As the summer semester leisurely trots along, it’s time to reflect on the new animated programs airing on Japanese television. Most of it still sucks, but if it didn’t it wouldn’t be nearly as fun to write about. There’s little I enjoy more than shoving my opinions down the throats of others, so let’s “rap,” as the kids say, about some of this season’s exciting new programs. I’ll start with something combining modern atrocities with one of my favorite shows from childhood, which happens to have fighter planes that transform into robots.
Gentlemen, there’s an evil force on the rise. An evil force that corrupts our beloved Japanese cartoons for children and shut-ins, changing their focus from big, muscular men using their big, sexy brains to beat the shit out of vampires and disgruntled sararimen who join up with pirates and outlaws to shut-in losers who play with dolls and sad girls in snow. I speak of moé, that ill-defined and ambiguously-sexual design sensibility that makes the girls younger and weaker so the male audience can go “Aww, that’s so sweet, I want to protect (fuck) her” and then buy lots and lots of merchandise. It’s been infesting our precious cartoons about robots and gunfights and sometimes, y’know, shows about college students having romantic entanglements. But not often, because then you feel like a girl for getting all teary-eyed when Yamada realizes she’ll probably never win over that jerk Mayama. (But I didn’t cry. Honest.)
My point, gentlemen, is that there’s not been a hell of a lot worth watching lately unless you like googly-eyes and porn-game adaptations. Or, in the case of the show I’m profiling today, franchise revivals.
Macross Frontier! (episodes 1-9)
I’m deeply worried about this show. For those who didn’t grow up watching whatever VHS tapes they found in the ANIMATION section of their local Blockbuster Video, Superdimensional Fortress Macross is a 1980s animated series that was dubbed and aired on US television as the first season of Robotech. It’s about a guy who flies stunt planes in air shows who ends up flying transforming fighters in space against an alien menace when he gets stuck on-board the titular flying battleship during a sudden alien attack. Said guy also ends up in a love triangle with a bubbly, ditzy pop-idol and one of his commanding officers, the respectable career-woman. Other highlights: the Earth gets reduced to a wasteland about two-thirds of the way through the show, and the guy’s best buddy and wingman (who is a better pilot than the hero despite wearing big nerd glasses) marries a hot alien babe after he blasts the shit out of her during combat and then beats her at video games. (He proposes during their first date, after she tries to stab him with a knife. He’s pretty much living the otaku dream.) Along the way, our hero ends up stuck in the bowels of the ship alone with the aspiring pop singer, then ends up stuck in the bowels of the ship with the officer babe, and the aliens are bamboozled and either won over or defeated by the power of the pop-idol’s stupid songs about her boyfriend, who is a pilot.
Now why am I talking so much about the 1980s series? Because Macross Frontier doesn’t know what the heck it wants to be yet, so it’s mimicking its elder brothers until it can figure it out. Many plot devices and scenes are slightly-amended versions of sequences from previous Macross series; for instance, in episode 2, the hero saves the pop-idol-to-be from being killed in the crossfire when the aliens attack the city by grabbing her in the robot’s hand, then rescues her again by catching her in the robot’s cockpit after the arm gets shot off. This is basically what happened in episode 2 of SDF Macross. The key differences so far are of character design – the hero, Alto, is so pretty everyone calls him “princess,” the pop-idol-to-be Ranka is ditzy in a very moé way, and the commanding officer romance option has been replaced by a current pop-idol, Sheryl, who Ranka (for lack of a better word) idolizes. Also, the protagonists are still in high-school (fighting aliens for a military contractor is their part-time job!), a plot device blissfully avoided by SDF Macross but which is gleefully indulged in Macross Frontier.
The other characters are similar alterations of familiar Macross archetypes, but with a modern twist: for example, we’ve got the mentor figure who’s going to die dramatically half-way through the series – but this time he’s Ranka’s dear big brother, for extra heartstring-pulling! We’ve got the fellow pilots, like Glasses-Wearing Ace, but now he’s a womanizing pretty-boy rather than the otaku personified! The “goofy” wingman in Frontier looks like a cute little boy and he always says stuff like “Geez, don’t treat me like a kid!” in the most adorable (moé) way he can! And let’s not forget the alien love-interest of Glasses-Wearing Ace, a big-breasted Zentraedi woman who transforms into a hyperactive little moé girl when she changes from her giantess form to human size.
The show has also adopted some of the worst “humor” Japanese animation has to offer. If we could refrain from having female characters flip out and smack the protagonist when he accidentally touches their breasts, that would be rad, and I never want to see another teenage girl spend half an episode chasing a creature which has stolen her underwear.
The insecure reliance on the franchise’s pedigree observed in the writing carries over into the music, which has always been a key component of any Macross series. The new-for-the-series music is pretty forgettable pop junk, so when a rough cut of the first episode aired on Japanese TV last Christmas, what song did they choose for the closing credits? Why, a cover of Ai, Oboeteimasu Ka?, a.k.a Do You Remember Love?, a song from the Macross film adaptation of the same name. A little playing it up for longtime fans is fine, but when you’ve got to rely on making the fans go, “Hey, I remember that song!” on a fairly regular basis, you’re probably in trouble.
On the upside, the animation is really nice. In general, TV series never look particularly good, but Macross Frontier is high-budget enough to afford details like shading and actually animating characters rather than relying entirely on slow pans over still frames. (We’ll talk about those more in future updates!) The character designs are pretty generic nu-Japanimation, though; for those of us who have a hard-on for the delightful 80s-ness of the original series designs, they’re a real downer. The robot designs aren’t particularly exciting; like the rest of the series, they try to put a slight “modern” spin on the 80s designs without deviating enough to alienate longtime fans. This isn’t to say they’re bad, just that there’s nothing special about them. If you’ve seen one Valkyrie transforming fighter – any of ’em – you’ve seen this series’s Valkyries too. The 3DCG used for the robot fight scenes blends in surprisingly well, and usually looks pretty great too. It’s easily the highlight so far.
I’d really like to hate this show; it would certainly make things easier for me. Instead I’m mostly ambivalent about it. It’s not particularly well-written, and nothing about it really stands out, but it’s just not bad enough consistently. I’m sort of at a loss as to exactly why I keep watching this; I guess it’s the 10-year-old who just found the Robotech tapes at Blockbuster and still thinks this the show is really sweet and look, I’ve got to go back there and rent the next tape right now. I suppose that means that all of their attempts to invoke fanboy nostalgia are working. Damn!