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.

14 Responses to “SDF Macross – Making Culture the Fun Way”

  1. My first exposure to Macross was also Frontier, and I’ve also just finished this series. My reactions were very similar to yours – the realisation that I just didn’t get the significance of pop music and Culture in the Macross franchise when watching Frontier is a bit of a wake-up call. I was surprised at just how much Macross has to say about humans and how flawed we are, yet the series never once felt like it was preaching.

    I can’t say I liked any of the characters though. Minmay’s selfishness and lack of tact irritated me, Hikaru occassionally made me want to punch something, Misa needed to loosen up a bit and stop being so proud and Kaifun was just a gigantic prick from beginning to end!

    • Rather than liking, it’s more like the way the series unfolds and presents itself allows me to be a bit more forgiving of the characters. I can’t say that I “like” Minmay too much (although DYRL? Minmay is awesome), but I get why she is the way she is. Same with Hikaru (although he’s a bit more sympathetic, even with the random sexist remarks) and Misa.

      There’s no saving Kaifun, though. That guy’s just an asshole.

  2. YOU ARE A BRO.

    YOUR BRO LEVEL SENT WAVES OF CULTURE TO THE ENDS OF THE GALAXY.

    MY BROFRIEND IS A PILOT.

    I LOVE YOU.

    YOU MADE ME REMEMBER LOVE.

    NOW WATCH DYRL?

    WATCH IT NOW ALSO FLASHBACK 2012. YOU DESERVE IT.

  3. Starting off with Frontier too it’s hard to absorb a lot of the essence of the Macross genre, in part because Frontier had a lot less depth to it than SDF Macross and partly because you had to have prior knowledge of much of the Macross canon to access the deeper parts of Frontier.

    SDF Macross is by far my favorite among all the shows in the franchise because it has the most to say about culture and the role it plays. At the same time as it acknowledges and denounces the cheapness of pop culture, it also exalts it as a common medium that can bring people together in a universal consumerist culture. And for me that’s been the most interesting aspect of the franchise, how cheap, disposable monoculture can bring people together and form bonds. Frontier did do this well when people started rallying around Culture (with a capital C as I described it in that recent editorial I did) as their new reason for being.

    Though I don’t go as far as accepting the weaknesses and mistakes of the characters as you and (especially) ghostlightning do, it is what makes them mostly believable characters. I don’t unconditionally love the characters so much as I praise them when they try to overcome their problems and begrudgingly accept them so long as they don’t cross a certain line (like Minmay did.) But no matter one’s view on this, I think we all agree that having characters built in such a realistic fashion makes SDF Macross, and any show, far more entertaining. To really be entertained you have to be drawn into the show and characters to some extent, and characters like those in SDF Macross do that exceptionally well.

    • Yeah, I really like the balancing act of SDF Macross, how it shows the role of supposedly “low” culture in connecting people but at the same time does not put it on an enormous pedestal or pretend that it is really anything more than it actually is. (Misa’s line about “Do You Remember Love?” at the end of the movie puts it best.) The culture is important, but it’s what the people do with that culture that matters more.

  4. While I can appreciate your excellent cultural justification for Minmay’s existence, I still think that Rick Hunter Hikaru should’ve spaced her when he had the chance. Nice post though. ;)

  5. SDF Macross will always have a special place in my heart because as you say for all the silliness it still works and does have a lot to say about celebrating the culture, the good the bad, and the ugly.

    Interesting how you note that you were a Zentran peering into the new cultutre that was Japan at the time. I get the same feeling being here in the Middle East. In my case I don’t quite understand nor do I have a great inclination to understand the miclones of the Middle East, but I am curious about them even if fear of creating faux paus keeps me from talking to all of them frankly and openly.

    Thanks for giving me a anime parallel to my experiences now I can write a post about my Zentran experiences and keep it anime related.

    • Glad I could help inspire a post!

      Yeah, unfortunately there situations where the cultural exchange in Macross is much more delicate. Anime fans have it easy; we can pick and choose how and when (and how much) we want to peer into the other side. Not that I would profess to know how it is in a war zone (obviously you’d know much better than I would), but mutual cultural exchange is, uh, a lot more difficult, to say the least.

  6. I have a very vague memory of SDF Macross… I watched it when I was really young. In fact, I remember it as only “Macross.” But, yeah, it is one of the few animated shows that hooked me to giant fighting robots (the term mecha was not known to me then… I was very young).

    Also, if you still plan to take a TV 500 years in the past, don’t forget to bring a DVD set and disk… Unless you want them to watch black and white ants fighting (static) XD

  7. Lynceus Says:

    Well said. I think calling SDF Macross a serious show that doesn’t take itself seriously is one of the best descriptions of it I’ve heard–there’s a -lot- going on in it, but at the same time even some of its ostensibly serious moments are completely absurd (I direct your attention to the shot of Hikaru walking away dejectedly IN HIS GIANT ROBOT from Minmay and Kaifun kissing).

    More to the point though, I think you do capture some of what to my mind makes Macross really great, which is its breadth of understanding, and its refusal to confine itself to a single point of view. One of my favorite moments would have to be when Minmay gets kidnapped by the Zentradi rebels and tries to sing to distract them, only for Kamjin to basically be like “Uh… yeah we just used to be shocked by music because we’d never heard it. It had nothing to do with you.” In one fell swoop the series took its most obvious theme of “Culture trumps war” and said “You’re an idiot if that’s all you’re getting out of this.”

    Also the fact that the least competent Zentradi–if not characters–in the entire show ultimately end up playing the largest role in creating peace between the two cultures. That was pretty cool.

    Anyway, yeah, insightful reading.

    I think the real question is, is it a shame that almost 30 years later, SDF Macross still feels so largely original in this approach, even compared to later entries in its own franchise? No, seriously, where are the “Pacifism doesn’t make you a saint” crowd inspired by Kaifun? Huh Gundam SEED?

    • Haha, I love goofball moments like the one you describe. I think my favorite goofy mecha moment is Noriko training on the beach in her mecha. So ridiculous, and yet so awesome.

      And, yeah, you definitely hit the nail on the head with regards to Minmay’s singing. For the whole culture exchange thing to work, both sides have to be receptive. That’s the main thing that bugged me about Macross 7 — Basara is forcing his music on anyone who will listen, and it is this literal physical force that works in the name of pacifism. What I love about SDF Macross is that it takes all this goofy, simplistic stuff and does surprisingly insightful things with them.

      You know, much as I hated Kaifun (and I’m pretty sure EVERYONE hates him, haha), he is kind of an interesting character: Someone who has noble intentions (peace), but is a total, condescending shit about them. Plus, he’s a huge prick in every other aspect of his life too.

      Great comment!

      • Lynceus Says:

        Heh, that’s one of the segments of Gunbuster I have yet to see, actually… Otakon aired what I think must have been just the final half as a 90 minute “movie” last year, and that’s all I’ve seen of it. I’ve been meaning to see more (the jerks who kept cracking up at the “X years later” stuff didn’t -totally- kill the emotional impact of the time dilation).

        Speaking of things I’ve been meaning to watch… yeah, what you just said is making me really unsure about whether I should put Macross 7 on that list. By most accounts it’s better watched as a complete parody, but I dunno. I’m not sure Milia za Presidento makes up for having Basara as a main character. I do like a lot of the music though (if you’ve never heard the fan-mix of Angel Voice as a duet between Basara and Minmay, you should–it’s on youtube).

        As far as Kaifun goes… I do think he’s a complete asshole, but he has his moments where I don’t totally hate him, mostly because I guess I kind of liked having the voice of opposition in a series that starts out by apparently glorifying the military (mind you very few mecha shows -don’t- do this, but then again, how many mecha pilots actually join the ranks of the army [Spacy?] through normal procedures anyway?). Also when he’s not being borderline -abusive- towards Minmay he does make some fairly valid points about her still being spoiled and not caring about her fans. Though it was a bit incongruous–I couldn’t tell if he was just playing the wounded party at the last second or if his more dickish moments were the result of two years of trying to get Minmay’s act together for her.

        Mind you, the fact that they’re cousins and still have an apparently sexual relationship remains squicky, but that’s a culture clash thing between the US and Asia, which incidentally kind of draws this full circle back to the central point of your analysis, so yeah.

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