Friday, March 28, 2014

Macross Plus (1994)

I blogged about how I’m part of the Robotech generation of anime fans. It was the series that really brought anime to my attention as a kid. And even though I became a full-fledged fan of Japanese animation about ten years after viewing the series, it made an impression on me. One of the anime series of the 1990s that helped pull me into fandom (after Rally and the Gunsmith Cats worked their magic) was a sequel to the Robotech saga. Of course Robotech was the American name for the series, in Japan it was known as Super Dimension Fortress: Macross.

Isamu Dyson (Lee Stone) is a young cocky mecha pilot. He has all the skills to make him great, but a reckless attitude that endangers others when he shows off. Because he’s a bit of an ass, his superiors decide to transfer him to New Edwards on the planet Eden, to be a test pilot for the experimental mecha they are working on. Isamu knows his ego is writing checks his body can’t cash, but he doesn’t care, and heads off for his new assignment with glee.

Little does he know that his old rival Guld Goa Bowman (Richard George) is also a test pilot at New Edwards. The two renew their dislike for each other, and Colonel Millard (Beau Billingslea) uses it to his advantage, forcing the two to compete with each other to determine which experimental fighter will be the best fit for the military.

To further complicate matters, Isamu and Guld both had a childhood crush on the same girl, Myung Fang Lone (Anne Sherman). She’s also returned to Eden as the manager of the hottest idol singer in the galaxy. The singer is named Sharon Apple (Melora Harte), but she is no ordinary idol. She’s actually a computer system that is linked to Myung. Her emotional programming gets a boost from her human counterpart, and the computer creates the perfect image and songs for the spectators – creating the ultimate in entertainment.

These four personalities are going to collide in a battle of egos, history and technology. And don’t count Sharon out, just because she doesn’t have a body, doesn’t mean she won’t play for keeps, and leave nothing but pieces in her wake.

Good Points:
  • Some amazing animation for its time
  • Wonderful score and songs by Yoko Kanno
  • Develops an interesting corner of the Macross universe
Bad Points:
  • Those looking for pure action will be annoyed by the human drama that takes center stage
  • Someone watched Top Gun a few times before writing the script
  • Does not follow any of the characters or events from the television series
Judged on its own merits, Macross Plus is an entertaining series. The impressive animation showcases some amazing battle sequences and the virtual realities of Sharon Apple. Kanno’s songs are a wonderful mix of mysterious, beautiful, and poppy.  It’s solid entertainment, and was certainly a showcase series of its time.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
The Macross Plus logo opens each episode. In the
mid 90s this CG image was the cat's pajamas!
This was one of those Original Animated Video (OAV) series that I remember taking forever to get a full release. For some reason the first two episodes were widely available on VHS, but episode three was hard to get a hold of, and the final episode took forever to get released in North America, nearly a year after the third episode of memory serves. But anime fans were patient and while we were waiting we could spin through the epic saga of Record of Lodoss War or Tenchi Muyo again. It’s funny to think back on those crazy VHS only days and remember how rare some of this stuff was, and how excited we were about these shows. Now that anime has saturated the world of entertainment, I wondered how well a glorified version of Top Gun was going to hold up with my memories.

To tell you the truth Macross Plus was still very entertaining. I didn’t remember it being so focused on the love triangle. I didn’t remember the animation being so good (especially during the flying and battle sequences). And now that I’ve seen the entirety of the original Macross series (sure it was in Robotech form, but it counts), a lot of neat parallels became more obvious.

Guld's fighter prepares for it's next test run at
New Edwards.
As a whole Macross Plus has some impressive animation. They’ve taken the overall designs of the fighter planes, outfits and general tech of the original Macross series and pushed it forward a bit. You still recognize this as the same universe, but it everything looks a bit cleaner and a bit shinier. The two specialized fighters transform (of course), and the animators have a field day putting the two fighters into various situations where they can switch modes and continue battling. Each episode contains at least one fighter test sequence, but the finale episode has the biggest and most elaborate fight scene in the series. As far as 90s transforming mecha action, it is hard to top that battle scene.

I have seen some folks take issue with the character design. In an act of rebellion, the characters defy the tiny nose convention of most anime, and go for some serious nasal action. I actually liked this look; it certainly makes the series stand apart from its peers in the visual department. The same look would be used in one of the best series of the decade, Vision of Escaflowne, which boasted many of the same creative team. To me it’s a nice glimpse of a time when unique character design was more prevalent in anime.

Sharon Apple's first concert on planet Eden is
a smashing success.
But the most interesting character, and interesting use of animation in Macross Plus is Sharon Apple. Her computer design is obviously inspired by HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But her virtual self has three distinct looks and personalities. There are two concerts with Sharon and the animators go all out letting the virtual idol assume all three variations of her personality, create holographic backgrounds and a dazzling array of visual flourishes. These concerts scenes are some of the best utilization of CG and integrating it into the hand drawn visuals in the series. Since the whole thing is a virtual concert the incongruous styles don’t detract much. The last episode, where Sharon unleashes her final scheme, gives her plenty of time to shine. My favorite moment is when she appears as a towering goddess looming over Macross welcoming her slaves… I mean fans, to embrace her. There are some wonderful and iconic visuals in this final episode, and Sharon’s fans are sure to pick that one as their favorite.

Isamu is riding the highway to the danger zone when
he trash talks to Guld.
As I mentioned the series does use a bit of computer animation. Since this was the mid-90s some of it looks a bit primitive now. When it is used for holographic displays or during the virtual concerts it’s fine. But there are a few moments where it is used for the fighters, and they just don’t look too good over hand drawn backgrounds or characters. This was an issue with anime of the period, before computers really took over the coloring and consistency of the animation. Some series worked it in better than others, and for me Macross Plus wasn’t as jarring as something like Blue Submarine No. 6.

And speaking of the concerts and music, well you knew I had to mention it at some point. Yoko Kanno’s work on Macross Plus is what really brought her to the attention of many anime fans as well as being her real breakout piece. She composed the score; an eclectic mix of styles ranging from classical inspirations like Stravinsky and Prokofiev, to film composer styles similar to Ennio Morricone, John Williams and even Bill Conti’s work on The Right Stuff. The score is primarily orchestral and performed with energy by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Myung is Sharon Apple's "manager" in more ways
than one.
Of course the pop songs performed by Sharon Apple are the highlight, with Kanno using several different artists to perform for the virtual idol and provide a wide spread of styles and flavors. The main theme for the series has to be the song Voices. This was a song the character Myung sung in her youth, but has turned her back on. It appears several times as other characters mention it. There’s a great orchestral version of the song, an a cappella version, and a full ballad version of the song. It is one of Kanno’s best songs and well worth checking out.

Since this was an early anime release, it was made when anime companies were experimenting with translating the J-pop into English. The English dub for Macross Plus features an English version of Voices, performed by Michelle Flynn. She does a fine job and her vocal style is very similar to Akino Arai. The rest of the English dub is pretty hit and miss. It’s kind of odd, because many of these performers would go on to do some great work for future projects like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. But here, there are some very stilted deliveries, flat performances and some odd acting choices. There are a few comical (not intentional) moments. The script isn’t terribly complicated, so you can go with Japanese with subtitles for this one. Of the cast, I think Lee Stone (which was a pseudonym for actor Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) as Isamu does the best job channeling his inner Tom Cruise.

One of the images that always comes to mind
when I think of this series.
So the script to Macross Plus is the major weak point. It is Top Gun with a virtual idol mixed in with transforming fighter planes. But while the Tom Cruise flick focused on how awesome the jets were and how awesome Tom Cruise was, Macross Plus goes for a soapy route. The love triangle is played to the hilt, with Guld, Isamu and Myung all fighting their inner demons, their mixed up past and their desires. It actually gives the three characters a bit more dimension that Maverick and Iceman ever really got. But it also lays it on a bit thick at times. Both Guld and Isamu are some of the most unprofessional pilots I’ve ever seen, even for test pilots. Myung fares a bit better, with her desires being channeled into Sharon Apple, who takes those desires and actualizes them. 

Sharon Apple takes the whole thing to a new level, she’s a newborn whose entire psyche is based on a damaged woman’s. She has nearly godlike powers and doesn’t feel she needs to hold back when trying to achieve her ultimate goal – to provide Isamu with the ultimate experience. In other words, try her darnedest to kill him in front of Myung. You know how those virtual idols are. 

A rescue attempt is about go horribly wrong.
There is an interesting theme about technology running through the whole series. Both of the new mecha fighters are cutting edge weapons. The one Isamu is piloting is faster and more maneuverable than the current design. But it still relies on a pilot to get the job done. The other fighter that Guld is flying is tied directly to his brain. He doesn't actually have controls in front of him, but uses his mind as the interface. It can react as as quickly as Guld can think. But as the series continues we learn of another fighter the Macross government is working on, one with an advanced AI that doesn't require a pilot at all. This "Ghost Fighter" becomes a nemesis for the Guld and Isamu. And it mirrors Sharon Apple, an advanced AI who wants to take over Myung's duties to "her men". Of course Sharon takes control of the Ghost Fighter and that turns into the grand battle in the final episode. While the story isn’t anything terribly new, there is enough of it to flesh out four episodes each running about 40 minutes or so, and to give us some wonderful animated sequences.

This cityscape is familiar to all fans of the Macross
(and Robotech) series.
Directors Shoji Kawamori and Shinichiro Watanabe do a great job keeping the story trucking along for that entire series. There is a nice balance of action, drama and eye candy in each episode. The only episode that bogs down a little bit is the third one. It is mostly set up for the final episode. This episode is the most soapy of the episodes in Macross Plus, and it is light on action. But the fourth episode more than makes up for it pushing the action to 11 and having Sharon Apple take center stage. Watanabe would go on to work on Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo ( both featuring music by Yoko Kanno). Kawamori would continue work in the Macross universe as well as create the fantasy saga Vision of Escaflowne and Aquarion (both also featuring music by Yoko Kanno). As you can see Macross Plus served as a springboard to several careers. In that way it a milestone for Japanese animation. But it is also a entertaining series worth checking out. Just make sure that Sharon Apple doesn’t come out of your screen and start singing… you’ll be in real trouble .

But wait! Where is Sharon Apple in this review? I suspect she needed a rogues' gallery of her own.

"I'll be waiting to give you the Ultimate experience." 


  1. Something in us recognizes robots and AI as our children, making us love them and fear them -- I suppose Luddites would understand (if not quite condone) Kronos eating his children. So, while such a plot element may not be original, I can see how it still can...well, animate a story.

    1. Yes, and the creators really did some interesting stuff with Sharon and Myung in the final episode. Myung talks to Sharon like a child, treating her like a teenager who is rebelling. But as the episode continues, Myung realizes how powerless she is, and the roles reverse. Sharon takes the mother role, even changing her size, so she looms over Myung. There is a great scene where Myung is curled up in despair and Sharon is holding her, trying to comfort her - but talking crazy the whole time.

      You'll see what I'm talking about in the rogues gallery, :)

  2. I've always been intrigued by Macross. It sounds like I might enjoy it. I can see the influence on series like Yukikaze. Great cioverage of a classic Roman.
    Best sff

    1. Thanks! "Macross Plus" is a lot of fun. Sharon Apple really steals the show, and as a showcase for 90s animation it really is a milestone. But compared to the original "Macross" saga from the early 80s, well I like the older series a bit more. It had more depth to the story of resisting and surviving an alien invasion. The characters had more room to breath and evolve. And the ending really packed a punch. The only downside is that it got a bit too wacky at times with silly comic relief characters and the whole "pop song saves the universe" conceit. But in the end, the rest of the series makes up for that. If you ever get a chance to check it out go for it. You can even give "Robotech" a spin and get the same story. "Macross" is pretty much the first third of the "Robotech" series.

  3. I think I feel in someways about anime the way someone does to comic books, a bit overwhelmed. There's so much of it, a large part of it looks the same, and to be truthful there's a lot of similar themes or stories. Plus where to begin? There's the American versions, then the original version, and so on.

    I do have the Americanize version of Robotech, The Macross Saga, which if I remember comes from the Americanized cartoon show. I wasn't a fan either when it originally aired--I just didn't know about it at the time.

    I was loaned a copied VHS tape from a friend, and as I remember, it was a Japanese dub of the series. So that the spoken dialog was in Japanese, but you could watch the visuals. I don't remember if it had subtitles or not--it may have as I do remember it being about an invasion and a few plot points, and I don't think I'd remember that much from just the visuals. At any rate, I finally picked up the series when I found a pretty cheap set. Actually for whatever reason I enjoy the earlier anime over some of the new stuff, which I think has gotten more homogenized on one hand, yet branched out in some regards too. I guess I mean, that the art is too similar looking, yet some of the stories have branched out and away from just SF themes. Good review.

    1. Yeah anime can be very intimidating these days. I mean, I've been out of the loop for a few years and now there seems to be so many new shows and so many new favorites, I just have no clue about most of them. Pretty much why my reviews are pretty much limited to the stuff I enjoyed back in the 90s and early 00s.

      Anime used to be a bit more diverse in its topics. It really seems like they have narrowed things down theme and plot wise. It's hard to find a good series that doesn't feel like a rehash or amalgam of things you've already seen.

      And as much as I like to believe that there is an anime show for everyone, I've come to realize that this medium just doesn't click for some folks. And I understand that.

      Your comparison to comic books is apt. Some people will just get comics and will always love them. Others will never get into them at all. Anime is just the same. Hopefully some of my reviews can help you find a series you'll enjoy. But I totally see where you're coming from.