Mecha Scramble! – Macross Zero: Return to Zero


Welcome to the first in a new series we’re going to try out here on Grump Factory: Mecha Scramble! We’re fans of anime on this blog, and one of the enduring genres of the medium is mecha. What is mecha? Mecha is a Japanese term describing animation that focuses on robots (giant or otherwise) or complex machinery in general. Mecha is the place where mechanical designers are king! A good example of a mecha show is the original Mobile Suit Gundam; so iconic that it’s become as inextricable with Japanese pop culture as Star Wars or Star Trek is here in America!

But Gundam and all its myriad offspring shall be dealt with in due time. Today the focus is on the origins of another revered series: Macross. But not the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross series, but the chronological origin story, Macross Zero! Macross has been mentioned before on this blog, but now it’s time to go back in time and uncover the shocking beginning of the Macross timeline!

In the year AD 1999, a large, mysterious spaceship crashes on a remote island in the Pacific. It appears to be the remnants of a gigantic, space-faring race and the technological implications for humanity are mind-boggling. But who gets to lay claim to the vessel? The answer to that seems to be complex, as war breaks out between the United Nations and other forces who coalesce into an anti-U.N. alliance, with war breaking out to decide who will have ultimate power over the world.

U.N. pilot Shin Kudo fell victim to early violence in the war, losing his family in the process and suffering from some post-traumatic stress. He finds it more convenient to shut himself off from his emotions and become a cold killing machine in his fighter jet, making him quite an unpopular pilot to be partnered with. One day after a fierce sortie with anti-U.N. forces, he crashes onto (another) remote island called Mayan and is nursed back to help by the native people living there. He meets Sara Nome, the local priestess, and Mao, her younger, rambunctious sister. Sara seems wary of outsiders, but Mao proves to be endlessly fascinated by Shin and the world he comes from, eagerly wanting to find out for herself what lies across the sea.

The people of Mayan become of great interest to both the U.N. and anti-U.N. forces, though. It turns out that the Mayan people’s origin story about the Birdman (possibly an alien?) coming down from the heavens and creating mankind might have some basis in reality… and there are actual remains of this supposed Birdman that the opposing forces are racing to acquire before the other. Their goal is to harness the Birdman’s incredibly advanced technology to turn the tide of the war, and it seems they’ll stop at nothing, even razing Mayan to the ground, to get what they want.

In my mind, Macross Zero had a lot to live up to. Not only to the memory of the classic original series and seminal feature film, but the immaculate follow-up OVA series Macross Plus that came before it. (Macross 7? Macross II? What are those? Never heard of them.) Also, whenever a series goes back to the beginning and starts retconning a bunch of new things that happened before the official start of the story, it sets off bullshit detectors. Seldom when creators choose to go back to the beginning do they have anything meaningful to add. George Lucas, anyone?

So does Macross Zero work, dramatically? Yes and no. I have no real problem with the premise of revisiting the apparently brutal war that happened off-screen before the original series began. Macross series are usually about humans fighting off some sort of otherworldly menace, so a series focusing mainly on war between humans is something that Macross has seldom, if ever, touched on. But let’s get what didn’t work out of the way first.

Setting the plot around the primitive island people of Mayan was an interesting choice, but one that ends up where so many other stories have before. Noble savages taking in an outsider with a chip on his shoulder and teaching him about the connectedness of nature and stuff? Sound like Dances with Wolves Ferngully a very special episode of Captain Planet Avatar to you? Macross franchise showrunner, Shoji Kawamori, turned into a bit of an environmental freak sometime during the early 00s, and his show previous to Macross Zero, Arjuna, was infamous for its militantly environmental stance. “Plastic is bad! Eating grubs from the dirt is good! All of you watching this on your fancy televisions are terrible people!” It could be a bit eye-rolling.

Well, that attitude carried over into Macross Zero. In fact, there’s a couple quick references to Arjuna stuck in there, as well. It’s tough to make a show about the cultural differences between the modernized world and primitive societies without coming off as a luddite, or worse… preachy. And that’s exactly what Macross Zero becomes at certain points. After Shin fixes a generator and gives Mayan its electricity back, Sara chastizes him, saying that it took away the light of the stars in the sky. Gag. It stops short of being as one-sided as Arjuna was, but that’s not saying much.

And then there’s the whole mystical bent the series takes toward the end. Now, Macross has always been science fiction at its core. The reason songs worked as attacks in the original series is because the Zentradi foes were unaccustomed to culture, and were baffled by it. In Macross Zero, the power of song seems to be spiritual and borderline-fantasy in nature. Not having finished watching Macross 7, I don’t know if this was in line with what the series had been working toward since the original series, but it just didn’t quite seem like it fit with the rest of the mythos. Yeah, the Birdman is probably some super-advanced alien being with technology beyond our ken, but it still stuck out like a sore thumb.

Pacing was also quite an issue. Everything was going along just fine for the first four episodes, then at the beginning of the fifth and final episode, it glosses over plot points that they treat almost like they should be in a “in the previous episode” section, but they didn’t happen in a previous episode! Stuff that should’ve had about 10-15 minutes to develop get compressed into a few minutes, with shocking plot developments happening in the span of 30 seconds and characters seemingly traversing vast distances in the blink of an eye, making the viewer wonder what the hell is going on. It really seems like they skipped roughly half an episode and figured they could just catch the audience up on the gist of things. Except it’s jarring and confusing. Macross Zero really could’ve used about six episodes to breathe comfortably, and smooshing it all into five seems to have led them to taking drastic editing methods to fit all the plot details inside.

For a franchise that prides itself on its triangular relationships between the main characters, the triangle at the center of Macross Zero is fairly weak. Shin and Sara are about the same age, and she seems the obvious choice for Shin to end up with… considering Mao is lucky to be 13, if that. She really only has a handful of scenes with Shin, and though it’s clear she’s sweet on him, even to the point of kissing him during an underwater scene, it’s just as clear that Shin doesn’t care one whit about her. And why should he, when Sara gets a curiously gratuitous amount of nude scenes and she and Shin bond while she lectures him about Eywa Rooy Kanu or whatever. There’s absolutely no tension and the resolution to the triangle is unsatisfying, to say the least.

But, wait! It’s not a bad show!

Seriously!! For all its shortcomings, it’s still totally worth a look. First of all, it’s a visual stunner. It seems like this was one of the last few OVAs that got lavished with time and attention the way OVAs are supposed to work. The character designs are attractive and on-model, the backgrounds are lush, and ohhh my goddddd, the dogfights.

Half of the reason to watch a Macross show at all is to see the intricate choreography they put into the dogfights between mecha in the show, in all their Itano circus glory. And Macross Zero does not disappoint on that front. On top of having a pedigree of one of the most iconic and, essentially, perfect mechanical designs in the whole medium, the battles they choreographed in this show are stunning. We’re talking jaw-dropping. This was the first Macross series to use CG mecha in all the important scenes, and although Macross Frontier wasn’t ugly by any stretch, Macross Zero is top of the heap when it comes to its Valkyries. The aerial acrobatics are borderline insane and look almost photorealistic at some points. If you watch these sorts of shows mainly to see robots smacking each other around, you NEED to see Macross Zero. I couldn’t take many impressive screenshots of the action simply because still shots do it no justice.

And even though I knocked the triangle between Shin, Sara and Mao as being lopsided, they’re still reasonably well-developed characters. I was surprised at how believable Shin’s development was over the course of the show. Usually it’s like a switch gets flipped for these sorts of characters, but his progress felt very organic. And Sara was in danger of embodying all the negative aspects of a Lisa Simpson: holier-than-thou, condescending, dour  know-it-all standing on a soapbox all the time, making sure no one has any fun. But there’s actually layers to her as a character and it helps rescue her from being a total wet blanket. Mao is moe in all the right ways: cute, spunky and the kind of character who livens up any scene she’s in. It’s just a shame so little is done with her in the show proper.

And the fanservice! Going back to the origins of events in the Macross timeline means we get to see a familiar character or two, such as Roy Fokker, the “sempai” character from the original Macross. He’s still boozing and womanizing and being the best goddamn pilot in the U.N., to the point where his charisma can overpower some of the scenes he’s in. Shin also has an African-American co-pilot by the name of LaSalle… hmm… where have I heard that last name before? :3

And for a show about the power of song, the music isn’t terribly disappointing, either. Kuniaki Hashima is a rather prolific composer in the anime industry, and his left-of-middle compositions find a welcome home in Macross. The main theme of the series, Arkan, is delicate, haunting and beautiful, just as it should be. In fact, the song used in the final battle of the show practically rescues the episode from its dramatic failings, since it evokes emotion from the viewer so wonderfully.

A bit of a mixed bag, but personally, I didn’t really find a lot to criticize about the show until the final episode failed to bring the disparate elements of the plot to any sort of satisfying conclusion. So four (including that awesome final song, let’s call it four and a half) good episodes out of five isn’t bad. Macross Zero is totally newbie friendly, so if you’re curious about Macross as a franchise, check it out! It’s a relatively small time commitment, it looks gorgeous and sets you up to watch the classic original series. And don’t feel guilty about snagging a fansub… this isn’t getting licensed anytime soon.


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3 Responses to “Mecha Scramble! – Macross Zero: Return to Zero”

  1. Rick Says:

    Haha, no one posted in your nerdy grump. ~

    That said, I didn’t actually see Zero yet, but what I’ve watched of Macross has been far and away some of my favorite mechanime, and if I didn’t have a gazillion hours worth of things to watch, there might be a chance I’d get to this one sooner rather than later. =B

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