One thing baffles me about Robotech: The Macross Saga. In an earth-shattering break from the norm that took me almost five episodes to recover from, the protagonist Rick Hunter is a sensible, well-adjusted young man. After encountering his love, Lynn Minmei, during a fierce military battle, their initial conversations suggest they actually enjoy each other's company. That's right, they don't shout at each other about their fragile, untold feelings. Let me illustrate further with a paraphrase of a typical Gundam dialogue:
Pilot: Why, oh why, must I fight? War needlessly takes lives and I feel quite befuddled by my role in all of this.
Captain: Kid, it's your only option. In war, it's kill or be killed, win or lose.
Pilot: Well, if I must fight, then I suppose I will... but it sure hurts inside to do it!
Now, in Robotech we get:
Rick: Minmei, I'm going to do it.
Rick: I'm going to join the defence force. You're right, it's no good my moping around. I'm going to enlist.
Remarkable, isn't it? Gundam likes to depict the sparks of youth getting violently extinguished by the stamping of misfortune's foot; in Robotech, the kids lose their naivety but not their composure. In fact, having indulged in misanthropic Gundam shows for years, Robotech's more level-headed version of the same sort of story works like therapy.
Not least because this show knows how to laugh at itself. Take a scene when, caught in the midst of a horrific battle, Rick tries to enjoy the swimwear segment of the beauty contest in which Minmei is competing. To his undisguised chagrin, battle instructions from headquarters keep unceremoniously interrupting the broadcast on his intercom. At the same time, the enemy Zentraedi race spying on the humans inadvertently misinterpret Minmei's swimwear as a 'uniform' and the contest as some kind of military formation. A potentially seedy and gratuitous scene thus becomes a welcome injection of daft, bubbly comedy to neutralise any threats of pretentiousness.
In more substantial terms, however, Robotech's good-natured facade hides an identity crisis. The show has jets that transform, it has an alien warrior race, it has music, it has a knotty love triangle, and it fails to gel them conclusively, leaving the whole thing feeling rather half baked. Rick, Minmei, and Lisa Hayes' relationship has the strongest emotional impact (which I attribute to the strength of the characterisation rather than the trite romantic developments) but this in itself proves problematic because Robotech never feels as though it should be about romance. Rather, with so much more potential lurking in the sci-fi narrative, I get the impression something introduced as garnish ended up overwhelming the entire dish instead.
Attempts to tack together the seams of these disparate elements thus boil down to a reliance on contrivances. Minmei's singing matters because it captures the Zentraedi hearts; the war hinges upon Zentraedi officers misinterpreting everyday human behaviour; the love triangle gives Rick something to do other than fight aliens; and the jets transform on rare occasions seemingly because designer Shoji Kawamori needs a steady income. The result is a frivolous plot enjoyable enough on its own merits but best viewed through a lens of childhood nostalgia.
Robotech has been ageing for thirty years, which goes some way to explaining its horrible inconsistencies in design (like the Zentraedi Miriya having full pink lips in one episode and then a colourless line in the next) or the utterly robotic movements. However, Mobile Suit Gundam has also been ageing for a similar number of years; while it grows quainter like antique pottery, Robotech's animation has become clunky like a rusty wheelbarrow that's exhausted its usefulness. Its only blessing is that it still looks distinctive thanks to Mikimoto Haruhiko's adorable character designs and Shoji Kawamori's transforming jets.
Manga UK's digitally remastered version offers no subtitles, forcing me into the unnatural and sometimes unpleasant situation of watching the US dub. The performances are inconsistent, veering from great (Minmei, Lisa, Rick, Captain Gloval, Claudia) to gruesome (everyone else, but especially the voice actress for Miriya, who I am sure wasn't taking this seriously at all). Key problems include odd lapses in dialogue as voice actors try to match English phrases to foreign lip flaps, resulting in haphazard pacing and a weakened sense of drama.
I also wish the soundtrack had retained the original opening and ending themes as the generic replacement instrumental lacks character.
Fighter jet pilot Rick Hunter, pop star Lynn Minmei, and military officer Lisa Hayes make an interesting bunch of misfits in love. Primarily, their lack of angst distinguishes them from the hordes of hormonal soap characters usually found in these things - they're straightforward, honest personalities who do not overthink their personal lives into the ground.
Rick is Spiderman to Minmei's Mary-Jane: always saving her but strangely under her thumb or coiled around her little finger depending on the situation. Minmei, a helpless ditz, does adorable things like scratch the paintwork on his expensive fighter jet to mark off the days they're trapped in their mother ship, the SDF1. Early in the show, he asks her what she hopes to be in the future. 'A bride, I guess,' she responds, which invites rolling eyes only because it is so typically her. Do I like her? Sure, Minmei's a sweet young thing. But if the question is whether I will remember her a week from now, the answer is only because of her catchy songs.
On the other hand, Rick and Lisa start their engagement mainly by locking horns, like when Lois Lane met Clark Kent. For an early eighties couple, they surprisingly nail the twenty-first century romance in which the woman happens to be the man's boss and can match his every patronising address with a barked order. I immediately loved Melanie MacQueen's version of Lisa, a soft, sexy performance that carries a perfect discord of personal vulnerability and professional strength.
Each undergoes a life journey more nuanced than the intergalactic war. Minmei copes with the paradoxical loneliness her fame brings, Lisa walks a tightrope between her love for Rick and her love for her career, and Rick grapples with a choice between his instinctive crush on Minmei and his natural friendship with Lisa. Even when my interest in the battles waned, I found myself coming awake during Rick and Minmei's shy, besotted dialogues or Rick and Lisa's slinging match of insults.
Is an alien invasion really the best context in which to follow the intricacies of a love triangle? I'm unconvinced. Nevertheless, Robotech has a disarming sense of humour and great memorable protagonists that will leave fans of traditional mecha shows in a happy nostalgic haze.
A strange spaceship crashes onto the island of South Ataria, throwing the world into disarray over its fate. Thus begin the Unification Wars, a worldwide war that eventually unites the planet under the governance of the United Nations. Now, a decade later, the reconstruction of the crashed alien craft – dubbed "Macross" – is complete. However, on the day of its christening, the Macross unexpectedly fires and destroys several approaching Zentradi spaceships. The last hope of Earth, the Macross, begins to wage a lonely war; but what hopes can one ship have when facing against an entire alien race?
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