The First Idol Anime was Actually About State Power

Super Dimension Fortress Macross is about three things: giant robots, beautiful idols, and melodramatic love triangles. Actually, though, it’s about one thing: state power. The word used most throughout the series is culture, that one special resource which enables the human race to stand even a sliver of a chance against the alien Zentradi, a group whose history of being genetically engineered has left them with no goal aside from constant warfare. Lynn Minmay, the first idol in all of anime, delivers shocking blows to the Zentradi psyche through her songs, simultaneously popularizing her music in the real world. The romantic drama between her, Ichijo Hikaru, and Hayase Misa figures as one of the story’s central threads, introducing the concept of love to the Zentradi but also causing a good deal of strife during the war. That war, of course, is fought using the so-called Variable Fighters, wonderfully designed robots which can go from person to plane. All in all, it’s a pretty straightforward example of a real robot anime. But through its specific focuses, Macross conveys a clear message: hard power is necessary, vital, and ultimately moral, but it’s soft power that will always win the day, and as a result, it’s imperative that a benevolent state wields both. This isn’t just a reading which emerges from the narrative: it comes through in the base construction of the anime, particularly its movie reimagining, Do You Remember Love, and it’s an attitude able to emerge due to the unique conditions of early 80s Japan.

As I established in the first sentence, the series’ message on state power comes about primarily through its three central focuses. The first of these, mecha, is perhaps the one that seems most apt to discuss. The Variable Fighters in Macross are, of course, real robots, one of the first examples of that sort to arise after Gundam’s debut. While far from hard sci-fi, they serve not as superpowered heroes that save the day but as simple machines of war, cool though they may be. A basic analysis of how these mecha fit into the series’ statements on power would be to say that they serve as weapons, no more, no less. They certainly only exist diegetically due to the need to fight enemies as large as the Zentradi. That said, I believe it would be reductive to leave our questioning there. As in every mecha series, these robots represent something beyond your average war tools; the inclusion of human-shaped fighting machines is never an ideologically neutral act.

So, what else do the Variable Fighters represent, especially when it comes to bodies, a topic which, like a shadow, always hangs just behind the robots who look like giant people themselves. Well, I believe that their variability is quite directly that which makes them unique. Always in an ambiguous space between person and plane, the Variable Fighters are state controlled weapons of warfare which just as easily double as representations of mankind’s cultural power. These mechs are magnified homunculi, containing within them everything that makes humans special and everything that makes us dangerous. That they’re machines of war only amplifies this; the state will always use human bodies for its own ends, even if the way in which it does so will vary. Macross figures bodies as things that are literally changed as need be for the purposes of warfare if that’s what’s necessary for the state’s goals at a given moment. Macross is clearly invested in humanity, it believes in our importance as a species, but individuals are ultimately subject to the state; it’s the refusal of those on Earth to change themselves for the cause that leads to their ultimate destruction.

However, this does not mean that the series pictures the body as something totally dominated by the state, only useful for warfare. No, culture is absolutely essential, which is where we reach our second main topic, the presence of idols. Now, obviously, Lynn Minmay’s existence as an in-show idol is a result of real-world factors. Idols only really emerged in the 70s and Macross was simply the first anime to capture the burgeoning trend; works like Creamy Mami quickly followed behind. Almost certainly meant to capitalize on the movement by appealing to the early otaku interested in it, there is as always a more direct, commercial reading for her role here. That being said, her presence is equally essential to what the show is. While there are many ways in which human culture can be expressed, song is one of the simplest ones. For one thing, music only requires hearing to be understood on at least some level; the Zentradi don’t get it when they hear her sing, but they pick it up, while a piece of drawn art could simply be brushed aside. It’s a continuous flow of cultural information, one that can’t be ignored and must be engaged with. In this sense, it may be one of the strongest elements of soft power; it’s hard to imagine a more efficient medium for spreading cultural hegemony. Of course, this only works because Minmay is damn good. Despite the fact that she’s not an idol at the start, and the relative inexperience of her voice actress when she took on the role, her songs are all absolute bangers. The first one, “My Boyfriend is a Pilot”, is incredibly catchy, while also fundamentally tying the soft power she’s inadvertently expressing to the hard power of Hikaru’s Variable Fighter. These songs eventually become a key part of the fight against the Zentradi, with Minmay’s popularity spurring a number of the aliens to defect to humanity purely so they can hear her music. Eventually, she becomes a straight-up propaganda arm for the UN. Yet, her music is just so enjoyable that the viewer almost feels a desire to join the UN forces themself. Macross, as a television series, actively does what its characters do by serving as an arm of soft power for the state it exists under. This is a topic that I’ll return to as we discuss the series more broadly.

There is, of course, one other element of the series that I brought up: the love triangle. This element, so essential to the Macross franchise’s very core, is another area used by the series and the state within it as cultural capital. To the Zentradi, romance and sex is just another part of that oh-so-foreign culture. Yet, to humans, it’s markedly different than something like song and dance; these things may all be part of culture, but they’re not all the same. If anything, the love triangle ties back into the mecha points; the theoretical end result of most romantic relationships is, after all, the reproduction of bodies. The love triangle pointedly confuses this reproduction; humanity as seen through the eyes of Hikaru is unable to make a decision as to which path it’s to go down, the military path or the cultural path. Ultimately, the decision is to go with the military, while remaining alongside that of culture, with all three leaving Earth to colonize the world. According to the series, without military protection, the human race will be obliterated and yet, ultimately, the presence of soft power is necessary to win the hearts and minds of the state’s opponent. Love triangles, on some level, always contain a homoerotic impulse—Shakespeare’s works, particularly Twelfth Night, will always serve as the clearest example of this, as the tension between the same-gender members of the triangle lead to a certain level of desire—and through Hikaru, the representative of man and the state, Minmay as soft power and Misa as hard power are able to appreciate each others’ beneficial points. Of course, Misa ultimately wins—though I can’t say Hikaru deserved either of them given how he acted towards the end of the show—indicating the state as such’s greater affinity for the repressive state apparatus, ie, those forces which use violence or the threat thereof to ensure cohesion. Soft power is, after all, much harder to control, though given Minmay’s departure on the Megaload, it’s clear that the ideological state apparatus, ie, those forces which use ideology to ensure cohesion, still lie within the state’s sphere of influence.

So, with these three elements, it would seem that the show’s take on state power is fairly clear. Both soft and hard power exist under its purview, and while the former is harder to maintain hegemony over, it’s vital to a successful regime. At the same time, Macross understands that there’s a great ambiguity here; human beings do not exist to serve either ideological or repressive ends and in their lives carry out a multitude of roles; even if the individual subject is subordinate to the institution of the state, they still possess their individuality. The state’s job, therefore, is to carefully maintain its strength without overinvesting in it, allowing room and safety for culture to come in and truly win the day, all while maintaining enough of a hegemony over the human body to allow them to do all of this. The question is, then, how does the series contribute to this on a formal level? If Macross builds up culture as such an important sphere, is it a good enough piece of culture itself to justify that thesis?

Well, it’s certainly fairly successful at what it does. The series’ aesthetic elements are consistently charming, often impressive, and make for an enjoyable experience. The sometimes frustrating writing can be a bit of a pain, particularly in regards to the love triangle, but it tends to work out in the end and only contributes to the aforementioned ambiguity of desire. The issue is that the production is absurdly inconsistent. While possessing stellar art direction which would make the vast majority of anime cry in shame, the frequency with which this is translated into stellar art itself is disappointingly low. While this would be problematic for any series, it’s particularly potent in Macross. As a show which sells itself on the importance of culture, its more lacking characteristics become glaring flaws that can’t be ignored in good conscience. Whenever a Minmay song is poorly animated, the power of that performance is utterly squandered. Essentially, the lower-quality aspects of the production cause a double injury for the show, as it’s hurt on both an aesthetic and a thematic level. As a result, I can’t truly say that Macross succeeds at everything it sets out to do, even putting aside issues such as the janky pacing. I mean, just look at this Minmay with pits of coal in place of her eyes! It’s horrifying.

Fortunately, the show was shortly followed up by its film reimagining, Do You Remember Love. Unlike its TV counterpart, this movie successfully demonstrates in full the power of the culture it comes from. Every frame of this anime bombards the viewer with peak-80s Japanese aesthetics, begging them to agree that the economic rise of the nation is a good thing. I would easily call it one of the best-looking and -sounding anime ever made and it does a tremendous job at proving its thesis on culture. With half-a-dozen Minmay songs, gorgeous neon colors, and consistently well-drawn animation for the characters and battles, there’s no way to avoid loving this film, at least on an aesthetic level. As a result, it becomes a true masterpiece, totally capable of justifying its underlying messages in a way that the TV series isn’t able to. That said, the film’s quality is only able to emerge from a unique point in time, a period where it was far easier for those in Japan to have faith that culture would inevitably win the day. It was a time period where the widespread anxiety that Japan would economically overtake the West still had purchase in the minds of ordinary people, leading to the birth of cyberpunk. For a culture like that, the use of military might as a protective deterrent, with culture being the real show-stopper, was not a strange idea. But eventually, that bubble would burst. So how would the Macross series adjust to the coming Lost Decades? Well, for that we’ll have to turn our gaze to the twin series of Macross 7 and Macross Plus.

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