One of the long-standing hallmarks in the genre, the Macross series has been beloved the world over ever since its release in 1982. The show takes place in the near future, during an interstellar war between the alien Zentradi war-machine and humanity’s remnant, who have taken refuge on a massive, re-purposed alien space station called the SDF-1.
Typically, the Macross series concentrates on the lives of fighter-pilots, military-grunts and their loved ones; and — oddly enough — society’s relationship with pop idols. What sets the show apart from other animated space operas is series creator Shoji Kawamori’s dedication to innovative and detailed mechanical designs, boundary-pushing animation and dynamic dog-fight sequences.
After the success of Macross and its 1984 feature length adaptation, Do You Remember Love?, the series suffered a couple of stalled attempts at a sequel without the input of Kawamori. Both attempts, Flash Back 2012 and Macross II, were completed, but eventually disowned and ignored by Kawamori once he finally decided to produce Macross Plus.
For Macross Plus, Kawamori brought on board a young Shinichiro Watanabe as the film’s co-director. Untested at that point, Watanabe went on to create and direct two wildly popular and influential television series: the jazzy Cowboy Bebop (widely considered one of the best animated television series of all time) and the hip hop influenced Samurai Champloo.
Macross Plus picks up 30 years after the armistice that ended the devastating Human/Zentradi war from the original series. On a distant colony called Eden, the military’s search for a new transforming aircraft sets two high-school rivals, the brash Isamu and the stoic, but rage-addled Guld, against one-another in a series of intense war games.
While the two compete for a fat government contract, the pair’s mutual high school crush, Myung, arrives on Eden with the galaxy’s most popular singer, the computer generated Sharon Apple. Myung’s return sparks a long-dormant affection between the three, but an unspoken trauma prevents them from making peace.
Macross Plus is a significantly smaller story than the epic Macross, where the lives of millions go on the line with every battle. Being a kind of peace-time war film, Macross Plus is often called the anime version of Top Gun. Though it lacks the ra-ra patriotism of Tony Scott’s mach-3 shoot ’em up, both films concentrate on dangerously ambitious fighter pilots breaking every rule that they can to be considered the best.
One interesting element that Kawamori and Watanabe introduce in Macross Plus, though, is the inclusion of Sharon Apple, anime’s own answer to the Hal 9000. While she starts the series as kind of space-aged version of Cher, Sharon begins developing a personality of her own once one of Myung’s co-workers installs a dangerous AI program into the singer’s mainframe. Because her personality and emotions are linked with Myung’s, Sharon becomes obsessed with Isamu and Guld, and sets out on a homicidal quest to give the pair the thing they desire most: the glory of death in battle.
Written out like it is here, Macross Plus all sounds like a pretty typical, silly anime film, but what sets it apart is its rather amazing production value.
To animate the film’s numerous dog-fight sequences with at least some sense of realism and weight, the animation team visited Edwards’ Airforce Base in California to observe real test pilots in action, and even took part in some dog-fighting classes themselves. The results are a marvel. Jets cut through the sky like they’re performing a kind of dance; rich with color, detail and grace that’s difficult to find in any medium, let alone in costly animation. The jets swoop through the sky with such speed that the only way that you can tell which way they’ve gone is by looking at the vapor trails that swirl across the sky.
The film is also an early example of mixing traditional cel animation with computer animation — which is largely used in scenes involving Sharon Apple and her massive, hologram heavy light shows.
The business of jets that can transform into robots and million-missile space battles clearly belonged to Kawamori, who filled the original Macross with a similar amount of life — though not as fluidly animated; but the film’s heart, tone and soundtrack all stem from Watanabe. Like Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus features a top-shelf score from the utterly fantastic Japanese composer Yoko Kanno.
Kanno’s score in Macross Plus is remarkable. Over the course of the film, she mixes traditional orchestral elements with bursts of bebop, euro-pop, and some downright bizarre stuff I’m not sure how to categorize — futurist tiki lounge pop that’s sung in a made up language? Honestly, even with the film’s rich animation, it’s Kanno’s score that infuses the film with such a rich sense of drama, tragedy and beauty.
There are currently two versions of Macross Plus available, the first is a four episode mini-series, which is the story in its most complete form; but Watanabe also directed the feature-length version, which streamlines the story while adding a great deal (nearly 20 minutes worth) of new content. Both versions are fine, but frankly I prefer the episodic version over the film, which can feel a little sloppy.
Between Kawamori’s slick mechanical designs and Watanabe’s hip musical and story-telling sensibilities, Macross Plus remains one of the best animated and best scored sci-fi action films ever to come out of Japan and is essential viewing to anyone interested in dabbling in the genre.