More noise than signal

Macross Plus

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

The Macross series is one of the harder anime series to keep a track of. Even it’s creators keep moving events in its universe around, and in the case of Macross II, airbrushing them out of history completely. Most of the series contains common elements such as love triangles, space battles and more strangely the effects of songs on the spirits of the combatants. It’s quite literally a space opera. Thankfully you won’t have to have seen the other elements of the Macross saga to appreciate Macross Plus.

This instalment is set in AD2040. Humanity has expanded into space after a crashed space fortress kick-starts the space program. Some reverse engineering leads to the creation of the Jump engine, allowing interstellar colonies to be created, including Eden where the majority of this story takes place. There was a brief war with the owners of the crashed fortress, the Zentraedi, told in the first Macross story. A truce is eventually called, and relations improve to the point that there are marriages between the two races. Unfortunately there is still some stigma attached to these ‘half-breeds’. With the wars over, the refitted space fortress called Macross returns to Earth and is used as the central hub of the planet’s government.

This will be known to fans of the series, but it is never explained at all in Macross Plus. While it doesn’t ruin the tale told here, a little exposition would stop a few minutes puzzling for those diving straight into the series, especially given the rarity of the original Macross in this country.

This story follows the fortunes of two test pilots; the impulsive and rash Isamu Dyson and the more stoic half-Zentraedi Guld Bowman. Trials are being help between two competing experimental fighters, the Y-19 designed by the teenage prodigy with a talent for hacking, Yang, and Y-22 designed by Guld himself. Both super-stealth fighters are capable of transforming from a jet-like form to a humanoid big stompy Mech form, ala Transformers for reasons never adequately explained. Isamu arrives at the New Edwards test base to a hostile reception from Guld as it is revealed that they were at one point childhood friends until ‘that incident’ seven years ago when Isamu ran off planet. What happens in the incident is not revealed until the end of the story, and serves as an effective plot device for holding interest in the struggle between these two.

Also part of this mysterious incident is Myung, recently returned to Eden as producer of Sharon Apple, the first AI pop star, currently enjoying the kind of hysteria reserved for The Beatles and New Kids On The Block. Sharon Apple’s AI is not yet completed, so Myung has to clandestinely supply the emotion behind her performances, setting aside her dreams of performing on stage herself. She returns to some of her old childhood haunts, making it easy for Guld to track her down. After brief exchange Guld embraces Myung and tells her to forget the events of the past. Isamu arrives on the scene, and his cocky interjections cause Guld to fly off the handle and attack him. Again while not explained here, the Zentraedi have a habit of going a bit berserk in battle which is causing some control problems in the Y-22’s flight system, as it is controlled by the brainwaves of the pilot. Myung breaks up this incident, and Guld calls Isamu a traitor.

This is actually a very well scripted movie. This incident is only referred to around the periphery with off-the-cuff remarks and through Guld’s increasingly vivid flashbacks at times of high emotion, by the end of the first half-hour you’ll be screaming at the screen to find out what on Eden they’re talking about. It can become confusing at times, but it’s clear that something isn’t what it seems with Guld. The final revelation of the incident clears this up, and makes rewatching the film a much more rewarding experience.

Myung invites them all to the Sharon Apple concert. The concerts involve not only an elaborate holographic show, but also the subconscious manipulation of the attendees to enhance their enjoyment. Isamu attends along with Yang, who decides to hack into Sharon’s systems, his ultimate aim being to kidnap her. He fails, because he can’t find Sharon’s personality programs. Not surprising as it doesn’t exist yet. Marj, Sharon’s creator eventually decides to replace Myung in the performances with an outlawed Bio-Neural chip, considered to have a dangerous self-preservation instinct. This decision will eventually bite him on the ass. After the concert, Guld and Isamu receive a mysterious phone call claiming the concert venue will catch fire. And indeed it does, trapping Myung. Guld gets there first and rescues her, prompting Myung to renege on her earlier claims of not wanting to go back to the past. They share some tender moments cleaning each other’s wounds.

The on-going rivalry between Guld and Isamu intensifies at this, leading to an unfortunate ‘accident’ on the training grounds. Guld loses control of his craft and plummets. Isamu makes the save at the last second, supporting Guld’s prone ship on the back of his fighter. As they skim across the ground, Guld thinks how easily a sudden downforce would be detrimental to Isamu’s health. Unfortunately his craft chooses to carry out that particular though, hospitalising Isamu.

Before any kind of resolution can be made over which craft will go into full production, the projects are cancelled in favour of an unmanned fighter, the X-9 Ghost, developed secretly on Earth. Myung has to return to Earth as well, as Sharon Apple will be giving a concert to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Space War Armistice and the introduction of the X-9. With this, the two men lose everything they were fighting over, the project and the girl. Isamu takes exception to this and decides to steal the fighter and crash this little party on Earth, with Yang insisting on tagging along for the ride. The only fighter from New Edwards base capable of catching Isamu’s craft is of course Guld’s, so he is sent to stop him. The two manage to break through Earth’s defence grid and duel, while finally sorting out their issues from childhood.

Things aren’t looking too good on Earth. Sharon Apple has gone a bit screwy and is taking over everything from computer systems to humans, transfixing them with her songs. Admittedly it’s odd, but it seems quite easy to accept in the context of the film, and only when written out seems particularly odd. Sharon’s been created in part from Myung’s emotions, and now has split personality disorder to resolve her inherited love for both Guld and Isamu, and seems to have reverted to the standard psycho ground-state, kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out. So Sharon sends the X-9 after the boys, and has Myung strung up with cables in the control room. Guld decides to take care of the X-9 while sending Isamu to save Myung. This doesn’t go to plan for either party, especially as Sharon’s song takes over Isamu. Myung manages to counteract this with a song of her own, allowing Isamu to save the day, and more importantly the girl.

I promise it doesn’t seem as odd when it’s played out.

Macross Plus is generally held in high regard, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the most tightly scripted animes I’ve ever seen, and one of the most tightly scripted films I’ve ever seen. The character designs are distinctive and the animation, while not the best I’ve ever seen, is uniformly very good. The action scenes are well done, with the space battles and other flights being high points. A movie based so heavily on music and songs would necessitate a strong soundtrack, and it delivers, with Myung’s haunting song played over the end credits being particularly lovely.

If that were all there was to this anime it would still be well received, but that’s not the selling point here. There are few other animes that have this degree of character development in them. The back-story of the characters is clearly important, but is only revealed in snatches and glimpses through passing comments and occasional flashbacks, similar to the methods of say,Memento, and it’s just as effective here. The characters may start out relatively stereotypical, but are fleshed out throughout the film, making them some of the most rounded characters in any anime by the film’s conclusion. The main plot is the love triangle between the former friends, but the involvement of Sharon Apple and the X-9 also gives us a Man vs. Machine sub-plot that everyone’s so fond of. Unfortunately it never really develops it enough to be effective, merely backing up the ‘self aware machines = bad’ concept, which surely we’ve all accepted by now.

Even with that said, this is still an excellent film. One consideration in the final judgement of this is that watching it again having found out the details of this incident referred to so often actually makes another watching different and arguably more pleasant experience, an uncommon event in cinema as a whole. There are two things that may hamper your enjoyment of this; the whole songs-as-control-mechanisms thing common to all the Macross stuff and the English dub which ruins the songs somewhat, and hence the film suffers. Unfortunate, as the voice acting otherwise isn’t totally unbearable. Still, I reckon there’s far more to like here than to be annoyed by.