Macross Plus

If someone were to ask me to compile a list of the best OVAs ever made, there are a few titles that would immediately leap to my mind.  Gainax’s landmark 1987 anime Gunbuster is one, and so is Giant Robo, which had its first episode released in 1991.  FLCL (2000), Time of Eve (2007), Green Legend Ran (1992), Cat Soup (2001), Key: The Metal Idol (1991), and Bubblegum Crisis (1987-92) would each probably have places on that list as well.  It isn’t that there must be anything of profound substance in a work, nor even any incredible feats of narrative brilliance, for me to consider it worthy of inclusion among the “best ever made”.  A lot of it comes down to sheer enjoyment, I’ll admit, but the compilation of such lists inevitably involves some amount of subjective preferences.  But there’s no denying that a lot of that enjoyment relies on things such as animation quality, the uniqueness or quality of the cinematic form, the adroitness of the writing, the development of the characters and the presentation of the themes, etc.  And while I’d certainly consider these titles—and others, probably—as being within the top ten or twenty, I don’t believe any has what it takes to be the best ever made.

Macross Plus, however, has the Number One slot on that list reserved.  Featuring one of the largest budgets ever granted for an OVA, Macross Plus showcases the talent of one of the best crews ever brought together for a mere four-episode long miniseries.  Legendary animators such as Hideaki Anno and Ichigo Itano—both of whom worked on the original SDF Macross series—returned to the franchise to present their drool-worthily detailed, fluid animation; composer Yoko Kanno, renowned now for her later compositions for Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: SAC, and the recent Macross Frontier soundtracks, provided the complete score; script writer Keiko Nobumoto, who contributed scripts for Cowboy Bebop, Tokyo Godfathers, and created Wolf’s Rain; director Shinichiro Watanabe, perhaps best known for his direction of Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, was one of the head storyboarders and co-directed the series with the man behind the whole franchise.  And of course, Shoji Kawamori himself—the man whose brainchild is the whole Macross metaseries, renowned for his unprecedented directorial debut with the celebrated 1984 film Macross: Do You Remember Love?, respected for the creation of nigh-revolutionary and beloved works such as the original SDF-Macross and Escaflowne, and proven capable as a remarkably talented director with his 1996 art film Spring and Chaos—holds full directorial credits for all four episodes of Macross Plus, and his presence is clear as day.  

What has become most defining of this title is the sheer quality of its animation.  Produced in 1994, the combined fluidity and detail of Plus is above and beyond what is typically expected out of an OVA of comparable length; the work put in by the dedicated staff is enough to rival feature films of most studios of the time, something aided no doubt by what was then considered an astronomical budget.  Ichigo Itano, who had already made a name for himself in the early 80s with his work on a handful of Tomino titles (such as Space Runaway Ideon), has come to be highly respected for his “Itano Circus” technique, which made its first full-blown appearances in the original SDF-Macross series in 1982.  The use of tracking shots, a dynamic “camera” perspective, and unbelievable attentions given to fluidity and detail are the key functionalities behind the famous technique; the result is a stunning display of smoke trails, rocket boosts, countless missiles propelled at, across, by, past, and from the camera’s perspective, swirling and zig-zagging across the background while pursuing targets that dart in and out among the chaos.  It can be a confusing spectacle of busy, disorienting movements, but the end result is something that had never even been fathomed in anime prior to its debut.  Obviously, the whole concept was massively influential in terms of animation, and it became a cornerstone of the 80s aesthetic.  Itano returns in Macross Plus, delivering—along with a man he helped train in the art, Hideaki Anno, famous now for his directorial work but also an exceptionally brilliant animator in his own right—some of the most intense dogfighting action ever recorded onto cells.

But the quality doesn’t reside merely in the key animation work.  Character models are consistent and extremely well-defined, without so much as a single frame of off-model rendering.  Lush, gorgeous backgrounds and an extraordinary blending of CGI graphics—particularly for its time—compliment the dynamism of Plus’ visuals well.

To give form to the stunning animation is Watanabe’s always entertaining storyboarding guided by Kawamori’s own eye for composition and editing.  The concert sequences were all storyboarded by Kawamori himself—and it shows, given the surreality and general trippiness of Sharon Apple’s appearances.  Ever creative framing techniques and well-placed compositions construct a mise en scène that is undeniably “Macross” in every way shape and form, yet it simultaneously something more penetrating than that, something more self-referentially melodramatic and darker than the rest of the franchise, yet without straying far enough from its roots so as to distance itself entirely from the name.  The atmosphere of melodramatic dejection is evoked perfectly in something of a neo-noir aesthetic.  Use of color and textures are pretty near unparalleled among other OVA works of its time, adding to the atmosphere an even more nuanced sense of realism.  A substantial amount could be said on the man’s mastery over editing alone, and his ability to synch images and montages up to Kanno’s wonderful accompaniment is pretty much unparalleled within the anime industry.

But a great deal of Plus’ brilliance is its ability to distill all of the quintessential elements of the Macross franchise into a rather succinct two and a half hours without sacrificing narrative development, believability, coherency, and without coming across as too rushed.  And yet, even as it manipulates its love triangle, even as it toys with the audience with its red-herrings, even as it thrills and titillates with breathtaking action sequences and eye-catching animation, it manages to weave original themes into the smorgasbord of Macross cornerstones.  The triumph of willpower and determination over despair of an apocalyptic scale, the ability of love and camaraderie to triumph over distrust between alienated friends, and the power of song to bridge the countless gulfs between people all formulate the core values of Macross’ thematic content.  But Plus, while exemplifying these things exceptionally well—better even than most of the rest of the franchise, in fact—adds to these concepts another dimension: artificial intelligence. 

The crux of Macross Plus thematic value is embodied in the conflict and mediation between technology and mankind.  The understated subplot of the remote-driven drone fighter and the looming threat of human obsolescence in the cockpit is contrasted against the fiery hot-shot Isamu Dyson, and between these extremes is Guld Bowman and his technologically-advanced aircraft that synchronizes the mind with the fighter itself.  The power of song and the endeavor to produce better music results in the entity of Sharon Apple, an incomplete artificial intelligence powered by the emotions and songs of Myung Fang, the strong-willed woman that completes the love triangle along with Isamu and Guld.

A pair of symmetrical trinities is thus present: the military’s experimental jet program is complimented by the development of Sharon Apple’s artificial intelligence.  Guld’s mental struggle with the technology that powers the YF-21—a struggle reflected by his internal struggle with the past—is mirrored by Myung’s struggle with an analogous relationship with Sharon’s A.I. programming, likewise related to her struggle with past events.  But where Guld tries to live in denial, suppressing both the past and the colossal strain on his being provoked by the fighter technology, Myung does her best to accept the past and forget about it, struggling with Sharon’s A.I. only in the sense that it is, ultimately, an ill-conceived lie that has forced her to give up on the very thing she loved most.  Isamu, similarly plagued by the misfortunes of the past, pilots a traditionally-operated fighter, but he becomes the opposite component of a duality formed with the drone fighter in the final half of Plus’ narrative.  This mirrors Myung’s growing tension with both men, deepening her ties to her humanity despite the conflict, just as Sharon’s development as a fully-fledged artificial intelligence is completed. 

This complementation is weaved together in a perfect move of narrative unification in the final episode.  In both cases, it is a face-off between humanity and machine: Guld takes on the remote fighter—which had had its faculties taken over by a rampaging, sentient Sharon Apple.  Her actions are merely those fed to her unconsciously by Myung herself, yet when they have taken a life of their own thanks to the completion of Sharon’s development, they only wreak havoc as Sharon tries to supplant Myung in both song and love.  It is here, just after Guld and Isamu resolve their conflict, that these ‘trinities’ of thematic coherence pull a tag-team.  Guld takes on the drone fighter in place of Isamu, while Isamu rushes to take on Sharon Apple in place of Myung.  The struggle against artificial intelligence, the triumph of the human spirit over the seduction of lifelessness, and the power of song to accomplish these things are all fulfilled within the framework of the Macross essence, but not in the way that is expected at the start of the series.  This simultaneous alignment and mismatch of thematic unity is classic of Kawamori, and shows up again in several more of his works that come later.

Obviously, despite using Macross commonalities to boost its intricacy, Macross Plus isn’t just for those who are already fans of the franchise.  The themes at play above are largely unique to Plus, if one ignores the revisitation of their implications in Macross Frontier, and serve to substantiate a well-told drama among believably developed and multifaceted characters, all against a backdrop of fighter jets and pop music.  While these things are themselves the very foundation of the Macross aesthetic, foreknowledge of the series isn’t necessary to enjoy how they are used within the context of Plus—it’s all pretty self-evident.  Combined with the more serious tone of Plus, its masterful manipulation of mood and atmosphere (perhaps the best use of both in the entirety of the franchise), as well as its length, Plus is perhaps the most accessible installment of the whole franchise.  The most important aspects of both the thematic core and the visual aesthetic, the directorial presentation and the conceptual backdrop—all of these come together to form a perfect, digestible, fantastically paced and beautifully crafted two and a half hours of visceral entertainment. 

When it comes to Macross, it’s debatable as to whether it gets better than Macross Plus.  When it comes to anime OVAs, anime from the 1990s, or even anime as a whole, there are only a handful of works that Macross Plus stands alongside.  It’s the best of its genre and the best of its time, and even today—though animation techniques have changed since digital processing has become the norm—Macross Plus not only looks visually beautiful but also delivers an impeccably well-made story with memorable characters, all the while belaying subtle intricacies in its thematic value.  It will continue to stand the test of time, and it is something for any fan of filmic entertainment, animated or otherwise, Macross fan or not.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He writes fiction and blog posts, plays music, and teaches CMA when he isn't working. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW.

2 Responses to Macross Plus

  1. This is one excellent review of Macross Plus, Merridian. Have to say, well I stumbled upon your MAL account while lurking through reviews and found that your reviews are worth the read. Great taste in anime as well. This needs more views.

    Do you have your own personal blog here on WordPress? I’m really looking forward to read more quality reviews from you. Keep up the good work, Cheers!

    • Merridian says:

      Thanks, man. I haven’t written a review in what feels like ages, at this point. Nice to see that the semi-permanency of the internet keeps those I did write alive for people to continue to read.

      I’m afraid I don’t have my own blog on WordPress. My fear’s always been that I wouldn’t use it enough, so this shared project tended to suit my needs for however long it was/is active.

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