After the television series Superdimensional Fortress Macross debuted in Japan on October 3, 1982, the fantasy lives of Japanese geeks would never be the same. Originally conceived as a slapstick parody, Macross eventually evolved into an iconic sci-fi drama brimming with now-classic anime stereotypes: the introverted protagonist who’s a total klutz with the ladies, apocalyptic imagery, grand space battles, and the first portrayals of transforming robots that felt realistic. As one of the very first anime productions created by and for hard-core fans, the success of the series played a major role in defining and legitimizing the otaku as a consumer demographic. (A demographic, incidentally, that never tires of gleefully pointing out that the premier episode of Macross contains the very first use of the eccentric second-person pronoun “o-taku” [お宅] in an anime.) Most importantly, the series and its subsequent theatrical follow-up offered an updated take on the relentless rehashing of the Japanese World War II narrative: consumer culture as an antidote to militarism.
The basic plot: in the far-flung year of 1999, a massive, uninhabited spacecraft of extraterrestrial origin crash-lands on the fictional South Ataria Island located in the Ogasawara Island chain. The continually-warring nations of the Earth lay down their arms to study and rebuild the mysterious craft, code-naming it “Super Dimensional Fortress 1” for its apparent ability to “fold” space-time. Exactly a decade later, the once quiet island is home to a bustling metropolis of scientists, soldiers, and workers who are involved with the SDF-1 project. Although the re-construction effort for the ship was ostensibly funded by a global organization called “UN Spacy,” the social culture on-board the space fortress is unmistakably Japanese. The bridge crew is staffed by a bevy of energetic and uniformed office ladies, overseen by an absentminded, pipe-smoking ojiisan named Captain Global, while the ship is defended by all-male squadrons of stalwart “Valkyrie fighter” pilots who are portrayed with salaryman-esque dedication to their jobs and “country” (i.e., the SDF-1 itself).
The story starts on the day of the SDF-1’s official launching ceremony. Now re-christened the “Macross,” apparently in reference to its huge size, the ship is about to take its maiden flight under human control when the island comes under attack. An enormous fleet of alien invaders appears in the skies over the city, intent on reclaiming its lost property. During the confusion, the rookie crew activates the SDF-1’s as-yet untested Hyperspace Fold Drive, sending the ship to the edge of our solar system along with a huge chunk of the city, island, and ocean. Although temporarily safe from enemy attacks, the fold drive “folds in on itself” and vanishes during the process, stranding the ship in deep space with tens of thousands of civilian refugees on-board.
The situation of the Macross could be seen as an apt metaphor for the shock and sense of drift Japan must have felt at the end of World War II. The inhabitants of the SDF-1 end up reacting in the same way as the families of the animators nearly four decades earlier: by rebuilding. Before long, “Macross City” has been almost perfectly reconstructed within SDF-1’s cavernous interior. The city inside the SDF-1 is microcosm of Tokyo life as seen through the eyes of the show’s young creators. Romance blossoms in video game arcades while giggling ladies linger over panty purchases at lingerie shops. The streets are lined with toy stores, restaurants, and nightclubs. Fans queue for the concerts of comely teenage idol-girl Lynn Minmei, whose fluffy tunes tackle close-to-home issues like “zero-G love” and flirting with fighter pilots. Nary a nursing home, hospital, supermarket, waste-treatment plant, garbage dump, or anything remotely outside the scope of a teenage or twenty-something otaku’s interest makes an appearance. Many anime are set in vaguely-defined foreign locales. Not Macross: the portrayal of life aboard the SDF-1 is almost defiantly Japanese, an attempt by the creators to re-cast the narrative of Japan’s role in World War II within the context of their own comfortable modern consumer lifestyles.
Macross is hardly the first anime retelling of the WWII experience. Space Battleship Yamato — broadcast in America as Star Blazers — is perhaps the most well known. In that story, the Earth’s surface has been rendered uninhabitable by constant attacks from an alien empire with vast resources and technology. Japan’s — I mean, humanity’s — only chance for survival is the Yamato — a retrofitted, space-worthy version of the same battleship on which the Imperial navy pinned its hopes for success in the Pacific theater centuries earlier. Her brave crew sets off on a 196 million light year race across the cosmos to save humankind, teaching young viewers of the glory of duty and sacrifice in the process. (Tellingly, the Yamato was rechristened as the “Argo” in the English version, a name with significantly less cultural baggage.)
Mobile Suit Gundam — another classic anime series — is also a World War II parable thinly veiled in the science-fiction idiom. The story opens amidst the One Year War between the inhabitants of Earth and the Zeon — a cluster of space colonies that have declared independence from the Earth Federation. One of the first images greeting viewers is that of a space colony deliberately pushed out of orbit and onto a major Earth city, which it obliterates in a massive, nuclear-like mushroom cloud. Although the series nominally portrays the Earth Federation as Allied Forces-style “good guys” and Zeon as Nazi-esque “bad guys,” enough plot twists, recriminations, and counter-recriminations are piled atop one another to thoroughly obscure the question as to which side is truly in the right. The only constant is the sacrifice of the teenage giant-robot pilots, forced to fight a battle on behalf of adult authority figures portrayed as dangerously out of step with common sense and morality.
If Yamato is a wishful re-casting of the Japanese military as saviors of humanity and Gundam a melodramatic space opera in which the main casualty of war is the innocence of youth, Macross takes a completely different tack. Let us return to the plot: a lone space-fortress, an island if you will, drifts alone in the sea of space. Its inhabitants are outnumbered thousands to one by enemies from a completely alien culture. The only thing standing between their certain annihilation is the superior technology of the Macross’ fighter aircraft and the skill and daring of its pilots, who defend their “island” to the death on a near daily-basis. In spite of their fighting spirit, their homeland is wiped out by the superior technology of the enemy forces. The climactic scenes of Earth’s destruction, largely based on footage of American nuclear tests, are portrayed with an almost fetishistic intensity by animator Hideaki Anno (who would, a decade later, go on to direct the Evangelion series, a watershed pop-cultural moment in which the otaku finally ascended from the shadows to the center stage of the Japanese public consciousness.)
So far, Macross sounds like any of a dozen anime plots. (Thanks to its origins as a satire of the genre, Macross is largely a pastiche of Japanese sci-fi archetypes.) The twist is the portrayal of airheaded ‘80s Japanese consumer culture prospering aboard the ship. Macross’ pop-cultural proselytizing is aggressive enough in the television series, but it’s played up to a delirious degree in the 1984 theatrical version Macross: Do You Remember Love. The film opens with a slow montage of life on the streets of Macross City, whose inhabitants apparently don’t let the fact that they’re in the midst of an intergalactic war get in the way of some good shopping. Despite being trapped in the belly of an alien space-fortress that’s stranded out somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn, the streets teem with vending machines dispensing soft drinks, a doppelganger of Harajuku’s teenage-mecca Takeshita Doori complete with fast-food joints and “jumbotron” TVs advertising the latest fashions. There’s even a multi-lane highway (to where isn’t ever explained) and an outdoor display of next season’s car models. Who exactly is supplying all of these new products isn’t ever asked, let alone answered. The presence of a thriving consumer economy — even in this most bizarre of circumstances — is treated as obvious, a given, unquestioned by creator and viewer alike.
The air-raid sirens, the frequent retreats to shelters, the friendly-fire civilian casualties as the SDF-1 transforms into humanoid form during battles, and perseverance in the face of odds that are insanely stacked against them; these were all recurrent motifs in Macross and undoubtedly resonated with a group of viewers who had heard about similar stories from their families and teachers. Exactly how much, if any, of the show the creators intended as direct allegory is debatable, but there is no doubt that consumption plays a cathartic role in the Macross story, as the shopping machine only really stops, grudgingly, for the brief moments when the inhabitants are in air-raid shelters. Once they’re out, the fast-food joints, car dealerships, and (in the theatrical version, anyway) love hotels open right back up for business. Yes, love hotels. Even in this era of transforming robots, alien space fleets, and “hyperspace fold drives,” it seems young Japanese can’t conceive of love outside of the walls of a by-the-hour room.
The Zentradi aliens are a pastiche themselves, a mish-mash of old-school authority figures. Their obsession with war and willingness — even desire — to die in combat is stereotypically medieval or Imperial-era Japanese, while their utter cluelessness as to the “protoculture” aboard the Macross is akin to that of American Occupation soldiers dropped in the midst of a society they only vaguely understood. The Zentradi, segregated by gender and knowing nothing but war, are alternately fascinated and repulsed by the humans’ prototculture. Within the context of the show, the definition of this fancy word “protoculture” is always vague, extending from consumer goods (cars and vending machines, which the Zentradi dissect in an attempt to understand humanity) to singing (Minmei concerts mesmerize them) and even sex (the sight of people kissing sends them into conniptions.) This portrayal of popular culture and society as an integrated whole is a first in an anime and could be called the show’s most enduring legacy. But in Macross, pop culture like Minmei’s idol concerts is not just something moving parallel to traditional culture. Modern consumerism is venerated as the savior of all civilization, much as home electronics “saved” Japan in the postwar era and a national bubblegum culture replaced political protest as a central interest for Japan’s youth in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Almost inevitably, the Zentradi begin defecting to the human side to get closer to “protoculture.” This might sound like a difficult thing for a race of aliens four times our size, but fortunately they have a “micronizing” technology capable of reducing them down to human proportions. By the end of the series — spoilers ahead — the Zentradi have all but assimilated into Macross culture, mostly abandoning their own love of war for the pleasures of living in a materialistic society. War is hell, it seems, except when victory results in the creation of a new class of consumers — even if they do happen to be outsiders. And while the creators undoubtedly never intended it as such (anime was still largely regarded as “junk culture” at the time, with foreign licensing of popular Japanese entertainment in its infancy), the portrayal of Japanese consumer culture converting a foreign society is a metaphor for the ascension of Japanese pop culture abroad if ever there was one.