The Mike Toole Show Macross the Universe
by Mike Toole,
Over a week into my Japan trip (yep, I'm still talking about that damn trip! Don't worry, it's almost out of my system), I still hadn't managed to figure out how alphabetical order worked in DVD and gamesoft shops. (Yeah, I know that some of you out there are already getting ready to explain how “m” sounds come after “y” and before “h,” but I am a big dummy and didn't look this stuff up!) I had a couple of targets in mind. One of them comprised good-quality Japan-only PSVita games, because my video game nerd nephew had been asking after them. This meant that I went from shop to shop in Akihabara, trying to figure out who had the best prices for Gundam Breaker 2 and Puyo Puyo Tetris.
This was a good opportunity to study up and improve my hiragana and katakana comprehension, so I opted to go the stupid route and just found the poor shopkeeper, to whom I'd blurt “GUNDAM BREAKER 2 GA ARIMAS KA???” to which they'd almost invariably respond, in English, “Please wait a moment, I will show you.” I was even more in the weeds with the recent blu-ray reissue of Macross: Do You Remember Love? , a souvenir I really wanted for myself. For some reason, it was harder to find store staff in the weird little DVD shops, so after a while, I found myself starting to scan the shelves for Magi, which had a really distinctive looking title in katakana, and invariably Macross stuff would be right next to it. Easy, right? I had to get that DYRL blu-ray, you see, because it was uncensored.
See, this new release of Macross: Do You Remember Love? has three things going for it. First of all, it's completely uncensored, unlike an earlier 2012 release that had a couple of the most violent bits snipped out. The movie is staffed to the gills with the greatest of Japan's animation talent of the mid-1980s, the animation directors had a lot of autonomy when making it, and so the famous Ichiro Itano kept sneaking stuff in there. You know, stuff that looked totally amazing but was pretty violent, bits where heads were stomped or blown off entirely. A couple of these bits were fuzzed out for the 2012 release. Who decided to alter the film? Was it the owner, Big West, or the creator and co-director, Mr. Shoji Kawamori? In any case, the changes were immediately noticed and decried by fans. When a new edition was released recently, it didn't have the questionable alterations from the previous edition. Score!
The second thing going for this new release? The slipcover, which is both grandly evocative of the original and manages to feature characters that look nothing at all like their original, Haruhiko Mikimoto-drawn versions. I kind of love it when this happens, which is fairly frequently—old anime is constantly being rescued and reissued for blu-ray, and it frequently comes with new artwork as a bonus for fans. The inner cover, of course, is the classic original key artwork.
The third and final thing that made me want to get Macross: Do You Remember Love? on blu-ray is the fact that it's an absolutely astonishing movie, a lavishly animated space epic created by that first, forward-looking generation of otaku turned creators. What Kawamori, co-director Ishiguro, and their staff turned out is a remarkably flawed movie, a retelling of the TV series that tosses storytelling out the window in favor of pure, unabashed spectacle. But this really just enhances the movie's finer points. It's a film stuffed end to end with lavish mecha design, eye-popping animation, hot music, and high drama, all wrapped around the classic, central conceit of Macross: pop music saves the universe.
The blu-ray is a great piece of work. There was no attempt to “clean” the movie via Q-Tec or some other onerous remastering service, so the film grain is still in full effect, giving it that classic look. The sound mix is excellent, and all of the movie's signature moments, from big brother-figure Roy's demise to the high-stakes battle between Max and Miriya to the finale Minmay song, are there. Watching the film, to quote the weird Christopher Lee bad guy from The Last Unicorn, makes me feel truly young, in spite of myself. This is everything I could have wanted from a Do You Remember Love? release… except for its lack of subtitles or a dub. That's okay by me, because I've pretty much memorized this movie.
In my library, the blu-ray is a long-awaited replacement for the VHS copy of the film that I got from a flea market at age 11, complete with green Xeroxed cover and a title, in tiny typewriter font, of ROBOTECH : THE MOVIE. That pirated VHS copy was a hell of a thing to find as a young fan of Robotech, the US adaptation that included the Macross TV series—it had a thuddingly weird dubbed version, presumably produced in Hong Kong, burned-in subtitles, and the first episode of Macross, in Japanese without subtitles, at the end of it all. It also included something called Macross: Flashback 2012, a bonus short created a few years after the film that depicts a big concert for idol singer Minmay and the launch of the new space fortress, Megaroad-01, on its maiden voyage to the galactic core. Part of the short is actually folded into the end credits of the new blu-ray, which is wholly appropriate. Unfortunately, the video looks about as good as it did on my old flea market special, meaning that they must've been stuck with composite masters of Flashback 2012. To me, this is actually kinda good, though, because it will give is all something else to buy when they inevitably dig up the original films and properly remaster Flashback 2012.
Macross: Do You Remember Love? is actually something we got on home video in the 80s and 90s. Maybe you bought the one on the left at Suncoast, or the one on the right at K-B Toys! These were EP-speed, quick and dirty releases of that weird dubbed version, with the “kids” version also having the bonus of numerous edits for violence, nudity, and all of the other great stuff we watch anime to see. Looks pretty goofy, right? Fortunately, the UK got a subtitled release, which
Nope, actually, that one looks silly as hell, too. Interestingly, even the UK subtitled release of Do You Remember Love? faded out without a DVD reissue. Years later, in his last, crucial interview on ANNCast, the late, great producer Carl Macek said that he'd wanted to dub the film with the Robotech voice cast, but political reasons prevented this from happening. Politics, huh? Well, maybe that Best Film & Video license was still in effect, even then.
To see if I could get some answers, back in 2013 I paid a visit to these guys.
Alright, I wasn't specifically sniffing after Macross trivia; I'd been invited to visit by Team Robotech, and was mostly interested in scoping out the studio's archives and seeing if I could find anything cool, like their weird old dubs of fare like the Tatsunoko 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea TV movie. It turns out that a lot of those old licenses have long since expired, and the materials are either in offsite storage or have been returned to the licensor or disposed of outright. Oh well, that's show business for you. What I did find was a fun, creative group of people, all the way up to then-CEO Frank Agrama, who at 83 years old was still kind enough to stop and say hello to me, describing the headquarters as “the house that Robotech built.” Amazingly, Frank was still taking meetings. Lots of them, which was why he didn't have time to sit down and chat with little old me. As for Frank's staff, they were extremely passionate and serious… about Robotech.
Look at all of the stuff that the Robotech name is on! I'm baffled to this day. Harmony Gold's situation is an unusual one, because the Macross portion of Robotech will seemingly never extend beyond the original TV series. If you've read this far, you probably know all about the bizarre and byzantine legal wranglings that have somehow left Harmony Gold with the exclusive right to use the Macross name practically everywhere outside of Japan. You can check the legal briefs over at Macross World, but vaguely-worded contracts mean that Harmony Gold outright own the original episodes outside of Japan—and according to the company, this also extends to the Macross name in general. That doesn't seem quite right to me, but in order for clarification, we'd need a legal challenge from Big West, Bandai Visual, or some other agent—some case law. It hasn't happened. When I gently inquired, off the record, about the possibility of a deal being struck between Harmony Gold and Big West, I was told by an insider that neither side was interested in bargaining with each other. Ah, there's the “political reasons” that Carl was talking about! It's a real tangle, and I can kinda understand Harmony Gold's perspective—they see themselves as responsible for turning Macross into a valuable name outside of Japan, and Tatsunoko's agreement with them stipulates that they own merchandising rights to that name. The thing is, though, their primary interest has been, is, and will continue to be Robotech, the one derivative of the Macross franchise that they definitively own.
So, like I said, the Harmony Gold Macross experience basically stops in 1983, frozen in time, even though the Macross phenomenon continues to this day. We've gotten some of Macross in the west—slick OVA boondoggle Macross II, for example, which also recently got the blu-ray treatment in Japan. Macross II got some hype back on its release, and was actually one of the first US commercial anime releases targeted to fans and not just folks at the video store. It's weak in the storytelling department, but has fantastic mecha and character designs. You know, I think we're all gonna look back regretfully at how we all shat all over Macross II and—actually no, it's really pretty bad. Its saving graces are those Valkyrie designs and some great music, along with occasional good animation, but even the classic Macross formula, a heady mixture of pop music, love triangles, and aerial dogfighting, is watered down here. This didn't stop me from frantically trying to locate a used copy of the blu-ray set when I was in Japan, despite the lack of English-language options. One store in particular was advertising a special 10,000-yen price, but were sold out. Macross II is a part of our past, man. It reminds us of all that once was good… and that could be again.
We got the grand, glorious Cowboy Bebop dress rehearsal that was Macross Plus, but we didn't get its follow-up, the TV series Macross 7. Macross 7 stands out for being the logical conclusion to the Macross concept: pop music saves the universe, only this time it's an entire rock n' roll band rather than a single precious idol singer, with a lead singer who both plays hot tunes and flies a Valkyrie—sometimes at the same time! I watched Macross 7 in fansub form, back when you had to mail off a couple of blank tapes and a self-addressed stamped envelope to get the episodes. (See, if money changed hands, it was basically piracy! But if the fansubber just copied a couple of tapes provided by the custome—I mean, the dedicated fan of an obscure, unloved classic!!—then it somehow wasn't as bad.) In the wake of Macross Plus's sustained success, I asked Keith Burgess, Manga Entertainment's US spokesman at the time, about releasing Macross 7. He told me that they'd investigated, and that music licensing rights were the biggest roadblock. This made a lot of sense, simply because the series had a couple of dozen songs. This was actually before the legal situation with Harmony Gold, which adds another element of confusion to things—since we had Macross II and Macross Plus on video with no harm done, why not Macross 7 and Macross Zero?
Macross Zero was released after Harmony Gold had started to assert their rights over the name. (This was apparently spurred on by toy sales, which has led to a weird situation where you can still buy officially imported Macross DYRL toys… with a Harmony Gold sticker slapped on 'em.) This means that it was never really on the table for overseas release, which is sort of a mixed blessing. On one hand, it was Shoji Kawamori's big return to the franchise, after he'd been largely absent for Macross 7. On the other, it was a goofy and largely superfluous production that sought to answer the burning questions behind what happened… before Macross?! I never really had any such questions, but I guess Mr. Kawamori did.
What Kawamori delivered was a mixture of awesome aerial dogfights (yes!) and goofy new-age mysticism involving a lost tribe of people somehow connected to the alien spaceship (huh?). It wasn't quite as preposterously goofy as his earlier project, Arjuna, and didn't really have sufficient quantities of Macross mecha action, either. There's this fleeting moment of extreme happiness you'll feel when you first hear Akira Kamiya reprising his role as Roy Focker, but then it passes and you have to sit through this thing involving a weird bird alien that doesn't even have any good idol songs, man.
Macross Zero is valuable, however, because it set the stage for Kawamori and his studio, Satelight, to continue pushing Macross forward. Zero wasn't all that great, but it was eventually followed by Macross Frontier, which I recently sat down and watched, officially, in English.
Here's the deal: Shoji Kawamori was slated to appear as a guest at Japan Expo 2013, in France. He wanted to show off the still fairly recent Macross Frontier: Wings of Goodbye film, and he wanted an English-subtitled translation for the screening. The translation got done, the screening was well-received, and Satelight were happy enough with the effort that they commissioned a subtitle translation of the first film, and included the subtitles for both on the 2014 30th anniversary box set. And so it came to pass that, after many years of no Macross in English nowhere no-how, we got an official Macross release with English subtitles. Subtitles name-checking stuff like Zentreadi and Protoculture, which had not been mentioned in English-language non-Robotech context in ages. Getting to see the compilation films, after waiting fruitlessly for an overseas broadcast, was a revelation.
The thing is, it was still a condensed version of the TV series. I then made the mistake of asking a couple of Macross-loving pals about whether or not I really needed to see that TV series after watching the two movies, which compile the series plot while also providing a brand-new ending to the saga. This resulted in a heated conversation about all of the characterization and buildup I'd missed by skipping the TV show, versus how good it was that I'd also missed out on the slightly bungled TV ending that the second movie apparently addressed and fixed up. I think the movies did their job, though—I got the gist of the story, and was really entertained throughout.
Macross Frontier continues the long story arc kicked off by the Megaroad's launch and continued with the colony ship's voyage in Macross 7 – the colonization of the galactic core by the human race, along with their former adversaries-turned-pals the Zentreadi. Frontier is all about the colony fleet of the same name, who employ a company of mercs in awesome new Valkyries to keep the peace. Things are shaken up by both the arrival of Sheryl Nome, a huge celebrity pop singer from the nearby colonial fleet Galaxy, and by the incursion of the Vajra, an aggressive new alien race. The resulting conflict is a big one, and since it's Macross, it's one that involves transforming airplane mecha, a love triangle, and hot pop music.
A bit moreso than in previous installments, this Macross is all about the triangle between pilot Alto Saotome, a former kabuki actor and dancer who'd done some work with Sheryl, Sheryl herself, and Ranka Lee, an aspiring singer with a tragic past. Alto is a little frustrating – he constantly does that thing where he's kinda into Sheryl now or Ranka later, but won't actually talk to them about it, and his desire to break away from his kabuki acting family tradition and become a pilot feel a bit tacked-on. But he does his part in the cockpit and holds up his end of the love triangle. Macross Frontier really lives and dies by its idols, and they're both pretty awesome characters. Sheryl oozes confidence and sex appeal, but has a certain vulnerability to her. Ranka is bubbly and bursting with talent, but tentative and troubled. (The part where she starts off on the path to stardom, which involves a series of shit promotional jobs, is probably my favorite bit in the whole series.) Both singers have great, distinctive musical numbers, and the spectacle gets even better when they team up.
Along with that, there's plenty of great mecha action, albeit in CG form. (Sadly, most of the really great hand-drawn mecha animators have either retired or moved on.) The private fleet that guards Frontier includes Valkyries, Destroids, and even a smaller, nimbler take on the transforming Macross flagship that we know and love from the original. Along with that, Satelight have really staked out an aesthetic that sets them apart. All of their hit offerings in recent years, like AKB0048, Bodacious Space Pirates, and yes, Macross Frontier, have a certain look to them. They're all vivid and bright, depicting a version of interstellar space travel that's candy-colored and adventuresome. Frontier is topped off by bits of signature Kawamori silliness, like goofy hybrid animals and microphones that also serve as phones, music players, and pets.
That brings us up to the present, Macross Delta, and even more questions. Mecha expert Ollie Barder dropped a fantastic interview over on Forbes with Shoji Kawamori about his past, present, and the new series Delta, which is streaming precisely nowhere outside of Japan. Kawamori acknowledged the legal trouble with exporting Macross and griped a bit about getting his work to a wider audience, considering how widely ripped off he is. (Here's a great side question: who's the most ripped off anime artist? My pick is Yutaka Izubuchi, whose Protect Gear from Jin-Roh keeps showing up in western video games.) Delta is the latest evolution of a series that has always taken time to reflect the tastes of the day – original Macross had the dream of the 80s—success contrasted against vivid visions of apocalypse-- and winsome, driving pop music. Plus had a hard-edged, thinking look at the future, and Seven was a reflection of the glam rock that still hadn't died in Japan. Frontier had its dueling starlets, and now Delta has an entire idol team, who also happen to pilot Valkyries. Tacky? Far-fetched? Who cares man, with Love Live! and [email protected] burning up the charts, the timing couldn't be better.
What intrigues me is Delta's release plan. Big West published the first episode early, as a preview. As part of that, they put it on their You Tube channel, where it was briefly available to the whole world, nice and legal. Then they locked it down, Japan-only. Then they unlocked it. Then they made it private, and uploaded the episode again, and that was global for a time. It's geo-locked to Japan again, but I was fascinated by what looked like a game of chicken to me. Now, their entire series blu-ray release is going to have English subtitles, just like earlier long-running “global” shows like Yamato 2199. I asked my correspondent Gwyn Campbell, one of the hosts of the excellent Macross-focused Speaker Podcast, if he thought this was Big West testing the waters for overseas fans. He thought that Big West just slipped up a bit, and pointed to a recent You Tube promo video featuring TV's Matt Alt where the host painstakingly pointed out, in English, that a couple of rad new Hi-Metal toys were available in JAPAN ONLY. Not surprising, considering that Harmony Gold's assertion of ownership really started as a reaction to Toynami and Yamato importing Macross toys.
As for the subtitles on the Macross Delta blu-rays, that just might be a larger strategy employed by chief sponsor and publisher Bandai Visual, who've also been pushing global-friendly Gundam projects as of late. It still makes me wonder if there's any way we can get more Macross down the line. When I visited Harmony Gold, I asked Tommy Yune, the man in charge of Robotech for HG, if there was any way the shows could be “rescued” by hitching up to the globally-recognized Robotech.
“Do you really want Robotech 7?” asked Tommy, wincing theatrically. “Robotech Frontier?” If part of that deal would deliver uncut Macross 7 and Macross Frontier to fans, then yes, I kinda do. The existing set of legal troubles keeping Macross down strike me as bizarre, but until it's challenged, the keys belong to Harmony Gold; they have a movie deal in development, so it's no surprise that they're going to protect what they think is theirs. I'd like a solution that will make everyone happy, or at least satisfied. This seems unlikely right now, but a couple of years ago an uncensored release of Do You Remember Love? seemed just as unlikely, so I'll keep hoping.
And for the record, I totally remember love. It was pretty cool, I hear it's making a comeback!
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