Interview: Mari Iijima

by Jacob Chapman,

Before Hatsune Miku or The [email protected], there was Do You Remember Love?, a movie adaptation of the hit Macross TV series that turned anime idols into a phenomenon. The voice beyond this phenomenon, Mari Iijima, finally returned to perform classic songs from Super Dimension Force Macross at Anime Expo 2017. We sat down to ask her about how Lynn Minmay changed her life, her career, and the anime industry over 30 years ago.

ANN: So it's been 18 years since you first performed at Anime Expo?

Mari Iijima: (laughs) Yeah. First and only was 1999.

Wow. So you're in the area, but you haven't been to Anime Expo since '99. How has it changed since then for you?

Ummm… a lot. (laughs) First of all, it wasn't like I didn't want to come here, but invitations had stopped since then. So this was the first time they re-invited me. I felt very good, I felt very honored. Things had changed. At that time, back in 1999, I was more focused on what I wanted to do. At the time, I actually premiered my first English album at that convention. But this time, I want more to do what they want to hear.

You mean what fans remember from your past work? You want to give them what they remember?

Well of course I'm a singer/songwriter, I kept on making my own music albums, I have 24 albums and all. But for this concert tomorrow, I'm not going to focus on my own work, I'm going to sing from the Macross library, because it's a festive event.

Yeah, it's the 35th anniversary, I believe? So that must be very exciting. Do you have any thoughts on how Macross has changed over the course of those years? How the franchise is different from when you were Lynn Minmay?

Yeah. It's not like I followed everything very thoroughly, but I think Macross was… I don't know if Kawamori-san would like it if I say this, but Macross was a little bit quieter for a while, then he started to make more huge productions. For me, the biggest change is that my character was designed by Haruhiko Mikimoto, and now somebody else draws the character. To me, that's a huge difference.

Right, I would say there isn't really anything else that looks like Do You Remember Love in particular, and his designs… I don't know if they're difficult to animate, but he worked on Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress recently, which is a show that had a lot of resources available for animating his more detailed style. So do you think Minmay has an image that is distinct from other idols?

Minmay is always, to me, the cutest. You know, the most beautiful. She's like an eternal character.

I assume you mean her image, but also her music, would you say? In what way do you find her songs eternal?

It's like timeless, I think. I sang her music a long, long time ago. Of course, I changed because a lot of time passed, but I don't think the music itself aged. I'm sure it brings people some childhood memories and stuff, but maybe even when some young people listen to it, I think they will feel the same: perkiness, giddiness, happiness. And of course Kentaro Haneda, the composer for Macross, his composition and orchestration were very wonderful. That's why I think the whole thing is very classic.

I think it would be very strange to expect anyone to be the same person as they were that many years ago, so I'm glad that's not the case, right?

(laughs) Yes.

But when you think of the music that you write now and how it's more personal, say there's somebody who's only ever heard the songs from Macross. How would you characterize your own music to them and why they should listen to it?

The Macross music, I was only like a teenager and they gave me the songs and I sang the whole thing in like maybe one or two hours, quickly. Of course I worked hard on it, but I didn't consider music as my job or anything. At that time, I was just a kid. Maybe that's the reason why it was so free. I wasn't aiming for anything grand, I didn't think about how this was going be a hit, I actually had no idea because I didn't jump into the industry to be an anime actress or singer. I was signed as a singer/songwriter. I had no expectation from the Macross stuff, so it was a huge surprise when it became a hit. So to me, the Macross music is just for Minmay and it didn't reflect my own feelings. I mean, of course the music has my feelings in it, but it's not about my actual life. Since 1983, I've made 24 albums, and of course life has its ups and downs, so I write my music based on my real life. It's much, much, much more personal, my own music. But now I have a very good connection with Minmay. I love Minmay, and she's always somewhere in my system, so in that sense I sing my Macross stuff with more happiness and depth because I always feel like Minmay's helping me. I didn't have that at the beginning.

Because you didn't know about the legacy and connection it would have to so many people?

And I had some struggles that came from being typecast a little bit for Macross. For a long time, I suffered some, yeah. So now I worked things out inside myself and with Minmay, so I don't have that pain.

No bitterness anymore.

Yeah. So I think the audience tomorrow will see and hear that I'm happy singing Macross stuff now.

I'm glad, that's great. Obviously, you don't have all the time in the world to follow all the Macross stuff as it comes out, but of the stuff that you are familiar with since then, do you have a favorite Macross project that you were not part of?

The only newer Macross that I had some connection with was Macross Frontier, because I had some Macross anniversary shows in Japan and I had some connections with other singers. I can say I know a little bit about Macross Frontier and of course Macross 7, because Fukuyama-san, we worked on many occasions as singers for some events. So I feel a little bit closer to him because he would come to my green room and chat for a long time. He's a very friendly person, so I have a warm connection with him, so I have some connection to Macross 7 and Macross Frontier.

The other big thing that is very different now is idol culture. The Anisong festival concert this year is three or four idol groups, and idols are their own huge industry in Japan right now. I don't think that was the case—I wasn't around necessarily at the time of the original Macross, but I don't think it was the same back then. So watching stuff like Love Live and Wake Up, Girls! and stuff like that evolve as its own industry, how does that compare to your experience in the '80s?

I think Minmay kind of started that. We were like the pioneers of the anime character sings and becomes a star in the story. I feel like if there was no Minmay, maybe that wouldn't happen, or it would have happened much later. I haven't actually seen those idol groups, I've just heard things about them, but even Miku Hatsune, I think Minmay had so much of an effect on her. If there was no Minmay, then maybe she wouldn't have been born? I don't know.

So what does that mean to you, that you got to play this character who inspired this entire industry years later?

Well, I don't know how many people know about that, and I don't need to say, “hey, it's me, me me,” but I want to keep so much respect alive for Minmay, you know? She's like a forever singing princess.

This is an odd question, but even though there are definitely Macross fans in the US, there is a legal issue with the franchise. How familiar are you with that and what do you think of it?

I was thinking about that the other day while I was driving, because I reprised the role of Minmay in 2006, I did all the Macross TV series in English for ADV films. When they asked me to do that, of course I wanted to. That was the turning point for me and Minmay's relationship to get better, in 2006. Because I realized she was alone for all those years, like I pushed her in a small room in the corner of myself, and I didn't really want to deal with her because of that typecasting issue. But when I played her again, I had to face her. I could see she was crying, like in my vision. So I cried with her, and we hugged and made up. Anyway, when I accepted that offer, I didn't think about the contract difficulty. So the other day, I was thinking, “what did the Japanese staff think or feel about me doing that?" I'd never thought about that. But I don't really know the whole thing. I know they can't release Do You Remember Love as a film here.

Yeah, because of Robotech, which was an English-made show that took parts of different anime. So they own the licenses to those anime, and other groups who want to put out the original properties and not the remixed American show can't. Harmony Gold owns the licensing rights to the original Macross. So everybody wants to release Macross freely here like they have Gundam in recent years, but they can't do it because the rights are tied up with this defunct company.

Even the film, right?

Yeah, everything that's Macross-related. So fans who love it, they still find a way to watch it, but it's not legal and sometimes it's not easy. So it's kind of rough for everybody.

Well, you know, back then in the 80s or maybe even the 70s, in my own experience, signing contracts was a little bit loose of a process back then. So I don't know how they could give up the rights for Macross, I feel it's unfortunate. But I can imagine how it happened, because Japan is not like America where people hire lawyers always to sign even one contract as an artist, you know? In Japan, we don't have that culture that everybody hires lawyers for everything. I think it's changing, but maybe it was a little bit too loose back then.

As far as I know, relations with licenses in the anime industry are very controlled these days. But for Macross, Harmony Gold is sort of playing with red tape that existed many years ago that they would never do the same way now.

How come Harmony Gold can't release Do You Remember Love if they have the rights?

Because they're a defunct company, they don't release anything anymore. They own the rights because of contract, but they don't produce anything.

Harmony Gold doesn't exist? Robotech.com and everything? They are like gone?

I don't know the state of the company exactly. Obviously that site is still active. Other companies distribute Robotech in different regions because it's still nostalgic for people, audiences still want to buy it. So there are distributors, but Harmony Gold as a production company doesn't have to do much in that process.

And of course they're not going to release Macross, like release meaning “let go of Macross.” Even if we beg. Even if Minmay begs? “Please! Please!” Even Macross Frontier, they can't do it? All the Macross stuff?

Yeah. Maybe I wasn't clear enough earlier, when I said people want to see Macross and they can't, I didn't just mean the original series and Do You Remember Love, I meant all of it. Delta, Frontier, all of that.

Then I will suggest to Kawamori-san, change the name a little bit. Don't do Macross. Make it MaMacross or or Makukuross. Make a little change, get away from that.

Maybe that would do the trick!

Yeah, or read it backwards: Su-ro-ku-ma. Yeah, he should do that.

So what would you say to fans that have to go out of their way to experience Macross? If they have to do it illegally but they don't want to. What would you say to those fans?

I don't know. To me, everything happens for a reason. I don't know, maybe it was a learning process for some people, right? The contract issue. I feel bad that they have to find some pirate material. I suggest maybe just watch the original series and feel the hearts of the creators and actors and singers. And study Japanese. (laughs)

I wanted to ask you about performing Lynn Minmay in English back in 2006. That must be very unusual, playing a character in one language and then another. How would you describe that process? Was it good? Was it difficult? Do you think it translated?

It was definitely more difficult than the original work, because I had to come back to a character that I played a long time ago. And of course it's in English, and of course I'm working with a completely different American director who has his own image about Macross or Robotech, and of course he has a completely different approach to that whole process. I think for me, Minmay's greatness came from the natural way I played that role, because I was not in the anime industry, I was just a singer/songwriter, and they just put me in that studio. The only thing I could do was just to play it natural. I didn't have any cartoon voice or animation voice, you know? So I wanted to keep that for the American Macross also, but I guess the director wanted me to play the character more like an anime voice actress. So I had to sometimes resist that and fight for Minmay. It was a huge tension on my shoulders.

Because you wanted the English-speaking fans to understand Minmay as the Japanese fans did, right?

Yeah, it's the same Minmay, it's the same character, I don't need to change her. That's why they're hiring me, right? Because they wanted it to sound like the original Macross. So I wanted to protect Minmay, I didn't want Minmay to be some completely different person. I feel like I know Minmay more than anybody, but maybe for some anime fans or industry people, they have their own takes about Macross, including, “hey, Minmay wasn't the main character.” Like the director didn't think Minmay was a main character, he thought she was supporting cast, and I was like “no.” He also wanted to call Macross, “Ma Cross! Ma Cross!” The American actors would say like, “'hey, we're going to MacRoss!”

(laughs)

I just kept saying, “Makurosu, Makurosu. That's Macross, everybody!”

I think with the internet and social media being more direct, when they do English dubs now, studios pronounce names better and they understand the Japanese culture side of it better and all that. But in the mid-2000s and definitely earlier, there was this attitude of “we have to make it American” or "do it however, people won't care." So it's nice now that they know American fans want the original intent.

But when another substitute director came into the studio, I did so much better. Because he didn't have that ego of "I want to do it this way or that way." Everything went so quick, but I got paid less because it went--

Ahhh, right. Paid by the hour.

That first guy directed me so hard and it took so long for me to finish one episode, but it got faster and faster, and then before I knew it, I was saying bye-bye to Houston. Because I was going to Houston like every other month for that process. It was fun, though. Because of that experience, me and Minmay became like soul sisters. I really needed that. I am thankful.

That's great. So what of your recent music, if you were to recommend to someone, what would you want them to listen to first? Because it's such a large catalog at this point.

Of course, as artists we always want to promote the newest one, and then when we are making the new one, we are like a little bit high: “This is it, man! This is the good stuff!” And I felt that way for the last one and then this one—because the last one, it's called “Sharp As A Knife, Sweet As Strawberries". I made the whole production, I wrote, arranged, recorded, and mixed the whole album by myself. I've never done that much before. So at the time, I was so high. I actually made the t-shirts to say “this is the fucking greatest album” or something like that. I have that t-shirt somewhere. I even cursed, “this is the fucking greatest thing ever!”

Not something people would associate with Minmay, I don't think.

(laughs) No! But, you know, but we are so different. Because I remember her profile, she said, "my favorite food is pig legs". But I'm a vegan. Fans have to know we're two different people. But as artists, we're always focused on the latest album, but I like the album “Echo.” The whole album is about unrequited love, the love I couldn't have.

Those songs make me cry more than any other songs.

Oh really? Oh god.

Especially if it's a girl, because I think a girl should always like—a guy turning down a girl, it makes me so angry and sad when they have to sing about going through that.

Sometimes situations, you know, like it can't happen. You know, if one person is not free, the relationship can't happen and it's wrong to force it. And even if you're in a loving relationship, it's always like one person is worried that the other person doesn't love her or him as much as she or he does. I think love relationships are always fragile. “Do you love me as much as I love you?” “Yes I do.” “But why did you go to the Dodger's stadium and eat hot dogs by yourself when I was crying and lonely?” You know? Like that. Even if we're in the same relationship, it's still a little bit unrequited, because it's never the same love amount between people. But if you look deep into our souls, love is love, and we are all actually coming from one heart, one soul. We are all connected and we equally love each other, it's just circumstances and egos that change that. You know? Love relationships are hard. So the Echo album is good. And the brand-new one is called Awakening, and I made that album after—I don't know if you guys could relate to me on this, but I lost my beloved bunny rabbit.

I own a rabbit, her name is Olive, she's a very sweet lop.

Oh, good, good, good. So you know how cute bunnies are. He was like my actual, for real husband. We were living together, and he could understand everything. He actually showed up in my life when my son left to college, and I had a huge hole in my heart, empty nest syndrome. I have twins and they went to college at the same time, so suddenly I was alone. And of course, I was a single mom—divorced single mom—so then one day, around the time they left, the bunny just showed up in front of my door. Since then, we were inseparable and when he suddenly passed away at the end of 2014, it was just such a traumatic, traumatic experience. I actually went through some horrible depression because of that. But because of that, I found this little satori that just—people try to find this kind of satori meditating and going on retreats, but it happened because of my suffering. Suddenly I found this quiet place deep in my soul. Everything was just quiet and connected. And I knew that was the satori that people want. So the Awakening is about that and my personal challenges. Sometimes people don't want to hear something deep like that through pop music or rock music, but it's a process, it's part of my path. So I'm very honest to my path and want to express non-fiction through my music, so if somebody's my real fan, that person accepts my Awakening album too. And then maybe I'm going to go more pop and get more fun again, I'm trying to do that next album. I don't want people to think, “Oh, Mari got so quiet.” I don't want that. So I want to have a very energetic album next.

Hills and valleys, you know.

I'm very honest. I'm a very honest person. I hope that shows through my music.

Thanks to Anime Expo for the opportunity.


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