The Macross franchise’s already strained relationship with its Western fans has only been exacerbated in the last decade by a dearth of new releases in English. The last Macross release in English was AnimEigo’s 2001 remastered release of the original TV show, but the last release of a sequel was in the 1990s, when Manga Video released 1994’s Macross Plus. In spite, or perhaps because of this, Western Macross fans are some of the most diehard, thick-headed and obsessive fans you’ll find in anime fandom. Though divided on the merits of Macross 7 or Macross Zero, most share an unbridled affection for Macross Plus; ranked next to the original TV series or Do You Remember Love?, Plus is usually held up as the ideal Macross sequel.
Yet, Macross Plus wasn’t originally conceived as a Macross sequel, and is easily the most thematically inconsistent of the sequels despite having the best production values of the franchise. Standing out from the rest of the canon, both technically and thematically, Plus is good enough that it’s not just a great Macross sequel, but it’s a great piece of Japanese animation. So good, in fact, that it’s the best chapter in the Macross franchise.
Macross Plus was a highly ubiquitous title in the 1990s, and those who watched anime in the late 1990s have probably seen at least some of it; be it as a Blockbuster rental, a club showing, or one of the times it had popped up on television (which it still does, on occasion). I won’t waste too much time saying what’s already been said a hundred times before: the animation is gorgeous and still looks impressive fifteen years later. The Yoko Kanno soundtrack represents a creative high point in her career; characteristic of works from before her downward spiral of self-imitation, easily eclipsing her more recent efforts. The design work is among the best of its era, leading some to claim that it marked Shoji Kawamori’s peak as a mecha designer. The character designs by Gainax regular Masayuki are unique, with features atypical of the dominant design trends in the 1990s. In short, it’s the kind of inspired work that demonstrates how far talented people, with the support of a massive budget, can push the boundaries of a tired genre.
Despite its distinction as the last of the Macross sequels released in the West, Plus played a substantial role in setting off the boom of Western Macross fandom in the late 1990s. The four-part OAV was a defining experience for many Western Macross fans, one that profoundly impacted their overall perception of the franchise. It shaped their opinions as to “what Macross is” in a slightly disingenuous manner, because, in the context of the rest of the franchise, Plus is clearly the odd one out. Plus has no giant aliens, no idol singers used as weapons of war and no awkward 1980s-style teenage romance. The seriousness of Plus and the high production quality struck a great contrast to the much more exuberant, but poorly animated, Macross 7, which was in production at the same time as Plus.
The basic elements of Macross are still present in Plus: the love triangle, the music, the transforming planes. But there’s more of an edge, an adult sensibility both in terms of story and style that came with the freedoms of the direct-to-video format, as opposed to traditional toy-sponsored, youth-focused TV programming. The innocent optimism of Hikaru, Misa and Minmei are absent in the triangle of Myung, Isamu and Guld. Isamu and Guld both have their dream jobs, but are fundamentally unhappy, while Myung has given up on her dream and accepted the reality of the music industry and her place within it. Ultimately, the three of them are miserable; it’s the Macross love triangle formula, but all grown up.
This very cynicism is grounds for one of the major complaints of Plus‘ critics: that the characters are all unlikable jerks. While this isn’t untrue, this frustration seems to be borne of an expectation that they act like stereotypical anime personalities. Instead of lovelorn fifteen-year-olds, we get slightly more nuanced adults. Isamu may be a selfish asshole, but he’s at least a realistic one, and his lack of naïveté offers a refreshing break from the head-pounding stupidity commonly seen in anime romances. Isamu doesn’t sit around pining for Myung — he’s too busy sleeping with one of his coworkers.
Compared with the original Macross TV series, or really, just about any other Macross series, Plus lacks the pacifistic undertones of the sort Kawamori seems so fond of. Instead, a sense of militaristic and mechanical fetishism pervades Plus, a fascination with not just combat but also the giant robots in which people do the fighting. The plot focuses on the development and testing of competing weapons projects, and, without the backdrop of interstellar war, there never really comes a time to present a strong anti-war message. If anything, the conclusion of Plus, where Guld and Isamu fight against a glorified UAV, seems to champion the cause of fighter pilots, a profession inextricably entangled with the very notion of war.
The mechanical focus is a constant theme throughout, especially in the character of Isamu, who displays an incredible affection for his YF-19 fighter. Past Macross protagonists had treated their mecha as mere tools, devices for waging war (or, in the case of Basara Nekki in Macross 7, for stopping war). In the original Macross, the VF-1 Valkyrie flown by protagonist Rick Yamato was indistinguishable from the VF-1 Valkyries flown by every other pilot aboard the SDF Macross, ignoring the tradition of early “real robot” shows like Mobile Suit Gundam or Fang of the Sun Dougram of placing the hero inside a special prototype unit. Later Macross sequels largely continue this tradition, but not Plus — Isamu’s YF-19 is most certainly a prototype (but given the test pilot scenario, it makes sense).
Isamu’s mecha fetishism echoes that of many Macross fans, especially Western male ones, who focus entirely on the mechanical aspects of the franchise. These are the guys with rooms stacked full of Macross toy boxes, fans who pour over mechanical minutia and debate aspects of the transforming giant robots that no doubt go far beyond what the original creators bothered to consider. This indulgence helps explain why Macross Plus is far more popular among the more mechanically-focused Western fans than either Macross 7 or Macross Zero. Unlike Macross 7, with its hippy protagonist championing the idea of peace or Macross Zero‘s Birkenstock-wearing environmentalism, Plus is a straight-up love letter to the military industrial complex within the Macross universe.
Another important distinction setting Plus apart from the rest of the franchise is the origins of its production; it was originally conceived by director Kawamori as an entirely new feature film with no actual connection to Macross. The sponsors demanded that it be shoehorned into the Macross canon, and its format changed to a four-part Oriental Animation Video series. While the format change might have been undone by the release of Macross Plus: Movie Edition (which featured a slightly rearranged plot, some minor edits, and a couple new scenes), there was no way to shake the feeling that something with Plus was “off,” when compared to other shows in the franchise.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As unique as each Macross sequel is (more so than, say, your average Gundam sequel), they invariable fall into the same trap of rehashing the same idea of inter-species war with a strong focus on culture clash, music, and the music’s impact within that conflict. The only other exception here is Macross Zero, which had a hard time (like many prequels) convincing us that we should care about the plot, and then forced us to suffer though a confusing, muddled conclusion. Plus‘ origins outside the franchise provided an alternative to the overdone interstellar war with aliens plotlines, while still having a premise that fit within the expectations of the canon.
Though Kawamori was billed as the “Chief Director” of Plus, the actual director credit belongs to Shinichiro Watanabe. Watanabe is best known for his work on the stylish Cowboy Bebop, and it’s clear that much of Plus‘ uniqueness comes from his stylized touch. As he shared storyboarding duties with Kawamori on Plus, it’s safe to say that he had significant creative input throughout production. While it’s impossible to gauge exactly how much of Plus‘ style is due to Watanabe, the difference between Plus and the rest of the franchise is reinforced by the fact that he wasn’t involved with any of the other Macross titles.
Despite its differences from the rest of Macross‘ sequels, Plus turns these differences into strengths. Separating itself from the more overused clichés of the franchise, Plus excels because it takes the Macross basics, disregards the rest, and injects enough originality into the formula that it’s not just good Macross, it’s good anime. The willingness to do something different (sponsor-induced or not) is an undeniable benefit to the OAV, standing out among the mixed-bag of Macross productions as not just one of the best Macross titles, but the best.