SDF Macross – Making Culture the Fun Way
SDF Macross achieves something I love and respect: It is serious without being very serious at all.
The set-up is classic Serious Business. Humanity has finished reconstruction of an alien craft that landed on Earth 10 years prior. During the launching ceremony, an alien race, the Zentradi, picks up on the activiation of the ship and identifies it as a battleship used by their enemies. And then, as the Zentradi make an approach, long dormant systems activate in the ship, dubbed the Macross, and fire upon the Zentradi scouts, accidentally starting an intergalactic war.
(Spoilers for SDF Macross within this post. Don’t read if you haven’t watched the series and plan to do so.)
Absurdity and misunderstanding is the perfect place to begin the series, because those are the qualities that mark the relationship between humans and the Zentradi through a good portion of the show. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the story that humans and the Zentradi are quite similar; on a genetic level, they are nearly identical (and they are physically compatible to the point where Max and Milia can have children), and they were both born from the mysterious “protoculture”.
But there’s a huge gap between the two species; just about everything in the early part of Macross highlights this. For instance, the repeated technological failings of the Macross (the accidental firing of the cannon, underestimating the power of the fold system, the explosion of the shield, etc.) not only add a sense of realism and unpredictability to the series, but they also symbolize an unknown element to humanity — the Zentradi and the Supervision Army are an unknowable people at this point in time, and failure to comprehend their technology shows that. Certainly humans have been locked in various wars almost since the dawn of time, but not to the extent of the Zentradi, who fight constant war seemingly without relief.
And then there’s also the Zentradi efforts to spy on the Earthlings and get a grasp on their enemy so as to crush them in a more efficient manner. When the Zentradi get a look at humanity, however, they see something entirely different than when humans gaze back at them.
The confused alien certainly is not something new. It’s a long running joke, really: What would aliens think if they saw how society unfolds on Earth? Would they be intrigued? Confused? Disgusted? Frightened? All of the above? Would they take it seriously? Would they even give a shit at all? The Zentradi react about how one would expect aliens to: They are utterly bewildered, because we are as alien to them as they are to us. But they are also curious.
It’s from that setup where the real genius of SDF Macross shines for me.
My first exposure to the franchise was Macross Frontier, and when I first watched it, I was skeptical about what I’d heard about the singing and whatnot. I thought it sounded fucking stupid, frankly. But when I actually saw it within the context of the series, I was won over because of how well it is executed and because of how fun and kickass the singing battle sequences are. However, it’s after watching SDF Macross that I realize I didn’t really “get it” at all . . . not that there’s anything particularly wrong with how I enjoyed what Macross Frontier does, but (perhaps ironically, given what I am going to say soon, haha) my enjoyment was purely shallow. I didn’t see the aim, because I didn’t see where SDF Macross started it all, and why that singing is so damn powerful.
SDF Macross is a love story, but not just among the main triangle of Hikaru, Minmay and Misa. It’s a love story — a celebration — of culture, and by extension, humanity. And when I say Macross celebrates culture, I mean the whole shebang, the good and the bad, the high and the low, the beautiful and the ugly. Culture itself is not humanity; rather, culture is the mark we leave on the world that perpetuates long after we as individuals leave the world, and it waits to be picked up from generation to generation. Everything we produce is culture; humanity is not all great, so it stands to reason not all culture is great.
Macross gets this. It knows we are not Shakespeare, Da Vinci and Einstein — at least, that’s not all we are, all that exists in our culture, both domestically (U.S. resident here) and abroad. Citizen Kane? That’s culture. Marmaduke? Piece of shit comic, probably a god awful movie, but also culture. The Ku Klux Klan? Utterly despicable and distasteful, but nonetheless a part of American culture. We’re capable of great things, mediocre nonsense and horrible, devastating destruction. Our individual and collected cultures reflect this throughout history. When people complain about shitty movies or shitty anime, well, that shit just did not pop out of nowhere. Shit has always and will always exist.
That’s what I love about how Macross depicts human culture: The show is smart enough to know that we leave our mark in such varied ways, and that, frankly, a lot of our culture is just fucking mindbogglingly silly. And the show plays everything to the hilt based on that premise. At first the Zentradi reaction to everything seems way too goofy . . . but eventually the viewer can’t help but realize that there really is no other way for the Zentradi to react to all the nonsense we pump out every day.
Their reaction to Shao Pai Long, the kung fu flick starring Minmay and that dickface, Kaifun, seems, on the surface, to be ridiculous (and also hilarious). But how else can they view that thing other than as a record of military activity? They have no concept of entertainment, because it simply does not exist in their world — I sure as shit wouldn’t be able to explain it to them. It would be like taking your TV, traveling back in time 500 years and trying to convince everyone that, no, the souls of those people are not trapped in this magical box of devilry and witchcraft. They’d burn you at the stake. (Or maybe worse.)
But nonetheless it is that element of culture that influences the Zentradi view of humanity the most, because it is that to which they are most strongly exposed. They don’t get Beethoven; they get Minmay’s shallow J-Pop. They get silly kung fu flicks. They get discos. They get casual fashion. They get smooching, and LOTS OF IT. To a bunch of beings that have been engaged in a constant state of war for 500,000 years, this shit makes no god damn sense. It’s illogical because it is all fluff and serves no real purpose in terms of driving and conquering and perpetuating the species’ existence. You can’t fight with fashion; you can’t deal death with discos. And, yet, it makes them curious about people — it opens the gate.
Again, humans are not just composed of what makes us great; the very worst of us is just as much a part of who we are. Just look at our ambassador: Lynn Minmay, burgeoning J-Pop superstar. Her songs are woefully simplistic and shallow, the silliest, fluffiest kind of manufactured pop music. She wants to sing, but she’d also be happy just being a bride. She’s selfish, self-absorbed and prone to saying the most thoughtless, insulting things at the worst possible times. She fights with the responsibility of doing her job and singing for her fans. She supports the battles against the Zentradi. She helps fight back, gives the soldiers someone around which they can rally. She grows. She loves Hikaru, and he loves her back; and she’s woman enough to leave gracefully when it’s her time to go.
My relationship with Minmay was initially rocky because I hated how selfish and thoroughly dense she is. I disliked Hikaru because he can be a really whiny moron. I hated how the show, in my view, tried to turn Misa into some sort of uber bitch near the end so that Minmay and Hikaru could be together. (Though I was pleased to see this does not take.) But that final gear turned in my head by the end. You can’t have the high and low of culture without having the high and low of humans; many in the series have their moments of greatness and idiotic behavior. Roy Focker is an honorable soldier and a skirt chaser. Hikaru is borderline sexist but doesn’t back down from fighting when the chips are down. Minmay sets women back a century (at least) but remains an inspirational figure. Misa carries a heavy load on her shoulders but can’t gather the courage to tell Hikaru how she feels even though she is older than him.
As the creators of culture, they show the best and worst of it in action. They are us, and the Zentradi see that as they fight humanity but also peer deeper into its soul, their curiosity driving them ever further to see what makes us tick. And, really, one of the main messages of Macross to me is that we are humanity, but we are also the Zentradi. As mostly foreign anime fans, what Macross shows should be especially familiar to us — it’s what we do every time we watch a series! We’re taking a peek into popular culture and catching a glimpse of what makes the Japanese tick, even if it’s not always a broad peek.
We use these peeks into popular culture to get a small window into another world, familiarizing ourselves with a foreign entity, bit by bit. The clues we pick up on, and the assumptions we make are not always accurate, but it builds our curiosity until we want to make some sort of connection and understanding, until we want to let them into ourselves, our world, or try to insert ourselves into their world. (And isn’t it the same with the Japanese to an extent? They pick up on clues in our pop culture and come up with Bandit Keith in Yu-Gi-Oh! That’s not a Zentradi thing to do?)
Like humans and Zentradi, around the world we are of the same species but are of different mindsets; not just between countries, but within them as well. California sure as hell does not have the same culture as Utah, which differs from Arkansas, which differs from Rhode Island, and on and on. Same for any country, I’d expect. But we reach out and understand that mark that others leave, and we get ever closer to understanding each other if we have the drive to do so. We’ve been doing it ever since we’ve been interested in history.
That’s love. Humans and Zentradi don’t have a rosy relationship even after the war. There are attempts at greatness. There are those who screw around and have fun. And there are those who destroy. We can’t escape any of that; we can have a distaste for parts of culture, but we cannot deny they exist. To love is to know and embrace, and not to deny, even if we must embrace the ugliest parts of those we love. Humans and Zentradi bond over silly music, cheap dolls and forced kissing. It’s absurd, hilarious and a legitimate part of who they are.
Is Minmay’s music ultimately as important as any composition created in the history of humanity? To the Zentradi, it is, because it is the basis for which they connect with humanity. By the same token, Dragon Ball Z might be a cheap, silly show, but it inspired this guy to crack open a window to another place and change his view of the world forever. And I haven’t regretted it for a second.
That’s something, right? God damn, that’s love.