Possibly the oddest thing about the topic of this week’s anime is actually myself. The show in question is often considered to be the Marmite of anime: most people either totally love it, or hate it with furious bile. I seem to be one of the few people in the world who think that it is just OK.
The mecha series Robotech is however also one of the most important anime around. When it was released in 1985 a total of 85 episodes over three series were broadcast in the USA and it was one of the first anime to be shown in English. There are issues though. For starters some people don’t consider it a true anime. To make this series a company called Harmony Gold got the rights to adapt one particular anime series, The Supernatural Dimension Fortress Macross, for the American market. But as this series was too short for syndication in the US, they brought the rights to two more anime, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada, and revised the dialogue to combine all three shows into a single series.
For the purposes of avoiding spoilers, I shall describe briefly the plot of just the first series, known as “The Macross Saga”. In this first series of Robotech, which was set in what was then the futuristic 1990s-2000s, an alien spaceship crash-lands onto the Earth, causing war to spread across the world. But then they declare a ceasefire after discovering the possibility of alien invasion. The ship is reconstructed on the fictional Macross Island in the South Pacific, but on the day it is to be re-launched the Earth is attacked by a race of giant alien called the Zentraedi. Luckily the ship escapes using a special type of warping teleportation. However, due to the warp never been tested before the process ends up being botched. Aiming for the dark side of the moon, they actually end up at Pluto and take Macross Island with them. The people on the ship rescue as many civilians as they can, with the civilians living on board the ship.
The main story follows a civilian pilot called Rick Hunter (Hikaru Ichijyo in the original), who ends up becoming a fighter pilot working for the crew of Macross. It also deals with his complex relationship with two women: singer Linn Minmei (spelt Lynn Minmay in the original) and military officer Lisa Hayes (Misa Hayase), with a love triangle forming one of the key plot devices.
As stated, this is a series that normally divides opinion hugely. Those on the pro-Robotech side argue that the series helped to introduce English-speaking people to anime more than any other series at the time. It was not just in USA it was shown. It even got that rarest of things: an airing in the UK, on the Children’s Channel back in the mid-to-late 1980s. Also, they argue the plot of the series was unlike that of many other animated programmes at the time. There are shock revelations such as tragic deaths of major characters for example. Perhaps more interestingly is the fact that in Robotech the humans often lost, which is rare in such shows.
The anti-Robotech side argue though that this adaptation ruined three separate series in one go. All the stuff about the brilliant plot was true of the original shows, and therefore there was no need to make so many changes, and these changes did not just involve the westernisation of people’s names. Because it merged three different shows, huge chunks of the original plot needed to be altered to make everything fit together. Harmony Gold also has its share of criticism, and not just with regards to Robotech and anime. They once partly funded a TV series made in apartheid South Africa despite economic sanctions, and the founder of the company, Frank Agrama, was once convicted of tax fraud in a case involving Silvio Berlusconi.
I personally feel that the things that were wrong were balanced out by the things that were right. Yes, the way they tried to merge three different series into one doesn’t quite work and the ending is somewhat open-ended, but the plot is good, the characters are loveable, and the drama is great. The major problem in my view is that because of Harmony Gold’s copyright you cannot get access to the original Japanese versions of Macross, Southern Cross or Mospeada in the west. You have to have the Americanised version or nothing, and that feels kind of wrong.
Robotech however still roles on and on. After the series several spin-offs were made, and even now there is currently a Kickstarter campaign to make a new series called Robotech Academy, with an aim of getting $500,000 by 8th August. As usual the series has attracted comments from fans and critics.
Ideally, the best thing to recommend is to have a quick sample of the series. You do not know whether you will love or loathe Robotech without dipping your toe into this important and controversial programme.
The Robotech TV series and spin-off films are released on DVD by Harmony Gold. The Kickstarter campaign for Robotech Academy is located here.