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by Nicholas Dupree,

Macross Frontier: The False Songstress

Macross Frontier: The False Songstress
The year is 2059. Decades after the war between Earth and the Zentradi, the remnants of both forces continue to travel across the many expanses of the cosmos, searching for habitable planets and new life in the vast universe. Upon the enormous city-ship, Frontier, aspiring pilot Alto Saotome dreams of flying through real blue skies rather than the virtual facsimile he's known his whole life. His shy friend, Ranka Lee, just hopes to break out of her shell and sing like her favorite idol: the galaxy-wide superstar Sheryl Nome. But when Sheryl herself arrives aboard the Frontier for a big concert, she brings with her the threat of the Vajra, monstrous insect-like aliens that resemble living weapons more than organic creatures. These invaders threaten the peace and safety of the Frontier, but the mysteries surrounding their existence promise to tear Alto, Ranka, and Sheryl apart in more ways than one.

It still feels surreal to be covering this film, honestly. Sure, Macross Plus got an event screening not all that long ago, but that was a title that had at least temporarily escaped the licensing nightmare that has plagued Macross for decades. Meanwhile The False Songstress, and it sequel film, The Wings of Farewell, have never gotten a proper overseas release despite having officially sanctioned English subtitles for years now. But as proof that miracles can happen, another part of this IP's long legacy is finally available.

For those new to the franchise, or even just new to Frontier, know that you don't need any prior experience with the franchise or the original TV series to watch this film duology. While there are of course some easter eggs and clever callbacks for longtime fans, The False Songstress acts as a condensed retelling of roughly the first 2/3rds of the TV series, and is written to stand on its own. If you're curious about checking out Macross this is as accessible a starting point as any, no homework required.

Unfortunately, just because this film is meant to stand on its own doesn't mean it makes for a particularly great film in isolation. While the lingering mysteries and unresolved plot threads at the end of the movie make sense as setup for the sequel, the condensed bulk of Frontier's story is uneven at best. The TV series managed to mostly tread a line between the heavy sci-fi action and the romantic dramedy of its central love triangle, but with less than two hours to work with there's just not enough time for both halves to coexist. A number of cuts have been made to keep the essential parts – numerous side cast are demoted to bit players or excised entirely, and the conspiracy driving the story has been simplified – there's still a lopsidedness to how the film plays out.

For one, the Vajra basically cease to exist for a solid hour after they're first introduced, only returning in the third act when the movie needs them for its climactic action sequence. They don't even exist as some lingering threat – the characters barely mention them until they become relevant again, with the adults more concerned about an internal political conspiracy while our main trio are busy going through the pangs of young love. The story tries to mix those latter two at points, with Alto and his superiors believing Sheryl to be a spy for their political rivals, but that ends up mattering far less than you'd think, as it's all but forgotten once it's time for some space bug fights.

That said, the handful of action scenes we do get are pretty darn good. While the CG for both Vajra and the transforming Valkyrie fighters certainly shows its age, the direction and scoring of these fights do a lot to compensate. The initial attack from the Vajra feels dangerous and visceral as these enormous, grotesque creatures crash through buildings like classic kaiju. The Vajra themselves are also a clever idea – essentially biological fighter planes that can enhance the tension of space/aerial dogfights with the ferocity of a vicious animal. There's a sequence in the final battle where Alto faces off against one in a portion of the Frontier that's lost its artificial gravity, and it's easily the best action moment of the film. While the overall structure of the narrative means there aren't a ton of fights, they work well when they do happen.

But cool robot fights only make up one corner of the triangle that has come to define every Macross entry, and the other two (love triangles and music) get their main focus in the middle hour of the movie that doesn't feature any giant bug monsters. The music comes courtesy of Sheryl (May'n) and Ranka (Megumi Nakajima) with tracks composed by the legendary Yoko Kanno. Over a decade after its release, much of Frontier's music has remained a mainstay for fans of the franchise, and just about every song here shows exactly why. The opening concert does a lot to both characterize Sheryl as a person and a performer, and just being a solid spectacle in its own right. The central drama of this love triangle hinges in part on Sheryl's larger-than-life persona, and the concert makes that facet of her undeniable. It's about the perfect synthesis of what makes Macross so special, weaving in genuine spectacle with effective thematic and character writing that is hard to come by anywhere else.

Unfortunately the same can't be said for the other 67% of this love triangle. Alto is perhaps the least likable male lead in Macross, which is saying something, but it's mostly because he's not even unlikable in an interesting way. There are scraps of interesting characterization here – he left his family's traditional kabuki theater business because he felt he was losing his sense of self, for instance – but he spends much of the film with a huge chip on his shoulder about damn near anything. Outside of action scenes, nearly every line of dialogue he shares with either of his love interests is either him being an ass, or apologizing for being an ass. That dynamic sort of works when he's with Sheryl, who has him wrapped around her finger from the word go, and enjoys taking him down a peg whenever he gets too haughty for his own good. But with the shy, lovestruck Ranka it makes their entire relationship feel hollow, because it's hard to see why she'd ever fall in love with the guy. It doesn't help that the larger thematic implications of his character from the TV show are missing, as they did a lot to mitigate Alto's personality. Bereft of the commentary on how his becoming a cog in the military-industrial complex is no different from sacrificing his identity for the theater, he just comes off as a jerk who needs to get over himself, but he rarely does. Plainly put, he lacks the infectious charisma of Plus' Isamu or the boyish energy of Delta's Hayate, and makes for the least engaging part of the central cast.

But the character who gets done the dirtiest in all this is easily Ranka Lee. Because her feelings for Alto are pre-established at the start of the story, and they need to develop Sheryl's relationship with him, Ranka barely exists through much of this film. Things like her trauma-induced memory loss are explained without her even on screen. Her fledgling career as a singer gets its start entirely off-screen and the rest is reduced to a truncated montage. She gets all of three scenes with Alto and one with Sheryl to establish their dynamic before basically vanishing from the story until her mysterious connection to the Vajra turns her into the final battle's central plot device. Even as a romantic rival she's hardly present, and anyone watching this movie without seeing the TV series might wonder why she's here at all. With a full third of this love triangle underdeveloped that badly, there's just not much stakes or investment to be found in the movie's biggest character conflict.

There are, at least, moments where the presentation and sheer energy of it all manages to overcome those restraints. Ranka and Sheryl's duet at the end of the movie is a great moment, if only for how well May'n and Nakajima's voices complement each other. Ranka's rendition of “What 'bout My Star?” in the shopping mall, where random street musicians start playing accompaniment, is the kind of classic Macross cheesiness that always keeps me coming back to this franchise. But none of that is strong enough to overcome the structural failings that leave this film feeling like a mess. Toss in some inconsistent animation thanks to reincorporating footage from the TV series (poor Michael's alien elf ears change shape every other shot) and you have a film that can technically stand on its own, but is moments away from its knees buckling under its own weight.

As said before, some of these issues could be resolved in the sequel, and are perhaps not as noticeable if you have the TV series in mind and can fill in the blanks that the movie version glosses over. But as an isolated work to see in theaters, it can't overcome its deeper deficiencies no matter how much charm or energy the best moments provide.

Overall : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A

+ Great and iconic music, exciting fight scenes, Sheryl is a legend for a reason
Narrative structure buckles under its dual stories, two-thirds of its love triangle are either unlikable or underdeveloped

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Production Info:
Director: Shoji Kawamori
Shoji Kawamori
Hiroyuki Yoshino
Music: Yoko Kanno
Original creator: Shoji Kawamori
Character Design:
Risa Ebata
Yūichi Takahashi
Art Director: Shunichiro Yoshihara
Mechanical design:
Junya Ishigaki
Takeshi Takakura
Sound Director: Masafumi Mima

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Macross Frontier: Itsuwari no Utahime (movie)

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