Summer 1994 Laserdisc Cartoons: Macross Plus

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.

37 Comments

  1. I don’t find it crazy to call Macross Plus the best Macross. However, I’m sure people will disagree.

    I watched it before knowing anything of the Macross cannon and it was completely accessible. It just stands on it’s own as a title.

    It was only slightly conufsing when I watched the ‘movie version’ which makes some of the character motivation less clear.

  2. I forgot to mention that Manga Video’s dub is surprisingly good, largely because of Bryan Cranston otherwise known as the Dad from Malcolm in the Middle and Dr. Tim Whatley from Seinfeld.

  3. This article brought back some great memories. I’m thinking about watching Macross+ again which is better the movie or ova?

  4. > John

    Hard to say. They’re mostly the same, the movie adds in a few new scenes, but the entire order of events is changed around. I like it because I think it flows better than the OAV, which is divided into distinct episodes, but I’m partial to the OAV because that was what I saw first.

  5. >John – Having replaced my aging VHS with the Manga double pack DVDs a few years back, I will say that the quality of the OVA transfer is – for some reason – far superior to the movie.

    Macross Plus is very close to my – and many other British anime fans of my generation – for the concert scenes that give a knowing nod to UK rave and techno culture of the time. The scene where everyone in the audience starts coming up – sorry, nodding their heads at the same time always raises a wry smile. Knowing the ‘interests’ of some of the staff involved I’m pretty sure its not a coincidence.

    Nice post Sean.

  6. Oh, and I forgot to mention – if there was any doubt about the staff’s enthusiasm for the UK electronica scene at the time, a freeze from of one of the street scenes will reveal an Aphex Twin poster in the background 🙂

  7. The last Macross release in English was ADV’s 2006 release of the original TV series. Please get your facts correct in the future.

    Also: Best article I’ve read on Colony Drop.

  8. Personally, I think the OVA is far superior, I feel all the changes and edits made to the movie worked to its detriment, except for the extended ending.

    Kudos to Sean for pointing out the English dub, that was the first thing I was going to mention. It is one of the few cases that I prefer the English dub over the Japanese one. Bryan Cranston is a fantastic voice actor.

    Great review Sean, I agree with every single point you made in it!

  9. Yeah, I’m also reminiscing hard (ah OVAs shown in college auditoriums), but I haven’t watched the movie so I should go with that. Which reminds me, that damn neighborhood kid borrow-stole my Battle Angel Alita VHS tape. Arrgh… I can’t live. :-/

  10. Ah memories… and what a dub! I can still reel lines off in my head.

  11. Can I just say that as a mecha fetishist obsessed with tiny details and having some shelves loaded with transforming fighter planes, I’ve always felt that Macross 7 is underrated…? 🙂

  12. Another fine article from CD…I can remember showing friends in college the first ten minutes of MACROSS PLUS and watching their jaws drop…and stay that way.

    I do agree that this is a fantastic MACROSS sequel and that it also goes in a much different direction than the other MACROSS shows. The characters are older, the action is limited in the sense that there no massive ship-to-ship battles and massive planetary destruction. Also, this had to be one of the best dubs for that time (although I could not believe that it was Bryan Cranston as Isamu–perfect casting).

    Even now, all these years later, it still holds up. A truly fantastic series.

  13. In regards to ニットピッカー’s comments about getting the facts straight…amen. Sean, where’d you get “Rick Yamato” from? What version of Macross were you watching? If you were watching Robotech, it’d be Rick Hunter. If you were watching Macross, it’d be Hikaru Ichijo.

    That said, I agree that Macross Plus is absolutely a splendid piece of anime history. But in the wake of Macross Frontier, I certainly wouldn’t call it either the best or the most advanced, nor does it represent Kawamori’s best mecha design work (the VF-25 and -27 are distinctly descendants of the YF-19, but vastly superior). And Frontier is also some of the best work Yoko Kanno has done, superior in a lot of ways to what she did for Macross Plus.

    You might want to catch up on your Macross viewing. 🙂

  14. Excellent article! I agree with most of what you said, although I pretty much love every incarnation of Macross I’ve seen (including the much-maligned M7).

    My only factual nitpick has more to do with the OAV acronym being stated as “Oriental Animation Video”, which is not only inaccurate, (the O stands for Original), but a little bit (unintentionally I’m sure) racist as well. I’m pretty sure Asians have viewed the term “oriental” pretty negatively since the late 80’s…

    I DO prefer the movie to the OAVs for the differences you state such as the general flow and the lack of an episodic feel, but that’s neither here nor there.

    I’ll have to check out the dub now, though, as I had no idea Bryan Cranston had anything to do with it… I usually avoid English dubs like the plague (perhaps with the exception of Cowboy Bebop)…

  15. >ニットピッカー and Magus

    The ADV release was of the same TV series that AnimEigo released five years prior, so I didn’t really see it as necessary to mention it.

    Rick Yamato is from the Harmony Gold dub of Macross that predated Robotech (also appears in the Macross comic by Comico). Thanks for playing, though.

  16. It’s hardly the same show at all, Sean! After all, ADV’s version has a brand-new dub with Mari Iijima reprising her debut role as Minmay, twenty years later, and everyone’s favourite ephebophile Vic Mignogna as Hikaru Ichijo! It’s an all-new experience for a new generation — buy your copy at your local ADV Films liquidation agent today!

  17. Um, that’s Rick Yamada, Sean. Yamada being seen as an ‘acceptable’ Japanese name ala Tanaka, the famous Mr. Tanaka of most language courses.

    Gee, guess I get to play Apostate on this one!

    Macross is a pile of poo. It’s very pretty poo in a handsome designer package, but it’s poo.

    There are so many instances of ‘smart people have to be stupid in order to advance the plot’ that I lost track. The core concept of the mind-controlled fighter is absurd, if in order for it to work the pilot has to be a Zen master and perfectly calm and peaceful Good lord, that’s not how people work! You can’t be in a fighter, taking high Gs, trying to get a lock on a jinking foe and be the rock in the river, the reed in the field!

    See also Clint Eastwood in Firefox.

    And on top of that using a Zentran as the pilot? Even a half-Zentran?! That’s like putting a pit bull in a poodle show.

    But then again, maybe my real problem is I can’t separate the product from the producer. It was Macross Plus that gave Bandai Visual it’s first real taste of sweet, sweet American money. The genius of Andy Frain of Manga, by breaking the walls that then existed in terms of anime and home video (lower price, dubs that didn’t completely re-write the story, mass market availability), clearly tempted Bandai to start up Animevillage.com.

    But it was an unstable table. When Manga had their big shake-up and Frain was booted off (and when Manga was split away from Polygram/Island World) it bitched up the release of volume 4, screwed up the dubbing (remember that?).

    Macross Plus is a four episode fanservice for air combat otaku. I’m fine with that. Lots of pretty little shout-outs to DYRL (which at the time was considered the ‘official’ Macross, likely due to the whole Harmony Gold thing.) but man, I sure wish they had put a bit more thought and reason into the characters

  18. Dammit, Steve.

    Although, I just double checked the comic and they spell it Rick Yamata. So I guess we’re both sort of right?

  19. *shrug* I’m going off the credits from the Harmony Gold VHS tape and what Macek’s PR Flak said back at the 1984 Worldcon. Look at that Comic, look at the horrid art and other nonsense. Is it impossible to think they spelled it wrong?

    But I’ll split the difference and toss out a bit sure to outrage. I don’t get why everyone loves Yoko Kanno. She’s no Shirley Walker. My friend Tim thinks I’m insane.

    Oh, the music is OK, but it’s not MEMORABLE, not like, say, Miyagawa’s work on Space Battleship Yamato or Yuji Ono’s Lupin III.

    I guess I must be ignorant. 🙂

  20. “And on top of that using a Zentran as the pilot? Even a half-Zentran?! That’s like putting a pit bull in a poodle show.”

    You, sir, are a racist!

  21. Hey, if it’s Government Mandated that micronized Zentran and their offspring have to take happy pills to keep them from hulking out and killing everyone around them, I’m just saying…

    At no point did I mention watermelons or fried chicken or mayonnaise (not even Wings Of) or orange soda or RC Cola or chicken salad sandwiches and bottled water.

  22. “But then again, maybe my real problem is I can’t separate the product from the producer.”

    No, your real problem is that you overthink things without actually thinking about them.

    For example, the mind-controlled fighter in Macross Plus is a legitimately interesting adaptation of a tenet of martial arts and combat preparation. Aren’t fighter pilots, soldiers, and other military personnel actually trained to stay calm during battle?

    It’s hard to address the cast of Macross Plus behaving like idiots when you give no specific examples, but the main characters are a juvenile flyboy, a depressed failed singer, and a stiff military man hiding an ugly secret. None of them is particularly stable and given to common sense.

    An Idiot Plot arises from characters doing stupid things when they should know better, not when those stupid things are consistent with the characterizations and the point the story’s making.

  23. OK, so I’m not thinking. Hm.

    What you say about a mind controlled fighter is perfectly true. DARPA and the USAF have been trying to do that since the ’60s as a way to reduce the workload of the pilot, but maintaining an alpha state is very difficult with the stress induced on the body by combat. The sudden high G forces induced tend to send the body’s systems into overdrive, pumping all the juice it can to enhance the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.

    So, if it’s difficult for a human to ‘keep a cool stool’ and operate, imagine the issues involved with a pilot with Zentran heritage. A clone race DESIGNED for war, where the hormones and brain chems flooding the body are DESIGNED to enhance the aggressive nature.

    From the get-go they should have known there was going to be a problem. This is what I mean by Idiot Plot. It’s obvious to anyone with a moment’s thought. yeah, yeah, the guy has his terrible secret, and the struggle with the flying is a reflection of his internal struggle of the reuniting the love triangle, blah blah blah.

    And when he switched out the paintballs for live ammo, that would have ended the entire test series and likely have resulted in a court martial. Kawamori wanted some echos with the movie ‘The Right Stuff’ but what was acceptable in 1962 (in terms of commanding officers cutting slack for ‘high spirited horses and boys will be boys’ stuff) would not in any way, shape or form be allowed in that future time. It’s after Macross, there isn’t the need to allow teen boys to become fighter pilots because it’s a fight to prevent total destruction.

    I’m probably forgetting all kinds of things, it’s been years since I’ve watched it.

    I know, I know, it sounds insanely racist to speak of Zentradi like that. But it’s not a case of “oh that person has a different color skin I have to fear them and diminish them to make me superior”, they’re ALIENS, from a very very old race that bred them for generations to be warriors and nothing else. You don’t make a panther a house pet without understanding the danger involved because unlike the common housecat they do NOT have centuries of domestication to remove the urge to kill and eat you. (and I’m not so sure about housecats, sometimes…). It’s LOGICAL to understand that DeCulture is a very, very thin paint on the Zentran psychology. Isn’t that why he’s on what he’s on?

    Yeah, I overthink. And I have to think to get to that.

  24. Actually, Guld’s terrible secret isn’t readily apparent or even hinted at very strongly, and it certainly wouldn’t be known to the characters working with him on the project. Once revealed, it changes the entire love-triangle dynamic, and it makes a re-watch of the series a really different experience.

    When your criticisms are mostly guesses about expanded-universe gobbledygook, you’ve already missed the point. Were Zentraedi designed to be overly aggressive warriors or obedient, unthinking soldiers? Just how lenient is the Macross military regarding experimental fighters? Macross Plus has consistent answers to these, and that’s really what matters.

    And no, you’re not thinking. You’re just complaining about nothing in particular.

  25. Gee, I guess you need that internet (can’t mention because the spam filter will bounce the post) enhancement REALLY bad.

    Ok, you win. I am utterly defeated by your post. Carve another notch. yay you!

  26. “I know, I know, it sounds insanely racist to speak of Zentradi like that”

    I was only joking. Sort of an “Is it because I is Zentradi?” thing.

  27. Dotdash: It’s cool, I knew that, I was just playing around. But in this day and age, who knows, huh?

    I’m just trying to figure out the whole ‘Zentradi sized’ foodstuffs thing seen once in a while in Macross F. I mean, did they take some cows and put them in the Miclone machine and shoot them up in size? I always did wonder how they handled the nutritional needs of the Zentran in those early Protoculture days. I guess I just assumed some kind of yeast based chemical mush.

    Why am I talking about this? I must be tired…

  28. I guess it depends on the density and calorie requirements of a Zentradi body. If you can just inflate a cow and give that to them, presumably we would just be smaller, denser versions of them, which would mean they couldn’t do things like lift humans in the palm of their hand or crush us under their enormous size 126 boots. If they are of a similar density, perhaps we’d have to feed several cows into a food processor and then reassemble them into super-cow on the other side. Also, shrinking a Zentradi down to our size would either make them impossibly physically dense to the point of leaving potholes in the road with every footstep, or they’d have to scrape out loads of excess matter from their giant bodies while reducing them.

    And that’s before one even begins to touch on the possible past influence/future effects on muscle development and lung capacity of varying levels of gravity between Earth and the Zentradi homeworld.

    But then I’m not a scientist. I’m sure it’s all perfectly consistent, or at least I’m sure there are huge numbers of Macross anoraks out there who have managed to rationalise all this stuff post-facto.

  29. To dotdash: Spot-on about the consistency in regards to the “science” of the Macross universe.

    Honestly, sometimes it’s just better to let it slide and not twist your brain into a pretzel trying to figure it out. It just IS. The science may not work in the real world, but in the world of Macross, it works, it is consistent, and that’s A-Ok.

    Like you said, it’s science fiction after all.

    Good stuff.

  30. Marc, but you can’t just brush it off with “It’s just Science Fiction”, that belittles the very concept.

    Yes, I note the irony of that in a discussion of airplanes that turn into robots and giants. 🙂

    Sometimes creators just don’t care to see the implications of their ideas.

    I mean, go back to the origins. WHY make the Zentradi giants? What benefit does that present? From a logistics POV it seems a supply nightmare.

    Heck, there could be some very interesting stories. Do the Zentradi have legends and tales of the past, even if told in a bare bones, prosaic manner to avoid ‘De Culture’ creeping in? Are there heroic actions and epic battles to stir the blood of warriors?

    We’ll never know as that won’t sell toys and fish sausage and CDs, oh my yes please, sell CDs or the New Face seiyuu will shoot us!

  31. As I said, I’m not a scientist and I haven’t studied science since I dropped it at the end of my GCSEs about a billion years ago, so I don’t think I’m a particularly difficult person to please, as long as something sounds reasonably plausible. There are some things in sci-fi that are just dumb though, and it can be a bit insulting the way some film and TV can just use the genre as a license to throw any old crap at you.

    I remember getting a very nice, warm feeling when I saw Firefly for the first time and noticed that the ships didn’t make any sound when they were in space.

    That said, I find silly the obsessive need for some fans to rationalise every little inconsistency of their favourite shows rather than just accepting them as the result of bad writing and moving on. Wikipedia articles are a goldmine of these little nuggets of bullshit.

  32. Huh, I never knew that Isamu Dyson = Tim Whatley!!

    Just yesterday I was quoting “I think he re-gifted, then he de-gifted, and now he’s using an upstairs invite as a springboard to a superbowl sex romp!”

    Excellent article, I agree with pretty much all points, though as others have mentioned, I would have mentioned the 2006 SDF Macross dub by ADV as that was technically a new release with a new dub.

    Just to point out, someone commented on Information High being the high point of Macross music. That is also the only track not composed by Yoko Kanno: it’s actually by prominent Japanese techno DJ and producer CMJK, with vocals by Melodie Sexton, who was pretty much a staple of Japanese rave in the 1990s.

  33. I forget if I saw The Movie first of not, but have always preferred it to the episodes, even when the episodes didn’t use the jarring dub. A large part of this is how bad the all the sound design is, and the song selection, in the episodes.

    The cast was ‘unlikable’? Really? My friends and I debated whom to *be*, about the same way Star Wars fans pass through a ‘Luke’ phase into ‘Han’ . . .

  34. Thank goodness for MACROSS PLUS it is to date the only true sequel to the classic Macross TV series. The animation, mecha, action, and MUSIC were magnificent! Check it out today if you have not already done so.

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