. I have a lot of fond memories of being a huge anime fan and I’ve written about work like Ghost in the Shell and Millennium Actress. But what got me into anime in the first place? That seed got planted quite a long time ago, back in the mid 1980s with a little show called Robotech.

Let me set the stage a bit for you. It was the Reagan era of cartoons. There was plenty of concern about too much violence in cartoons impacting kids. So there was an effort to tone down violence and have clear consequences for doing bad deeds. In some ways it was like the Hayes Code but for children's entertainment. At the time I wasn't aware of such things, but it was obviously impacting a lot of the kids animation of the early 80s.

Probably about as violent as it got.
Stuff like Care BearsSmurfs and evan the goofy Pac-man cartoon didn't have your typical Looney Tunes level of violence. In fact all you really had were characters shoving each other or making threats to shove them. Even when George Lucas decided to bring his Star Wars universe to the small screen the scripts to the Droids animated series was severely edited because it was too Star Warsy with people getting shot at by blasters and injured.

But I'm a bit off topic here. This was the landscape of cartoons that I experienced up to that point. Oh sure I watched Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo as well as The Superfriends which all had various levels of violence, but also had a very light feel to them overall. Besides they were from older decades. And like any kid I was looking for something that I could call my own.

By 1985 some of the draconian oversight had mellowed and shows like Transformers, He-man and the Masters of the Universe were bringing some action, fantasy and sci-fi to the small screens after school. But most of those shows were simple one-off stories. Characters reset at the end of the episode and things started over again in the next episode.

Skull Leader blazing away at enemies.
I think this was the main reason Robotech blew me away. Within the first couple episodes the Zentraedi attack and the devastation is real. Buildings aren't reset in the next episode, they are in ruins. Fighters were destroyed with pilots inside, unlike G.I. Joe where everyone seemed to eject from cockpits at the last possible moment. There were consequences in Robotech.

I was also not used to actual romance building across episodes. Rick and Minmei's romantic antics were a big part of the show. At the time, my grandmother lived with us and I swear she was just as into Robotech as I was. She was also a big General Hospital fan, so the soapier aspects of this anime series appealed to her, especially when the love triangle between Rick, Minmei and Lisa started to develop.

Roy: The man, the myth, the hair!
The only trouble with this serial story format was that I ended up missing episodes. Sometimes I had too much homework and didn't finish it in time to watch an episode. Other times a friend came over to play and he wasn't a fan, so I missed quite a few episodes that way. My favorite character was the lead pilot for the Skull squadron, Roy Fokker. I missed a few episodes and when I come back he was no where to be seen. I asked a friend at school who was also watching the show and he says, "Oh yeah, Roy died. I think that green haired girl killed him."

That blew my mind.

Sure the nameless characters had been getting killed, but no one with lines. No one who had actual backstory. No one who was in a relationship (and yeah it was bizarre to me at the time to see an animated show featuring an interracial couple so prominently). And Roy had just died, and Rick Hunter took over Skull Squadron. And then Rick's buddy Ben dies. I could understand how Rick felt, because I was just as dumbfounded and disturbed by his death as well.
Wait a minute? Who the hell is this? You're tearing me
apart Robotech!

Yeah, the cartoon character was changing because of his actions and the world around him. This never happened in Inspector Gadget. In some ways, I think this kind of soured me on the show after that. I wasn't a big fan of Rick in the first place and he was getting all mopey. Much to my grandmother's annoyance I stopped tuning in regularly for Robotech.

It was part of my regular after school viewing block. I believe Star Trek followed it, and my grandmother loved Star Trek, so we never missed an episode of that show. That meant we'd catch the odd episode of Robotech. It got even stranger. Suddenly the episode had a new intro with new faces, robots and vehicles racing across the screen to the same opening title music. There was this blonde woman riding around on a tank and point a gun at me. What was going on? Well, I missed the first few episodes of The Masters saga, so it took me a little bit to realize that Dana was Max and Miriya's kid! I was a bit intrigued by that turn of events, but was still pretty lost trying to pick up the story threads in the middle. 

Didn't see this too often in any show in 1985.
But I want to point out something that I don't think Robotech (and its source anime series) gets enough credit for. It was a surprise to be watching an animated series where the main character was a woman who was tough, resourceful and brave to a fault. She was the leader of the brigade and by the end of the series had the full respect of her men. You just didn't see that back in 1985. You also did see a black character in such a prominent role as Bowie in this series. It was a real surprise to me back then. I think that says much about the times as it does the innovative approach to animation that was being taken in Japan. These series had a global feel to them, and it worked with the planetary invasion plot line. But it also gave kids watching a good message about everyone working together, no matter what race or gender you were. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence that Robotech was on right before Star Trek in my neck of the woods.

Competing with Jem for most awesome 80s act,
One day Robotech comes on and the opening credits were different again! They changed for each new storyline. Suddenly I'm seeing a new group of characters riding these bad ass looking motorcycles that turn into body armor. The earth is completely devastated and as the main characters travel through it, the people they meet are desperate and dangerous. I'd never seen anything like this in any animated series. I was actually pulled into this storyline a bit more, and caught quite a few episodes of it. I thought Annie was a cutie and really was surprised to find out that Yellow Dancer and Lancer were the same. I can't confirm or deny if it was a Crying Game moment. But yeah it kinda was.

I do remember seeing the last episode of Robotech and being a bit confused (because I had probably missed most of the key episodes featuring Ariel who plays an important part in the ending). But the action was intense and there was a real feeling of closure to the episode. It had this kind of bittersweet triumph - yeah the Invid were repulsed, but the Earth was in bad shape. Could humanity ever come back? 
Max should have been my hero. He wore
glasses like me, but didn't die first and got a hot
alien wife. Talk about inspiring!

I assumed the series was just going to continue. But the next day it started over again with The Macross Saga. Instead of being excited to watch the whole thing again and maybe catch some episodes I missed, I skipped it. 

Skipped it, but never forgot it. 

In some ways I think it became something more mysterious because I never did see the whole thing. My mind would drift back to it and I would remember the intensity of the action, the ways the characters changed over the course of the story and the depth that the world seemed to have. It was this shining beacon of originality in my memories.

A little over a decade later I got into Japanese anime for many of the same reasons. Here was animation that was not afraid. They could tell any kind of story. They let their imaginations run wild. Anime was storytelling in a way I had never really imagined.

Dana rushing to get to the tanks and start defending earth.
Except that I had experienced it (in a way) before. I started to run into other people my age, and we all had the same story. We remembered Robotech and it was our gateway drug into this "new" medium. The internet was just really taking off and I was connecting with all these people across the country that were fans. Some of the older fans had other gateway shows: Speed Racer, Astroboy and Starblazers. But my anime generation was the Robotech generation of anime fans. After us would be the Sailor Moon generation, the Pokemon generation and of course the Toonami generation. 

For a while, when anime fandom was still a unique thing, this was a badge you wore. It helped connect you with other fans. But these days anime has become ubiquitous. It is everywhere you look, and no one really thinks twice about it. Hell, I don't have to explain what anime is to most people, unlike the 1990s when you got strange looks for watching foreign cartoons. I don't hear too much talk about the anime generations any more, and I think that is probably a good thing. I'm sure I show my age too much anyway blogging at length about Robotech.

So it is easy to say that Robotech was the perfect show at the perfect time for a lot of sci-fi/adventure fans out there. Almost everyone I know who managed to get pulled into it back in 1985 has fond memories of the show and talking about (or playing) it with their friends. 
Great bit of fan art showcasing the Macross Saga.

When I saw it appear on Netflix download, I added it to the cue immediately. But I waited. I was afraid to take the journey again. Would it be as I remembered/imagined it? Probably not. But I was curious.

The first episode started and that great opening title music kicked in and it was 1985 all over again. Wow, talk about a nostalgia trip. I watched all of The Macross Saga, and then took a break to catch up with some other shows. When I went back, Netflix had dropped the show. I was sad, because I was really curious to see how The Masters Saga played out.

Nearly five years later it came back to Netflix download, and I didn't waste time. I finished the series. I may be part of the Robotech generation, but in 2017 I finally watched the complete series. Better later than never.

Revised 2/2/2017


  1. I have a friend that thinks of Robotech in the same light I think. He introduced them to me via old VHS. I'm in an older generation, so it escaped me initally. During that time frame I was already working very steady, and probably missed it along with a bunch of other TV shows. I'm glad though that some networks will bring back some of these shows like ME TV has done with Voyage to the Bottom of the sea, Man from UNCLE, Get Smart, the old Alfred Hitchcock shows, the Avengers, Mannix, and many others.

    I was watching some Robotech the other night however, and I can see why you'd have such nostalgia. Another thing I noted about Robotech as opposed to other anime is that the sequencing of the cartoon is more like American cartoons. It doesn't get static on just one shot and pan around in that shot. I read that the Japanese use less frames per minute, so to someone unaccustomed to anime that might seem odd. It does to me at times too. But with Robotech, it was crafted I think to play similar to American cartoons.

    1. Yeah the action in all three series of "Robotech" was pretty impressive. Most of it was full motion without those panning scenes you talk about. I think there is a little of that in the final series, but not during the action scenes. There are a lot of establishing shots in that final series, and you usually see it during those moments.

      I could be cynical and say they wanted to show off the cool mecha in action so you wanted to buy the toys. But I will also say that is lead to giving the actions scenes a bit more punch, because they were full motion and didn't feel like throw away moments.

      I'm not sure if they created the original Japanese series with an American release in mind. It is possible, and that would play into the multicultural feel of the cast.

  2. Continuous story arcs weren't unique in or before the '80s, but they were rare -- especially in animation. Producers back then were worried new viewers would be deterred from arriving in the middle of a story while old ones could lose the thread by missing episodes. So, they took a chance that seems to have paid off. Nowadays, of course, it is far easier to catch up on missed episodes of anything, so long arcs are the norm.

    1. Yeah I can't think of any American cartoon from that era that had a serial storyline. Most you'd get is a two parter, sometimes a three parter if you were lucky. I did remember that "Voltron" had a serial storyline, but that series was also a Japanese import.