Join us for our Pilgrimage to Mecha – where I go back in time and catch up on some of the classics and hidden gems of the mecha genre. Whether it was before my time or I simply missed out on them, it’s time for me to watch them and let you know why you should too!
This time: SDF Macross
The Super Dimension Fortress Macross
TV Series (36 Episodes)
Directed by Noboru Ishiguro
After years of civil war, all of humanity is now under the United Nations. When an alien craft crash lands on Earth, humanity researches and reverse-engineers its technology, eventually rebuilding the shipwreck into the SDF Macross. However upon its activation, the warmongering aliens known as the Zentradi set their sights on Earth. Now Hikaru Ichijo, a young stunt pilot with a distaste for combat must take arms against the enemies that threaten to wipe out humanity.
Having watched Macross Frontier, I was vaguely aware of what I was getting into with the original. There were going to be transforming jet robots, singing, and dumb love triangles. What I hadn’t anticipated was how closely Frontier actually hedged to the original in its inspiration, but also how the original managed to distinguish itself from its peers in its day. SDF Macross is a well told story of survival against impossible odds. The crew of the Macross constantly find themselves outgunned and outnumbered by their Zentradi foes. Never does the show ever imply that we as humanity could beat the Zentradi at their own game. And instead, it’s where the pervading Macross theme of love and culture beating warmongering comes into play. No matter how good a pilot Hikaru is, he’s just one man in a war for the survival of the entire human race. No, it’s the unique facets of humanity that defeats the Zentradi, not through force of arms (well, okay, a fair amount of guns and explosions helped), but through the peaceful aspects of our culture that can overcome the rage of war.
And not to take away from the war story aspects of SDF Macross. Despite the limited animation and insultingly low production values, the anime never stops reminding us that victory comes at a heavy price. Between the numerous on-screen deaths and the loss of some great characters along the way, things are never too easy for our heroes. And while I knew that SDF Macross was originally conceived as a parody of Space Battleship Yamato, I didn’t expect it to go as far as Yamato. But just like its predecessor, Earth is destroyed in SDF Macross in a stunning battle that ends up being the true highlight of the series.
It’s unfortunate that said highlight happens on the 27th episode of a 36 episode anime. Perhaps due to a change in plans or budget, for some reason SDF Macross feels the need to continue the story past its logical conclusion. Unfortunately, the final parts of the story focus more on Hikaru’s stupid love triangle and some Zentradi survivors who never really end up posing a threat. Compared to the high stakes and the tension of the first two-thirds of the anime, the last third feels unnecessary at best, and insulting at worst. I understand that perhaps back in the 80s, stupid love triangles were a novel idea, but in the 21st century, I find myself exhausted watching Hikaru stumble through his relationship with two women.
At the end of the day, the finale doesn’t take away from the engaging war story that SDF Macross originally sets out to tell. It does however taint my perception of its overall narrative structure. Far too many anime, even today, will fail to stick the landing, sometimes in a manner so harsh it retroactively harms the rest of the anime. Thankfully SDF Macross’s ending is not that egregious, but at times it skirts that line.
Why You Should Watch
I won’t mince words, SDF Macross is an old anime. It looks like one, sounds like one, and feels like one. That said, it’s the strength of its overall narrative that allows it to remain a classic to this day. In addition, the Valkyrie Fighters are some of the most iconic mecha in the history of the genre. When one thinks of transforming robots, they usually imagine the clunky and ugly Transformers. However, unlike their transforming brethren, the VF-1 is an impressive looking machine, even with its aged visuals. Taking the best elements of the F-14 Tomcat and the F-15 Eagle, it’s a great looking plane, robot, and plane robot hybrid thing. If nothing else, I can see why the Macross franchise has endured through the ages. I mean, even if you didn’t want to write a Macross story, are you really going to let such great designs go to waste?
And speaking of the VF-1, I highly appreciated that Hikaru was neither the best pilot in the show nor was he piloting some kind of super prototype. Compared to many anime today, it’s a really nice touch that helps make the whole story feel more like a proper war story than just your run of the mill mecha anime.
In addition, despite the obviously dated tunes, SDF Macross has an impressive soundtrack, filled with both some genuinely catchy themes as well as Minmay’s accompanying insert songs. Say what you will of Minmay herself, but her songs certainly help add another dimension to the anime’s scenes.
While perhaps not as singularly influential as Mobile Suit Gundam, SDF Macross earns itself a place in the history of the mecha genre. It’s a rousing space opera that knows when to be light and when to go all out. It’s a story that has remained surprisingly engaging and fresh despite its age. While I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, that’s more a result of its sheer age, something almost all visual media will eventually fall victim to. It more than deserves its place as one of the most iconic mecha anime of the 80s.