Sunday, August 25, 2013

Retrospective: 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress MACROSS). Part Two.

Part One.

To continue with my analysis, today we're going to be discussing the theme of war in Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

The entire frame in which the personal drama takes place in Macross is the overarching drama of a sudden and incredibly destructive war between humankind and the Zentraedi.  The shadow of the Pacific War stretches forth from the Japanese psyche to loom heavily over the series.  The tremendous loss of life, property and infrastructure from the firebombings of major cities and the destructive atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are reflected by the bombed-out buildings on South Ataria Island, the destruction of a city due to a barrier malfunction, and eventually the annihilation of almost every population center on the planet during an orbital bombardment (see this video, which is taken from the Robotech adaptation).

The YouTube video here (fast-forward to about 2:00), although from the film Do You Remember Love? and not the series, reflects the sense of defeat and futility against the inexorable Allied advance in the later years of the Second World War.  In Macross, the enemy is an indescribably powerful force, nigh unstoppable, a literal race of giants to be compared to the proverbial "sleeping giant" that Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku warned that Japan had awoken at Pearl Harbor and "filled with a terrible resolve."  This defeat had an incredible impact on the Japanese psyche, much more profound than the American experience in Vietnam.  In a sense, the entire society took on that proverbial "thousand-yard stare" of a shell-shocked survivor.  Other films, such as the original Gojira, Akira, or Nihon Chinbotsu (Japan Sinks) explore this sense of destruction and national annihilation--something that, ironically, is very much a revitalized concern with the worsening of the ongoing Fukushima nuclear catastrophe.

The Zentraedi have a powerful galactic armada far beyond comprehension.  Their resources are immeasurable and twice in the series (the second occasion being Earth) a mere fraction of their total military strength bombards a planet's surface into barren, cratered desolation.  The ignorance of the U.N. Spacy regarding the power of the Zentraedi matters little, in fact, throughout the entire series.  From a military standpoint, the Earth is an insignificant backwater.

The strange truth where both Earth in Macross and Japan in reality have power are not through military might but through culture.  How poetic, then, that Macross would have such a phenomenal impact across the Pacific in the very nation which had bombed Japan's cities.  Although this indubitably stretches the metaphor far, far beyond the intentions of Kawamori, if the Zentraedi are a sort of stand-in for the United States and the Earth for Japan, then anime in general is music and Macross in particular is Minmay.  Animation has perhaps done more to foster positive feelings towards and interest in Japanese culture throughout the West than any number of 19th century linguists and scholars ever achieved.

There is much more to the conflict than a mere metaphor that explores Japan's experience with war, destruction, and rebuilding.  Although I will go into greater detail about the following in a future post, allow me to briefly discuss the impact of warfare with regards to the society of the Zentraedi species.  The Zentraedi also represent a society that is, in some ways, more of a mirror for Japan's own than of any Western nation.  Japanese society is infamous for being very homogeneous (although I would argue that Korean society is more so).  The group takes precedence over the individual, who must submit their own feelings and desires to the group in order to attain  和 (wa--social harmony).  To a Westerner, this may sound quite oppressive but in reality it is a common feature of all societies--Japan simply exhibits a more defined and elevated manifestation of the concept.  Those in Japan that tend toward individuality or sub-cultural interest (especially otaku) can find themselves socially ostracized for expressing their uniqueness.  "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" is a common proverb attributed to Japanese society.

The Zentraedi are a reflection of an extreme version of this group-identity.  Hierarchy is paramount.  The Zentraedi are cloned, not bred.  Each clone is genetically engineered for a singular purpose in the military hierarchy of the species (officer, soldier, pilot, adviser, fleet commander, etc.).  Their entire purpose is to fight.  The culture and society that created them has long since gone extinct and only relics persist (such as the gigantic ship-producing facilities).  No engineers or scientists are to be found in the ranks of the Zentraedi, so no new technologies are developed and nothing is ever repaired (although the ships themselves seem somewhat capable of "healing" damage given time).  Nor are there entertainers, poets, writers, philosophers, or artists of any sort.  The entirety of Zentraedi "culture" is geared towards military conflict.  Their entire existence is predicated upon conquest and battle.

Macross does not simply spoon-feed the viewer with a "war is bad" theme.  Kawamori produced a narrative that is far more complex than that and wrestles very deeply with the occasional necessity of war juxtaposed against the stupidity and ignorance of blindly choosing war without considering its consequences.  Characters like Lynn Kaifun are very representative of anti-war movements (especially anti-Vietnam War protesters) during the mid-to-late 20th century.  It is ironic that Kaifun, for all of his posturing, is a master martial artist that does not hesitate to use his skills to subdue rowdy customers and stars as the hero in a wuxia-style martial arts action film.

Kaifun is disingenuous and self-serving.  He despises the military and accuses soldiers of being "warmongers."  He exhibits no gratitude towards the pilots or officers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect the Macross and its precious cargo of civilian refugees.  It is clear to the viewer that Kaifun is both ignorant with regards to the realities of the conflict against the Zentraedi and is uninterested in being properly informed.  His mind is made up.  His relationship with Minmay develops in very unhealthy ways and he grows into a very disappointed, alcoholic and abusive person.

Macross' depiction of Kaifun is not-at-all flattering.  He is not the stereotypical heroic hippy that swoops in and disabuses the characters of their "evil, capitalist notions" and single-handedly dismantles the military-industrial complex of the U.N.  (The Zentraedi cannons are far more effective, more's the pity.)  Hikaru and company are engaged in an existential conflict--survival is the reason they are fighting, not economic gain, resource acquisition, or imperial power.  He serves as the foil to Hikaru on three levels--with regards to Misa, Minmay, and the war itself.  Through Kaifun, Hikaru's heroism is enhanced.  Kaifun possesses all of the traits that would make him a hero but he chooses to persist in naive idealism, assuming that the characters prefer war as opposed to their true desire for peace.  When Kaifun says, "War is not the answer, it only serves to strengthen those in power," we may recognize that he's right, but we know that his reasoning is flawed and his personal agenda is highly suspect.

The war was not chosen by Earth, Captain Global, or the U.N. Spacy.  This war arrived at their doorstep and they choose to fight because there does not appear to be any option of surrender.  Indeed, their ignorance of the enemy makes any option of surrender highly dubious and so they persist in fighting.  Ignorance is a powerful weakness and every opportunity Global and his crew have to learn more about their enemies is seized.  When Misa, Hikaru, Max, and Kakizaki escape from Britai's flagship, they return with a great deal if information that eventually leads to the hope that a peace may be brokered between the two.

Kawamori demonstrates that war may be necessary at times in self defense.  Learning about one's enemy, however, may plant the seeds of peace between the two.  Doing so, however, may threaten the established hierarchy.  The current U.N. Spacy high command is loath to consider peace talks because of their trump-card--the Grand Cannon in Alaska.  Similarly, Boddole Zer realizes the threat that human culture presents to the Zentraedi and seeks to annihilate the Earth and destroy those Zentraedi exposed to culture in order to preserve their strict militarized existence.  Both are blind to what is really best for their own species because they cannot see past their own fears and vested interests.  This is a very common problem with political authority--from the Roman Republic to the Japanese military government during the early 20th century to modern American politics.  Kawamori doesn't shrink from this and paints these characters as understandable but still tragically blinded to their own catastrophic failings.

The consequences are tremendous.  Victory is achieved for the Macross but the cost is nearly total extinction coupled with the near-total annihilation of all life on the Earth's surface.  What is both surprising and brave of Kawamori's vision is that Macross continues on after the eponymous vessel lands on the devastated Earth like Noah's Ark (in a crater instead of on a mountain) and disgorges humankind upon the surface to resuscitate and repopulate the world.  Instead of ending here, though, the narrative forges ahead, giving the viewer the full scope of the consequences of victory.  These consequences give value and meaning to the triumph against the Zentraedi.  Reconstruction is not easy and no one gets the Hollywood ending.  Life goes on and everyone is forced to rebuild and readjust--especially the Zentraedi.

The most tragic victims of both the war and the eventual victory of the Macross and her allies are the Zentraedi.  The readjustment that the Zentraedi are forced to endure is tremendous.  Although many come to enjoy their new cultured lives a sort of existential ennui sets in for many of them.  Since battle was all that they knew and was their purpose, without a commanding hierarchy over them providing direction and a strict chain of command, many of the Zentraedi become disgruntled and listless, turning to violence and raiding as a means to try and reachieve their lost sense of purpose.  Many of them become a sort of "lost generation" in the post-Great War sense.  Even though rebellion will result in death, that death in battle seems preferable to a meaningless existence.  I am reminded of reading about the many veterans of war who returned hope with severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and am certain that Japan's own experience with Pacific War veterans discharged after the United States' victory and the horrific price Japan paid in defeat deeply inform Kawamori's depiction of the Zentraedi after the Space War concludes.

This also leads into a discussion regarding the value of individuality and the responsibility for each person to choose their own purpose in life and to pursue it, and will be touched on in greater detail in future posts.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Retrospective: 超時空要塞マクロス (Super Dimension Fortress MACROSS). Part One.

Part Two.
The Macross

Let's begin an analysis of Super Dimension Fortress Macross in earnest, beginning with a broad overview of the plot.

Fair warning.  In this analysis THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.  If you haven't yet seen the series, you have been warned and this analysis is written with the assumption that the reader will proceed upon his or her own discretion.  If you have seen the series, by all means, please continue reading.

The series opens with the crash-landing of an alien warship on South Ataria Island in a remote part of the western Pacific Ocean.  Earth is in the midst of a world war but the appearance f this alien vessel quickly unites mankind under the auspices of a powerful United Nations, which forms the U.N. Spacy.  Over ten years, the ship is rebuilt and remodeled, its technologies reverse-engineered, and is christened the Macross.  To support the massive undertaking of repairing and examining the ship and its technologies (including a spacefolding FTL drive), an enormous city springs into existence surrounding the vessel and occupying most of the island.

The story begins in earnest with the celebrations to launch the vessel.  It is here that we are introduced to most of the characters that will dominate the narrative.  Captain Bruno J. Global, an Italian submarine captain who had fought for the United Nations during the unification wars and whose appearance exemplifies the "Mustache Pete" stereotype.  His first officer is First Lieutenant Hayase Misa, a Japanese woman whose father, Admiral Hayase Takashi, was Global's superior during the wars.  Her coworker, companion and close confidante is Claudia LaSalle, an African American bridge officer.  The leader of the Skull Squadron, Roy Focker, is a heavily drinking, smoking, womanizing, American cowboy who started out as a stunt pilot before joining the United Nations forces during the U.N. Wars.  He is in a romantic relationship with LaSalle and hosts his young friend Ichijyo Hikaru, the son of the air circus owner for whom Roy flew before the wars.  Ichijyo Hikaru is introduced as an energetic, brash Japanese pilot of age 16 with a record of seven championship awards for stunt piloting.  Finally, Lynn Minmay is a 15-year-old, half-Chinese, half-Japanese girl from Yokohama who moved to South Ataria Island with dreams of becoming a star.

Britai's flagship
The celebrations and launch preparations are interrupted by the arrival of the Zentraedi, an alien race of giants who are searching for the crashed vessel since it is identified as belonging to the Supervision Army, an enemy force with whom the Zentraedi are at war.  Their commander, Britai Kridanik, orders an assault to capture the vessel, brushing aside all orbital defense platforms encircling the earth and bombarding the island before launching ground and air attacks.  Hikaru and Minmay are immediately swept up into the events and find themselves, along with many of the survivors, as refugees aboard the Macross when a space-fold operation goes wrong.  The Macross, with its precious cargo of civilian refugees, then battles its way across the solar system back to Earth.  Once it arrives, the crew and refugees alike must navigate the complexities of government policy and military command that wants to mitigate the impact of the alien attacks on Earth and use the vessel to distract the Zentraedi away from the home planet.

Left-to-right: Lynn Minmay, Ichijyo Hikaru, and Hayase Misa.
Throughout the story, interpersonal drama unfolds in the form of a love triangle between Hikaru, Minmay, and Misa.  Hikaru is initially attracted to Minmay who, although she finds herself drawn to Hikaru, is ultimately career driven and extremely capricious due to her youth.  However, the 19-year-old Misa and 16-year-old Hikaru, despite the intense dislike the two have for one-another, gradually find solace in companionship.  As the series progresses, years pass and they grow older and more experienced and mature.  As they age, Hikaru gradually detaches himself from Minmay and finds in Misa a more sophisticated and meaningful relationship.

What sets Macross apart from other "real robot" anime?  Mobile Suit Gundam arguably has a sophisticated plot full of intrigue and illustrative of the horror of war (especially involving advanced robotic technology and futuristic weaponry).  There are a great deal of similarities between the two, as well.  Hikaru appears to be much like Amro--both are excellent pilots who become leaders.  Both the Macross and the White Base are iconic vessels that serve as major targets for the enemy to capture or destroy.

Mobile Suit Gundam
The similarities are mostly surface.  Macross actually subverts many of the elements that are prominent in Mobile Suit Gundam.  In addition, Macross isn't as unambiguous about war.  Where Mobile Suit Gundam simply depicts war as bad, Macross demonstrates how war can often be unavoidable.  Nevertheless, Macross still tries to provide a positive message by exploring how misunderstanding and lack of communication can create military conflict and give methods by which negotiation can lead to peace.  Mobile Suit Gundam is far more pessimistic in its outlook.

The characters in Macross are multifaceted.  It is difficult not to care about them and find oneself deeply engaged by the narrative.  Actions have consequences.  People live, love and die.  They are beautifully, wonderfully flawed in the most human and believable ways.  Characters have real motivations that go beyond simply winning the war.  Unlike Mobile Suit Gundam, the characters of Macross have lives outside of the conflict.

The war against the Zentraedi is a catalyst for much of the drama but it is by no means a mere situational MacGuffin.  It forces characters to analyze themselves and become more introspective.  It provides a vehicle for experience.  They change, grow, and develop as people.  Kawamori Shoji invested a great deal of time and effort into creating these characters, their needs, desires, hopes, and motivations.

The narrative of the series is also challenging to the viewer.  There is no clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy dynamic.  Kawamori refuses to spoon-feed the viewer with a morality.  Instead, he uses the themes to make the viewer think.  One may not agree with the choices certain characters make.  They mess up, fail, fall down and occasionally some don't climb back up.  There is heroism and sacrifice, tragedy, foolishness and tunnel vision, blind ignorance, love, appreciation for beauty, loss, and triumph.

Ichijyo Hikaru is the hero of the tale.  He starts out as a kid.  Although he is an experienced air-show pilot he is unready to deal with the realities of air-combat and warfare.  Nor is he prepared to pilot a transforming mech.  He stands out as a protagonist because he, like us, is thrown into this conflict.  The viewer can identify with him very quickly.  He's not "the One," a Newtype, or the Kwizatz Haderach.  He's just a kid who gets swept up by events far beyond his control.  Hikaru is forced to adapt and grow in order to survive.  His journey becomes our journey through the series and we experience the story, the love, the loss, and the lessons vicariously through him.

He stands in direct contrast to Amro in Mobile Suit Gundam.  Amro is a Newtype, a sort of psychic whiz-kid at piloting robots.  Amro's alter-ego is Char Aznable and the two engaged in one of the most legendary feuds in all of anime.  Enraged at the destruction the Zeon forces are wreaking, he jumps into the cockpit of a Gundam, barely glances at the instructions and immediately starts piloting in a combat situation.  He is entirely untrained and untested, yet he successfully defeats the enemy Zacks.

View the scene here.

Hikaru's first experience is quite the opposite.  In fact, it's terrifying.  Hikaru is absolutely overwhelmed.  He ended up piloting a Valkyrie fighter entirely by accident and ends up escorted to safety by his mentor, Roy Focker.  Even this escort barely rescues him and he is instructed to transform in order to avoid colliding with the Macross.  He may have the skills and training to fly a plane but he is entirely incapable of piloting a bipedal robot, crashing into buildings and causing a lot of damage.

Amro is special by having an innate talent.  Hikaru isn't special.  He's entirely mundane.  He's a human.  The fact that he becomes an ace fighter pilot is not through virtue of being a Newtype like Amro but a result of hard work, training, courage, and willpower.

Next time, we'll take a look at the circumstances of war and its impact on Macross as a major theme.